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Lives of the Poets

The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas

edited by Paul Ferris
Macmillan, 982 pp., $45.00

Journals 1939–1983

by Stephen Spender, edited by John Goldsmith
Random House, 510 pp., $19.95

Night and Day

edited and with an introduction by Christopher Hawtree, preface by Graham Greene
Chatto and Windus (distributed by Merrimack), 278 pp., $22.95

The sheer bulk of the book comes as a surprise, so few of Thomas’s letters having been published in the thirty-three years since his death, and his life seeming to have allowed so little time for writing them. Was he wasting his talents, at any rate in the long and carefully composed one-way conversations with friends? Paul Ferris, Thomas’s sympathetic editor, thinks that the revised, corrected, and painstakingly copied-out money-grubbing letters, a principal category, eventually became a literary end, replacing the writing of poems and stories. Since drafts of other correspondence survive as well, perhaps we should simply accept Thomas’s explanation, in a note denying he has a “theory of poetry,” that “I like to write letters.” He shows it here by going out of his and relevance’s way to work one of his better puns: “genius so often being the infinite capacity for aching pains.” Who said anything about genius?

Ferris groups the letters under “Provincial Poet 1931–4,” “Success and Marriage 1934–9,” “A Writer’s Life 1939–49,” and “Ways of Escape 1949–53.” Though dull, the first section should not be skipped if only because of Thomas’s critical and technical analyses of the poems that Pamela Hansford Johnson had submitted to her eighteen-year-old mentor. His deprecations of her “jingling” rhymes and “adjectives that add nothing” are still instructive, and perhaps, in his wording, even the commonplaces can bear repeating: “Part of a poet’s job [is] to take a debauched and prostituted word…and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin.” One of the book’s most amusing passages is Thomas’s spoof of the future Lady Snow’s use of the word “testicles,” titled by him “On A Testicle Made For Two.”

The last section is painful reading, partly because we know the end, and the descent to it, partly because we have already had so much begging that the repetition, no matter how varied, is monotonous. Since the letters are increasingly confined to Thomas’s miseries, the outside world shrinks until it almost ceases to exist. His horizons had always been parochial, and his participation in social and political movements was never more than nominal. But toward the end, his subjects are largely reading-tour schedules and possible still untapped sources for loans (i.e., handouts).

The alcoholic’s first obstacle, admitting to himself that he is one, seems not to have bothered Thomas in his early years. At age twenty he confessed that “demon alcohol…has become a little too close and heavy a friend for some time now.” Already then, as he says more than once, his hands shook, and he was a victim of “alcoholic laziness.” At twenty-one he describes a “three-weeks-accumulated hangover” and “nerves full of alcohol.” One of the late letters laughs at American-university-professor “alcoholics anything but anonymous,” a phrase, as he was certainly aware, that applied to himself, since by this time his drunkenness had become as large a part of the legend as the poems. Yet even in the last years, and in spite of references to “drinking too much,” he never asks for help with an addiction plainly beyond his control, but only for more money.

The letters ramble, the sentences are long and choking with compound words, the cleverness can be labored, especially in the Joycean jokes (“Just a song at twilight when the lights Marlowe and the Fletcher Beddoes Bailey Donne and Poe”), and some of them occur more than once, or, as Thomas says about another writer: “He’s always got the same cracks to grind.” Over the years facetiousness becomes the tone for friends, wheedling for patrons. If the latter are socially exalted—the Princess Caetani, Edith Sitwell—he is subtly and not so subtly obsequious. He strives to avoid clichés and usually succeeds, but the failures are almost invariably accompanied by the especially horrible “If I may coin a phrase.” His vocabulary is astonishing, and the book would be worth reading if only for the discussions—often rejections—of words.

The letters will raise Thomas’s reputation as a critic of poetry, if he had one, both in his evaluations of other poets and as a line-by-line prescriptionist in matters of rhythm and sound. “I’m never very hot on meaning,” he says. “It’s the sound of meaning that I like.” Sound too often signifying nothing, some will say. To editors, and to the readers who write to him for help, Thomas insists that his poems are meant to be understood, and he is hypersensitive to charges of obscurity. A correspondent who wishes to know what the poem “I make this in a warring absence” is “about” is given the “plot” in straight-forward prose, although Thomas protests that “the ‘plot’ is told in images, & the images are what they say, not what they stand for.” But his crib is illuminating and more of them would have been welcome.

The main surprise in Thomas’s judgments on contemporaries is that he had read so much. Yeats remained his hero (“Daybreak and a candle end”), but his public readings of Hardy (“To Lizbie Browne”) were even more impressive and, around 1950, Thomas probably did more to increase appreciation for Hardy than anyone else. He makes fun of Eliot and those who presume an “intimate knowledge of Dante, The Golden Bough, and the weather reports in Sanskirt,” and in his “dog among the fairies” pose, tells an editor: “I’d rather not review Auden;…he’s not sufficiently my cup of tea, for me to enjoy his new poems very much…and I know he’s far, far too good for me…to attempt to be destructive.”

At eighteen, Thomas’s virtuosity and precocity were phenomenal. From the letters written at the same time as 18 Poems we can now see, and marvel at, his command of his vast verbal resources, for he had been alimented by the whole library of living English poetry, as well as by some poetry in translation. Then, not suddenly, his development slows, he loses direction, and poems stop coming. Whether or not this follows the pattern of such things, could Thomas’s career have been different? Could the author of the 18, published when he was nineteen, ever have worked in a bank, insurance company, or English department?

The editing supplies exactly the right amount of information, and unobtrusively offers comments about Thomas’s motives and truthfulness.

Stephen Spender’s life as lecturer and symposiast in academic America, his quest for recognition, and his relationship with W.H. Auden are the principal subjects of the Journals. Since the accounts of cultural conferences and of adventures on, or just off, campuses are familiar in kind, the present comments can be restricted to items two and three. On the first, one need only say that Spender’s smaller, incidental subjects, his visits to the old and infirm, as well as his encounters with artists and writers, are more attractive, and though he complains of a “lack of vitally experienced observation,” his portraits of people prove that he is as sensitive an observer as any of his contemporaries.

Both the reviews and the letters protesting the reviews have shown a remarkable lack of susceptibility to the rich appeal of the Journals as humor. Anyone who has met Sir Stephen—and almost everyone who is anyone apparently has—will know that the favorite target of his highly developed gift for fun is himself. But even among those who are unaware of the acuteness of this faculty in him it must be evident that his jokes at his own expense are conscious, and the provocation of laughter is intentional. Consider the following narrative in which he ridicules his desperate struggle to reach New York City in time for a dinner party the day after a lecture upstate:

I went to a place called Oneonta…. I was met by a pleasant young man…. Next morning, he called for me…took me…to the airport…. We were told the plane could not take off unless there was visibility of at least a mile…. In NY I had…to join…Jacqueline Onassis…at a restaurant…. I simply had to get there. I enquired about taxis and found that Oneonta had just one…. After an hour, an octogenarian taxi driver appeared…. After a 100 miles or so…[he] made it clear that he did not want to drive me to NY…. He said he would drive me to Albany…and there I could get an aeroplane…but there were no flights from Albany that would get me to NY in time…. Finally I said the only thing was to find me another taxi.

Finally, too,

I sat next to JO…[she] seemed to want to talk seriously…. I asked Jacqueline what she considered her greatest achievement in life. “Oh,” she said, “I think it is that after going through a rather difficult time, I consider myself comparatively sane.”

Spender’s failure to conceal his surprise at JO’s ability to rise above the leve of unserious conversation is a minor lapse when measured against the proof, in revealing his maladroit question and her devastating reply, that he does not lack the courage of his candor.

In another droll story on himself, Sir Stephen dreams he is made pope:

I sat in a large room, waiting to deliver my first sermon before about a million people…. Numerous flunkeys, autograph hunters…kept on interrupting me…. My sermon was intended to bring the full weight of starvation, preparation for nuclear war, etc., into the consciousness of the people, so they would change the world…. Everyone would be grateful if I spoke, say, for five or ten minutes…delivered some brief tremendously moving exhortation.

So far from being confined to anecdotes, the Spender wit assumes a multitude of forms. One even suspects that some of the Journals‘ errors, factual as well as verbal, were committed on purpose, for the fun. This is very obviously the case with the footnote he attaches to a passage about the “South Seas” (with a reference to Tahiti and Gauguin) locating these waters in “the Caribbean.” So, too, the misrendering of his line beginning “Spender’s simple spondees offer this…” as “Spenders, simple Spenders, offer their,” has a special appeal, as does the anachronism in the entry of September 4, 1939 comparing King George VI’s broadcast voice to an “often interrupted tape machine”; and the confusion elsewhere about other sounds: “They played the Schubert Octet…. Oboes, flutes, clarinets always bring to mind…” (there are no oboes and flutes in the octet).

On the verbal side, charmingly, disarmingly, the young Stephen, in one of his Letters to Christopher,* admits to “not knowing one end of a sentence from the other,” and predicts: “If I go on writing badly enough, it will become one of my qualifications.” The Journals confirm the astuteness of the forecast. A tangle such as the following has a distinctiveness that would not survive a grammatically sorted out version:

I have the sense of an underlying depression like a large squid lying at the bottom of a tank, which if I don’t act with resolution, will come up from the depths and embrace me in its tentacles.

W.H. Auden is referred to in the Journals more frequently and at greater length than anyone else including the author’s wife and his American friend, B., about whom we are told little more than that he lives alone in a trailer. The reflections on Auden could be subsumed under the title that Spender used for another book, Love-Hate Relations, though “Settling Old Scores” would be more accurate. “Did I really like Wystan?” Spender asks himself, when someone puts the question to him. The answer is complicated, and never forthcoming in monosyllabic form. He reflects on Auden’s contemptuousness when they were young (“I imagine he laughed at me a lot behind my back”) and reviews the less accommodating features of Auden’s character: the dogmatism and arbitrariness (the Petrine approvals and disapprovals in accordance with one principle at the expense of all others); the hypocrisy (of feigning indifference to his publicity); and the vanity (“They loved me,” “They were entranced”). Auden’s blindness to painting is held against him, his vocation for religion dismissed as a subterfuge: “The effect of cultivating a bad Christian conscience has been to free him of interest in social problems.” It now appears, as well, that there were two Audens, the mean and the absurd. To this, one could say that a little of the former and lots of the latter were always evident, and that, in small doses, the latter could be highly entertaining. One may doubt, too, that Auden agonized from any kind of bad conscience, or that he ever had any deeply felt, as distinguished from theoretical, interest in social questions.

Quite new is the emergence of certain reservations about Auden’s poetry. In the early years it had an “idiosyncratic sensibility,” but lacked “a center of his own personality.” Still, and unlike the later work, it was inimitable, whereas a young poet who could match the technique of Auden’s later periods could conceivably fill his carpet slippers in other ways as well. The speculation is unarguable, of course, and unfortunately Spender does not hide other feelings: “Of our group—Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, myself—Auden has activated teams of scholars and research workers.” In contrast, Sir Stephen lacks confidence in even the one young man writing a book about him and “trying to support my reputation.”

The subject of Auden’s homosexuality comes up again and again, but as camp, not as a factor of any significance in Spender’s life. After Auden’s death, when reading about A.E. Housman’s Parisian male prostitutes, Spender exclaims: “How I longed to tell Wystan.” Jokes are made: “Wystan asked Bill to go to bed with him in the nicest way possible, so that it was easy to refuse.” So, too, Spender builds a mock-serious discussion of Auden’s aptitudes as a paterfamilias—unnamed friends claim that “he was not gay”—toward a punch line, which, however, loses its quaintness without Auden’s too high and cranky voice delivering it: “What I hate is the fucking.”

Next to Auden, the most abiding concern in the Journals is with what Spender sees as a lack of recognition. Why does he feel “such a resistance to writing poetry”? His answer, “From the sense not so much of failure as of non-recognition,” could hardly be more frank—and self-damaging. He is delighted when people ask if he is the Stephen Spender: “I’m afraid I’ve only heard of one Spender—Stephen Spender—and he’s dead I believe”; “the man at the desk asked whether I was related to the poet Stephen Spender. So I said ‘That’s me.’ He looked pleased and said ‘Gee, a near celebrity.’ ” During a stroll in the dark some youths overhear him breaking wind and cheer him for it, but then “a self-important thought came in my mind. Supposing they knew this old man walking along Long Acre and farting was Stephen Spender?” (What, indeed?) That the matter is no laughing one becomes apparent in a mirror scene headed “Thoughts while shaving”:

A thing I am ashamed of is that I find suggested confirmation of my identity by reading my name in the newspapers. My heart really does do something journalistic—stops a beat, gives a jump—if my eye looks on the printed word “Spender.”

The recommendation for a knighthood forces the question into the open: “There comes a time when one craves for recognition—not to be always at the mercy of the spite, malice, contempt…of one’s rivals.” But the slings and arrows, certainly not aimed by “rivals,” have continued, and we only wonder how, after fifty years in the arena, the newly beknighted Sir Stephen could have expected them to stop. Not his enemies but his friends flinch with each of his cruel self-exposures: “My life was in some way ambiguous, like one of those photographs, which if you look at it from one direction has a different face from that which you see from another.” And, “Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty.” Regardless of whether anyone today can claim an assured place as a minor poet, Spender goes on to say that one of the last of the majors, wrote “perhaps [his] greatest poem [‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’] when he was 74. ‘I have four years then,’ I thought.”

For all of Spender’s determination to present himself as paranoid (“I imagine the young reading nothing of me but the bad notices other [?] young critics write”), many of his self-criticisms, anticipating ultimately less well-intentioned ones, are silver-lined. Sometimes the turnarounds and powerful upbeat endings occur in the same sentences:

Everything I had done—or nearly everything—seemed a failure, not that of a person who does not use his talents, but worse, does not use them enough even to discover how much talent he has.

I also experienced despair as the result of not having a disciplined mind [and of] feeling overwhelmed by the material and the uncontrollable rush of my own ideas.

Some of Spender’s poems, criticism, memoirs, translations have contributed to the formation of a period, which, to some extent, they now represent. Indeed, no lines express the feeling of the 1930s more memorably than

We who live under the shadow of a war,
What can we do that matters?

Yet Spender himself stands taller than his work. The least insular writer of his generation and the most generous, he is a kinder man—hypocrite lecteur!—than most of us deserve.

Only a few years ago, Graham Greene’s notorious review of Shirley Temple in Wee Willie Winkie was deemed too explosive for inclusion in The Pleasure-Dome, his collected writings on the cinema. Reprinted at last in this anthology from the short-lived (July–December 1937) weekly, Night and Day, Greene’s notice might still shock people old enough to have grown up with, or soon after, Shirley Temple: “her well-shaped and desirable little body…dimpled depravity…. In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance.”

More than a year earlier, and without provoking any, well, rumpus, Greene had said much the same things about Captain January: “a precocious body as voluptuous in grey flannel trousers as Miss Dietrich’s…a little depraved with an appeal interestingly decadent.” Twentieth Century-Fox sued Night and Day, claiming that the Wee Willie Winkie review accused the company of “procuring Shirley Temple for immoral purposes.” The printers testified “that they recognized that the article was one which ought not to have been published,” and the judge pronounced “the libel” a “gross outrage” and awarded sizable damages. The reprint is accompanied by an “Important Notice” claiming “historical interest” and disclaiming any intention of “further maligning the good name of Mrs. Shirley Temple Black.” Further?

Whether or not, in 1937, prepubescent children were acknowledged to have sexual instincts, Greene implies that Shirley was consciously guilty of coquetry, to which “middle-aged men and clergymen” responded. So did he, obviously, not to put so strong a word as projection on it, or to suggest that whereas the dimples are undoubtedly Shirley’s, the depravity could be Greene’s. After all, he was one of the “discoverers” of Lolita and wrote the blurb for the original, unimportable Paris edition. Apart from all this, his review is as sharp—“The owners of a child star are leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year”—as the well-known pieces he wrote as a young Marxist (“Groucho’s lope”) and Garbo groupie (producers treat her with “deathly reverence…like a Tudor mansion set up brick by numbered brick near Philadelphia”).

Night and Day, which Greene coedited, was known as the London version of The New Yorker, and the derivation of the format—cartoons, departments, quotes of bloopers from newspapers, advertisements, even the typeface—is evident. The London offshoot could boast the better team of regular columnists, at least in 1937, what with Greene as film critic, Evelyn Waugh as book, and Herbert Read as detective fiction, reviewer, and Anthony Powell as Los Angeles correspondent. One of Powell’s pieces describes a screening of Spanish Earth—“We continually cut back to one of those impassive peasant faces, the backbone of propaganda films all the world over”—followed by Hemingway himself reading an appeal for ambulances: “Two persons were taken to hospital, the rest removed with shovels.” The only regular contributor who disappoints is Elizabeth Bowen on the theater, though the Malcolm Muggeridge–Hugh Kings-mill dialogues creak with age, except for the few exchanges that sound like Waugh:

H.K.: Brilliant at Eton, brilliant at Cambridge, [Arthur Hallam] and wrote poems and essays.

M.M.: What are they like?

H.K.: Not brilliant.

Of the sixteen reviews by Waugh in this anthology, three were never published, and the one of Eyeless in Gaza appeared only in a dummy issue. Since Huxley’s “thoughts tend to follow one another in classical sequence,” Waugh legitimately asks why he has left it “to the binder…to sew up the chapters in their wrong order.” His best review is the single paragraph on Sally Bowles, ending: “It conveys an odd sense that we may be reading a classic.”

The most delectable writing in the book is found in restaurant ratings by A.J.A. Symons, Baron Corvo’s biographer. Wine-learned, the most discriminating of ostreophiles, an aristologist sans pareil, he is equally reliable on Spanish cooking and Swiss-German charcuterie. Five stars.

  1. *

    Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara. The Letters provide background, not found in the Journals, for Spender’s young friend Georg—he sat for “an hour or so at my desk trying to copy my signature to see if he could forge a cheque successfully”—as well as editorial curiosities: Oliver Risdale Baldwin, for example, is identified as “a biographer married to Victoria Sackville-West.” (Was Harold Nicolson aware of this?)

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