The Life of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation
Mr. Constantine FitzGibbon’s biography of Dylan Thomas is sensible, modest and careful, unlike its subject. Mr. FitzGibbon is aware of a danger in the biographer’s path, that of “the assumption of excessive knowledgeability.” “An early biographer of Goethe,” he writes, “is said to have written: ‘Goethe told Eckermann that of all his mistresses it was Lili whom he had loved the most. Here Goethe was wrong.’ I should prefer to avoid such judicial pronouncements.” He generally does avoid them and maintains what Albert Camus praised: “the reserve that befits a good witness.”
There is one curious slip—damaging to Caitlin Thomas—which ought to be corrected, especially as it has been given wider currency by a reviewer in The New York Times. Mr. FitzGibbon makes Mrs. Thomas, on her arrival in New York during the poet’s last illness, enquire, “Is the bloody man dead yet?” What she actually said, according to the man whom she addressed—J.M. Brinnin, a witness whom Mr. FitzGibbon explicitly endorses as “reliable as to the facts when he was present”—was this: “Why didn’t you write to me? Is the bloody man dead or alive?” (Dylan Thomas In America, p. 285). This, though the conventional may find it lacking in decorum, does not give at all the impression of brutality inseparable from the wording imputed by Mr. FitzGibbon (certainly without hostile intent—he does his best to excuse it). But the slip, though not insignificant, is not characteristic of the biography, which is generally carefully written.
For a biographer, especially the biographer of a Welshman, Mr. FitzGibbon is a little too literal-minded, and lacks feeling for the possibilities of inconsistency and contradiction. Thus he writes:
Mr. Robert Pocock has written. “I only once heard Dylan express an opinion on Welsh Nationalism. He used three words. Two of them were Welsh Nationalism.” He would hardly have used that third word if he had been brought up with any particular respect for the Welsh language.
This is a non-sequitur. He might have used that third word if he had been brought up with too much respect for the Welsh language or he might have been brought up with respect for the Welsh language but with contempt for political Welsh nationalism. Or he might be—I think he probably was—divided in his feelings about Welshness, unwilling to discuss these at that particular time with that particular person, and in a mood to change the subject as explosively as possible. Since his father, to whom he was so deeply attached, christened him Dylan Marlais we may safely assume that the Welsh national tradition meant something important to both of them. Mr. FitzGibbon recognized that Dylan Thomas was “proud of being Welsh,” but this biographical treatment of his Welshness, and its relation to his life and work, is insensitive and therefore inadequate. The Life of Dylan Thomas will please those who feel that the biographer who…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.