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Today is the birthday of Dylan Thomas, born in Swansea, Wales (1914). His father was a failed poet who worked as a schoolmaster, and Dylan grew up terrified of his violent mood swings. The only time he seemed to calm down, and the only time Thomas enjoyed his company, was when he was reading Shakespeare aloud. After graduation, Thomas got a job at a newspaper, but he was an awful reporter. He spent all his time at pool halls and cafés, and when he did turn in stories, the facts were all wrong. One of his co-workers said, "[He was] a bombastic adolescent provincial Bohemian with a thick-knotted artist's tie made out of his sister's scarf ... a gabbing, ambitious, mock-tough, pretentious young man."
Thomas became known as a rowdy drinker and late-night storyteller, and eventually quit his newspaper job. He lived in friends' apartments, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, surviving day to day by drinking beer and eating cake. He spent much of World War II in London, where he witnessed the bombing raids, and began to feel as though the world of his childhood in rural Wales had been lost forever. After the war was over, he published the collection Deaths and Entrances (1946), which contained one of his first great poems about lost childhood, "Fern Hill."
At the beginning of the 1950s, Thomas gave a series of readings in the United States. He told people, "[I have come to America] to continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes." Despite his notorious reputation as a raving drunk, he won everyone over with his compelling readings of his own poetry and deep sonorous voice. In the last years of his life, Thomas worked on the verse play Under Milk Wood (1954), but he spent most of his time writing letters to ask friends for money and to apologize for being so irresponsible. In one letter, he wrote, "After all sorts of upheavals, evasions, promises, procrastinations, I write, very fondly, and fawning slightly, a short inaccurate summary of those events which caused my never writing a word." From 1946 to 1953, he wrote only nine poems, but he filled his letters to friends with poetry. In one letter, he wrote: "The heat! It comes round corners at you like an animal with windmill arms. As I enter my bedroom, it stuns, thuds, throttles, spins me round by my soaking hair, lays me flat as a mat and bat-blind on my boiled and steaming bed. We keep oozing from the ice-cream counters to the chemist's. Cold beer is bottled God."
In an effort to support his family, he went on a fourth reading tour of the United States in 1953, but he was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning just as the tour began. He told his doctor, "I've had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that's the record." He died a few days later. One of the last poems he wrote before his death was a poem about his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1952). It begins, "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."