Happy Birthday, Dylan Thomas!

By | October 27, 2020

Guest post by Adrian Osbourne

Perhaps for many of us, particularly once beyond a certain age, birthdays provoke a mixture of happiness, as a day that celebrates our arrival into the world, and apprehension, for the passing of time and our inevitable exit. For Dylan Thomas, this antagonism proved a powerful source of literary inspiration. 

Thomas was born 106 years ago in Swansea, on 27thOctober 1914, and has left behind a small, but significant, group of poems concerning his birthday. Some do so obliquely, through references to October, while others address the matter more directly. The birthday poems include “Especially when the October wind”, “Twenty-four years”, “Poem in October”, and “Poem on his Birthday”. For a writer so fascinated by both the cosmic and cellular processes that lead to birth and death, it is inevitable that these poems veer between celebration and commiseration, between paean and eulogy, as summed up by this declaration: 

“The closer I move / To death, one man in his sundered hulks, / The louder the sun blooms / And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults.”

“Poem on his Birthday”

Thomas was only thirty-five when he wrote here of moving closer to death and, sadly, would not see forty.

In “Poem in October”, the speaker memorialises his thirtieth birthday by mourning the loss of the child he once was:

“And there could I marvel my birthday / Away but the weather turned around. And the true / Joy of the long dead child sang burning / In the sun.” 

“Poem in October”

Amid the confusion of weathers (“burning” sun in October in Wales?), happiness is a memory of expired youth, and by the end of the poem it seems the most the speaker can hope for is to still be alive next birthday. However, the pleasant memories of a childhood spent in the Welsh countryside evoke a real happiness for the speaker and the ability to recall them once more in a year’s time, surrounded by the persisting beauty and “mystery” of “the woods the river and sea”, will be its own reward.

Six years earlier, the inherent tension in a birthday between celebrating youth and recording the annual milestone of aging inspired the poem “Twenty-four years”. Here, the speaker’s birthday brings tears to their eyes and, like John Donne who wrote 300 years earlier that “we all have a winding sheet in our mother’s womb, for we come to seek a grave”, he prepares “a shroud for a journey / By the light of the meat-eating sun.” However, even though the speaker is “Dressed to die”, this poem bursts with the physical energy of a life that wants to live before the time is up:

“the sensual strut begun, / With my red veins full of money, / […] I advance for as long as forever is.” 

“Twenty-four years”

Vitality is compared to hard cash, and this poem shows how it feels to have an abundance.

The earliest published poem connected to Thomas’s birthday is “Especially when the October wind”, written just before he turned twenty. A handwritten manuscript for the poem can be found in the “Fifth Notebook”, a school exercise book Thomas used to record his poems. This notebook was purchased by Swansea University at auction in 2014 and an annotated manuscript edition, co-edited by me and John Goodby, has just been published by Bloomsbury. Typical of the densely allusiveness nature of Thomas’s poetry at the time, his birthday is not explicitly mentioned in the poem, but it informs the concepts of mortality and images of degradation that haunt it:

“My busy heart who shudders as she talks / Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.”

“Especially when the October wind”

There is an earlier, typed version of the poem in the British Museum, entitled “Especially when the November wind”. From a poetic perspective, this later alteration to “October” changes neither the line length nor the rhythm as both words are amphibrachs (unstressed – stressed – unstressed syllables: noh-VEM-ber / ok-TOH-ber), so the switch to Thomas’s birth month is a thematic decision rather than a linguistic one. In line with Thomas’s obsession with the interplay between birth and death, this enables the prediction from the speaker’s heart of “the coming fury” to be read as a warning of death triggered by the annual commemoration of birth.

To end on a less depressing note, let us return to “Poem on his Birthday”, perhaps my favourite poem by Thomas, in a crowded field of possibilities. The passing of the speaker’s thirty-fifth birthday, for all its “midlife mourn”, also inspires these lines:

“With more triumphant faith / Than ever was since the world was said / Spins its morning of praise.”

“Poem on his Birthday”

Adrian Osbourne conducted his doctoral research as the co-editor of Dylan Thomas’s fifth notebook, funded by Swansea University’s College of Arts & Humanities. He gained his PhD in January 2020, and is currently working on a network visualization project, investigating the correspondence of Modernist writers held in the archives at Swansea University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

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