Do not go gentle

Dylan Thomas died 50 years ago this month. During this year, he has become the unlikely symbol of a

After a competition for an essay about Wales, the European Commission scrabbled around for a suitable prize. Eventually, it settled on a first edition of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood - the only work of Welsh literature considered to have Continent-wide appeal. This was presented to the winner by the EC's Welsh-born vice-president Neil Kinnock.

Thomas's funny, humane "play for voices" might seem an excellent choice. But, until recently, Under Milk Wood was often viewed with alarm in his homeland. It was written in English, for a start, and that always raises the hackles of more ardent nationalists.

More generally, his depiction of the day-to-day hypocrisies of the seaside town of Llareggub was considered cheap and unpatriotic, while his own rackety, drunken lifestyle, culminating in his early death in New York in November 1953, was anathema to good chapel-going folk. (There's a typical Thomas joke in the town's name, which needs to be read backwards.) But Wales has been changing over the past decade, and so has its attitude to Thomas. The principality has been losing its image as a cultural backwater - the preserve of male voice choirs and little else.

And Dylan - let's call him by the name by which he is now universally known - has become a surprising symbol of the new relaxed Wales. In a poll currently being conducted on www.100welshheroes.com (until 1 December), Dylan Thomas leads in the "creative" section, though he trails Tom Jones overall.

It is a tale of the Welsh nation feeling much more at ease with itself. The years following Dylan Thomas's death coincided with a surge in Welsh nationalism. The drowning of the Tryweryn Valley in North Wales to provide water for Liverpool in 1957 fuelled the resentment that led to the revival of the Welsh Language Society five years later.

Since 1982, however, the Welsh-language TV channel S4C has provided outlets for indigenous creativity, while the Welsh Assembly, set up in Cardiff, offers (for the time being at least) enough of a sense of nationhood while not denying the reality of its close ties with England.

With language and politics no longer such pressing issues, Welsh talents have been free to make their mark on a wider stage, tackling more universal issues. You cannot watch a television play these days without seeing one of the new breed of young Welsh actors, such as Michael Sheen, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Ifans, Ieuan Rhys, Matthew Rhys and Rufus Sewell, not to mention the older generation of Anthony Hopkins and Sian Phillips.

These players do not carry their Welshness around like an unwieldy piece of baggage. Their nationality often gives them an edge, perhaps even defines them, but it is not the sine qua non of their existence.

Cinema shows the Welsh beginning to laugh at themselves - and enjoying it. Twin Town (1997), the principality's answer to Trainspotting, depicted a corrupt, violent, drug-ridden Swansea - a modern, more cynical Under Milk Wood. But its energy, humour and verve were equally infectious.

Welsh authors such as Niall Griffiths have demonstrated that they can serve up the same anarchic, postmodern diet as their Celtic cousins in Glasgow and Dublin. In the shape of Stevie Davies, Russell Celyn Jones and Trezza Azzopardi, they have also written novels of subtlety and psychological insight that reflect on the condition of Britain as a whole.

This rejection of provincialism is clearest in Wales's thriving music scene. Super Furry Animals, the Manic Street Preachers and Catatonia do not fret about domestic social issues. They address young people's realities the world over. Love and angst are the same in Bridgeport, Connecticut as in Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan. To colour them with a glorious Welsh noise that combines passion and musicality is a bonus.

This was exactly what Dylan Thomas did. As a young man in the 1930s, he turned his back on the political themes of contemporaries such as W H Auden. He did not consider attitudinising the stuff of poetry.

Instead, he pursued his own poetic vision. One excitement of writing his biography was to chart how, in his late teenage years, he found his voice as he sought to describe the world around him. He grubbily explored his body and its relationship with the universe; he became obsessed with the passage of time and the finality of death. His very personal mixture of raw talent, bookish gleanings and Welsh hwyl intrigued, repelled and intoxicated the literary commissars in London where, as Dylan himself put it, "the emotional appeal in Auden would not raise a corresponding emotion in a tick".

Before the Second World War, he rejected co-option by the Apocalyptics, the Romantic group of poets. He never leaned his full weight to the earnest efforts of the gifted journalist Keidrych Rhys to provide a forum for Anglo-Welsh writers in the magazine Wales. For Dylan was his own man, dedicated to a life of the imagination, with a related lifestyle all too ready and soon to claim him.

Many Welsh people felt abandoned and could not forgive him. No matter that, in going to England to ply what he called his "craft or sullen art", he followed Manawydan, a hero of the great 11th-century Celtic epic the Mabinogion, who made the same journey "to learn some craft whereby we may make our livelihood". (Dylan got his name from this same story cycle.)

Saunders Lewis, the dramatist and Plaid Cymru leader imprisoned for protesting against an RAF bombing school in Penyberth, Caernarfonshire, rubbished him comprehensively in 1938: "Mr Dylan Thomas . . . belongs to the English." That was short-sighted. Dylan may have lacked a political sense of the loss of a Celtic culture that was literate long before England's. One can find this in others such as his near namesake R S Thomas. But Dylan's own inspiration, grounding and final home were indubitably Wales.

He was modern in his straddling of two cultures. When in England, he used to say he was a Welshman and when in Wales an Englishman. This sense of separateness helped him inject the same sort of inventiveness into the English language as have, more recently, Salman Rushdie and fellow Anglo-Indians. Dylan was a crossover figure, bridging the gap between high and low culture, written and oral traditions, individual and performance art, the academy and the forum. How appropriate that this child of the Swansea suburbs should be so widely known for his bucolic poems about the countryside.

Last month, I saw Matthew (The Graduate) Rhys taking the role of First Voice in Michael Bogdanov's excellent new production of Under Milk Wood in Swansea's refurbished Grand Theatre. He shook off the cadences of Richard Burton (and indeed Dylan Thomas himself) and made the role his own. A capacity audience roared appreciatively at Dylan's gentle satire and did not flinch even at the depiction of Nogood Boyo's onanism.

As with the edition of Under Milk Wood that became an EC prize, Dylan would have been amused and gratified. For this "boily boy", as he called himself, has become an unlikely symbol of a confident, outward-looking, modern Wales.

Andrew Lycett's biography Dylan Thomas: a new life is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson