The Life of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation
Mr. Constantine FitzGibbon’s biography of Dylan Thomas is sensible, modest and careful, unlike its subject. Mr. FitzGibbon is aware of a danger in the biographer’s path, that of “the assumption of excessive knowledgeability.” “An early biographer of Goethe,” he writes, “is said to have written: ‘Goethe told Eckermann that of all his mistresses it was Lili whom he had loved the most. Here Goethe was wrong.’ I should prefer to avoid such judicial pronouncements.” He generally does avoid them and maintains what Albert Camus praised: “the reserve that befits a good witness.”
There is one curious slip—damaging to Caitlin Thomas—which ought to be corrected, especially as it has been given wider currency by a reviewer in The New York Times. Mr. FitzGibbon makes Mrs. Thomas, on her arrival in New York during the poet’s last illness, enquire, “Is the bloody man dead yet?” What she actually said, according to the man whom she addressed—J.M. Brinnin, a witness whom Mr. FitzGibbon explicitly endorses as “reliable as to the facts when he was present”—was this: “Why didn’t you write to me? Is the bloody man dead or alive?” (Dylan Thomas In America, p. 285). This, though the conventional may find it lacking in decorum, does not give at all the impression of brutality inseparable from the wording imputed by Mr. FitzGibbon (certainly without hostile intent—he does his best to excuse it). But the slip, though not insignificant, is not characteristic of the biography, which is generally carefully written.
For a biographer, especially the biographer of a Welshman, Mr. FitzGibbon is a little too literal-minded, and lacks feeling for the possibilities of inconsistency and contradiction. Thus he writes:
Mr. Robert Pocock has written. “I only once heard Dylan express an opinion on Welsh Nationalism. He used three words. Two of them were Welsh Nationalism.” He would hardly have used that third word if he had been brought up with any particular respect for the Welsh language.
This is a non-sequitur. He might have used that third word if he had been brought up with too much respect for the Welsh language or he might have been brought up with respect for the Welsh language but with contempt for political Welsh nationalism. Or he might be—I think he probably was—divided in his feelings about Welshness, unwilling to discuss these at that particular time with that particular person, and in a mood to change the subject as explosively as possible. Since his father, to whom he was so deeply attached, christened him Dylan Marlais we may safely assume that the Welsh national tradition meant something important to both of them. Mr. FitzGibbon recognized that Dylan Thomas was “proud of being Welsh,” but this biographical treatment of his Welshness, and its relation to his life and work, is insensitive and therefore inadequate. The Life of Dylan Thomas will please those who feel that the biographer who tries to penetrate much below the surface of the life is presumptuous and unwise. There is something to be said for this point of view: the over-analytical biographer can be a mighty bore and Mr. FitzGibbon avoids this fault. Unfortunately while avoiding it, he virtually abdicates from what should be the central function of the biographer of a writer: that of attempting to relate the life to the work. This attempt must always be a highly speculative enterprise, abounding in pitfalls and calling for the exercise of both subtlety and audacity. But what is a biography of Dylan Thomas, if it does not seriously attempt this task? The implications of this question, and of the answer which I think forces itself on us, are disquieting in relation to our society’s attitude to writers. The biography is—necessarily, at its level—a long chronicle of drinking-bouts, adulteries, money troubles and rows. Why is this chronicle of interest, as it obviously is, to a wide public? The answer is the Dylan Legend, sustained during the poet’s lifetime by organized episodes, like that, after a reading in Vancouver, of which Mr. FitzGibbon quotes the following eye-witness description:
And then a vulturous descent of reporters fell on our party. No reporter could believe that Thomas wanted to do anything but get drunk as rapidly as possible. A photographer arrived. The waiters were apparently tipped to set up a table in another room with dozens of tumblers full of beer on it. Dylan was lured away to it on the pretext of a phone call, photographed without warning for local posterity, like a pig in a swill pen, and exhorted to pour our thin ale down his gullet while more cameras clicked. In the end he complied, of course, as much out of amiability as out of alcoholism.
It gives me momentary relief to turn from this scene to Mr. Holbrook’s book.
Mr. David Holbrook is brash where Mr. FitzGibbon is modest; priggish and pedantic where Mr. FitzGibbon is tolerant and urbane. Nonetheless, Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation is a more interesting book than The Life of Dylan Thomas, and this is precisely because Mr. Holbrook is concerned with the poetry, rather than with the external details of the life. This interest is largely hostile. He tells us that Dylan Thomas’s popularity and his wide sales
are less an index of a revival of poetry than an indication that the poetic sensibility, in poet and reader, has become yet more dissociated in our time and that poetry itself reflects the general schizoid tendencies of our time.
Most of Thomas’s work, for Mr. Holbrook, is not poetry but an “imitation of poetry”; the poet himself is an “eternal infant” who succeeds in the “astonishing ploy” of inducing his audience to adopt towards him the all-forgiving attitude of a mother to a child. He sees in Thomas’s kind of success a sign of the sickness of his audience:
…he was taken up for those very weaknesses of his personality and encouraged to develop the very traits which destroyed him and his talents. This is the strange feature of Dylan Thomas’s notoriety—not that he is bogus but that attitudes to poetry attached themselves to him which not only threaten the prestige, effectiveness and accessibility of English poetry but also destroyed his true voice and, at last, him.
Mr. Holbrook discusses in detail Thomas’s use of language, assailing him, with examples, for the apparently pointless transpositions in which he sees “a child-like magical routine.” Under Milk Wood was successful because it was “essentially unreal and untender and full of seamy hints, obscenities.” It has “a permitted daftness that by being a light relief from the dead dullness of everyday language in suburban England, leaves undisturbed this very deadness itself.” Thomas’s famous “vitality,” for Mr. Holbrook, is “really an abrogation of control over language, so that communication breaks down in a scattered plethora of random expressions as merely extravagant as a child’s random babble.”
Mr. Holbrook’s indictment has its own forms of extravagance. His attitude to Thomas’s personality is excessively self-righteous. I find much more attractive the attitude expressed in Norman Cameron’s poem, “The Dirty Little Accuser,” the full text of which is in Mr. FitzGibbon’s book:
Who wanted him? What was he doing here?
That insolent little ruffian that crapulous lout?…
With a cigarette on his lip and a shiny snout
With a hint: “You and I are all in the same galere”…
Now that the little accuser is gone of course
We shall never be able to answer his accusation
In his critique of the poetry, also, Mr. Holbrook is too much the attorney for the plaintiff, English Literature. There is something comic about a man who goes round worrying about the “prestige”—in whose eyes?—of English poetry. This is in the line of Chesterton’s literary peer:
Lord Lilac thought it rather rotten
That Shakespeare should be quite forgotten.
It is also odd that a man who feels such a fierce, almost avaricious, concern for the heritage of the English language should express that concern in this kind of English:
The responsiveness to language which the writing and reading of literature demand is that which knows language to be a means to living in a civilized way rather than merely existing as penitent brutes.
Priggish and uncouth though it is, Mr. Holbrook’s book is also honest and courageous. The cult of “Dylan” is excessive, and its relation to poetry dubious: there is much meaningless bombast and pointless trickery in Thomas’s verse; great as his promise was, fine though a few of his poems are, his actual achievement is far from warranting his present reputation. It was time that someone said these things plainly, and it is perhaps not surprising that the person who says such things plainly should be liable to say them in an annoying way.
The bourgeois fascination with the Bohemian—the driving force of the cult of “Dylan”—is made up of envy, voyeurism, and a desire to debase. When Malcolm Muggeridge, in his role of cultural pander, presented the late Brendan Behan literally speechlessly drunk on television he rightly calculated that many of the audience would be better pleased by this exhibition than they would have been by an exhibition of the art by which Behan won his reputation—the art of using words. The pleased part of the audience was not interested in his use of words, other than four-letter words: it was interested in degrading “a famous writer” with the help of Mr. Muggeridge. This kind of interest, the maximum response of minimum attention, killed Behan as it killed Thomas, before either the Irishman or the Welshman could fulfil his promise. It is true that they could not have been killed in this way had they been free from an impulse to self-destruction or from the sincere and spontaneous and deep-rooted Celtic devotion to sheer booze for its own sake. But that impulse and devotion could none the less have left them some time to live and write—as Verlaine had the help of the copious free drink so kindly provided by people like Mr. Muggeridge.
Why should such things be? Is it that “the people” demand such spectacles? In one sense they do—the sense in which most people gape at a drunk, any drunk. But who selects the drunks they get to gape at? More concretely, if a minor royalty or leading member of the Federation of British Industries had come to the B.B.C. studio fairly drunk, as Behan came, what would the studio have done? Would they have kept him off the air altogether, or tried to sober him up, or could they—conceivably—have made him much drunker, for sport. The last is what they did with Behan; they would, I think, have done the same with Thomas: I do not believe they would have done it with a member of the ruling class. It is true that Mr. Muggeridge might have tried—he has a certain streak of gratuitous diabolism, which is the nearest thing to a saving grace I can discern in his character. But Mr. Muggeridge would not, I think, have been given his head in relation to someone judged by the Establishment to be important. And the same considerations would apply in this country. A society which gives lip-service to art and culture in fact despises its artists, and allows or encourages the media to turn them, if they can, into butts in a horrible nation-wide game of Blind Man’s Buff. Followed, even more horribly, by a posthumous Cult.
All this, of course, is among the grandeurs and miseries of freedom. The Muggeridges are free in their way, more free than they would be in other cultures than our Western one, to enjoy, and share, their own idea of fun, except at the expense of persons judged of real importance. And the artists are free to write well; also, if they want to become quickly and widely known, and to make some money, they are free to be muggeridged. People in our organized industrial society have mixed feelings about freedom. It is generally praised, like art and, like art, not widely enjoyed. Cramped in his position in some financial, commercial, or industrial structure, organized man tends to envy the freedom of the unorganized writer, and to envisage that freedom in crass and coarse terms. The self-caricaturing, self-destroying writer, like Thomas or Behan, plays out that envied, loose-lived freedom and also displays its punishment; the organized, clean, sober-on-the-job and sexually cautious may well envy the spectacle of the crudely free—dirty, drunk and bawdy—and be at the same time confirmed in conformity by seeing the degradation and ruin that follow on freedom. The spectacle is something between a morality play and a form of social therapy, approved by our rulers. Respectful to his social betters according to the real values of the money society, the organized man is likely to enjoy the pleasure of treating with vicarious disrespect those who would be his betters according to the professed values of that society; the creative imaginations.
Those who react in this way to their social situation, get a kick out of seeing “Dylan” drunk, and therefore exaggerate his importance as a writer, once he has drunk himself to death. Our form of society has finally succeeded in patenting the conformist voyeur, or Peeping Uncle Tom.
Dylan Thomas February 3, 1966