Was Dylan Thomas a grafter or a drunk?

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1. The myth of Dylan the drunk?

When you think of Dylan Thomas, do you envisage the poet with a pint in hand? His relationship with the demon drink may be as well known as his work, taking on a mythic status since his untimely death in New York in 1953.

It is undeniable that Thomas enjoyed a drink, but the extent of his dependency on alcohol is questioned. Was his work rushed out to pay for the hard-living, or was the drinking a necessary break from the hard graft of a perfectionist poet?

To understand the 'myth' we have to look at why Thomas drank and liked to be seen to drink, and how, for him, alcohol and working co-existed.

2. Eighteen straight whiskies

Dylan Thomas allegedly boasted, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record", but there is also evidence to suggest he wasn't always as drunk as he seemed.

Richard Harrington in Browns Hotel, Dylan Thomas's favourite pub in Laugharne

3. Dylan the grafter

Dylan Thomas’s career, though short, was prolific.

A keen writer from an early age, he began writing poetry and prose in a series of notebooks when he was still a teenager living at Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea. It was in these that he penned early drafts of some of his best-loved poems.

His first collection of poetry, 18 Poems, was published in December 1934 when Thomas was the tender age of 20.

Even between jobs at the South Wales Daily Post in the 1930s, and as a wartime propaganda scriptwriter in the 1940s, when he was earning a living – latterly for his young family – Thomas still found time for his more literary creations.

In addition to the wealth of written material he would have published in his lifetime, he recorded numerous radio broadcasts – readings of both of his own work and others'. The first of these was on 21 April 1937, and his steady work as a broadcaster began in 1943.

He also visited North America four times in the 1950s. On these reading tours Thomas travelled thousands of miles and gave over 100 poetry readings, lectures and talks across the US and Canada.

It has been suggested that Thomas was one of the people who kick-started the audiobook industry, after he made recordings of his works with the New York record label Caedmon. He made his first recordings in February 1952.

4. 'He was really quite a perfectionist'

According to Dylan Thomas's granddaughter Hannah Ellis, he was a meticulous writer who worked hard on his creations, and his work should not be overshadowed by his behaviour.

Hannah Ellis talks about Dylan Thomas's relationship with alcohol, his craftsmanship and his perfectionist attitude towards his writing.

5. The final days: was alcohol to blame?

It is widely thought that alcohol was responsible for Dylan Thomas's death. Did his hard drinking, fast-living ways catch up with him or were other factors to blame?

When Thomas arrived in New York in October 1953 on his fourth visit to America, his health was already in a bad condition.

He was guilty of self-neglect and overworking himself, and episodes of excessive drinking did not help his poor health.

However, Thomas's postmortem is clear enough: it gave the primary cause of death as pneumonia, with pressure on the brain and a fatty liver given as contributing factors.

At the time of his death, false rumours circulated that his death was caused by damage to the brain by alcohol. The actions of the doctor treating him, Milton Feltenstein, are also open to criticism. His diagnosis of delirium tremens – a condition caused by a sudden withdrawal from alcohol – is likely to have been inaccurate.

Feltenstein also injected Thomas with a large dose of morphine. Although this would have eased his pain, it is likely to have depressed his already-restricted breathing further, depriving the brain of oxygen and sending the writer into a coma that he was never to wake from.

6. What is your overriding impression?

Now that you know more about Dylan Thomas's drinking and the body of work he produced, which do you think he is?


Thomas's relationship with alcohol overshadows his literary legacy

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His body of work is large considering his short career. Perhaps Thomas's notoriety has changed our perception of his work.


Thomas's work is the most important factor, not the myths about his private life

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Thomas's granddaughter, Hannah Ellis, agrees that we should focus on his works, and not his behaviour

It is hard to split the two

Thomas's colourful private life is inseparable from his literary career

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It is hard to split the two

Thomas's infamy is part of his charm, and perhaps makes him more popular as a writer.