Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit

Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit

Rushworth M. Kidder
Copyright Date: 1973
Pages: 246
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    Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit
    Book Description:

    Since the Bible appears so frequently in Dylan Thomas' work, some critics have decided that he must be a religious poet. Others, noting blasphemous statements and certain irreligious aspects of Thomas' personal life, contend that he was no such thing. Rushworth M. Kidder, investigating this problem, looks below the surface of the obviously religious imagery and discovers a more profound poetry.

    The first part of this book discusses the nature of religious poetry and the application of that term to Thomas' work; it then develops the necessary background based on his letters and prose comments to provide a foundation for the study; and finally it examines the relationship between the religious aspects of his poetry and his well-known ambiguity. The author re-defines the vocabulary for dealing with religious imagery by establishing three distinct categories of imagery: referential, allusive, and thematic. This original technique is used to examine critically Thomas' poems to show the development of his religious and poetic thought. There are numerous close, sensitive readings of individual poems to show how his poetry, like the Bible, teaches by parable, speaking deliberate ambiguity rather than simple dogma. This strategy inspired poetry that is technically complex but thematically simple, a mode of verse that became more explicitly religious in the poet's final years.

    Originally published in 1973.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6979-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PART ONE: The Mazes of His Praise
    • Table of Contents
      (pp. xi-xi)
    • Chapter I Religious Poetry
      (pp. 3-25)

      Dylan Thomas wrote religious poetry. This statement has the support of a number of his critics; as it stands, it is perfectly true and not very useful.¹ The word “religious” has become a catchword, a simple term of classification for certain easily observed characteristics of a poem. And, as such, it has suffered from generalization and from a tendency to subsume into it the more specific meanings included in such words as pantheistic, pagan, mystic, and sacramental. If the phrase “religious poetry” is to be a part of our critical vocabulary—and it is a very useful phrase—some clarification...

    • Chapter II Ambiguity and Religion
      (pp. 26-44)

      “If Mr. Wordsworth is not equally with [Samuel] Daniel alike intelligible to all readers of average understanding in all passages of his works, the comparative difficulty does not arise from the greater impurity of the ore, but from the nature and uses of the metal.” Thus Coleridge defends his friend against charges of obscure writing, continuing, “A poem is not necessarily obscure, because it does not aim to be popular. It is enough, if a work be perspicuous to those for whom it is written. . . ,”¹ Thomas’ poetry, defendant against similar charges, benefits by Coleridge’s insights. To say...

  5. PART TWO: The Three-Pointed Star
    • Chapter III Three Types of Religious Imagery
      (pp. 47-58)

      A basic characteristic of Thomas’ poetry is a calculated ambiguity in religious matters. In the foregoing discussion of ambiguity, certain themes and images, taken as evidence of this characteristic, were subjected to a simple test. The test, which asked only whether meaning was or was not communicated readily, served to distinguish the straightforward from the ambiguous. Such a test is admittedly heavyhanded. Ignoring subtle distinctions, it presumes that all religious themes and images are of equal importance, contribute equally to the impact of the work, and operate equally in that dimension which leads us to define a poem as “religious.”...

    • Chapter IV Referential Imagery
      (pp. 59-68)

      To begin, then, with Adam. In “Fern Hill” (pp. 178-180) Adam is a figure of innocence. The narrator, a boy “young and easy” and “carefree,” awakens from dreams to discover that the farm has once again come back to his consciousness: “. . . it was all / Shining, it was Adam and maiden.” Although it is the only referential religious image in the poem, this phrase is sufficient to establish the Biblical parallel. It brings into focus the lines immediately following (“The sky gathered again / And the sun grew round that very day”): Creation is repeated in this...

    • Chapter V Allusive Imagery
      (pp. 69-90)

      While referential imagery reveals, allusive imagery both reveals and conceals. Of a referential image one question must always be asked: why is the reader’s attention being directed to Biblical religion? Of an allusive image there are always two questions to ask: why is Biblical religion being presented to the reader, and, why is Biblical religion simultaneously being disguised or masked? For allusive imagery is characterized by disguise, and any disguise or mask both reveals the fundamental form and conceals the specific detail of the wearer’s features. As a result, disguise establishes a kind of tension within the figure, a tension...

    • Chapter VI Thematic Imagery
      (pp. 91-110)

      Thematic imagery is prepositional; its theme can be expressed in sentence form as a proposition. This statement is not meant to suggest that Thomas began with a proposition such as “God is everywhere” and from that deduced his imagery. It means that there are discoverable propositions behind his thematic imagery, propositions not propounded at the outset of Thomas’ poetic career but manifested in the process of writing. For a poet, like Cassirer’s scientist, historian, and philosopher, “lives with his objects only as language presents them to him.”¹ Before he can discover objects, especially such objects as propositions, he must have...

  6. PART THREE: The Parables of Sun Light
    • Chapter VII 18 Poems
      (pp. 113-124)

      Dylan Thomas’Collected Poemscomprises, with minor variations, his five published volumes of poetry: 18Poems(1934),Twenty-five Poems(1936),The Map of Love(1939),Deaths and Entrances(1946), andIn Country Sleep(1952). The poems gathered into each of these volumes reflect an order that is something less than strictly chronological. A master of revision, Thomas put together a number of his published poems from earlier drafts that he had composed before he was twenty. Of the eighty-nine complete collected poems, forty-four are based on early work.¹

      The label “early poem,” however, is not to be confused with “poem...

    • Chapter VIII Twenty-Five Poems
      (pp. 125-139)

      Mixed and subordinate though it may be, religious imagery is an omnipresent feature of 18Poems.In some cases—as in “Before I knocked”—religious imagery informs the poetic language and directs the reader to the substantive topic of the poem; in other cases—“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is an example—the religious metaphor, secreted in such phrases as “the hanging man” or “time has ticked a heaven round the stars,” adds a coordinate dimension to a poem that is not specifically religious in its topic. But no poem in this first volume is...

    • Chapter IX The Map of Love
      (pp. 140-154)

      “Here dwell,” says Sam Rib in Thomas’ short story “The Map of Love,” “the two-backed beasts. He pointed to his map of Love, a square of seas and islands and strange continents with a forest of darkness at each extremity.”¹ Thomas’ third volume, titled after this story, is not unlike this map. Composed of sixteen poems and seven prose pieces—all of which had been previously published in periodicals—The Map of Loveis organized upon the central topic of love, and is dedicated to Thomas’ wife Caitlin. Six of the stories, and most of the poems, address some of...

    • Chapter X Deaths and Entrances
      (pp. 155-186)

      The major topic ofThe Map of Lovewas suggested by its title: most of the pieces contributed to a charting of love’s topography. InDeaths and Entrances,too, title divulges subject. For although the poems in this fourth volume are not unanimous in their adherence to one subject, they are patterned by a certain consistency. The subject is that ofdeathsandentrances:to this set of opposites most of the poems are addressed.

      It is perhaps true that the words of this title comefromDonne’s sermon “Death’s Duell”: “Deliverancefromthat death, the death of thewombe...

    • Chapter XI In Country Sleep
      (pp. 187-203)

      In Country Sleep,as originally published, comprised six poems: “Over Sir John’s hill,” “Poem on his birthday,” “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “Lament,” “In the white giant”s thigh,” and “In country sleep.” Certain similarities mark these poems. Each is about an individual confronting either the fact of or the threat of death, and each is an attempt to say something meaningful about the confrontation. “Death is all metaphors,” asserted the poet of “Altarwise by owllight” (p. 80) inTwenty-five Poems(1936); inDeaths and Entrances(1946) death was still a metaphor. But with In Country Sleep (1952)—...

    • Chapter XII “The Prayer’s End”: A Conclusion
      (pp. 204-208)

      The three types of religious imagery established in this study, while they are inherent in the principles of Thomas’ art, were never defined by the poet himself. They are defined by the reader, and are useful only insofar as he can arrive, through them, at an ordered approach to Thomas’ poetry. To assume that they can adequately define religious poetry is to assume that religious poetry has a scientific exactness, that it conforms to strict and absolute laws, and that these laws, described categorically, determine what is or is not art. But poetry is not completely amenable to such laws,...

  7. Appendix: The Tendency Toward Ambiguity in Thomas’ Revisions
    (pp. 209-220)
  8. Works Cited
    (pp. 221-226)
  9. Index
    (pp. 227-234)