The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas
Following his definitive biography of Dylan Thomas in 1977, Paul Ferris has completed a further labor in the same field, a collection of more than a thousand of Thomas’ letters, covering more than nine hundred pages of text. This collection (originally published in England in 1985) chronicles a period of more than twenty years, ranging from the wordy exuberance of the adolescent poet in the 1930’s to the increasingly sad and desperate letters written in the years immediately preceding his tragic death in 1953 in New York as a famous, and notorious, figure. Seven hundred of these letters have not been published before, and although they will not lead to any radical reassessment of Thomas’ life or character—the Thomas story is too well-known and documented for that—the collection as a whole does give continuous insight into one of the brightest and wildest literary figures of the twentieth century.
The bulk of the early letters are to Pamela Hansford Johnson, an aspiring poet, later to succeed as a novelist, who had written to Thomas following the publication of one of his early poems. An enthusiastic and lengthy correspondence followed, in which they exchanged and criticized each other’s work. The young Thomas, writing from his boyhood home in Swansea, Wales, gives many clues to the spirit that motivated his early, obscure, self-absorbed poetry, which caused such a stir in literary circles when his first collection, 18 Poems, was published in 1934.
Not yet fully confident of his own powers (hardly surprising in a young man of nineteen), Thomas acknowledges to Johnson that he may be only a “freak user of words.” Although he is “in the path of Blake,” he is “so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight.” When Thomas digs into some of the conceptions and assumptions underlying his work, however, many of his comments are illuminating. When Johnson complains of the “ugliness” of much of his poetry, by which she probably meant his excessive use of anatomical imagery, he declares, “Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, skin, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells, or senses. Through my small, bonebound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all.” In another early letter, this time to Trevor Hughes, a friend from Swansea living at the time in London, he writes that “it is my aim as an artist . . . to prove beyond doubt to myself that the flesh that covers me is the flesh that covers the sun, that the blood in my lungs is the blood that goes up and down in a tree,” a concept brilliantly realized in many of his youthful poems, most notably perhaps in the complex, unified and unifying imagery in the famous “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” To another early literary acquaintance, Glyn Jones, Thomas describes this as “the cosmic significance of the human anatomy.” In his own curious and self-occupied way, he was intuitively grasping an ancient idea: the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm—that man is a world in little and the universe is a man writ large.
Thomas freely admits to the obscurity that riddled his early poetry. In a previously unpublished letter to Desmond Hawkins, who was at that time literary editor of the magazine Purpose, he writes, “I agree that much of the poetry is impossibly difficult; I’ve asked, or rather told, words to do too much.” Sometimes he is severe in his self-judgments, as, for example, regarding 18 Poems: “a poor lot, on the whole, with many thin lines, many oafish sentiments. . . & much highfalutin nonsense.” He confesses to Glyn Jones that his sonnet sequence “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” in which he seems to reach new heights of opacity, reads almost like a “mad parody” of his own style. (His explanation of the first two lines of the first of these sonnets is particularly illuminating, since it is hard to see how anyone could have divined it without Thomas’ help.)
Thomas disliked theoretical discussions of his own, or anyone else’s, poetry. He writes to an inquiring friend, “You asked me to tell you about my theory of poetry. Really I haven’t got one,” and to Hawkins he says that “it isn’t theories that choke some of the wilder and worser lines, but sheer greed.” To his early critics and correspondents, he denies any connection with surrealism (“I have very little idea what surrealism is”) or any suggestion that his poetry is the product of automatic writing. On one of the few occasions that he gave any detailed explanation of his method or technique, he explained to Henry Treece, a young poet who, as early as 1937, was preparing a book-length study of Thomas’ poetry: “Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method. . . is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time.” Out of this conflict of images, he attempts “to make that momentary peace which is a poem. . . . All warring images within it should be reconciled for that small stop of time.” Thomas returns more than once to this Blakean idea of the conflict of opposites, most notably in the newly available letter to Hawkins. In an explanation of his poem “I Make This in a Warring Absence When,” he comments that “I made as many contraries as possible fight together, in an attempt to bring out a positive quality,” and in a note at the foot of the page Thomas adds, “negate each other, if they could; keep their individualities & lose them in each other.” The debt to Blake is clear.
By the mid-1930’s, with the publication of his second book, Twenty-five Poems, Thomas was building a reputation for himself as an exciting and promising new poet. He now spent much of his time in London, and the friendship with Pamela Johnson had turned into a brief love affair that did not long survive Thomas’ wild behavior. It was during this period that he began to cultivate carefully another kind of reputation—as the Bohemian poet, always likely to flout convention and behave outrageously, especially when drunk (which Thomas frequently was).
These years set the pattern for the future. Thomas refused to earn money from anything but the sale of his poems and short stories, claiming that he...
(The entire section is 2634 words.)