Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In an unusually candid letter to a student who asked him how he was drawn to the “craft or sullen art” of poetry, Thomas emphasized the allure of words themselves—the “shape and shade and size and noise of words as they hummed, strummed, jigged and galloped along.” Hall has called him “the maddest of word-mad young poets” and describes Thomas beginning a poem from some general idea, sense of place, or pantheistic thought and then building the poem through the sounds of words gradually arranged in the manner that satisfied his ear, as well as some deeper instinct for melody and rhythm. Caitlin Thomas recalls him struggling with single lines in his bicycle shed/studio, “balancing words, line and phrases . . . and he always did this noisily and alone in his shed, chanting and reciting, making each sound fit.”

Because of his ability to write poetry that seemed drenched in word-drunk wonder, some critics have asserted that there is no substance behind the “great lyrical voice of his time.” Charles Olson, whose own work depended on a tremendous concentration of mental force, commented, “He is all language, there is no man there.” Olson’s critique indicates the pitfalls of depending on a sensuous linguistic surface, but, although Thomas does not always succeed in going deeper, his methods of composition depended on more than the magic of words alone. In a letter that he wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson when he was beginning to take command of the singular voice that he possessed, he suggested that a writer worked either “’out of words’ or ’in the direction of them,’” as if the word was the source of the idea in the poem. In a review written in 1935, he insisted that “the word is the object,” not a symbol or sign of it, and even if he complained that he was “chained by syllables,” he believed that both meaning and sound are bound within language, and that it was through his uses of language that human experience could be brought into poetry. While he was not always successful in capturing the “singing light”—the song and insight interlinked—his best poems combine a mastery of sound with his meditations on the central concerns of his life.

One of the most striking features of Thomas’s poetry is the absence of any indication that it was written (with the exception of a few topical references) in the twentieth century. Even as Thomas took the ultimate Romantic position that his subject was himself, demanding “Man be my metaphor” and always basing his sense of the human on the “small, bone-bound island” at the center of his own universe, his treatment of the main themes of his art reached back toward some almost prehistoric, semimythic sense of universal human experience. Consequently, when he wrote about his awestruck, ecstatic delight in the presence of the infinitely appealing natural world, his perspective was similar to the rhapsodic declarations of an explorer encountering a garden of paradise. The Edenic aspects of the Welsh landscape in “Fern Hill” and “Poem in October” attest to this. Similarly, when he wrote about death as an inevitable presence in the midst of even the most youthful, vital moments of a person’s existence, his poetry was less a function of a morbid preoccupation and more a reflection of the same ardor that activated his love for language, the natural world, and other things that he appreciated with passion. The poems “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” are expressions of his inclination to sing “like the sea” even while enchained by the inexorable passage of Time; they indicate his desire to overcome what John Tytell calls “the anguish of mutability” brought on by an awareness of Time’s constant measure, to which he referred as a “running grave” always with him. The tremendous energy in poems like these, or in “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower ,” is a...

(The entire section is 4,316 words.)