Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

Walford Davies
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 2
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  • Book Info
    Dylan Thomas
    Book Description:

    An authoritative introduction by a leading Dylan Thomas scholar to the nature, cultural background, achievement and critical reception of this major poet’s work.

    eISBN: 978-1-78316-059-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Acknowledgements
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1. ‘Begin at the beginning’: introductory
    (pp. 1-5)

    The shape of this study is that of an essay, with areas of critical attention declared by sub-headings (all of them suggestive quotations from Thomas), rather than by ‘chapter’ breaks. Right up to 1940, the real-time chronology of the vast majority of Dylan Thomas’s poems was not that of his first three volumes (1934, 1936, 1939). And the same is true right through of this question of chronology. An essay-as opposed to chapter-form enables us to interrelate biographical sequence and thematic frequencies more freely and more meaningfully.

    So let us start even pre-textually, with images. The cover photograph to this...

  7. 2. ‘The sideboard fruit, the ferns’: the poet in suburbia
    (pp. 5-9)

    Thomas’s beginnings seem to have been almost comic suburban boredom, forced to lighten itself first by ragamuffin adventures and later by group sub-bohemian chats over coffee in the Kardomah Café in Swansea’s Castle Street with friends like musician Daniel Jones, journalist Charles Fisher, artist Fred Janes and (later) poet Vernon Watkins, as more racily with allcomers in the pubs of Swansea, his ‘Little Dublin’,⁹ and later still in any pub at all. Thereafter, apart from a most impressive output in both prose and poetry, there was only strenuous financial survival, and an America that did to his every word what...

  8. 3. ‘The loud hill of Wales’: the Welshness of the work
    (pp. 10-53)

    But that Welsh-speaking life so consciously denied the poet at source – could it still have exerted an influence even on the wider reaches of his poetry? Talk of ‘modifiedcynghanedd’, when the examples amount to no more than alliteration helped by assonance, has for too long been allowed to hallow some poets as Anglo-Welsh as if they knew fully whatcynghaneddinvolves, even were it a border-controlled prerequisite, which it is not. It is obvious that a primarily Welsh-speaking poet will use the English language more idiosyncratically than a writer inward only with English idioms and traditions, and do so...

  9. 4. ‘I’ll put them all in a story by and by’: aspects of the prose
    (pp. 54-64)

    In the case of the early stories, this was fair enough: the early prose was not in any case an examination of an objective world. In his correspondence with his Swansea friend, Trevor Hughes, he described them as therapeutic, the expression of a sensibility, with their mawkish sexual emphasis a means of catharsis (‘Everything I do drags up a devil’ – a parallel to his more famous ‘Freudian’ claim that his poetry brings hidden things ‘into the clean nakedness of light’).⁴⁷ It is odd to think that the warped pastoralism of some of the early short stories, thosepièces noires, probably...

  10. 5. ‘Now my saying shall be my undoing’: the need to change
    (pp. 64-74)

    Thomas spoke often of the need to free himself from what he called ‘the churning bulk of the words’. But he was seeking freedom from language’s endless challenges, not from its weight and body as such. In a letter to Charles Fisher in 1935 he said, in a wonderful phrase, that he was aiming at a poetry ‘heavy in tare though nimble.’⁵⁵ ‘Tare’ here does not mean the nuisance weed in the Bible (Matthew, 13) but the structure and packaging that in mere goods are subtracted to determine net weight. Thomas always wanted at least an awareness of the ‘tare’...

  11. 6. ‘Criss-cross rhythms’: comparisons of earlier and later poems
    (pp. 74-82)

    But the fact remains that, so front-loaded was Thomas’s writing career in proportion to the number of poems written, it was already three-quarters over by 1938. As mentioned, the relationship of a Thomas poem’s date of conception or partial composition to its volume-appearance is often out-of-sync. It is why a merely sequent attention to the first three poetry volumes would be misleading – as it would not be in the case of, say, R. S. Thomas a decade later. The difference between early and later poems (a perfectly honourable gauge, and poignant in so tragically short a life) is clearest if...

  12. picture section
    (pp. None)
  13. 7. ‘Ann’s bard on a raised hearth’: towards ‘After the funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)’
    (pp. 83-89)

    Before the outbreak of war, Thomas had already begun to loosen the autonomous verbal structures of his verse and attempted what amounted to the humanization of his craft. Marriage and approaching fatherhood helped clarify spheres of human relationship. But the dense textures of a characteristic style do not change overnight. The cool objectivity of poems such as ‘Once it was the colour of saying’ or ‘On no work of words’ – that stepping aside, as it were, to talkaboutthe problem – was one thing; returning to larger, less self-conscious themes was another. A further point worth mentioning is that Thomas’s...

  14. 8. ‘Mostly bare I would lie down’: a creative decade ends in war
    (pp. 89-93)

    The chance to follow through and diversify that particular kind of self-adjustment in relationship to his rural, Welsh-language roots was halted at exactly the time it seemed most promising. The year of the new ‘After the funeral’, 1938, was the year Thomas first moved to live in Laugharne, which was a town with its own (in many ways non-Welsh) character. But its immediate hinterland, redolent with sustaining memories, was the countryside of Ann Jones’s Fernhill and the nearby family cottages at Blaen Cwm where the teenager had often stayed and written poetry, and where, in another six years, he was...

  15. 9. ‘Arc-lamped thrown back upon the cutting flood’; ‘This unbelievable lack of wires’: wartime, film work, broadcasts
    (pp. 94-106)

    Thomas’s reaction in conversation and letters to the actual onset of the war had mixed serious outrage with witty fear. He naturally worried about personal and family survival and wryly added under the date in a copy of the newly publishedThe Map of Lovefor Pamela Hansford Johnson on 3 September 1939, ‘Dylan-shooting begins’. He enquired about the possibility of one of the ‘reserved occupations’ in the Ministry of Information or the BBC, on the basis of quite genuine conscientious objection to war. His personal protest ranged from comedy (‘My little body I don’t intend to waste’) to an...

  16. 10. ‘We hid our fears in that murdering breath’: the war elegies
    (pp. 106-113)

    It is not that Thomas suddenly started writing like Betjeman, but that a broad accessibility had become a desideratum in the emergency of war. Major poems such as ‘There was a saviour’ (1940), ‘Deaths and Entrances’ (1940), ‘Among those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred’ (1941), ‘Ceremony after a Fire Raid’ (1944) and ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ (1945) show how personally deep the shock had gone. Thomas in the late 1930s had been writing poems on that very different creative phenomenon –rumoursof war. ‘A saint...

  17. 11. ‘Parables of sun light’: towards ‘Poem in October’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and beyond
    (pp. 114-129)

    Between 1941 and 1944 Thomas wrote very few poems. His wife Caitlin felt that the distractions of London life, and what she considered his distracting work in films and broadcasting, were slowing down the poet’s further development. In a literary-historical sense she was wrong, and yet right to continue her role of involved, intelligent wardenship of Thomas’s best interests as man as well as poet. The relative poetic silence of the 1941–4 period was indeed due to the interposition of filmic and radio commitments. But the unsettledness was more profound than that. During those years, Thomas was happiest and...

  18. 12. ‘Is my voice being your eyes?’: Under Milk Wood
    (pp. 129-145)

    It is not possible in a brief study to follow Thomas from venue to venue on those four triumphant yet tragic American trips, any more than from pub to pub at home. And the six poems of his final separate volumeIn Country Sleep(published only in America, in February 1952) are the appropriate lyric and autobiographical note for the final end. So in the meantime the work to turn to here isUnder Milk Wood, the single work of long and plural gestation by which, partly because of its immediately posthumous publication, Thomas has come to be most widely...

  19. 13. ‘The rhymer in the long tongued room’: writing places and the place of the poet
    (pp. 146-151)

    Some of the best of Thomas’s later work – ‘Over Sir John’s hill’, ‘In the white giant’s thigh’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and the first part ofUnder Milk Wood– was published in the Italian magazineBotteghe Oscure. That dark phrase, which literally means ‘the dark workshop’, would have been lightened for Thomas not only by the quality and cosmopolitan range of the authors the magazine published (including, in English, Wallace Stevens and Auden) but by its association with radical democratic politics in Europe – like the Italian Communist Party Offices, the magazine was housed in a street...

  20. 14. ‘As I sail out to die’: the late poems
    (pp. 151-162)

    In a BBC broadcast of September 1950 called ‘Three Poems’, Thomas introduced readings of ‘In Country Sleep’ (1947), ‘Over Sir John’s hill’ (1949) and ‘In the White Giant’s Thigh’ (1950) as parts of a long poem that he was going to call ‘In Country Heaven’. As already said, the putative scheme was as fantastic as ‘The Town That Was Mad’ idea for the ‘play for voices’. In it, God and the inhabitants of Country Heaven would learn of the atomic extinction of the Earth. Country Heaven suddenly goes dark, and those inhabitants who were once on Earth call to each...

  21. 15. ‘The hero’s head lies scraped of every legend’: the legend and the man
    (pp. 162-169)

    Among the endless awards and acclaims that followed Dylan Thomas’s death, one picks out the fact that W. H. Auden was pleased to be the lead signatory of the Appeal Letter in America in support of Thomas’s family: it raised $20,000 in two months, with Auden adding that he thought Thomas’s death ‘an incalculable loss to literature’. In Britain, T. S. Eliot was the lead signatory. Two decades earlier, in November 1934, Eliot’s secretary had sent Thomas a message to say that ‘Mr Eliot’ hoped ‘that you will not make any decision about the publication of your poems before hearing...

  22. Notes
    (pp. 170-175)
  23. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 176-180)
  24. Index
    (pp. 181-188)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 189-189)