Dylan Thomas, His Life and Work
by John Ackerman
Oxford, 201 pp., $5.75
The Days of Dylan Thomas
by Bill Read, by Rollie McKenna
McGraw-Hill, 192 pp., $1.95 (paper)
Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation
by David Holbrook
Southern Illinois University Press, 182 pp., $4.50
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 …