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The work of Dylan Thomas has occasioned much critical commentary, although critics share no consensus on how bright his star shines in the galaxy of modern poetry. In fact, it is a curious phenomenon that so many critics seem obsessed with deciding once and for all whether Thomas's poems belong side by side with those of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, or whether they are—in the words of a reputable critic quoted by Henry Treece in Dylan Thomas: "Dog Among the Fairies"—"intellectual fakes of the highest class." The latter is definitely a minority opinion; yet even Treece, an acquaintance of Thomas's, had to admit that the poet's work is "extremely ill-balanced."
The estimation of the work has often been colored by an estimation of the man. Until Constantine FitzGibbon's The Life of Dylan Thomas in 1965, Thomas's biography was dominated by numerous unflattering published reminiscences, among them the graphically detailed account of John Malcolm Brinnin's Dylan Thomas in America, concerning, in part, the poet's drinking and philandering during his last years in America. Though FitzGibbon sympathetically glossed over Thomas's drinking habits, the facts reported by Brinnin and others and corroborated in Paul Ferris's Dylan Thomas support the idea that Thomas frequently drank to excess, and that such drinking adversely affected his social behavior. Personal details such as these tended to render objective evaluations of the poetry difficult. Indeed, the legend of Dylan Thomas grew: the hard-drinking bard, the erratic chanter of his own songs, the romantic artist at odds with the modern world.
Thomas began writing poetry as a child, publishing his work in school magazines. By 1930 he had taken to writing poems in penny notebooks; a number of his poems were published in the "Poet's Corner" of the Sunday Referee and in the influential New Verse. Ralph Maud, in Entrances to Dylan Thomas's Poetry, declared that the writer's first published poem was the subsequently popular "And death shall have no dominion," which appeared on May 8, 1933, in the New English Weekly.
The notebooks in which Thomas composed between 1930 and 1934, when he was sixteen to twenty years old, reveal the young poet's struggle with a number of personal crises, the origins of which are rather obscure. In his 1965 Dylan Thomas, Jacob Korg described them as "related to love affairs, to industrial civilization, and to the youthful problems of finding one's identity." Revised versions of some of the notebooks' poems became in 1934 his first published volume of poetry, Eighteen Poems.
Eighteen Poems was published in December, 1934, a short time after Thomas moved to London. The volume received little notice at first, but by the following spring some influential newspapers and journals had reviewed it favorably. Ferris quoted from an anonymous review in the Morning Post that called the poems "individual but not private" and went on to strike a note that later became a frequent criticism: "a psychologist would observe Mr. Thomas's constant use of images and epithets which are secretory or glandular." Ferris also quoted a critic for Time and Tide, who wrote: "This is not merely a book of unusual promise; it is more probably the sort of bomb that bursts not more than once in three years." The book was also reviewed favorably by Spectator, New Verse, and the Times Literary Supplement.
Like James Joyce before him, Dylan Thomas was obsessed with words—with their sound and rhythm and especially with their possibilities for multiple meanings. This richness of meaning, an often illogical and revolutionary syntax, and catalogues of cosmic and sexual imagery render Thomas's early poetry original and difficult. In a letter to Richard Church, included by FitzGibbon in Selected Letters, Thomas commented on what he considered some of his own excesses: "Immature violence, rhythmic monotony, frequent muddle-headedness, and a very much overweighted imagery that leads often to incoherence." Similarly, in a letter to Glyn Jones, he wrote: "My own obscurity is quite an unfashionable one, based, as it is, on a preconceived symbolism derived (I'm afraid all this sounds wooly and pretentious) from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy."
This discussion of the difficulty of Eighteen Poems does not discount the fact that most of the poems have yielded their meanings to persistent readers—and books like William York Tindall's A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas and Clark Emery's The World of Dylan Thomas aid the reader's comprehension. Such poems as "I see the boys of summer," "A process in the weather of the heart," and the popular "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" merit repeated readings, both for the artistic pleasure they give through their highly structured forms and for their embodiment of some of the key themes that run throughout the volume and, indeed, throughout much of Thomas's work. Among these themes are the unity of time, the similarity between creative and destructive forces in the universe, and the correspondence of all living things. This last theme was identified by Elder Olson in The Poetry of Dylan Thomas as part of the tradition of the microcosm-macrocosm: "He analogizes the anatomy of man to the structure of the universe . . . and sees the human microcosm as an image of the macrocosm, and conversely."
During the almost two years between the publication of Eighteen Poems in 1934 and Twenty-five Poems in 1936, Thomas moved back and forth between London and Wales a great deal. In London he began to meet influential people in the literary world: Herbert Read, Geoffrey Grigson, Norman Cameron, and Vernon Watkins, among others. He became particularly close to Watkins, an older man whose sedate lifestyle contrasted markedly with Thomas's. Watkins and Thomas would criticize each other's poetry, and Watkins became a frequent source of money for the continually destitute Thomas. At this time Thomas was carrying on a mostly long-distance relationship with the poet and novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson, later the wife of novelist C. P. Snow. While the affair lasted—it was finally torn asunder by Thomas's drinking—Thomas shared with her in letters his personal insecurities and his misgivings about his work. Paul Ferris cited this letter written from Laugharne, Wales, circa May 21, 1934: "I am tortured today by every doubt and misgiving that an hereditarily twisted imagination, an hereditary thirst and a commercial quenching, a craving for a body not my own, a chequered education and too much egocentric poetry, and a wild, wet day in a tided town, are capable of conjuring up out of their helly deeps." During this period Thomas's drinking became a serious problem, and his friends would sometimes take him off to out-of-the-way places in Cornwall and Ireland to remove him from temptation with the hope that he would do more writing.
Thomas's second volume of poetry, Twenty-five Poems, was published in September, 1936. Most of the poems were revised from the notebooks; FitzGibbon reported in The Life of Dylan Thomas that "only six entirely new poems, that is to say poems written in the year and a half between the publication of [ Eighteen Poems] and the despatch of the second volume to the printers, are to be found in that volume." Ferris noted that "the reviews were generally favourable, but with one exception they were not as enthusiastic as they were for [ Eighteen Poems]." This exception, however, almost assured the volume's commercial success; it was a laudatory review by Dame Edith Sitwell in the Sunday Times. As cited by Ferris, the review proclaimed: "The work of this very young man (he is twenty-two years of age) is on a huge scale, both in theme and structurally. . . . I could not name one poet of this, the youngest generation, who shows so great a promise, and even so great an achievement."
Though most of the works in Twenty-five Poems were mined from older material, the volume includes a significant sonnet sequence of ten poems, "Altarwise by owl-light," written in Ireland the year before publication. In these sonnets Thomas moved from the pre-Christian primitivism of most of the Eighteen Poems to a Christian mythology based upon love. G. S. Fraser commented in Vision and Rhetoric that "the sonnets, a failure as a whole, splendid in parts . . . are important because they announce the current of orthodox Christian feeling—feeling rather than thought—which was henceforth increasingly to dominate Thomas's work in poetry." Olson saw these sonnets as a break with the past, in method as well as philosophic-religious outlook: "It is notable that after the 'Altarwise by owl-light' sonnets, he discards nearly all of this particular body of symbols, transforms the remainder and gradually develops new symbols and new diction to correspond with his changing view of life." Olson, who worked out an elaborate schema of interpretation involving Hercules in the zodiac, also called these sonnets "surely among the greatest poems of the century." Tindall remarked in A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas that the theme of these sonnets is really Thomas himself. Tindall commented, "Although cheerfully allowing the presence of Jesus, Hercules, the stars, the zodiac, and a generally neglected voyage, I think them analogies, not to be confused with the theme." Korg, commenting on the obscurity of the sequence, said that "all that is reasonably clear is that it concerns the crucifixion and the resurrection as foci of spiritual conflict."
While much of the attention given to Twenty-five Poems has been focused on the religious sonnets, the volume as a whole contains indications of a shift in emphasis in Thomas's writing. Richard Morton noted in An Outline of the Works of Dylan Thomas that the poems of this volume are "concerned with the relationship between the poet and his environment," particularly the natural environment. "In Twenty-five Poems, we can see the beginnings of the pastoral mode which reaches its fulfillment in the great lyrics of Thomas's last poems." And, as Korg said, "at least three of the poems in the second volume are about the poet's reactions to other people, themes of an entirely different class from those of [ Eighteen Poems]; and these three anticipate [Thomas's] turning outward in his later poems toward such subjects as his aunt's funeral, the landscape, and his relations with his wife and children."
Some of the best poems in the book are rather straightforward pieces—"This bread break," "The hand that signed the paper," "And death shall have no dominion"—but others, such as "I, in my intricate image," are as involved and abstruse as the poems of the earlier volume. Derek Stanford noted that still "there are traces of doubt, questioning, and despair in many of these pieces." Thomas, however, chose to place the optimistic "And death shall have no dominion" at the end of the volume. This poem has always been one of Thomas's most popular works, perhaps because, as Clark Emery noted, it was "published in a time when notes of affirmation—philosophical, political, or otherwise—did not resound among intelligent liberal humanists, [and thus] it answered an emotional need. . . . It affirmed without sentimentalizing; it expressed a faith without theologizing."
The "Altarwise by owl-light" poems as well as "And death shall have no dominion" inevitably raise questions concerning the extent to which Dylan Thomas can be called a religious writer. In an essay for A Casebook on Dylan Thomas W. S. Merwin was one of the first to deal with this issue; he found Thomas to be a religious writer because he was a "celebrator in the ritual sense: a maker and performer of a rite. . . . That which he celebrates is creation, and more particularly the human condition." However, the positions on this issue can be—and have been—as various as the definitions of what constitutes a religious outlook. At one end of the scale, critics do not dispute that Thomas used religious imagery in his poetry; at the other end, critics generally agree that, at least during certain periods of his creative life, Thomas's vision was not that of any orthodox religious system. The range of interpretations was summarized by R. B. Kershner, Jr., in Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics: "He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force, and with Thomas himself."
On July 11, 1937, Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara; they were penniless and lacked the blessings of their parents. After spending some time with each of their reluctant families, they moved to a borrowed house in Laugharne, Wales. This fishing village became their permanent address, though they lived in many temporary dwellings in England and Wales through the war years and after, until Thomas's death in 1953. The borrowing of houses and money became recurring events in their married life together. Korg associated these external circumstances in the poet's life with his artistic development: "Thomas's time of settling in Laugharne coincides roughly with the period when his poetry began to turn outward; his love for Caitlin, the birth of his first child, Llewellyn, responses to the Welsh countryside and its people, and ultimately events of the war began to enter his poetry as visible subjects."
Thomas's third book, The Map of Love, appeared in August, 1939, the year war broke out in Europe. It comprised a strange union of sixteen poems and seven stories, the stories having been previously published in periodicals. The volume was a commercial failure, perhaps because of the war. Ferris reported that "the book was respectfully and sometimes warmly reviewed, with a few dissenters"; yet these works of Thomas's middle period are his least successful. The short stories are inferior to those that appeared the next year in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. They are mannered, misty, cumbersome—dealing often with dreams and vague imaginings. Some of these stories have been called surrealistic, opening up a vein of controversy, since Thomas often disavowed his use of surrealism. Annis Pratt, in Dylan Thomas's Early Prose, suggested that although surrealistic features exist in the stories, Thomas exercised careful control over his material. She quoted Thomas on this point: "I do not mind from where the images of a poem are dragged up; drag them up, if you like, from the nethermost sea of the hidden self; but, before they reach paper, they must go through all the rational processes of the intellect."
While the poems of The Map of Love, with one or two exceptions, are not among the best Thomas wrote, they are interesting for the light they shed on his development of a more outward-looking and less cosmic aesthetic. At least one of the poems, "I make this in a warring absence," treats an early marital conflict with Caitlin. "If my head hurt a hair's foot" appears to be a celebration of the birth of the poet's son. Two very interesting poems have to do with the uncertainties of the poet. Clark Emery has associated "On no word of words" with Coleridge's "Dejection" and Milton's Sonnet XVI in its lament over lost powers and the passage of time. "After the funeral," considered the best poem of the volume, is an elegy for his rural aunt, Ann Jones. John Fuller concluded in an essay from Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays that "the poem rehearses for Thomas the idea that out of the practice of grief can come real grief and love."
In sharp contrast to the stories in The Map of Love are those published the following year, 1940, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Thomas claimed in a letter to Vernon Watkins that he "kept the flippant title for—as the publishers advise—money-making reasons." He also said that the title was not a parody of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—a dubious proposition—though he did acknowledge the general influence of Joyce's Dubliners. These Thomas stories are different from the earlier ones in their particularity of character and place, their straightforward plot lines, and their relevance to Thomas's childhood in Wales. Thomas wrote to Watkins in August, 1939: "I've been busy over stories, pot-boiling stories for a book, semi-autobiographical, to be finished by Christmas."
Reviews of the book were mixed, and it didn't sell well at the time, though it later became enormously popular. According to Ferris, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement found that "the atmosphere of schoolboy smut and practical jokes and poetry is evoked with lingering accuracy but with nothing more." Subsequent critics have detected more in the stories, though most agree that Thomas is primarily a poet and only secondarily a writer of fiction. Korg commented that "taken as a group, [the stories] seem to trace the child's emergence from his domain of imagination and secret pleasures into an adult world where he observes suffering, pathos, and dignity." Two of the more successful stories in the collection are "The Peaches"—the first story—and "One Warm Saturday"—the last.
"The Peaches" features a youthful main character named Dylan who goes to his aunt's farm for a holiday; this is quite clearly the farm of Ann Jones of "After the funeral" and the farm celebrated in "Fern Hill." Harold F. Mosher, Jr., in his Studies in Short Fiction essay, summed up the conflict of the story and the means by which it is dramatized: "Through the juxtaposition of characters, the opposition of images, and the variation of pace and tempo, Thomas unifies his story and clarifies the conflict between imaginative life and dull existence." "One Warm Saturday" contains disillusionment comparable to that found in Joyce's story "Araby." After falling in love with a girl in a park and drinking with her and her friends in a bar, the hero of the story goes with the group to the girl's apartment, but loses his way in the hall after going to the bathroom and never finds the apartment again. Once more, this story depicts the conflict between the imaginative dreams of love and the real world of pain and confusion. In his Studies in Short Fiction essay Richard Kelly contrasted this story with Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Whereas Joyce's wading girl provides [the main character] with aesthetic and emotional autonomy, the girl in the antiromantic 'One Warm Saturday' fills the young man with anguish and frustration and returns him to an ugly, hostile world."
Constantine FitzGibbon reported that Thomas considered World War II a "personal affront." For a while he contemplated filing for conscientious objector status, but in the end he seems to have avoided service because of medical problems. Ferris quoted Thomas's mother, who claimed "punctured lungs" were the reason he didn't serve. Ferris suggested that the disability may have been a psychological one. Whatever his particular unfitness, Thomas was able to secure employment during the war years writing documentary scripts for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). While he considered it hack work, it provided the first regular income since his newspaper days and also allowed him to spend a good deal of time in London pubs. This pragmatic writing was the beginning of a career that Thomas pursued until his death; it did not, however, replace what he considered his more important work, the writing of poems. In addition to the documentaries, he wrote radio scripts and eventually screenplays for feature films. Though his income from these activities was moderate, it did not allow him and Caitlin relief from debt or their friends relief from the frequent begging letters.
In 1940 Thomas began writing Adventures in the Skin Trade, a novel that he never completed, though its first section was subsequently published. It is essentially the time-honored story of a country boy in the big city. Annis Pratt commented that Thomas intended the story to be "a series of 'adventures' in which the hero's 'skins' would be stripped off one by one like a snake's until he was left in a kind of quintessential nakedness to face the world."
Thomas's work next saw publication in a 1946 poetry collection, Deaths and Entrances, containing many of his most famous poems. This volume included such works as "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," "Poem in October," "The Hunchback in the Park," and "Fern Hill." Deaths and Entrances was an instant success. Ferris noted that three thousand copies sold in the first month after its publication and that the publisher, Dent, ordered a reprint of the same number. In Vision and Rhetoric G. S. Fraser said of the volume that "it increases the impression of variety and of steady development, which the earlier volumes, read in the order of their appearance, give." T. H. Jones, in his Dylan Thomas, declared the volume to be the core of Thomas's achievement. The poems of Deaths and Entrances, while still provoking arguments about interpretation, are less compressed and less obscure than the earlier works. Some, like "Fern Hill," illustrate an almost Wordsworthian harmony with nature and other human beings but not without the sense of the inexorability of time. As Jacob Korg said of these poems, "the figures and landscapes have a new solidity, a new self-sufficiency, and the dialectic vision no longer penetrates them as though they were no more than windows opening on a timeless universe."
"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," one of Thomas's more accessible poems, illustrates well the almost sacramental view of nature that characterizes this later poetry. At the same time it is topical in its reference to the firebombing of London during the war. The child, like the poet, enters the "synagogue of corn," the holiness of nature, at her death. Yet the poem is richly ambiguous in its final line, "After the first death, there is no other." As Tindall observed, this statement can be taken either as a pledge of eternal life or as a realization that death is death, that one is dead forever—or both. "Fern Hill" presents a similar sacramental imagery—"And the sabbath rang slowly / In the pebbles of the holy streams"—and a pervasive sense of unity between the speaker and nature. But over the whole poem broods "Time," which at the end is triumphant: "Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea." In an essay for English Journal Jack L. Jenkins summarized: "The predominate tone of the poem is still green, touched by the bittersweet knowledge of the last lines but green nonetheless. There is nothing harsh or bitter or dark about the poem, only an inevitable acceptance of the irony."
Mention has already been made of Thomas's obsession with words, and while these later poems in Deaths and Entrances are less compressed than the earlier ones, they reveal no less verbal facility or less concern for what is generally called poetic style. Thomas was always a highly individual stylist. Sound was as important as sense in his poems—some would even say more important. He made ample use of alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and approximate rhyme. In The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas, William T. Moynihan describes his rhythm as "accentual syllabic": "its stress pattern generally sounds as though it is iambic, but this very justifiable assumption cannot always be borne out by traditional scansion. Thomas may, in fact, have depended upon an iambic expectancy, as he varied his rhythms beyond any customary iambic formulation and then—by completely unprecedented innovations—created his own rhythm, which is very close to iambic."
By the time of the publication of Deaths and Entrances Thomas had become a living legend. Through his very popular readings and recordings of his own work, this writer of sometimes obscure poetry gained mass appeal. For many, he came to represent the figure of the bard, the singer of songs to his people. Kershner asserted that Thomas "became the wild man from the West, the Celtic bard with the magical rant, a folk figure with racial access to roots of experience which more civilized Londoners lacked." His drinking, his democratic tendencies, and the frank sexual imagery of his poetry made him the focal point of an ill-defined artistic rebellion.
In 1949 Thomas and his family moved to the Boat House of Laugharne, Wales, a house provided for them by one of Thomas's benefactors, Mrs. Margaret Taylor. For the last four years of his life he moved between this dwelling and the United States, where he went on four separate tours to read his poetry and receive the adulation of the American public. The often sordid accounts of these tours are provided in John Malcolm Brinnin's Dylan Thomas in America. Thomas's last separate volume of poetry before the Collected Poems, 1934-1952 (1952) was Country Sleep, published by New Directions in the United States in 1952. As originally published, this book contained six of the poet's most accomplished works: "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." Concerning this volume, Rushworth M. Kidder commented in Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit that "the fact of physical death seems to present itself to the poet as something more than distant event. . . . These poems come to terms with death through a form of worship: not propitiatory worship of Death as deity, but worship of a higher Deity by whose power all things, including death, are controlled." Tindall called these poems "Thomas at his mellowest." In "Do not go gentle into that good night," a poem written during his father's illness and in anticipation of his death, the son exhorts the father to affirm life in his dying. Similarly, though the women of "In the white giant's thigh" have died childless, the poet, as Korg pointed out, "memorializes their vitality by means of the paradox that their fertility survives through the memory of their many loves."
It has already been mentioned that Thomas began writing scripts during the war. Several of his film scripts have been published, including The Doctor and the Devils and The Beach at Falesa. Neither of these was produced, but they gave Thomas the opportunity to develop his dramatic skills. These skills culminated in his radio play, Under Milk Wood, written over a long period of time and frantically revised in America during the last months of his life. The play grew out of the story "Quite Early One Morning," which was broadcast by the BBC in 1945. Under Milk Wood is set in a small Welsh town called Llareggub and covers one day in the lives of its provincial characters. These characters are disembodied voices who reveal their nighttime dreams and their daily monotonous lives. Richard Morton commented that "the trivialities of small-town life are more than evocative, however; they are presented to us in ceremonial order, as though they have a kind of esoteric significance." The characters in the play are satisfied with their lives, and Thomas himself seems to accept and affirm their rural simplicity. Raymond Williams, in an essay for Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays, said that Under Milk Wood is "not a mature work, but the retained extravagance of an adolescent's imaginings. Yet it moves, at its best, into a genuine involvement, an actual sharing of experience, which is not the least of its dramatic virtues." Thomas read the play as a solo performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 3, 1953; the first group reading was on May 14. In the following November, Dylan Thomas died in New York of ailments complicated by alcohol and drug abuse.
Publication of the rest of Thomas's BBC work occurred in 1992 with the release of On the Air with Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts. This volume includes all of Thomas's radio work with the exception of Under the Milk Wood. Peter Thorpe, writing for the Bloomsbury Review noted the immense power of Thomas's voice during these broadcasts, which "[tended] to overwhelm us with its incantational rhythms, its intoxicating iterations." Thorpe commented that the advantage of having these works in print "is that it allows his 'senior' followers . . . to assess a significant part of his work with the eye rather than the ear."
The originality that is the hallmark of Thomas's work makes categorization very difficult. As Kershner commented, "The fact remains that Thomas throughout his career stayed generally aloof from literary cliques, groups, and movements." Unlike other prominent writers of the 1930s—W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, for example—Thomas had little use for socialistic ideas in his art. He seems to have admired much of T. S. Eliot's earlier poetry but became disenchanted with what Kershner called Eliot's "unsensual and religious poetry." It is safe to say that Thomas was influenced by such modern movements as symbolism and surrealism, but he borrowed without adhering to any creed. He was particularly concerned with disassociating himself from the surrealist movement because he felt his conscious craftsmanship was contrary to the methods of that group. In the late 1930s and the 1940s a movement called the Apocalypse, which heralded myth and decried the machine and politics, claimed Thomas for its own; but though he did say he mostly believed in its principles, he refused to sign the group's manifesto. Clearly, Thomas can be seen as an extension into the twentieth century of the general movement called romanticism, particularly in its emphasis on imagination, emotion, intuition, spontaneity, and organic form; but attempts to identify him with a particular "neo-romantic" school have failed. As Kershner said, "The historical perspective, while valuable, is self-limiting; poetry either crosses temporal boundaries or else it has no essential purpose." That Dylan Thomas wrote poems that cross temporal boundaries guarantees their essential purpose.
The boathouse in Laugharne, Wales, that served as the inspiration for Llaregguh in Under Milk Wood is threatened by nearby construction. City officials are working to prevent damage to the building from the trucks working on expanding Ferry House, which serves as a tourist center for those visiting Thomas's homestead.