Dylan Thomas (1914-53), whose centenary is this year, lived for only 39 years, but by a lucky accident of timing and copyright, his early death at least ensured that, unlike his near contemporary W. H. Auden (born 1907), his most important and best-loved work is available for free online – in Australia. And in practice, that means to all of us.

As Thomas writes in his 1952 foreword to the edition of his “Collected Poems, 1934-1952” available on the Project Gutenberg of Australia website: “This book contains most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year, that I wish to preserve.” Project Gutenberg Australia also offers his magical “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and “Under Milk Wood,” probably the best play ever written solely for voices.

Unfortunately, the “Collected Poems” are only available as HTML or a text file, so you have to either compile them yourself into a proper ebook or read them as is. But it’s surely worth the trouble for verses like this:

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

Luckily, Thomas played few tricks with layout or font style, so any ebook creator that can preserve the line and verse breaks can produce something tolerably close to the original. And unlike, for instance, T. S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams’s shorter poems, this is not all about a strict visual form where presentation matters much. It’s all in “the colour of saying” – the word-music.

Thomas was a precocious writer, with many of his most celebrated lyrics appearing in 1933 when he was just 19, after he had already been composing for three years. That gives us the benefit, for free, of a far more radical poetic than Auden, who was still writing long after Thomas’s death.

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow’s scream.

Critics still puzzle over how he did it. His own statements didn’t help: “The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance.” That probably is honest, though with a self-mythologizer like Thomas you never can be sure. At 16 it’s unlikely that he developed an intellectual basis to match the verbal density of his work, so readers can probably skip the struggle of searching for a system of ideas that isn’t there. Lines like “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” are now part of the language, and need no notes to understand.

Robert Lowell’s opinion was: “Nothing could be more wrongheaded, than the English disputes about Dylan Thomas’s greatness … He is a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.” Curious, considering how completely accessible his plays are. And obscurity depends on the view that there is something hidden there to understand. Ears tuned to a bardic tradition and the lilt of Welsh might be more content to just enjoy the music. And thanks to Australian copyright law, you can do that for free.


  1. Hey, I recognize that collection! I prepared that for PG-Australia years ago. (Looks like it was 2004). I remember that I had to be careful during spell-checking and proofreading, with the unexpected words around every corner. I’m glad to hear that it is being read and enjoyed. — Andrew

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.