Raw, Red Bleeding Meat

The poetics of Dylan Thomas

Marco Montagnin

     Poetry is broken down, repeated and recreated, while maintaining its undiminished ingredients: words. Poetry takes part in the evolution of human thought, of its culture, of the interpretation of reality; it is neither dead nor dying. Yet among us it languishes, waiting for someone who can reclaim it and give it a new form and a new voice.

In 1934 it found Dylan Marlais Thomas in the form of 18 poems.

One: I am a Welshman; two: I am a drunkard; three: I am a lover of the human race, especially of women. This is how the Welsh poet described himself.

Born in 1914 in Swansea, Thomas left school at the age of sixteen to concentrate on writing. At a very young age he revolutionised the English cultural environment by creating a more emotional and visionary alternative to the intellectual poetry of Wystan Hugh Auden and Thomas Stearns Eliot.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

A poem by me needs a host of images. I make one image – though “make” is not the word; I let, perhaps, an image be “made” emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image, bred out of the two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, con-flict. Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of that central seed, which is itself destructive and construc-tive at the same time…Out of the inevitable conflict of images I try to make that momentary peace which is a poem.[1]

     Dylan Thomas died in New York at the age of thirty-nine – consumed by poetry and alcohol – after five days in a comatose state. His wife flew in from the UK and arrived at the hospital and asked: ‘Is the bloody man dead yet?’ She turned up a few hours late, out of control and drunk; a straitjacket was forced on her and she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic.

The love story between the Welsh poet and Caitlin (Macnamara) Thomas was one of alcohol, betrayal and passion: ‘raw, red bleeding meat’, as Caitlin described it. 

     Despite his short life, Dylan Thomas was extremely productive, and his poems have become famous amongst mass culture.

The poet’s themes are reoccurring: nature, religion, the cyclical nature of life and death. And yet it would be a trivial simplification to define Dylan Thomas solely by them. In fact, these themes transcend the banal meaning and in the poet’s words take on new forms that lead to paths never taken before.

Dylan Thomas is a phonetic poet, his poems are rhythmical, he uses repetition, a clever juxtaposition of vowels and consonants largely underlined by calligraphic elements. His readings are legendary, the poems live again through his vibrant voice, they do not merely end in writing. In the United States he undertook several ‘tours’ of reading his own poems and was often drunk – wreaking havoc with his audience. His escorts expected him to collapse on stage, but poetry gave him strength even though: ‘the demon alcohol had for some time [become] a friend a little too oppressive and a little too intimate’.

     Religion recurs in many of his poems. Dylan Thomas was a Puritan, believing in predestination and in the salvation of the human being (as promised by God to Abraham) as long as he followed biblical rules. In his poems elements from the Old and New Testaments recur and it is with the Apocalypse that his religious vision comes to fruition, with the figure of Abaddòn, who in the Old Testament represented the abyss (from the Hebrew place of destruction) while in the New Testament he represents an angel, ‘the destroyer’ in Greek, ‘the exterminator’ in Latin.

     In the poem Before I Knocked, the poet speaks of both physical and spiritual birth. Time is the physical key: the foetus inexorably matures until birth, which then becomes failure: the human being is annihilated, his existence is a feeble one for which only death awaits him. Passio is the spiritual key, destiny is already prearranged; the foetus faces the stages until it leaves its mother’s womb: the crucifixion. Then only death is left.

Before I knocked and flesh let enter, 
With liquid hands tapped on the womb, 
I who was as shapeless as the water 
That shaped the Jordan near my home 
Was brother to Mnetha’s daughter 
And sister to the fathering worm. 

I who was deaf to spring and summer, 
Who knew not sun nor moon by name, 
Felt thud beneath my flesh’s armour, 
As yet was in a molten form 
The leaden stars, the rainy hammer 
Swung by my father from his dome.  

I knew the message of the winter, 
The darted hail, the childish snow, 
And the wind was my sister suitor; 
Wind in me leaped, the hellborn dew; 
My veins flowed with the Eastern weather; 
Ungotten I knew night and day.

As yet ungotten, I did suffer; 
The rack of dreams my lily bones 
Did twist into a living cipher, 
And flesh was snipped to cross the lines 
Of gallow crosses on the liver 
And brambles in the wringing brains. 

 My throat knew thirst before the structure 
Of skin and vein around the well 
Where words and water make a mixture 
Unfailing till the blood runs foul; 
My heart knew love, my belly hunger; 
I smelt the maggot in my stool. 

 And time cast forth my mortal creature 
To drift or drown upon the seas 
Acquainted with the salt adventure 
Of tides that never touch the shores. 
I who was rich was made the richer 
By sipping at the vine of days. 



I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither 
A ghost nor man, but mortal ghost. 
And I was struck down by death’s feather. 
I was a mortal to the last 
Long breath that carried to my father 
The message of his dying christ. 

You who bow down at cross and altar, 
Remember me and pity Him 
Who took my flesh and bone for armour 
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.[2]


In his most famous poem And death shall have no dominion, the poet echoes St Paul’s epistle to the Romans (6.9), ‘Death hath no more dominion’, i.e. death cannot defeat life, because it is not part of the kingdom. Unlike John Donne’s poem Death, be not proud, Dylan Thomas shows no concern in regard to physical appearance. Death cannot defeat mankind because even if his body is no more, he will join his fellow men. Ultimately, despite the loss of nature, death will have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.


And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.


And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.[3]


However, Especially when the October wind is certainly the poem that best represents the author’s poetic idea: the sonority, the juxtaposition of imagery, Wales and the calligraphic elements.

Especially when the October wind 
With frosty fingers punishes my hair, 
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire 
And cast a shadow crab upon the land, 
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds, 
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks, 
My busy heart who shudders as she talks 
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words. 

 Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark 
On the horizon walking like the trees 
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows 
Of the star-gestured children in the park. 
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches, 
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots 
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes, 
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches. 


Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock 
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning 
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning 
And tells the windy weather in the cock. 
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs; 
The signal grass that tells me all I know 
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye. 
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins. 


Especially when the October wind 
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells, 
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales) 
With fists of turnips punishes the land, 
Some let me make you of the heartless words. 
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry 
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury. 
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.[4]


A discordant symbolic-figurative element overlays the former natural themes: the crab that takes the form of the sun, which, clawed by the clouds, projects a shadow of a crab clawing its prey across the author’s body.

The calligraphic elements are multiple: blood is syllabic, the tower is made of words, the trees are verbal; in addition to these and other natural-calligraphic examples, the poet adds: “it tells me the hour’s word”: time is also verbal – it has its own sound.

Poetry is the representation of certain sounds by means of signs, and yet Dylan Thomas goes conceptually further, combining and breaking down sounds and signs to create combinations filled with meaning: natural, symbolic, artistical and calligraphic meaning.

During one of his trips to America, Dylan Thomas met Igor’ Fëdorovič Stravinskij, the well-known composer, who admired the Welshman’s poetic work. He requested a libretto for an opera from the poet, but Thomas died before starting it. By putting to music Do not go gentle into that good night, a poem written by the poet for his dying father, Stravinsky consequently paid homage to his beloved poet with a funeral song entitled In memoriam Dylan Thomas, a poem that was revived in a new form, completing the author’s poetic circle.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.[5]



[1]  Quote taken from Willard Liston Rudd, Images of creation and destruction in the early poetry of Dylan Thomas, 1971.

[2]  D. Thomas, Poesie, Einaudi, 2021, p.12

[3]  Ivi, p.64

[4]  Ivi, p.20

[5]  Ivi, p.230

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