Dylan Thomas: Poems

Life and career

Early life

Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, on 27 October 1914, to David John Thomas (1876–1952), a teacher, and Florence Hannah (née Williams) (1882–1958), a seamstress. His father had a first-class honours degree in English from University College, Aberystwyth, and ambitions to rise above his position teaching English literature at the local grammar school.[4] Thomas had one sibling, Nancy (Nancy Marles 1906–1953), who was nine years older.[5] The children spoke only English though their parents were bilingual in English and Welsh, and David Thomas gave Welsh lessons at home. Thomas's father chose the name Dylan, which could be translated as "son of the sea", after Dylan ail Don, a character in The Mabinogion.[6] His middle name, Marlais, was given in honour of his great-uncle, William Thomas, a Unitarian minister and poet whose bardic name was Gwilym Marles.[5][7] Dylan, pronounced ˈ (Dull-an) in Welsh, caused his mother to worry he might be teased as the "dull one".[8] When he broadcast on Welsh BBC, early in his career, he was introduced using this pronunciation. Thomas favoured the Anglicised pronunciation and gave instructions that it should be Dillan /ˈdɪlən/.[5][9]

The red-brick semi-detached house at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in which Thomas was born and lived until he was 19, had been bought by his parents in the respectable area of the Uplands a few months before his birth.[7] His childhood was spent in Swansea, with summer trips to Carmarthenshire to visit Fernhill, a dairy farm owned by his maternal aunt, Ann Jones,[10] the memory of which is used for the 1945 lyrical poem "Fern Hill".[11] Thomas had bronchitis and asthma in childhood and struggled with these throughout his life. Thomas was indulged by his mother and enjoyed being mollycoddled, a trait he carried into adulthood and he was skilful at gaining attention and sympathy.[12] Thomas's formal education began at Mrs Hole's dame school a private school on Mirador Crescent, a few streets away from his home.[13] He described his experience there in Quite Early One Morning:

Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime — the pulling of a girl's hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature.[14]

In October 1925, Thomas enrolled at Swansea Grammar School for boys, in Mount Pleasant, where his father taught English.[15] He was an undistinguished pupil who shied away from school, preferring reading.[16] In his first year one of his poems was published in the school's magazine and before he left he became its editor.[17][18] During his final school years he began writing poetry in notebooks, the first poem dated 27 April (1930), is entitled "Osiris, come to Isis".[19] In 1931, when he was 16, Thomas left school to become a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, only to leave under pressure 18 months later.[20] Thomas continued to work as a freelance journalist for several years during which time he remained at Cwmdonkin Drive where he continued to add to his notebooks, amassing 200 poems in four books between 1930 and 1934. Of the 90 poems he published, half were written during these years.[5]

In his free time, he joined the amateur dramatic group at the Little Theatre in Mumbles, visited the cinema in Uplands, took walks along Swansea Bay, and frequented Swansea's pubs, especially the Antelope and the Mermaid Hotels in Mumbles.[21][22] In the Kardomah Café, close to the newspaper office in Castle Street, he met his creative contemporaries, including his friend the poet Vernon Watkins. The group of writers, musicians and artists became known as "The Kardomah Gang".[23] In 1933, Thomas visited London for probably the first time.[nb 1]


Thomas was a teenager when many of the poems for which he became famous were published: "And death shall have no dominion", "Before I Knocked" and "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower". "And death shall have no dominion" appeared in the New English Weekly in May 1933.[5] When "Light breaks where no sun shines" appeared in The Listener in 1934, it caught the attention of three senior figures in literary London, T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Grigson and Stephen Spender.[7][25][26] They contacted Thomas and his first poetry volume, 18 Poems, was published in December 1934. 18 Poems was noted for its visionary qualities which led to critic Desmond Hawkins writing that the work was "the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years".[5][27] The volume was critically acclaimed and won a contest run by the Sunday Referee, netting him new admirers from the London poetry world, including Edith Sitwell and Edwin Muir.[7] The anthology was published by Fortune Press, in part a vanity publisher that did not pay its writers and expected them to buy a certain number of copies themselves. A similar arrangement was used by other new authors including Philip Larkin.[28] In December 1935 Thomas contributed the poem "The Hand That Signed the Paper" to Issue 18 of the bi-monthly New Verse.[29] In 1936, his next collection Twenty-five Poems, published by J. M. Dent, also received much critical praise.[7] In all, he wrote half his poems while living at Cwmdonkin Drive before moving to London. It was the time that Thomas's reputation for heavy drinking developed.[27][30]

In early 1936, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara (1913–1994), a 22-year-old blonde-haired, blue-eyed dancer of Irish descent. She had run away from home, intent on making a career in dance, and aged 18 joined the chorus line at the London Palladium.[31][32][33] Introduced by Augustus John, Caitlin's lover, they met in The Wheatsheaf pub on Rathbone Place in London's West End.[31][33][34] Laying his head in her lap, a drunken Thomas proposed.[32][35] Thomas liked to comment that he and Caitlin were in bed together ten minutes after they first met.[36] Although Caitlin initially continued her relationship with John, she and Thomas began a correspondence, and in the second half of 1936 were courting.[37] They married at the register office in Penzance, Cornwall, on 11 July 1937.[38] In early 1938 they moved to Wales, renting a cottage in the village of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire.[39] Their first child, Llewelyn Edouard, was born on 30 January 1939.[40]

By the late 1930s, Thomas was embraced as the "poetic herald" for a group of English poets, the New Apocalyptics.[41] Thomas refused to align himself with them and declined to sign their manifesto. He later stated that he believed they were "intellectual muckpots leaning on a theory".[41] Despite this, many of the group, including Henry Treece, modelled their work on Thomas.[41]

Wartime, 1939–1945

In 1939 The Map of Love appeared as a collection of 16 poems and seven of the 20 short stories published by Thomas in magazines since 1934.[42] Ten stories in his next book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), were based less on lavish fantasy than The Map of Love and more on real life romances featuring himself in Wales.[5] Sales of both books were poor, resulting in Thomas living on meagre fees from writing and reviewing. At this time he borrowed heavily from friends and acquaintances.[43] Hounded by creditors, Thomas and his family left Laugharne in July 1940 and moved to the home of critic John Davenport in Marshfield, Gloucestershire.[nb 2] There Thomas collaborated with Davenport on the satire The Death of the King's Canary, though due to fears of libel the work was not published until 1976.[45][46]

At the outset of the Second World War, Thomas was worried about conscription and referred to his ailment as "an unreliable lung". Coughing sometimes confined him to bed and he had a history of bringing up blood and mucus.[47] After initially seeking employment in a reserved occupation, he managed to be classified Grade III, which meant that he would be among the last to be called up for service.[nb 3] Saddened to see his friends going on active service, he continued drinking and struggled to support his family. He wrote begging letters to random literary figures asking for support, a plan he hoped would provide a long-term regular income.[5] Thomas supplemented his income by writing scripts for the BBC, which not only gave him additional earnings but also provided evidence that he was producing essential war work.[49]

In February 1941, Swansea was bombed by the Luftwaffe in a "three nights' blitz". Castle Street was one of many streets that suffered badly; rows of shops, including the Kardomah Café, were destroyed. Thomas walked through the bombed-out shell of the town centre with his friend Bert Trick. Upset at the sight, he concluded: "Our Swansea is dead".[50] Soon after the bombing raids, Thomas wrote a radio play, Return Journey Home, which described the café as being "razed to the snow".[51] The play was first broadcast on 15 June 1947. The Kardomah Café reopened on Portland Street after the war.[52]

In May 1941, Thomas and Caitlin moved to London, leaving their son with his grandmother at Blashford in Hampshire.[53] Thomas hoped to find employment in the film industry and wrote to the director of the films division of the Ministry of Information (MOI).[5] After being rebuffed he found work with Strand Films providing him with his first regular income since the Daily Post.[54] Strand produced films for the MOI; Thomas scripted at least five films in 1942, This Is Colour (a history of the British dyeing industry) and New Towns For Old (on post-war reconstruction). These Are The Men (1943) was a more ambitious piece in which Thomas's verse accompanies Leni Riefenstahl's footage of an early Nuremberg Rally.[nb 4] Conquest of a Germ (1944) explored the use of early antibiotics in the fight against pneumonia and tuberculosis. Our Country (1945) was a romantic tour of Britain set to Thomas's poetry.[56][57]

In early 1943 Thomas began a relationship with Pamela Glendower, one of several affairs he had during his marriage.[58] The affairs either ran out of steam or were halted after Caitlin discovered his infidelity.[58] In March 1943 Caitlin gave birth to a daughter, Aeronwy in London.[58] They lived in a run-down studio in Chelsea, made up of a single large room with a curtain to separate the kitchen.[59]

In 1944, with the threat of German flying bombs on London, Thomas moved to the family cottage in Blaen Cwm near Llangain,[60] where Thomas resumed writing poetry, completing "Holy Spring" and "Vision and Prayer".[61] In September Thomas and Caitlin moved to New Quay in West Wales which inspired Thomas to pen the radio piece Quite Early One Morning, a sketch for his later work, Under Milk Wood.[62] Of the poetry written at this time, of note is "Fern Hill", believed to have been started while living in New Quay, but completed at Blaen Cwm in mid-1945.[63][nb 5]

Broadcasting years 1945–1949

Although Thomas had previously written for the BBC, it was a minor source of income and the occurrences intermittent. In 1943 he wrote and recorded a 15-minute talk entitled "Reminiscences of Childhood" for the Welsh BBC. In December 1944 he recorded Quite Early One Morning (produced by Aneirin Talfan Davies, again for the Welsh BBC) but when Davies offered it for national broadcast BBC London turned it down.[62] On 31 August 1945 the BBC Home Service broadcast Quite Early One Morning, and in the three years beginning October 1945, Thomas made over a hundred broadcasts for the corporation.[64] Thomas was employed not only for his poetry readings, but for discussions and critiques.[65][66]

By late September 1945 the Thomases had left Wales and were living with various friends in London.[67] The publication of Deaths and Entrances in 1946 was a turning point for Thomas. Poet and critic Walter J. Turner commented in The Spectator, "This book alone, in my opinion, ranks him as a major poet".[68]

In the second half of 1945, Thomas began reading for the BBC Radio programme, Book of Verse, broadcast weekly to the Far East[69] providing Thomas with a regular income and bringing him into contact with Louis MacNeice, a congenial drinking companion whose advice Thomas cherished.[70] On 29 September 1946, the BBC began transmitting the Third Programme, a high-culture network which provided opportunities for Thomas.[71] He appeared in the play Comus for Third Programme, the day after the network launched, and his rich, sonorous voice led to character parts, including the lead in Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Satan in an adaptation of Paradise Lost.[70][72] Thomas remained a popular guest on radio talk shows for the BBC who regarded him as "useful should a younger generation poet be needed".[73] He had an uneasy relationship with BBC management and a staff job was never an option, with drinking cited as the problem.[74] Despite this, Thomas became a familiar radio voice and within Britain was "in every sense a celebrity".[75]

Thomas visited the home of historian A. J. P. Taylor in Disley. Although Taylor disliked him intensely, he stayed for a month, drinking "on a monumental scale", up to 15 or 20 pints of beer a day. In late 1946 Thomas turned up at the Taylors' again, this time homeless and with Caitlin. Margaret Taylor let them take up residence in the garden summerhouse.[76] In May 1949 Thomas and his family moved to his final home, the Boat House at Laugharne purchased for him at a cost of £2,500 in April 1949 by Margaret Taylor.[77] Thomas acquired a garage a hundred yards from the house on a cliff ledge which he turned into his writing shed, and where he wrote several of his most acclaimed poems.[78] Just before moving into there, Thomas rented "Pelican House" opposite his regular drinking den, Brown's Hotel, for his parents[79][80] who lived there from 1949 until 1953. It was there that his father died and the funeral was held.[81] Caitlin gave birth to their third child, a boy named Colm Garan Hart, on 25 July 1949.[82]

American tours, 1950–1953

John Brinnin invited Thomas to New York, where in 1950 they embarked on a lucrative three-month tour of arts centres and campuses.[83] The tour, which began in front of an audience of a thousand at the Kaufmann Auditorium of the Poetry Centre in New York, took in about 40 venues.[84][85][nb 6] During the tour Thomas was invited to many parties and functions and on several occasions became drunk - going out of his way to shock people - and was a difficult guest.[86] Thomas drank before some of his readings, though it is argued he may have pretended to be more affected by it than he actually was.[87] The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled how intoxicating a performer he was and how the tension would build before a performance: "Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene?"[9] Caitlin said in her memoir, "Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it."[9]

On returning to Britain Thomas began work on two further poems, "In the white giant's thigh", which he read on the Third Programme in September 1950, and the incomplete "In country heaven".[88] 1950 is also believed to be the year that he began work on 'Under Milk Wood', under the working title 'The Town That Was Mad'.[89] The task of seeing this work through to production was assigned to the BBC's Douglas Cleverdon, who had been responsible for casting Thomas in 'Paradise Lost'.[90] Despite Cleverdon's urges, the script slipped from Thomas's priorities and in early 1951 he took a trip to Iran to work on a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The film was never made, with Thomas returning to Wales in February, though his time there allowed him to provide a few minutes of material for a BBC documentary entitled 'Persian Oil'.[91] Early that year Thomas wrote two poems, which Ferris describes as "unusually blunt"; the ribald "Lament" and an ode, in the form of a villanelle, to his dying father "Do not go gentle into that good night".[92]

Despite a range of wealthy patrons, including Margaret Taylor, Princess Marguerite Caetani and Marged Howard-Stepney, Thomas was still in financial difficulty, and he wrote several begging letters to notable literary figures including the likes of T. S. Eliot.[93] Taylor was not keen on Thomas taking another trip to the United States, and thought that if Thomas had a permanent address in London he would be able to gain steady work there.[94] She bought a property, 54 Delancey Street, in Camden Town, and in late 1951 Thomas and Caitlin lived in the basement flat.[95] Thomas would describe the flat as his "London house of horror" and did not return there after his 1952 tour of America.[96]

Thomas undertook a second tour of the United States in 1952, this time with Caitlin - after she had discovered he had been unfaithful on his earlier trip.[97] They drank heavily, and Thomas began to suffer with gout and lung problems. The second tour was the most intensive of the four, taking in 46 engagements.[98] The trip also resulted in Thomas recording his first poetry to vinyl, which Caedmon Records released in America later that year.[99] One of his works recorded during this time, A Child's Christmas in Wales, became his most popular prose work in America.[63] The original 1952 recording of A Child's Christmas in Wales was a 2008 selection for the United States National Recording Registry, stating that it is "credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States".[100]

In April 1953 Thomas returned alone for a third tour of America.[101] He performed a "work in progress" version of Under Milk Wood, solo, for the first time at Harvard University on 3 May.[102] A week later the work was performed with a full cast at the Poetry Centre in New York. He met the deadline only after being locked in a room by Brinnin's assistant, Liz Reitell, and was still editing the script on the afternoon of the performance; its last lines were handed to the actors as they put on their makeup.[103][104] In the wake of the play's US success, the composer Stravinsky invited Thomas to write a libretto for an opera.[104] Thomas spent the last nine or ten days of his third tour in New York mostly in the company of Reitell, with whom he had an affair.[105] During this time Thomas fractured his arm falling down a flight of stairs when drunk. Reitell's doctor, Milton Feltenstein, put his arm in plaster and treated him for gout and gastritis.[105]

After returning home, Thomas worked on Under Milk Wood in Wales before sending the original manuscript to Douglas Cleverdon on 15 October 1953. It was copied and returned to Thomas, who lost it in a pub in London and required a duplicate to take to America.[106][107] Thomas flew to the States on 19 October 1953 for what would be his final tour.[106] He died in New York before the BBC could record "Under Milk Wood".[108][109] Richard Burton starred in the first broadcast in 1954, and was joined by Elizabeth Taylor in a subsequent film.[110] In 1954 the play won the Prix Italia for literary or dramatic programmes.[nb 7]

Thomas's last collection Collected Poems, 1934–1952, published when he was 38, won the Foyle poetry prize.[112] Reviewing the volume, critic Philip Toynbee declared that "Thomas is the greatest living poet in the English language".[104] Thomas's father died from pneumonia just before Christmas 1952. In the first few months of 1953 his sister died from liver cancer, one of his patrons took an overdose of sleeping pills, three friends died at an early age and Caitlin had an abortion.[113]


And death shall have no dominion. Dead men naked they shall be one With the man in the wind and the west moon; When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.

“ ” From "And death shall have no dominion" Twenty-five Poems (1936)

Thomas arrived in New York on 20 October 1953 to undertake another tour of poetry reading and talks, organised by Brinnin.[nb 8] He was ill, complaining of chest trouble and gout while still in Britain, though there is no record he received medical treatment for either condition.[114][nb 9] He was in a melancholy mood about the trip and his health was poor, relying on an inhaler to aid his breathing and there were reports that he was suffering from blackouts.[115][116] His visit to say goodbye to BBC producer Philip Burton, a few days before he left for New York, was interrupted by a blackout. On his last night in London, he had another, in the company of his fellow poet Louis MacNeice. The next day, he visited a doctor for a smallpox vaccination certificate.[117]

His first appearance was planned to be at a rehearsal of Under Milk Wood at the Poetry Centre. Brinnin, who was director of the Poetry Centre, did not travel to New York but remained in Boston to write.[118] He handed responsibility to his assistant, Liz Reitell, who was keen to see Thomas for the first time since their three-week romance early in the year. She met Thomas at Idlewild Airport and was shocked at his appearance, as he "looked pale, delicate and shaky, not his usual robust self."[116] Thomas told her he had had a terrible week, had missed her terribly and wanted to go to bed with her. Despite Reitell's previous misgivings about their relationship, they spent the rest of the day and night together. After being taken by Reitell to check in at the Chelsea Hotel, Thomas took the first rehearsal of Under Milk Wood. They then went to the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, before returning to the Chelsea Hotel.[119]

The next day she invited him to her apartment but he declined. They went sight-seeing, but Thomas was unwell and retired to his bed for the rest of the afternoon. Reitell gave him half a grain (32.4 milligrams) of phenobarbitone to help him sleep and spent the night at the hotel with him. Two days later, on 23 October, Herb Hannum, a friend from an earlier trip, noticed how sick Thomas looked and suggested an appointment with Feltenstein before the performances of Under Milk Wood that evening. Feltenstein administered injections and Thomas made it through the two performances, but collapsed immediately afterwards.[120] Reitell later said that Feltenstein was "rather a wild doctor who thought injections would cure anything".[121]

On the evening of 27 October, Thomas attended his 39th birthday party but felt unwell and returned to his hotel after an hour.[122] The next day he took part in Poetry And The Film, a recorded symposium at Cinema 16, with panellists Amos Vogel, Arthur Miller, Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, and Willard Maas.[122][123]

A turning point came on 2 November. Air pollution in New York had risen significantly and exacerbated chest illnesses, such as Thomas had. By the end of the month, over 200 New Yorkers had died from the smog.[116] On 3 November, Thomas spent most of the day in bed drinking.[124] He went out in the evening to keep two drink appointments. After returning to the hotel, he went out again for a drink at 2 am. After drinking at the White Horse, a pub he had found through Scottish poet Ruthven Todd, Thomas returned to the Hotel Chelsea, declaring, "I've had 18 straight whiskies. I think that's the record!"[124] The barman and the owner of the pub who served him later commented that Thomas could not have imbibed more than half that amount.[125] Thomas had an appointment at a clam house in New Jersey with Todd on 4 November.[126] When phoned at the Chelsea that morning, he said he was feeling ill and postponed the engagement. Later he went drinking with Reitell at the White Horse and, feeling sick again, returned to the hotel.[127] Feltenstein came to see him three times that day, administering the steroid ACTH by injection and, on his third visit, half a grain (32.4 milligrams) of morphine sulphate, which affected his breathing. Reitell became increasingly concerned and telephoned Feltenstein for advice. He suggested she get male assistance, so she called upon the painter Jack Heliker, who arrived before 11 pm.[126] At midnight on 5 November, Thomas's breathing became more difficult and his face turned blue.[126] An ambulance was summoned.[128][nb 10]

Thomas was admitted to the emergency ward at St Vincent's Hospital at 1:58 am. He was comatose, and his medical notes state that the "impression upon admission was acute alcoholic encephalopathy damage to the brain by alcohol, for which the patient was treated without response".[129] Caitlin flew to America the following day and was taken to the hospital, by which time a tracheotomy had been performed. Her reported first words were, "Is the bloody man dead yet?"[129] She was allowed to see Thomas only for 40 minutes in the morning [130] but returned in the afternoon and, in a drunken rage, threatened to kill Brinnin. When she became uncontrollable, she was put in a straitjacket and committed, by Feltenstein, to the River Crest private psychiatric detox clinic on Long Island.[131]

Thomas died at noon on 9 November, still in a coma. A post mortem gave the primary cause of death as pneumonia, with pressure on the brain and a fatty liver as contributing factors.[129][132]


Rumours circulated of a brain haemorrhage, followed by competing reports that he had been mugged and even that he had drunk himself to death.[129] Later, there was speculation about drugs and diabetes. At the post-mortem, the pathologist found three causes of death – pneumonia, brain swelling and a fatty liver. Despite his heavy drinking his liver showed no sign of cirrhosis.[132]

Dylan's legacy as the "doomed poet" was cemented with the publication of Brinnin's 1955 biography Dylan Thomas in America, which focuses on his last few years and paints a picture of him as a drunk and a philanderer.[133] Later biographies are critical of Brinnin's view, especially his coverage of Thomas's death. David Thomas in Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas? claims that Brinnin, along with Reitell and Feltenstein, were culpable.[118] FitzGibbon's 1965 biography ignores Thomas's heavy drinking and skims over his death, giving just two pages in his detailed book to Thomas's demise. Ferris in his 1989 biography includes Thomas's heavy drinking, but is more critical of those around him in his final days and does not draw the conclusion that he drank himself to death. Feltenstein's role and actions have been criticised by many sources, especially his incorrect diagnosis of delirium tremens and the high dose of morphine he administered.[134] Dr B. W. Murphy and Dr C. G. de Gutierrez-Mahoney, the doctors who treated Thomas while at St. Vincents, concluded that Feltenstein's failure to see that Thomas was gravely ill and have him admitted to hospital sooner, "was even more culpable than his use of morphine".[135]

Following his death, Thomas's body was brought back to Wales for burial in the village churchyard at Laugharne.[136] Thomas's funeral, which Brinnin did not attend, took place at St Martin's Church in Laugharne on 24 November. Thomas's coffin was carried by six friends from the village.[137] Caitlin, without her customary hat, walked behind the coffin, with his childhood friend Daniel Jones at her arm and her mother by her side.[138][139] The procession to the church was filmed and the wake took place at Brown's Hotel.[138][140] Thomas's obituary in The Times was written by fellow poet and long-time friend Vernon Watkins.[141]

His widow, Caitlin, died in 1994 and was buried alongside him.[34] Thomas's father "DJ" died on 16 December 1952 and his mother Florence in August 1958. Thomas's elder son, Llewelyn, died in 2000, his daughter, Aeronwy in 2009 and his youngest son Colm in 2012.[136][142][143]

Caitlin Thomas's autobiographies, Caitlin Thomas – Leftover Life to Kill (1957) and My Life with Dylan Thomas: Double Drink Story (1997), describe the destructive effect of alcoholism on the poet and to their relationship. "But ours was a drink story, not a love story, just like millions of others. Our one and only true love was drink", she wrote[144] and "The bar was our altar".[145] Biographer Andrew Lycett ascribed the demise of Thomas's health to an alcoholic co-dependent relationship with his wife, who deeply resented his extramarital affairs.[146] Thomas died intestate with assets to the value of £100.[147]

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