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 …

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