‘In spite of the danger of becoming the centre of a cult, Mr. Thomas has developed in his own way, exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences; a poetic process that has made him the English Rimbaud.’
This is how Dylan Thomas was described on the dust jacket of Deaths and Entrances, a collection of twenty-four new poems published just after the Second World War in the year of his thirty-third birthday. These poems amount to about a quarter of his entire poetic output and, with Under Milk Wood, represent the work of his mature years, mature in his case meaning his thirties, which turned out to be his final decade. They include nearly all the poems for which he is best known, with the exception of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, which was written later and published first in an Italian literary journal and then in Collected Poems, 1934-1952.
‘In this new collection,’ the dust jacket note goes on, ‘the poet’s difficult idiom has become more familiar and authoritative. Without losing any of its pronounced personal qualities, it has gained in coherence of imagery, and a clearer traffic between reason and imagination. The result is a body of verse that should interest a wider audience.’
There is no point in speculating what difference another decade might have made. Deaths and Entrances is as good as it was going to get and gave us a handful of poems that could not anyway have been bettered. Dylan Thomas found his voice before he knew what to do with it and it was a singing voice. He denied having been influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps because what he heard in Hopkins was something he knew already: that words have a tune independent of their meaning.
All of Dylan Thomas’s poems sound the same. When the sound drowns out the sense they are not good. When sound and sense go together they are unforgettable. In that respect, they are like hymns. The verses of his poems, like the verses of a hymn, all have the same tune and it is the tune that we recognise first. The syntax is so stretched and disjointed that, at first hearing, it is impossible to make sense of it. Take for example the first of the three verses of the poem from which the book takes its title.
On almost the incendiary eve
Of several near deaths,
When one at the great least of your best loved
And always known must leave
Lions and fires of his flying breath,
Of your immortal friends
Who’d raise the organs of the counted dust
To shoot and sing your praise,
One who called deepest down shall hold his peace
That cannot sink or cease
Endlessly to his wound
In many married London’s estranging grief.
To deconstruct that sentence in a search for meaning would be not just a hopeless task but hopelessly misguided. Better to read it as if you were in chapel or morning assembly, singing for example ‘Fondly my foolish heart essays’.
Fondly my foolish heart essays
To augment the source of perfect bliss,
Love’s all-sufficient sea to raise
With drops of creature happiness.
The tune stays in your head and with repetition, over the months and the years, the meaning, to which you have paid little attention in chapel or assembly, begins to emerge. Take any line out of the first verse of Thomas’s poem and ask whether it would be out of place in one of Wesley’s hymns: ‘And always known must leave… Of your immortal friends… One who called deepest down must hold his peace… Endlessly to his wound…’
Dylan Thomas tried hard not to be Welsh. He went to London, he worked for the BBC, he met Louis MacNeice, he assumed the voice of an English actor with which to read his poems. But his way of writing was bardic. His poems are sometimes like hymns, sometimes like spells, as in the sequence of emblem poems called Vision and Prayer (‘I / Must lie / Still as stone / By the wren bone / Wall hearing the moan / Of the mother hidden / And the shadowed head of pain / Casting tomorrow like a thorn’) or the children’s rhyme called Paper and Sticks (‘Paper and sticks and shovel and match / Why won’t the news of the old world catch / And the fire in a temper start’) or the spell to ward off death in the poem that came too late for Deaths and Entrances.
He used words to turn reality into myth. Sometimes myth and reality are at odds, as in A Refusal to Mourn, in which the reality of a child’s death in the blitz is made to serve the poet’s bardic purpose and lines like ‘I shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth’ seem merely pompous. His poem about being a poet, In My Craft or Sullen Art, lovely though its phrases are, teeters too on the brink of pomposity. (‘I labour by singing light / Not for ambition or bread / Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages…’ etc etc.)
But where the myth grows naturally out of the reality, where the Hunchback in the Park is also a hunchback in a park, we begin to see what the publisher meant by ‘a clearer traffic between reason and imagination’. In these poems too we begin to see a different Dylan Thomas from the one ‘exploring with vigour and originality his elemental, almost racial, emotions and mental experiences’. The tortured syntax of the English Rimbaud begins at last to say what it means. Love in the Asylum surprises with the almost prosaic quality of its beginning.
A stranger has come
To share my room in the house not right in the head,
A girl mad as birds
An image sets the scene in the plainest of terms for On a Wedding Anniversary.
The sky is torn across
This ragged anniversary
A poem about waking up starts simply (‘When I woke, the town spoke’) then line by line builds up a nightmarish vision (‘a man outside with a billhook / Up to his head in his blood’) until the moment of waking returns with an image of death that speaks for itself (‘And the coins on my eyelids sang like shells’).
The last poem in the collection is Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas’s hymn to childhood. Here the exuberance of his word-play is a part of what the poem is about: ‘the lilting house… honoured among wagons… once below a time… the rivers of the windfall light…’ The six verses, like a hymn, sing the same tune. Each line of each verse echoes its equivalent in the verse before. Line 3 for example: ‘The night above the dingle starry… In the sun that is young once only… And playing, lovely and watery… Shining, it was Adam and maiden… In the sun born over and over… In the moon that is always rising.’ The real farm and the mythical farm of the poem are never far apart.
It was in these poems, where he was able to distance himself from his experience enough to see it plainly, that sound and sense came together. The sweep of a long sentence, the relationship of its parts often ambiguous, their ordering idiosyncratic (if not perverse), which is so characteristic of his poetry and could seem at times like showing off (which it probably was sometimes) is, in these poems, the thing that makes Dylan Thomas seem more like a composer than a writer. Fern Hill and Poem in October are tone poems. Under Milk Wood is a comic opera.
He might have wanted to be an English poet, but that was because Wales was a pigeon hole he had no wish to be trapped in. His best work was, in one way or another, whether he liked it or not, Welsh. Swansea, Llareggub, his father, his wife, his friends.
… though I loved them for their faults
As much as for their good,
My friends were enemies on stilts
With their heads in a cunning cloud.
They were the chains he sang in.
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 22 October.
The subject of my post on 29 October will be Samuel Beckett.
My new novel Vive le Mole! is out now in paperback and on Kindle – for more information visit my online Bookshop.