- Ana Savković
Dylan Thomas/Sylvia Plath! Tides in October
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
The similarities among today’s authors don’t stop at just the same date of birth or the fact that they both passed away in their thirties, abandoning this world prematurely and leaving a lasting impact on the world of poetry. Both authors were preoccupied with the subject of mortality in their works. Both born in October, they wrote poems with October in the title; Dylan Thomas Poem In October as a reflection on his then thirtieth birthday, and Sylvia Plath Poppies in October on her last, thirtieth birthday. They both could not accept their father's death and had complicated relationships with their mothers. Their lives were marked by fateful relationships, affairs, broken hearts and tragic endings, and both of them left behind spouses who published works dedicated to them after their death.
Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, poets who in their works emphasized the eternal presence of inevitable death lurking at every turn, built around themselves a cult of death that they sealed with their premature departure from this world. In this week’s ZiNger, we will take a closer look at the turbulent lives of these two poets and try to understand their reasons for the self-destructiveness that eventually led to their early deaths.
Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914 - November 9, 1953) was a Welsh writer and one of the most famous and influential poets of the twentieth century. He began writing poetry at an early age; he published his first poems in school magazines. Although he was a gifted student, he was not interested in school and left it at the age of sixteen to take a job as a journalist. His first collection 18 Poems was released at a time when he had moved to London, where he lived for ten years, becoming extremely popular in literary circles. The collection 18 Poems represented a new voice in English poetry. It was introverted poetry that dealt with the themes of mortality, sexuality, obsession and religion, i.e. sin and redemption. Two years after the release of 18 Poems, his second collection Twenty-Five Poems was released, and at that time another crucial event in Dylan’s life took place. Somewhat significantly, at the bar, he met the love of his life, Irish dancer Caitlin Macnamara, and they began a tumultuous romance filled with drunkenness, quarrels, violence and affairs. Their dramatic relationship resulted in marriage, three children and a permanent relocation to the Welsh village of Laugharne where they lived in rather meager conditions.
Their descriptions of that first fateful encounter are quite interesting. Dylan wrote to the American writer Emily Coleman with whom he corresponded: “Of course I shall sleep with her: she’s bound up with me, just as you are; one day I shall marry her very much – (no money, quite drunk, no future, no faithfulness) – and that will be a funny thing.” (https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/dylan-thomas-women-what-poet-6655298)
In her book Double Drink Story, published after Dylan's death, Caitlin wrote: "I first met Dylan, inevitably, in a pub, since pubs were our natural habitat. From that day onwards, we became dedicated to pubs and to each other. Pubs were our primary dedication; each other our secondary. But one fit so snugly into the other that they were perfectly complementary. Ours was not only a love story, it was a drink story, because without alcohol, it would never have got onto its rocking feet." (https://www.irishtimes.com/news/drinking-with-dylan-1.222640)
In 1950, Dylan received a letter from the American poet John Malcolm Brinnin inviting him to a three-month tour throughout the United States, and he agreed because he thought he would make more money in the States than in England. Altogether he had four visits to the US which proved to be very stimulating for his career. He settled in New York where he recited his works, he was obsessed with words and their sounds and held distinctive public recitations modeled on Celtic folk singers. He gained fans (especially female fans) everywhere, but spent the money he earned on alcohol, leading to a serious crisis in his marriage to Caitlin. Also, during one of his visits, he met journalist Pearl Kazin and started another affair which this time meant the definitive end of his marriage to Caitlin. His father, David John Thomas, passed away at that time, for whom Dylan felt great respect and admiration, and this worsened his mental and health condition, which was already under pressure due to the decaying marriage, debts and problems with writing.
A year later, on November 9, 1953, Dylan died at the hospital from the effects of an all-day binge at the Chelsea Hotel, at the age of 39. It was said that his last words were: “I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that's the record." His body was brought back "home" to Wales where he was buried in Laugharne Cemetery, and forty years later Caitlin was buried next to him.
The intoxication that characterized large parts of Dylan and Caitlin’s lives were part of their bohemian lifestyle, contributing to recklessness and infidelity, and undoubtedly to Dylan’s death. Biographer Paul Ferris tried to offer an answer as to why Dylan relied on alcohol so much in his biography Dylan Thomas, in which he wrote that Dylan once said that he drinks to reconcile the “disorder outside and the order within”. (https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/genius-creatives-like-dylan-thomas-6654654)
Whatever his reasons one thing is for sure, Dylan Thomas possessed a tremendous talent that is visible through his works imbued with themes of death, lost childhood, and reflections on the eternal continuity of life in nature. He left a lasting influence on the world of literature, which is already visible with the next author for whom he was a poetic role model.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 - February 11, 1963) was an American poet, often described as a poet of loneliness, death, and self-destruction. She started writing at an early age of eight and regularly won school literary competitions. She had a complex relationship with both her parents that alternated between love and hate. The rigid mother and dominant father who passed away when she was just eight left a lasting influence on Sylvia which is later evident from her works. Unlike Dylan, who was overwhelmed by his mother's attention and care, Sylvia's relationship with her mother was a little less intimate, and the poet felt a strong desire to free herself from her influence and develop her own identity. After her father’s death, which Sylvia interpreted as abandonment, the family had to move to Wellesley, Massachusetts, due to poor financial status. Sylvia was a very talented and ambitious student and in 1951 she received a scholarship to study at Smith College, and the following year the Mademoiselle magazine award and the prestigious position of guest editor, which is why she went to New York for a year.
At the time, the magazine's editor had arranged a meeting with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas - a writer whom Sylvia loved "more than life itself", but she did not attend the meeting and was extremely upset about it. For the next two days she waited around the White Horse Tavern, a bar for port workers that became known as a gathering place for bohemian writers after Dylan and other writers began visiting it frequently, and the Chelsea Hotel hoping to meet the poet, but he was already on his way home. A few weeks later, she cut her legs to see if she had the courage to commit suicide.
After unsuccessful electroconvulsive therapy for depression, she tried to take her own life for the first time. She took her mother's sleeping pills and hidden in a crawl space in her family's basement but was found after three days and rescued. She spent the next few months in hospital in rehab. She later described this experience in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, where she wrote, among other things, about the repressive ideology of the American dream and the inadequacy of psychiatric methods of treatment. After that, she had an affair with a much older man with whom she continued to see even after, according to her, the man raped her and she almost died of bleeding. Many interpret her action as the beginning of her destructive tendency towards aggressive men.
After graduating, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in England, where she met and fell in love with the English poet Ted Hughes. The couple married on June 6, 1956, four months after they first met. The date, Bloomsday (commemoration and celebration of the life and work of James Joyce), was deliberately chosen in honor of Joyce. Interestingly, after meeting Ted for the first time, Sylvia wrote in a letter to her mother: "His name is Ted Hughes: he is tall, hulking, with rough brown hair, a large-cut face, hands like derricks, a voice more thundering and rich than Dylan Thomas."
From 1957 to 1959, they lived in the United States, in Massachusetts and Boston, worked as teachers and wrote. Sylvia attended poetry classes by confessional poet Robert Lowell at Boston University, talked about her depression with him and established a friendship with American poet Anne Sexton who encouraged her to write things from her own experience and with whom she talked about her suicide attempts. Robert Lowell also suffered from depression and wrote about his nervous breakdown and electric shock treatment in the collection Life Studies. Sylvia did something similar with the collection Ariel. Sexton, like them, also suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1974, poisoning herself with carbon monoxide in a garage.
In 1959, Hughes and Sylvia moved to London and Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca, and published collection The Colossus. After having a miscarriage suspected to be caused by Hughes (in letters she wrote to a therapist she revealed that two days before the abortion Hughes physically attacked her and said she wanted her dead), they left London and settled in Devon. In 1962, she gave birth to a son, Nicholas Farrar, and in the summer of that same year, she discovered Hughes' affair with Assia Wevill, which completely broke her. Hughes and Sylvia soon separated and she went to live with the children back in London, in the house where William Butler Yeats once lived and where she would die. During this period, she had an outpouring of creativity from which 26 songs emerged that will be included in the collection Ariel after her death.
On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide at the age of thirty by putting her head in a gas oven after Ted Hughes left her for another woman. Assia was pregnant at the time and had an abortion shortly after the tragic event. Six years after Sylvia’s suicide, Assia Wevill committed suicide in the same way. The only difference is that she not only killed herself, but also her four-year-old daughter Alexandra Tatiana Elise (Shura) whom she had with Hughes. Sylvia and Ted’s son, Nicholas Hughes, who was a marine biologist, also committed suicide. He hanged himself in 2009 at his home in Alaska. His sister, Frieda said he was very depressed before he took his own life. Most of Sylvia's posthumously published works were edited by Hughes, who also dedicated collection Birthday Letters to her, which can be read as his response to those who held him responsible for her death.
Her colossal desire for perfection, the early loss of her father, hostility towards her mother, conflicting feelings towards motherhood, Hughes's departure with another woman and inability to reconcile civic reputation, social prestige and her own happiness with the destructive forces operating within her led to a tragic end. But it was only when she lost all that she aspired to achieve most of her life that she found herself, her poetic “I” and created poetry that made her an immortal figure in world literature.
Both of today’s poets fought battles they eventually lost, Dylan Thomas with alcohol, and Sylvia Plath with depression, but they both also fought something much deeper. An overwhelming desire for self-destruction that carried them from one extreme to the other and eventually left them with a void that they had unsuccessfully tried to fill with alcohol and unrequited love. A note from Sylvia's diary perfectly summarizes the lives of these hypersensitive poets who felt everything around them with a dark depth that sadly swallowed them in the end: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative--which ever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”