Dylan Thomas, His Life and Work
The Days of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation
When Dylan Thomas’s work first appeared and made its immediate impact, in the mid-Thirties, it was at once assimilated to “modernity” as the term was then understood: to the classic techniques of modern poetry from Le Bateau Ivre through The Waste Land, to the search for a language that acted in its own right rather than indicating action, and above all to Surrealism, which hit London in a wave of razzmatazz at just that time. This assimilation was largely mistaken, though it was no doubt inevitable, given the taste, preoccupations, and equipment of most critics. It was mistaken because it ignored the fact that Thomas was a Welshman—ignored it, that is, beyond an occasional nod in the direction of “rhetoric” and “intoxication with language.” In fact, Thomas’s Welshness is very near the heart of his work.
How near? This became the crucial question for critics of his work from Deaths and Entrances onward. It is still far from being settled. Twenty years ago, some commentators were pointing to affinities between Thomas’s verse techniques and those of classical Welsh poetry, so that Cynghanedd-spotting become, for some of his admirers, almost a parlor-game. Meanwhile another faction among Thomas’s critics, including both the hostile and the friendly, dismissed the inference as professional Welshry and pointed triumphantly to Thomas’s own ignorance of Welsh.
The question has an importance that goes far beyond the mere problem of whether or not a poet was influenced by a minority tradition. As the world shrinks to a village, local traditions become increasingly more important. If there is no essential difference between Paris and New York, if Manchester is the same as Stuttgart, humanity founders in a desert of boredom in which the sudden discovery of local idiom, regional idiosyncrasy, the tang of life in one fold of the mountains rather than in another, comes as a desperately needed oasis. In the railway age, minority languages such as Irish or Welsh appeared to be doomed. Homogenization attracted the men of the time because they had not yet tasted its Dead Sea fruit. So that Matthew Arnold could speak admiringly of “the tone of the center.” Now we are at that center, we can see the whole pitiful delusion of a “central” idiom for what it is. The search for local roots goes on more and more urgently, and every sensitive modern man has two polarities: one to the broad social and economic area that he lives in, with its attendant politics and mores; the other to his native region.
This makes Thomas a test-case. Wales, like Ireland, has been split into two different countries, largely by the pressure of England: a North Wales, conservative, rural, largely Welshspeaking, and a South Wales, Anglicized, its Welsh language forgotten in the towns, its urban, culture indistinguishable from the modern urban culture of England—football pools, pop records, and the telly. Thomas was a child of urban South Wales, his father a teacher of English literature, his education and background entirely contained within the South Welsh orbit so deftly described in his own comic stories or in a novel like Kingsley Amis’s That Uncertain Feeling. Why bother then, with his Welshness at all? Why not take him simply as a poet writing in English?
The trouble is that most of the critical squabbling about Thomas fails to spread light for the very reason that the contestants, without knowing it, are arguing not about poetry but about national character. Thomas’s poetry has long attracted both swooning admiration and brutal hostility, and the partisans of each side have a curious similarity of tone. The hostile critics, from Geoffrey Grigson to Robert Graves, attack Thomas’s work on grounds that are exactly the same as those of the traditional English distrust of the Welsh—for the English teach their children a nursery rhyme which begins,
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
and speak of an absconding bookie as “welshing.” What these critics (reinforced, inevitably, by the passengers in the Leavisite charabanc) cannot bear about Thomas is his Welshness: the open emotionalism, the large verbal gestures which seem to them mere rant, the rapt pleasure in elaborate craftsmanship, and above all the bardic tone. English poets are never bardic; even Shakespeare is only called “the bard” in facetious after-dinner speeches.
When Dylan Thomas died, his life-long friend Vernon Watkins wrote an obituary notice in The Times in which he said: “No poet of the English language has so hoodwinked and confuted his critics. None has ever worn more brilliantly the mask of anarchy to conceal the true face of tradition.” As Dr. Johnson said, no man is under oath in an epitaph, and many Englishmen would shrug this off as one Welsh poet’s oration over another. I myself take it, rather, as the simplification of an important truth. Granted that Thomas didn’t understand Welsh, had never studied cynghanedd, cywydd, or englyn, and grew up in a suburban street against a background of bread lines and Woolworths. But ancestry is not so easily buried. He was born into a smashed Welsh culture, but a smashed Welsh culture is still not an English culture. Thomas spoke with a voice that came from what he called “the ancient woods of my blood.”
The quotation from Watkins’s obituary of Thomas comes from John Ackerman’s Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work, a careful and useful book which puts together the evidence for Thomas’s relationship with a specifically Welsh literary culture and leaves the reader free to decide. Precise and rather stodgy in tone (a refurbished university thesis, perhaps?) the book seems to me just about the most helpful general study of Thomas to have appeared, ideal for the reader who expects criticism not to entertain or to provoke him but to help him to get a clearer picture of the work in question. In particular it is rich in illuminating quotation. For instance, Mr. Ackerman quotes from a review by Stephen Spender of the Collected Poems, which Thomas called “the clearest, most sympathetic, and, in my opinion, truest review that I have ever seen of my writing.” Among other things, Spender says that Thomas’s writing is a revolt
…against the Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard intellectualism of much modern poetry in the English language; against the King’s English of London and the South, which has become a correct idiom capable of refinements of beauty but incapable of harsh effects, coarse texture and violent colors.
This judgment is accurate. Thomas, with his deeply divided nature, was an archetype of the modern poet and of the modern man. He needed both country and city, both roots and drifting, both faith and unbelief; he needed to be, in his own famous formulation, both “lost and proud” and “found and humble”; he needed his wife and children and he also needed trollops and tearaways. Very nearly all modern poetry shows the same divisions and doubleness, but its authors, being intellectuals, resolve (or appear to resolve) the recurrent conflict by some kind of intellectual system or by means of the all-pervading obliqueness and irony that marks modern literature. Thomas has no intellectual system and no irony. He states with maximum force what he is feeling at the moment. And this is a Welsh trait which strikes the reserved and ironic English as insincerity. Awed belief in God in one poem, arrogant worship of the flesh in the next—the English critic searches for consistency, a “mature” outlook, balance: not finding them, he dismisses the poetry as childish. But what is childishness? The Welsh are an ancient people, yet “time holds them green and dying.” Poetry is not a manual of intellectual good manners.
Thomas was a bard, and bards are not ironic or intellectual, do not use the “tone of the center,” are not bound to consistency in their attitudes. His first major poem, the Elegy for Ann Jones, reconciles the bardic tone with realistic observation in a way that was to remain central to his work. The youthful poet, who stays behind after the mourners have gone, in “a room with a stuffed fox and a stale fern,” is “Ann’s bard on a raised hearth,” even though that hearth is not the bardic dais but merely the fireplace of a Welsh “front room.” Like all major elegies, the poem deals with immortality; to Thomas, immortality was manifested in the biological renewal of life by means of love, and the memory of Ann Jones will
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
The hideous properties of a late-Victorian parlor, stuffed fox and stale fern, are orchestrated into the bardic vision of life in its endless delighted renewal. The bard is also the cub reporter in his pork-pie hat, and both are genuinely present. In Auden or Betjeman, this reconciliation of opposites might be done by irony; in Thomas, it is done by the fierce heat and lava-flow of the language.
Thomas’s poetry celebrates ultimates. He had no truck with vers de societé, verse letters, or poetic argufying. Nevertheless, bardic fashion, he was highly responsive to the stimulus of an occasion. A high proportion of his work is concerned with somebody’s death, or birthday, or wedding anniversary. His own birthdays at twenty-four, thirty, and thirty-five sparked off three of his best poems. His poem to his dying father, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” is doubly occasional, inspired not only by his father’s impending death but also by his own urgent wish for some utterance, some show of passion before death closes in:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Similarly with the war elegies. It has been urged against Thomas’s war poems that they do not comprehend the complex suffering and tragedy of the war as a whole, but merely confine themselves to ornate laments over individual victims. The argument is mean-minded. It also misses the point of all elegies for the victims of violent death, from Lycidas to Randall Jarrell’s ball-turret gunner. The bardic poet, in particular, channels his and our solemn grief through his lament over one specific person; and in his poems about the victims of air-raids, Thomas utters as a bard in full singing-robes. The opening lines of “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” set the tone immediately:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling dark- ness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
Rhetorically, this is built in a series of arches. The darkness, which does all the things enumerated in the first three lines, marks the first arch with its verb “tells”; the others are the verbs “must” and “shall” which indicate the part played by the “I” of the poem. The lines are a superb example of what the grammarians call “suspension”; the opening lines of Paradise Lost give another example, also from a bardic poet who wished to begin his poem with a sustained rhetorical peal. In Thomas’s poem, the “I” begins by accepting his own kinship with all created life; he, like the child and like everything else, will go back to his anonymous immortality among the “long friends, the grains beyond age.” The drop of water and the ear of corn are both sacred; since water is the more final, irreducible substance, it offers a truer point of rest and is therefore “Zion,” the ultimate holy place, whereas the ear of corn is the temporary and symbolic “synagogue.” Since the poet begins by acknowledging that he will share the child’s fate and that this fate is universal, he raises his lament above the level of a private expression of grief and turns it into a ceremony, an impression heightened by the solemnity of the slow-moving verse and the liberal use of Biblical echoes. The child’s death is the prelude to one more in the endless cycle of renewals (“After the first death, there is no other”); we are reminded of the “Man Aged a Hundred,” also killed in a raid, who dropped amid “the funeral grains of the slaughtered floor.”
The bard’s function is to turn a private occasion into a public ceremony, in which others may join and thus formalize their grief or joy, making these emotions easier to control and share with others. To achieve this, Thomas is capable of converting his single presence into a multiple, impersonal one; “Ann’s bard on a raised hearth” can, if he wishes, become a whole train of mourners, as in “Ceremony After a Fire Raid”:
Among the street burned to tire- less death
A child of a few hours
With its kneading mouth
Charred on the black breast of the grave
The mother dug, and its arms full of fires.
And Thomas’s “ultimate stature”? Will his reputation, after all its feverish ups and downs, settle down and leave him in an undisputed position—say, somewhere below Shelley but above Crabbe? I rather hope not. Poetry like this, with all its fierce inconsistencies, is more use as it stalks the world and provokes arguments. And certainly the books “about” Thomas are useful in proportion to their concreteness. The Days of Dylan Thomas will be particularly helpful to a reader who feels the attraction of Thomas’s poetry but has no clear mental picture of Welsh life. For here, in excellent photographs and an adequate accompanying text, is the record of Thomas’s physical pilgrimage—where he lived, what sights were familiar to him, and what people he knew. The pictures of relatives are alone worth the money. Here is the whole grain of that difficult, despairing, rejoicing life.
That grain will not be found in Mr. Holbrook’s performance, a sour little book devoted to one more of its author’s attempts to discredit Thomas as man and artist. Mr. Holbrook’s theme is that Thomas wrote the poetry of “dissociated phantasy,” that for various psychological reasons he could not bear adult reality and made of his art an elaborate device for fending it off. Mr. Holbrook patronizes Thomas with the confidence of one who knows beyond doubt what this “reality” consists of; in a cursory reference to Wales, he even tells us that Thomas saw nothing but a “toy-town Wales” and missed everything of importance there; so lightly is the whole ancestral and social complex brushed aside. Those who don’t share Mr. Holbrook’s faith in his own superiority will hardly agree with Harry T. Moore, the general editor of the series, who in a strangely blustering Foreword describes the book as “a shock,” “a challenge,” and “an important revaluation.” To me, it just looks like bad-tempered and envious priggery, garnished with some quotations from text-books on psychology. Still, I got one or two good laughs from it; look at Footnote 6 to Chapter 1 and then imagine the lovely blast of Celtic mockery with which Thomas would have greeted it.
Thomas’s poetry is as vulnerable as his life. Its defects are glaringly obvious. Yet it stands up. The man was tragically dispersed, the poet single and devoted. In every poem Thomas left, there is the strength of his belief in poetry, which comes out in the powerful rhythms, the vigor and ardor of assertion, the unashamed profusion of imagery. He may have found life impossible to manage, but he never wavered in his gratitude to it for being there:
Ancient woods of my blood, dash down to the nut of the seas
If I take to burn or return this world which is each man’s work.