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Old Pup

Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas

edited and with commentary by Constantine Fitzgibbon
New Directions, 432 pp., $8.50

A Concordance to The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas

by R.C. Williams
University of Nebraska, 592 pp., $6.95

MY LORD,—I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter with the 100£ inclosed. What can I say? Till a Friend and House-mate addressed me at my bedside, with—’You have had a letter franked by Lord Byron? Is it from him?‘ I had, as it were, forgotten that I was myself the object of your kindness—so completely lost was I in thinking of the thing itself and the manner in which it was done.

Whether, my Lord, it shall be a loan or not, depends on circumstances not in my powers tho’ in my hope and expectation. Thank God! this is of the least importance—the debt and the pleasure of love and gratitude stand unaffected by anything accidental.

S. T. Coleridge
to Lord Byron, 1816

Dear Lawrence,

I forgot to thank you for the pound, crisper than celery, and sweeter than sugar oh the lovely sound, not through ingratitude, it’s as welcome as a woman is cleft, but through work (half a poem about energy), sloth (in a chair looking at my feet or the mirror or unread novels or counting the patterns on the floor to see if I can work out a system for my football pools or watching my wife knit or dance), depression (because mostly, there weren’t more pounds from more people)….

Dylan Thomas
to Lawrence Durrell, 1939

The begging and thank-you letters from poet to patrons make up a considerable genre of literature. Michael Innes in one of his learned thrillers invented a sinister millionaire who collected only such Mss. He would have found much of interest in the correspondence of Dylan Thomas, who from the age of twenty-three to his death at thirty-nine, mentions money in almost every letter. “Great demands are of the parasite,” he writes to Henry Treece in 1938, explaining what a difficult way of life he had chosen. He was right to choose absolute freedom from a career and regular office hours, in order to get time for poetry; but his life needn’t have been all that difficult. He seems to have been generously supported by his parents who threw in a beer allowance until at twenty he became a famous poet; he found kind patrons, public and private, earned a bit from film scripts and radio broadcasts and a great deal from his American tours. But he spent so fast that he was always in debt and compelled to scribble, desperate wheedling letters to anyone who might help.

THIS SELECTION would be even more monotonous in tone and theme if Constantine Fitzgibbon had not omitted a great many other letters about money, as he tells us. On other subjects, the most interesting are the letters written to Vernon Watkins, discussing in detail his poems of the 1930s as he wrote them; but since these have been in print since 1957, Fitzgibbon has included only four. Also on the subject of poetry there is the long correspondence with Henry Treece: parts of this have been available since Treece incorporated them in his book on thomas (1949), but it is very good to have the whole, or nearly the whole, text. That there should be omissions is inevitable, since the young dog often bit the hand that fed him, and had the lowest possible opinions of his literary contemporaries. But some of the omissions are odd: for example, Fitzgibbon quotes in his Life of Dylan Thomas (1965) parts of fourteen letters to Mrs. Caitlin Thomas, to whom that biography is dedicated; not one of these appears in the present selection. The prize of the book is a very long excerpt of the correspondence with Pamela Hansford Johnson (Lady Snow), which has never appeared before, except for quotations in Fitzgibbon’s Life. This coincides with Thomas’s first great creative period, 1933-34, and tells us a great deal about the workings of his imagination while he was writing the bulk of Eighteen Poems. No critical study of Thomas’s poetry can do without these letters, yet William T. Moynihan writes in the Preface to his scholarly and perceptive The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas (1966): “I was greatly hampered by the refusal of New Directions to allow me to quote from Thomas’ notebooks on his unpublished correspondence. Hence I regrettably had to employ more paraphrase, I hope not circumlocution, than I would have liked.” A pity, since Moynihan would have quoted from the manuscripts accurately, just as Ralph Maud will surely edit the Notebooks with scholarly precision (to be published in the fall of this year). But in Fitzgibbon’s selection one can have no confidence that the text represents what Thomas wrote.

This doubt comes from collation of the Selected Letters with Fitzgibbon’s Life. It can be seen at once that there are many minor differences in the use of capitals, italics, hyphens, and perhaps these do not matter too much. But in several cases the words are quite different, e.g., in the painful and significant letter headed “Sunday morning” which must be late May 1934. To start with, the suggested day of the month differs: Letters has ?26th May, Life 27th, which was in fact a Sunday. Next, Life has this account of an escapade which greatly distressed Pamela and Dylan:

I stayed in Gower with—, who was a friend of mine in the waster days of the reporter’s office. On Wednesday evening—his fiancée came down. And she was tall and thin and dark and a loose red mouth and later we all went out and got drunk. She tried to make love to me all the way home. I told her to shut up because she was drunk. When we got back she still tried to make love to me, wildly like an idiot in front of—. She went to bed—and I drank some more and then very modernly he decided to go and sleep with her.

Letters is quite different: “in Gower with a friend of mine in the waster days …on Wednesday evening his fiancée…”; “in front of Cliff”; “and my friend and I drank.” Which is right? Clearly Letters in supplying the Christian name, and Life probably in the other differences; but in fact the reader will feel that he can trust neither.

These examples may suggest that the editing of this selection is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. The text of the letter to Henry Treece, 23 March 1938, on pages 189-92 contains one of the most bizarre errors I have ever seen: two pages of typescript went to press in reverse order, causing complete nonsense in three places, and this was not noticed by the editor or anyone in the publisher’s or printer’s offices. Thus page 190 line 13 “make of the third image bred out of the/” should go on to page 191 line 2 “/other two together”; page 191 line 32 “images were left immediately/” should go on to page 190 line 13 “/dangling over the formal limits”; page 191 line 2 “and sent it to you/” on to page 191 line 32 “/and the other manuscripts.” There is no need to refer to the manuscript to see what has happened. The editor has forgotten to indicate its location (as he has with several others); it is with the other letters to Treece in the Lockwood Memorial Library, Buffalo, and parts of it are quoted by Ralph Maud, the leading authority on the manuscripts. The passage on page 190 (“I make one image—though ‘make’ is not the word, I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict”) has been quoted many times since it first appeared in Treece’s book on Thomas, and is not only Thomas’s most famous pronouncement on his poetic methods, but one of the most famous statements by any modern poet. Collation of Fitzgibbon’s text with that produced by the conscientious Vernon Watkins shows many differences: e.g., Fitzgibbon page 182 has “Bowdlerized” but Watkins “Thowdlerized” (which must be right in the context): seven lines below Fitzgibbon omits a whole sentence silently, where Watkins omits only a personal name; Fitzgibbon even makes two errors in quoting Watkins’s notes. This small sample makes me suspect that in transcription, treatment of dates, addresses, and salutations, this edition is defective, and that before Thomas can be fairly judged as a letter-writer, his text should receive the kind of careful handling that Richard Ellmann has recently given to Joyce’s correspondence.

The annotation is no better than the transcription. Fitzgibbon has quite rightly wished to keep the notes to a minimum length; no one would expect anelaborate scholarly apparatus—but his explanations are often inadequate or wrong. Page 163: “Come and live in Limehouse with me and write books like Thomas Burke” is glossed “Thomas Burke was half of Burke and Hare, the Edinburgh body-snatchers of the early nineteenth century”; but the reference is to quite a well-known writer of that name, who in fact wrote stories about Limehouse. Page 231, note: “I do not know who Hendry was,” but anyone interested in the literature of the period can easily find out about the Scottish schoolmaster, short-story writer, and poet J. F. Hendry. Page 260, verse letter to T.W. Earp, a boozing companion: “when next shall we stumble to the stutter of our lewis-gun carols…Two spoonered swiss pillars.” Fitzgibbon annotates: “The reference to Lewis Carroll in the first line escapes me…In the fourth line ‘the Swiss’ was a pub in Soho—this may be a reference to Dr. Spooner, to whom spoonerisms are, erroneously, attributed.” But it is not too difficult to see that the Lewis gun was a well-known light machine gun, which, in the cliché of warbooks, “stuttered,” and that a Lewis Carol must be a nonsense song, here a drunken one. Fitzgibbon is right about the Swiss as he is about other pubs punned on in this letter; but never mind whether Dr. Spooner invented the spoonerism or not, for “Swiss pillars” is as simple an example of the form as one could wish to find in a day’s pub-crawl.

IF FITZGIBBON cannot decode that little joke, what can he make of Thomas’s poetry? English readers may not understand “I remember that great line” ‘the heal’s wide spendthrift gaze towards paradise’ ” (page395) unless they are told that it is a parody of a line in Hart Crane’s “Voyages” “the seal’s wide spindrift gaze towards paradise,” which Thomas used to read publicly: (he is rightly and for the hundredth dredth time calling himself a heel and a spendthrift). American readers may not know that the passage on pages 408-9 describes the aftermath of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 1953; Fitzgibbon explains this when he quotes the same letter in his biography, so why not here? In fact, many of the letters are not fully intelligible unless one keeps the biography open beside them. The extra space required for the necessary information, in small type, would not have been great.

STILL, THROUGH THE FOG a good deal of Dylan Thomas glows brightly. When he was not writing about money and sometimes even when he was, he could be funny and inventive, even in the sad last year of his life. As a correspondent he is kindly, considerate, all things to all men (“instant Dylan”), malicious, mildly obscene, often on the defensive, an obsessive teller of unnecessary fibs: we are not to believe him when he writes to Treece that he has read hardly any Hopkins, or indeed in many of his literary pronouncements. The letters confirm the public image. He was the greatest clown of the age, loved by his public, his boozing companions and many friends; disliked by chairmen of meetings to which he turned up plastered and by hosts whose furniture he damaged and whose shirts he stole. But public Thomas is by now a rather tedious topic, and private Dylan is now almost equally well known, except for minor points which cannot be discussed without offense to the living. The letters add little to Fitzgibbon’s biography, which is full of information about Thomas’s family, education, finances, health, drinking, and sex life, and shows sound judgment on these matters. (the most significant aspect of his life, fully borne out by the early letters, is that he enjoyed the perfect background for a poet: a kindly schoolmaster father, who wanted his son to be a poet, a houseful of books, no time wasted on a university education, just enough money from sixteen to twenty-one to allow him to read and write all day.) But neither with Life nor the Letters does Fitzgibbon show any great interest in the great question: How did this boy turn into the finest lyrical poet of his age?

Only the letters to Pamela Hansford Johnson offer any answers. The extracts printed here are often puppyish and facetious, or deal with trivialities. But they contain classic examples of Thomas’s descriptive prose, about his life at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, the Welsh industrial scene, the Gower coast, and Laugharne: this is the raw material for his Portrait stories and later broadcasts. More significant are the reflections out of which grew the poems he wrote in 1933 and ‘34—such as his satiric account of a Welsh Sunday (pages 102-3):

I see the rehearsed gestures, the correct smiles, the grey cells revolving around nothing under the godly bowlers. I see the unborn children struggling up the hill in their mothers, beating on the jailing slab of the womb, little realizing what a smugger prison they wish to leap into, how the eyes of men are abused by the town light, how the gasoline has crept under their nostrils like the smell of a new mechanical flower…

—ideas which found precise and moving expression in Eighteen Poems. Best of all is the explanation of the physiological imagery of his early poems and the relation of the microcosm of his body to the macrocosm of poetic imagination (page 48):

The body, its appearance, death and disease, is a fact, sure as the fact of a tree. It has its roots in the same earth as the tree. The greatest description I know of our own “earthiness” is to be found in John Donne’s Devotions, where he describes man as earth of the earth, his body earth, his hair a wild shrub growing out of the land. All thoughts and actions emanate from the body…. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, skin, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells, or senses. Through my small, bonebound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all…. As much as possible, therefore, I employ the scenery of the island to describe the scenery of my thoughts, the earthquake of the body to describe the earthquake of the heart.

Such a translation he achieved with assured technique and burning imagery in “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” “If I were tickled by the rub of love,” and at least six other early poems which he later pretended to despise.

THAT HE WAS a true poet I am still quite certain, despite the persistent attacks of Robert Graves, David Holbrook, George Steiner, Kingsley Amis, and Geoffrey Grigson. Each of these distinguished critics dislikes or despises most of the others, but they are united in their hostility to Thomas. The burden of their attack is that Thomas makes large and vague rhetorical gestures in his more intelligible poems, but in the more obscure overindulges in a kind of surrealism and fails to achieve communicable meaning. But the rhetoric of the anthology pieces, like “Poem in October,” “In my Craft or Sullen Art,” or “Fern Hill,” now seems exactly appropriate to the subject matter, while with most of the others the trouble is not too little but too much meaning. Ten years ago I took up Robert Graves’s public challenge to make any sense of the first stanza of “If my head hurt a hair’s foot.” I did not convince Graves, but I am certain I was right in paraphrasing the stanza into a set of related statements. But not quite right: when I went back to this dialogue between unborn child and mother, with the help of commentators like Moynihan and W. Y. Tindall (Reader’s Guide), I found even more plain sense, packed tight into the stanza, than I expected. The strongest case against Thomas has been made by Donald Davie in Articulate Energy, where he complains of the flabbiness of the syntax. Unfortunately when he chose lines from the admittedly difficult sonnet sequence “Altarwise by owl-light”

Time tracks the sound of shape on man and cloud,
On rose and icicle the ringing hand- print,

Davie wrote that “tracks” has no meaning. In fact, it has two very precise meanings: (1) “tracks down, hunts” as in “When, like a running grave, time tracks you down”; (2) records as on a soundtrack. “The sound of shape” is poetry itself (the converse of “the color or of saying”): the imagination can only be embodied in the productions of time, but time destroys what it makes, a Keatsian notion powerfully developed in other poems. Still, Davie has pointed to Thomas’s only serious weakness, which is in his syntax: perhaps because of careless punctuation a few of his sentences cannot be fully unscrambled.

The problem of reading the harder poems is largely one of decoding. No special learning is required, beyond the general education necessary for the London Times crossword (which Thomas as and his father did every day that they spent together). There are concealed Biblical quotations, but only well-known ones, and few other literary allusions. Thomas’s favorite book was the dictionary, and the reader should be ready to look up words like “gambo” or “Abraham-man” in the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. Many of the words and phrases are puns, and to get at the double or triple meanings it may be necessary to know other poems where they occur. This is where the Concordance is useful: prepared with scrupulous care and accuracy, it allows one to see the wide range of senses in such key words as “track” or “fork.” (This work has been well worth the great amount of time and money it must have cost.) We should be prepared to find that many of the puns are sexual and physiological, sometimes disguised by slang. The earlier poems are all about Thomas’s body-island, the later ones about his marriage and parenthood; if almost every poem is autobiographical, the “I” is not only the voice of Dylan, but may also be that of the Poet, God, Christ, or an embryo. There is a voice or combination of voices in every poem which must be identified, as in the first of the Collected Poems, when the “boys of summer” and their critics speak antiphonally. Most of the images have diametrically opposite meanings (such as Time as creator and destroyer). As Thomas tells us, every poem is a narrative, which moves toward a resolution of these contraries: “O see the poles are kissing as they cross.” Every poem is theological, according to Thomas’s peculiar vision of the voyage from Creation to Judgment; and nearly every one is about the making of poetry. With these things in mind it is not impossible to decode even the elaborate constructions of his middle years, like “Altarwise by owl-light,” “A saint about to fall,” or “Into her Lying Down Head.” This may make the reading of Thomas sound like an arid intellectual exercise, which it is not: no one will begin such a labor unless he has fallen in love with the color of Thomas’s saying. Love, as Kenneth Clark has said, is the only prelude to understanding—and few will end such a labor without being moved by contact with one of the richest imaginations in English lyrical poetry.

In the museum at Trier there is a Roman sarcophagus found at Trittenheim on the Moselle: three hundred men, Germano-Celts doubtless, grave but happily drunk, on board ship with a cargo of wine barrels, are drifting down the river toward the western sea. So I picture Dylan Thomas with drinking companions mentioned affectionately in these letters, with Louis Mac-Neice, T. W. Earp, Roy Campbell, Ted Roethke, and John Davenport, poets and wits who went before their prime into that good night:

Oh, Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone As I sail out to die.

Letters

Explanation November 9, 1967

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