AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION: Dylan Thomas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Tragic Joy



It is typical of the physically weak to emphasise the strength of life (Nietzsche); of the apprehensive and complex-ridden to emphasise its naiveté and dark wholesomeness (D.H. Lawrence); of the naked-nerved and blood timid to emphasise its brutality and horror (Me!)[1]

Dylan Thomas, “Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson”, 1933.

For the God he praised is a pagan deity. Pagan is the “raging moon,” pagan is the worship of the trees, the night, the sun, and the sea; pagan are the visions of rebirth from fire and the burning stars; pagan are the images drawn from the deep well of the unconscious self and mingled with Welsh myth, folklore, and ancient rites; pagan is the animistic infusion of nature with these private visions; pagan is the celebration of this world and its joys and sorrows, and the refusal to be comforted by the blessings of another; pagan is the absence of symbols of guilt and sin to account for human failure and suffering; and pagan is the transubstantiation of religious symbols into the natural order of things.[2]

Hans Meyerhoff, “The Violence of Dylan Thomas,” 1955.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.[3]

           Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra


Dylan Thomas in Exile

Dylan Thomas’ path toward modernist English poetry was laid bare when he was a child. He was not taught the Welsh language deliberately – a decision taken by his father David John Thomas, a head teacher of English literature and an un-forked poet.[4] David, who was himself bi-lingual and taught Welsh lessons in his own home, inundated his son Dylan with sounds and books of English words, introducing him to the great works of English literature, including modernist poetry, psychology and philosophy. Thomas began to write poetry as a child, – the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”[5] – and quickly began to edit his high school’s literary journal. Already involved in advanced intellectual, artistic and poetological questions and endeavours, Thomas, before the age of twenty, filled up notebooks with works which would, all in all, constitute around half of his poetic output – not counting his prose, screenplays, radio plays and short stories. Indeed, he showed no interest in other subjects, recognising very early that he would be a poet and writer.

Dylan Thomas left school at sixteen and began to work as a reporter. He fashioned journals and wrote poetry, and, after three years, published his first collection, Eighteen Poems, in 1933. This event paradoxically assured his exile from an “easy” life in quasi-traditionalist Wales. With his success, he began to roam the streets, pubs and salons of London, coming into contact with the state of the art of modernist poetics. Of course, just as quickly, he would return to Wales, for as he said in a letter, “Cities are death.”[6]  His nomadic, uneasy existence as a poet – and one in the English language – continued throughout his life, as he was caught in a web between Wales, London and later America. It was the utter lack of employment opportunities in Wales – especially as a poet – and his refusal to even consider another vocation – that gave birth to his permanent exile.  If one wished to be a Modern poet, one had to be in London or America – surely not in Wales (unless one could make one’s lucre elsewhere). Landing work with the BBC was later a great boon for Dylan Thomas, who contributed an English speaking Welsh perspective to the public corporation’s offerings. Under the neo-colonial thumb of British culture, the Welsh public and cultural spheres were and still are dominated by England and its media corporations, publishing houses and academic institutions.

It is not clear if this was David Johnson’s intention, but he is known to have been proud that his son had produced lyrical poetry and work of international significance. Nevertheless, he merely opened the door for Thomas, who went through willingly, single-mindedly working to create his own mytho-poetic world through the articulation of his lyrical, psychological and philosophical orientations and sensibilities. But, while his orientations were often centred around the tragic and brutal character of existence, of mortality, it was his longing for the Welsh landscape and its intimacy with nature which provided him with a sense of tragic joy, of the power of life (the concern of the physically weak), of the force of the “green fuse.”[7]  Indeed, Dylan Thomas acted as the Welsh druidic bard in his artistic channelling of the voices of his people[8], his wife, children and lifeworld, of the wind, the raging moon and the sea.  His father may have sought to make it “easy” for his son by giving him the language of the hegemonic power, but he could take away neither the accent of his voice, nor his perennial feelings of homelessness from Wales, necessitated by his extravagant exile.

Though his own life ended in the contradiction of his tragic existence, dead in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas has been welcomed home in contemporary Wales, his legacy evidenced by the 2014 celebration of the Centenary of his birth. He is a celebrated son of a Wales that has enshrined bi-lingualism in its National Parliament. “Too English for the Welsh, Too Welsh for the English,”[9] Dylan Thomas died trying to escape the double bind of his predicament, though, as tragic, and intentionally so, he burned himself out through the ecstatic character of his lifestyle, his bohemian ethos – his own festival of tragic joy. Some would wish, as we will see, to bring sobriety to our view of Dylan Thomas, to pick his bones clean of any flesh, and to put to sleep or expunge his most riotous effects upon the youth (and patronisingly insulting adolescence in the process). On the contrary, however, it is precisely his eccentric rebellion that matters most about him as a tragic poet – especially one who also produced great works. That he is human, flawed, suffering, but also joyful and ecstatic, a creature of flesh and intoxication – and dying untimely – this makes him tragic in a way that allows people to empathise with him – in the first instance. The rebellion of youth may be “embarrassing” for those who have acquiesced to the nihilism of otherworldly hopes, but such denial of the tragic character of existence and fleeting possibility of joy is only a regretful revenge against the force of life, one provoked by the imminence of the night.

To read the rest of the essay, please visit And Death Shall Have No Dominion.


Publication on this site is at the discretion of the editor.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s