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A charismatic voice, a contradictory man

Dylan Thomas: A New Life
By Andrew Lycett
Overlook, 434 pp., illustrated, $35

The audience entering Cambridge's Brattle Theatre in the winter of 1951 may well have had only cursory acquaintance with the work of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Three years later, when he gave a virtuoso solo performance of his play for voices, ''Under Milk Wood," at the Fogg Museum, he was one of the best-known poets of his generation, a colossus in a scene including Eliot and Auden.

Thomas's literary reputation no longer seems as durable as it did in the immediate postwar years. Still, it has survived and deservedly so; he wrote eight or nine poems that seem destined to last. As with many romantic poets, his best work flowered early. Choosing him as a subject, however, the British biographer Andrew Lycett accepted a challenge in overabundance. Gielgud, Guinness, and Emlyn Williams played Thomas onstage; Sidney Michaels wrote a successful Broadway play; Thomas is associated with New Directions Press and Caedmon (''A Child's Christmas in Wales") Records; the Sitwells' ''18 Poems" was only one of the ''lit mags" that influenced the poetry. Is there room for more? As is turned out there was. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the biographer's capacity to find fresh meaning in a life that presumably has yielded every necessary interpretation.

Lycett's Thomas exists on two levels: the ongoing saga of the man and the dramatic tensions of his myth. For Americans the role assumed by John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet and critic, was paramount; he served as chief cook and bottle washer aboard an enterprise threatening to sink at any moment. Until I read Lycett I never suspected Brinnin had a comic side; but if one sees him as a serious guardian of the poet caught in a production of ''Noises Off," one gets the idea. Two quarreling factions claimed the baked funeral meats, two young women shared the leftovers of romance, and anyone who went to a party with Thomas might find him stealing the silver. Alcoholic and ill, he managed to lurch from one day to the next, but it required grit.

His reverberant home addresses -- Laugharne, Cwmdonkin Drive, the Boat House -- still evoke Thomas's sense of place, though he never learned Welsh. The context of the poetry receives discerning attention. Consider ''Do not go gently into that good night," which surely must be one of the most popular villanelles in the English language. When he sent the manuscript to a patron, Marguerite Caetani, he said, ''The only person I can't show the enclosed poem to is, of course, my father, who doesn't know he's dying." The reason was that, in its careful villanelle form, it was about men discovering their lives had been failures -- a category that included his father, if not Thomas himself. At the same time it is a plea to his father not to lapse into sentimental religion, but to retain his quality of fierce skepticism that had been such an important influence in Thomas's development. (In a talk Thomas described how his father was so firmly opposed to the notion of a personal God that he would stand at the window and growl, ''It's raining, blast Him.")

The biography is notably sympathetic to Thomas's wife, Caitlin, and the locals on the order of Bert Trick, the leftist grocer. A journalist's eye for precise details thwarts the mythomania that so often shrouds poetic careers. Thomas's youthful years -- he died at 39 -- are precocious but normal; something of an athlete at age 11, he won the under-15 mile race at school, and placed second in the senior cross-country a few years later. Until his death he carried in his wallet a cutting complete with photo reporting his triumph. Thomas made daily visits to his father in their collaboration on the Times crossword puzzle, and changed the initial title ''Under Milk Wood" to ''Two Streets" before changing it back. His sister Nancy was the family member with celebrity status. One of six women allowed to go with British forces into Singapore in 1945, she married Gordon Summersby, an Army officer whose first wife, Kay, was General Eisenhower's driver and mistress.

Early on, Thomas fell in love with Pamela Hansford Johnson, another rising poet. She vetoed marriage, though she was impressed by Thomas's ''rich fruity old port wine of '06 voice." She was not alone; the voice plumbs sonorous depths. ''He cranks up that big voice and lets it moan," James Laughlin observed. Even with financial and matrimonial debacles looming, in reading poetry Thomas retained the husk of his customary buoyancy, and his charismatic voice introduced ''new audiences to the possibilities of both the written and the spoken word." This is perhaps arguable, but Lycett has written a lively account with a singular eccentricity -- in the 400-plus pages there is no mention of the namesake who fits the bill, Robert Zimmerman -- Bob Dylan.

Robert Taylor is a retired book editor of the Globe.

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