The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: A New Centenary Edition, ed John Goodby, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 416 pp, £20.00, ISBN 978-0297865698
The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall, by John Goodby, Liverpool University Press, 512 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 9781781381151
There is a well-established Dylan Thomas myth that goes something like this: early brilliance as an instinctive versifier drunk on words, which was then wasted through more conventional drunkenness, redeemed somewhat by the glamour associated with an early death. Thomas both recognised and helped fuel it by his ironic self-description as the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”. The myth fed into the centenary celebrations of his birth last year, which became a kind of year-long Bloomsday, a celebration more of Thomas the character than Thomas the obscure, often difficult, experimental poet.
Thomas’s public reputation rests mainly on the enduring popularity of Under Milk Wood, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and a handful of anthology-piece poems. His critical reputation, such as it is, is that of a somewhat marginal figure who was overshadowed in his youth by Auden and the New Country poets and then dismissed after his premature death by the Movement. Indeed, such is the legacy of this dismissal that he is now often bracketed with the poets of the “dismal 40s”, despite the fact that the bulk of his poems were written and published in the 1930s.
However, centenaries can also be occasions for reappraisal, a time when texts are republished and critically re-examined in the light of current scholarship. In the case of Thomas, the most significant act of rediscovery was the publication of this New Centenary Edition of the collected poems, the most comprehensive of the four collecteds to appear to date, and the first since 1988. Editor John Goodby includes the notebook poems, the poems collected by Thomas in his lifetime, poems from the stories and Under Milk Wood, and other uncollected poems presented in order of composition rather than of publication.
The book is well annotated, and Goodby uses the notes as much for interpretation as explication. Indeed, the apparatus here is, in many respects, a condensed restatement of the arguments of Under the Spelling Wall, the first full-length critical study of Thomas’s poetry for many years. Goodby draws on feminist and postcolonial theory, psychology, Julia Kristeva’s idea of paragrammatic writing, ecopoetics, media studies and other recent forms of critical discourse to explore the poetry in the round.
The chronological arrangement is important, as it makes it easier for the reader to trace the development of Thomas’s style from early free verse to the more regular verse forms that characterise his mature process poetry and then the opening out of this mature style in the great late poems. What emerges is a picture of a poet who was constantly experimenting, pushing his “craft or sullen art” to the limit of intelligibility in order to embody his unified vision of the world as simultaneous process, and of the body as macrocosm, in verse. In the early work, at least, this is a bleak vision. Conception, birth and death may be all coeval in the process world of simultaneous time, “doom in the bulb”, as he puts it in “I in my intricate image”, but the emphasis in these poems is firmly on death, with both sex and death being subsumed to mortality.
His poetry worked, as he might have put it himself, from rather than toward language. While his social realist contemporaries had something to say and found language and form with which to say it, he started with words and followed them to discover the shape they would make. This is not to say that he was engaged in some form of subconscious outpouring or automatic writing. Thomas was, from the beginning, a conscious craftsman who worked with the dual nature of language as both a “thing in the world” and as a system of signs that stands apart from the world it is used to represent.
In practical terms this meant disrupting both the semantic continuities of unselfconscious language through the use of puns and other devices and its regular syntactic flow. The latter aspect of Thomas’s craft can be illustrated by looking at the line “Grief thief of time”, from the poem of that name. In an earlier draft this phrase was punctuated “Grief, thief of time”, the comma indicating that “thief of time” was a truncated relative clause defining “grief”. By removing the comma, Thomas opened up the syntactical relationships between his words. The “original” meaning is still present, but is augmented by the possibility of a multi-dimensional reading of the phrase. Is “grief thief” to be understood in the same way that, for instance, “car thief” might be? This kind of deliberate ambiguity is ever-present in the poems and is characteristic of a poetic that opens our reading minds to what one might think of as a multiplicity of uncertainty.
Goodby draws attention to Thomas’s use of Finnegans Wake as an exemplar for his own approach to language, and it’s an illuminating observation. At least in his early work, Thomas shared Joyce’s fascination with the materiality of language and with the grotesque and gothic, and Goodby draws this out at some length. Also like Joyce, Thomas was a doubly marginal figure, being Welsh in England and Anglo-Welsh at home, one consequence being that he was not considered “pure” enough by the Welsh-language cultural arbiters of his native land. It was a condition that he used to his best advantage by drawing on both traditions while feeling equally free to poke fun at both of them. Under Milk Wood, for example, can be read as both a satire on a certain kind of Welshness and of English condescension towards the Welsh.
In an apparent paradox, as his language became ever more disjunctive, Thomas’s sense of form moved away from free verse towards regular stanza patterns. Frequently, these were based on syllable count rather than purely on metrical feet. In the poetry of the 1930s. these syllabic lines tended to contain even numbers of syllables and so to resolve to a steady iambic thud. This is true even of a poem like “Now”, where the first four lines of each verse consist of one, two, three and four syllables, the whole resolving to a conventional pentameter.
Man dry man,
Dry lover mine
The deadrock base and blow the flowered anchor,
Should he, for centre sake, hop in the dust,
Forsake, the fool, the hardiness of anger.
The overall effect of this is somewhat harsh and knotty, as befits the vision of life in death and death in life that underpins the early poems. In the later poems, as the process poetic shifted towards a greater emphasis on life, the relationship between syllable and stresses loosened up significantly. “Poem in October”, to take one instance, uses a stanza that repeats a pattern of nine-twelve-nine-three-five-twelve-twelve-five-three-nine syllables.
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
The combination of lines with odd numbers of syllables and of long even-numbered ones enable a move away from the steady beat of the earlier work and towards a more subtle, melodic and inclusive music.
This is not something that happens by accident. Indeed, such playing around with quantity and quality, rhythm and meter, is what, ultimately, places Thomas in the great line of experimental poetics in English. As such, it is the aspect of his work most likely to be of interest to his fellow poets, and if I have one criticism of these volumes it is that while he touches on it at a number of places, Goodby doesn’t really tease out the implications as much as I would have liked.
He is, however, very good on the context in which this technical shift occurred. By 1938 Thomas felt he had taken his process poetic as far as he could, as acknowledged in “Once it was the colour of saying”, written around the end of that year. His personal circumstances had changed materially with the birth of his first child. Perhaps more significantly, as a natural pacifist the inescapable fact of impending war revolted him. His experience of nightly bombing raids brought him to the realisation that life, not death, was the central purpose of natural process.
In the early 1940s, he began to write the series of poems commemorating old people and children who died in the Blitz. In these he strove to make poems about the impact of civilian deaths in ways that neither appropriated the victims to his poetic persona nor offered the second death of false religious solace. (As an aside, the fact that he frequently subsumed the language of Christianity to his needs has led to the perception that Thomas was a religious poet. It might be fairer to say that, finding himself writing in a world in which God was dead but religion was very much alive, he set himself the task of repurposing religious language to make poems that actualised his relativistic world view.) At the same time, there was a family to feed and the only work that was readily available to him was writing propaganda films for the government. With the expenditure of time and spirit on such uncongenial work, he wrote little or no serious poetry between the summer of 1941 and the spring of 1944.
When he started again, he had resolved the problem of writing about the Blitz in a way that he felt was adequate to the job, as witness “Ceremony After a Fire Raid” and, above all, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”. The latter poem, in particular, shows that Thomas lost none of his interest in syntactical disjunction. The poem opens with the apparent paradox “Never until”, a declaration that the death will not be mourned, and that it will. Having achieved a technique and language that allow him to mourn the child’s death without subsuming or devaluing it, that “never” is overcome triumphantly.
Goodby is at pains to insist on Thomas as a poet of the 1930s, contemporary with Auden and the other New Country writers and engaged with the same social and political realities that they were. Thomas’s engagements were, however, oblique, and as such he was necessarily more ambiguous, less “committed” than the New Country writers. While Auden’s politics were ideological, Thomas was driven by a kind of Blakean, pantheistic socialism. The difference is neatly summed up in his observation when war broke out in 1939: “Auden is in America, isn’t he? And the very best place, too, for a militant communist at this time.” Of course Thomas read and learned from Auden, as they both read and learned from Eliot. However, where Auden saw the neo-Augustan classicist in the older poet, Thomas could see through to “the skull beneath the skin” and shared Eliot’s fascination with the irrational, grotesque aspects of the human condition, an interest that chimed with his love of Finnegans Wake.
There is a thread of absorption in the natural world, a force driving through the green fuse of his poetry that marks Thomas out as what we would now call an environmentalist poet. In the earlier work, with its tendency to subject the human to natural process, this took the form of a proto-deep ecology. However, in the poems that followed World War II and which were written in the shadow of the Bomb, the relationship between us and our fragile world becomes more humanised. Goodby discusses this in the context of the late, great pastoral poems, but I believe it is also present in a poem like “Do not go gentle into that good night”, where the dying of the light can refer to both individual and universal death.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
His playing with Modernist experiment, and especially Surrealism, meant that he was better equipped to find poetry in the surreal reality of wartime Britain and the disappointed utopianism that followed than Auden could ever have been, and Goodby argues that this made Thomas a key figure for the New Apocalypse poets who emerged in the 1940s. Like him, they sought, and found, a way to engage with the realities of wartime that evaded the audenary. In the decades of Thomas’s critical neglect, the work of many of these poets has been rediscovered, mostly by younger poets and critics whose practices stand outside the mainstream. These include WS Graham, Lynette Roberts, JF Hendry and Nicholas Moore, each of whom was, in one way or another, influenced by Thomas. Oddly enough, Thomas has not been subject to the same process of rediscovery.
Dylan Thomas is an almost unique figure in twentieth century British poetry, his work both was popular and difficult, formally apparently traditional but linguistically inventive and experimental. His performances and recordings were instrumental in the re-emergence of oral poetry, from the Beats to Slams. It is to be hoped that these volumes, especially the Collected Poems, are the necessary prelude to a reappraisal of the poetry and of Thomas’s centrality to the development of English verse during and since his lifetime. If that is the case, such a reappraisal might help bring about a new understanding of the history of mid-century English verse, one in which the pernicious either/or of traditionalism/Modernism that was so carefully fostered by the Movement dissolves into a more inclusive this/and with Thomas as a key conjunctive figure. He was also, as it turns out, a very fine poet.
Billy Mills is a poet, editor, and critic. He was born in Dublin in 1954. He spent some years in Spain and the UK and currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively.