To mark the 50th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s death, Andrew Lycett, author of Dylan Thomas: A New Life (Weidenfeld, £20), introduces his 10 favourite works
1. From Love’s First Fever (October 1933)
Read this to get a sense of the sonorous youthful Dylan (it was written when he was only 18). His later poems, such as Fern Hill, tend to be more popular than his early ones, which are thought to be complicated and therefore inaccessible. But I like the energy of this one; its tone and subject matter convey the ‘boily boy’ struggling to make sense of the world around him. It depicts the individual emerging from the womb and finding his or her way in the world where words give the capacity ‘to twist the shapes of thoughts/Into the stony idiom of the brain’.
2. I See the Boys of Summer (March 1934)
This has a more jaunty feel, mixing Dylan Thomas’s acute observational skills (the result of his time as a journalist, perhaps) with his poet’s sense of the ruin incipient in everything around him.
3. Poem in October (August 1944)
Worked on for three years before seeing the light of day, this poem offers a harbinger of his later bucolic, lyrical style, and is one to set beside Fern Hill, Over Sir John’s Hill and Poem on his Birthday.
4. A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London (March 1945)
Dylan did not win many plaudits for sitting out the war, working in film, mainly in Soho. But that did not mean he did not recognise the horror of what was happening around him. This is simply one of the greatest second world war poems.
5. Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night (May 1951)
Do not be put off by the way this is so often quoted at funerals and on memorial websites. Occasioned by his father’s blindness and imminent death, this is a craftsman’s poem, all the more powerful for its tight villanelle form.
6. The Peaches
Dylan’s inspired suburban boy’s take on the raw, elemental world of his relations in the Carmarthenshire countryside. Notable for its satire of the spiritual yearnings of Cousin Gwilym (in real life Idris) who practised his sermons, including one – full of Welsh hwyl – which started, ‘O God, Those everywhere all the time, in the dew of the morning, in the frost of the evening.’ and ended, ‘Thou canst see all the time, O God, mun, you’re like a bloody cat.’
7. Old Garbo
A classic rites-of-passage tale, as a young man comes of age in the grown-up environments of newspaper office and Swansea pubs. Like The Peaches, it is collected in the book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, which is the best introduction to Dylan’s prose writing.
8. Holiday Memory
The verbal equivalent of a Donald McGill postcard. A classic piece of social observation, mixing humour, detail and pathos.
9. Return Journey
The product of Dylan’s return to Swansea after the war in 1947. He was shattered to find that his familiar world of the early 1930s had already disappeared – most of it destroyed by German bombs. In this piece he conducted imaginary interviews with people who had once known him, from the barmaid in the Three Lamps to the park-keeper in Cwmdonkin Drive. In a sense this was a variation on a favourite poetic theme – the inexorable passage of time.
A play for voices
10. Under Milk Wood
At one time called The Town that was Mad, all humanity is here in this tale of Llareggub (read it backwards for full Dylan effect), depicted in humorous and generous manner. Dylan’s most lasting piece.