Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

by Walford Davies

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Covering the whole range of Dylan Thomas’s writing—both poetry and prose—Walford Davies’s Dylan Thomas is an accessible appraisal of the work and achievement of this major and dynamic poet. Davies analyzes Thomas and his work in light of his Welsh background, while simultaneously illustrating Thomas’s wide knowledge of and impact on the long and varied tradition of poetry in English. In that connection, Davies delineates and delimits Thomas’s relationship to surrealism, compares and contrasts his work with that of other poets of the 1930s and ’40s, and shows how the power of his writing survives to this day, long after his untimely death in 1953. This new edition offers an updated bibliography and Davies’s own commentary on the previous edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783160587
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 08/15/2014
Series: University of Wales Press - Writers of Wales Series
Edition description: New edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Walford Davies is a leading authority on Dylan Thomas. He is the author or editor of numerous works on and by Thomas, including The Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas and Under Milk Wood. He lives in Aberystwyth, Wales.

Read an Excerpt

Dylan Thomas

By Walford Davies

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2014 Walford Davies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-152-2


'Begin at the beginning': introductory

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 volume is right to show Thomas as a young man. After all, he was still a young man when he died, aged 39. Far too often, photographs of Thomas, like portraits of Wordsworth (d. aged 80), reflect the later self instead of the young face behind earlier, more phenomenal, years of achievement. A trick of perspective in the famous John Deakin photograph of Thomas (fig. 5) 'inside the railings of a tomb [in St Martin's churchyard in Laugharne in 1949], my hair uncut for months ... blown up like a great, dancing, mousey busby', eerily merging the lionized poet with graves and undergrowth only a few yards (and as it turned out, only four years) from where he was himself to be buried; or the innumerable photo shots of Thomas at pub tables and lecture lecterns – all these speak of a twenty- or thirty- something poet forced to keep abreast of a legend, because a legend set afoot so early. Back of them all lies the different impression caught in the 1934 photograph (fig. 1). Its 'studio' self-regard is that of a sensitive nineteen-year-old trapped by respectable ordinariness, yet with the look of unused talent that might one day make a legend, but for the time being outrageously reassuring his mother that one day he would be 'as good as Keats, if not better'.

In the cover photograph the poet has become a relaxedly glamorous young man of 24 (a silk neckerchief is not a tie, even if it was 'made out of his sister's scarf, she never knew where it had gone'). He knew by then, quite rightly, that he could write, having had two acclaimed poetry volumes published, with a third on the way. And yet it was the teenager in that earlier 1934 photograph who, between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, made the bulk of those poems possible. His four poetry Notebooks (ranging from April 1930 to April 1934) slowly came to contain first attempts at over forty of the published poems, a remarkable number when we consider that the Collected Poems 1934–1952, which Thomas published in 1952, a year before his death, saying that they were 'all, up to the present year that I wish to preserve', comprised only eighty- nine. The defensive remark about Keats was only to calm his mother's worry whether teenager Dylan, apparently idling at home in the first three years of the 1930s, should not be following his father's route 'to the university'. 'Anybody'd think you were a Keats or something,' she'd taunted.

To sympathize with him, however, is not to submit to the notion (to borrow the young Milton's phrase in 'L'Allegro'), of Thomas as some 'fancy's child,/Warbl[ing] his native wood-notes wild'. Thomas's early poetry Notebooks reveal a different young man, unusually determined to learn his craft as a poet. The tones in which he later described his home, the opportunity to write poems, and his formal education, as 'demure, chequered', are anything but injured except in his having to say so. As it happened, Swansea Grammar School, which he attended from 1925 to 1931, with the significant exception of the classes over which his own father reigned as Senior English Master, had a liberal atmosphere. Caught out of the classroom by the genial headmaster Trevor Owen, Dylan replied he was 'playing truant, sir', a brilliantly honest answer, yet topped by the headmaster's rejoinder: 'Well, don't let your father catch you!' But the school had also a take-it-or-leave-it regime in a more estimable sense. The Latin Master J. Morgan Williams recorded that Dylan at one stage 'wanted to hear a bit of Vergil, though I don't think he was a Latin scholar at all. He came for about two months, until it was time to edit the magazine, and then I didn't see him any more.' Two months of voluntary Latin? – obvious to the reader, as very early to intimate friends, is that here was a tough intelligence not weakened in being independent of academic discipline, ideological commitment, or class knowingness. His attitude later to the modern English poetic lions of the turn of the twentieth century was that of the young Keats to Wordsworth and Coleridge at the turn of the nineteenth – impressed, yes, but mistrustful of their wide philosophical confidence. The analogy is particularly keen when we think of Keats's mistrust of Wordsworth's 'egotistical sublime' and of any poetry that 'has a palpable design upon us'. Not for Thomas, either, the 'cultural memory' employed relentlessly at every turn by Eliot (whom he dubbed 'Pope Eliot') or the collective 'political' programmes of Auden and his circle. In a perfectly sincere tribute to Auden in 1937 he could not resist saying that, though he sometimes thought of Auden's poetry 'as a great war' and admired intensely 'the mature, religious, and logical fighter', he deprecated 'the boy bushranger', adding on sending it to Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse, 'Good luck to Auden on his seventieth birthday', when Auden was only thirty. Such comments have the attractive brio of a younger brother. However, they do not remove the difference between, say, Auden's knowledgeable use of Freud in his poems (for example, the themes of id and superego, the death wish, dreams, and infant sexuality) and Thomas's vague alignment with Freud –

Freud cast light on a little of the darkness he had exposed. Benefiting by the sight of the light and the knowledge of the hidden nakedness, poetry must drag further into the clean nakedness of light more even of the hidden causes than Freud could realise.

At the stage when a period at university might well have disciplined his widespread reading and enabled him, in Coleridge's phrase, 'to generalize his notions', Thomas remained at home, sickly and much pampered by his mother, but committing poems to a private storehouse of school exercise books (the type with Arithmetic Tables and 'Danger-Don'ts' on the back) – the famous poetry Notebooks now at the Lockwood Memorial Library at the University of Buffalo, New York.

* * *

In reintroducing Thomas in a Welsh context, however, we have to bear in mind that his perspectives were bound always to be wider than any sticky 'regional' label could cover, so strong was his love for the English language itself, the only one he knew:

The bad influences I tried to remove and renounce bit by bit, shadow by shadow, echo by echo, through trial and error, through delight and disgust and misgiving, as I came to love words more and to hate the heavy hands that knocked them about, the thick tongues that had no feel for their multitudinous tastes, the dull and botching hacks who flattened them out into a colourless and insipid paste, the pedants who made them moribund and pompous as themselves.

– he said, pompously. And, less pompously, in a broadcast scripted conversation with Vernon Watkins, Alfred Janes and John Prichard on the subject of 'Swansea and the Arts' (1949), his remark that too many artists remained, as they should, in Wales, but were 'enviously sniping at the artists of other countries rather than attempting to raise the standard of art of their own country.' And as early as 1946, in a broadcast on 'Welsh Poetry', he cut even more closely to the chase with this:

There is a number of young Welshmen writing poems in English who, insisting passionately that they are Welshmen, should, by rights, be writing in Welsh, but who, unable to write in Welsh or reluctant to do so because of the uncommercial nature of the language, often give the impression that their writing in English is only a condescension to the influence and ubiquity of a tyrannous foreign tongue. I do not belong to that number.

Complexities of personal/cultural identity lie behind the nationality of any writer. The simplistic opening line of Auden's poem 'Who's Who' – 'A shilling life will give you all the facts' – is driven by irony.


'The sideboard fruit, the ferns': the poet in suburbia

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', 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 the poet did to its liquor. Geographically, these see us through from Swansea to London to New York, taught the poet no radically different outward habits, and shaped the routine even in New Quay and in Laugharne where he was several times most at ease, and finally at rest. But they also take us through from the often difficult stylistic and thematic originality of the early poems to the dense and driven passion of the elegies on London's wartime dead, to the stern professional facility of the filmscripts and the comic facility of the broadcasts, to the pastoral river-run seascapes of the last poetry and the final elegiac cartoon of Welsh life in Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. Especially in such a foreshortened life, literary criticism does best when it tells us to trust the work rather than the poet, and especially since the 'legend' of the life without the work has got so ridiculously out of proportion.

Where plain biography is the aim, the approach of Constantine FitzGibbon's The Life of Dylan Thomas (1965) is penetrating because also more sympathetic than the snapshots in a vacuum of John Malcolm Brinnin's Dylan Thomas in America (1955). And the same thing goes for the literary-critical side of things. We are not attending to the matter in hand if, favouring different ways with words than those which intrigued Thomas, or sharing the cynical English reflexes of the new generation of poets who reacted against him in the fifties and sixties, we start from suspicion. Nor if, loving Wales herself too well, we expect only orthodox tributes to be paid her. Thomas's main conscious allegiance was to his 'craft or sullen art'. In the presence of FitzGibbon's Life – and of its more capacious if less sympathetic successors, Paul Ferris's Dylan Thomas (1977) and Andrew Lycett's Dylan Thomas: A New Life (2003) – the burden of biographical detail (Auden's ironic 'A shilling life') is taken off a short essay. I aim to keep to chronological bearings, but only when they highlight the inner chronology of the work itself.

There's the question, for example, of Thomas's parents. The suburban home in Swansea into which the poet was born (27 October 1914) had deep and wide roots of a particular kind. His father, the greatest single influence on his early years, and his mother, a kindly intelligent woman whom Thomas came unfairly to characterize as an example of suburban triviality – they both together relayed another and older culture into his life. Both parents had sprung from working-class, rural, Welsh-speaking beginnings in Carmarthenshire. Those roots were not completely removed by the upwardly mobile lifestyle that D. J. Thomas consolidated at No. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive (the young Dylan's 'Glamorgan villa'), with its neo-Georgian respectability, its middle-class decorative gestures in knitted texts and reproduction Greek statues, and its resident maid. In a 1930–2 Notebook poem we read:

(Oh change the life!),
The sideboard fruit, the ferns, the picture houses
And the pack of cards.

Later, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Mr Emlyn Evans's villa 'Lavengro' is described in similar terms ending, within quotation marks, with 'At home with the bourgeoisie'. It is too easy to demonize the strict Grammar School Senior English Master (nicknamed by pupils 'le soldat', the soldier, for the very way he entered a classroom) who presided over 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. Yet he did something more serious than just go for settled comfort: he deliberately and unwisely suppressed his own and his wife's native Welsh language in front of Dylan and his sister Nancy, even while going out at night to teach the Welsh language in Adult Education classes. Thomas senior erased also the further imagined bogey of a Welsh accent by ensuring that his son and daughter received elocution lessons in English, a phenomenon that, at a certain income level in the Swansea of that day, was the fashionable get-ahead thing. Thomas's un-Welsh accent, so striking in the later broadcasts and readings ('Cut-glass, they'd call it down in Wales,' he told Julian Maclaren-Ross, adding 'I don't speak Welsh either'), was of early involuntary manufacture, and, because not consciously defensive in his case, not snobbish. The sin of the father was not in this case visited upon the son: Dylan was never bedevilled by class consciousness of any kind. And just as free of any silly sense of superiority was the advice given him a decade later by the major critic William Empson (rich family, public school, Cambridge, yet the least snobbish of men), that the young Dylan, up only by his bootstraps in 1930s London, should actively respect his Welshness as an opportunity to 'nip across the classes'.

Yet the sadness of the cutting-off of the Welsh language itself is clear. And especially so once we mention D.J.'s uncle, the Reverend William Thomas (1834–79). Born in Carmarthenshire, this preacher-poet was the father of modern Unitarianism in Wales and a passionate, radical agitator in the landlord–tenant frictions that followed the wider franchise of the Reform Bill of 1867. He epitomized radical, Welsh-speaking, rural Wales and a delight in poetry just not separable from the Welsh language itself. He would not have been a shadowy figure even for the child Dylan because his Welsh national eminence was, again ironically, something D. J. Thomas was especially proud of. His bardic name, Gwilym Marles, gave Dylan his middle name, Marlais. The first name, Dylan, went back much further, to 'Dylan Ail Ton' ('Dylan, Son of the Wave'), in the fourth tale in the major medieval Welsh classic Y Mabinogi. And yet in 1914 what prompted its choice was at a much shorter remove. A highly publicized London production of Lord Howard de Walden's opera Dylan, Son of the Wave (music by Josef Holbrooke, conducted by Thomas Beecham) had premiered on 4 July 1914. The name 'Dylan' was on the London air four months before the poet's birth. But this is the point – D. J. Thomas, the poet's father, was one of a select group convened to promote the visit of Lord Howard de Walden's new National Theatre of Wales to Swansea in 1914.

All the more of a contrast, therefore, the break with the Welsh language that 'D.J.', as he magisterially liked being called by his school colleagues (the 'le soldat' of pupils were asides), demanded of his son and daughter. An aspiring poet himself, he had a First Class degree in English from Aberystwyth, and as early as 1920 came very close to being appointed to the first Chair of English at the new University College of Swansea. It is natural perhaps that he would have projected (unnecessarily, yet fruitfully) literary ambitions onto his son's future. Compensating for wastefully withholding the Welsh language from his children, his continuing influence on Dylan made at least some recompense. Helped by his own fine reading voice, D.J. decided that his son's experience of English poetry, especially Shakespeare, did not need to await intellectual maturity. The success is biographical proof of T. S. Eliot's belief that good poetry gains in any case from a short lag of enjoyment before it is 'understood'. There was also D.J.'s discriminating early taste in even the very 'latest' writers. He admired T. S. Eliot, Edward Thomas and D. H. Lawrence, whose work the young Dylan read 'in my father's brown study, with my eyes hanging out'. The emotional distance between the young poet and his strict, often disgruntled father made him appreciate all the more, as if it stood out in relief against his father's stern character, the literary enthusiasm that was D.J.'s saving grace, and bequest.


Excerpted from Dylan Thomas by Walford Davies. Copyright © 2014 Walford Davies. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations


1. ‘Begin at the beginning’: introductory

2. ‘The sideboard fruit, the ferns’: the poet in suburbia

3. ‘The loud hill of Wales’: the Welshness of the work

4. ‘I’ll put them all in a story by and by’: aspects of the prose

5. ‘Now my saying shall be my undoing’: the need to change

6. ‘Criss-cross rhythms’: comparisons of earlier and later poems

7. ‘Ann’s bard on a raised hearth’: towards ‘After the funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)’

8. ‘Mostly bare I would lie down’: a creative decade ends in war

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

10. ‘We hid our fears in that murdering breath’: the war elegies

11. ‘Parables of sun light’: towards ‘Poem in October’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and beyond

12. ‘Is my voice being your eyes?’: Under Milk Wood

13. ‘The rhymer in the long tongued room’: writing places and the place of the poet

14. ‘As I sail out to die’: the late poems

15. ‘The hero’s head lies scraped of every legend’: the legend and the man


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