The Outlaw

The Life of Dylan Thomas

by Paul Ferris
Dial, 399 pp., $9.95
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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