Auctions | May 23, 2014

Dylan Thomas Papers from Last Weeks of His Life for Sale at Bonhams

A fine selection of original material by Dylan Thomas which has remained unseen for many years is to be offered at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 18.  It is being sold by The Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. This year is the centenary of the poet’s birth.

Among the items are two which have strong and emotional links to the last few weeks of the poet’s life. They include the typescript, with Thomas’s hand written last minute revisions and marked up for reading, of his final broadcast, 'A Visit to America,' which was recorded on October 5 1953 (estimate £6,000-8,000). He slipped into a coma a month later in New York on 5th November and died on the 9th.  The talk was due to be broadcast on November 22nd but was postponed because that was the day of Thomas’s funeral. It was eventually transmitted on 30 March 1954. On the surface, ‘A Visit to America’ is peppered with Thomas’s trade mark wit but it contains an under current of sardonic and, in retrospect, desperate self awareness of the poetry reading showman he had become.

The sale also includes Thomas’s last known letter. Dated 9 October 1953, it is addressed to D. Clifford Roberts, the Portreeve of Laugharne where the poet lived.  The Portreeve is the annually elected President of Laugharne’s medieval Corporation, the only surviving one in the UK apart from the Corporation of London. The election is marked by the Portreeve’s Breakfast and Thomas was writing to Roberts to apologise that he would be unable to attend the event because he was just setting off to London and then to America.   

Thomas wrote the letter in the Boat House at Laugharne where he spent the last four years of his life though he had been a regular visitor to the town since 1934 and lived there briefly after his marriage in 1938. The customs and people of Laugharne  are considered to be a major influence on one of his best known works, Under Milk Wood, although much of this ‘play for voices’ was actually written elsewhere.

It is likely that the letter was never delivered. Thomas certainly addressed the envelope either in Laugharne or London but to judge from the notes scribbled on the envelope in another’s handwriting, he must have left it to someone else to post.  For some reason this was never done.   

The letter is included as the last one written by Thomas in Paul Ferris, Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas: New Edition, 2000 and, apart from two telegrams dated 17th and 25th October, was to be the final communication from the poet.