The Life of Dylan Thomas
A watery, winter sun wept down on Cwmdonkin Drive. A mile away at St Helens, the ghost of Christmas past drifted through the ranks of a weakened London Welsh. Not even Dylan Thomas could have made much of a pedestrian performance by them and, until midway through the second half, Swansea, too, would have failed to lure the poet from his home fire.
You would hardly be able to tell from this recent sports report in the London Times that “the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive,” as Dylan Thomas used to call himself in his green and dying Swansea days, has been dead for twenty-five years, and was never interested in the Welsh national game of rugby, though always easily lured from the home fire. These sporting words suggest the strange existence of thousands of people who are still interested in Thomas, and can be expected to spot a reference to his evocation of a Welsh Christmas, even though they would probably find most of his poems altogether indecipherable.
The existence of such people does something to explain both Paul Ferris’s biography and the one which Constantine FitzGibbon wrote on the same subject twelve years ago.* Both are equable and sensible accounts of a doomed and driven life, by writers for the general reader who do not spend much time deciphering and discussing the poems, though Mr. Ferris’s thoughts are more trustworthy than those of most of the academic encomiasts. He makes corrections to the biographical record, and prints the drafts of two early poems which could just as well have been left to lie in seclusion. But he does not place Dylan Thomas’s life in any new light, and you feel that this could only be done on the basis of a sustained attention to the poems. The book is essentially a second shot at FitzGibbon’s target, in a world where these will not be the last marksmen.
There are times when Dylan Thomas can seem to be famous, not for his craft or art, but for being famous. The truth is that he is famous for his early death, for debt and drink, for the ordeals which we like to think the gods inflict on those they love: it is as if the rest of us are having a good time. The death of poets has remained important, though it is often mourned in sharp dissociation from their work, and it isn’t uncommon to find, when Adonais dies, the vestiges of a ritual response, of an old worship. Adonais can also rise again, if only in public esteem, and perhaps, in Thomas’s case, there would have been rather more about how “Dylan lives” if there hadn’t been a deutero-Dylan to revere. The poet Thom Gunn has confessed that when Thomas died in 1953, he went to a friend’s rooms in Cambridge, where the two of them were students, and left a note, “so that he should know I was feeling the proper grief.” The “solemn little note” read; “This is a black day for English poetry.” A romantic act, with a romantic pedigree. His self-conscious grief was like that of the young Tennyson, who ran out of doors, his whole world “darkened,” and wrote on some sandstone: “Byron is dead.”
By the start of his adolescence Thomas was already feeling his way into the role of the poet who drops out, misbehaves, and dies young. The part he played was every bit as hereditary as the worship it was to attract, but it may also be thought to have included an internalizing of the view then current that romantic poets were shits. That word was used by one of the younger Scrutiny critics, who has since gone into show business, when I arrived in London around 1949 and admitted that my adolescence had danced to Thomas’s tune. The existence then of those who wanted to be moralists, modernists, communists, classicists, could persuade young writers that romantic poets were shits and should make the most of it, or it could persuade them to try other tunes. Thomas could sound surrealistic, but that can’t really be called another tune, and he died in the arms of romance. This was what many of his early admirers wanted of him, and they went on admiring him even when they were swamped by a readership—or worship—several thousand strong, which could be asked, twenty-five years later, to imagine him shivering on the touchline at rugby games in his drop-out’s duffle of the Fifties.
His witty letters both affirm and disown the role of outcast poet, but it is the affirmations that have tended to be believed. Here he is in 1938:
I have been in London, in penury, and in doubt: In London, because money lives and breeds there; in penury, because it doesn’t; and in doubt as to whether I should continue as an outlaw or take my fate for a walk in the straight and bowler-treed paths. The conceit of outlaws is a wonderful thing; they think they can join the ranks of regularly-conducted society whenever they like.
He is using, and smiling as he does so, some old words about the sad fate, and the pretensions, of poets. Elsewhere, in a letter not long before his death, he is a “self-destroyed escapologist.” That phrase might be thought to have been prefaced by notebook scribbles of the same late date: “Come back, come back, Mother.” And there are drafts of the letter in question, to his patroness Marguerite Caetani, in which he rehearses the description of himself as “a puny wheezy Houdini,” and asks: “Why do I coil myself always into these imbecile grief-knots….” The letter itself contains this:
time and time again I cry to myself as I kick clear of the cling of my stunt-man’s sacking, “Oh, one time the last time will come and I’ll never struggle, I’ll sway down here forever, handcuffed and blindfold, sliding my wound-around music, my sack trailed in the slime, with all the rest of the self-destroyed escapologists in their cages, drowned in the sorrows they drown and in my piercing own, alone and one with the coarse and cosy damned seahorsey dead, weeping my tons.
In recent years, Houdini has been imagined as an escaper who could not escape from his mother, and the early poems of Dylan Thomas can be imagined as the dark, secret verse of the romantic victim, alone with his senses, and with his dreams of a mother and of his death. The predicament is summarized in his story “One Warm Saturday,” where he hopes to drown in bed with a possibly willing girl, but wanders off on his own to the lavatory and can’t find his way back to the room. He gets quite close to the modern idea of Houdini in the well-known letter of March 23, 1938 in which he explains that it “is not my method to move concentrically round a central image,” but soon makes the more or less contradictory statement that his method is “a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed.” It is as if he has tried and failed to escape from a central image, which is spoken of as that of a breeder.
His talent awoke at puberty with the discovery of his body, and with the discovery that his body was an outlaw, and that there was only the one escape for it. It was a discovery of sensations rather than thoughts, comparable to that made by the adolescent Keats, and, like Keats, he had to think what to write when that subject matter failed him, as it was eventually bound to do. Both of them were to strive, at times, for an edifying, public-spirited verse, but for Thomas, after Eighteen Poems, poetry became cruelly hard to write, and the best of Eighteen Poems was to remain his most secure achievement.
His dependence on the role which claimed him—and for which he may be said to have given his life—has to be understood in relation to the body poetry with which he made his mark. That poetry can be like Endymion, by a fellow-sufferer who “swooned drunken from Pleasure’s nipple,” while capable of high spirits and practical jokes. But it can also take account of some other very different body poetries of the past.
“As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” This is the Song of Solomon, which has been held to lend something to an aria of Tharmas, the sea god, in Blake’s Four Zoas, that huge poem in the shape of a human body:
O Vala, once I lived in a garden of delight;
I wakened Enion in the morning, and she turned away
Among the apple trees; and all the garden of delight
Swam like a dream before my eyes. I went to seek the steps
Of Enion in the gardens, and the shadows compassed me
And closed me in a watery world of woe when Enion stood
Trembling before me like a shadow, like a mist, like air.
From here it is only a short journey to the paradise of Dylan Tharmas’s “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs.” A comparatively late poem, “Fern Hill” climbs back for its theme to before puberty, and in so doing regains the pace and freedom, the music, which there is in a poem like “Light breaks,” and which he was often to lose, after Eighteen Poems, with his overwriting and his central-seed figures of speech. Like the Blake passage, “Fern Hill” concerns a paradise lost. It even has a last Tharmas touch of the sea, and the verbal parallels, the apples, air, and water, suggest that Thomas had the passage in mind:
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air And playing, lovely and watery….
Thomas’s apple trees evoke a mother, and not a lover, as the others do, and that mother is only a fleeting presence in the poem. “Fern Hill,” moreover, comes at a late and less corporeal stage of his development. But it is by a writer who is contributing to a literature in which the body is experienced with intensity by sons and lovers, and who contributed, in his solitariness, to the Welsh national game of mothers and sons.
What might be called the natural loss of his subject matter must have been a great problem, and it was one of many. There was the problem of his cultural role—that of the outlaw who needed and was required to be famous and entertaining, that of the natural or prodigy or child wonder, the specialist in misfortune, emotional and erotic and disobedient in the old romantic way, who had to support a family and keep on writing poems, and whose material rewards were programmed, as it were, to prove almost entirely posthumous. One may also suppose that he found it difficult to deal with a London literary world which had more than its share of the brutalities of a sourly class-conscious Britain. With all this going on, it’s not surprising that people could believe that he wanted to die, and believe that, in his last days, he drank a lethal number of whiskies “for the record” and “insulted” his brain. But his daughter has stated, for another sort of record—defensively, if you wish—that she doesn’t remember him drinking very much in Laugharne when she was young, and Mr. Ferris reasserts that his death in New York may have been in some measure accidental: a doctor gave him a morphine shot which would have been enough, in the circumstances, to kill him. It is sometimes more apparent that he knew he was expected to die than that he wanted to.
In the light of the compulsion there has been to gossip about his misbehavior, Mr. Ferris does well to bring out that there was a Dylan Thomas who was sober, and who felt for a difficult “failed” father. I was reminded of a time when he visited Cambridge to read his poems. A rugby-playing student who lived in a place by the name of Laugharne Castle attached himself to a noticeably constrained Thomas, and it was in such company that an undergraduate girl was rated “all right for sex,” but not otherwise. Thomas was displeased by these ruling-class Fifties words, and kept recalling them. That night, pretending to be drunk—out of politeness, it seemed—he kept intoning another word of the time, “Mau-Mau,” in a low, rich lectern voice. This was the name for the black magic and murder which had sprung up in Kenya, and which was to push the British out. During the visit, he was always gentle and considerate. His appearance when he was young could be taken to resemble a certain Renaissance statue—that of a putto, a boy with a dolphin, by Verrocchio: as he grew older, he could look like a bit of black magic himself, like Louis Armstrong, and we heard about the Negro blood that used to circulate in Swansea, from the old slave days.
This is the kind of item that was forever being added to the legend. No doubt the legend will need to be examined and displayed, as large as life, in future biographies. But there’s a risk that they will rely too much on the true and tall stories of his extraordinariness which were obtained at the outset from those keen to testify, and on the Dylan Thomas Show with its tours of America. There’s a risk that the biographies will go on repeating themselves in this sense. After the first life there is no other.
I think that some of those who knew him would have told a different story from what appears in the two published biographies. One such person is a schoolmaster, Hector MacIver, whom he got to know after the war, and to whom he sent enjoyable letters which are now in the National Library of Scotland. The relationship, which wasn’t visible to either biographer, indicates that, late in his career, in his wanderings about the world, Thomas hadn’t lost the capacity to make friends. Mr. Ferris doesn’t try to put him down, though he does declare that there was “an air of fraudulence at times,” and he is not uncritical of the legend, with its stress on various forms of incapacity. But he isn’t always sufficiently able to imagine that the legendary misbehaver could behave kindly, and he isn’t always able to take his own word for it that Thomas spent much of his time caring about the behavior of the poems he wrote.
The Life of Dylan Thomas (Atlantic Monthly Press-Little Brown, 1965).↩
Where’s Mama? June 15, 1978
The Life of Dylan Thomas (Atlantic Monthly Press-Little Brown, 1965).↩