When Dylan Thomas died at the age of thirty-nine he was, for a poet in this century, extraordinarily popular. His poetry had been read and admired for years; a paean of praise greeted his collected works, and still more appreciation was accorded him after his death. However, many reputable critics, fellow poets, and general readers have disliked, derided, and dismissed his work on the grounds that it is merely sibylline raving. These contradictory reactions are explained by the fact that Thomas was primarily a violently emotional poet. The strength of his feelings thus either forcibly attracts or repels his readers.
The poems make an emotional impact, on first reading, that subsequent analyses will not displace. With the exception of Ezra Pound, Thomas is probably the most obscure of the great poets of this century. Whether he is a major or a minor poet will be established only by the evaluation of critics in the future, as no contemporary can have the necessary perspective to place a poet accurately in such a hierarchy. Undeniably, Dylan Thomas’ poetry is great in kind; to what degree, posterity will decide.
A poet who is both very obscure and very popular is an anomaly, but Thomas is not in this position by virtue of belonging to a particular school of verse, nor by writing in a recognized poetic convention. Nor is he socially or politically committed. His poetry is an affirmation of life: “These poems are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.” The truth of this assertion in the introductory note to his volume of collected verse is shown in every successful poem that he wrote. His early poetry is egocentric; he was writing of his own private feelings in these poems of birth, death, and sex, and the glory he found in these themes was entirely personal. His later poems show a far wider human interest and an increasing concern for mankind.
Throughout his work a unity of vision is apparent. He sees death in birth and resurrection in death. He is aware of the hate in all love and of the power of love to transcend suffering. He comprehends the simultaneous glory and corruption in life, and the fact that all forms of life are interdependent and inseparable. “I see the boys of summer” is a dialogue between the young poet who sees the destruction of the future in the present, and the adolescent boys living their first passionate and confusing loves. The successive images of light and dark, heat and cold, throughout the poem emphasize this contrast. The poem is filled with pleasure and pain conjoined, and with gain and loss. The polarity of these emotions is explicitly stated in the final, joyful image:O see the poles are kissing as they cross.
“If I were tickled by the rub of love” is a difficult poem, to be understood by remembering the comprehensiveness of Thomas’ idea of life. In the context of the poem, “tickled” appears to mean completely involved with, or wholly absorbed by, but the term necessarily retains the connotations of amusement and enjoyment. “Rub,” as well as having sensual implications, also means doubt, difficulty, or strain. The poet says that if he were “tickled by the rub of love,” he would not fear the fall from Eden or the flood; if he were “tickled” by the birth of a child, he would not fear death or war. Desire is spoken of as devilish and is provoked by. . . the drug that’s smoking in a girl And curling round the bud that forks her eye.
This harsh image is followed by a statement of the poet’s consciousness that he carries his own old age and death already within him.
An old man’s shank one-marrowed withmy bone,And all the herrings smelling in thesea,I sit and watch the worm beneath mynailWearing the quick away.
The feeling of fear is strong, and neither love, sex, beauty, nor birth is the “rub”; the solution is in wholeness or unity:I would be tickled by the love that is: Man be my metaphor.
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