Dylan Thomas

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Paul West (essay date October 1967)

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SOURCE: West, Paul. “Dylan Thomas: The Position in Calamity.” Southern Review 3, no. 4 (October 1967): 922-43.

[In the following essay, West attempts to sort through the varying critical assessments of Thomas's work.]


According to Wordsworth, “all men feel something of an honourable bigotry for the objects which have long continued to please them.” Something of: it is what Englishmen say to maintain their reserve during enthusiasm and what most people say when they want to suggest reservations painlessly. Something of: the phrase comes naturally to the lips for Dylan Thomas, whom his detractors find only something of a charlatan, whom his admirers find only something of a genius. It is not easy to be absolute about him, yet half-measures don't seem appropriate—and this will show in what follows. So let him talk for himself while I, a bit fervently off-center about him and his works, muster something of a critical balance. Conceded, he is getting second word to Wordsworth's first; but his, almost certainly—beyond the perspectives of this essay and beyond the altercations of critics—will be the last laugh. To take him so seriously at all when in fact. … Why, man. …

“Regarded in England as a Welshman (and a waterer of England's milk, and in Wales as an Englishman,” he once told a society of Scottish writers (and foreigners, therefore), “I am too unnational to be here at all. I should be living in a small private leper house in Hereford or Shropshire, one foot in Wales and my vowels in England. Wearing red flannel trousers, a tall witch's hat, and a coracle tiepin, and speaking English so Englishly that I sound like a literate Airedale.” See how the straddling provincial, to dissimulate some of the genuine pain of being in between, turns cosmopolite. A typical piece of the Thomas performance, it reveals not only the banterer and the self-deprecating prankster, but also—in that bravura dispersal of his identity—his profound disregard for names, regimens, fences; even for words. The main thing he wanted was the feel of life, which is not to say that he couldn't and didn't watch society with a keen, meticulous eye. He did. But he had always a knack of double vision by which the reporter fed the seer or (to use Karl Shapiro's terms) “the cultural fugitive or clown” the “joyous naturally religious mind.”

Make no mistake about it, this man saw life whole even though—for sundry reasons—he often saw it unsteadily. Somehow he divined the sum without adding up the parts. He knew them all, and their relationship: the grave and the slight, the sober and the daft, the at-hand and the far-fetched, the noumenal and the empirical, the chemical-physical and the imagined, the inevitable and the avertable, the nonsense and the sense, the sublime and the suburban. He never found life homogeneous, decent or dignified, but he did—in the course of a literary career gambled on experimentally reconceiving it—learn to prize its texture: fingering it, so to speak, tinkering with it, isolating and recombining the constituents on a purely verbal level, as if working things' names against things and vice versa, and confident in his sportive way that these verbal assaults, while never changing the physical universe, intensified his sense of it. Ours too. The orderly exposition of things he left to experts in long division; his own exposition added incongruities to incongruities already built into life, the habit of his mind being jussive and meddlesome, never merely observant and receptive. He commanded experience to yield its maximum. He seized the human and the interstellar day...

(This entire section contains 8526 words.)

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and punished it; he gathered rosebuds and greedily transformed them, hardly knowing where to stop. It is clear that the division of the physical world into orthodox components had little meaning for him: one thing, no matter what, evoked another, became another, which then evoked. … It was a metamorphosisad infinitum. Not that there is nothing of the finite in his writings; there is a great deal. But it has always a vulnerable, precarious look, as if at any moment Thomas the devout clown might reconsider it and place it where no rational man had ever found it before: drowning it in associations, dividing it up and preposterously marrying off the halves, re-naming them after nobody or nothing. Unsex the skeleton this mountain minute, / And by this blow-clock witness of the sun / Suffer the heaven's children through my heartbeat. Pretty much like that, and sometimes too much.

The process—like Rimbaud's systematic disorderings—has much to do with congruity: with what is fitting. Thomas finds the universe incongruous, but legal; he finds society almost as weird, but just as rich in laws. And, lusting after the maximum, the inconceivable sum, he makes both universe and society even weirder, never missing a chance to be surrealistic but, against his travesties and incongruous modifications, always working the congruity and finicking discipline of his art. On the religious plane we begin, decently enough, with the bread that once was oat; but then we find a Gabriel who is two-gunned. “O God, Thou art everywhere” rapidly becomes “O God, mun, you're like a bloody cat.” Socially, there is the poignant matter-of-factness of the hunchback taunted in the park, “a solitary mister,” but also an image of grandmother, her head appearing upside-down upon a cloud, and Samuel Bennet in Adventures in the Skin Trade with his finger stuck fast in a beer-bottle. “Up yours,” Thomas seems to say, lewdly dismissing our conventional views. He just had to tamper, making field level with roof, defying time (the quiet gent whose beard wags in that Egyptian wind), and suspending gravity: the ball thrown up stays up. We have to stay with him as long as we can, trusting him with the same kind of trust as Byron wanted.

Thomas's two roles interpenetrate, and that is what saves him. The visionary learns from the clown the intrinsic steadiness of the universe (it is one) as well as the endless license accorded the mind. The clown learns therefore to respect his own daubs and freakish misalliances. Thomas, more than anyone, exposes the arbitrariness of things: birds eat worms, but birds might have been assigned to a diet of human knuckles and worms might have been programmed to live and feed in between the toes of lions. Why things are as they are, and not otherwise, Thomas doesn't know. But he learns, and teaches us to respect, the stability of present arrangements at the same time as enriching our minds with a vision that evokes the eve of creation. And whatever he can manage through metaphor or joyous misconception (God as a fiddling warden; a baby burning; a lay preacher who thinks wars are begun only to boost the sales of newspapers) he uses to quicken our sense of man's mind and God's design. His piety is grounded in blasphemous interferences (like an urchin who draws horn-rimmed glasses round Christ's eyes) and his deep respect for human community, even the suburban, defines itself in the presence of miscellaneous misbehavior. His passion for experience involves him in a presumptuous, feckless summa to which nothing is irrelevant, within which nothing is impossible. He wants complete consciousness, a mind as big as the universe and more inventive than God's: in short, his own supreme “cut-and-come-again cardpack of references.”

How vain it is, then, to blame him for not being clear, logical, mature, consistent or merely documentary. His very self (not so far from Edgar's Tom o' Bedlam in King Lear) precluded everyday lucidity, dispensed with logic, spurned maturity for the child's sense of wonder, disdained consistency as a Procrustean trap, and regarded documentary as a vaulting-board. To rebuke him for lewdness or salacity is as impertinent as to blame the pattern of the human physique or to complain to the water authorities about the primeval slime out of which life came slithering up before pipes. Thomas's writings add up to a sacred pantomime in which the words themselves are communion wafers. Because the joyous naturally religious man attends the pranks of the clown, what might otherwise have been dull blasphemy, obscure gimmickry or frivolous free-wheeling becomes a feat of mystical attentiveness, ramming the everyday back into the toolshed of Creation. We have only to read carefully his Note to Collected Poems and relate it to his other books as well. “These poems,” he wrote, “with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't.” See? He takes the risk of faith because faith is creative and prudent. And his exercises in serious triviality record nothing less than the awesome oddity of the universe itself, an oddity Thomas found both exhilarating and painful, both reassuring and unhinging. If, as some have found, his eccentric account of it starts nothing but bewilderment, mistrust and uncertainty (rather than reproducing the ascetic aplomb of Eliot, the well-upholstered diffidence of Wallace Stevens), there is only one answer: more than any other poet he returns us to the bewilderment of the first man initially waking on the lap of earth, to the mistrust and thrill felt by the first alchemists, to the uncertainty of men who didn't know the function of the sun, and in his own illicit way links up with the Palomar astronomers who in our own time study such radio-sources as 3C-9, receding from us at four-fifths the speed of light and something like nine billion light-years away—the most distant object we know of. He makes the cosmos local. Here, he says, (and watch your step) are “God's rough tumbling grounds,” making us free within a “kingdom of neighbours,” expressing always an almost Shakespearean love-hate fixation on chaos. If we are brave enough to want the experience, we must be willing to let it deprive us of our schemes and laws and codified defenses. Doubting Thomases he would make us all, but there is no doubting him: he is unverifiable. He goes from surrealism to applied surrealism, arriving eventually at the festive confabulations of Under Milk Wood, meditating his “long poem-to-be” (in which God mourns the self-destroyed Earth) and the libretto for Stravinsky about “the only man and woman alive on earth” after atomic catastrophe—a far cry from the young people who meet in the ordinary way in his projected play, Two Streets.

But, for all the grandiosity, the ultra-Miltonic audacity of three-quarters of his projects, he treasured his own sharp eye—much, I suppose, as a steeplejack might keep a lucky penny in his pocket. Take the affable earthiness of this comment, in a letter, on Persia (where the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had incredibly sent him in 1951 to write a window-dressing film script):

Beautiful Isfahan and Shiraz. Wicked, pompous, oily British. Nervous, cunning, corrupt and delightful Persian bloody bastards. Opium no good. Persian vodka, made of beetroot, like stimulating sock-juice, very enjoyable. Beer full of glycerine and pips.

I think no one who has read all of Thomas, who has absorbed the Fitzgibbon biography and such other records as the letters and the pictorial life by Read and McKenna, can help feeling that here was a man uniquely possessing two things which, fused (a fusion beyond his powers), go to make great literature. I mean vision and ordinary seeing: grand-mindedness and minor-mindedness, dynast and midget, druid and buffoon, Lear and Falstaff, demiurge and urchin. It is rare to find one man so gravely, so splendidly, reverential of the cosmic, the mysterious, the chthonic, and at the same time so eager for smut, trivia and banality. Blake has the one, Chaucer the other. Thomas has the two sides, but unfused. All the same, it is a great doubleness, and it seems to me to be implicit in his two versions of that pseudo-Welsh anagram, “Llareggub/-Llaregyb.” Reading the first, we find “buggerall,” which is standard British English slang for “nothing” and always uttered with nihilistic relish. Reading the second, we find what seems to be the “bigger-all,” which is what Thomas always wanted: a state from which nothing is excluded. He stands, as Milk Wood does, between the everydayness of nothing and the everydayness of everything. Under Milk Wood—frothing, warbling, chiming, transforming clichés into bonds between beleaguered men—takes the doubleness very near to fusion: a heaven on earth, but not quite. Had Thomas survived, he would surely have arrived at an outlook repeating and extending what he himself called Wilfred Owen's “position-in-calamity … which, without intellectual choice, he chose to take” because he “believed there was no one true way … all ways are by-tracked and rutted and pit-falled with ignorance and injustice and indifference. He was himself diffident and self-distrustful. He had to be wrong; clumsy; affected often; ambiguous; bewildered.” It is as much Thomas on Thomas as Thomas on Owen, double-rich in levity and vision, double-dealing with the biggerall and the buggerall, double-crossed by the tragedy and comedy crowding into each day of every man he could imagine anywhere on the globe. Stern commentators find him no more than a casualty of relativism; others, less exigent and less rigid, prize that very sense of the interdependence of things.


Leaf through Fitzgibbon or The Days of Dylan Thomas and you find reams of homework lovingly done, but always pale beside Thomas's own prose (which is there in gratifyingly large amounts). See, for example, how he recalls the dame school, “so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from the upstairs to the lonely schoolroom.” Almost on the brink of what Kingsley Amis called “sonorous whimsy”—Thomas appearing determined to find epithets that sound—the passage saves itself by settling into a lyrical decisiveness that seems less padded:

Behind the school was a narrow lane where only the oldest and boldest threw pebbles at windows, scuffled and boasted, fibbed about their relations … and swapped gob-stoppers for slings, old knives for marbles, kite strings for foreign stamps. The lane was always the place to tell your secrets; if you did not have any, you invented them. … In the afternoons, when the children were good, they read aloud from Struwelpeter. And when they were bad, they sat alone in the empty classroom, hearing, from above them, the distant, terrible, sad music of the late piano lessons.

In that last sentence it is almost as if the whole world were being punished; and this almost hammy inclusiveness—Thomas's resolve to glean a near-apocalypse from any event or memory—characterizes his prose, giving even his mundane statements a force almost sibylline “that one refuses,” as the dictionary says, “but is afterwards glad to get on worse terms.” At other times he plays down the sibylline, doomy feeling by packing it with images—things, things, things—almost wrecking the syntax and suggesting landslide or flux. The following, an excerpt from a letter written at the other end of his life (June 1953), seems to me—for its vision, its realism and its lurching contrasts—prose of which any novelist might be proud.

I missed you a lot my last days, and was Lizzed away to the plane alone. I almost liked the plane-ride, though; it was stormy and dangerous, and only my iron will kept the big bird up; lightning looked wonderful through the little eyeholes in its underbelly; the bar was open all the way from Newfoundland; and the woman next to me was stone-deaf so I spoke to her all the way, more wildly and more wildly as the plane lurched on through dark and lion-thunder and the fire-water yelled through my blood like Sioux, and she unheard all my delirium with a smile; and then the Red Indians scalped me; and then it was London, and my iron will brought the bird down, safely, with only one spine-cracking jar. And queasy, purple, maggoty, scalped, I weak-wormed through festoons, bunting, flags, great roses, sad spangles, paste and tinsel, the million cardboard simpers and ogrish plaster statuettes of the nincompoop queen, I crawled as early as sin in the chilly weeping morning through the city's hushed hangover and all those miles of cock-deep orange-peel, nibbled sandwiches, broken bottles, discarded vests, vomit and condoms, lollipops, senile fish, blood, lips, old towels, teeth, turds, soiled blowing newspapers by the unread mountain, all the spatter and bloody gravy and giant mouseness that go to show how a loyal and phlegmatic people—“London can break it!”—enjoyed themselves like hell the day before. And, my God, wouldn't I have enjoyed it too! In the house where I stay in London, a party was still going on, at half past seven in the wet, beige morning, that had started two nights before. Full of my news, of the latest American gossip from the intellectual underworld, of tall goings-on, of tiny victories and disasters, aching to gabble I found myself in a company of amiable, wrestling, maudlin, beetle-skulled men, semi-men, and many kinds of women, who did not know or care I had been so far and wildly away but seemed to think I had been in the party all the whooping time. Sober, airsick, pancaked flat, I saw these intelligent old friends as a warrenful of blockish stinkers, and sulked all morning over my warm beer as they clamoured and hiccuped, rolled rogering down, fell gayly through windows, sang and splintered. And in the afternoon I stood—I was the only one who could—alone and disillusioned among the snorers and the dead. They grunted all around me, or went soughing and green to their Maker. As the little murdered moles in the Scotch poem, like sma' Assyrians they lay. I was close to crying there, in the chaotic middle of anti-climax.

It was the day after the coronation of Elizabeth II. Seldom has such a piously jubilant occasion released such a delirium of epitomes. True, he is making the most of his chance: Dylan the Iceman cometh indeed—he double-cometh; but it is impossible not to respond to the mix-up here of first-time freshness and hell déjà-vu. He is writing like a more exuberant Malcolm Lowry, with all of Lowry's capacity to site himself at the center of a universe and to render miscellany into fluent vision.

Thomas's life was tough and, as everyone knows by now, he had an almost perverse fondness for making bad things worse. Such is the rhetoric of his life-style. And this tendency (seen above) to put life out of joint, to disarrange it and blur it, operated in his conduct—as if to live untidily, confusedly, were a surer way of getting at the heart of things: the sense of being human only, rather than of being specifically Dylan Thomas. It is not so much a reduction to absurdity as an elevation to community. E. F. Bozman, head of Dents, his English publishers, says Thomas “had no desire to understand” even his own poetry. “In fact he used to say that he couldn't be expected to do so. Hadn't he written it? Surely that was enough to ask of anyone.” This isn't just a matter of the vatic pose, although there is some of that in it. Rather, it is one of the facets of Thomas's improvident, accidental way of living. He tossed his fanatically patterned poems into the maelstrom of the world and left them to fend for themselves, almost as he tossed in his own identity. Like something sloughed off.

Romantic? Antic? Of course: every bit as much as Alexander Pope's flinging his manuscripts from a speeding carriage instead of delivering them quietly in person. Thomas's poems, like the orthodoxies he garbled into metaphors—like the pieties he planted in his verbal clowning—had to take their chances. Intrinsically perfect (at least, as good as he could make them), they had been equipped with everything which, as poems, they could need. As commodities they didn't interest him, any more than the making of money or reputation did. It is not enough to say, as many have said, that he longed for the indulgences due to a child: he wanted, not childhood, or babyhood, but the raw, essential humanity that underlies the steady patterns, the solecisms, the nice appraisals and the reasoned amenities of judicious living. Not regression but the fanning of chaff from the grain. It may be, of course, that the chaff is essential to any account of man; and it may also be that the grain—man in the raw—isn't very interesting. But that is what, in his religious and cosmic fervor, he preferred to attend to (and he did at least know and say exactly what the chaff is like). He had what I would call a processive view of things: something was always happening, somebody's blood running, somebody's blood stopping, the earth turning, always some kind of weather arriving, something being bought, broken or lost. And this sense of process was enough for him. Reductive, immature, uncivilized, simpleminded, unsophisticated, pseudobasic—call his attitude what we will—it helped him to feel more intensely where he had chosen not to try to understand. To him, “comprehend” is to take in, to include, not to see the meaning of. No wonder he seems to mythologize his characters before he reveals what they are like: Ann Jones, mourned in “After the Funeral,” is an occasion for words; in the poems on marriage, Caitlin Thomas is a mere figment in the churning rhetoric; and the personages of Under Milk Wood are only (as they were meant to be) voices. His final attitude, milky and maybe wooden, is “unjudging love,” which is the human version of what he felt towards God, words and ideas.

Naturally, this makes him a problem to academic exegetes. What, after all, is the trained mind to make of a writer who feels at one with his own Mary Ann Sailor? Every morning she “shouts her age to the heavens; she believes the town is the chosen land, and the little river Dewi the River of Jordan; she is not at all mad; she merely believes in heaven on earth. And so with all of them … all, by their own rights, are ordinary and good.” If such a view seems lumpish and undiscriminating, then we must lump it and not probe into it. Highest common factors and lowest common denominators go together in all his writings; and his poetic idiom—while subtle and finely wrought—itself is rich with clichés and slang deliberately flaunted against what Stephen Spender called (in words that Thomas thought “altogether true”) “a correct idiom capable of refinements of beauty, but incapable of harsh effects, coarse texture and violent colours.”

Oddly enough, Thomas's primitive view, exempting him from judging and mind reading, released him for cataloguing and description. He was ever alert to detail, to externals, to the absurdities of behavior. To him, these things were all part of the human circus; but, not feeling obliged to make sense of them, he often saw them with a sharper eye than any witch-hunting moralist or idea-mad missionary. The eye—the swift, focused, receptive organ of Portrait of the Artist As A Young Dog, of the nonsurrealistic stories, of the unfinished Adventures in the Skin Trade, of the Swansea-scapes, the Christmas reverie and the bubbling letters—is almost that of a satirist. Except that the satirist has correction and reform on the brain, whereas Thomas thinks of no such thing, practicing instead a documentary hedonism. He makes the most of every scene, permitting himself hyperbole and bits of dithyramb, but never losing the essentials of what confronts him. This side of him has never been given its due: Thomas the idiosyncratic reporter is every bit as important as Thomas the visionary music man. Perhaps he held to particulars to steady himself while scrambling the facts of life; perhaps it amused him to witness such multitudinously intricate surfaces and performances on the crust of a turning ball of rock dominated by a solar system anonymously created but, all the same, unerring in its detailed operation on every living, sentient or dead entity. I think so. Mostly on the side of the universe (the life-force or God or Nature), he was obliged, merely to preserve balance, to be on the side of man as well, but man seen one-souled, one-bodied, in a consanguinity beyond all formulas, regimes and policies, beyond etiquettes and names. It is, of course, the near-opinionlessness of the hierophant, and it explains his incredibly vague notions about communism, war and taxation. If this worries us, we can cheer up at once: there are scores of other writers, poets even, who understand these matters well, their minds never having been clouded by the myth of a man-shaped moon or their ears beguiled by a blind horse singing sweetly.

The authorized Life and the spate of memoirs—some of the latter hagiographical claptrap, some of them sly and biased, the best of them mercifully playing down the American tours—perform a useful service in bringing Thomas to earth, in revealing the matter-of-fact spectator who ranks with Chaucer and Byron. In fact the biographical materials do more for Thomas the spectator than some of the critical studies do for Thomas the poet. I am not sure, even, that the quality of the observation isn't consistently higher than the quality of the poems. Perhaps Thomas, given his handful of remarkable poems, might eventually emerge—once all his prose has been ferreted out and collected—as a minor poet who wrote major documentary. It doesn't matter yet; the main thing is to notice how precise, vivid and evocative his prose is (and there is a lot of it).

One of the fine things about Fitzgibbon's gracious, decent biography is the way he lets Thomas tell his own story. In prose, no matter how tired or off-color he was, Thomas never wrote dully, hardly ever failed to generate somewhere along the way an exuberance that rose to the occasion and sometimes engulfed it. Here, to plead the case, are some samples run together, giving the timbre and variety he made his own. He never, never—it is apparent—wrote prose for the sake of austerity:

I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet-brown walls of the glass, the titled rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners. … I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. … I'm not a country man; I stand for, if anything, the aspidistra, the provincial drive, the morning café, the evening pub; I'd like to believe in the wide open spaces as the wrapping around walls, the windy boredom between house and house, hotel and cinema, bookshop and tube-station; man made his house to keep the world and the weather out, making his own weathery world inside. … We have got to know lots of the young intellectuals of Florence, and a damp lot they are. They visit us on Sundays. To overcome the language, I have to stand on my head, fall in the pool, crack nuts with my teeth, and Tarzan in the cypresses. … What a sun-pissed pig I am not to dip a bristle in Chianti. … I went out of the house … to see if it was raining still, if the outhouse had been blown away, potatoes, shears, rat-killer, shrimpnets, and tins of rusty nails aloft on the wind, and if all the cliffs were left. … The rest of America may be all right, and perhaps I can understand it, but that is the last monument there is to the insane desire for power that shoots its buildings up to the stars and roars its engines louder and faster than they have ever been roared before and makes everything cost the earth and where the imminence of death is reflected in every last power stroke and grab of the great moron bosses, the big-shots, the multis one never sees. … I buried my head in the sands of America; flew over America like a damp, ranting bird; boomed and fiddled while home was burning. … I shall polish up my glass belly.

Sometimes he verged on incoherence, especially in letters; but there was not, I think, a tone or an attitude he did not command: from urchin pathos to the gusto of the roaring boy, from ironically staid self-definition to the BBC primness of a man with the Elgin marbles in his mouth, from the mock-agony of a shiverer in New York or Prague to arch hyperbole, from brokenhearted prolix amorousness to vaulting comminations, from self-astounding naïveté to the fatigue of a 100-year-old man of the world, from explosive profanity to quiet ribbing, from importunity to funereal tact. If I seem to be laboring this point, I am. It has to be said again and again that Thomas was a virtuoso of prose both descriptive and narrative. He was also a master of talk: the dialogue in Adventures in the Skin Trade, for example, has just the right sort of faltering stiltedness for what he is doing:

“I think my finger must have swollen, Mr. Allingham. The bottle's much tighter now.”

“Let me have a look at you again.” Mrs. Dacey put on a pair of spectacles with steel rims and a hanging chain. “He's only a baby.”

“I'm twenty.”

“Ikey Mo, the baby farmer.” She walked carefully to the back of the shop and called, “Polly, come down here. Polly. Polly.”

A girl's voice called back from high up in the house, “What for, Ma?”

“Come and get a gentleman's bottle off.”

Surrealism is implicit, but it is the vernacular that carries the scene. Thomas's talk is usually of this kind, whereas that in Joyce becomes vernacular orchestrated far beyond the convention of written exchange. The essential difference between Thomas and Joyce (with whom, and always unfavorably, David Holbrook compares him in his articulate but niggling study) is that Thomas was not a pedant, had little learning, and was satisfied with the dictionary as he found it. Small wonder that Thomas in prose (and even in verse) appeals to readers of all kinds, both sophisticates and general readers, whereas Joyce, transmogrifying the idiom of simple people, gains in magic what he loses in readers. Joyce is a great writer, Thomas is not. But Thomas is a read writer, as available to greengrocer as to erudite don, and Joyce in comparison is not. Holbrook, setting out to chasten and subdue but managing only to distort and becloud, merits an answer or two—although this is merely to point out that it is no use blaming molasses for not being a disinfectant. But even hypocriticism must be answered; so here goes.


What is offensive in Holbrook's attack on Thomas is not his dissection of the obscurest poems (he does this with elegance, sense and occasional wit), nor his condemnation of babble, monotony, syntactical and punctuational sloppiness (all these are there in the poems), nor his lamenting Thomas's passion for drink (over-drinking he did kill himself). It is his presumption, made on the evidence of what he calls Thomas's infantilism, that Mrs. Thomas did not love her son. After quoting from Menninger's Man Against Himself he says, “In Dylan Thomas's life and in his poetry we witness the poignant quest of an adult to find the (mother) love he remains unconvinced of having had as a child.” Thomas became what he became because, it seems, “The only way to integrated consciousness in the infant is through the gradual pains of disillusionment, at the hands of a mother who can enable the child to bear this by her continuing and loving presence.” Mrs. Florence Hannah Thomas has a lot to answer for—at least if we credit this fancy bit of a posteriori snooping. It is enough to quote from Fitzgibbon's biography:

Florence, his mother, was from all accounts a sweet, gentle, and rather childish woman, and she gave her son the measureless and uncritical love that comes more easily from a simple heart. …

She was a gay, garrulous woman. …

And the placid, simple love and pride she felt for him still shines, cosy as a fire in a cottage kitchen, in what she said about him after his death when she had become, and signed her letters, “Dylan's Mam.”

How sad it is when a critic with a half-baked theory self-righteously perverts the facts of a privacy. As Fitzgibbon says, when Dylan Thomas reached late adolescence, “he was to find his mother's ignorance and her conventional views irritating.” He got over that and “Certainly he loved and looked after her in her old age.” If he behaved like a baby (Holbrook gloatingly quotes Richard Eberhart's getting Thomas up in the morning “by plugging his mouth with a bottle of beer, this wonderful baby”), the reasons were complicated and obviously had little to do with his mother's early treatment of him. But Holbrook wants it all ways: whether she loved him or not, she unfitted him for life as an adult. And this determination to find a victim—to ram home what looks like a thesis or a diagnosis but actually is more like animus—shows too in Holbrook's discussion of the poems when he finally gets to them.

First, though, let's see what sort of a chap we have to deal with. There are glimpses. “Those qualities I find most satisfying in the poetry of the past,” he begins, like a parsonical Blimp lamenting the lack of fiber in today's young men, “I seldom find in contemporary poetry.” “Our language,” he says a bit further on, although one doesn't know what he means or what evidence he has, “no longer seeks, as folk idiom sought, moral truths and attitudes to life as a natural habit.” Discussing “Bit out the mandrake,” he confides (in a footnote buried at the end of the book) that although the image is disgusting the genital kiss it evokes is not. So there: we're dealing with a real man; the damnation of Thomas is coming from no prude. But he does disapprove of Thomas's “frenetic sexual activity” (which Fitzgibbon says “was mostly talk”) and, with spinsterly hauteur, observes that

Thomas's deep fear of mature reality is a complement to his promiscuity, as is symbolized by his recurrent images of sexual potency being dissolved in alcohol or some other form of oblivion.

(Kingsley Amis manifests the same symptoms. …)

I wonder what Amis thinks of that. In Holbrook's hands, literary criticism degenerates into moral objurgation. He doesn't like literature that displays what Arnold called “indifference to moral ideas.” One gets the impression of a smug person who had a happy childhood, has no complexes, conducts his own life with immaculate sagacity, knows how everyone else ought to live and also what they should think about death. “Thomas,” he incredulously says, “displays a neurotic fear of death.” Well, poor all of us, to die prematurely on the altar of so vague a phrase. Holbrook sounds like a cosmic headmaster writing Little Thomas's school report (it is not surprising that Thomas had a neurotic fear of critics too).

Elsewhere, Holbrook chatters on about decent values, ancient virtues and lost roots (all that feudal saliva) about which he would be more convincing if he didn't sound like a censorious pedagogue who, simply because he isn't on Thomas's wave-length and dare not be, buries the poems in dogged analysis. I share his passion for things regional, for such rural idioms as “screwmatic” and “solintary,” for poetry “enriched by contact with popular life.” Yet when Thomas goes regional (which, as John Ackerman points out, is often)—imports some curious idiom or a bit of slang—Holbrook either ignores it or damns it on principle because the person who did it was Thomas. Let's face it: Thomas had the life he had; he was not a moralist, he was a sensation-stater sometimes beyond his own control; but, to any adult, and perhaps to some children, he speaks as honestly as he can, meriting not only sympathy but also (one shouldn't have to say it) fair play.

Take a few more samples. Holbrook quotes, as having “genuineness,” the following lines: “No worse, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief …” and “No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change. …” I find an equal “genuineness” and memorableness in “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “It was my thirtieth year to heaven.” If only Holbrook were as generous and discerning with Thomas as he is with Sir Gawaine and the Grene Knight, into which he plunges in much the same way as he claims Thomas does into a lost childhood.

See how he dogs the Welshman. At the lines, “she would lie dumb and deep / And need no druid of her broken body,” he asks, “why not let her lie then?” Why write the poem? It is like asking why Keats didn't cut short his Ode to set up nest with the nightingale (which is presumably what he wanted to do all along). Again, when Holbrook complains of the “comic advertisement-copy language of some of his BBC talks,” he is exaggerating the amount of poppycock in those talks and objecting because he doesn't appreciate comedy: for all his advocacy of the popular, he is disdainful of such things as “the cliché jest about freezing the testicles off a brass monkey.” Thomas, of course, doted on such jests. Again, Holbrook contends “there is nothing in the prose writings of Dylan Thomas to assist our discriminating response to his poetry.” Let him read that profound letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson on “earthiness” and John Donne, or the long letter which the egregious American student Richard Jones published as “Dylan Thomas's Poetic Manifesto,” or the bizarre but revealing note to Charles Fisher: “Poetry, heavy in tare though nimble, should be as orgastic and organic as copulation, dividing and unifying, personal but not private, propagating the individual in the mass and the mass in the individual.” How easily, too, he is taken in: “wherever he [Thomas] writes about his work he does so in a remarkably off-hand and even irresponsible manner.” Naughty Thomas. Slap him on the knuckles with a ruler. It isn't true, of course; but it is true of, say, Byron and Faulkner, and their facetious obiter dicta misled nobody about their real intentions.

But Holbrook's obstinacy in what Dr. Johnson called “the habitual cultivation of the powers of dislike” shows most vividly when he picks three lines for paraphrase and comment. These are the lines:

There was a saviour
Rarer than radium,
Commoner than water, crueller than truth.

This is the paraphrase:

There was once a saviour of mankind who was at the same time of a rarer quality than radium, more common than water, and crueller than truth.

(italics mine)

Funny: he understands the lines (this time not obscure enough—“the complications are not the felt complications in grappling with experience that we have in, say, the poetry of Hopkins”) but, while holding that “the poem is an unsatisfactory way of putting something that is better said in prose,” makes an even more unsatisfactory prose of his own. His comment goes thus: “Radium is something of which we have only intellectual knowledge, that water is common is a truism, and that truth is cruel is a platitude.” To be more accurate: the conjunction of saviour with radium astonishes and suggests inexplicable, cosmic power (and radium needles, once used in treating birth marks on children's hands, are not intellectual—especially if you have seen some of the unfortunate results); the unfamiliar truism about water (not “muck”) is there to steady us after the shock of the first two lines; and crueller than truth—a truism from everyday idiom—brings us back to things ordinary. It isn't one of Thomas's most remarkable poems, but one can make a case even for those first three lines as a revelation declining into the homespun mundane.

Holbrook fails to see that Thomas conceived his poems not about life, but as life, and expected his reader to respond in the same first-hand way—as if (I quote John Bayley) “we are being assaulted by something other than words.” But words they are, shoved to memorable limits sometimes and more suasive than Holbrook, pedantically objecting at every turn, allows himself to see. Even when he manages to praise a few touches in Under Milk Wood he follows up with this: “Under Milk Wood is trivial. And, indeed, it is really dangerous, because it flatters and reinforces the resistance to those deeper insights we need. … Under Milk Wood reinforces untenderness. It is a cruel work, inviting our cruel laughter.” Now who ever thought reading was a safe activity? Ah well. Holbrook further objects to the “sex, boozing, eccentricity, cruelty [again], dirty behaviour. …” Wouldn't we have a nice literature if there were only nice people to write about? Under Milk Wood isn't meant as a moral tract anyway. But Thomas must be allowed to get away with nothing: when he imports the phrase “dickybird watching” to give the texture some popular color, Holbrook calls it “a cliché of journalistic writing.” And what Holbrook calls the play's “childish dirty jokes” express, as dirty jokes often do, an embarrassed reverence for life. He is willing to make a negative point: “We may remember how Joyce ‘places’ Mrs. Bloom, by making her, in the shame of her adultery, want to shout out obscene words.” But, being so negative, he perhaps doesn't know that many men and women in this climax of sexual bliss also shout out obscene words—in licentious gratitude and no doubt as a stimulus to further spontaneity. Under Milk Wood is a hymn to life, an apostrophe to an imagined heaven, and not (pace Holbrook's “no controlling irony”) a short story by Henry James. But bawdy, nougat-sticky, immoral, tough and whimsical by turns, down-to-earth, mocking, chattily stylish, racy, pungent, punitive? Yes. And schizoid, infantile, dangerous, ugly, sadistic, full of hate? No: only to someone too seraphic to stomach the daft vigors of average humanity.

John Ackerman's very different (although partly biographical) approach benefits from his knowledge of Wales. Take, for example, Evans the Death's dream in Under Milk Wood: “he runs out into the field where his mother is making welshcakes in the snow, and steals a fistful of snowflakes and currants.” This is not entirely fantasy, Ackerman says, because “it was the custom in Wales when making welshcakes to use snow in the mixture.” Ackerman knows, as few of us do, his Mabinogion too, usefully indicating the geniality and “earthy, colloquial humour” that Thomas drew from it. He also makes fascinating mention of how Swansea responded to a performance of Under Milk Wood. These four lines—

We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst

—London found amusing, as out of nervousness it finds almost anything. In Swansea, however, there were “murmurings of assent and approval.” And he rightly observes that Thomas isn't satirical or mocking here.

His discussion of “After the Funeral” is—what Holbrook's is not—even tempered, attuned and intuitive: the poet, he comments, “is embittered by the facile and—to him—inadequate acquiescence of the bereaved, who find sufficient balm in the theology of their conventional Nonconformist beliefs.” Although “inadequate” is at first misleading (he means “too ready” not “insufficient”), the comment is perceptive, as is this: “Thomas's way of life followed a working-class rather than middle-class pattern.” As he points out, the social structure of Wales isn't that of England. This is the salt to be taken with Thomas's and his wife's protestations of being bourgeois, and with Holbrook's blithe assumption that Under Milk Wood is about the suburban bourgeoisie (it is much more esoteric than that).

We see from Ackerman's book how useful a critic can be who is not trying primarily to score off his author. He makes judicious use of the manuscripts, and his first two chapters, on the Welsh background, are essential reading. A less biographically inclined critic, William Moynihan, interests himself in Thomas's religiousness and his love of sound. In the prefatory note to Collected Poems, he justly identifies “a religious impulse as old as the rites of Nemi, or as Genesis itself”—an impulse blatant in Under Milk Wood which he rescues from the irrelevant charge that it “shows no character change or development. Such a view is about as relevant as saying Captain Ahab had no sense of humor.” Altogether less reassuring is his introduction into the argument of “Lupasco's new logic,” of such language as “the potential-kinetic alternation of forces,” and what he calls “affinitive patterns,” by which he intends a semantics of alliteration—founded, with constructive piety, on Thomas's telling Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1934 that the word “drome” gave him a vision of the gates of heaven. It was, said Thomas, the long m that did it. And the long o suggested the movement of God. For my money, that long m suggests a cow in pensive, greeting mood, while the long o reminds me of the herald in Chaucer's Knight's Tale.

At his best when “placing” Thomas in relation to other writers, Moynihan points out how D. H. Lawrence “accepts death and looks forward to it as a release” whereas “there is neither rest nor peace in [Thomas's] vision of death; there is rather an alleluia of all the earth's potential energy.” Later on he says that “Silence for Thomas was death, sound was life,” and this explains not only death's being for Thomas a kind of cosmic boisterousness but also his developing—to extraordinary extremes—the principle of Welsh verse: that sound is as important as sense. Ackerman, says Moynihan, rather skimps the significance to Thomas of sound; but Ackerman does provide a local point that neatly fits into what Moynihan says: “As Thomas well knew, pub singing in Wales can move with complete ease from bawdy to a favourite hymn or folksong.” In other words, as in Thomas's poems, routine divisions are forgotten in “the love of Man and in praise of God.” It is Rilke's principle, quoted by Moynihan, of “dennoch prisen: praise still, praise in spite of everything.” The praise is also a means of raging against the night, the not known. “Arguing simultaneously that man is incapable of ever knowing right from wrong and that man must believe, must have faith,” Moynihan says, “was no paradox to Thomas.” Confronted with “the determined amorality of existence” and “the need for faith,” what could Thomas do but both praise and refuse the good night, the bad night, neither gently praising nor gently refusing.

After all the homages and allowances have been made, we still have to reckon with—and find our own adjustments to—what Thomas hoped would be a lucky naïveté, what Holbrook finds a tropic of whimper, and what in fact is the exploitation of language to allusive, rhythmic maxima in the quest for eternal “unaccommodated man.” It is by now traditional to object that Thomas wrote for his own voice only (even to the extent of his performance of a poem being an essential part of the poem—Do not trespass on the alleluias) and to find incongruous majesty in steak-sauce or Cinzano labels when chanted in the Thomas manner. The trouble is not the atavism or the dithyramb or the self-engrossed insufficiency; it is something else, unique to Thomas, I think—an inscrutably complex mesh of gifts and vices that I would dub mystical Micawberism, whose inadequacies Thomas remedied with his own special brand of emergency panache. Something impulsive but lackadaisical too, something inspired but also forced, something too private to be naturally communicable, something too hammy to be honest—this something is what flaws the career.

But who, any more, wants to count the cost? Or ask why? The gains are there in his almost total disregard of what is rational in literature and life. Holbrook on Thomas sounds like Wyndham Lewis on Faulkner's “slipshod and redundant artistic machine,” just as Thomas's defenders—or at least the stayers of his execution—sound like Richard Rovere arguing, in his preface to The Modern Library Light in August, the case for Faulkner's prose in a time that cherishes the concise, the functional, the tame. Let us not fence with this poet's bones or dump his indiscretions on his grave. Let us even try to numb our ears to the relentlessly dramatic din of his voice. Let us sift the words. If we can: for me, one image persists—not the Dunlop-rubber moon of a face, but the face of D. M. Thomas in the local newspaper, looking exhaustedly down after winning the mile race in the school sports. Whether he won or lost the race of his life I don't know or much care. He surely is not the competitor-type, but rather—and perhaps we shall increasingly come to see him like this—the spy, the watcher, the delver, the ponderer in his place, guessing at the infernal-divine machinery underlying his local patch: Cwmdonkin Drive, the pounded, curving spread of the tidal beach at the Boat House, the stark egg-white walls in the barnyard at Fern Hill. All he ever needed was that locality.

At the cremation of his father, Thomas remained outside only to be told by some ghoul how D. J. Thomas's skull had burst like a bomb in the heat of the furnace. The grisly image, by courtesy of Fitzgibbon, somehow epitomizes the son's subject matter. That a skull should do that, should have to do that or rot, is matter enough for anyone's lifetime of wondering. This mutability of the physical tormented Thomas into envisioning an ecological busyness no less thorough than Hamlet's. He wanted to know how the universe runs itself on earth, both before and beyond an ordinary life-span; he wanted, as I have said, a sense of the all, rather than everything making sense. It is the how rather than the why that nags at him; and that is why, after reading him, we are none the wiser, although we may be better informed.

Works Cited

Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories, by Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions. The Life of Dylan Thomas, by Constantine Fitzgibbon. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. The Days of Dylan Thomas: A Pictorial Biography, by Bill Read and Rollie McKenna. New York: McGraw-Hill. Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation, by David Holbrook. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work, by John Ackerman. New York: Oxford University Press. The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas, by William T. Moynihan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


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Dylan Thomas 1914-1953

Welsh poet, short story writer, dramatist, journalist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents criticism from 1967 to 2000 on Thomas's life and works. For more criticism prior to 1987, see PC, Volume 2.

Although Thomas wrote short stories and film scripts in addition to poetry, he is best remembered today for his verse and his reputation as a hard-drinking philanderer whose alcoholism precipitated his early death at the age of 39. Among Thomas's most famous poems are “Fern Hill,” “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”

Biographical Information

Born on October 27, 1914, in a middle-class area of Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Wales, Dylan Marlais Thomas was the second child of David John (D. J.) Thomas, an English teacher at the local grammar school, and Florence Williams Thomas; his sister Nancy was nine years older. As a child, Thomas appears to have been overindulged by his mother and intimidated by his father, who was himself a frustrated poet. Thomas received his formal education at Swansea Grammar School, which he attended from 1925 to 1931, although he often claimed that he learned more in his father's library, which included an impressive collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry. While at Swansea, he began writing poetry and publishing it in the school magazine, which he also helped edit. From the time Thomas left school in 1931 until he went to London in 1934, he produced more verse, much of it highly original, than during any other three-year period in his life. Familiar locations, such as the family home at No. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the neighborhood park, and his uncle's farm Fernhill, provided the inspiration, as well as the settings, for many of Thomas's poems. During these years, too, Thomas began drinking, smoking, and telling stories—as part of the public persona he was rather self-consciously developing.

In London, Thomas continued writing poetry; his work was published in a variety of periodicals, including T. S. Eliot's Criterion and Victor Neuburg's “Poet's Corner” in the newspaper Sunday Referee. His first collection of poetry, Eighteen Poems, was published in December of 1934. During the next few years, Thomas became a member of London's bohemian community, living with three artist friends and solidifying his reputation as a drinker and a drifter whose personal habits were unhygienic at best and disgusting at worst. In 1937, Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara, a writer and dancer; the couple had two sons, Llewellyn and Colm, and a daughter, Aeron. During the early years of their marriage, the Thomases divided their time between London and Laugharne, and between his parents' home in Swansea and her mother's home in Hampshire. When World War II began, Thomas was determined to avoid serving in the armed forces; he was declared medically unfit, which saved him the necessity of filing for conscientious objector status. Always short of money during the war years, Thomas endured the bombing to write war documentary scripts for Strand Films in London. He continued to produce poetry and prose reminiscences of his childhood, and to do poetry readings for the BBC. After the war, Thomas tried to secure regular employment with the BBC and with various film companies, but was hindered by his reputation as a hard drinker. In 1949, Thomas was invited by John Malcolm Brinnin to New York to give a series of poetry readings in the city and at various American universities. His 1950 tour, and those that followed in 1952 and 1953, were marked by drunkenness, outrageous behavior, and in some cases, brilliant readings. Although Thomas intended to use the profits from his readings in America to pay his mounting debts at home, he squandered most of his earnings before returning to Wales. Thomas died at the age of 39 in New York on November 9, 1953, of pneumonia brought on by alcoholism.

Major Works

Thomas began publishing individual poems in periodicals such as New Verse and The New English Weekly in the early 1930s. His first published collection was Eighteen Poems featured several revised versions of the poetry originally composed in the penny notebooks he kept after 1930. In 1936, his second collection appeared, Twenty-Five Poems. These early notebook poems, along with the autobiographical sonnet sequence “Altarwise by Owl-light,” are characterized by obscure imagery and the poet's attempt to articulate a romantic poetic consciousness. In 1939, some of the poems inspired by his marriage appeared in The Map of Love, considered part of Thomas's so-called “troubled” middle period, which also includes verse associated with his experiences during World War II. The most notable of the war poems are “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” and “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred,” all collected in the 1946 volume Deaths and Entrances. Some of the final poems of that volume, however, are considered part of Thomas's third stage of poetic development and include some of his best work: “Poem in October,” “A Winter's Tale,” and “Fern Hill.” In these later works, Thomas suggests that it is possible, by means of the poetic imagination, to recapture the lost innocence associated with childhood.

Thomas's short stories, many of them autobiographical, first appeared in periodicals and reappeared in the collections The Map of Love (1939), The World I Breathe (1939), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), and Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories (1955), which included episodes from the unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade.

Critical Reception

Thomas's work, particularly his poetry, has been the subject of a great deal of controversy since the poet's death. There is little agreement on whether Thomas was a genius whose verse is on a par with T. S. Eliot's and W. H. Auden's, or a minor talent whose poetry is uneven and confusing. During his lifetime, his work received favorable reviews, although many critics both then and now fault his poetry for a lack of clarity. Paul West (1967), however, finds such criticism inappropriate, claiming that the poet's “very self … precluded everyday lucidity, dispensed with logic, spurned maturity for the child's sense of wonder, disdained consistency as a Procrustean trap, and regarded documentary as a vaulting-board.” Some contemporary critics suspected that Thomas had been influenced by the Surrealists—a charge he denied—because his poetry appeared to be filled with private allusions, thus rendering the verse unintelligible to the average reader. Don McKay (1986), though, suggests that Thomas's use of allusion is far more complicated than that: “It is typical of Thomas to use traditional sources in myth and literature wrenched from context in such an aggressive way that the aggression—the kidnapping—is itself a telling feature of the symbol in its new Thomas-controlled situation.” Walford Davies (1986) believes that Thomas's use of the English language is somewhat adversarial, even though English, not Welsh, was his native tongue. According to Davies, the poet's “hypersensitivity to accidental meanings” and the “punning energy” of the poems suggest that “a strong sense of provincial, cultural, even religious, ‘otherness’ leads to the writer taking revenge as it were (even for the most mixed of motives) on the imperial, standardizing norms of the English language itself.” Eleanor J. McNees (1992) has examined Thomas's use of religious imagery and allusions and contrasts it with that of earlier poets: “Whereas Hopkins and Donne seek to reconcile their individuality with conformity to Christ,” McNees reports, “Thomas uses Christ to reinforce his own individuality, an act the earlier poets would have considered heretical.” While many critics praise Thomas's ability to maintain a child's perspective in his later poetry, Seamus Heaney (1993) believes that Thomas's lack of maturity had unfortunate consequences for his work. “Thomas's anti-intellectualism, for example, is a bad boy's habit wastefully prolonged and this doctrinaire immaturity, which was at once tedious and entertaining in life, was finally retrograde for his art,” claims Heaney. Barbara Hardy (2000), however, takes issue with critics who judge Thomas as immature or infantile. She proposes that “like Wordsworth, but without the sense of loss through growth, Thomas articulated a preserved sense of the childhood intimacy with the natural world …” In her examination of Thomas's green poetry, Hardy praises the poet's originality and sense of unity, as well as his childlike relationship with nature.

Daniel R. Schwarz (essay date spring 1979)

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SOURCE: Schwarz, Daniel R. “‘And the Wild Wings Were Raised’: Sources and Meaning in Dylan Thomas' ‘A Winter's Tale.’” Twentieth Century Literature 25, no. 1 (spring 1979): 85-98.

[In the following essay, Schwarz discusses “A Winter's Tale,” maintaining that the poem was written within the tradition of Romanticism, as well as in response to that tradition.]

Dylan Thomas' “A Winter's Tale” (1945), perhaps his greatest work, is a poem that is central to our understanding of how the Romantic tradition perseveres in twentieth-century British poetry as an alternative to the political consciousness of the Auden generation. If Thomas had only written the great poems that emerged from the shadow of the Second World War, such as “Poem in October,” “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” and “A Winter's Tale,” he would be entitled to rank behind only Yeats and Auden as the most significant twentieth-century poet that Great Britain has produced. “A Winter's Tale” is a poem which shows us how Thomas writes self-consciously both within and in response to a poetic tradition. By combining the iconographic meaning of the bird as Holy Ghost and Pentecostal Dove with the Romantic tradition of the poet's soul responding to a bird's movement, Thomas re-creates himself as a poet and affirms his belief in prayer, poetry, and himself. In “A Winter's Tale,” Thomas uses allusions to Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, and Yeats to claim for himself a central place within British literary tradition, even while seeking as a Welshman and an outsider to modify that tradition. Thomas perceived, as Eliot wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”1

Now that the often voyeuristic and sometimes ghoulish fascination with the Thomas personality has gone out of vogue, his artistic reputation seems to be in undeserved eclipse. Yet like Wallace Stevens' great poems about the powers of the poetic imagination, Thomas' work speaks to us about the potential to create alternatives to personal despair, political turmoil, and technological dehumanization. For Thomas, the finished poem is a magical act that exorcises the tensions which it records. As for Stevens, the poet is for Thomas the man who creates himself as he creates poetry, and who can say: “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself; / And there I found myself more truly and more strange.”2 “A Winter's Tale” is the central poem not only of Deaths and Entrances (1946), but perhaps in Thomas' career, because it movingly and subtly dramatizes how the poet achieves a vision of personal salvation through the imaginative process. “A Winter's Tale” is about the individual's capacity to use his imagination to transform reality if he has the necessary faith. Finally, the poem becomes a testament to—and a paradigm of—the necessity of faith and the power of the imagination.

Thomas relies not on Stevens' ironic voice and playfulness, but instead upon the bardic voice whose English antecedents include Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Lawrence. Indeed, like Lawrence, Thomas seeks to revivify Christian myths and metaphors that in a secular age have lapsed into obsolescence. The man at prayer is a specific metaphor for the poet and a broader metaphor for the man who seeks something more than the diurnal routine of secular life. Thomas is in the Romantic tradition of poet-prophets who, in the words of M. H. Abrams, “set out … to reconstitute the grounds of hope and to announce the certainty, or at least the possibility, of rebirth in which a renewed mankind will inhabit a renovated earth where he will find himself thoroughly at home.”3 Since the man at prayer is not specified, Thomas' Wordsworthian implication is that the visionary experience is available to every man, or at least every man with the imaginative energy who is untainted by the corruption of civilization. (Even in the seemingly elegiac “Fern Hill,” Thomas revitalizes himself by the perception of his rustic Welsh childhood as a version of the pastoral and as the Edenic period of his life.) The creative imagination is not restricted to poets, but is part of each man's potential. As with Lawrence, a Protestant and Nonconformist spirit places the responsibility for discovering God within the individual. God is in Thomas a pantheistic presence and imaginative energy; He is not only accessible to man, but He is also inherent in each man.

“A Winter's Tale”'s title is significant. Thomas writes of the vitality of the imagination at a time not only when poetry and civilization seem threatened by war and materialism, but at a time of severe personal problems. His own marriage was having serious difficulties, he was deeply worried about his father's health, he seemed to lack a permanent place in which to do his work. The man at prayer is an image of Dylan himself who, according to FitzGibbon, “between 1941 and 1944 … wrote, or at least finished, no poem, though he was working on some of those that later appeared in Deaths and Entrances.4 “Burning … in his firelit island,” the protagonist of “A Winter's Tale” is an objectification of Thomas himself, who while living through a personal and historical winter feared personal and cultural death as well as the atrophy of his poetic energies (4).5 Although fire is a recurrent trope for imaginative or creative activity, it is especially prominent in Shelley's A Defense of Poetry, which is, I suspect, Thomas' major source for describing poetic activity in religious language. Shelly contends, “Poetry is indeed something divine;” “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”6 “Torn and alone,” the man “unrolled / The scrolls of fire that burned in his heart and head” (3). For Thomas, the writing of the poem at a time when his creative impulse seemed to be atrophying is itself a heroic endeavor and indication, as Shelley put it, of “The interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own.”7 Simultaneously the poem is an imaginative act and an efficacious act of prayer that denies the inevitability of cultural demise. Within “A Winter's Tale” prayer becomes interchangeable with poetic creation and the fulfillment of the man of faith becomes synonymous with the poet's creation.

It may well be that Thomas was writing with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in mind. The rural setting recalls the place where Perdita is abandoned and raised by a rural shepherd. In a sense, Perdita is created by the emotional needs of Florizel and Leontes; she is, like Thomas' bird, a miraculous figure. While the solitude, desperation, and humility hardly recall our first impression of Leontes, Thomas' protagonist's loneliness mirrors that of Shakespeare's king after the latter's son and, apparently, his wife have died and he has ordered that his daughter be abandoned. Paulina bitterly tells Leontes:

Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain, and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.

(III, ii. 209-15)

But after Leontes does become a “penitent” (IV. ii. 25), Cleomenes tells him: “No fault could you make / Which you have not redeem'd; indeed, paid down / More penitence than done trespass” (V. i. 2-4). Just as Thomas' protagonist uses prayer to summon the miraculous she bird, Leontes' penitence is rewarded by the no less miraculous reappearance of his daughter and wife. Both play and poem illustrate the rewards of humility, faith, and prayer. The king whose imagination betrayed him is saved by his imagination. After he regains her, Leontes recalls “I … have in vain said many a prayer upon her grave” (V. iii. 141).

Just as Leontes has enough love to transform Hermione into a devoted partner, so the imagination of Thomas' man summons the she bird. Both are nonmimetic events dependent on intuition and feelings. Both plots illustrate the basic Christian paradox that to gain all one must lose all; that is, spiritual salvation depends on renouncing worldly pleasures. Leontes is reborn through faith and prayer no less than Thomas' solitary man. Like the she bird, Hermione combines both spiritual and physical fulfillment (in Thomas, as in Lawrence, the two are inseparable). She has been spiritualized in Antigonus' dream as he prepared to abandon Perdita: “In pure white robes / Like very sanctity, she did approach my cabin” (III. iii. 22).

Winter pervades the poem and the lonely man's life. At first winter suggests physical and spiritual death, and perhaps the kind of rationality and empiricism that must be rejected. But snow, the poem's primary winter image, has the potential to melt and turn into life-giving water. Within the poem faith and imagination figuratively melt the snow. The bird, metonymy for the imagination, transforms the setting and charges it with meaning. But isn't the relationship between the man and the bird a figure for the relationship between poet and poem? Like the poem that becomes its emblem, the bird transforms ordinary and nominalistic experience into significance. The early stanzas, prior to the bird's miraculous appearance, bear the same relation to the stanza subsequent to the bird's appearance as the Old Testament bears to the New; the early stanzas are a prophecy that the later stanzas fulfill. The poem traces a process of movement from the inertia of stanzas 1 and 2, to the gradual awakening of stanza 5, to the experience of prayer, and finally the bird's apocalyptic arrival.

Thomas' poem urges the reader to discover the significance of ordinary words and experiences. It is as if Thomas recalled Shelley's contention that “Poetry turns all things to loveliness. … It transmutes all that it touches and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes.”8 Effective prayer, a metaphor for the poet's imagination, transforms “the drifting bread” and the “cup and the cut bread … in the muffled house” into the sacramental, eucharistic “bread white hill over the cupped farm” (3, 6, 22). The bird's final ascent fulfills and transforms the “winged snow and the dung hills white” of stanza 4. The movement of the twilight as it “ferries over the lakes” and “floating fields” anticipates the bird's flight (1). The poem redefines such terms as “vale,” “snow,” and “fold” into richer concepts; the “snow-blind twilight” of stanza 1 becomes the man's “snow blind love” in stanza 8, and in turn, his love generates the bird's all-encompassing “melting snow,” an image of Christian grace and imaginative ecstasy (26). The “hand folded flakes” and the folds where sheep live become the “hand folded air” of the man which generates the bird's “folded head” (1, 8, 17). The vales of the original setting become “the cup of the vales” where the man knelt alone (2, 17).

To be aware of one's spiritual hunger and to feel one's spiritual need is the necessary prelude to faith. The man at prayer is separate from spiritual grace, but his knowledge of this is the first step toward his wish that he be spiritually fulfilled:

                                                                                                              He knelt, he wept, he prayed,
By the spit and the black pot in the log bright light
And the cup and the cut bread in the dancing shade,
In the muffled house, in the quick of night,
At the point of love, forsaken and afraid.
                                                                                                              He knelt on the cold stones,
He wept from the crest of grief, he prayed to the veiled sky
May his hunger go howling on bare white bones
Past the statues of the stables and the sky roofed sties
And the duck pond glass and the blinding byres alone
                                                                                                                        Into the home of prayers
And the fires where he should prowl down the cloud
Of his snow blind love and rush in the white lairs.


The solitary is “cold as snow,” but paradoxically the nameless need within him provides the energy to perceive the bird.

As in traditional devotional literature, recognition of one's spiritual need is the essential first step to salvation. Although at first the man's prayer is unanswered (“His naked need struck him howling and bowed / Though no sound flowed down the hand folded air.” [8]), his need is the most positive aspect of the situation: “And his nameless need bound him burning and lost / When cold as snow he should run the wended vales …” (9). His spiritual hunger is mirrored by the hunger of birds on the silent wind. Even as the setting mimes his emptiness, the man is like a seed waiting to germinate. The potentially baptismal water awaits the necessary arrival of the bird:

                                                                                                              The rivers mouthed in night,
And drown in the drifts of his need, and lie curled caught
In the always desiring centre of the white
Inhuman cradle and the bride bed forever sought
By the believer lost and the hurled outcast of light.


Although the last line is probably a deliberate echo of Hopkins “Pitched past pitch of grief” in his sonnet “No Worst, There Is None,” the bridal bed offers both sexual and religious hope. Since the cradle is the place where the Blessed Infant originates as well as the source from which the river of spiritual life continues to flow, the man's prayer is a traditional one:

                                                                                                                                                      Deliver him, he cried,
By losing him all in love, and cast his need
Alone and naked in the engulfing bride,
Never to flourish in the fields of the white seed
Or flower under the time dying flesh astride.


Thomas not only uses religious language to describe imaginative activity, but uses sexual language for religious events. “The engulfing bride” is Christ and the Heavenly City in Revelation; the she bird derives from Revelation 21.1-22.17. When the holy city, New Jerusalem, comes down from heaven “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband … the Spirit and the bride say ‘Come’ and let him who hears say ‘Come.’ And let him who is thirsty come, and let him who desires take the water of life without price.” The bird image also derives from Deuteronomy 32.11, God is “like an eagle watching over its nest / hovering over its young.” Moreover, the bird is the mysterious life-force which perpetually revives and re-creates life, as well as the creative imagination which transforms and re-creates each man. The man asks to be delivered from chronological time but to be subsumed by “the engulfing bride,” a sexually charged image that emphasizes the passionate libidinous aspect of the poetic process.

Thomas evokes the nightingale, associated with the Philomel myth and with Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale.”9 By doing so Thomas places himself in the context of both the romantic and classical tradition:

                                                                                                                                                      The nightingale,
Dust in the buried wood, flies on the grains of her wings
And spells on the winds of the dead his winter's tale.
The voice of the dust of water from the withered spring
                                                                                                                                            Is telling. The wizened
Stream with bells and baying water bounds. The dew rings
On the gristed leaves and the long gone glistening
Parish of snow. The carved mouths in the rock are wind swept
Time sings through the intricately dead snow drop.


A traditional image for poetry, the nightingale in the poem is an image for Thomas himself who, although locked in the winter of his discontent, still wishes to sing, and to take his place in the bardic and prophetic tradition. The nightingale is now “dust in the buried wood” because some members of the species die in winter, because the romantic tradition is dead, and because the Philomel legend seems irrelevant to the wartime Zeitgeist. Yet that it has a voice at all is an encouraging sign that poetry and Thomas himself may revive. As if it were a necessary fertilizing presence, the nightingale revives prior to the she bird's magical appearance.

“A Winter's Tale” is Thomas' poetic commentary on Keats's great ode from the point where Keats's speaker says:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

Keats knows he cannot permanently leave the “weariness, the fever, and the fret” of the mortal, temporal world behind. For Keats, “the viewless wings of poesy” provide the temporary means of escape to the nightingale's happiness; the secular ecstasy of the imaginative state has its correlative in death because death also renders irrelevant chronological time. Realizing that he would no longer hear the immortal sound, Keats rejects death. The imaginative flight ceases and he returns to the diurnal world: “The fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.” Thomas' poem depicts a similar process.

Thomas' bird seems to offer the promise of immortality to his protagonist and thus implicitly holds the same promise for the speaker. If death is conceived as a blessed release from life and as the birth of the eternal soul, then Thomas is providing a poetic benediction not only to Keats's ode but to Keats's premature death. Although he at first experiences the bird through the imaginative activity of his protagonist, Thomas himself, like Keats, is taken beyond his conscious rational self by thoughts of the bird. The she bird, the result of man's faith, not only stirs the man of prayer but stirs Thomas' surrogate, the narrator of the poem. No physical or emotional ice age can still the spirit of imagination within man. The bird seems to exorcise the “hunger” and “dust” of previous stanzas. In the climactic transformation, chronological time is replaced by transcendental time. Past and present conflate in the speaker's description of the miraculous Incarnational moment.

                                                                                                                                            It was a hand or sound
In the long ago land that glided the dark door wide
And there outside on the bread of the ground
A she bird rose and rayed like a burning bride.
A she bird dawned, and her breast with snow and scarlet downed.


Even after the “rite is shorn of nightingale and centaur,” the respective images of classic and romantic poetry, the bird evoked by prayer survives and offers not simply solace to its acolyte, but offers blessing and salvation (24). Thomas does not merely use religious experience as a metaphor for imaginative experience. Because he was always seeking, if not finding, spiritual revelation, traditional concepts of God and Christ are working hypotheses in his poems. In “A Winter's Tale” he is implying that when man's imagination is open to religious rites and mystery, he may be capable of more intense, efficacious, and permanent kinds of insight than the secular poetic tradition provides. Thomas may have been a pantheist, but he was a deeply religious man. As he said in his “Note” to the Collected Poems, his poems were written “for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't.”

Thomas' sacramental bird is also a response to Shelley's secular wish in his “To a Skylark” that he be taught the bird's gladness, as well as a response to Hardy's gloomy “The Darkling Thrush” in which Hardy wonders whether the thrush can possibly conceive any cause for hope. But perhaps the most prominent poetic influence upon Thomas' association of a bird with divine revelation is Hopkins' own version of the convention of a poet responding to a bird's vitality: “The Windhover.”

The bird's “dawn” and “ascent” are an answer to the melancholy “voice of the dust” and to “the far owl warning” (2, 12), which are now seen as a kind of annunciation (14). Probably, Thomas had Shelley's Defense in mind when he imagined the image for the poetic process as a response to an owl, for Shelley had asked: “If poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar?”10 The bird's appearance gives nature (specifically such images as “the puffed birds hopping and hunting”) significance and purpose (5). The she bird transforms the “hunger of birds in the fields,” the “dust of pigeons,” and “the farms of birds” (9, 15). The bird, nature's miracle, as well as God's, promises a different kind of renewal, one implying eternal salvation for the man of faith. The music in stanza 12 creates a magical moment. The past delivers a miraculous message “through the dark door wide.” That message is both the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the imagination. As a trope for the imagination, the bird has the power to transform and re-create. But the bird's activity is described in Christian terms. For Thomas the Bible is both a prose work of imaginative truth and a dictionary of images for other experience. Here the Christian images are also vehicles for the revival of music and dancing, of the spontaneous and instinctive in man, as well as for the potential descent of the Pentecostal Dove, the Holy Spirit, that any moment may transform the diurnal and pedestrian:

                                                                                                    Look, And the dancers move
On the departed, snow bushed green, wanton in moon light
As a dust of pigeons. Exulting, the grave hooved
Horses, centaur dead, turn and tread the drenched white
Paddocks in the farms of birds. The dead oak walks for love.
                                                                                                                        The carved limbs in the rock
Leap, as to trumpets. Calligraphy of the old
Leaves is dancing. Lines of age on the stones weave in a flock.
And the harp shaped voice of the water's dust plucks in a fold
Of fields.


The man and the she bird have become one with the poet as well as with one another, the poet can now describe the setting in terms of the Eucharist to show his awareness of the potentially blessed state in which man lives even at a time when actual, personal, and historical winter looks bleakest. The setting itself, transformed from winter into a radiant and magical spring as an extension of the man's state, becomes a metaphor for the renewal of imagination. The narrator accounts in awe the lyrical, magical transformation of nature, (dancing “trumpets” “pluck” of harp) brought about by the man's powerful faith. The leap of limbs in response to trumpeting suggests the Last Judgment when time is subsumed into eternity. This image is recalled later when the miracle seems to lapse: “Lines of age sleep on the stones till trumpeting dawn” (11, 23). Just as the man of faith actually overcomes the natural world and becomes one with the Holy Spirit, the poet has the ability to surrender himself to his subject and through his art to become part of a creation that transcends chronological time. Like Lawrence, Thomas uses Christ as a metaphor for the discovery of the miraculous individuality and potential that each man possessed. Yet, unlike Lawrence, he held (at least tentatively) to the belief in Christ as an external reality which man might seek and find. Within the imagined world of this poem, the bird's presence is a benediction to man's faith and love:

                                                                                                    And the wild wings were raised
Above her folded head, and the soft feathered voice
Was flying through the house as though the she bird praised
And all the elements of the slow fall rejoiced
That a man knelt along in the cup of vales …


As Moynihan notes, the protagonist's quest is in the tradition of legends in which the Knight follows a rare bird.12 Such an archetypal theme is appropriate for a winter's tale, which is, among other things, an often told folk tale. The man's pursuit of the she bird mimes the poet's pursuit of the creative imagination as well as his archetypal quest for spiritual insight:

Under the one leaved trees ran a scarecrow of snow
And fast through the drifts of the thickets antlered like deer,
                                                                                          Rags and prayers down the knee—
Deep hillocks and loud on the numbed lakes,
All night lost and long wading in the wake of the she-
Bird through the times and lands and tribes of the slow flakes.

(19, 20)

“The scarecrow of snow” anticipates the transformation of snow into an image of purity and love. In association with the Eucharistic bread, the snow nullifies the lapsing of the seasons back into winter (23). Snow becomes a metonymy for the regenerative process in each human life; the man follows the bird through “the times and lands and tribes of the slow flakes”—in other words, through the time and space in which poetry has flourished. Human history becomes meaningful and significant in the context of the bird's appearance and final ascent.

While the man at prayer has created an imaginative vision, he cannot control it. It is elusive, spontaneous, and self-directed. Like a poem itself, the imaginative act no longer belongs to its creator. The narrator's imaginative vision transforms the horizontal dimension into a vertical vision in which distinctions between life and death and between heaven and earth dissolve:

                                                                                                              The sky, the bird, the bride,
The cloud, the need, the planted stars, the joy beyond
The fields of seed and the time dying flesh astride,
The heavens, the heaven, the grave, the burning font.
In the far ago land the door of his death glided wide. …


As Shelley wrote in the Defense, “poetry makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. … It creates anew the universe.”13 Distinctions between Thomas and the speaker dissolve as the author recounts his protagonist's epiphany of a time when man is one with the cosmos and mortality ceases to matter. “The time dying flesh astride” in stanza 11 becomes subsumed into the speaker's epiphany in stanza 21. After this epiphany, the bird descends. The moment of transcendence ceases, but the man is permanently transformed by his experience. The tale ends with the original man's wish that he be subsumed into his imaginative act: “He prayed to come to the last harm / And the home of prayers and fires” (22). While the dancing and minstrels that accompany the bird's dawn cease, the poet survives to recount his tale of the Chagallian vision that has disappeared with the man's death.

The narrator's own poem is his witness to the effectiveness of the imagination, which has passed from the unconscious through the “dark door” of his conscious mind to influence him. The original speaker subsumes his protagonist, and shows how that man and the setting have become one in his imagination. The speaker's authority as a visionary and poet is demonstrated by the tale's overflowing the final four stanzas of the nominal frame and displacing the detached voice of the prefatory stanzas. Following the twenty-second stanza's final clause “the tale ended,” the reader expects to return to the present tense of line one. But in the last four stanzas the poet virtually takes the place of his protagonist. The surrogate Thomas who introduces the tale imagines how the man at prayer within the tale used his imagination and stands in awe as he recounts it. The distinctions between tale and teller, between imagination and reality, are blurred. The speaker no longer stands back but now enacts the man's prayerful quest. He becomes an engaged participant who demonstrates the source and result of his creativity.

The cessation of the bird's flight signifies the imagination's inevitable containment by time. Even the poet and visionary must lapse back into the everyday world. Because he saw little evidence that Europe's winter was over and the revival of civilization was imminent, and because he knew that the splendid burst of continuous poetic energy could not be sustained (in the poem's terms: his wild wings could not permanently soar), Thomas could not dramatize the perpetual miracle of a premature spring. The next two stanzas reverse the action not only of stanzas 15 and 16, but of even the less magical and more realistic stanzas 12 and 13 (note how the last sentence of stanza 24 reverses the line in stanza 13, “The wizened / Stream with bells and baying water bounds.”)

                                                                                                                                            The dancing perishes
On the white, no longer growing green, and, minstrel dead,
The singing breaks in the snow shoed villages of wishes
That once cut the figures of birds on the deep bread
And over the glazed lakes skated the shapes of fishes
                                                                                                                        Flying, The rite is shorn
Of nightingale and centaur dead horse. The springs wither
Back. Lines of age sleep on the stones till trumpeting dawn.
Exultation lies down. Time buries the spring weather
That belled and bounded with the fossil and the dew


The setting does not return to its original form. “A bread white hill over the cupped farm” signifies that the place is now blessed with the bread and wine of spiritual and imaginative communion. Nor do the last four stanzas recount simply a return from the magical to the realistic. For although “The rite is shorn” the miraculous bird—the bird of imagination, the phoenix, the Holy Spirit, the omen of spring and rebirth—has permanently taken possession of the man who prayed. In a reversal of “Leda and the Swan,” the bird, the “engulfing bride,” “hymns and weds” the speaker.

                                                                                                                                  For the bird lay bedded
In a choir of wings, as though she slept or died,
And the wings glided wide and he was hymned and wedded,
And through the thighs of the engulfing bride,
The woman breasted and the heaven headed
                                                                                                                        Bird, he was brought low
Burning in the bride bed of love, in the whirl-
Pool at the wanting centre, in the folds
Of paradise, in the spun bud of the world.
And she rose with him flowering in her melting snow.


For Thomas, death is an explicable part of the necessary process of creation and destruction. (“Over Sir John's Hill,” where the hawks call other birds to their deaths may be the ironical sequel to “A Winter's Tale.”) Although chronological time reasserts itself (“Time buries the spring weather”), the bird survives the tale's end in the narrative act of Thomas' poem. The man at prayer has been subsumed into the bird, which is the trope for the spirit of God to whom he has prayed, as well as for the imagined world created by the poet's creative art: Thomas is asking for an orgasmic relationship with God, and the last stanza fulfills this request. While Lawrence uses religious language to describe sexual experience, Thomas uses sexual language to define religious experience: the “burning font,” as Tindall suggests, is sexual.14 It is also an image of the imagination in the process of creation. The bird actually takes the speaker to bed, and becomes the bride through whose thighs he passes to enter heaven. To be “brought low” describes the essential Christian submission necessary to mount high, but it also refers to how the poet overcomes his ego during the poetic process. Only when “burning in the bride bed of love,” can he soar as a poet. Since fire was the poem's original metaphor for imagination, it is appropriate that the bird's ascent is described in terms of the “melting snow.” The “melting” not only implies her dissolution as a material object and concomitant reascension into the spiritual world, but also the return to the poet's psyche of his imaginative energy now that his creative activity is completed.

The final stanza is an image of infinite creativity and love. Time and space conflate. The eternal world and the world man perceives are one. That the man at prayer becomes one with the bird illustrates how the imaginative man creates his own immortality because his creation survives his mortal body. Phoenix-like, the bird renews itself, but more than that, the bird—symbol of the imaginative process and poetic creativity—permanently transforms the poet. Its final ascent is described in terms of the Heavenly Bride (“woman breasted and heaven headed”) and Pentecostal Dove because artistic creativity for Thomas is a sacramental activity. Thomas takes literally the Christian tradition of the regenerate soul's meeting with Christ, but also uses it to suggest how the created object subsumes its creator into a new entity. When the man and bird are wed, poet and poem, imagination and aesthetic object become one. Thomas thus demonstrates Shelley's contention in A Defense that “poetry … makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world.”15 That the bird ascends with its creator mimes Thomas' rededication to creativity and his own discovery of religious faith.


  1. T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and Individual Talent” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1960), p. 4.

  2. Wallace Stevens, “Tea at The Palaz of Hoon.”

  3. M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 12. See Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas, ed. Constantine FitzGibbon (New York: J. M. Dent, 1966), p. 115: “Any poet or novelist you like to think of—he either works out of words or in the direction of them. The realistic novelist—Bennett, for instance—sees things, hears things, imagines things, (& all things of the material world or the materially cerebral world), & then goes toward words as the most suitable medium through which to express these experiences. A romanticist like Shelley, on the other hand, is his medium first & expresses out of his medium what he sees, hears, thinks, & imagines” (2 May 1934).

  4. Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), p. 253. See Chapter 10, pp. 232-70.

  5. Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (London: J. M. Dent, 1959). Although the collected edition provides neither line nor stanza numbers, I have indicated in parentheses the stanza number of quoted lines.

  6. Shelley, ed. A. S. B. Glover (London: Nonesuch Press, 1951), pp. 1049-52.

  7. Ibid., p. 1051.

  8. Ibid., p. 1053.

  9. See FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas, p. 247: “As a small child he had told his mother that he intended to be ‘better than Keats,’ and all his life that great poet was, as it were, the model against which he measured himself.”

  10. Shelley, Defense, p. 1050.

  11. See Shelley, Defense: “Poets are … the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (p. 1055).

  12. William T. Moynihan, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), p. 268. For another possible context, see also W. S. Merwin, “The Religious Poet” in Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet, ed. E. W. Tedlock (London: William Heinemann, 1960): “In Wales until the Christian era, and among parts of the population for a long time afterwards, the presiding deity was a goddess; the mid-winter rite was in her praise. She was often represented as a bird; the all night running of the bridegroom corresponds with the marriage-labours in many legends” (p. 244).

  13. Shelley, Defense, p. 1052.

  14. William York Tindall, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas (New York: Noonday, 1962), p. 214.

  15. Shelley, Defense, p. 1051.

Principal Works

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Eighteen Poems 1934

Twenty-five Poems 1936

The Map of Love 1939

New Poems 1943

Deaths and Entrances 1946; revised edition 1984

Twenty-six Poems 1950

In Country Sleep and Other Poems 1952

Collected Poems, 1934-1952 1952

Collected Poems 1966

Poem in October 1970

The Poems of Dylan Thomas 1971; revised edition 2003

Poems 1971; revised edition 1974

Selected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1975

Dylan Thomas Selected Poems, 1934-1952 2003

The World I Breathe (short stories) 1939

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (short stories) 1940

Under Milk Wood (play) 1954

Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955

Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (letters) 1966

The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (notebooks) 1967

The Collected Prose of Dylan Thomas (short stories and essays) 1969

Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas (letters) 1985

Dylan Thomas: The Filmscripts (screenplays) 1995

Don McKay (essay date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: McKay, Don. “Crafty Dylan and the Altarwise Sonnets: ‘I build a flying tower and I pull it down.’” University of Toronto Quarterly 55, no. 4 (summer 1986): 375-94.

[In the following essay, McKay compares the structure of Thomas's poetry, particularly the sonnets, with that of Thomas Hardy, reportedly Thomas's favorite poet.]

One interesting entrance to the question of Dylan Thomas's craftsmanship is offered by the place he tends to assume, or be assigned, among modern poets. Donald Davie, in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, finds ‘tragic significance to the fact that Hardy is said to have been Dylan Thomas' favourite poet, whereas Yeats was his chosen master.’1 This tragedy evidently lies in what Davie perceives to be the abandonment of temporality by poets like Thomas and his friend Vernon Watkins for the eternal, atemporal, and mythic. Davie is referring to Vernon Watkins's comment, in his introduction to Thomas's letters to him, that Dylan ‘understood … why I could never write a poem dominated by time, as Hardy could.’ This, Watkins goes on, ‘was also true of Dylan, though some critics have mistakenly thought to find such poems in his work. It illustrates our affinity on a deeper level: his poems spoke to me with the voice of metaphysical truth. …’2

But we might do well to ask again whether the time-bound poems of Hardy are not a stronger conditioner than most have supposed. What is often seen in Thomas as an address to a timeless world of mythic pattern is more appropriately construed as the reverse: a pulling of such still structures into the flux of temporality. Thomas's work resembles Hardy's in that it frequently brings the mechanism of the poems to the fore, using fixed stanzas with intricate rhyme and metrical schemes. He experiments with elaborate forms like the sonnet and the villanelle and does not, even in the leisurely later poems, accept the option of free verse from Lawrence and Whitman, with whom he seems to be philosophically in sympathy. Still less can one discover the influence of the vers librists or their descendants, Pound, Eliot, and the imagists. Madeness is an essential part of the character of Thomas's poems, a constant reminder of the poet's presence in the work. The comparison with Hardy is instructive: in the structures of both poets we feel an obvious arbitrariness, revealing a human craftsman using available materials, rather than the inspired recipient of ineluctable design. One thinks of ‘Author's Prologue’ with the mirror-image rhyme scheme and Thomas's comment to his publisher: ‘Why I acrosticked myself like this, don't ask me.’3 Whatever the reason, one effect of the exercise is to impress readers by flourishing his credentials as a virtuoso technician. One also thinks of the seventy-two lines in ‘I, in my intricate image’ ending with some variation of the ‘L’ sound, and the difficulty of reconciling this monotone with the intricacy mentioned in the title. Reading Thomas, as with Hardy, we are generally aware of a craftsman making the poem in time, rather than flying on viewless wings.

But it is quite apparent that there is a fundamental dissimilarity between Thomas's craft and Hardy's. Whereas Hardy is always homo faber, Thomas is more often homo ludens. Thomas's formal play, his willingness to wear rhetoric as a costume, distinguishes him from Hardy, the ‘humbler’ craftsman. Donald Davie's image of Hardy as a nineteenth-century engineer constructing a complex, open-faced mechanism holds true in a general way.4 Thomas is ‘crafty’ rather than humble in the control and manipulation of his craft, and the complementary image for him, which I wish to elaborate in the pages which follow, is the trickster. Let me begin by quoting the well-known, flamboyant response Thomas made to a student inquiring about his use of technical devices.

I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved, and devious craftsman in words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears, and to whatever wrong uses I may apply my technical paraphernalia. I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.5

No doubt more than a little of the trickster's invention and contrivance has gone into the invention of this response of the poet's. One imagines Thomas leafing through a literary handbook to pick plums. In fact, the style of Thomas's response reflects this element in his ‘devious’ craftsmanship—the hoopla of a showman showing off, rather than concealing, his artfulness.

It is not difficult to discern the sly presence of the trickster everywhere in Thomas's work infecting all the other roles and voices he takes up: child, father, lover, bard, mystic, elegist. Any tendency to pomp, to institutionalized rhetoric, or indeed to any static form or concept, is undone by his saving presence. Thomas can afford to be as rhetorical and even pompously oracular as he sometimes is, because the trickster's tongue is in the poet's cheek. We might think of the narrator's ironical exposure of himself as the ‘bard on a raised hearth’6 in ‘After the funeral’ and the consequent doubleness we experience in reading. A tension is created between the voices of the serious mourner and the ironical observer, two dialects within the poem. Such doubleness, duplicity, is an important ingredient in any Thomas poem, managed by such tactics as polysemous references, bravura allusiveness, intricacy of form, and the teasing interplay of transparence and opacity.

Among particular figures of speech available to devious craftsmen, Thomas revels in puns and displaced clichés. Included in the list of rhetorical techniques he credits to himself in the letter quoted above are two subspecies of the pun, paronomasia and paragram, besides the pun itself. Thomas's word-play is sometimes simple (‘once below a time,’ ‘capsized field’), sometimes complex (‘Shall you turn cockwise on a tufted axle’), sometimes esoteric (Aaron's rod combining with Arianrod, mother of the mythological Dylan, in ‘A grief ago’). While we may admire and enjoy these so-called lower forms of wit, most readers have difficulty reconciling such verbal play with profound meanings. In puns, meaning is made to abandon the safe route from signifier to signified, and to reside, or more accurately to occur, in the play of signifiers, exploiting the accidental phonic coincidences between them. There is no semantic relation between Aaron's rod and Arianrod, cock and clock, cap sized and capsized, until the poet draws them together. A related trick is the transferred epithet, a fairly simple device whereby the modifiers of adjacent nouns exchange places, as in the phrase ‘sharp, enamelled eyes and spectacled claws’ (CP, 94). There is a similar impression of linguistic deformation created by Thomas's use of catachresis, that is, metaphor or implied metaphor which is abnormally stretched. We might well nominate catachresis as the paradigm figure of speech for all Thomas's obscure poems, and especially the sonnets.7 A catachretic metaphor registers the poet's acrobatic skill and daring along with (and sometimes to the exclusion of) the analogy proposed by the figure.

And from the windy West came two-gunned Gabriel

(CP, 82)

When the worm builds with the gold straws of venom
My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree.

(CP, 85)

Such metaphors are performances, tricks which appear as tricks, rather than secret, subtle mechanisms. In his use of such devices as puns, displaced clichés, transferred epithets, and catachresis, we can sense a willed grotesquerie in Thomas's craft, a deliberate violation of decorum. Hardy's elaborate mechanisms are compatible with the voice he develops: ruminative, rooted, honest, having a folk artist's due regard for the complicated turn or embellishment. Thomas's most extreme fancy-work seems extra to the text, like a game going on apart from the poem's sense. But, as often in recent criticism, it appears that what is from one perspective marginal, merely ornamental, or superfluous turns out, once we have shifted to a less centralist mode of reading, to function as the unsung matrix or ground-work for the whole. In general, we may say, Thomas's technical perversity is a sure sign of the trickster, the presiding deity of his work.

The element of the trickster in Thomas's writing gives him a special, privileged relationship to the mythic structures his work everywhere invokes. Within a mythological structure, the trickster is the maverick, the mischievous, unpredictable, sometimes anarchic member of the pantheon, the seed of disorder within the system, the ambassador from chaos. But he may also serve as the link between transcendent gods and mortals, between the synchronic world of myth and the historical world of events. Sometimes the trickster confers such great gifts as medicine or fire, as Nanabozho does in Ojibway myths, functioning as the medium by which power devolves from gods to men. But more often his schemes backfire, with disastrous results for himself and for mankind.

In Thomas's revision of biblical myth, it is the devil who performs the trickster's linking and transmitting function. In ‘Incarnate devil’ Satan is the initiator (or perpetrator) of time itself, stinging the static circle into wakefulness—a dubious gift, perhaps, but an essential one if man is to be independent from God, the ‘warden’ who ‘played down pardon from the heavens' hill’ (CP 46). Emphasizing the trickster's role in cosmogony itself (rather than introducing him as a belated intruder in the creation story) can be a symbolic way to stress certain features of creation: the flawed nature of existence is acknowledged as part of its essence rather than an aberration later perpetrated by man; diachronic energy is given a place at least equal to synchronic design; and creative activity is seen as primarily a subversive exercise. These are consequences evident throughout Thomas's imagery, but especially in his use of the serpent or worm as the double agent of creation and destruction. The worm is the eater of our flesh in poems such as ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ and ‘If I were tickled by the rub of love,’ and it is the creative instrument in others like ‘Before I knocked’ (the ‘fathering worm,’ CP, 8), ‘When once the twilight,’ and sonnet three of the Altarwise sequence. In that third sonnet the image of ‘the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve’ aggressively conflates Eden's two subversive elements and combines them with the phallus. The worm's role in the sonnets extends, as we shall see, to the redemptive function foreseen at the end of the sequence. Something of this infringement on Christ's role by the trickster worm is implied in the idea of ‘mounting’ Eve. Besides crude sexual congress, this suggests the common metaphysical conceit of Christ's tree on Mount Calvary overcoming Eden's tree of knowledge, a redemptive function which here seems to belong to the worm.

But it is the role of Thomas as a poet, rather than the implications of his imagery, that I particularly wish to stress, for Thomas inhabits his mythic contexts in the same way the trickster lives in his—subversively. Embraced and even sustained by the structure, he dwells within it in a constant state of opposition, continually testing and interrogating its conventions, and attempting to steal power from the authorities, with consequences that are ambiguously creative/destructive for the sense of his poems. Shortly after the publication of the Altarwise sonnets in 1936, Thomas made some comments on a ‘misreading’ which Edith Sitwell had perpetrated in the Sunday Times. Sitwell had somewhat breezily declared that the ‘atlas-eater with a jaw for news’ (CP, 80) from sonnet one referred to ‘the violent speed and sensation-loving, horror-loving craze of modern life.’8 Writing to Henry Treece, Thomas took her to task for failing to take ‘the literal meaning,’ as though that were self-evident, and went on to provide his own gloss on the phrase: ‘What is this creature? It's the dog among the fairies, the rip and cur among the myths, the snapper at demons, the scarer of ghosts, the wizard's heel-chaser.’9 This creature within the poem is behaving as Thomas does in the exercise of his craft. Especially in the phrase I have italicized, we can hear the echo of the poet's own attitude to his mythic inheritance. For Thomas in the sonnets is himself a dog among the fairies, a rip and cur among the myths, a saboteur of inherited systems.

Critics of the Altarwise sonnets have sometimes tended to rationalize their extravagances and explain away their obliquity, as Elder Olson10 and H. H. Kleinman11 do in their virtuoso exegeses. These interpretations concentrate upon some ‘metaphysical truth’ such as Vernon Watkins affirmed to be the basis of Thomas's poetry and his own. In terms of the model offered by ‘To-day, this insect,’ they give privileged status to the ageless voice's mythopoeic utterances over the voice of the temporally located, destructive artist. Interestingly, Vernon Watkins himself can take such a view of Thomas's poetics only by ignoring the thrust of some comments he made on one of Watkins's poems, ‘Call It All Names, But Do Not Call It Rest.’ Thomas wrote Watkins in March, 1938, recommending that he include a ‘destructive’ element in the poem. ‘A motive has been rarefied, it should be made common. I don't ask you for vulgarity, though I miss it; I think I ask you for a little creative destruction, destructive creation: “I build a flying tower, and I pull it down.”’12 Such an inclusion of the trickster's demolition work within Watkins's mythopoeic would, for Thomas, have the effect of bringing the poem out of timelessness into time, making it a ‘vulgar’ event and not just a structure: ‘I can see the sensitive picking of words, but none of the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down, placed, regulated. …’ Now that some recent critical theory has accustomed us to the phenomenon of conceptual systems which hold the seeds of their destruction, we should be able to read poems like the sonnets in a style which agrees more closely with the poet's. Because it is usual for critics to assume that Thomas is the celebrator of organically integrated existence, awareness of the trickster's perversity causes some interpretive difficulties. Critics lacking the faith of Olson, Kleinman, or Watkins often conclude that Thomas unfortunately suffered some serious lapses and wrote failures like the Altarwise sonnets. John Bayley approaches this problem when he expresses dissatisfaction with some poems which ‘seem to have no owner,’ using the figure of ventriloquism to illustrate how his ear picks up a vacuum in the rhetoric.13 The trickster's duplicity reduces the reader's experience of a reliable voice or presence within language, and creates reflective surfaces which defer meanings without the assurance of a point of semantic closure. Bayley, in another essay on Thomas, pauses in the middle of an ingenious exegesis of ‘Out of the sighs,’ considers his position, then gives up the exercise altogether, declaring: ‘But I have no confidence that the reader is intended to pursue these crossword clues of association: they may be simply misleading, and my tentative exegesis of the poem may bear no relation to the impression other readers may get from it.’14

But let us acknowledge that readers who have sought systems and codes within Thomas's work, including myself, have done so with some justification. In fact, we have been virtually propelled on this quest by the poet, who was fond of making broad universalizing gestures which hint, when they don't actually declare, that he possesses a symbolic system. To Pamela Hansford Johnson (for whom he acted many roles in the broad spectrum between Antichrist and the dying Keats) he intoned: ‘All around us, now and forever, a spirit is bearing and killing and resurrecting a body.’15 To Glyn Jones he declared that ‘My own obscurity is quite an unfashionable one derived … from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy.’16 Both these statements, made in 1933 and 1934 about the time the Altarwise sonnets were being composed, are somewhat qualified by the many voices which cohabit in the letters, each straining against, and undermining, its neighbours. But they are representative of the mythic and symbolic tone struck in many early poems, and particularly in the sonnets. The effect is produced, in part, by using the embracing first person, or ‘everyman’ narrator, and writing of personal existence as though it were an exemplary tale, told against a cosmic backdrop and populated with familiar names: Adam, Abaddon, Christ, Mary. These gestures serve the same function as symbol of the cross of tales at the end of ‘To-day, this insect’: they are the symbols of symbolization, indicating that a synchronic structure lies behind the many misdirections of time. We are encouraged to read Thomas's work as we might read Blake, in whose path, he told Pamela Hansford Johnson, he followed,17 or Yeats, whom he idolized.

To do so would of course be to push the trickster firmly into the background. But let us also acknowledge that we might read the sonnets under the trickster's banner, or under that of Rimbaud, his representative in Thomas's experience, and conduct a counter-interpretation stressing, at every juncture, our uncertainty among polysemous interactive images, our mounting vertigo as diverse symbolic systems are activated and released, our chronic inability to domesticate passages of non-directive syntax. Such an exercise might have the value of rectifying a critical imbalance by throwing emphasis upon the other extreme, the flying tower as raw, fragmented material rather than an erect structure. But my aim is neither to deconstruct the sonnets nor to construct another wholly integrated interpretation. Rather I wish to establish a style of reading which agrees with the poet's style of composition, using the trickster as the model of their creator, and perceiving the creation and destruction of meaning as simultaneous cognate functions. Consequently, what follows is an approach rather than a thorough treatment of the sonnets, an attempt to establish linguistic and poetic principles by pursuing hypotheses and investigating representative passages. I am after their thrust and spirit, and hope to capture some of those Barthesian pleasures we may experience if we can survive those moments of interpretive nausea when other readers like John Bayley have given up. There are, I am suggesting, embracing principles which make indeterminacy necessary; I am hopeful that an understanding of these will make it possible for us to reach and enjoy the sonnets' particular style of mischief.

It is useful to remind ourselves that Thomas was, during the thirties, a self-conscious radical who adopted a subversive stance towards all inherited structures of belief. Inspired variously by the examples of Lawrence, Blake, and Joyce, he adopts, in his letters of the period, the role of the revolutionary outsider. But since the strategy of subversion in religion, politics, social decorum, and sex extends also to his own postures, we find his most extreme theoretical statements undercut with irony or self-ridicule. After a brief polemical outburst to Pamela Hansford Johnson ending with ‘The state of the future is not to be an economic despotism or a Christian Utopia. It is the state of Functional Anarchy,’ he begins the next paragraph with ‘And a fol fol dol and a reel of cotton. So much for that.’18 Thomas cannot be fixed to doctrine, not even to the revolutionary systems like Marxism and Lawrentian sexual consciousness which he sometimes arrogated. He inhabits systems, both conventional and revisionist, in a provisional way; but he does not, like Rimbaud or Artaud, place himself nakedly outside all structures as their exemplary inquisitor.

One instance from his letters may serve to illustrate the general tendency in Thomas's thinking within systems. Defending his anatomical imagery to Pamela Hansford Johnson, he calls upon an image from Donne:

But I fail to see how the emphasizing of the body can, in any way, be regarded as hideous. The body, its appearance, death, and disease, is a fact sure as the fact of a tree. It has its roots in the same earth as the tree. The greatest description of our own ‘earthiness’ is to be found in John Donne's Devotions, where he describes man as earth of the earth, his body earth, his hair a wild shrub growing out of the land. All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Therefore the description of thought or action—however abstruse it may be—can be beaten home by bringing it onto a physical level.19

Thomas has emptied the symbol of Donne's intention to dissuade men from carnal pursuits and to foster spirituality, and infused it with his own line of thought, oriented in the direction of D. H. Lawrence. It is typical of Thomas to use traditional sources in myth and literature wrenched from context in such an aggressive way that the aggression—the kidnapping—is itself a telling feature of the symbol in its new Thomas-controlled situation. That is, the act of allusion is itself part of the symbol's signification, registering the poet's bold determination to dislodge the symbol from its embracing structure and bend to his own will a former member of an authoritative system. Whether Thomas invents his own system or not, his style of allusion serves notice that he will be no slave to another man's, even when he has stolen pieces of it.

This aggressive orientation towards precursors may be contrasted to Eliot's restraint in The Waste Land. Quotations from other authors are guests in that poem, and are generally allowed to retain the voices in which they spoke originally. Although they function within The Waste Land under Eliot's ultimate control, their original senses are not violated, and they are permitted to resonate fully within themselves. They often appear with enough of their original contexts (‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’) that their spirit as literary languages is retained and they can function as dialects within the multi-lingual poem. By such gestures Eliot adds to his local and intertextual meanings the signals of homage to the original text and reverence to tradition itself. Thomas, as trickster, does not wish to inherit anything: he wants to lay claims, to seize, steal, to establish the rule of his individual talent over all constituents of his poetry, even, one senses, over language itself. His allusive strategy denies his sources the ability to ring the clear note of themselves or establish firm links with tradition. Instead they are swallowed by the teeming imagery, gathered quickly into the syntactical flow and forbidden any nostalgia for the lost context. There is a general process of vulgarizing the traditional source, the element Thomas missed in Vernon Watkins's poetry. The expression ‘a dog among the fairies’ sums up the poet's relationship to the élite. And in its context in sonnet one the phrase is itself a dog among fairies, in the sense that it is an uncouth, mundane expression (a slur on homosexuals is suggested) mingling familiarly with such dignitaries as Abaddon, Adam, and Christ.

Thomas inherits the sonnet with a typical gesture of independence, imposing his personal stamp on the old form by placing the sestet first in each poem. One might wish to argue that choosing the sonnet sequence in the first place was a rather conventional decision. However, something of Thomas's technical perversity emerges when we consider the anomaly that Thomas is handling materials of an apparently epic scale within this condensed mode, where the poet is generally free to write lyrically and subjectively with few of the epic writer's responsibilities to narrative coherence or established tradition. The choice of form, then, is a first step in the subjectification of myth, and necessitates such compacting and combining of its mythological constituents that the private integrity of each is seriously compromised, as in Tokyo subway cars during rush hour. The very virtuosity of Thomas's allusiveness within these close quarters guarantees that no one mythic system—Christianity, the Heracles cycle, astrology, the Freudian family romance—can achieve dominion as the organizing strain: in a film crowded with famous actors there is no star, and more power is reserved by the director for himself. When such nominees as Christ or Heracles are proposed for hero, the interpreter is forced to postulate such modifications, inversions, and hybridizations of his persona that his self-identity becomes most problematic. My father-in-law had the same watch for forty years, during which time, as he was fond of pointing out, he replaced the crystal, the face, the strap and the escapement several times each.

Quite apart from Thomas's characteristic style of allusion to external sources, the home-grown symbols in the sonnets generally wear the stamp of their manufacture, that quality of madeness discussed earlier: ‘My camel's eyes will needle through the shroud,’ ‘Adam, time's joker, on a witch of cardboard,’ ‘Pin-legged on pole-hills with a black medusa.’ Much of the aesthetic interest in lines like these lies in watching a virtuoso bricoleur or handyman making a rickety structure out of scraps. Even when the materials derive from mythic contexts, he treats them as though they were scraps: Adam can enter the deck of cards as the joker, the trickster of that context; Medusa as goddess or jelly-fish shows up on some pole-hills suggestive of Calvary. Christ and Egyptian funerary rites (sonnet nine) exist democratically in the same milieu with a hellfire preacher, pirates, Rip Van Winkle, references to novels by Henry Miller, card tricks, and sexual puns. One of the chief effects of this medley-making for the extensive biblical imagery is the neutralization of the moral imperatives of religion. Even Rushworth Kidder, who sees Thomas as a religious poet, considers that the sonnets, although packed with biblical imagery, exclude ‘religious commitment.’20 There is in fact a carnival atmosphere in the sonnets, a sense of illusion and flamboyance, as each item declares itself, like an item in a Mardi Gras parade, momentous and momentary. Since the syntax here, as in ‘To-day, this insect’ is generally permissive and sometimes quite dissolute, there is little to check or organize the tumble and flow. As we read, the unregulated phrases tend to rub and mingle promiscuously, creating a reading experience that is both exciting and disturbing.

A test run through a particular passage in sonnet two will provide examples of this behaviour.

The horizontal cross-bones of Abaddon,
You by the cavern over the black stairs,
Rung bone and blade, the verticals of Adam,
And, manned by midnight, Jacob to the stars.

(CP, 80)

In this passage it is difficult to settle on a subject (crossbones? You? verticals? Rung, bone and blade?) or an active verb (Rung as ungrammatical for ‘rang,’ and deformed, as it is in sonnet three, to fit on Jacob's ladder? Jacob meaning ‘to climb spiritually’?). There is a good deal of local and immediate excitement generated by the obvious associations and the potential relationships an indeterminate syntax allows: the destroying angel, pirate's flag and cave, swordfighting, Adam's aspirations, and Jacob's ladder. These are further riches to be experienced as we play the ladder against the ‘black stairs,’ and discover them both to be composed of vertical and horizontals, which react with images in other sonnets. Aren't these the elements of the cross from sonnet eight, and of the globe itself, seen as a ladder of latitude and longitude in sonnet three?

We rung our weathering changes on the ladder,
Said the antipodes, and twice spring chimed.

(CP, 81)

Global verticals and horizontals may also throw us back to the closing lines of the first sonnet, where the two tropics are presented as bed-mates of the long world's gentleman.

I am the long world's gentleman, he said,
And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.

(CP, 80)

Our minds can range freely amid such associations (other readers will have their own sets, and mine may have shifted next week) because they are not directed by the syntax, and the corresponding thematic phenomena—narrative and argument—do not speak compellingly. To put this in linguistic terms: the syntagmatic function of words-in-sequence, their local usage (which we may imagine as a horizontal axis), does not place the normal regulatory stress on their vertical paradigmatic functions, their universalizing associations. As a reading proceeds, assuming that we allow the seductions of this craft to occur, these associations may tend to converge towards synthesis. We may, for example, begin to see a unified symbol in the images of the figure on the ladder, the long world's gentleman stretched on the globe, and Christ on the cross. We may move further to intellectualize this as a common theme of aspiration and ascent, figured in the ladder/cross/latitudes and longitudes, all of them made by combining Adam's verticals with Abaddon's rungs of suffering, a paradigmatic emblem of the human struggle uniting Genesis and Revelation. But the strong centralizing symbol which would support this hypothesis (the way the cross of tales/tree of stories supplies assurance of mythic integrity in ‘To-day, this insect’) is not provided, and we are left instead with an elegant and witty possibility, uncertain as to whether the wit and elegance are the poet's or our own. It is at this point in the interpretive process that roads diverge. Do we remain with the play of imagery or move to a hypothetical bounding structure? It is very tempting to read beyond the poem, supplying such connections as syntax, argument, and dominant symbol as though the poet had absent-mindedly omitted them. In fact, it seems to be a general rule in reading that our desire for integration increases in proportion to the poet's refusal to satisfy it, a phenomenon which can lead to such brilliant fantasies as the star chart which Elder Olson proposes as a key to the sonnets.

In the sonnets, all integrating forces are weakened, and we are thrown back into a play of images. Even with the trope of metaphor itself, conventions are missing which would have assisted us towards an integrated reading. Thomas seldom uses similes or metaphors in their basic rhetorical formulations, which would indicate clearly that phrase b is a trope for phrase a and so may be taken for it. Without such indications, we often find ourselves uncertain whether phrase b is an extension of phrase a, or whether a wholly new character or function has entered the fray. A typically ambiguous apposition might work like this: ‘The bald queen of dream, the knave of knives, oiling the bloody oyster.’ Are there two creatures oiling the oyster, one bald and one knavish, or do we have a single, bisexual, regal, knife-wielding oiler of oysters to contend with? This is a simplified rendition of the problem in sonnet one, where the reader is bound to be unsure whether phrases introducing Abaddon, the dog among the fairies, and the atlas-eater should function as tropes for one another, as tropes for the gentleman, or as separate characters.

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow's scream.

(CP, 80)

Are all of these new faces on the quasi-mythic scene or, perhaps, all phrases we may substitute for the gentleman? Are Abaddon, the dog, and the atlas-eater all epithets for one unnamed character? Whose fork is it? And so on.

Corresponding to the relational difficulties encountered in the sonnets, there is an insistence upon substantiveness, upon each thing being established in itself. Without relational guideposts (syntax, theme, narrative, metaphorical relationship) each item in sonnet one's sestet proposes itself to be independent, symbolic, and important. This effect is increased by the ubiquity of the definite article, which turns images into identifying epithets or titles. In the first sonnet alone we have the half-way house, the gentleman, the atlas-eater, the mandrake, the heaven's egg, the half-way winds, the windy salvage, and the long world's gentleman. If we experimentally replace all those definite articles with indefinite ones (or, where appropriate, omit the article altogether) then read through the sonnet, the mythic portentousness, the conspicuous symbolhood of its constituents is greatly reduced. To call Babe Ruth ‘a sultan of swat’ or Lana Turner ‘a sweater girl’ would be to reduce them to the rest of us, to suggest that any of us could, with luck and practice, achieve those levels of competence. Identifying epithets are linguistic institutions, and do not need to participate in ordinary, accidental time, accumulating significance diachronically; they are already archetypes, packed with the protein of meaning, full of their own essences. Consequently, even when the reference is obscure, such items claim the stature of myth; we feel that the fake gentleman, the bagpipe-breasted ladies, the tall fish, the ladder, and the lamped calligrapher are important, but we're not sure why, and this places additional stress on the reading. In general, the emphatic nominative values in the poem encourage us to look for a stable structure, while the weak relational values frustrate that pursuit, suggesting that the flying tower exists only in fragmentary form.

One way we might perceive pattern in the sonnets without risking over-reading is to displace emphasis from narrative to style and observe that their real hero is the poet's craft itself. This, however, would not acknowledge those unmistakable signals of mythic narration, signals that the sonnets are either telling, or pretending to tell, a story of universal application. An hypothesis closer to the spirit of the poem is that the hero is in some way an incarnation of that craft—a trickster. But this, too, has its problems. How would a trickster be likely to appear? To ask this question is to probe a paradox. ‘The trickster’ is itself an identifying epithet which I have been quietly using as a convenient means of surrounding a set of deconstructive phenomena; it is a personification of elusiveness which gives it misleading substance. The interpretive problem which confronts us now is, I think, parallel to the problem Thomas faced while composing the sonnets. In order to delineate his protagonist accurately he had to avoid delineating him too boldly; an obvious trickster, like a conspicuous spy, would be a contradiction in terms.

One way Thomas handles this difficulty is to problematize the idea of character itself. We have already observed how Thomas's strategy of ambiguous apposition leaves us uncertain as to whether we are dealing with one character or several. A related, more dynamic, strategy is the crossing of opposed characters, an effect which is created by making them share attributes or functions. In ‘To-day, this insect’ and ‘I see the boys of summer’ we can observe struggles between figures of authority and subversive youth. The ageless voice and the destructive artist fill these roles in the former poem, the old men and the boys of summer in the latter. Both these poems reach a form of synthesis between the destruction that breeds obscurity and time-honoured values of tradition. The synthesis is implied in the cross of tales behind the fabulous curtain, and overtly stated in the closing section of ‘I see the boys of summer,’ which acts openly as the third stage of a dialectical triad.

I am the man your father was.
We are the sons of flint and pitch.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

(CP, 3)

The simultaneity that is described by these figures of synthesis, ‘the cross,’ is acted out in the Altarwise sonnets. In the first sonnet we meet the antagonists—the narrator's ‘I’ and the long world's gentleman—and immediately discover that their beings and functions are intertwined by linguistic action. The long world's gentleman, who proclaims himself boldly to the narrator in the last lines, is also known as ‘the gentleman,’ and as ‘that gentleman of wounds’ in the first sonnet, and as ‘the wounded whisper,’ ‘the fake gentleman,’ ‘the long wound,’ ‘my gentle wound,’ and ‘my long gentleman’ in those which follow. To construe a single being in that string of aliases (he is also known by the synecdoche ‘old cock from nowhere’ in sonnets one and six, and may be ‘the black ram’ of sonnet three) is of course to brook a considerable attenuation of the idea of character. We are persuaded to accept some latitude in the notion of persons, running through linguistic permutations of the words ‘long,’ ‘gentleman,’ and ‘wound,’ in order to achieve a measure of coherence.

As these antagonists are introduced they are already crossing. In the difficult opening lines, two contrary narratives compete for dominance in the same syntactical structure: the gentleman creates the child/narrator, while he is simultaneously destroyed by his creation. In the act of reading, this ambiguity functions like those figure-ground puzzles in which one sees either a vase or two faces, depending on one's point of view. As noted above, this ambiguity is due in part to the open relation of phrases in apposition. Here are the lines again.

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow's scream.

(CP, 80)

It is crucial to this crossing that ‘his fork’ can be read as the gentleman's loins or as the child's birth as a divided being, the sense in which Thomas uses the word ‘fork’ in ‘In the beginning.’21 It is also crucial that the mandrake serve not only as a symbol of the gentleman's phallus but also as an homunculus representing the body of the child. Hence the gentlemen ‘bites out’ the child's body in procreation; the child being created bites out the gentleman's phallus: the two acts are simultaneous both imagistically and syntactically. Abaddon, the destroying angel, and Adam, infant man and the father of mankind, may then be seen to represent functions filled simultaneously by the gentleman and the child/narrator, and not as the fixed symbolic identities of either one.

When we read this way, remaining open to possibility, exploring illicit syntactical and narrative deformations without relinquishing our native desire for overall sense, we may come to view characters as moments in the ongoing process, beings upon which the actions of the poem work to wean them away from substance into energy. Characters become events; the balance shifts from nouns performing actions to actions using nouns as their agents. In a simple poem like ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,’ Thomas can lay out modes of simultaneity in a form that is syntactically rigorous: there is a natural force which is at once creative and destructive; and this force affects the narrator equally with the physical world.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

(CP, 10)

The syntactical formula established by this stanza is used, with only slight variation, in all four. This regular, explanatory syntax carries its own signal. The force is tamed by language which seems to hold and dispense it in perfectly cadenced, uniform structures. There are few such formal or syntactical checks in the sonnets, where the energies native to language, amplified by the associative relations, often seem to propagate without natural enemies.

The antagonists who cross in the opening sestet of sonnet one are permitted by the octave's regular syntax to emerge as relatively distinct and independent figures. It is as though there were an absolute simultaneity of being during the creative act, a moment of pure energy which sweeps away stable identity. In the aftermath the narrative ‘I’ is clearly seen to be a child in his cradle, and the long world's gentleman is developed in a series of epithets culminating in his self-declaration in the last two lines.

Then, penny-eyed, that gentleman of wounds,
Old cock from nowheres and the heaven's egg,
With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds,
Hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,
Scraped at my cradle in a walking word
That night of time under the Christward shelter:
I am the long world's gentleman, he said,
And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.

(CP, 80)

Distinctive attributes are suggested here: the long world's gentleman is a creator; he is wounded, in all likelihood by the child who ‘bit out the mandrake’; and he seems to be a cosmological man, something akin to the sun-hero Elder Olson sees voyaging between the tropics.22 On the one hand, these epithets drawn from various symbolic systems substantiate the figure; but on the other they create new problems because the attributes are contradictory. He is both a Christ-like figure, as reinforced in the crucifixion which occurs in sonnet eight, and a much lustier fertility figure, an ‘Old cock’ who shares his bed with two cosmic figures. The phrase ‘Old cock from nowheres and the heaven's egg’ dramatizes the problem, since it blatantly contradicts itself: wandering bum from a negative matrix like a character by Samuel Beckett, or legatee of the gods, hatched from the heaven's egg like Castor and Pollux? Two alien philosophies, two attitudes to structure, two relationships to tradition, are implied. Adding to the sense of the old cock as sexual athlete working against his Christ-like qualities is the implicit reference to the work of Henry Miller, whose notorious tropics novels were favourites of Thomas's. (‘Lament,’ the poetic biography of an ‘old ram rod’ who is gradually reduced from virility to domesticated entropy, was originally dedicated to Miller.) By having his figure ‘hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,’ Thomas wittily plays the Christ-like and reprobate elements at once: a crucified man is one-legged (cf ‘pinlegged on pole-hills’ in sonnet five); but so also is a pirate like Long John Silver, the fictional trickster who hatches from several windy salvages, and whose name may be echoed by the long world's gentleman. Perhaps the method of characterization, the bricolage, and the diversity of attributes are of greatest significance here. By creating such strains, Thomas insists on the supremacy of his intention over those encoded in the source materials. We can, I think, see in the combination of saviour and reprobate, of victim and aggressor, outsider from nowheres and insider from the heaven's egg, Thomas's own version of the trickster inhabiting his own myth with subversive élan.

Before the long world's gentleman crosses with the narrator again in sonnet eight, we may (again assuming some elasticity in ‘character’) identify him as an active agent in sonnets four and five. As everywhere in the sonnets, these contexts are capable of provoking whole cabbalas of speculative explication. I will attempt to confine mine to the appearance of the gentleman in relation to the narrator. In sonnet four there is a ‘wounded whisper’ who is nagged by the narrator's sharp, unanswerable questions. We might see these as indications that the narrator is probing the conditions of life, interrogating existence in a way which fits the trickster's methods and will be recognized by anyone who has survived a five-year-old.

What is the metre of the dictionary?
The size of genesis? the short spark's gender?
Shade without shape? the shape of Pharaoh's echo?
(My shape of age nagging the wounded whisper).
Which sixth of wind blew out the burning gentry?
(Questions are hunchbacks to the poker marrow).

(CP, 81-2)

These questions have the enigmatic bite of cosmic riddles or koans, answerable, if at all, only in metaphors which extend conventional notions of reality. Such riddling is a linguistic probing for loopholes, an undoing of the ordinary by the poetic consciousness. It is aimed at the parent representing the established order—the long world's gentleman now recast as gentry, or Pharaoh—and seems to contribute to his decline.

When the gentleman appears in sonnet five we may well ask whether Thomas has moved from composite portraiture to the splitting of characters. Is the ‘fake gentleman in suit of spades’ another version of the figure, or his inauthentic surrogate, an impostor?

And from the Windy West came two-gunned Gabriel,
From Jesu's sleeve trumped up the king of spots,
The sheath-decked jacks, queen with a shuffled heart;
Said the fake gentleman in suit of spades,
Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation's bottle.

(CP, 82)

The passage speaks about, and demonstrates, the craft of illusions—sleight of hand in poker, tall tales in religion and the Wild West. Thomas displaces the biblical characters to the saloon where they lose their traditional attributes and play dubious poker. What's the king of spots doing up Jesu's sleeve, in either a card-playing or a theological context? But beyond the usual image-play and mythic dislocation there is a duplicity to the narrative structure. Thomas withholds the important news that the first three lines are spoken by the fake gentleman, surely no reliable source, until the fourth line, with the result that we are likely to read them first as ‘gospel,’ then as ‘pseudo-gospel’ or windy religiosity.23 Analysed synchronically, the passage seems to be a tale within a tale within a tale. The fake gentleman, himself drunk on religion, told a story about two-gunned Gabriel, who was involved in a card game in which the cards played mysteriously allegorical roles. There is no firm ground in these lines; nothing is what it seems; no one is bona fide. The narrator, having identified the gentleman as a fake, turns away from his religiosity to embark on a sea voyage which is filled with surreal adventures strongly suggestive of sexuality.

Interaction between the protagonists reaches a climax in sonnet eight, where there is a crucifixion, and a subsequent spreading of blessings of mankind. But more importantly for those interested in the subversions of craft, there is an interpretative problem arising out of mythological anomaly. The sonnet clearly contains a narrator and a crucified victim, who is addressed by the narrator as ‘Jack Christ,’ and whom we may identify as the long world's gentleman because the Mary figure is called the ‘long wound's woman.’ But this sorting of personae leaves the narrator, and not the crucified Christ-figure, making the large gestures which embrace humanity. It is the narrator who suffers the heaven's children through his heartbeat; and it is from his nipples that the rainbow which surrounds the globe originates.

This was the sky, Jack Christ, each minstrel angle
Drove in the heaven-driven of the nails
Till the three-coloured rainbow from my nipples
From pole to pole leapt round the snail-waked world.
I by the tree of thieves, all glory's sawbones,
Unsex the skeleton this mountain minute,
And by this blowclock witness of the sun
Suffer the heaven's children through my heartbeat.

(CP, 84)

A consistent religious interpretation cannot tolerate the usurpation of Christ's role by the narrator. H. H. Kleinman admits the difficulty with the speakers, then presents a reading which preserves the integrity of the mythic paradigm by splitting the narrative voice and assuming the narrator's identification with Christ.

It is difficult at times to determine who the speaker is in the sonnet. The ‘Jack Christ,’ for example, is confusing because it sounds like direct address. But Thomas has mixed pronouns and shifted tenses before; and the only conclusion I can draw is that his identification with Christ in this sonnet is complete … In the seventh line [the first in the octave, quoted above] it is Thomas who speaks for a moment, in the role of guide, to point out the place of the Crucifixion; but, before the line is ended, Christ speaks again.24

This is one way out of the difficulty, although the strain of the interpretive doctrine on the poetic action is intense. Kleinman, and most other critics, are skirting an outrage which is, if we read along the lines we've been following, close to the heart of Thomas's poetics: the narrator, ‘all glory's sawbones,’ unsexes the skeleton, and, with this symbol of potency in hand, is able to spread divine power to humanity. ‘This blowclock,’ following hard upon the unsexing, may surely be read as the gentleman's genitalia; this form of apotheosis was prefigured by the action of biting out the mandrake during the creative act. The word brings with it an association which reinforces the idea of a fertility symbol: a blowclock is a dandelion head gone to seed, and ‘blowing the clock’ means dispersing the seeds with a puff of breath.25 Thomas is violating the integrity of the Christian myth by moving the redemptive function from the Christ-figure to the narrator and by superimposing a fertility rite on the crucifixion. His actions as a poet are equivalent to the actions of the narrator: both are stealing power from the authorities, and both insist that it be disseminated within the temporal sphere.

It is frequently observed that the later Thomas envisioned a more harmonious universe, while he modified the furious dialectics of these early poems towards the relaxed and easy lyrics of the forties. In sonnet ten, such a vision is projected as a final resolution to his strategies of creative destruction and destructive creation. Significantly enough, Thomas presents an image of two ‘bark towers’ in a flying garden, an edenic context which will come about when the creative and destructive forces unite, and the poet is, presumably, not perpetually dismantling his flying towers.

Green as beginning, let the garden diving
Soar, with its two bark towers, to that Day
When the worm builds with the gold straws of venom
My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree.

(CP, 85)

The trickster worm, ubiquitous in Thomas's imagery and craft, is to be the active agent in bringing about this marvellous upper-case Day, making a nest in the cross out of venom. Providing the vehicle for the worm's activities is, as we've observed, one motive of Thomas's poetics. We should also note, in this sonnet, that the narrator is keeping this climactic vision suspended while continuing to practise an art which subverts and recreates inherited materials, essentially the same suspension of closure as the bardic poet maintains in ‘After the funeral.’ The ‘ship-racked’ gospel and the ‘blown word’ indicate that he is dealing with the scraps and salvaged fragments rather than whole doctrines. And he throws the flying garden up out of a very obscure context which (whatever else it does) reforms biblical materials in an aggressively irreverent manner.

Let the first Peter from a rainbow's quayrail
Ask the tall fish swept from the bible east,
What rhubarb man peeled in her foam-blue channel
Has sown a flying garden round that sea-ghost?

(CP, 85)

Is Peter asking impertinent questions of Christ? Is the flying garden created by the mating of Mary and a rhubarb man? That the last, apocalyptic images should owe their being to this obscure context (the garden is sown here) is entirely appropriate. For these are still the tactics of the trickster, the tactics of the worm, that architect of human paradise.


  1. Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (New York 1972), p 4.

  2. Vernon Watkins, Introduction, in Letters to Vernon Watkins (London 1957), pp 17-18.

  3. Dylan Thomas, Selected Letters, ed Constantine FitzGibbon (London 1966), p 377. In ‘Author's Prologue’ the first line rhymes with the last one, the second with the penultimate line, the third with the antepenultimate, and so on, until the mid-point, where there is a rhyming couplet.

  4. Davie, p 17.

  5. Dylan Thomas, ‘Notes on the Art of Poetry,’ in Twentieth-Century Poetry and Poetics, ed Gary Geddes (Toronto 1976), p 593.

  6. Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems 1934-1952 (New York 1956), p 96. All further references to Collected Poems appear in the text abbreviated as CP.

  7. Appropriately, a line from ‘Vision and Prayer’ is used to illustrate modern catachresis in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

  8. See Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas: ‘Dog among the Fairies’ (London 1949), appendices 1 and 2, pp 145-50.

  9. Selected Letters, pp 198-9. Emphasis added.

  10. Elder Olson, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (Chicago 1954), pp 63-89.

  11. H. H. Kleinman, The Religious Sonnets of Dylan Thomas (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1963).

  12. Letters to Vernon Watkins, p 38.

  13. John Bayley, ‘Chains and the Poet,’ in Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays, ed Walford Davies (London 1972), p 65.

  14. John Bayley, ‘Dylan Thomas,’ in Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed C. B. Cox (Englewood Cliffs 1966), p 151.

  15. Selected Letters, p 84.

  16. Ibid, p 97.

  17. Ibid, p 23.

  18. Ibid, p 139.

  19. Ibid, p 48.

  20. Rushworth M. Kidder, Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit (Princeton 1973), p 136. In this he opposes H. H. Kleinman, who interprets the sonnets as a ‘deeply moving statement of religious perplexity concluding in spiritual certainty’ (Kleinman, p 10).

  21. The substance forked that marrowed the first sun;

    And, burning ciphers on the round of space,

    Heaven and hell mixed as they spun. (CP, 27)

    One might also observe that the fork might be seen as Satan's pitchfork, since ‘the gentleman’ is a common epithet for the devil.

  22. Olson, p 69.

  23. The semi-colon after line 3 seems to be an overt case of syntactical mystification; it does cast some doubt on the view that the fake gentleman is speaking.

  24. Kleinman, p 95.

  25. Peter Revell, ‘Altarwise by owl-light,’ Alphabet, number 8 (June 1964), 56-7.

Walford Davies (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Davies, Walford. “Contexts and Conclusions.” In Dylan Thomas, pp. 94-123. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Davies examines Thomas's writings within the geographical context of his origins as well as within the cultural context of Modernism.]

‘I never thought that localities meant so much, nor the genius of places, nor anything like that.’ In the biographical outline at the beginning of this Guide, we allowed that comment by Thomas to direct us quite simply to events and places. In the meantime, we have encountered strong and often strange poems. We are now in a position to consider the more general contexts contributing to the nature and meanings of those poems. Part of what we mean by ‘context’ has to do with Thomas's emergence as a poet in what was essentially a Modernist period. And that in turn determines the ‘critical’ context in which, over the last thirty years, his achievement has been evaluated. But we should not too quickly substitute this sense of time and period for a sense of place and origins. Indeed, we need to keep both kinds of context in play. It will at least have been clear already that in the last phase Thomas was very much a poet of place in literally scenic ways. But what about that more complex ‘context’—his Welshness? Might it not have been influential earlier in deeper, more hidden ways?

In going back to origins, we can summon up first of all what is still essentially a sense of place. The sentence above about ‘localities’ came in a letter of 1935 to the closest of his early Swansea friends, the composer Daniel Jones.1 This letter elegized the fantasticating games, mainly with words, that the two had played on regular evenings in his friend's home, ‘Warmley’. Attaching conveniently to that name were also comfortable thoughts about so much of this early world. The first place-within-a-place that any fuller account of Thomas's life would discover is suburbia. The poet's home for the first twenty years of his life was a semi-detached provincial villa, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in Swansea. Its modesty did not inhibit a sense of cosiness. But it was a cosiness that, at the time, Thomas was capable of dramatizing in letters as a smugness characteristic of the immediate society that formed his context. This wasn't a smugness seen in relation to Swansea's poorer industrial districts or its 10,000 registered unemployed and 2000 families subjected to the ‘Means Test’. It reflected, rather, the imaginative frustrations of being, as he put it, ‘at home with the bourgeoisie’.2 Later he could see that the shaping influence of such a milieu was permanent: from the scenic outdoors of Cornwall in 1936 he wrote that ‘I stand for, if anything, the aspidistra, the provincial drive, the morning café, the evening pub’.3 And even then, an early poem such as ‘I have longed to move away’ (1933; p. 58) already showed that he was half in love with the easeful death represented by suburbia. But at the time it must also have helped to drive him to search for other certainties. He did long to move away.

And before literal escape proved possible, imaginative escape into the privacies of his Notebook poems presented itself. Such a connection (by reaction) between inner and outer worlds might not be brought to mind by the early work of a different kind of poet. But the curious intensities of Thomas's early poems suggest almost an urge to decreate the social world that lay most immediately around him. The earliest Notebook poems (if we ignore what was always an unorthodox way with language) are often thematically conventional. But the Notebooks gradually work through such themes as relate (often satirically and bitterly) to an outer world, until they start exploring the strangely unpeopled world of the organic, ‘process’ poems that we discussed in Chapter 3. Obviously, flight from provincial suburbia won't explain, certainly not on its own, the material strangeness of the poems with which Thomas first made his name. But reference to that context is more fruitful than merely psycho-analytical explanations built on the assumption that Thomas was from the outset a psychologically damaged human being. At least it does not hopelessly confuse man and poems to claim that the latter, in their search for elemental themes and especially in the quality of sexual assertiveness that they show, may have been shaped partly in reaction to the tidy puritanical world around him. It also keeps alive and relevant that part of his ‘psychology’ that we are qualified to identify—his independent, irreverent, ‘young dog’ personality, so evident in his autobiographical short stories. This factor does not diminish the seriousness of the early poems. But it usefully reminds us that in the kind of provincial obscurity in which he wrote or drafted or initiated, before the age of twenty, nearly a half of the poems that now comprise his final Collected Poems, the physical intensity of his themes must have been exactly what enabled him to imagine ultimate recognition and escape.

What I have baldly referred to as his ‘unorthodox way with language’ may also evoke the Welsh context in a more specific linguistic sense. Thomas's father relayed strong influences into the poet's life. But it is also worth noting something that he did not pass on. That was the Welsh language itself. The father's Welsh was equal to his perfect English, which means that it was in effect his first language. He even taught Welsh in evening classes, and tended to criticize his wife's ‘Swansea Welsh’. So both parents were Welsh-speaking. But D. J. Thomas's concern for ‘getting on’ through education—in which process, in the early decades of this century, the first abandoned ballast tended to be the Welsh language—led him to decide consciously not to raise his son as a Welsh-speaker. The name Dylan, lifted from the Welsh mediaeval classic the Mabinogi, would have to suffice. Thus Thomas's only language was English, beautifully enunciated in what he later called his ‘cut-glass accent’, the result of elocution lessons paid for by his father. But the rural, Welsh-speaking origins from which both parents came (in the old county of Carmarthenshire) could not be completely sealed off. Thomas's regular schoolboy holidays from his earliest years at his maternal aunt's farm, Fernhill, were amongst people whose own daily language was Welsh. Later, Thomas's wife was to say that he had ‘the groove of direct hereditary descent in the land of his birth’.4 She also tended to speak of his ‘vegetable background’.5 More important, along with such roots there went, in both Swansea and Carmarthenshire, a direct living awareness of another language left behind.

The significance of this, though difficult to prove or gauge, is at least likely to be more real than the view of him when being introduced at his first public reading in America—as having come ‘out of the druidical mists of Wales’.6 Yet it isn't a simple case, as is sometimes assumed, of a Welsh-speaker involuntarily reflecting in his English linguistic patterns determined by the Welsh language. By the same token, direct knowledge of the intricate rules of the prosody and internal rhyming patterns of the Welsh poetic tradition is also something that cannot in this case be claimed. Of course, influence from that latter source would not have to involve the kind of detailed knowledge that, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins (who learned Welsh and studied the classic metres) secured. Indeed, Hopkins's own poetry could itself have mediated the influence. Many poets imitated Hopkins in the 1930s, yet they did so in obvious ways that the young Dylan Thomas did not follow. (It is Thomas's late poetry that most obviously shows signs of Hopkins.) In the meantime, however, as early as 1934, Thomas was at least capable of claiming that ‘I dreamed my genesis’ was ‘more or less based on Welsh rhythms’.7 As it happens, the rhythmic oddness of that poem is the result of its regular count of the number of syllables per line. Though this is a factor in classic Welsh metres, it does not produce, in any of the many poems that Thomas structures syllabically, any specifically ‘Welsh’ rhythms. In any case, ‘rhythms’ are determined more by the internal rules of the actual language used (its syntax, for example) than by externally imposed structures of form. A similar caveat applies to structures other than syllabic ones. Thomas rhymed ‘Before I knocked’ on 23 words ending in er (p. 6); he patterned ‘I, in my intricate image’ on 72 words ending in l sounds (p. 30); and the 102 lines of ‘Author's Prologue’ rhyme the first with the last line, the second with the 101st line, and so on inwards until the exact centre of the poem is a rhyming couplet (p. ix). Thomas claimed that techniques of this kind ‘may be a waste of time for the reader, but not for the poet’.8 They are obviously very external techniques. At most, such heavy industry provides only an analogy for the meticulous craftsmanship associated with the Welsh poetic tradition, however much it may suggest a particular kind of respect for the craft of verse. Thomas certainly had friends who could (and did) tell him as much about the Welsh tradition as he wanted to know.9 A blurred awareness of alternative models is not in doubt. But to link ‘alternative’ possibilities to any detailed model provided by Welsh literature is not only inaccurate: it obscures possibly deeper aspects of the ‘Welshness’ of his position and linguistic methods.

Thomas's poems do not have individual Anglo-Welsh linguistic counterparts for, say, the preponderence of present participles that make T. S. Eliot in ‘Ash-Wednesday’ appear unmistakably an Anglo-American poet. Even language textures stemming from accent or reflecting geography in other ways (such as identify the regional roots of a Wordsworth or a Seamus Heaney) do not have Anglo-Welsh equivalents in Thomas. And yet he may still have taken (even more than those poets) an outsider's advantage of the English language. We might in any case be looking for the wrong thing in searching for specifically ‘Welsh’ effects. ‘Un-English’ effects would be a different matter. If we allow our yardstick to be simply a very generalized norm, it is at least clear that Thomas showed an above-average readiness to subvert it. There are moments when an un-Englishness is reflected by individual words which, from the point of view of strict grammar, are not correctly used. We noted the use of ‘stringed’ instead of strung in ‘When once the twilight locked no longer.’ We can take first of all two further examples from poems we have already looked at. In ‘How shall my animal’ we saw the image of the poet's mouth as ‘The invoked, shrouding veil at the cap of the face’. The mouth would properly be invoking rather than ‘invoked’. Similarly, in ‘Should lanterns shine’ the lantern's beam was described as an ‘unaccustomed light’. Presumably it would be the objects in the tomb that would be ‘unaccustomed’—unaccustomed to the light. In both cases, there is an element of transference, but certainly not of the obvious kind that we saw in the transferred adjective of ‘the dogs in the wetnosed yards’ of Under Milk Wood. Take again the line from the fourth of the ‘Altarwise’ sonnets: ‘Love's reflection of the mushroom features’. A previous version shows that its meaning is ‘Love [is] reflection’.10 Though the contracted verbal form is not incorrect, its odd tone (and its potential for confusion with the possessive form ‘love's reflection’) show Thomas as a willing partner in the eccentric effect produced. The same is true of this line in ‘Poem on his birthday’: ‘Gulled and chanter in young Heaven's fold’. The word ‘chanter’ means a deceitful horse-dealer, and draws attention to the meaning of being deceived in the word ‘gulled’. But the oddness comes from placing a past-participle and a noun together that do not play on the same word. (Compare its difference from, say, deceived and deceiver or chased and chaser; or, if Thomas had wanted only the meaning of being deceived, gulled and chantered.) Although not thinking of Thomas, F. W. Bateson once commented on a phenomenon that would seem relevant to Thomas's case: ‘The important difference between the native English writer and the métèque (the writer with a non-English linguistic, racial or political background) is the latter's lack of respect for the finer points of English idiom and grammar. This allows [him] to attempt effects of style, sometimes successfully, that the English writer would feel to be a perverse defiance of the genius of the language’.11

The fluency and idiomatic confidence of Thomas's letters and prose works show that eccentric effects in the poetry are not accidentally faltered into. There is, rather, something in his disposition towards the language that makes him welcome (or at least causes him not to resist) the off-centre impression that such effects create. Evidence of his linguistic opportunism is copiously there, however, even in the letters. These often reveal the kind of objective, alert wonder that a friend remembers Thomas showing when he discovered on a restaurant menu that the word ‘live’ spelt ‘evil’ backwards.12 The letter quoted at the beginning of this chapter went on to contrast Swansea with ‘London, the Academy, and a tuppenny, half-highbrow success’. The ‘half’ from the usual idiom tuppenny-halfpenny has been cut off to make a new phrase ‘half-highbrow’. Another letter has the phrase ‘into the littered, great hut’, where ‘great’ has come to mind through hearing little in the word ‘littered’.13 This hypersensitivity to accidental meanings created in the flash-points between words is what produces the punning energy of the poems. And we can reasonably speculate that it arises from what is still a certain sense of externality to the English language, a refusal to leave it alone, to take it for granted. An analogy with James Joyce suggests itself: a strong sense of provincial, cultural, even religious, ‘otherness’ leads to the writer taking revenge as it were (even for the most mixed of motives) on the imperial, standardizing norms of the English language itself.

But one could imagine a darker interpretation of the phenomenon, one that is at least worth mentioning. It would see Thomas in a much more problematic relationship to the dominant literary tradition in which he wrote. It would see his suppressed Welshness in terms of a cultural-linguistic temperament that had been denied its most natural medium, the Welsh language, and thus found in the English language a medium that had to be forced or willed into effects not instinctively natural to it. One fact at least is clear. A particular cultural temperament, whose natural medium is the language that has shaped and expressed it over the centuries, is not itself suddenly extinguished when that language is lost in the first generation. Also relevant is the fact that what is being speculated upon here is the effect, not on the ordinary day-to-day use of the ‘new’ language, but on its usage under the pressurized conditions of poetry. Under those conditions (the argument would run) Thomas's poetry represents a kind of no man's land between two languages—one dead, the other powerless to be born. Or at least powerless to be born into any kind of natural ease. This would explain not only why he appears so radically different from any other poet of the 1930s, but also why he found poetry more and more difficult to write. (What is the significance, for example, of the fact that ‘Poem on his birthday’ was partly constructed from word-lists drawn from Roget's Thesaurus?)14 It would also explain why his later career depended more on oral performance of poems already accomplished than on the production of new ones—in readings that some would regard as willed and mechanical, as if the product of some struggle between the Welsh and English (‘cut-glass’) voices. All this might then be taken to explain the ‘regressive’ impulse in so much of the poetry, not just towards an idealized childhood (from his late twenties) but towards pre-childhood states at a much earlier age. A poetry of adulthood (the theory would run) was peculiarly difficult since, culturally, it could not be a Welsh adulthood. Consequently he found less and less to write about that was not connected with the fact that he was not a child and wouldn't live for ever.

Such a view runs at least two risks. First, the danger of sounding plausible on the failures and deficiencies but without (from the same negative base) being able to account for the obvious successes and merits. Secondly, the danger of patronization, of attributing to a theory of linguistic damage effects whose wider context includes also the new adventurousness that accompanied poetic Modernism. This is a context to which we shall return. Its relevance, however, will be to larger aspects of style than just the verbal inventiveness that we've noted so far. In the meantime, the negative view outlined above usefully reminds us how descriptively thin is the standard explanation ‘provincial’ on which we tend to fall back in labelling writers whose roots lie outside the centre. Real cultural tensions are likely to be there, however difficult they may be to describe, tensions all the more likely to be intensified when an alternative language is also involved. What is also brought home is the way Thomas's poetry has been, and still is, appropriated by more politically powerful cultures, so that only abstract idealizing accounts of it become possible.

Nevertheless, it is in the sharpening of a certain external opportunism that the context of a different culture, centering also on a different language, is most obviously manifest. It is clear that a good deal of Anglo-Welsh literature in the relevant part of this century, even in the form of the novel, and in the hands of Welsh and non-Welsh speakers alike, showed a relish for what is, in terms of linguistic and stylistic effects high-definition performance. The phenomenon has analogies also in the spheres of broadcasting and acting styles in the same period and in the case of personalities from the same kind of background as Thomas. Though it is a spin-off from genuine cultural difference, we don't have to pursue explanations back to deep atavistic roots. What is relevant is the Welshman's impulse to draw on the differences that help him gain visibility and identity in an essentially centralized Britain. To find, in poetry, any linguistic equivalent from within a completely English situation we would have to imagine a period like that of Shakespeare's England when the language was in a state of flux, presenting Shakespeare with the opportunity of stamping his own will upon it. Hopkins, doing similar things with languages, did so at a time when the same sanction of flux did not obtain. Hopkins's sanction came from more external accidents: his own non-publishing obscurity and (interestingly enough) his perception of alternative possibilities in the structure and poetic tradition of the Welsh language. The latter source, as we have stressed, was only a vague prompting for Thomas. But personal obscurity doesn't have to take the form of the literal seclusion of the Jesuit Hopkins or of the reclusive Emily Dickinson to leave a mark. And an added fact is that the ordinary provincial obscurity out of which Thomas first wrote was also in one sense prolonged. His English poetic contemporaries took the usual route through university. To have followed an equivalent route might have influenced the themes as well as what we can call the stylistic accountability of Thomas's early poems. His different situation probably also prolonged the phase in which themes were determined by an essentially adolescent sensibility. The word ‘adolescent’ need not be any more pejorative than a view of early Auden as exhibiting an essentially ‘undergraduate’ sensibility. Indeed, it would be an appreciative view of Thomas's early poems that saw them as articulating, at base, what it feels like to be an adolescent; a good deal of his originality comes from that fact. And one can imagine that his situation promoted opportunities for what was stylistically as well as thematically private.

It is important to bring style and theme together. As already noted, the earliest Notebook poems were thematically conventional. They were also stylistically so. And it is important to remember that, at all stages of his career, Thomas could write lucid, direct poems; more than that—lucid, direct and accomplished poems:

Paper and sticks and shovel and match
Why won't the news of the old world catch
And the fire in a temper start …
Sharp and shrill my silly tongue scratches
Words on the air as the fire catches
You never did and he never did.

‘Paper and Sticks’, from which those stanzas are taken, was even included in Deaths and Entrances. The fact that it was later replaced by ‘Do not go gentle’ in the Collected Poems draws attention to Thomas's own concern for poems that were more individually characteristic. ‘Paper and Sticks’, like so many poems he left unpublished, or published but left uncollected, seems to use some kind of borrowed voice. Thomas realized early what exactly represented his own voice—when he selected the eighteen poems that he did select for his first volume. The choice at that stage was relatively straightforward: he selected the eighteen from amongst the most recent of his poems. These combined private organic themes with what was then a relatively new textural density. But even less dense earlier poems that went from the Notebooks into the second and third volumes were also obviously chosen because they already showed development towards this characteristic intensity of theme and style. In reality, ‘Paper and Sticks’ was the only poem ever allowed to break so completely (although only momentarily) the consistency of idiom to which Thomas wanted to give ‘collected’ permanence. The style of the later poems had to develop out of that of the earlier, as less private subjects demanded attention. Yet we have seen a consistency in the themes that those subjects brought out. And even the ultimate replacement of dense, extended images by verbal and musical accumulation in later poems still showed a concern for the weight and density of the whole. Thomas himself obviously found such development difficult: ‘I'm almost afraid of all the once-necessary artifices and obscurities, and can't, for the life or the death of me, get any real liberation, any diffusion or dilution or anything, into the churning bulk of the words.’15 In returning here to the ‘artifices and obscurities’ of the early poems, we should consider again their exact nature, why they were difficult to escape from, and why they were considered ‘once-necessary’.

We can start with that point we made about some of Thomas's poems using something like a borrowed voice. It seems clear that the direct voice of a poem such as ‘Paper and Sticks’ (as if in some other poet's style) bears no relation to Thomas's real needs. As it happens, John Bayley has claimed that a certain ventriloquial clarity ‘pops out’ at us in lines even in some of the dense, most characteristic poems.16 Bayley's point, however, is not just about clarity. Such a line as ‘To surrender now is to pay the expensive ogre twice’ (p. 87) has more importantly a kind of uncharacteristic authorial knowingness about it. This contrasts with what Bayley sees as the more genuine identity of the characteristic Thomas style. That identity comes from a language that is more the expression of the poet's almost physical feel of his own selfhood than it is a ‘comment on’ experience or a ‘description of its ostensible subject. It is as if the poet is most genuinely himself when at a remove from a style that conveys opinions, mediates traditional emotions, or manifests self-possession. This presumably explains why Thomas's early themes are essentially few: his song is in any case ultimately of himself. Though in a sense this remained true of the whole career, Bayley finds what he calls the ‘trapped effectiveness’ of the best early poems more impressive than what he sees as the more open, plangent commentaries of the later ones. The early poetry, then, closes the traditional gap between poet and poem.

It also closes the usual gap between word and thing. Often, the words don't seem referentially to indicate things as much as become things themselves. To some degree, I feel it is easy to over-emphasize this aspect. A phrase like ‘brambles in the wringing brains’ (p. 6) certainly makes us feel the sensation in the words. But there is much less of this purely mimetic effect in Thomas than in, say, Hopkins. However, another example from Thomas may suggest why we always feel that there is more of it there:

The bagpipe-breasted ladies in the deadweed
Blew out the blood gauze through the wound of manwax.

(p. 67)

Isn't the ‘thinginess’ of these words the result of our not quite knowing in the first place what the things are that they communicate? Isn't it the strangeness of the referents that gives such apparently autonomous life to the words? It is as if the poet who evacuated his poems of the social world around him, and who seems most characteristic when he reveals his own sensibility rather than when he articulates ideas or opinions, is also attracted by material which, because of its strangeness, makes thing and word appear to become one.

The strangeness of his material also bears on the question of syntax. We have already seen that Thomas's syntax can be difficult. But the critic Donald Davie has gone further, and claimed that what we often get in Thomas is ‘pseudo-syntax’, ‘a play of empty forms’. Davie quotes from the seventh of the ‘Altarwise’ sonnets (p. 68), as follows:

Time, milk, and magic, from the world beginning,
Time is the tune my ladies lend their heartbreak,
From bald pavilions and the house of bread
Time tracks the sound of shape on man and cloud,
On rose and icicle the ringing handprint.

Davie comments on that penultimate line: ‘The verb “tracks” is completely void of meaning. What appears to be narrative (“Time”, the agent, transfers energy through “tracks” to the object “sound”) is in fact an endless series of copulas: “Time is tracking which is sound which is shape …” and so on.’17 Alastair Fowler countered: ‘One is irritated into replying. “The verb ‘tracks’ is not devoid of meaning: prove that it is”.’18 But Davie's point is at least wider than just our difficulty in working out the syntax. His argument is that Thomas's sentences only appear to drive on through their verbs; that, although ‘formally correct, his syntax cannot mime, as it offers to do, a movement of the mind’. Clearly, Thomas's style would not be a good one in which to write the minutes of a committee meeting! But surely the strangeness of a poem's materials or events is bound to have some bearing on the genuine expressiveness or otherwise of its syntactic forms. We could argue that the logic of the events and the logic of grammar are being suspended for something like the same motive.

Let us explore the point further by noting first of all that Davie has wrongly punctuated the first line of his quotation from the ‘Altarwise’ sonnet above. Davie ends that first line with a comma whereas Thomas in fact ended it with a full-stop. Therefore that line syntactically belongs to what has gone before, not to what Davie quotes here! Yet the interesting thing is that one can see how easy it would be to make that misquotation. That first line does indeed appear to lead fairly happily into what follows. And it does so precisely because of the repetitive, appositional nature of Thomas's syntax. The line already has some kind of ghost-relationship to what follows. Davie himself notes the characteristic stylistic effect of what he calls ‘simultaneity and identification’, but doesn't like it; it abandons, he says, the ‘intelligible structure of the conscious mind’. Yet simultaneity and identification are the theme as well as the style of these sonnets (we saw as much when we looked at the first two sonnets in Chapter 4 above). Of course, style in poetry doesn't always have physically to mime meaning. If it did so, it would be too much a case of killing one bird with two stones! But it should at least be noted that in the specific line whose main verb Davie finds ‘completely void of meaning’,

Time tracks the sound of shape on man and cloud,

what is being mimed is already a strange and difficult abstract idea—that of the simultaneity of time and space. ‘Time tracks the sound of shape on man and cloud’ is Thomas's way of expressing what Time is: Time is imaginable only in terms of the sound and shape of things—things that are not abstract, and that move (‘cloud’), fade (‘rose’), and melt (‘icicle’). Time ‘tracks’ these things both in the sense of creating the sad music of their mortality (the ‘sound’ or significance of their shapes) as on a sound-track, and also in the sense of tracking them down. The reality of abstract Time is simultaneous and identical with the physical things it destroys. Ironically, Davie seems close to the truth even in the dismissive parody he offers: ‘Time is tracking which is sound which is shape’. Our concern at present is the nature of the syntax, rather than the ramifications of meaning. But the way in which the two are always interrelated in Thomas is at the heart of our experience of reading his densest poems. Donald Davie would also argue that Thomas's syntax and rhythm do not create enough ventilation around the images to ease the act of reading (as opposed to the act of explicative commentary). And there is a good deal of truth in this. But it is surely not the same thing as saying that ‘tracks’ is ‘completely void of meaning’.

This effect of simultaneity produced by the syntax is widespread. And more interesting, for example, than Thomas's frequent delaying of a main verb or of a verb's object are the ghost-clauses that such delay is allowed to activate. Take the following lines from another poem:

Hold hard, these ancient minutes in the cuckoo's month,
Under the lank, fourth folly on Glamorgan's hill,
As the green blooms ride upward, to the drive of time;

(p. 44)

In these lines we are bound to hear Hold hard these ancient minutes as a main clause, even though the commas show that the real main clause is ‘Hold hard … to the drive of time’. And before we've grasped as much, we will also have heard (as a complete syntactic unit, despite the comma) As the green blooms ride upward to the drive of time. Compare King Lear's lines, ‘Behold yon simpering dame, / Whose face between her forks presages snow’. We know that it is the look on the woman's face presaging sexual frigidity (‘snow between her forks [legs]’) that is the main meaning. But Shakespeare's syntax also makes us see her face between her forks. Similar ghost-effects of syntax occur too often in Thomas to be mere accidents. He seems bent on accommodating them. They are a kind of syntactic pun. And this is related to the visual strangeness of his material in the first place. Just as, within that given strangeness, we are not allowed to have any ordinary expectations of what we hope to find—so also are we not allowed to expect a syntax that will take the shortest route, or a route in only one direction. The skeleton of main clauses is there, but heavily encumbered with subsidiary and appositional units. And we can imagine how such a syntax is made necessary also by what we saw Thomas claim to be his method with images: ‘A poem by myself needs a host of images … I make one image,—though “make” is not the word, I let, perhaps, an image be “made” emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict’.19

Again, the whole enterprise argues a certain ‘external’ feel for the opportunities of the language. And this impression remains in the effect of the whole. On the question of syntax, not even a reading-aloud could bridge the syntactic delays and tangential phrases of the densest early poems in a way that would give them idiomatic naturalness. (A good example on which to test the truth of this would be ‘I, in my intricate image’, p. 30.) In the opening lines of Hardy's ‘A Broken Appointment’, or even of Paradise Lost, the spoken voice can redeem the syntactic delay by emphasizing the main verb when it is reached. In Thomas, this syntactic pointing would have to be done too often, in the midst of other diversions caused by ghost-clauses, and against the background of already obscure material. Though this is not true of all early poems to the same degree, its logic and significance are general. Despite their obvious musicality, the early poems, from the point of view of what sense demands, are designed first of all as if for solid existence on the page. The poems are heavy with trapped possibilities, at one remove from what the spoken voice could release. It may be significant that Thomas's own later readings did not include many of the early poems and, apart from the first ‘Altarwise’ sonnet, none of the densest ones. What made the later poems more suited to public readings was exactly the degree of ‘dilution’ he had managed to achieve in them, in syntax as well as image. Yet the logic of the whole career still came from the very poems that needed such dilution. And it is paradoxical that what is most deeply revelatory of the man himself is, in those early poems, inextricably tied in with strange narratives and irreducible images and syntax. This suggests again his situation as one writing from outside the English centre. From the beginning, his eye was on London publication, but in mediating his themes indirectly in this way, Thomas seems to have felt free to bear an actual reading audience only vaguely in mind. It is as if the Welshman was preserving his sense of his own identity as man and poet by subverting the cultural expectations normally associated with the English tradition. His apology might be that

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen …

But evoking T. S. Eliot's ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, the first great Modernist poem in English, is also relevant in another way. For what impelled the early Thomas to write as he did is unlikely to have been only his Welsh or ‘outsider’ relationship to a central English tradition. That is not to say that we should underestimate this ‘outsider’ situation in the incentive and opportunity it gave him to forge his own idiom. Indeed, in turning now to the wider influence of the Modernist atmosphere in which he first wrote, we should remember that the prime exemplars of poetic Modernism (Pound, Eliot, the later Yeats) were themselves not English. Their freedom to change the nature of poetic expression came from something like the same cultural independence. The major relevance of a figure like Eliot (whom Thomas consistently admired) did not lie in an urge to copy him directly, even though Thomas's early Notebook poems do show Eliotian touches, just as an early schoolboy essay showed a precocious awareness of the poets and the kinds of experimentation that went to the making of ‘Modern Poetry’.20 Thomas would not have been interested in all of the theory or rationalization that went along with poetic Modernism, and the seedy urbanism or allusive metropolitanism we associate with its leading products are at a distinct remove from Thomas's themes of organic process. Indeed, some of the techniques and forms central to the shaping of Modernist poetry (brief Imagist-type lyrics and impressionistic free-verse patterns) were the very things left abandoned in the early Notebooks when Thomas discovered his own characteristic voice. Yet, even having turned to more private themes and to heavily-designed stanzaic forms, he may well have consciously hung on to, and intensified, what any young poet would have perceived as the main object-lesson of Modernism: concreteness of presentation. And in this, influences from an earlier age that were acclimatized because of Modernism, even if they were subsidiary or late influences on Modernism itself, would also have been freshly potent. Thus Thomas acknowledged the influence not only of Imagist poets but of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists and the Metaphysical Poets, influences that Eliot himself had made freshly current. And even if, looking back later at such influences, Thomas saw ‘no Hopkins’,21 that poet must also surely have been part of what was in the air around 1930. Indeed, Hopkins's influence, ranging from pastiche to subtler responses, was heavier on the poets of the thirties than on the first-generation Modernists such as Pound and Eliot, whose styles had been formed before Hopkins's publication in 1918. The young Thomas was fully aware of Hopkins, and it is to his credit that he did not adopt the most obvious Hopkinsian effects as tricks. But a less superficial influence could still have been a more important one, validating a respect, not only for concreteness of image, but for the weight and density of the whole movement of verse. Thomas is Modernist in his acceptance of the final barrier that Modernism itself in this sense had placed against any return to Victorian discursiveness or Georgian descriptiveness. And of course another Modernist trait that he absorbed was the conscious foregrounding of language as language, language itself as theme, within poems.

Yet if we take the two key aspects of Modernist poetry to be Imagism and Symbolism, Thomas's aims were clearly less modest than the former and probably less ambitious than the latter. And in both cases his actual material has a good deal to do with the difference. Ezra Pound defined an ‘Image’ as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’.22 The aim was to give such ‘Images’ in poetry something approaching the instantaneous completeness of communication we associate with sculpture or painting. The first of three principles of Imagism, formulated in 1912, explained that the ‘thing’ the image communicated could be either ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’; that is, it need not be a rendering without a point of view.23 But no attempt to communicate the significance of the experience created must be allowed to take the language far from the rendered image itself. So a typical Imagist poem did little more than present a series of clear pictures. Thomas would clearly not be satisfied with the small compass that such an enterprise allows, and he satirized wickedly the unadventurousness of poems in this tradition.24 But the taboo on commentary as such is not unrelated to his own methods. The difference is that, in his case, a strong narrative emphasis links, and takes us through, the images. His images are also themselves energetic actors, locations or events in that narrative (not simply ‘things’ mediated or mediated upon) and come from strange landscapes.

When we turn to Symbolism, it is again from the point of view mainly of contrast, though there are some connections which will help us focus further what Thomas does in his own way. For all that Thomas called himself ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’,25 his knowledge of the Symboliste poetry of late nineteenth-century France was at best negligible. His fondness for synaesthesically mixing the senses (‘The whispering ears will watch love drummed away’) may have come from Rimbaud, via translation, but is in itself no stranger than many other effects in his work. It is in any case the legacy of Symboliste method in Yeats or Eliot that probably counted. Two of its main features seem worth evoking.

First, the musical implications of the Symbolist ideal of living in a world of words. Paul Valéry had claimed that what the poet did to ordinary language was to ‘musicalize’ it. This meant not just poetry's usual capitalization on the sounds of words, but a determined attempt thereby to deny that the most important function of language comes from its referential or denotative power. Thus aspiring to the condition of music, Symbolist poetry sought to express states of feeling directly, allowing language to negotiate referentially with the world as little as possible. One can see why this should remind us of Thomas, the poet most often accused of writing musically without sense. And even a friendly critic can see that Thomas promotes, sustains, and elaborates the musical potential of his words. But non-referentially? Surely Thomas's narratives are busily descriptive of things, however strange. And a further consideration is the question of the rhythmic impression of the whole. Symboliste-influenced poems, like so many by the early Yeats, match their ethereal language with moody, hesitant, hovering rhythms. Yeats himself in this early phase had urged that poets should ‘cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone’.26 There are indifferent poems in Thomas's juvenilia, even in his early Notebooks, that would seem in accord with this advice. But the only mature poem with anything like a world-weary Symboliste music is ‘We lying by seasand’ (1937, p. 75). Its opening, characteristic of the whole, shows the Symboliste trick of promoting an aetherial effect by muting the tangibility of things and rhythms:

We lying by seasand, watching yellow
And the grave sea, mock who deride
Who follow the red rivers, hollow
Alcove of words out of cicada shade,
For in this yellow grave of sand and sea
A calling for colour calls with the wind
That's grave and gay as grave and sea
Sleeping on either hand.

This, surely, isn't characteristic Thomas. Indeed, the characteristic Thomas might even deserve Yeats's accusation against ‘energetic rhythms’ or against ‘the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone’. So far, then, the poet who in one of his own short stories exclaims ‘Image, all image’27 would seem more amenable to Imagist than to Symbolist ideals. But certain other potentials in Symbolist Modernism (there only in miniature in Imagism) might have been influential. Such influence might not be a case of copied models, but an awareness of new kinds of structural freedom. One Symbolist effect, sanctioned preeminently by Eliot's example, was the effect of discontinuity. Since this has often, in Thomas's case, been laid at the door of Surrealism, we should consider that accusation first before returning to the kind of discontinuity that a poet such as Eliot employed.

Obviously, much in early Thomas smacks of Surrealism and there can be no doubt that a certain kind of image took some of its flavour from such writing. But Surrealism proper is not defined by kinds of imagery. Its hallucinatory effect comes from the odd relationship of images, unselected and irrationally juxtaposed. David Gascoyne, a Surrealist poet and contemporary of Thomas, defined such poetry as ‘a perpetual flow of irrational thought in the form of images’.28 Like the Surrealists, Thomas thought of himself as drawing on subconscious material. But whereas the Surrealists allowed no room for the selection, control, and development of images, Thomas again seems busy with those very activities, and with everything carefully subjected to the aesthetic demands of poetic form. Take the opening verse of ‘When, like a running grave’ (p. 16):

When, like a running grave, time tracks you down,
Your calm and cuddled is a scythe of hairs,
Love in her gear is slowly through the house,
Up naked stairs, a turtle in a hearse,
Hauled to the dome …

A ‘running grave’, a ‘scythe of hairs’, a ‘turtle in a hearse’ seem, on their own, suitably Surrealistic. But even in this obscurest of poems we feel that the connections are being made for us, and the images consciously developed. It is a poem argued (or rather a narrative enacted) completely through images, so it is almost impossible to paraphrase, but the images are certainly not left in only a one-off juxtaposition to each other. Thus we later see (via an image of a cinder track) why Thomas wanted to say ‘time tracks you down’. Again, it is clear later that a ‘running’ grave was in any case meant (like a running sore) to suggest infection and disease. The ‘scythe of hairs’, on reflection, is that which scythes hairs. The verb ‘is’ in the third line is consciously made to have the ghost-effect of a complete positive action (‘is slowly through the house’) before we realize that it is in fact a subsidiary verb in a passive action (‘is … Hauled’). ‘Hearse’ makes ‘gear’ mechanical, but ‘tailor’ later also makes it an image of clothes (as in night-gear); and in the meantime the idea of clothes has made the stairs ‘naked’. The wit in describing uncarpeted stairs as ‘naked’ is also that which puts the slowest animal (‘turtle’) in the slowest vehicle (‘hearse’). One feels that there might be no end to the ingenuity, and all this is certainly no defence of the poem's ultimate obscurity. But not only is Thomas's comment about letting one image ‘breed’ another, even while allowing them to contradict, a fair description; it describes a method that has by no means surrendered ‘intellectual and critical forces’ to automatic writing.

It would be difficult to imagine two more dissimilar poets than Eliot and Thomas. Yet the revolution effected by Eliot was for many very different younger poets a point of no return to older ways of writing. It was not a matter of copying him. Thus it is not Eliot's techniques of discontinuity as such that make him more relevant than Surrealism here. It is, rather, the fact that this particular aspect of Symbolist method helped promote a view of poems as autonomous or irreducible semantic worlds. This view in Thomas will bring us back ultimately to what he meant by saying that his early poems were to be read ‘literally’. So it is worth instancing first of all what kind of image or symbol, quite apart from what kind of complete poem, could be thought of as being irreducible. Take Yeats's images of the chestnut-tree and the dancer at the end of ‘Among School Children’, for example. It doesn't seem adequate to call them metaphors. Why? Because there are no separate literal things that momentarily we are invited to see differently by having them called a chestnut-tree or a ‘body swayed to music’. In the same way, they are not ‘symbols’ in the traditional sense in which a symbol permanently ‘stands-in’ for a thing or a concept, is an ingredient in a complete allegory, or can be unpacked back into what the poet is ‘really’ writing about. No other things into which the images might be translated are any better, or more real, examples of what is being communicated than the chestnut-tree and dancer already are. They are irredeemably themselves; they are literal. Now, the rest of ‘Among School Children’ is quite ordinarily descriptive and meditative, and has raised modes of feeling or ways of seeing that provide the logic of those final images. But what if it hadn't? What would it be like, within a poem, to move only amongst irreducibly literal images that nevertheless seem to have the kind of air of significance about them that tempts us (unhelpfully) to unpack the poem like a suitcase? Such a poem would surely parallel even more Dylan Thomas's kind of obscurity if it also—like Yeats's ‘Byzantium’ for example—completely inhabited an already strange landscape.

That possibility of a complete poem being irreducible (of being Symbolist rather than symbolical) is something we encounter particularly in Eliot's earlier verse. The world of such a poem need not be a strange one. The Waste Land (1922), for example, presents us in the main with recognizable social or geographic scenes. They can involve difficulties presented by smaller-scaled literary and cultural-historical allusions, and can even be disconcertingly interrupted by these. But our main difficulty comes from the apparent discontinuity between the main scenes, or between the various sections of the whole poem. Narrative or descriptive continuity has been ignored. The Waste Land deserves the description once offered of a Symbolist poem as one in which symbols are ranged around and the ‘meaning’ flowers from the spaces in between.

Now, The Waste Land is uncompromisingly discontinuous at the ordinary level of narrative. Once again (as with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’) lines from within the poem perfectly express our experience of reading the poem itself—‘Son of man, you cannot say or guess / For you know only a heap of broken images’. The strong emphasis on at least narrative continuity in Thomas sets him at a great remove from such a phenomenon as is represented by The Waste Land. But the degree of discontinuity need not be as extreme as that, even in Eliot. Indeed, that degree of discontinuity is made both necessary and effective only by the special needs of writing a long poem in the Symbolist mode. Eliot's shorter earlier poems, however, also make surprising leaps or rapid, unexplained transitions that are designed to prevent them from ‘adding up’ in conveniently tidy ways. Thus the Jamesean social materials of ‘Prufrock’ tempt us to reduce that poem back into some descriptive narrative of an orthodox realistic kind: as if what Eliot had done was imagine such a narrative, and then write it out more challengingly by omitting the connections, or blurring the realism. But if we do such unpacking, the narrative we are left with (though it is partly evoked) cannot account at all for the particular resonance of the poem itself, and would locate the poem more firmly in a merely realistic world than it appears to want. Such difficulties are raised even more strikingly by other Eliot poems such as ‘A Cooking Egg’ and ‘Mr Eliot's Sunday Morning Service’. Donald Davie has persuasively argued that the strange coexistence in those poems, of objects not normally thought of as being associated, can only be understood if we accept that Symbolist poems are not cryptic versions of realistic narratives.29

Such writing must have brought about a sea-change in what younger poets perceived as allowable possibilities. Even W. H. Auden (whose poetry is more leisurely and discursive than Thomas's) told Nevill Coghill that the right way to construct a poem was through the organization of logically-discontinuous images à la The Waste Land. The technique is visible in a poem such as Auden's ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’, from a period contemporary with Thomas's 18 Poems. And the influence on Thomas can be gauged by the delight with which, in an early letter of 1934, he quoted Eliot on the poet's new freedom from constraints of ‘meaning’ of a traditional kind: ‘Some poets, assuming that there are other minds like their own, become impatient of this “meaning” which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.’30

But Thomas would seem, more than any poet of his generation, to have seized on Modernism's sanctioning, not only of the discontinuity of disparate images, but also of the irreducibility that comes from a relentless concreteness of presentation. And if we now return to what Thomas meant by saying that his poems were to be read ‘literally’, we can see a wide variety in the implications of that term. Let us first of all consider the irreducible literalness of individual images. It seems clear, doesn't it, that when Thomas says ‘The ball I threw while playing in the park / Has not yet reached the ground’ we would be foolish to want the park or the permanently suspended ball to ‘represent’ other things. The unstated logic of the poem allows us to negotiate the symbol (as with Yeats's chestnut-tree and dancer) without unpacking it. We can talk of its meaning certainly, but would be foolish to think that the items in the symbol stand for other things. Even when the items evoke a less familiar landscape, the same air of irreducible literalness applies. So we would also be wrong to hold back literal assent even from such lines as ‘Above the waste allotments the dawn halts’. As we have seen in that particular poem, the ‘dawn’ is already a metaphor of a traditional kind: it is the ‘dawn’ or ‘light’ of consciousness; it does stand for something else. Here, surely, we get our bearings from recognizing that there is indeed some measure of point-for-point equivalence. And this is fine—as long as we recognize also that the aim of the poem (‘Light breaks where no sun shines’) is to make us delight in the independent literal life that the metaphor has been allowed to achieve. The point is that we don't feel we want to translate the lines back to other referents; we have come to read even recognizable metaphors as if they were themselves ‘literal’.

Determining the difficulty raised by all this is the degree to which the opening of a poem reveals the ostensible area in which it is working. Despite its strong and original phrasing, the opening

Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb

(p. 6)

reveals its subject as prenatal life quite directly. The outer circumference of the poem, as it were, is established—and there is a sense in which all the particularizing images that follow are indeed metaphors, and known to be so, because we don't lose sight of that outer circumference. But it is another thing when a poem starts by thus denoting its area of reference but then develops only within the independent logic of its original metaphors. Different again is the case of the poem ‘The spire cranes’ which starts, and continues, only with metaphor. The irony is that the majority of Thomas's early poems allow us, in these different ways, to speak, if we must, of ordinary metaphor. It is when such metaphors become the very foreground of the poem, as it were, that the term seems inadequate; or (to change our own metaphor!) when the poem seems to have been turned inside-out; that is to say, when the normally inward secret comparisons that we think of metaphor as being become the main outward life of the poem. In such cases, the ‘real’ referents in the actual world seem almost like ‘other’ things to which this ‘literal’ narrative is compared.

But it is yet another thing when Thomas writes out a narrative that has just never had a real-world equivalent that could stand as referent in the first place. That, surely, is what we saw in the ‘Altarwise’ sonnets. And to that extreme example we can add such poems as ‘Where once the waters of your face’, ‘When, like a running grave’, ‘I fellowed sleep’, and ‘I', in my intricate image’. They don't have what we've called an outer circumference or outer reference, like pre-natal life or the process of birth. Yet isn't language without reference, by definition, nonsense? Yes, it is. But we must remember that it is narrative without reference that we are talking about. In the last poems mentioned it is the events described that have no equivalents in the real world. Yet, it follows that their individual words or images don't need defending against the charge of being non-referential or of being only spuriously literal. The realities they refer to (realities like ‘the atlas-eater with a jaw for news’) are clearly there, but there within the autonomous logic of what are already strange (not just discontinuous) narratives. When Eliot was asked what the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’ meant, all he could do in reply was repeat the line. There, it is the abruptness of the reference, its discontinuity with what surrounds it, rather than any logical impossibility in itself, that prompts the difficulty. Thomas had to explain stranger images. His explanation of the phrase ‘the country-handed grave’ (p. 50) asked us to imagine a grave with a country for each hand.31 With such materials, there is a sense in which a poem's ‘meaning’, in Thomas's case as well, has to flower from spaces. But they are not spaces caused by gaps in the narrative, and not just spaces in between quickly changing images. They are the spaces left by the narratives not having any equivalents in the realistic world. Narratives of this kind can only be read literally. And they don't have to be in a ‘Jabberwocky’ language honourably to demand it.

Despite differences, we feel that what such poems share in is still essentially the central enterprise of Modernism. Even though the Modernist-Symbolist ideal developed from the increased subjectivism of Romanticism, no Romantic poet had made poems live to such a degree in imaginatively autonomous worlds. Donald Davie quotes the example of Keats's ‘Ode to Autumn’. If the ‘meaning’ of a Symbolist poem lies in the sensibility it reflects (the only thing we can logically say it is ‘about’), why isn't ‘Ode to Autumn’ a Symbolist poem? After all, no poem more closely conflates irreducible landscape or event with inner feeling. But Keats's natural landscape is available-to the poem rather than created-by it.32 In hanging on to a continuous narrative line, Thomas was less ambitious than, say, Eliot in the structural method by which poems could be cut off from the logic of the world, even though his materials, in themselves, came from much stranger territories. But even while he claimed that ‘narrative is essential’ he saw it as a means whereby the ordinary expectations of the reader could be accommodated while the poem worked, otherwise, in less obviously logical ways. And, however paradoxical, it is significant that the authority Thomas quoted for this strategic function of narrative could still be Eliot himself. ‘Narrative, in its widest sense,’ he said, ‘satisfies what Eliot, talking of “meaning”, calls “one habit of the reader”. Let the narrative take that one logical habit of the reader along with its movement, and the essence of the poem will do its work on him.’33

But let us move on from the influence of Thomas's Welshness or of Modernism. His reference above to the ‘essence’ of a poem should remind us that poems are not just exercises in technique. They communicate, however indirectly, a particular vision of the world. Even in Thomas's case, separation of theme from technique has not been so impossible as to prevent critics from evaluating his concerns as well as his methods. On the one hand, there is the view that his concern with birth, sex and death is obsessive and limited; and on the other, that concern with such things is high seriousness, and that (to quote A. Alvarez) Thomas ‘had something rather original to say’.34 Perhaps more relevant than just the question of limited range is that of the specific vision expressed. It is clear that this vision does not amount to a philosophy, a political ideology, or a religion in any full or ordinary sense. Indeed, as we have seen, much in the poems concerns a resistance to abstracted formulations. And this is where one particular critical emphasis deserves mention.

J. Hillis Miller has argued that ‘what exists for Thomas as soon as anything exists at all is a single continuous realm which is at once consciousness, body, cosmos, and the words which express all three at once’.35 So many of Thomas's comments outside the poems support such a claim that it could indeed be central to the focus a reader should bring to the poems themselves. We saw, for example, his claim that ‘When I experience anything I experience it as a thing and a word at the same time’, and his belief that ‘Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body’. He also talked of ‘a preconceived symbolism derived … from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy’.36 But two different things need to be distinguished here. There can be no doubt that Thomas does make the body and the physical world his major source of symbols. In this way they act like the sphere of the occult in Yeats: an area from which to draw images; an area whose sheer consistency gives those images symbolic force. But J. Hillis Miller's description above suggests something deeper than just the source of images that make the poems operable. It suggests a particular vision, in which the physical and the intangible (‘consciousness’) or the physical and the abstract (‘words’) merge and mix. Martin Dodsworth takes Hillis Miller's claim further, in terms of a specific analogy with Blake.37 In both poets the vision is one in which body, mind and spirit are genuinely ‘interchangeable’. In such a view, a spiritual response to the world does not come from an abstracted soul but from the body when viewed as something more than a mere collection of mechanistic senses, and from the mind when prevented from being mere reason.

Dodsworth's full argument should be followed in his specific essay, and tested against the poems he analyses. Of general relevance here, however, is Dodsworth's contention that it is this phenomenon, a particular ‘concept of mind’, that is at the heart of the obscurity of the early poems. Such a view denies that the main difficulty comes from techniques that are structural or strategic. Consider, for contrast, these other (still friendly) explanations of Thomas's obscurity: that he wanted to delay our grasp of the whole by heightening, ‘step by step, the conflict between our superficial interpretations until at last we are driven into comprehension’ (Elder Olson); that he wanted to ‘sustain states of emotion in his reader by demanding attention and concentration … by constantly drawing his reader's mind back to obsessive concerns through verbal repetition and variation’ (W. T. Moynihan); that his aim is that of ‘distancing the intimate’, of preventing highly sexual material from being experienced too directly (R. N. Maud).38 There is bound to be some truth in all of these. And they are not the only explanations that these particular critics put forward. R. N. Maud, for example, draws attention to the consistently patterned way in which Thomas juxtaposes positive and negative images. This is obviously relevant to the irreducibility of the poems: we perceive the significance of creative-versus-destructive images without needing the poems themselves to moralize discursively upon it. The cases put forward by Hillis Miller and Dodsworth, however, draw attention to something much stranger in the poet's way of perceiving reality in the first place. It is not a world-view by which we might live our daily lives; but, then, neither was Blake's. Perhaps that is why Thomas has so often to embody it in the form of pre-natal life. What those particular poems celebrate is certainly a world of undifferentiated consciousness, not yet broken down into separate physical, spiritual or rational compartments. That process of separation Thomas sees as being caused by language (in ‘From love's first fever to her plague’, p. 18):

I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret;
The code of night tapped on my tongue;
What had been one was many sounding minded.

Making language express more than one category of experience at a time would therefore be part of an attempt at redeeming language. So also would be the obsessive urge to make language enact rather than describe.

It is interesting, isn't it, that as soon as we start to speak of Thomas's themes or world-view they bring us back to language, as happens so often in the poems themselves. But we should not ignore the implications of such a world-view for the choice of themes, considered to some degree independently. We have noted that some such holistic vision would make natural the choice of pre-natal themes. Equally natural to such a view would be themes which conflate the geography of the human body with the processes of the universe. Similarly, Thomas's response to actual deaths, in which he envisions the dead person returning into the organic cycle. In turn, death itself is seen as a strange new burgeoning, in which all the senses become one, and with a spiritual refinement that can be imagined also for the five senses in actual life:

My one and noble heart has witnesses
In all love's countries, that will grope awake;
And when blind sleep drops on the spying senses,
The heart is sensual, though five eyes break.

(‘When all my five and country senses see’, p. 74)

It is this refusal to accord bodily experience a merely physical status, or to reduce imaginative consciousness to cold reason, that is essentially Blakean. In this way, the technical freedom that the atmosphere of poetic Modernism had made possible served something deeper and older in Thomas's view of reality, though Modernism's delight in short-circuiting compartments of experience was also in itself relevant. When Thomas later lightened the pressures that this vision of reality placed on language itself, mainly by coming out into a more recognizable and objective world, he still remained with the themes that this vision had dictated. Thus the celebration of elemental oneness—of the natural, unthinking cohesion of physical and spiritual states—is the aim of ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Poem in October’ as much as of the early pre-natal poems. But Dodsworth argues that when the later poems turn to individual human subjects, as opposed to ‘the mysterious world of spirit’ underlying all physical reality, or when they turn to an apparently more orthodox Christian frame of reference, they lose a sense of mystery and the ability to accommodate contradictions. Whether this is true—or whether it is indeed a particular world-view that produces those qualities in the first place—is something each reader has to decide.

It is at least significant that many other critics, among them William Empson,39 have argued that the most valuable poems are the densely-textured early ones. This view seems particularly appropriate to the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity. But textural resistance should not automatically be taken for good value. Nor taken for granted as belonging only to the earlier work: the most detailed examination of ‘Fern Hill’, by Alastair Fowler,40 reveals richnesses of texture and organization that will surprise even a reader long familiar with that poem. Thomas himself certainly felt pleased to have been delivering ‘more meaning at first reading’. But, as Fowler puts it, this does not necessarily mean ‘that his later poems had less at a second’. Exactly what the furthest sources of meaning in a poem may be also raises the question of allusion. Fowler finds ‘Fern Hill’ remarkably allusive, though mainly in terms of well-absorbed influences from other poems in the long tradition in which it stands. It is an allusiveness of a very different kind that is claimed by two detailed studies of the earlier ‘Altarwise’ sonnets. Elder Olson claims for those sonnets major levels of symbolism based on Greek myths of the sun-hero Hercules and on the relationship of the constellation Hercules to other constellations and astronomical phenomena.41 H. H. Kleinman presupposes equally detailed esoteric knowledge on Thomas's part in the areas of Egyptian myths and funerary customs and marine biology.42 Is it likely that, with his background, Thomas would have had this knowledge? Abstract conjecture on that score, however, is not as important as testing Olson or Kleinman's claims against the kind of knowledge the poems themselves seem to demand. Certainly to be guarded against is a danger increased by the sophistication of literary criticism over the last fifty years: the danger of finding impressive or sincere or profound only the most difficult texts.

One thing at least seems clear. Assessment of Thomas's achievement (pro or con, early or late) will always be concerned, essentially, with the way in which he uses language. That is not just a statement of the obvious. There is a sense, isn't there, in which what draws us back to a poet has more to do in the first place with the general attractions of his poetic voice—its sounds and movement—than with themes or attitudes or interesting difficulties. If we find these musical attractions there in Thomas, we can also be assured that he strenuously sought to guarantee them, that he believed passionately in a certain kind of poetry, the kind that delights in the solidity and memorability of language. For all his quarrels with language, there is an unembarrassed musical gusto in his use of it. It is presumably on that general stylistic impression that critical opinion first divides; from there on, on questions of meaning or difficulty, there is bound to be an element of rationalization to support either liking or disliking the kind of style involved. Perhaps part of Thomas's significance lies in his so completely challenging that taste in style.

The creation of new styles in poetry has always had much to do with a poet's readiness to disappoint his generation's general view of what is ‘poetic’. And this was certainly true of Modernist poetry in this century. But there was always in Thomas something that respected the ‘poetic’ effect of the whole. He took full advantage of techniques of indirection that he knew would raise the charge of downright obscurity, and the visceral emphasis of much of the early poetry could also at some stage have been considered anti-poetic. But through the musical and celebratory tone of the whole, everything is levelled upwards. In a vague stylistic sense, as well as in some historically accurate thematic senses, he strikes us as a ‘Romantic’ poet. To some degree, later critics' attitude towards that ‘Romantic’ impression is affected by the originality or otherwise of Thomas's subject-matter. John Fuller, for example, finds the strange earlier poetry convincing and challenging, but finds ‘Fern Hill’ emotionally ‘dishonest’.43 Presumably, ‘honesty’ is invoked because the style strikes the critic as glamorously out of proportion to (and capable of falsifying) the traditional theme of recollected childhood. Whether it is so, of course, is a matter of opinion; and, more significantly, a matter of taste. But before we pursue this question of taste further, it is worth remarking how decisively Thomas's later poems did in the end retreat from the techniques of Modernism. In those later poems, techniques of indirection were replaced by a direct descriptive style, which conveys also a strong sense of the poet's own confessional presence. And the early imagined worlds, created by private associations out of often disparate materials, were replaced by the strong continuity of a realistic landscape. This may be relevant to the critical reaction against Thomas's general style that set in after his death. His stylistic legacy, unnaturally glamourized by his lifestyle and early death in 1953, would have been associated mainly with the later pastoral poems and Under Milk Wood. So the possible irrelevance of Thomas's way with words to the different needs and preoccupations of the new poets of the 1950s would also have been associated with subjects equally uncongenial. Those younger poets were urban or suburban, in theme and attitude as well as upbringing. Part of their reaction against Thomas also involved reinstating in poetry a wider range of themes having to do with ordinary personal experiences. Their tendency was to level downwards. In that particular connection, they were reacting against the large mythopoeic vision of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot as much as against the large ‘bardic’ persona of Dylan Thomas. Some of them had started publishing in the 1940s and retained a serious respect for Thomas's talents. (Philip Larkin, for example, praised Thomas for his ability to ‘speak out loud and clear’ in the 1940s.)44 But there is no doubt that, in terms of style, the new poets of the 1950s took a good deal of their incentive from a corrective reaction against the Welshman's legacy, and from an urge to write less loudly.

Much in that reaction involved a reappraisal of what role a poet plays in relationship to society. And nothing expresses or elucidates a poet's perception of that role more than his dealings with language. This lay at the heart of Donald Davie's resistance to Dylan Thomas. We have seen Davie's direct attack on Thomas on the matter of syntax in Articulate Energy (1955). But an earlier book by Davie is also relevant: Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), though it does not itself deal with Thomas, elucidates linguistic and stylistic qualities that are the exact reverse of Thomas's way with words. Its essential challenge was to the notion that the concrete image (as validated by Symbolism and Imagism) is the only central power in poetry. Davie highlights a different, neglected strain in English poetry of the last four centuries: one whose diction has the more austere, often abstract, virtues of prose. Such poetry is moral in its very avoidance of extreme individualism. One can see why this should have led on to Davie's later examination of syntax—the feature that has to carry the energy of a poem when the emphasis has been taken off density of image. All this provides an opposed frame of reference within which to judge the different linguistic effects we associate with Thomas. That the relevance to Thomas of Purity of Diction in English Verse was not accidental is shown by the later ‘Postscript’ that Davie added to a reprint of the study in 1966. There he rightly says that the book could well have been regarded as the unofficial poetic manifesto of the new poets who came into prominence in the 1950s. Davie connects his view that ‘poetic effects’ are ‘moral’ considerations with ‘an angry reaction from the tawdry amoralism of a London Bohemia which had destroyed Dylan Thomas, the greatest talent of the generation before ours’ (p. 198). To some degree, our view of Thomas's work is bound to be affected by being a view from this side of the very different poems produced by that reaction. Not just in the sense of a change in fashion: more important are some of the wider questions raised by Davie's position. (Many of them are raised in Davie's chapter on ‘Hopkins as a Decadent Critic’, which can be read with Thomas very much in mind.) To what degree is a poet justified in imposing his own will on language? Isn't part of his responsibility, rather, the purification of the language in such ways as also to make other poems by other poets possible? It seems clear that Thomas's style would be a disastrous example to follow—except, presumably, on the basis of our having equivalent talents and similar preoccupations. And in Thomas's own case, can one completely separate the outrageous Bohemian life-style from the wilfulness of the poems' techniques? Aren't these in fact interrelated—reflecting a moral, rather than just a literary, denial of central norms? This wider critical perspective is certainly important, though it does run the risk of pleading the virtues of standardization. After all, another poet-critic of the same generation as Davie—John Wain—has argued that Thomas's way with language, and his themes, can in any case be understood only in terms of his Welshness and the regional milieu in which he wrote.45 It does at least seem significant that Davie, while welcoming the stylistic tendencies that distinguish British and American writing in the same language, does so by ‘leaving aside the troublesome actualities or probabilities of Anglo-Welsh, Anglo-Scottish, New Zealand literature, Trinidadian and so on’ (p. 201).

Davie's essentially moral view of style is relevant to the form that poetic reaction against Thomas took. Those particular poets of the 1950s who came to be known as the ‘Movement’ poets sought to reflect the different qualities of urbanity and poise, in which the strategies of irony and understatement replaced celebration and rhetorical colour. One can see why, for some of them, such a poet as Thomas Hardy could become an influence; or why, for others, a sense of stylistic continuity with the 1930s and 1940s should come through W. H. Auden rather than Dylan Thomas. Of course, without the major talents of a Philip Larkin, the lowering of poetry's rhetorical aims can lead to the nondescript as well as to the restrained. G. S. Fraser, in an essay that praises Thomas, reflects on the dangers of the otherwise healthy reaction against his style by borrowing Roy Campbell's famous epigram ‘On Some South African Novelists’:46

You praise the firm restraint with which they write—
I'm with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?

Introducing a still later generation of poets, A. Alvarez said very much the same thing about the ‘Movement’ poets, and praised Ted Hughes for his contrast with the ‘gentility’ of much of their verse. This was also where Alvarez harked back to Thomas as someone who ‘had something rather original to say’.47 But in the end Thomas's heightened style is not to be defended or queried only in the light of a later reaction against it. We have presumably to ask to what degree that style was made appropriate by the natural scale and energy of his chosen materials.

What was clearly aimed for in the style was memorability. In this, what we might call its insistent ‘musical’ properties cannot be divorced from the insistence also on strong wording. This is the ground on which, in the 1930s, he attacked the poetry of contemporaries like Stephen Spender and John Lehmann—even (with passionate honesty) that of his closest friend, Vernon Watkins—and in language that strangely foreshadows the above reservations concerning the ‘Movement’ poets of the 1950s: ‘I can see the sensitive picking of words, but none of the strong, inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still-life or an experience put down, placed, regulated’.48 In this way, Thomas's style was itself, in its own time, a reaction. His attitude to the older Yeats and Eliot was different. It resembled that of Keats to Wordsworth and Coleridge: a profound respect, which however did not do without some mistrust of their intellectual confidence. (He thought Yeats the greatest poet of the century—though Hardy was his favourite—but thought some of Yeats's ideas mad.49 And his admiration for Eliot did not prevent him from calling him ‘Pope Eliot’.)50 The same kind of corrective also coloured his view of his actual contemporary, W. H. Auden. In a special tribute for New Verse, he described Auden as ‘a wide and deep poet’, but naughtily added in a letter accompanying the tribute—‘Good luck to Auden on his seventieth birthday’ (in 1937, when Auden was only 30!).51 The point is that such correctives have to do with the danger of philosophical or ideological over-confidence, not with the authentic strength with which these three poets treated language. But perhaps more than any poet of his time, Thomas sought to find that strength in the weight and texture (rather than just the ‘meaning’) of each individual word. In this connection, it is odd that the critical formula describing his own methods most often emphasized by Thomas is the one least quoted. In reviews and letters he returned again and again to the need for poets to work ‘out of’ words, not ‘towards them’.52 Gabriel Pearson independently comes up with something like the same formulation in comparing Thomas and Auden. It is a good point on which to end because it brings together two young poets who, in the wake of Modernism, forged different voices in the early 1930s:53

they begin to seem like part of one whole when viewed together in their beginnings. Each over-develops what the other neglects: crudely, thought as against feeling. Auden handles language from outside, like a craftsman or sportsman, while Thomas burrows into the body of the language itself from which he delivers oracles from the heat of its decomposition. They were together, it seems to me, the sundered halves of the great modernist poet that English poetry, after Eliot, failed to throw up.

Because Auden's stature would be difficult to minimize, it should not go against the policy of an ‘Open’ Guide to quote Pearson's further comment on the comparison: ‘Of the two, I believe, against the grain of current prejudice, Thomas denied less of himself than Auden and emerges from a reading of his poetry and prose as the richer, more humanly grounded artist’. In any case, a further quotation from the same source is an accurate description of the still ‘open’ state of Thomas's reputation. And its last four words are as wise a guidance as any:

The legend is still an un-negotiated legacy, fraught with predictable discomfort however you play it, whether with aloofness, or bold enthusiasm. Either way, Thomas remains powerful, disreputable and not to be patronized.


  1. Letter to Daniel Jones: Collected Letters, p. 197.

  2. In the story ‘Where Tawe Flows’, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

  3. Letter to Vernon Watkins: Collected Letters, p. 222.

  4. Caitlin Thomas, Not Quite Posthumous Letters to My Daughter [London: Putnam] (1963) p. 27.

  5. Caitlin Thomas, Leftover Life to Kill [London: Little, Brown] (1957) p. 35.

  6. John Malcolm Brinnin's phrase. Quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas [London: Hodder and Stoughton] (1977) p. 232.

  7. Letter to Hamish Miles: Collected Letters, p. 117.

  8. Reported by Aneirin Talfan Davies. Quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (1977) p. 119.

  9. Most notably the author Glyn Jones and Aneirin Talfan Davies, the Welsh BBC producer who commissioned many of Thomas's broadcasts. But from the very start, Thomas's father would have been as good a source as any for this kind of information.

  10. The first printing of the sonnet sequence in Life and Letters Today (December 1935) pp. 73-75 had ‘Love's a reflection of the mushroom features’.

  11. F. W. Bateson, English Poetry: A Critical Introduction [New York: Barnes & Noble] (2nd edn 1966) p. 67.

  12. Alastair Reid, in E. W. Tedlock (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet [London: Heinemann] (1960) p. 53.

  13. Letter to Margaret Taylor: Collected Letters, p. 735.

  14. First noticed by David Holbrook. See his essay ‘The Code of Night’ in New Critical Essays, pp. 182-89.

  15. Letter to Vernon Watkins: Collected Letters, p. 223.

  16. ‘Chains and the Poet’, in New Critical Essays, p. 65.

  17. Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (1976 edn) pp. 125-26.

  18. In a review of Davie's book in Essays in Criticism (January 1958) p. 83.

  19. Letter to Henry Treece: Collected Letters, p. 281.

  20. Reprinted in Early Prose Writings, pp. 83-6.

  21. Letter to Henry Treece: Collected Letters, p. 297.

  22. In ‘A Retrospect’. Reprinted in T. S. Eliot (ed.), Literary Essays of Ezra Pound [London: Faber and Faber] (1954) pp. 3-14.

  23. Ibid.

  24. See, for example, his review of Sydney Salt's Thirty Pieces. Reprinted in Early Prose Writings, p. 167.

  25. Letter to Vernon Watkins: Collected Letters, p. 487.

  26. ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’, Essays and Introductions [New York: Macmillan] (1961) p. 163.

  27. ‘The Orchards’, Daniel Jones (ed.), A Prospect of the Sea [London: Dent] (1955) p. 85.

  28. Quoted in Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas [London: L. Drummond] (1949), p. 23. This chapter in Treece's book is on Thomas's ‘Relations to Surrealism’. For a detailed discussion of Thomas and Surrealism, see M. Gee, The Influence of Surrealism on English Writing of the 'Thirties and 'Forties, unpublished B. Litt. thesis, University of Oxford, 1974 (Bodleian Library). Both Treece and Gee stress the conscious craftsmanship of Thomas's writing, the element that marks him off from the Surrealists. For Thomas's own hostile view of Surrealist writing, see Collected Letters, pp. 204-5 and Early Prose Writings, pp. 159-60.

  29. In Graham Martin (ed.), Eliot in Perspective [London: Macmillan] (1970) pp. 74-9.

  30. Letter to Glyn Jones: Collected Letters, p. 97.

  31. Letter to Henry Treece: Collected Letters, pp. 300-1.

  32. In Graham Martin (ed.), Eliot in Perspective (1970) p. 80.

  33. ‘Answers to an Enquiry’, reprinted in Early Prose Writings, p. 149.

  34. Introduction to The New Poetry (revised edn 1966) p. 23.

  35. J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-century Writers [Cambridge: Belknap Press] (1966) pp. 190-91.

  36. Letter to Glyn Jones: Collected Letters, p. 98.

  37. M. Dodsworth, ‘The Concept of Mind in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas’, New Critical Essays, pp. 107-35.

  38. Details of the books by these three critics are given in the ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ at the end of this Guide.

  39. Twentieth Century Views, p. 85.

  40. New Critical Essays, pp. 228-61.

  41. Elder Olson, The Poetry of Dylan Thomas [Chicago: University of Chicago Press] (1954).

  42. H. H. Kleinman, The Religious Sonnets of Dylan Thomas [Berkeley: University of California Press] (1963).

  43. New Critical Essays, p. 220.

  44. Introduction to The North Ship [London: Faber] (1966 edn) p. 8.

  45. ‘Druid of Her Broken Body’, New Critical Essays, pp. 1-20.

  46. ‘English Poetry 1930-1960’ in B. Bergonzi (ed.), The Twentieth Century (‘Sphere’ History of Literature in the English Language, 1970), p. 304.

  47. Introduction to The New Poetry (revised edn 1966) p. 23.

  48. Letter to Vernon Watkins: Collected Letters, p. 278.

  49. Early Prose Writings, p. 152.

  50. Letter to Vernon Watkins: Collected Letters, p. 222.

  51. Letter to Geoffrey Grigson: Collected Letters, p. 259.

  52. See, for example, the selection of Thomas's reviews of poetry in Early Prose Writings, pp. 165ff.

  53. The Spectator, 20 November 1971, pp. 731-32.

The following abbreviations are used:

Collected Letters - Paul Ferris (ed.), The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas [London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.] (1985)

Early Prose Writings - Walford Davies (ed.), Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings [J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.] (1971)

New Critical Essays - Walford Davies (ed.) Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays [London: Dent] (1972)

Poet in the Making - R. N. Maud (ed.), Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas [London: Dent] (1968)

Twentieth Century Views - C. B. Cox (ed.), Dylan Thomas, ‘Twentieth Century Views’ Series [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall] (1966).

Further Reading

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Carson, Ricks. “Thomas's ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.’” The Explicator 54, no. 4 (summer 1996): 240-42.

Discusses the complexity of Thomas's views on the afterlife as evidenced by the language of one of his most famous poems.

Greenway, William. “Dylan Thomas and ‘The Flesh's Vision.’” College Literature 16, no. 3 (1989): 274-80.

Exploration of the various perspectives employed by Thomas in his poetry.

Jackaman, Rob. “Man and Mandala: Symbol as Structure in a Poem by Dylan Thomas.” Ariel 7, no. 4 (October 1976): 22-33.

Analysis of the symbolic structure of “I See the Boys of Summer.”

Linebarger, Jim Lad Kirsten. “Thomas's ‘Shall Gods Be Said to Thump the Clouds.’” The Explicator 48, no. 3 (spring 1990): 212-15.

Contends that Thomas's poem is far more complicated than its simple style suggests.

Moylan, Christopher. “Thomas's ‘O Make Me a Mask.’” The Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 39-42.

Suggests that Thomas's poem anticipates postmodern anxiety about authorship and its relationship to the text.

Nemerov, Howard. “The Generation of Violence.” In Critical Essays on Dylan Thomas, edited by Georg Gaston, pp. 20-26. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Maintains that most of Thomas's poetry is characterized by an attempt to avoid structure based on a narrative, linear progression.

Thwaite, Anthony. “Dylan Thomas (1914-1953).” In Twentieth-Century English Poetry: An Introduction, pp. 72-80. London, England: Heinemann, 1978.

Discussion of Thomas's poetry with special attention to “After the Funeral.”

Treece, Henry. “Relations to Surrealism.” In Dylan Thomas: ‘Dog Among the Fairies,’ pp. 21-9. New York, N.Y.: John de Graff, 1956.

Explanation of the similarities and differences between Thomas and the Surrealists, with whom the poet is often linked.

Wardi, Eynel. “Poem on His Birthday.” In Once below a Time: Dylan Thomas, Julia Kristeva, and Other Speaking Subjects, pp. 35-60. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Offers an analysis of Thomas's “Poem on His Birthday.”

Additional coverage of Birney's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 45; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 120; Contemporary Authors-Brief Entry, Vol. 104; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 65; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 20, 139; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors 3.0; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors Modules: Drama, Most Studied, Poetry; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 3, 8; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 3, 44; Something About the Author, Vol. 60; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 45, 105; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

Paul Volsik (essay date January-March 1989)

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SOURCE: Volsik, Paul. “Neo-Romanticism and the Poetry of Dylan Thomas.” Études Anglaises 42, no. 1 (January-March 1989): 39-54.

[In the following essay, Volsik examines Thomas's participation in the British neo-Romanticism movement of the 1930s through the 1950s.]

In this article I do not wish to discuss the much-commented affinities between Dylan Thomas and the poets of High Romanticism—his use of “pantheism,” his (Wordsworthian) use of the themes of childhood and innocence, his sensuous (Keatsian) use of language, his eschewing of the distancing devices of erudition and irony. These possible affiliations, and others, have been the centre of a great deal of critical discussion (Shapiro, Press, Bayley, Bedts, Korg). One might add that, as for many of the Romantics, Thomas' life and work echoed each other in a particularly striking way. What Thomas himself said of Alun Lewis (killed in 1944 in Burma) is true of his own poems: “[I] could see, as you said, his death walking through them” (Collected Letters henceforth: CL 549).

What I hope to do here is to show more precisely how Dylan Thomas' poetry influenced and was influenced by the thematic priorities of a particular contemporary current that has been called neo-Romanticism. This is considered by critics to have flourished in Great Britain over two decades, from the beginning of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1950s. Thomas' career is coextensive with this period and his work has been seen as its greatest poetic achievement. The subject was suggested to me by the remarkable exhibition, “A Paradise Lost. The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55,” held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1987. One of the most stimulating aspects of this exhibition was the way in which it showed convincingly the scope of the influence of this current (from painting to poetry, from advertising to the cinema, from photography to stage design) and its internal aesthetic coherence. It must always be remembered, however, that the notion itself is a critical reconstruction (unlike, for example, Surrealism) and that I use the word “movement” henceforward in the loosest possible sense. The exhibition was itself part of a reevaluation of the aesthetic importance of the period, a reevaluation that has been carried out throughout the 1980s and has consistently, if somewhat confusedly, considered Dylan Thomas as a presiding and major figure. When critics consider Dylan Thomas from a purely literary point of view, he is seen as an isolated and even eccentric figure, maintaining traditional nineteenth century values (though in modern dress) in a decade whose dominant mode was that of Auden. However, if one looks at him in the context of neo-Romanticism he appears, on the contrary, as an extremely symptomatic figure. Literary neo-Romanticism has not, however, been the subject of any definitive study and indeed, though the term was used by contemporaries (Dylan Thomas himself used it in 1929—at the age of fifteen—of the “sordid” townscapes of Eliot), the category is a problematic one—not part of the established canon of literary criticism. Some definition of the field it covers would thus seem necessary before Dylan Thomas' place in it can be fully understood even though the “movement”—in so far as it can be seen to exist, and there can be consensus about who belongs to it—is more complex than I can show here or than the name it has been given would suggest.

As far as the chronology of the movement is concerned there is an inevitable uncertainty about beginnings. Here we can suggest (with Michael Yorke) that neo-Romanticism rises throughout the 1920s against a declining Modernism epitomised by Eliot in poetry and criticism and the writings of Roger Fry on painting, and that it was fed by a multitude of tributaries. David Mellor starts his chronology (11) in 1935, a year after the publication of Dylan Thomas' Eighteen Poems, works written mostly between 1931 and 1933. The movement certainly rises through the thirties in a more or less conflictual relationship with internationalist movements in art and with the “political” poetry of Auden, Spender and MacNeice (though some of Auden's early poetry, like “The Watershed” or “The Wanderer,” is perhaps part of it). In the early 1940s, when Britain is cut off from the Continent, it becomes the dominant mode and produces some of its greatest works. After the War it begins to decline when poets—and painters even more so—start visiting and living around the Mediterranean, suggesting a major shift in sensibility. Neo-Romanticism's high point is perhaps 1943-47 which sees a rich harvest of works: in photography Bill Brandt's “Brontë Country” and his work on Dockland pubs and streets (in 1944 Dylan Thomas had a project for a book of photographs of London Streets after writing successful captions for some of Brandt's Lilliput photographs); in cinema Michael Powell's A Canterbury Tale and David Lean's Great Expectations—indeed it was in 1944 that Dylan Thomas started writing his script for the film “The Doctor and the Devils,” a reworking of the story of the body-snatchers Burke and Hare. It was in these years too that major critical works such as Grigson's Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years, prose works like Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, Henry Moore's Shelter Notebook or Dylan Thomas' Deaths and Entrances were published, the latter containing perhaps his most popular poem: “Fern Hill.” In painting what have been considered (Mellor 13) as the three masterpieces of British Neo-Romantic art—Ceri Richard's Cycle of Nature, John Craxton's Estuary and John Minton's Recollections of Wales—titles which could well have been the subject matter of poems by Dylan Thomas—were all produced in 1944. It was in 1946 that Graham Sutherland's Crucifixion was unveiled, and if one allows oneself to extend the influence to Francis Bacon (though Bacon has always refused this affiliation) it is worth recalling that his famous Three Studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion date from 1944 and were shown in 1945. I hope that this will suffice to bear witness to the depth, wealth and scope of the movement. By the early 1950s neo-Romanticism was receiving immense public and religious support and patronage and the delayed peak of the movement is often seen as the Festival of Britain (1951) and the unveiling of Coventry Cathedral (1962)—as well perhaps as with the publication of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems in 1952.

Neo-Romanticism or New Romanticism marks, as its name suggests, both a rebirth of interest in and a subtle break with the High Romanticism of the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. It is a continuation of Romanticism in, amongst other things, its professed admiration for the achievements of certain great figures of British Romanticism. This admiration, in the area of painting, is apparent in the “rediscovery” of Palmer, Turner and Blake, a rediscovery that reassured painters who were uncertain as to the value of British Art in the face of the artistic creations of twentieth century European Modernism. In many ways neo-Romanticism also reproduced the genesis of Romanticism by re-rooting itself in Britain's (notably pre-Renaissance) past with a special interest in the Celtic areas. It is not for nothing that Sutherland should have achieved a major aesthetic breakthrough in Pembrokeshire, just the other side of Carmarthen Bay from Thomas' Laugharne, and that many of the poets associated (even if only temporarily or in one aspect of their work) with the movement—many, indeed, of its best poets—were of Celtic origin, whether Scottish like W. S. Graham or Norman MacCaig, or Welsh like Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins and R. S. Thomas.

The movement also resembles Romanticism in the way literature and painting interact. This was often true by virtue of personal contacts—Dylan Thomas knew the Scottish painters Colquhoun and MacBryde from the pubs of Fitzrovia and had plans to work on an opera to music by William Walton with sets by Michael Ayrton, the subject, symptomatically enough, “a very modern tragic opera, (set) in the bombed slums of (London's) wharfland” (CL 615). But the relationship poetry/painting, whose major precedent is of course Blake himself, is also manifest between the Wars in that some of the painters (like Paul Nash) wrote poetry and most of them (John Piper for example) explicitly linked the rise of the picturesque to romantic poetry, but more significantly in that the painting was often “literary” (figurative or narrative) in content as the poetry was often (though not in the case of Thomas) visual and descriptive in ambition, characteristics that were in some ways “reactionary” in a contemporary twentieth century European perspective. Indeed it can be argued that if neo-Romanticism was such a popular success, if it became the mainstream of British art in the period, it was because Romanticism already informed British taste, and that the current merely gave a modernist caution to aesthetic priorities—for example, the equation of the poetic with the lyrical—that had had a hundred and thirty years to establish themselves.

But if neo-Romanticism has deep roots in High Romanticism it is, by the force of history, different—it is precisely “new.” For one thing, it remodels the aesthetic topography of Romanticism. I think it is safe to say that for the nineteenth century and for the Romantics themselves, it is the Lake Poets who form the poetic fountainhead and yardstick of Romantic achievement. For the neo-Romantics it was, on the contrary, Blake (as painter but especially as poet) who became the great Romantic, no longer merely a problematic precursor. Secondly neo-Romanticism was unlike Romanticism in the importance it attached to the recently rediscovered poetry of the Metaphysicals and its abstract concern with “conception,” “conceit” and an emblematic which does not preclude visionary force. This is true not only of Dylan Thomas but also of painters. Graham Sutherland did three illustrations of Francis Quarles' Hieroglyphics; the painter Cecil Collins systematically used seventeenth century religious devices and, most interesting of all, Ceri Richards used visual puns, as Dylan Thomas used linguistic ones and “eye-rhymes.” But the seventeenth century was not the only “anachronistic” influence on neo-Romanticism, not the only movement to subtly modify its “Romantic” dimension—there were also contemporary influences. In painting one could cite the work of Chirico, Arp or Masson whose pictorial language is in many (though not in all) ways different from that of Romanticism; in literature, all those modernist strategies which use image rather than narrative as the decisive structuring principle.

I would now like to look more closely at the rise of neo-Romanticism from a more purely literary point of view. The following quotations from T. S. Eliot express with particular force the problematic relationship of Modernist poets to Romanticism. In The Egoist Eliot wrote:

for if our predecessors cannot teach us to write better than themselves, they will surely teach us to write worse; because we have never learned to criticize Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth (poets of assured though modest merit), Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth punish us from their graves with the annual scourge of the Georgian Anthology

(Bergonzi 39)

and, in an article on Blake:

And about Blake's supernatural territories, as about the supposed ideas that dwell there, we cannot help commenting on a certain meanness of culture. They illustrate the crankiness, the eccentricity, which frequently affects writers outside of the Latin tradition. (…) Confusion of thought, emotion, and vision is what we (also) find in such a work as Also Sprach Zarathustra; it is eminently not a Latin virtue.

(The Sacred Wood 151-158, 157)

Finally, in March 1928:

If I ask myself (…) why I prefer the poetry of Dante to that of Shakespeare, I should have to say, because it seems to me to illustrate a saner attitude towards the mystery of life

(ibid x)

This evaluation of Romanticism is typical from several points of view that concern us here. Firstly there is the superciliousness about the British as opposed to the “Latin” achievement. Secondly, Georgianism is seen as the unacceptable (and unacceptably popular) face of Romanticism with its sentimental pastoralism and suburban ruralism.1 Thirdly, a very “un-Latin” “confusion of thought, emotion, and vision” is precisely the criticism levied against Thomas by hostile critics. Finally, Eliot's conception of “sanity” came to be seen as itself problematically “mean” and increasingly untenable as his own form of Modernism seemed to lose impetus.

That the achievement of Romanticism had been other and greater than this is certain and was recognized. But the existence of Georgian poetry seemed to be the typically poisoned fruit of Romanticism and—worse—a tendency somehow endemic in British culture. Indeed neo-Romanticism, which went back to rural Britain even though it shared Eliot's scorn for the Georgians (and Dylan Thomas is an interesting example of this both in his work and his life) was to be criticised in much the same terms by those who refused it. To take just one example: Unit One, a group which, in 1933, brought together Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash (amongst others), saw precisely the danger of a falling back of British Art:

Only the most stubborn can dispute that English art has always suffered from one crippling weakness—the lack of structural purpose. With few exceptions our artists have painted “by the light of Nature” (…) About every seven years English art goes back on her tracks (…) It may be observed that we are now heading for a new revival (of) the Nature cult in some form or other.

(P. Nash, letter to the Times 12th June 1933 12)

But though those who saw value in the Romantic achievement were on the defensive in the early twenties, they were not without champions. The Adelphi, for example, was partially founded to give a platform for the “romantic” priorities and ideas of John Middleton Murry and was in fact seen as “the last stronghold of Romanticism.” More essentially, the debate between Romanticism and Classicism is one of the most important aspects—in some ways the most dated and confused—of intellectual life in Great Britain in the period. The expression of three points of view can here help us plot the rise in the reaffirmation of (certain) Romantic values. In November 1923 Murry wrote in “More about Romanticism”:

The definite propositions which I asserted or implied were (…) that the tradition of English literature and of English spiritual life in general is Romantic (… and that a man of spiritual maturity must be) a Classicist or a Romantic, must be one or the other. He cannot be both; and he cannot be neither. To be neither is to be nothing.

(Murry 134-135)

Ten years later, in 1933, in The English Vision, Herbert Read wrote that Englishness was intimately bound up with the religious “in the most vital sense,” with the irrational and with romanticism, and in words that astonish, coming from a future self-professed anarchist, that the Englishness of English writers is related to their mysterious link “with their blood and with the soil”2 with their “race” and also with a “physical climate and the actual landscape”. (Read vi & viii). Finally in 1946 Michael Ayrton—now defensively—claims

I consider to be the main streams or characteristics of the British genius, the lyrical, the satiric, the mystical, the romantic, and the preoccupation with linear rhythms which are the bones and basis of our art, and have been for a thousand years.

(Yorke 14)

Neo-Romanticism thus reclaims a constellation of values which it sees in opposition to (a foreign) Classicism, a constellation that includes the lyrical, the religious, the natural, the irrational, and indeed the land and its history. The detail of this process of reclamation is itself fascinating. But most important of all it involved fertile rediscoveries of “forgotten” works. Sutherland, for example, who (as he later recognized) was at the time blind to the achievements of European modernism, describes thus his rediscovery of Palmer:

As we became familiar with Palmer's later etchings (in the twenties), we “bit” our plates deeper. We had always been warned against “overbiting.” But we did “overbite” and we “burnished” our way through innumerable “states” quite unrepentant at the way we punished and maltreated the copper. (…) It seemed to me wonderful that a strong emotion, such as was Palmer's, could change and transform the appearance of things.

(Alley 9)

Those who sympathised with neo-Romanticism were interested above all in “strong emotions” whose physical analogy—here Sutherland's “overbiting”—involves a material violence of an expressionist nature of which other examples could be eurhythmic dancing (of which Caitlin Thomas—to Eliot's intense embarrassment—was an adept) or the use of monosyllables and strong alliterative techniques by Thomas himself. This insistence on strength of emotion enabled the neo-Romantics to work their way round the Georgians, and to avoid the “soulful weavers, mock-medieval craftsmen, bookbinders and harpists” side of the Romantic inheritance. Moreover it helped construct another reading of that inheritance where the filiation went through Blake, Turner, Van Gogh, Munch and Soutine—seen as an essentially Northern European aesthetic experience and one of which no one need be ashamed. Placing artists in a world bound by Romanticism and Classicism, however, tended to close them up in Britain itself and thus make them blind to the real achievements (the newness if one prefers) of Continental movements.

And Dylan Thomas? His attitude to Romanticism—with the initial delay that one might expect of a provincial adolescent—follows the curve that we have shown above. In 1933 he writes ironically to Pamela Hansford Johnson:

And this little girl, odd to say, was a po-et-ess. She (PHJ) was very roman-tic in her out-look, and wrote many nice ro-man-tic poems, using words such as “wings,” “melody” & “breast,” all of which was very nice.

(CL 45-46)

And he saw the Georgians as responsible for all this: “You don't snoop around the country lanes looking for a ragwort (cf note 1) to pour a bellyfull of words on” (49). As is well known, he frequently expressed a strong dislike for the poets of High Romanticism—“(I have) a theoretical hatred of Byron, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth” (76)—though he systematically excepted Blake: “I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight.” (25) In fact Thomas perceives the faults of what he sees as the “Wordsworthian” tradition as endemically English. Writing to Meurig Walters in 1938 about the energy and roughness of one of his [M. W's] poems he expresses admiration for “its freedom from the traditional corruptions of ‘taste’ and ‘beauty’, and from that holy trinity of the English writer, memory, evocation, and nostalgia.” (274)

By 1938, however, the problem of the Georgians had become less urgent and, for reasons linked to his personal life, Thomas was himself beginning to be concerned with this same “holy trinity,” as instanced by “After the funeral (In memory of Ann Jones),” written in the Spring of 1938. Writing to Henry Treece about a comment that the latter had made to the effect that he (D. T.) did not “lean over gates, seeking kinship with daffodils & sheep,” Thomas replies:

And actually, “seeking kinship,” with everything, daffodils, sheep, shoehorns, saints, bees, and uncles is exactly what I do do. I think, with all due lack of respect, that it's a futile crack anyway.


Finally, by 1951 the word romantic had virtually ceased to be a negative word and Thomas recognized, albeit a little defensively, that he was part of a traditionally romantic space. Writing to Oscar Williams about “In the White Giant's Thigh” he says:

It's a conventionally romantic poem & perhaps you won't like it at all (…) Do what you can about (selling) this lush poem


It is important, however, to remember that Dylan Thomas works against the current of neo-Romanticism in one significant respect: where neo-Romanticism works from Palmer to Grünewald, Thomas works from the expressionist violence of the early poems to the in some ways pastoral idyll of Under Milk Wood. This would explain his angry refusal to have anything to do with the Apocalyptics of the '40s, whose poetry was often a mere parody of his own early work, for it contained all the violence and “orphic obscurity,” but none of the carefully crafted depth of poems he felt he had moved on from. Thus it is that he writes to Henry Treece who was trying to convince him to take an active part in their movement: “Of course, if you announce well beforehand a symposium of apocalyptic writing, you'll have every hack poet (…) whipping himself into a false delirium (…) downing Auden on a pylon for Blake on a bough” (345).

Despite this major difference, there are areas where the priorities of neo-Romanticism clearly show affinities with Thomas' work. As in any similar situation it would be possible to link Thomas with the movement in a multitude of ways: by analysing his own direct influence on younger poets, by examining the bestiary of the movement (for example, the hunting owl), by looking at the motif of the quest which appears in Thomas from the “Jarvis valley” stories to the “Ballad of the long-legged bait” and Adventures in the Skin Trade. One could insist on how he uses dreams and dream situations or common sources such as the Bible (and religion generally); one could consider the demands made on the reader, examine the use of “prophecy” and the “prophetic tone.” One could even show a shared use of the dramatic, the tragic and the melodramatic (by which I mean the strong nineteenth century tradition of the “Romantic agony”). Here, however, I will concentrate on four major thematic areas; the relationship between the body and the land; the theme of paradise lost, the problem of the destructiveness of war, and the use of place and the natural world.

The various ways of articulating the human body with a vigorously proliferating landscape have been seen as the major figurative concern of neo-Romanticism, expressing itself in the ambivalent fascination with the organic in general and the biomorphic in particular, in a keen awareness of the cyclical forces of life and decay, in the conviction that the body in general is the expressive locus of the force lines of the Universe. To take just three examples one could cite Thomas' poem “The force that through the green fuse …”, Ceri Richards' pictorial use of seed-pods, apples, vulva, womb, root and limb (see “The Female Contains All Qualities” (1938) in the Tate Gallery or “The Black Apple of Gower” (1952) inspired by Thomas' “I dreamed my genesis”), and Henry Moore's exploitation of found objects such as sea-sculpted stones together with his interest in the human form/skeleton, notably the space created by the eyesocket and (symptomatically) the pelvic cavity.

What I would wish to show here is not so much the continuities of this theme as the discontinuities within Thomas' own work. A comparative study of two poems: “Light breaks where no sun shines” (written November 1933) and “In the white giant's thigh” (September 1950), enables us to trace a marked and typical progression. In the early poems one of Dylan Thomas' preoccupations was the working out of a subtle and difficult series of analogical relationships between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the Universe. He wrote, a precursor, in 1934: “My own obscurity is quite an unfashionable one, based, as it is, on a preconceived symbolism derived (…) from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy.” (98). Three lines from “Light breaks …”—

Nor fenced, nor staked, the gushers of the sky
Spout to the rod
Divining in a smile the oil of tears.

(Collected Poems henceforth CP 24)—

express a complex conceit where the rain (gushers of the sky), spring water (divined), petrol (gushers) are all free-flowing, natural (but not picturesque) analogies of the tears and emotion that appear spontaneously in front of the (human) “night” of the “rod”: violence or tyranny. The idea is an old one—perhaps Thomas was influenced directly by Macbeth's “Pity, like a naked, new-born babe …”: it is that Humanity is Empathy, Sympathy and Pity and that God and Nature sympathise with Man's suffering. What is new is that the “idea” is articulated, with striking intensity, through a series of puns where “divined” means a) “intuited” (the tears are seen behind the smile), b) “prophesied”/“predicted” and c) “made divine” (the pity becomes love). And yet the word also picks up water-divining just as the (water-divining) “rod” can be seen to pick up the drilling rods that force the drill-chuck down in boring oil-wells. Similarly “fenced” and “staked” can be seen as meaning not simply “untrammelled” but also “the selling of criminally acquired goods” (fence) or “to advance monies with a view to future commercial success” (stake) as well as to “stake a claim” in mining. The poem is moreover striking in the assuredness of its tone, and the generic nature (note the use of the present) of the statements made.

If one turns now to “In the white giant's thigh,” taking as an example the recurrence of the curlews: “Through throats where many rivers meet, the curlews cry (…) Through throats where many rivers meet, the women pray (…) They yearn with tongues of curlews (…) Now curlew cry me down to kiss the mouths of their dust,” we can see how far Thomas has come. Though the women's bodies and the landscape are still explicitly linked—here through the “natural” curlews as opposed to the mineral “gushers”—the tone is different as are the demands made on the reader. Punning plays a secondary rôle; it is through the melancholy cry of the curlew, which previous poets had used (cf. Yeats' “He reproves the curlew”), and which folklore tells us is the cry of lost souls, that the women who are now buried express the desire they once felt and the nostalgia for a fruition that never occurred. Here the (ancient) land still manifests an energy that never dies, an erotic joy that is “for ever meridian,” but the poet is now a melancholy witness who, in the dark of night, reaches for this oneness of present and past, human and non-human, body and land, a oneness which is irremediably haunted (as is the tone of the poem) by absence and loss. We have moved into the world of elegy—which is also, it must not be forgotten, the world of sympathy, empathy and pity.

And this elegy is (partially) an elegy for a paradise lost—one of the other great concerns of neo-Romanticism. Perhaps the most famous of Thomas' “paradise lost” poems is “Fern Hill.” As always in non-naive representations of a paradise (here the farm and Thomas' childhood) the poem does not work out of an antinomic world but one where oppositions (before/after; happiness/misery; inactivity/work; innocence/knowledge; being/becoming; creation/destruction …) interact dialectically. Thus night/day; sun/moon; “stable”, protected space/journeying; summer/autumn; lordship/powerlessness; sleeping/waking … all here overlap and interfere with each other—the more so as the poem progresses. This is true of course of Paradise Lost itself in which, as is well known, we perceive paradise through the devil's eyes, in which we, like Thomas'

As one who long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air

(9: 446-447)

are at one remove from a world which contains within it the seed of its own destruction. And this is also true of the great pictorial representations of paradise, like Bosch's “Garden of Earthly Delights” where, at the very moment of the creation of Eve, a cat with a mouse in its jaws is already moving (left) out of the frame of the Garden. Neo-Romanticism, whether in painting or in poetry, is constantly concerned with this dialectic of Heaven and Hell, and all the other dialectics which are caught up in it (a God who is at once loving and forgiving and cruel and merciless, the Father who, in Dylan Thomas' work, is so often either judging or absent; a nature that is both maternal and fecund, destructive and sinister, a metamorphosis that is at once death and generation (“felix culpa” …)). And it is this very sense of the complexity and ambiguity of the world which means that neo-Romanticism (and Dylan Thomas' poetry) is far from the coy and cloying rural paradises of the Georgians.

Inversely, it was at the very moment when the world was most destructive that Dylan Thomas wrote some of his most striking affirmations of the perennity of life and love: the series of “War Poems”—the poems about the Blitzes (by which I mean, generically, from the Blitz on London, through the “Baedeker” raids to the little Blitz and V2 raids of the end of the War). It will be remembered that the Blitz is considered to have begun on September 7th 1940 and continued (in London) with one exception for 76 consecutive nights. The centre of Swansea was destroyed in a series of terrible raids from 19th-21st February 1941 which Thomas talks about in “Return Journey” (Quite Early One Morning 73-90). But the Blitz is not just the “subject” of poems; it is the imaginative locus and the occasion of the precipitation of a series of themes that haunt neo-Romanticism. One of these is precisely the idea of a paradise lost. The Blitz, like the fiery sword, is a symbolic frontier between two Britains (see John Arlott's “The Bomb Crater” or Kenneth Allott's “Ragnarok” [The Terrible Rain 57, 64]), or in Dylan Thomas' case between an appalling present and his childhood, the community of adolescent Swansea, and the great years of poetic creativeness. That the notion of paradise lost precedes the War (I would date it from 1935) is indisputable but the War acts as an important catalyst (Thomas sold his adolescent notebooks in early 1941 at the age of twenty-six, the age, as Fitzgibbon points out, at which Keats died). For one thing, in Thomas' work—as in that of Sutherland—other human beings (outside of wife and family) begin to assume real importance and with them the problem of “community” in the broadest sense. It will be remembered that War Artists worked throughout England recording scenes of the Blitz: Bill Brandt and Moore in the East End, Piper in Coventry, Sutherland in Swansea, Richards in Cardiff. This experience of civilian communities suffering from the horrors of a blind violence over which they had no control was reworked by all of the artists in terms that are always a continuation of their pre-War work. Some, like Sutherland, used the traditional expressionist iconography of Romantic ruins and destruction—the fascination with the Terror of History—where bombs “sculpt” the townscape as the sea sculpts the tide-line on the inlets of the Cleddau. About “Destroyed Factory” he writes, for example: “and there were machines, their entrails hanging through the floors, but looking extraordinarily beautiful at the same time.” (Cooper 94)

But more important for Thomas (and vitally different) was the work of Henry Moore, reproductions of whose very fine “Shelter Notebook” drawings Thomas decorated his flat with during the War itself (Yorke 155). These drawings, which Moore did “furtively” in the Tube stations of London, because to have done them openly would have been like “drawing in the hold of a slave ship” (Yorke 127), are visionary in the way in which they predate and yet seem to proleptically illustrate the even more terrible, deliberate and organised violence done to even more helpless civilians in the concentration camps (images of which arrived in England only at the end of the war)—a violence which perhaps marks off the Second World War from any other. Thomas had been an “anti-fascist” of sorts in the 1930s, yet never gave the War an explicitly political meaning (whether the defence of Britain, or the fight against fascism). Indeed his refusal to approach the War in traditional political terms, like his inability to hate in any except the most personal areas, expressed itself frequently in his letters. During the Battle of Britain he wrote:

Am I to rejoice when 100 men are killed in the air?

(CL 464)

Despite—or because of—this, Thomas' poetry about the War seems to me to be typical in that against the grain of this crescendo of (male) violence and destruction (which is also the violence and destructiveness of his own life) he chooses to reaffirm the triumph of life over death (a typical Neo-Romantic theme). In some ways, like the figure of the nurturing mother that appears frequently in the period, its priorities can be seen as part of the rise of the ideology of the Welfare State. The end of “Ceremony After a Fire Raid” illustrates this. As the fire burns the town, the poet witnesses the triumphant return of the “infant-bearing sea” that is the incarnation of “The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis' thunder” (CP 131). So, equally, does “There was a Saviour”, where the two men, poet and stranger, find themselves waiting for the raids

Two proud, blacked brothers (…)
Winter-locked side by side,
To this inhospitable hollow year,

and yet succeed in arousing

the soft,
Unclenched, armless, silk and rough love that breaks all rocks.

(CP 126)

As a final theme, I would like to examine the figurative use of Nature and landscape which we saw had been considered as a major Romantic inheritance—and danger—and a major concern of neo-Romanticism. Did Dylan Thomas return in his later poems to the “Nature cult” which had anaemiated the Georgians and which Unit One had seen as an unacceptable “slipping back”—the sign of an innate British conservatism?

If one looks carefully at Thomas' work one can, I think, see a progression but not a “slipping back.” In December 1933 he wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson about one of her poems, “December Trees”:

Just what you shouldn't write. Leave these “Notes from a Rambler's Log Book”, to other and far less talented young women. It's the easiest and least valuable form of valueless impressionism.

“December trees—

Brown mists above the fields”

is the sort of opening one comes across on nearly every other page of “The Best (or Worst) Poems of the Year,” which is a collection of the shattered pieces of sentimental romanticism swept up by that literary charwoman, Mr. Thomas Moult.

“October fields—

A breath of wind about the sedge,

A speckled rabbit in a hedge,

And cold white snow.”

No, girl, no (…) Write out of yourself, and leave the hedgerows and the visual aspects of the countryside. And (…) don't be afraid (…) to intellectualise.

(CL 66-67)

What he meant by “writing out of yourself” and “intellectualising” can be shown, I think, in the poem “Especially when the October wind” (first version in the Notebook July 1932 to January 1933). In this poem, the landscape contains all the energy of the early poems, an expressionist energy lacking in the Georgians and a quality which the neo-Romantics were to admire—

          “Especially when the October wind (…)
With fists of turnips punishes the land”

(CP 17)—

and a sombre prophetic tone that was to dominate the forties:

“By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled birds.”

But more significantly, it involves an abstract writing “out of himself” that results effectively in “unvisualisable”, hence non-“impressionistic”, lines such as:

          “Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices.”

(CP 16)

The poet is “making” something out of a “landscape,” articulating natural object, human being and language in an un-Georgian way—he is, and the poem is, in a sense, “the dark-vowelled bird,” a “min(e)dscape.” Moreover, though this is secondary, the poem is “unplaceable”—though it was perhaps written “about” the recreation ground on the Esplanade on Swansea Bay.

Towards the end of his life, when Thomas had returned to Carmarthenshire, he began writing poetry which is both visualisable and contains explicit topographical references. In a letter about picturesque Laugharne he wrote: “Cows under crying roadside trees, looking over the estuary, weed and webfoot mud, waited for Royal Academicians” (CL 560), and about “Poem in October” (possibly begun in 1939 but finished in 1944): “(it) is a Laugharne poem: the first place poem I've written” (CL 518). In some senses it is true that the later poems—to use a word Thomas applied to his later stories—are “autogeographical” (CL 417), rooted in the romantic tradition, concerned with the spirit of place, with strong emotions expressing themselves through the “accidents” of geography, in a way the early ones are not. Nevertheless Thomas had not, I feel, become a Royal Academician—his work was not “Notes from a Rambler's Log Book.” He uses the landscape in the way Sutherland uses it, a way the latter describes in a text of 1942 about Pembrokeshire:

It was in this country that I began to learn painting. It seemed impossible here for me to sit down and make finished paintings “from nature”. Indeed, there were no “ready made” subjects to paint. The spaces and constructions of this clearly constructed land were stuff for storing in the mind. Their essence was intellectual and emotional (…) Moreover, such country did not seem to make man appear little as does some country of the grander sort. I felt just as much part of the earth as my features were part of me. I did not feel that my imagination was in conflict with the real, but that reality was a dispersed and disintegrated form of imagination.

(Sutherland 14. My [italics])

The way in which Dylan Thomas uses “natural” detail “intellectually and emotionally” as part of an aesthetic reconstruction can be shown by his use of “hawk” and “heron” in “Over Sir John's Hill” which is explicitly “placed” in a particular landscape (Laugharne is not mentioned in “Poem in October”. For the first—“hawk”—it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the bird is “described” as “the noosed hawk”. This epithet could be seen as a vigorous attempt to see the bird afresh, to draw attention to the physical fact that many smaller hawks (hobbies, merlins or peregrines, for example) have a distinctive white neckband or breastband that could be compared to a noose when seen from below. However the word is also used in the sense of “to hang” (“the loft hawk” of stanza two) and thus in the sense of “punished” (as with “tyburn” earlier in the first stanza) and “ensnared”. The hawk is therefore both hunter and hunted—just as the heron or poet are both predators and witnesses—and is also the object of pity. They are thus all, in some sense, “kin” (cf. the letter to Henry Treece quoted above). What is more, the hawk is placed in the poem in a pattern (the series of its occurrences) which is not dictated by pictorial reality—by the vantage point of an observer. The landscape of Laugharne is no more (or less) the “ready-made” subject of the poem than the hawk is a “ready-made” object.

The heron is a similar example. If Thomas drew attention to the striking physical presence of herons in the estuary, and if herons are part of the Romantic bestiary (see for instance Clare's fine “Emmonsails Heath in Winter”) as well as of Thomas' private life (he gave his second son the middle name “Garan”—“crane/heron” in Welsh), it is clear that they also play the sort of extra-visual, extra-emotion producing (melancholy) role that the little rabbit does not play in the mock-Georgian poem. For one thing they are explicitly linked (via the poet) to Aesop. They are thus “fabulous” animals and Thomas is perhaps referring to “The Peacock and the Crane” (where the crane, despite its “ashen plumage,” soar(s) to the heights of heaven and lift(s) up (its) voice to the stars (Aesop 136)). But Thomas is also referring in the poem, I would suggest, to the Egyptian god “Thoth”: the ibis/crane/heron who is secretary to the Gods, was identified by the Greeks with Hermes Trismegistus, was master over writing and languages, and over Time, patron of scribes and magicians (and thus (?) of poets) and, at the weighing of the hearts of the dead, was the one who “graved” the verdicts of the “judging” gods.

It is important to recall in conclusion that the notion of Romanticism is a controversial one. In one of its acceptations—one that is implicit in the present study—it is a movement in the history of the arts that starts in the late eighteenth century and extends down to the present—indeed to the contemporary work of poets like Ted Hughes. Great Britain is perhaps particular in the continuity the Romantic influence shows, in the way considerable or great poetic achievements like those of T. S. Eliot or Auden or that of Larkin somehow never succeed in creating a stable and undisputed alternative pole—a new beginning. And thus it is always possible to move from the crest of one “Romantic” wave to another, picking up the markers of continuity—from, for example Robin Skelton's Penguin anthology: Poetry of the Forties, to Horovitz's late sixties Children of Albion: Poetry of the “Underground” in Britain, to the anthology Angels of Fire—An Anthology of Radical Poetry in the '80s (Chatto & Windus, 1986). Each avatar of Romanticism subtly displaces the constellation of themes (and poets)—one has only to chart the respective merit attributed to Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley to see this. But perhaps few moments in this constant explicit resurrection of the Romantic inheritance are as rich as that of the period we have called neo-Romantic.


  1. “Cuckoos”: When coltsfoot withers and begins to wear / Long silver locks instead of golden hair, / And fat red catkins from black poplars fall / And on the ground like caterpillars crawl, / And bracken lifts up slender arms and wrists / And stretches them, unfolding sleepy fists, / The cuckoos in a few well-chosen words / Tell they give Easter eggs to the small birds. (in Georgian Poetry, ed. James Reeves [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962] 92).

  2. I am grateful to Ann Arnaud for drawing my attention to this passage.


Aesop. Fables. Based on the Translation of George Fyler Townsend. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

Alley, Ronald. Graham Sutherland. London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1982.

Bayley, John. The Romantic Survival: A Study in Poetic Evolution. London: Constable, 1957.

Bedts, Ruth de. “Dylan Thomas and the Eve of St Agnes.” Florida Review (Fall 1957): 50-55.

Bergonzi, Bernard. T. S. Eliot. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Cooper, Douglas. The Work of Graham Sutherland. London: Lund Humphries, 1961.

Eliot, T. S. The Sacred Wood. (1920). London and New York: Methuen, 1950.

Korg, Jacob. Dylan Thomas. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Mellor, David, ed. A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55. London: Lund Humphries in association with the Barbican Art Gallery, 1987.

Murry, John Middleton. To the Unknown God: Essays Towards a Religion. London: Cape, 1924.

Shapiro, Karl. “Dylan Thomas” (1955). Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet. Ed. E. W. Tedlock. London: Heinemann, 1960.

Thomas, Dylan. Collected Letters. Ed. Paul Ferris. London: Dent, 1985.

———. Collected Poems 1934-52. London: Dent, 1952.

———. Quite Early One Morning. London: Dent, 1954.

Read, Herbert. The English Vision: An Anthology. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1933.

Reeves, James, ed. Georgian Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

Sutherland, Graham. Sutherland in Wales. London: Alistair McAlpine for the Picton Castle Trust and National Museum of Wales, 1976. First published Horizon 1942.

The Terrible Rain: War Poets 1939-45. Ed. Brian Gardner. London: Methuen, 1966.

Yorke, Malcom. The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times. London: Constable, 1988.

Gareth Thomas (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Gareth. “A Freak User of Words.” In Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, pp. 65-88. London, England: Vision Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gareth Thomas explores Thomas's writings from a linguistic perspective.]

In a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, dated 9 May 1934, the precocious 19-year-old Dylan Thomas confessed his doubts and fears about his abilities as a poet:

My lines, all my lines, are of the tenth intensity. They are not the words that express what I want to express; they are the only words I can find that come near to expressing a half. And that's no good. I'm a freak user of words, not a poet. That's really the truth. No self-pity there. A freak user of words, not a poet. That's terribly true.1

Such anguish over the impossibility of nailing down human experience with mere words is hardly uncommon, and particularly in the present century. Eliot's ‘intolerable wrestle with words’ is well understood by all writers, but especially by those modernists who have been intent on pushing language to its limits. For linguists, the work of such writers—a Hopkins, a Joyce, a Thomas—is of particular interest, exhibiting as it does the kinds of linguistic ‘deviancy’2 which serve to illuminate the underlying structures that inform every level of language, and the degree to which these structures have been manipulated and extended.

Language is indeed malleable, and the creative artist engages in ‘wrestling’ with it; but at the same time language must retain its deeply embedded framework for the sake of mutual comprehension. And this very framework is a reminder that, as man only perceives what, in a sense, he is ‘programmed’ to see, so he can only express what his own, man-made structures allow him to express. Such a confinement can often appear ‘intolerable’, for the writer, like every other user of the language, is—as Thomas puts it in ‘Especially when the October wind’—‘shut, too, in a tower of words’.

Thomas's quite remarkable verbal virtuosity was from the beginning both a potential strength and weakness in him. A strength which could be demonstrated on all linguistic levels—phonological, grammatical and semantic—and which could dazzle, delight and move the reader or listener with its sheer freshness, inventiveness and audacity. But a potential weakness principally for the reason Thomas himself expressed at that bleak moment in the early letter quoted above—a fear that all the wordy frothiness concealed a lack of true substance underneath.

His doubts were compounded by a persistent sense of inferiority amongst the lions of the literary world, deriving in part from his Welshness (no Anglo-Welsh literary tradition that was in any way comparable to the Anglo-Irish had yet been established); from his provincialism (latter-day sentimentality can so easily ignore the reality of his harsh early letters, when he yearned ‘to get out of it all, out of narrowness and dirtiness. … I shall have to get out soon or there will be no need. I'm sick, and this bloody country's killing me3); and perhaps above all from his lack of a formal education beyond the age of 16.

On this last point, Thomas made some typically self-mocking remarks later in his life:

I could talk about my education—which, critics say, I have not got. And they are right, too. (But I do wish I had learned some other languages, apart from English, Third Programme and saloon. Then, perhaps, I could understand what people mean when they say I have been influenced by Rimbaud.) … only—usually—a subtle, or a humourless, or an honest writer says he was extremely good at school. Neither particularly subtle nor honest, I must say I was awful. Whether this was because of stupidity or arrogance I am still not asking myself.

Fitzgibbon may be right in claiming that ‘his almost total academic failure left a scar’,4 but the reverse side of this possible truth presents us with the positive energies of such an anarchic, ‘uneducated’ spirit. On the same subject of his education, Thomas could also reveal:

… my proper education consisted of the liberty to read whatever I cared to. I read indiscriminately and all the time with my eyes hanging out on stalks … words, words, words … each of which seemed alive forever in its own delight and glory and right.

There are many testimonies to Thomas's intense feel for and love of language. His close friend, Daniel Jones, has described the years of early adolescent precociousness at Warmley, which produced extravagant experiments in the coauthorship of epic poems where he and Thomas were ‘seriously playing with words’.5 It is interesting, as well as amusing, to note the example of one of his own poems from this time, which he quotes in the famous fictional account of his meeting with Dan Jones, the short story, ‘The Fight’. Commanded by the formidable little Reverend Bevan to provide a sample of his verse, he proceeds to recite a most lurid sexual fantasy, culminating with the necrophilia of the final stanza:

Now could I wake
To passion after death, and taste
The rapture of her hating, tear the waste
Of body. Break, her dead, dark body, break.

The linguistic precociousness is more than matched by that of the content, but it is the former that the Reverend Bevan comments on:

Dan kicked my shins in the silence before Mr. Bevan said: ‘The influence is obvious, of course. “Break, break, break, on thy cold, grey stones, O sea.”’

‘Hubert knows Tennyson backwards,’ said Mrs. Bevan, ‘backwards.’

Looking back on his early childhood much later in life, Thomas remembers himself as one besotted with words:

I fell in love—that is the only expression I can think of—at once, and am still at the mercy of words. … There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable.6

Throughout his life he constantly insisted on the point that he wrote ‘out of’ or ‘from’ words, rather than ‘towards’ them.

And if the evidence from the poet himself, and from one of his closest friends, is not enough there is always the general (and, to put it mildly, rather vague) connection held to exist between his verbal gifts and his Welshness—what is loosely referred to as the ‘bardic’ quality in his writing. Ethnic enthusiasts have always to be reminded that Thomas spoke not a single word of Welsh—and the poet would have been among the first to remind them—but it is true that the Welsh language was only one generation away, and Fitzgibbon's claim that because of the bilingual influence ‘the recently anglicised “Celt” will examine his language with a very close attention’ may well be a valid one.

Many critics, too, have pointed to the public nature of the bardic tradition with its emphasis on declaiming poetry aloud, giving full effect to sound qualities and vivid imagery, hardly in the private, conversational tones of, say, a Larkin. Thomas, again with a typical sense of irony—his bardic platform is the ‘raised hearth’ in the front parlour of his Auntie Annie's home—imagines himself as inheritor of such a tradition on the day of her funeral7:

But I, Ann's bard on a raised hearth, call all
The seas to service that her wood-tongued virtue
Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads. …

In the same poem he is very well aware of the dangers of over-blown rhetoric and of extravagant conceits, and this ‘false’ bardic hyperbole is countered by a quieter ‘truth’:

(Though this for her is a monstrous image blindly
Magnified out of praise; her death was a still drop;
She would not have me sinking in the holy
Flood of her heart's fame; she would lie dumb and deep
And need no druid of her broken body).

This verbal trickery, then, whatever its sources, can prove to be a double-edged sword. The very dexterity with which the language is manipulated has led many readers to suspect that Thomas is merely out to seduce by a wonderful display of verbal gymnastics. He is the Great Linguistic Showman, the man with ‘the lovely gift of the gab’8—and in this respect the Welshness may be a severe handicap, fuelling those deep suspicions of Celtic garrulousness, and associated superficiality—and even dishonesty. So much so that Walford Davies has reservations about the late poems because ‘if they illustrate any technical danger, it is that of too much verbal glamour.’9

And, ironically, a friend and fellow Anglo-Welsh writer, Glyn Jones, in intending to extol the virtues of Thomas's craft, gives further ammunition for such charges, and the much more serious accusation of sheer vacuousness. ‘For me,’ he writes, ‘the best of Dylan's poems are pure sensation, they have in fact achieved the condition of music.’10 Here we have a wholehearted acceptance of the truth of Pater's famous dictum, and of Mallarmé's similar, ‘Poems are made of words, not ideas.’ And the ultimate folly this can lead to is revealed as Glyn Jones pursues his theme:

If I were asked in the excitement of my first encounter with this poem [‘Light breaks where no sun shines’] what its meaning was, my answer would have been something like that of William Morris questioned, after a public meeting, on his interpretation of Marx's theory of surplus value: ‘I don't know what Marx meant by his theory of surplus value,’ Morris is reputed to have answered, ‘and I'm damned if I want to know.’

Are we to take this seriously? In other words: ‘I don't know what Thomas meant by his poem, “Light breaks where no sun shines”, and I'm damned if I want to know.’ Many students of literature with their backs to the wall, pinned down by a specific and subtle point of interpretation, have frustratedly repeated such a cry. Hence, the fact that a great work of literature is capable of holding many meanings becomes transformed by the baffled reader either into the irritable protest, ‘Why does a poem always have to mean something?’, or the defence of the wholly unsubstantiated subjective response, supported by a kind of universal moral principle: ‘I've got every right to think it means that if I want to. My opinion is as good as anyone else's.’ So much for the musicality of language taking over as our sole or major criterion for critical response; and so much for that restricted view of words in poetry as a collection of harmonious sounds.

The second, and even more damaging, criticism of the effects of Thomas's ‘lovely gift of the gab’ is that, when one does attempt to analyse meaning, one finds much of his work impenetrably obscure. That is to say, either the sounds of the words have taken over completely, at the expense of meaning, or Thomas has been so desperate to impress by his ingenuity that he has become lost in the labyrinth of his own making (and possibly could not tell us what he intended to mean in the first place). So, a critic like William T. Moynihan, who is certainly prepared to do his darnedest to unravel the meaning of the most obscure Thomas poem, if such a feat is at all humanly possible, has to admit defeat in some cases: ‘… in many instances of impenetrable imagery Thomas must have been carried away with the spirit of the poem (or the story perhaps) and become lost in the maze himself.’11

Thomas became the favourite butt of those who held a general scorn for the obscurantist tendencies in modern verse. There is Robert Graves's famous challenge to anyone who could explain the meaning of the first stanza of ‘If my head hurt a hair's foot’, and his assertion that ‘he [Thomas] kept musical control of the reader without troubling about the sense.’ And, at a Foyle's Literary Luncheon in 1955, Lord Samuel railed against ‘this fashion of deliberate and perverse obscurity’ in modern verse. The poem he chose in order to illustrate his general condemnation was Thomas's, ‘A grief ago’.

But most people realize that, whatever their doubts about some individual poems, Thomas wrote a number of truly great poems. And most people realize, too, that they are in the presence of an extraordinary craftsman with words. We know of the pains he took in working at his writing, of the revisions, and revisions of revisions, of the hundred separate work-sheets for ‘Fern Hill’. The final effect may be one of a free flow of words, of multiple and unexpected meanings accumulating spontaneously, but in order for this to be achieved, the poet worked laboriously and painstakingly at his ‘sullen art’. Thomas, while possessing a marvellously inventive felicity with words, did not live with the Romantic illusion that—when the impromptu occasion demanded—great literature could appear with the turning on of a tap.

Hence we may take it that the linguistic deviancy was planned (which is not to imply, of course, that it was a fully conscious process), and his daring with the English language was a calculated risk. To begin with, one needs to note more precisely what are the characteristics of Thomas's verbal trickery; what are its linguistic components. And then, more importantly, one wants to ask why such manipulating of the language should be necessary for what he was attempting to say.

It is a fairly straightforward task to make a list of all the linguistic devices and, of course, no single item on the list is by any means unique to Thomas; it is the total, cumulative effect which strikes us. Also, some of these features are more obvious, and more often referred to, than others; and again, it is perhaps those more elusive characteristics which work on the reader at a deeper level. But linguistic deviancy, of all kinds, is to be found in even the most lighthearted of his writing. For example, in his satirical poem, ‘The Countryman's return’,12 he describes some of the inhabitants of the London bars where he has spent so much of his ‘unwasteable time’ thus:

                                                            … walking pintables
With sprung and padded shoulders,
Tomorrow's drunk club majors
Growing their wounds already,
.....Old paint-stained tumblers riding
On stools to a one man show down,
Gasketted and sirensuited
Bored and viciously waiting
Nightingales of the casualty stations
In the afternoon wasters
White feathering the living.

All the familiar multi-layered ingredients are there and Thomas, in another satirical piece of verse, ‘A Letter to my Aunt Discussing the Correct Approach to Modern Poetry’, shows himself very well aware of the modishness of verbal trickery, adjuring his fictitious aunt to remember that

Perhaps it would be best if you
Created something very new,
A dirty novel done in Erse
Or written backwards in Welsh verse,
Do not forget that ‘limpet’ rhymes
With ‘strumpet’ in these troubled times

Nor, incidentally, does he neglect the issue of obscurity in this same poem:

Never be lucid, never state,
If you would be regarded great,
The simplest thought or sentiment,

(For thought, we know, is decadent)

It is perhaps at the phonological level—the level of verbal sound patterning—that Thomas's effects are most obvious and at the same time least innovatory, though of course they are not to be discounted for that reason. It is here, too, that the superficial influence of Hopkins is most evident, along with the persistent habit of word compounding. There is hardly a line or sentence of Thomas's where the sound harmonies created by alliteration, assonance, onomatopeia, rhythmic patterning and rhyme of all varieties are not exploited to the full. Such effects are often more extravagant in the prose than in the poetry—that is, in his less ‘serious’ writing: perhaps an indication of their more surface, if pleasing, character.

Here is the small boy's love of the very sounds of the words, as he notes the ‘silent hullabaloo of balloons’, the ‘dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards’, the ‘hissing of the butt-ends in the drains of the coffee-dashes and the tinkle and the gibble-gabble of the morning young lounge lizards’; and as, in Under Milk Wood, Mr. Mog Edwards proclaims his never-to-be-consummated love for Myfanwy Price:

I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world.

Rhythmically, Thomas works most typically on the listing effect of the accumulation of details, creating a crescendo which to many is suggestive of the revivalist Welsh sermon. But rhythm is intimately connected with syntactic structure, and in subtler pieces of writing it has a much more important function—a point I shall return to later.

In his poetry, Thomas experiments with a wide range of rhyming devices: in a poem like ‘The hand that signed the paper’ full rhymes appear side by side with half rhymes, while in the majority of his earlier poems half rhymes predominate; thus, for example, the rhyming ‘flower’, ‘destroyer’ and ‘fever’, and ‘trees’ and ‘rose’, in the opening stanza of ‘The force that through the green fuse’, are analogous to the ‘limpet’/‘strumpet’ parodied above. There are, too, more extravagant experiments, as in a poem like ‘I make this in a warring absence’ where in each stanza the half-rhymes focus on a different consonant—‘n’ in the first, second and fifth, ‘s’ in the third, fourth and ninth, ‘d’ in the sixth and seventh, and a mixture of all three in the eighth; or in the internal rhyme scheme of ‘The Conversation of Prayer’, where the rhyme does indeed carry a ‘structural’ significance, echoing as it does the theme of an interweaving dialogue, a duality; and, above all, the remarkably contrived device for the ‘Author's Prologue’ to the Collected Poems, where the rhymes move inwards from the opening line and the last line—line 102—to meet with the couplet ‘farms’ and ‘arms’ in lines fifty-one and fifty-two.

Commenting on this last example, Thomas himself said, ‘Why I acrosticked myself like this, don't ask me’, and certainly there must be doubt as to whether many of the aural effects referred to reveal the true depth of Thomas's art; indeed, the extreme examples are symptomatic of that inveterate word-meddler, entertaining as ever, who noted that ‘live’ was ‘evil’ spelt backwards, and perhaps more interesting still, ‘T. S. Eliot’ reversed almost spells ‘toilets’.

A more significant complexity is found in Thomas's handling of the substance of language—the meanings and grammatical functions of words. Here again he is always working hard for the unexpected: the multiple layers of meaning, the coinages, the twist to the clichéd and hackneyed expression, the new grammatical rôle any word may take on. Always, the rule seems to be, avoid the obvious, the single given meaning which is swallowed whole, unquestioningly by the gullible reader. And here the rule has a sounder basis than the playing with aural and visual patterns: if words are to remain fresh, they have to be recast each time they are used; and since, as Saussure reminds us, language is made up of differences, then it is the possible other meanings and functions of words that we need to be reminded of if the words are to remain fully alive for us.13

No kind of deviancy is forbidden, even at the most solemn moments. So we have the punning on ‘grave’ in,

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth

(from ‘A Refusal to Mourn’—note, too, the grammatical deviancy of ‘the mankind of her going’). Or the twisting of the clichéd ‘dressed to kill’ as the young man prepares to go out on the town:

Dressed to die, the sensual strut begun,
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elementary town
I advance for as long as forever is

(from ‘Twenty-four years’—and consider here the different possible meanings of ‘elementary’). Or, more lightheartedly, there are the multiple associations of ‘capsized’ in,

Once it was the colour of saying
Soaked my table the uglier side of a hill
With a capsized field where a school sat still
And a black and white patch of girls grew playing

(from ‘Once it was the colour of saying’), where the field on the steep slope looks as if it has capsized (it is in Swansea, near the sea, and there are other images of drowning in the poem); looks from a distance part of a patchwork, about the size and shape of a boy's cap; and happens to be a school playing-field, as we see in the following line. These examples I am taking are some of the more obvious ones from the better-known poems; a glance at Tindall's Reader's Guide will show the student coming new to Thomas that semantic and grammatical intricacies in the denser poems seem to be almost limitless.14

At all times poetry like Thomas's challenges our simplistic distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning. In truth, the more deeply we dig in language the less confidently can we assert any ‘literal’ meaning at all; we live through metaphors.15 Poetry has always reminded us of this, and Thomas's poetry does so more provocatively and powerfully than most. So much so that Christine Brooke-Rose, in a study which takes in Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Keats, Eliot and others, declares him to be ‘the most highly metaphoric of all the poets’ (and adds, amusingly, ‘sometimes irritatingly so’!).16

And if, semantically, the distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning is so blurred that it almost ceases to exist, so too is the grammatical distinction between the form class (or part of speech) to which a particular word may or may not belong. In this respect Thomas moves well beyond current developments in English usage which might have been regarded as deviant a century ago, in terms of ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ language. For example, it is very common in some registers of modern English for nouns to be used as adjectives, as in phrases where a noun head-word is heavily pre-modified (for example, in the phrase, ‘construction industry machine tool operator foreman’, the five italicized words, normally nouns, function as adjectives, pre-modifying ‘foreman’). What is more unusual and deviant is for nouns to function as verbs—as in this passage from Under Milk Wood, where Mr. Pugh imagines the most unspeakable horrors to be suffered by his mean, thin-lipped wife after he has prepared for her a

venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam come screaming out of her navel.

That ‘viper’ as a verb pushes the description onto a level of manic venom, which is anarchically almost beyond words.

Subsequently, once a noun has been turned into a verb, it is possible, of course, for the present or past participle form to be used as an adjective as in, ‘Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches’ (‘Especially when the October wind’). This multiple functionality of most English words is a feature of the language most poets will naturally use from time to time, and some more daringly than others. (Take, for example, Shakespeare's,

                                                                                                                                  The hearts
That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Sc. xii

Here the compressed meaning is that Antony behaves like a little pet dog, trotting behind his mistress, Cleopatra, at her every behest.)

In Thomas's more tortuous poems it can often prove difficult to decide not only what is the precise semantic content that a word carries, in the particular context, but also which form class it is functioning as, in the particular grammatical environment—noun, verb or adjective. As a result, a word may hover, as it were, between one meaning and one grammatical function or another. Clearly there are limits in terms of comprehensibility, as I have already discussed, but it is the very indeterminacy of the language which is the central point here, and the point to which I shall return at the end of this essay.

The sounds, the multiple meanings and multiple functions of words have tended to attract most comment in the critical literature on Dylan Thomas; less has been said about his syntax. One particularly damning criticism, made by Donald Davie, refers to what he terms Thomas's ‘pseudo-syntax’ where, although formally correct, his syntax ‘cannot mime, as it offers to do, a movement of the mind.’17 What Davie is pointing to here is that a typical Thomas poem generates a cumulative effect in which image is added to image, phrase to phrase, clause to clause, each a re-statement of the one dominant theme. Indeed, it is a characteristic, and usually negative, criticism of Thomas's poems that they evince no progression of thought from first line to last, merely a series of reiterations.

What such criticism seems, naïvely, to assume is that such linear and developmental processes of thought are always possible; that is to say, that the poet's thought can move his emotions from point A to point B in the course of the poem, and take his reader along with him. In such cases the syntax would clearly ‘mime … a movement of the mind’. But what if the re-phrasings, the re-statements, the qualifications, the parentheses, the late additions (if the reader will excuse a poor attempt at a Thomas-like pun) are in fact accurately miming a movement of the mind—a mind often near to despair at the apparent impossibility of genuine communication (ironically, for such a wordy writer) about a human condition where pain seems to be suffered so casually and so separately?

A good example of how Thomas's syntax unwinds to make a statement about not being able to make a statement is found in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’. Here are the opening lines leading up to the first full-stop:

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tell with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.

The semantic framework of the sentence is a very simple one: not until x happens will I do y. But we have to wait until the tenth line before that main verb arrives, and it comes after three subordinate clauses, containing themselves a complex series of noun, prepositional, adverbial and participial phrases, even though the negative that commands the main verb—‘never’—is the opening word of the poem; and then to follow the main verb we have a further series of additions and qualifications to the statement before the sentence is brought to a close—only to be immediately re-stated, of course, in the following sentence, though this time a little less tortuously, as if the emotional effort involved in declaring the refusal is draining him of words:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going …
Nor blaspheme …
With any further
Elegy of innocence and truth.

And, appropriately, the poem ends with the brevity of the one-line, simple sentence: ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ Here, surely, the syntax ‘mimes’ both emotion and thought, the ‘movement of the mind’. Another well-known poem of Thomas's, ‘After the funeral’, follows a similar pattern, where verbosity and complexity gradually give way to the simplest of utterances.

The question that lies behind all of these linguistic ‘idiosyncracies’ is, of course, why does Thomas exhibit them in such profusion? If he is not merely that ‘freak user of words’, then all his verbal ingenuity must have been employed for a purpose; the words must be as they are, because they constitute the only way of saying what he wants to say. Thomas said as much himself—in a typically self-deprecating and defensive manner:

I write in the only way I can write, and my warped, crabbed and cabbined stuff is not the result of theorising but of pure incapability to express my needless tortuities in any other way.18

As critics we attempt to dig deeper (we are the theorists), and we cannot accept Glyn Jones's implication that it is sufficient simply to take pleasure in the verbal music and not bother about meaning. Language, for the analyser, exists on the three levels of phonology, grammar and semantics, but ultimately it is the totality of meaning that must be the paramount concern; the poem's full meaning is its phonological, grammatical and semantic content. If we take the poem, ‘Over Sir John's hill’, as a particular example, we can observe how these three levels interact to create its complex meaning.

As with so much of Thomas's writing, the drama we are witnessing is the definitive drama of death in the midst of life; and as is also so often the case, it is the process of death in the universe that is being chronicled. But, more than this, the observers and chroniclers—two in this case: the heron, ‘… saint heron hymning in the shell-hung distant / Crystal harbour vale’, and the poet himself, ‘I young Aesop fabling to the near night’—are an integral part of the poem. What are they to do or say as they observe this death process taking place before their very eyes? The answer, inevitably, is the potentially anguished one—nothing, except observe and, in the one case, record (i.e. write a poem) that death takes place and that there is nothing to do but observe and record that this is so.

One may argue, of course, as to whether the final effect on the reader is one of anguish, despair, stoical resignation, quiet acquiescence, calm acceptance, and so on. But that list is one of graspable attitudes, something that one has resolved—even if, for example, one has only ‘resolved’ that one feels anguish. The poem, on the other hand, consisting as it does of living, freshly created words, bears out in itself that very tension between the living and the dead, those who are killing and being killed, those who are actively involved and those who are looking on. And to re-live, as it were, this constantly changing drama, the words themselves have to be constantly changing, creating new patterns, evolving into new shapes. There is one thing about which every critic of Thomas has to agree: he is not the poet of considered intellectual argument; he is not the poet of abstract nouns.

The poem (like Hopkins's ‘The Windhover’, with parts of which it has some obvious similarities) is alive with onomatopoeic effects; as, for example, at the moment of climax when the hawk swoops for its prey and, in the perverse paradox that the poet creates, as the doomed birds fly, ‘gulled’ but also as if knowingly, to their doom:

Flash, and the plumes crack,
And a black cap of jack-
Daws Sir John's just hill dons, and again the gulled birds hare
To the hawk on fire, the halter height, over Towy's fins,
In a whack of wind.

This is a highly contrived poem in terms of sound patterning. Alliteration and assonance abound, with, in addition, a regular syllabic count, only one or two lines excepted, and a complex rhyme scheme (aabccbdeaedd) which uses a mixture of full and half rhymes, partly concealed by the fact that stanzas two, three and four run on into the succeeding stanzas. The effect is of a never-ending process within a tight, symmetrical framework.

The paradox we face in all Thomas's writing is the dynamism of his language in the face of the inertia of death. In the case of this poem, the dynamism of the two central metaphors—fire and hanging—generates creative word-play. The hawk which is ‘on fire’ and ‘hangs still’ in line 2 produces, some lines later, ‘fiery Tyburn’ as the location for the small birds' destruction; and again, in the third stanza, the same initial image creates, ‘his viperish fuse looped with flames under the brand wing’.

And the dynamism of nouns becoming verbs is generated throughout the poem. So we have ‘swansing’ (not even an idiomatic compound noun with such limited provenance is free from this ‘tampering’), ‘dusk’ (a verb of action created out of the dying of the day, and standing alongside the intense activity of ‘play’, ‘wars’ and ‘wrangling’) and ‘stilt’; and also ‘hollows’ used intransitively. If we add ‘fabling’ and ‘hymning’, both more commonly found as nouns, we see how much states of being are transformed into processes.

This particular force of Thomas's linguistic deviancy has been noted by linguists interested in literary stylistics, and specially in the way surface structure language differs from the underlying deep structures. In these Chomskyan terms, one and the same deep structure may produce a number of different surface structures (active versus passive, verbal versus nominal, affirmative versus negative, and so on), and when we analyse critically, we look for a coherence in the options which the writer has taken for his finished product—the ‘surface’ language.19

So with Thomas's poetry, Richard Ohmann observes that much of it

displays the world as process, as interacting forces and repeating cycles, in which human beings and human thought are indifferently caught up. I suggest that Thomas's syntactic irregularities often serve this vision of things.20

For Ohmann, inanimate becoming animate and noun becoming verb are central to Thomas's way of describing the world.

Obviously, we can in addition point to Thomas's love of multiple meanings as an expression of the deep-rooted inter-connectedness of things, as he himself confessed early in his career: ‘I like “redeeming the contraries” with secretive images. I like contradicting my images, saying two things at once in one word, four in two and one in six.’21 In ‘Over Sir John's hill’ many of the puns revolve around judgement and guilt, mercy and innocence. Thus, in the lines,

It is the heron and I, under judging Sir John's elmed
Hill, tell-tale the knelled
Of the led-astray birds whom God, for their breast of
Have mercy on

we discover that Sir John, who has already been seen as Judge in the law-court passing the death penalty—donning his black cap (jackdaws encircling the top of the hill)—has received incriminating evidence from the heron and the poet, who ‘tells the tale’; and the innocent birds, who have been corrupted—‘led-astray’ (earlier they are the ‘gulled’ birds) are indeed guilty and need the mercy of God, for with their nursery-rhyme refrain, ‘… dilly, dilly, / Come let us die’, they have committed the sin of suicide, they have been accomplices to the murdering of themselves. So are we all, as we acquiesce in the process of things, all equally innocent, all equally guilty. There is no paradox deeper than that, metaphysical conceit though it might be.

And what of the typically long, unwinding sentences, running from line to line, from stanza to stanza? What part do they play in the process? If Thomas likes to refrain from the simple, single meaning in word or phrase, to suspend and defer our total understanding—if any such resolution can ever prove possible—so it is in his sentence structures. As he watches the scene over Sir John's hill and along the Towy estuary, the day declines, the light draws in, the process unfolds, and the meaning of it all is in the very movement, the slipping of one second into the next, of a life into a death and into a new life re-created. So the sentences unwind with all their parentheses and qualifications (surely one cannot agree with Donald Davie that this is a ‘pseudo syntax’, one that ‘cannot mime … a movement of the mind’):

Where the elegiac fisherbird stabs and paddles
In the pebbly dab-filled
Shallow and sedge, and ‘dilly, dilly’ calls the loft hawk,
‘Come and be killed,’
I open the leaves of the water at a passage
Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs
And read, in a shell,
Death clear as a buoy's bell:
All praise of the hawk on fire in hawk-eyed dusk be
When his viperish fuse hangs looped with flames under
          the brand
Wing, and blest shall
Green chickens of the bay and bushes cluck, ‘dilly, dilly,
Come let us die.’

There are mixed attitudes towards some of Thomas's later poems, like ‘Over Sir John's hill’. Some critics welcome their ‘externalising’ tendency, and with it the natural imagery and, generally, greater clarity, as opposed to the intense physiological imagery of the ‘small, bonebound island’, of blood, bones and flesh and the ‘double-crossed’ womb, and the considerable semantic density of the earlier poems. Others consider, as we have already observed, that these poems contain ‘too much verbal glamour’, and perhaps achieve a too facile apparent acceptance of the nature of things—elegies in which the resolution is not totally convincing.

But despair and exultation are engaged in a cosmic dance throughout the work of a poet like Dylan Thomas. As has already been suggested, the energy of the language often belies the sombre message it is communicating. The reader comes to his or her own conclusion as to which of the two is stronger. For Louis Macneice it was the energy and the exultation that triumphed: ‘Many of his poems are concerned with death or the darker forces, yet they all have the joy of life in them.’22

Yet, paradoxically, that joy of life is there both because of and in spite of Thomas's language. It is there because of the linguistic energy, inventiveness and dynamism—so that a poem whose message is that we are doomed to die is remembered by the metaphor of electric energy in its famous opening line: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’; but it is there also in spite of the semantic ambiguity and density and the syntactic convolutedness.

For there is a point in all successful communication, however complex its subject-matter might be, where meaning—or, rather meanings—must become accessible to the reader/listener so that he/she can absorb them and attach them to his/her own life experience. In other words, there is a subtle but vital difference here between the very necessity of ambiguity in the complex communication of a complex emotion or set of attitudes (and, indeed, often a positive delight in the recognition of this ambiguity), and on the other hand the clouding of meaning, which betrays either superficiality and looseness of thinking, or some deeper uncertainty and unease. The issue of obscurity undoubtedly is a valid and important one, even though it is so often the philistine's objection either to having to struggle with difficult ideas or to an assumed conceit on the part of the writer. In the case of Thomas, after all, it was the poet's own concern, expressed early in his life, which serves as the title to this essay. He was hardly a complacent word-spinner.

His fear that his obscurity betrayed the fact that he had little or nothing to say has already been discussed. It is argued that strong support for the truth of this view is to be found in the clear evidence that Thomas laboured over the writing of poems with ever-increasing difficulty as his life progressed. Indeed, the argument continues, the only logical, terrible conclusion for him was a form of suicide, which provided his escape from the stark fact that he no longer had anything worthwhile to say, or, even more frighteningly, he never had had anything to say: at last the total silence of death.

Paul Ferris chronicles such a decline clearly.23 It seems a downhill story all the way after that tremendous late adolescent explosion of poetic creativity which filled so many notebooks in such a short time. But Ferris is aware that the reasons for this apparent state of affairs are indeed complex and difficult to analyse. Thus he notes that Thomas's lack of creativity in the 1940s could derive from a variety of causes, possibly of even the vaguest kind: ‘The war, or poverty, or some growing seed of unease, or a combination of them all, was reducing Thomas's capacity to write’ (my emphasis). And again, in referring to Thomas's introductions to his poetry readings in America:

The manner was self-deprecating: ‘I am,’ he would say, ‘the pig that roots for unconsidered troofles in the reeky wood of his past.’ His poems were ‘little lyrical cripples’, and he had forgotten the original impulse that produced his early work.

The common factor in all such comments that Ferris makes is the implication of some vague kind of underlying anxiety which plagued Thomas throughout his adult life. The link between this and the writing he produced is summed up as follows: ‘He lacked certainties and he wrote accordingly.’

The vital point is to make the connection between this ‘lack of certainty’ and the indeterminacy which has been noted in the linguistic characteristics of Thomas's writing. There is an obvious connection, too, with the near obsession in his poetry—either in whole poems or in individual lines and phrases—with the inadequacy of language, the lapsing into inarticulateness, the impossibility of ‘true’ communication, and even with the futility of making any attempt:

And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose …

(‘The force that through the green fuse’)

My busy heart …
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words

(‘Especially when the October wind’)

I shall not
murder the mankind of her going with a grave truth

(‘A Refusal to Mourn’)

and so on.

The easiest way to explain all this is to employ pseudo-psychoanalysis, as has been done, in its most extreme form, by David Holbrook.24 Here Thomas becomes a singular case-study: an immature adult evading, running away from the responsibilities which the rest of us struggle manfully to face up to, and seeking excuses for his behaviour by an appeal to his genius; except that, deep down, the fear persisted—there was no genius after all, he would be found out, and his inadequacies would be laid bare.

But his work, the best of his work, so clearly denies this. It is directly and honestly about the difficulty of accepting the horrors alongside the glories of life. It is about the difficulty of sharing this knowledge with other human beings, which is the great consolation that we as humans can provide for one another. It is about the desire to communicate honestly, and the anguish of not knowing to whom or for whom one is writing.

Thomas's later works25 are, I believe, rightly seen by Walford Davies as an attempt—more or less consistent—to look outwards, away from the physiological obsessions and complexities of his early work, and to recapture a sense of community, of shared experience. The tragedy is, of course, that this appears to be possible only by looking backwards, to his childhood, and thus Thomas acknowledges, even as he recaptures the scene at Fern Hill in his childhood, that Time ‘… would take me / Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand’.

Under Milk Wood was another attempt, in this case by creating a fantasy of communal living, where no moral strictures prevail, where people exist side by side, with all their frailties, and are blessed by the very fact of their persistence in their shared endurance, in the human comedy. Once again, it is all too easy to point out that a play like this was unlikely to lead anywhere for Thomas; that it was a piece of dream-like unreality caught and frozen in just twenty-four hours of time.

But Thomas's anguish is hardly unique in a society like our own, fragmented and lacking coherence; for the anguish we are referring to is not that of the human condition, the transience of life—that is the deep anguish of mortality felt in whatever society; rather it is the anguish of not sharing, of being cut off. So, some sort of utopian ideal may exist in many forms (isn't Llaregyb a kind of Utopia?); for F. R. Leavis it was something he called the ‘organic community’, which was supposed to have existed some time, somewhere. The important living question always is: could that kind of community exist in a different set of circumstances?

Ironically, Dylan Thomas's sometimes astonishing linguistic acrobatics are in themselves a statement, for all their frequent bravura, of his tentative attempts to express clear human truths. From time to time a temporary confidence and certainty is gained, and it is not coincidental that at these moments his language is at its most transparently simple and direct. Thus, for example, in his elegy for his Auntie Annie (‘After the funeral’), the unassuming little wife of the gargantuan Uncle Jim at Fern Hill farm, he acknowledges at first the claims of a false bardic eloquence, a dishonestly hyperbolic paean, in which the poet's performance would be remembered at the expense of the dead woman:

She would not have me sinking in the holy
Flood of her heart's fame; she would lie dumb and deep
And need no druid of her broken body.

And it is only when he has worked through this that he can achieve a direct simplicity which will link the dead Ann Jones, himself and ourselves in a shared recognition of common humanity. The resulting lines of poetry achieve a memorability which derives from humility gained after much questioning of self:

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.

The complexity of Thomas's language signifies the enormous difficulty of communicating freshly and honestly in a society like our own. In order to avoid the banal, dishonest cliché, some adopt a Beckett-like austerity—almost an ‘anti-language’—and some, like Thomas, use the language freakishly. It is Thomas's achievement that, on a number of occasions, he triumphantly overcame all the obstacles.


  1. Paul Ferris (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters (London: Dent, 1985), p. 130.

  2. For a very good introductory discussion of the notion of linguistic deviancy see Raymond Chapman, Linguistics and Literature (London: Arnold, 1973).

  3. Ferris (ed.), p. 30.

  4. Constantine Fitzgibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (London: Dent, 1965), p. 48.

  5. Daniel Jones, My Friend Dylan Thomas (London: Dent, 1977), p. 28. The book provides a fascinating account of their friendship through adolescence, most of their time being spent at Jones's home. Later in his life Thomas wrote, yearningly, to Daniel Jones of their ‘Warmdandylanley-world’.

  6. Fitzgibbon, p. 335. This is a small part of Thomas's response to questions asked him by an American student researching for his thesis. It is one of the few public statements made by Thomas on the writing of poetry.

  7. Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, 1934-1952 (London: Dent, 1952), p. 87.

  8. Thomas's own phrase, used in his poem, ‘On no work of words’, Collected Poems, p. 94.

  9. Walford Davies, Dylan Thomas (University of Wales Press, 1972), p. 82.

  10. Glyn Jones, The Dragon Has Two Tongues (London: Dent, 1968), p. 184.

  11. William T. Moynihan, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 85.

  12. This poem, together with ‘A Letter to my Aunt’, is to be found in Daniel Jones (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Poems (London: Dent, 1971).

  13. See Jonathan Culler, Saussure (London: Fontana, 1976).

  14. William York Tindall, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas (London: Thames & Hudson, 1962).

  15. For an extremely interesting linguistic approach to the status of metaphor in language, see G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors we Live by (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981).

  16. Christine Brooke-Rose, A Grammar of Metaphor (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), p. 86.

  17. Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), p. 107.

  18. Ferris, Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, p. 134.

  19. For a basic account of the notion of deep and surface structures see J. Lyons, Chomsky (London: Fontana, 1970).

  20. Richard Ohmann, ‘Generative grammars and the concept of literary style’ in Readings in Applied Transformational Grammar, ed. M. Lester (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1970), p. 148.

  21. Ferris, p. 182.

  22. Tedlock, E. W. (ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet (London: Heinemann, 1960), p. 85.

  23. Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977), pp. 246ff.

  24. David Holbrook's Llarregub Revisited: Dylan Thomas and the State of Modern Poetry (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1962) and Dylan Thomas: The Code of Night (London: Athlone Press, 1972) constitute one of the most notorious cases of assault on a writer in the whole of modern ‘literary’ criticism. For a spirited rebuttal of the charges see Laurence Lerner's essay in Walford Davies (ed.), Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays (London: Dent, 1972).

  25. By later work I mean, roughly, from the publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (London: Dent, 1940) onwards.

Alan Bold (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Bold, Alan. “Young Heaven's Fold: The Second Childhood of Dylan Thomas.” In Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, pp. 156-74. London, England: Vision Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Bold explores the themes within Thomas's poetry of lost childhood innocence and the adult's ability to recapture that innocence through the imagination.]

Since his tragically early death at the age of 39 Dylan Thomas has been treated rather shabbily as public property. Television, for example, has used him as the raw material for programmes illustrating the popular notion of the poet who has more sensuality than sense. Invariably Thomas is portrayed as an obstreperous drunk who just happened to write poetry in the few moments he spent away from the pub and the fiercely argumentative proximity of his wife. In A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Hugh MacDiarmid said of Scotland's annually-celebrated bard:

No' wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gi'e.

The same could be said of Thomas. He has become as mythical as Bacchus and almost as impossible. Moreover, it is not only television that has treated Thomas indifferently. Geoffrey Grigson, who glorifies in defending his title as ‘a Non-Dylanist’, delivered this denunciation:

Who cares if this poet sozzled, or made a public dive at parties for the more appetizingly outlined, if still virginal, breasts? … Thomas was a provincial of poetry, smoozing, if with the best hopes and intentions, a masticated old manner with a pop modernism. …1

Similarly, Donald Davie made a negative value judgement:

[Thomas used his gifts] to achieve effects which are, though powerful, artistically coarse. A taste for them is a taste that cannot respond to the subtleties and delicacies of the best of Thomas's forerunners and contemporaries.2

The implications are obvious, and we are to believe that the likes of Grigson and Davie are sophisticates omniscient enough to see through poor coarsely provincial Dylan.

In fact, Thomas was an enormously disciplined poet who could not have functioned as he did if he was perpetually under the influence of alcohol or unaware of the technical possibilities of modern poetry. ‘Fern Hill’, one of the most revealing poems, is a good example of his artistry. It has six nine-line stanzas with an assonantal rhyme-scheme of abcdeabcd and a basic syllabic count of 14, 14, 9, 6, 9, 14, 14, 9, 9. Although the finished product seems effortlessly affirmative, there were more than 200 worksheets of ‘Fern Hill’ before Thomas was satisfied with it. In ‘Over Sir John's hill’ the first and second lines of each stanza rhyme with the middle of line five:

Over Sir John's hill,
The hawk on fire hangs still …
And the shrill child's play. …

While this is going on, Thomas is sustaining a rhyme scheme of aabccbdeaedd and a syllabic count of 5, 6, 14, 14, 5, 1, 14, 5, 14, 5, 14, 14. There is nothing accidental—nothing provincial or coarse—about such prosodic detail. Thomas's preference for the syllabic count instead of accentual verse enabled him to construct his poems with a scrupulous attention to their aural impact. He was, after all, unsurpassed as a reader of his own, and other poets', poems.

Thomas's dazzling technical skill was never an end in itself: not, at any rate, in his best poems, which concern us here. In his early work, admittedly, he could seem wilfully obscure simply because he put language under such intense pressure. Thomas's verse is extremely dense in metaphor, and in his early work the images draw on erotic connotations and physical functions. A letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson (November 1933) explained that ‘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.’ Another letter (to Glyn Jones, March 1934) attributes his own obscurity to his obsession with ‘the cosmic significance of the human anatomy’. Consequently Thomas's early poems are disturbingly physical and organic, generally dwelling on sexual penetration as a universal force of nature:

A candle in the thighs
Warms youth and seed and burns the seeds of age;
Where no seed stirs,
The fruit of man unwrinkles in the stars,
Bright as a fig;
Where no wax is, the candle shows its hairs.

In that extract, from ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’ (first published, to a furious reader-response, in The Listener of 14 March 1934), Thomas uses para-rhyme (stirs/stars) and assonantal rhyme (age/hairs), and he was to adopt this practice increasingly in an attempt to avoid any predictability of rhyme in his poems.

Between leaving school in 1931 and leaving Swansea in 1934, Thomas produced more than 200 poems, including all the 18 Poems (1934), most of the Twenty-five Poems (1936), early versions of many later poems, and ideas that would later be realized in works like Under Milk Wood (1954). Perhaps because inspiration came so easily in his adolescence, the mature Thomas was (from 1944 onwards) suspicious of it. He wanted his work to be as durable as sculpture, a ‘monumental / Argument of the hewn voice’ as he put it in ‘After the funeral’. The early concentration on linguistic texture therefore gave way to a mature consideration of structure. In place of his morbid adolescent meditations on death came a rich theme that was to bring out the lyrical best in him. Thomas's mature poems deal with the annihilation of the ideal of innocence in the mind of the child and the possibility of repossessing that ideal imaginatively in adulthood. Basically the theme is a variant on the biblical story of the expulsion from Eden. As the inevitability of death slowly dawns on the child, he is bereft of his innate Edenic impulse. During the years 1944-52 this was Thomas's principal poetic interest.

It is not, of course, an original artistic concept to dwell on the expulsion from Eden. T. S. Eliot, in ‘Little Gidding’, nostalgically recalls ‘the children in the apple-tree’, Edwin Muir harks back to a place where ‘incorruptible the child plays still’ (‘The Transmutation’), MacDiarmid uses his native Langholm as an emblem of Eden. Literature abounds in references to childhood as a paradise subsequently lost. Writing about Roy Campbell, Peter Alexander observes:

Every childhood seems magical to the adult looking back on it; no wonder that, with such a childhood as this to recall, Campbell ever afterwards thought of the Africa of his youth as a Paradise Lost.3

Nicholas Mosley, in a memoir, reiterates the Edenic emotion:

We moved into Savehay Farm in the spring of 1927 and the best of my childhood seems to have been nurtured by this house: I can remember details of every room in it: I still sometimes dream that I have bought it back, and am living there. I suppose it represents some Garden of Eden.4

More philosophically, Northrop Frye examines the appeal of Eden:

The Bible begins with man in a paradisal state, where his relation to nature was of an idealized kind suggesting a relation of identity on equal terms. The imagery of the garden of Eden is an oasis imagery of trees and water. … This paradisal imagery overlaps to some degree, as it does all through later literature, with idealized pastoral imagery.5

Dylan Thomas's Eden—full of trees and water and a shining innocence—is rural Wales. He first expressed his Edenic vision successfully in ‘Poem in October’, completed in the summer of 1944 at a stone cottage owned by his mother's brother. This cottage at Blaen Cwm, Carmarthenshire, was associated with the poet's childhood, as Thomas had frequented the place since his earliest years. Across the Towy estuary from Blaen Cwm lies Laugharne, a village that promised peace for a poet who had lived through several years of war in London. Thomas's Wales, as observed in Laugharne and contemplated at Blaen Cwm, offered the possibility of a second childhood in the company of his children Llewelyn (born 1939) and Aeron (born 1943), who were themselves experiencing the childhood Eden. Whenever the prodigal returned to Wales he symbolically retraced his steps to Eden.

‘Poem in October’, Thomas's first great Edenic poem, is a shapely composition, visually as well as verbally satisfying. It has seven ten-line stanzas with a syllabic count of 9, 12, 9, 3, 5, 12, 12, 5, 3, 9. It uses assonantal rhyme (Summery/suddenly) and regular rhyme (apples/chapels) and is rich in alliteration (‘heaven … hearing … harbour … heron’). As Thomas's intention is a poetic repossession of Eden he reaches out, from the first line, to the spiritual ideal of heaven:

          It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
          And the mussel pooled and the heron
                              Priested shore
                    The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
          Myself to set foot
                    That second
          In the still sleeping town and set forth.

He is happily in Laugharne as a new birthday dawns on him. He watches, in the drizzle, the wildlife of the Towy estuary and is aware of the contours of Sir John's Hill and ‘the sun of October / Summery / On the hill's shoulder’. As Thomas was born on 27 October 1914 he is also a son of October, and the pun is characteristic of a poet whose style owes much to the prose of James Joyce. Although there is symbolism and much metaphysical conceit in the poem, the entire piece is founded on a physical sensation.

The Edenic aspects of Laugharne are exquisitely observed by Thomas who sees ‘birds of the winged trees’, ‘white horses’, ‘A springful of larks’, ‘whistling / Blackbirds’. As he looks up, actually and imaginatively, from the estuary, the man-made artefacts become like natural objects. The poet's church—nature—overwhelms man's arbitrary architecture, so that the ‘sea wet church’ shrinks to ‘the size of a snail / With its horns through mist’ and Laugharne Castle is, in a compact simile, ‘Brown as owls’. Before the poet's eyes Laugharne dissolves into a vision of the childhood Eden experienced in places like Fern Hill dairy farm in Carmarthenshire. As if enchanted by the poetic ideal of Eden ‘the weather turned round’ so that Thomas could appreciate his second childhood, his return to Eden:

                                                            and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
                    With apples
                    Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
                              Through the parables
                                        Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels.

The metaphorical strength of the last three lines of that stanza illustrates Thomas's true church and expresses his faith that the natural world will always seem holy to the child—or to the adult able to achieve, poetically, a second childhood. Thomas is back in Eden with ‘the mystery’ of childhood. In this mystical mood ‘the long dead child’ that he was is reborn in the adult who has returned to Eden through the magical agency of poetry.

‘A Winter's Tale’, written at the beginning of 1945, is an ingenious variation on Thomas's Edenic theme. In the narrative (rhyming ababa) a man comes to terms with death by ascending to heaven—‘the folds / Of paradise’—in a passionate union. From the atmospheric opening of the poem the mood is pastoral—‘milkmaids / Gentle in their clogs’—and the setting is unmistakably Welsh in what sounds like another evocation of Fern Hill dairy farm:

And the smell of hay in the snow, and the far owl
Warning among the folds, and the frozen hold
Flocked with the sheep white smoke of the farm house cowl
In the river wended vales where the tale was told.

Snow falls on the farm and looks like ‘white seed’, thus preparing the reader for the ritual of rebirth. In his Welsh farmhouse the man—‘Torn and alone’—faces the prospect of dying unloved. Isolated in his home he burns for love and the emotion generates its own warmth; the man is ‘In his firelit island ringed by the winged snow’. Outside there is the cold of a Welsh winter, above there is ‘a star of faith’. Kneeling on cold stones, the man prays and laments the ‘naked need’, the ‘nameless need’ that consumes him. Having established the man's predicament, Thomas sets up a story using instructions similar to those in Under Milk Wood: ‘Listen. The minstrels sing / In the departed villages. … Listen. … Look. And the dances move / On the departed, snow bushed green … Look.’

The man's salvation comes in the shape of a ‘she bird’ that is simultaneously angel and temptress, dove and Phoenix. The dove is a symbol of spiritual purity for in Matthew 3:16 Christ ‘saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove’. The Phoenix is a universal symbol of resurrection and immortality. It is associated with the rose in all Gardens of Paradise and, since the rose is also synonymous with female sexuality, the bird becomes a ‘bride’ tempting the man over a trans-human threshold: ‘In the far ago land the door of his death glided wide.’ He is subsequently ‘hymned and wedded’ in a heaven attainable ‘through the thighs of the engulfing bride’. The last stanza is packed with erotic allusions to the vagina (‘the wanting centre’, ‘the folds / Of paradise’, ‘the spun bud of the world’). Appropriately the poem closes on an astonishingly condensed line that brings together a complex of correspondences: the vagina as a rose, the concept of birth as a flowering, the suggestion of orgasmic melting taking the place of virginal frigidity. It is a magnificent example of Thomas's gift for rooting metaphysical conceits in sexual reality:

                                        he was brought low
Burning in the bride bed of love, in the whirl-
Pool at the wanting centre, in the folds
Of paradise, in the spun bud of the world.
And she rose with him flowering in her melting snow.

Thomas's most ecstatic depiction of Eden occurs in ‘Fern Hill’, a poem written in the summer of 1945, probably at Blaen Cwm which is only a mile away from Fern Hill farm. As a child Thomas spent his summer holidays with his Aunt Ann Jones (commemorated in ‘After the funeral’) on her dairy farm. The location has been succinctly described by John Ackerman:

Fern Hill … stood on a rise that sloped down to a stream and wooded valley or dingle. The farmhouse was surrounded by tall fir trees, and the farm and its buildings formed three sides of a court. An orchard completed the setting. …6

As described in Genesis, Eden is not too dissimilar:

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden. … And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food. … And a river went out of Eden to water the garden.

To a child like Thomas, familiar with the authorized version of the Garden of Eden, Fern Hill must have appeared as a sacred place made in the likeness of the biblical paradise. Commenting on the influence of the Bible on him, Thomas associated it entirely with his childhood: ‘the great rhythms had rolled over me from the Welsh pulpits. … All of the Bible that I use in my work is remembered from childhood.’7 Thomas, in ‘Fern Hill’, draws freely on Genesis but is by no means tied to the authorized version. His Eden is both an ideal and an actual place; moreover, it is free from sin and temptation. There is no serpent in Fern Hill, though ‘Time’ is personified as a presence that first brings the gift of innocence then deprives the child of his elemental vision.

From the opening line of the poem Thomas depicts an egocentric Eden in which the whole world seems to exist solipsistically for the poet:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
          The night above the dingle starry,
                    Time let me hail and climb
          Golden in the heydays of his eyes, …

Thomas is the hero of the piece; he is ‘prince of the apple towns’, ‘lordly’, ‘famous among the barns’. Protected by ‘Time’ he is able to see the dairy farm as the earthly expression of his spiritual ideal of heaven. Fern Hill accordingly glows with the colours of the sun and the grass (representing heaven and earth): It is ‘… Golden … Golden … green and golden … green and golden.’ Every morning on the farm has a paradisal brilliance, a whiteness that rescues the child from the disturbing dark. When he wakes from sleep the farm is ‘like a wanderer white / With the dew’ and the days are ‘lamb white’. Every day that spins into the child's consciousness is determined by ‘Time’, though in the beginning ‘Time let me hail and climb. … Time let me play.’

As the poem so movingly shows, Thomas the child is happy in his own rural element—earth, implying the soil and the planet—and content to count the blessings of the other elements: ‘… it was air / And playing, lovely and watery / And fire green as grass.’ He seems as splendid as the first man and surrounded by an array of animals: ‘… the calves … the foxes … the owls … the nightjars … the horses’. He is, indeed, Adam before the fall and invokes ‘Adam and maiden’ along with the horses as emblems of the life-giving sun:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
          Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
          The sky gathhered again
          And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
          Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

When Edwin Muir, another Edenic poet, imagined paradise, he also did so in terms of a farm—on Wyre in Orkney—with horses as symbols of ‘free servitude’. ‘The Horses’, from One Foot in Eden (1956), approaches the animals sympathetically:

                    And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came …
Among them were some half-a-dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.

Muir and Thomas share the equestrian imagery because the love of horses came naturally to them; the symbolism is substantial, not abstract.

Thomas's intention, to reclaim verbally his childhood Eden on the Welsh dairy farm, is executed in a poetry full of fluid rhythm and a diction that draws on popular idioms as in ‘once below a time’. The personified ‘Time’, in ‘Fern Hill’, begins by being kind to the child who is always aware of ‘the sun that is young once only’ (again, note the pun on ‘son’) then realizes that with the onset of adolescence he will lose his Edenic innocence. ‘Time’, which befriends the child, is an enemy to the adolescent. He comes in dreams and haunts the sleeper with thoughts of the inevitability of death. Whereas the sun provides light and life in the first five stanzas, the moon marks time in the dark of the closing stanza. At the end of the poem the moon lifts over the landscape, which thus becomes barren, ‘childless’:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
          In the moon that is always rising,
                              Nor that riding to sleep
          I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
                              Time held me green and dying
          Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

In April 1947, thanks to a travelling scholarship and financial assistance from friends, Thomas went to Italy for three months' holiday. After some weeks on the Italian Riviera he took a villa outside Florence and there wrote ‘In country sleep’, a poem intended as part of a sequence In country heaven. The plan for the extended poem was an ambitious one, as Thomas explained in a talk. Thematically the poem was to be full of the apocalyptic anguish that Thomas experienced after hearing the news of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima:

The poem is to be called In country heaven. … The Earth has killed itself. It is black, petrified, wizened, poisoned, burst; insanity has blown it rotten; and no creatures at all, joyful, despairing, cruel, kind, dumb, afire, loving, dull, shortly and brutishly hunt their days down like enemies on that corrupted face. And, one by one, those heavenly hedgerowmen who once were of the Earth call to one another, through the long night, Light and His tears falling, what they remember, what they sense in the submerged wilderness and on the exposed hair's breadth of the mind, what they feel trembling on the nerves of a nerve, what they know in their Edenie hearts, of that self-called place. They remember places, fears, loves, exultation, misery, animal joy, ignorance, and mysteries, all we know and do not know.

The poem is made of these tellings. And the poem becomes, at last, an affirmation of the beautiful and terrible worth of the Earth. It grows into a praise of what is and what could be on this lump in the skies. It is a poem about happiness.8

Although Thomas was given to hyperbolic pronouncements, it is important to take this statement literally, for the poem recognizes death and destruction but opposes it with the insistence that happiness is possible, especially for the child. In all three of the In country heaven poems there is a struggle with death: the death of innocence in ‘In country sleep’, the death of the birds in ‘Over Sir John's hill’, the death of conception in ‘In the white giant's thigh’. It is fairly typical of the ignorance Thomas had to endure that when he responded with understandable emotion to an interpretation of the meaning of ‘In country sleep’, he was thought to be drunk or maudlin or both, as witness this anecdote told by Paul Ferris:

[‘In country sleep’] is written without complicated imagery, but it is not an easy poem to understand, despite various comments by Thomas to people in America. The critic William York Tindall told Thomas he thought it was about ‘how it feels to be a father’. Thomas is said to have wept at this remark—‘but whether from vexation, beer or sentimental agreement I could not tell’.9

The most obvious explanation is that Thomas was genuinely affected by the thought of a poem in which he had declared his love of, and concern for, his daughter Aeron.

Although ‘In country sleep’ was written in Italy, the landscape sounds, inevitably, like Fern Hill farm:

Nor the innocent lie in the rooting dingle wooed
And staved, and riven among plumes my rider weep.
From the broomed witch's spume you are shielded by fern
And flower of the country sleep and the greenwood keep.

The poem unfolds in two sections; Section I contains nine seven-line stanzas rhyming abcbaac with a basic syllabic count of 12, 12, 12, 12, 4, 12, 12; Section II contains eight six-line stanzas rhyming abbcca with a basic syllabic count of 13, 13, 13, 4, 13, 13. The poem is a prayer for Aeron (born 3 March 1943, and 4 when the poem was completed) that she might retain a child's vision of the world, that timeless vision of Eden which Thomas had explored in ‘Fern Hill’. Thomas has read the child to sleep and imagines her dreaming of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Robin Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc. for allusions to these tales are woven into the first section of the poem. He tells her not to fear the frightening aspects of these tales; she is in a sacred place since ‘The country is holy’. This, the central proposition of the poem, is reminiscent of Blake's belief that ‘every thing that lives is Holy’. To show precisely how holy the country is Thomas accumulates sacramental images until the wood seems like a cathedral in which everything is blessed: ‘angel’, ‘saint's cell’, ‘nunneries and domes of leaves’, ‘three Marys’, ‘Sanctum sanctorum’, ‘the rain tellings its beads’, ‘the lord's-table’.

What the child has to dread is the Thief—the personified Time (from ‘Fern Hill’) that comes in the night, disturbs the child's dreams and destroys the childhood Eden by introducing thoughts of death. In particular he—Time, the Thief—takes away the child's perception of Christ as a gentle ‘saviour / Rarer than radium’ (‘There was a Saviour’) and dwells on the Christian agony, ‘the yawning wound at our sides’, a phrase that alarms the child, who consequently hears ‘the wound in her side go / Round the sun’. At its finale the poem is resolved as a contest between the Christ of the child's simple prayer and Time, the Thief. By reading the lines carefully, according to the punctuation supplied by line-endings, it is possible to grasp when ‘He’ is Christ and ‘he’ is the Thief who

Comes designed to my love to steal not her tide raking
Wound, nor her riding high, nor her eyes, nor kindled
But her faith that each vast night and the saga of prayer
                                                                                He comes to take
Her faith that this last night for his unsacred sake
He comes to leave her in the lawless sun awaking
Naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come
Ever and ever by all your vows believe and fear
My dear this night he comes and night without end my dear
                                                                                Since you were born:
And you shall wake, from country sleep, this dawn and
          each first dawn,
Your faith as deathless as the outcry of the ruled sun.

The sense of these syntactically difficult lines is that he (i.e. Time, the Thief) comes to steal the child's faith (which is that Christ comes to her each night in prayer—‘He comes’) and to take away her faith (which is that Christ comes for his own, ‘unsacred’, sake to her) in order ‘to leave her in the lawless sun’—that is, leave her in a world without order. Time threatens the child's belief that everything is holy. Time introduces nightmare into the world of the sleeping child. Thomas, however, promises his daughter that Christ will come to her every night and will continue to do so, despite the Thief. If she accepts this paternal assurance then her faith will endure.

Thomas settled at the Boat House, Laugharne, in Spring 1949. The house was provided by the generosity of Margaret Taylor, and the poet told her ‘You have given me a life. And now I am going to live it.’10 Symbolically the return to Laugharne was a return to Eden, but the first poem Thomas wrote in the Boat House—‘Over Sir John's hill’, projected as part of In country heaven—is full of foreboding. It is a meditation on death suggested by the sights he could see in the estuary from his writing hut. During the poem it is the ‘led-astray birds’ who die, and Thomas, a singing bird who was often led astray, could readily empathize with these creatures. He imagines Sir John's Hill as a judge, with a ‘black cap of jack- / Daws’, pronouncing sentences of death on the birds. The ‘hawk on fire’ is the gallows where the birds are executed for

          blithely they squawk
To fiery tyburn over the wrestle of elms until
The flash the noosed hawk
Crashes, and slowly the fishing holy stalking heron
In the river Towy below bows his tilted headstone.

As a judge the hill is ‘just’ because the birds have been ‘led-astray’, and the sentence is solemnly carried out. Yet the poet-as-witness and the heron-as-priest ask for mercy on account of the songs the birds produced from ‘their breast of whistles’. It is evident that the poem was written as a counterpoint to the prayer-like mood of ‘In country sleep’. Instead of the fairytale slumber wished on Aeron, there is ‘the shrill child's play’, although Thomas still brings images of forgiveness from his religion of nature:

I open the leaves of the water at a passage
Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs
                                                                                                                                  prancing. …

By the winter of 1949 Thomas was working on ‘In the white giant's thigh’, a composition that took him almost a year to complete. As part of the In country heaven sequence it is a lament for the lack of life on ‘this lump in the skies’. Impressively it uses a powerful pictorial source, namely

the white giant on the upper slopes of a high chalk hill, known appropriately as Giant Hill, overlooking the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. This remarkable hill figure, cut in the turf, is thought to be of Romano-British origins, and is clearly a pagan fertility symbol. In his right hand the giant carries a cudgel, but more striking is the prodigiously erect penis. There is a local tradition that copulation on the grass within the phallus is a cure for barrenness in women. Significantly, too, the phallus points exactly to the spot where the sun would come over the crest of the hill on May Day.11

‘In the white giant's thigh’ is an elegy for barren women, in fifteen regular quatrains (abab) irregularly arranged. Long-dead country women, childless in life, long in their death to conceive. To do justice to the subject Thomas conjures, from his technical repertoire, a sequence of intimately related images. For example, there is a ‘conceiving moon’ because of the menstrual cycle, but also because we learn that the women loved ‘in the after milking moonlight’. There is the information about the women ‘rippling soft in the spinney moon as the silk / And ducked and draked white lake that harps to a hail stone’ which indicates that in their ecstasy the women were as soft as a lake that ripples like a harp as a stone enters it; the stone, of course, reminds the reader that the women are ‘barren as boulders’. Thomas's use of metaphor, in this work, is as carefully controlled as his manipulation of form. He speaks, for instance, of the women with their ‘breasts full of honey’, and four lines later their breasts are referred to as ‘the veined hives’. Simply to have used an image of ‘veined hives’ without preparing the reader would have been, to a poet of Thomas's excellence, irresponsible. Every line of the elegy evolves from a previous line so the theme is developed lyrically. The parenthesis containing the ‘veined hives’—

(But nothing bore, no mouthing babe to the veined hives
Hugged, and barren and bare on Mother Goose's ground
They with the simple Jacks were a boulder of wives)

—contains the tragic element. These women were as simple as characters in a child's tale—Mother Goose, associated with the ‘gooseskin winter’ of the twelfth line and ‘butter fat goosegirls’ of the thirty-seventh line—yet their cupboard was ‘barren and bare’ and like Jack's Jill they tumbled down but finished with an empty bucket. They bore no children, remained barren as ‘a boulder of wives’. Such references link up with the other poems in In country heaven, for there are ‘hearthstone tales’ in ‘In country sleep’ while ‘Over Sir John's hill’ incorporates the nursery rhyme

Crying, Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed
For you must be stuffed, and my customers filled.

Some lines in ‘In the white giant's thigh’ could serve as a summation of the entire theme of In country heaven and show Thomas concerned with the survival of love in a reclaimed Eden, a found paradise:

Teach me the love that is evergreen after the fall leaved
Grave, after Belovéd on the grass gulfed cross is scrubbed
Off by the sun, and Daughters no longer grieved
Save by their long desirers in the fox cubbed
Streets or hungering in the crumbled wood; to these
Hale dead and deathless do the women of the hill
Love for ever meridian through the courters' trees
And the daughters of darkness flame like Fawkes fires still.

It has been assumed by several commentators that in his last years Dylan Thomas was somewhat more than half in love with death; Paul Ferris suggests that ‘Death … appealed to him as a solution’.12 Nevertheless, there is no textual evidence for that in his final poems which are optimistic in comparison to the morbid bone-and-blood creations of his adolescence. Thomas's mature poems are energetically opposed to the idea of death as a truly terminal condition. In 1951 he wrote three poems: ‘Lament’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Poem on his birthday’. Together they represent a triumph over death. ‘Lament’ is a dramatic monologue in five twelve-line stanzas (rhyming abcdabcdefef). An old man on his deathbed recalls his adolescence (first stanza), manhood (second stanza), maturity (third stanza), old age (fourth stanza), and finally bemoans the fact that he is dying amongst ‘all the deadly virtues’. Like ‘After the funeral’, the poem is critical of Welsh Nonconformist morality: ‘coal black’ becomes the colour of Welsh sin, or so Thomas would have us believe by using the epithet ‘coal black’ in every stanza. As the man finally succumbs to death, he does so with an ironical sense of humour that sends him to a chaste heaven

For, oh, my soul found a sunday wife
In the coal black sky and she bore angels!
Harpies around me out of her womb!
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death!

On a more sombre note ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is Thomas's contemplation of the last days of his father who eventually died on 16 December 1952, aged 86, and whom Thomas was to survive by only one year. As early as 1934 D. J. Thomas had received treatment for throat cancer, a disease that transformed him from a dominant, awe-inspiring local figure (the Senior English Master in Swansea Grammar School) into a diffident old man waiting for the end. Thomas's poem, a villanelle, has a simple logic. The first stanza asserts that old men should not accept death but should ‘rage’ against it. Then in the next four stanzas, respectively, the poet gives the examples of ‘wise men’, ‘good men’, ‘Wild men’, ‘Grave men’ who ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. Therefore the conclusion, in the final stanza, reiterates the assertion:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Given such determination, Thomas implies, the light of life will not disappear.

Although ‘Poem on his birthday’ was finished in the summer of 1951, when the poet was approaching his thirty-seventh birthday, it celebrates his biblically significant thirty-fifth birthday, his ‘midlife’. The poem alternates lines of six syllables with lines of nine syllables and is based on an assonantal rhyming pattern of ababcdcdc. As the descriptive opening indicates, the view from the Boat House is ethically ambivalent:

          In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
          Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
          And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay's grave
          He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
          Herons spire and spear.

Thomas, ‘the rhymer in the long tongued room’, watches the wildlife in the estuary and feels that fear of death is the serpent in his paradise—‘his crouched, eternal end / Under a serpent cloud’. Against this potential terror he sets ‘the unknown, famous light of great / And fabulous, dear God’. Midway through his life, apprehensive of the Dantean ‘brambled void’, he sees a way clear to his reclaimed Eden:

With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
          And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in young Heaven's fold
          Be at cloud quaking peace

As he did in ‘Fern Hill’, Thomas hunts for an ‘air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild / As horses in the foam’; his eventual odyssey to death will therefore be a journey to ‘cool kingdom come’. His final flourish claims that Eden, as seen in Laugharne (or Fern Hill dairy farm or some other glorious part of rural Wales), is an eternal vision that will defeat death. Thomas knows that this spiritual life is a gift to sustain him as he embarks on the second stage of his life which can be a second childhood animated by the idea of Eden:

          I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
          Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
          More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
          Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone
          As I sail out to die.

‘Author's Prologue’, the last poem completed by Thomas, was designed as a poetic preface to Collected Poems and was only delivered to the publisher two months before the book appeared on 10 November 1952. It has an elaborate rhyme-scheme whereby the first line rhymes with the last so both ends meet in the central couplet which matches ‘farms’ with ‘arms’. Thematically it is a variant on the biblical story of Noah who, according to Genesis, ‘found grace in the eyes of the Lord’, and saved the world by loading his ark with examples of ‘every living thing’. Thomas's ark is his imagination and he joyously fills it with a variety of creatures: ‘Gulls, pipers … men … Geese … boys … swans’. Through observation and affirmation he builds his ‘bellowing ark / To the best of my love’; gradually his imaginative ark swells to full flood, ready for the ‘Eternal waters’. The poet, the ‘Drinking Noah of the bay’, undertakes his poetic voyage ‘Under the stars of Wales’. He has gathered his Eden about him;

My ark sings in the sun
At God speeded summer's end
And the flood flowers now.

That, and not the broken man dying in a New York hospital, should be the ultimate image of Dylan Thomas. His mature poems, as I hope I have shown, glow with vitality, pulsate with the rhythms of a great passion born of an Edenic childhood. Even his unfinished ‘Elegy’, written in memory of his father, praises ‘the light of the lording sky’ and promises D. J. Thomas a posthumous existence ‘Walking in the meadows of his son's eye’. If his initials suggest the D. T.s. Dylan Thomas's actual achievement is clear-sighted, sober, authentically spiritual. His later years may not have been so prolific, poetically, as those of his adolescence, but the mature poems I have examined are the ones that most eloquently express his vision. He said, in the Note to his Collected Poems, ‘These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't.’ Thomas's critics have assumed that that statement was meant facetiously, but we'd be damn' fools if we didn't take him seriously.


  1. Geoffrey Grigson, Blessings, Kicks and Curses (London: Alison and Busby, 1982), p. 16.

  2. Donald Davie, Trying to Explain (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1980), p. 65.

  3. Peter Alexander, Roy Campbell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 8.

  4. Nicholas Mosley, Rules of the Game (London: Secker & Warburg, 1982), p. 73.

  5. Northrop Frye, The Great Code (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 142.

  6. John Ackerman, Welsh Dylan (St. Albans: Granada Publishing, 1980), p. 67.

  7. Dylan Thomas, quoted in Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (London: Dent, 1965), p. 370.

  8. Dylan Thomas, quoted in FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas, p. 327.

  9. Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), p. 226.

  10. Dylan Thomas, quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas, p. 239.

  11. John Ackerman, Welsh Dylan, p. 105.

  12. Paul Ferris, op. cit., p. 242.

John Ackerman (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Ackerman, John. “Deaths and Entrances.” In A Dylan Thomas Companion: Life, Poetry and Prose, pp. 106-29. Hampshire, England: Macmillan, 1991.

[In the following essay, Ackerman explores the influence of Thomas's World War II experiences on his poetry collection Deaths and Entrances.]

Deaths and Entrances was published in 1946, and the title of the volume is taken, of course, from Donne's sermon Deaths Duell: ‘Our very birth and entrance into this life, is … an issue from death.1 The poems in this collection show a notable advance in sympathy and understanding due, in part, to the impact of war. Also, in the later poems he writes generally in a mood of reconciliation and acceptance, having outgrown the earlier rebellious and blasphemous attitudes of the enfant terrible. By this time, particularly in such poems as ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ and ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’ it could be said that Dylan Thomas had become a preacher in verse. He had become, too, probably the first civilian war-poet, for such poems commemorate the victims of large-scale air-raids, massive bombing a new and terrible feature of the Second World War, when the holocaust was not confined to the immediate battlefield. A third, very practical, factor was Thomas's sale of his early Notebooks in 1941, which marked a decisive break with his poetry of adolescence. No longer was there the inspiration or example to return to his introspective world.

Clearly Dylan Thomas's experiences as a fire-watcher in Soho, where he worked for Strand films in the war years, inspired such poems as ‘Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred’ and the magnificent ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’, one of his major poems, and an instance of his ritualistic verse. Interestingly his film script Our Country, written at the time (late 1943-early 1944) that he was writing ‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’, depicts, among other aspects of ‘the face of war-time Britain’,2 the bombed streets of London, including shots of St Paul's. Certainly the language is echoed in his poetry on this theme as these lines, with their ordinary, commonplace yet heroic lyricism, demonstrate:

Then birds flying:
Suddenly, easily, as though from another country, over and
around the still, still-living image in the dead middle of
the hit-flat burnt-black city areas killed at night;
and all the stones remember and sing the cathedral of each
blitzed dead body that lay or lies in the bomber-and-dove-
flown-over cemeteries of the dumb, heroic streets.
And the eyes of St Paul's move over London.(3)

‘The words were written to be spoken and heard, and not to be read’ was Thomas's illuminating comment on this film script. Characteristically Thomas used incidents and metaphors from the life of nature—birds perhaps being its commonest living presence in the city's streets—to embody roots of healing in contrast to war and destruction. Incidentally, too, the rhythmical prose and its adjectival progress (what the poet himself called ‘good old 3-adjectives-a-penny belly-churning Thomas’4 writing to Watkins about Adventures in the Skin Trade) signposts the way to Under Milk Wood. As ever in the poetry, of course, there is strict, tightly knit formal structure: in a letter, again to Watkins, with whom he here revealingly discussed his poetic practice, he speaks of the ceremonial and musical form and tone—‘It really is a Ceremony, and the third part of the poem is the music at the end. Would it be called a voluntary, or is that only music at the beginning?’5 Interestingly, in the same letter, Thomas speaks of the imminent threat of the German rockets, the V2s, referring to London ‘which soon will be shelled terribly by things that scream up into the stratosphere … and then pour down on to Manresa Road’—the reference to Manresa Road, where he lived, a familiar, final comic touch. But evidently he shared the common terror.

‘Ceremony After a Fire Raid’ was first published in a May Day Supplement of the leftist (Thomas thereby declining payment) Our Time dedicated to Lorca, to whose poetry Watkins had introduced Thomas in 1938. Like ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, written a year later, it grieves a child's death during an air-raid, again linking birth and death; imagery of the consuming flames (‘its arms full of fires’) conjoins with the breast of the mother and the grave (‘dug’ as both verb and noun announcing the familiar ‘birth-death’ conjunction):

The grievers
Among the street burned to tireless death
A child of a few hours
With its kneading mouth
Charred on the black breast of the grave
The mother dug, and its arms full of fires.

The requiem mass of Thomas's ceremony sings the return to the first darkness that the child suffered through the ‘star’ that was the falling bomb, returning her to the centuries of nature's cycle, ironically echoing too ‘the star’ of birth (cf. ‘Vision and Prayer’).

With singing
Darkness kindled back into beginning
When the caught tongue nodded blind,
A star was broken
Into the centuries of the child
Myselves grieve now, and miracles cannot atone.

Though miracles cannot atone for the child's suffering, the poet, as both priest and pantheist in his credo, prays for forgiveness until her dust sings in nature's mystical unity (cf. ‘A Winter's Tale’: ‘The nightingale / Dust in the buried wood, flies on the grains of her wings’—considered later):

Us forgive
Us your death that myselves the believers. …
And the dust shall sing like a bird
As the grains blow, as your death grows, through our heart.

Nature provides images both of tenderness (‘child beyond cock-crow’), vitality (‘the flying sea’) and compassion (‘Love is the last light’), the child a ‘black husk’ in the ‘fire-dwarfed / Street’:

Your dying
Child beyond cockcrow, by the fire-dwarfed
Street we chant the flying sea
In the body bereft.
Love is the last light spoken. Oh
Seed of sons in the loin of the black husk left.

Thomas's pantheistic ceremony includes not only biblical (‘Adam and Eve’ and the Agnus Dei ‘white ewe lamb’), but pagan myth and ritual, ‘the adorned holy bullock’ deliberately echoing Keats's picture of both religious sacrifice and desolation in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the mysterious priest ‘leading the heifer … with garlands blest’ and streets of the ‘little town … evermore … silent … desolate’:

I know not whether
Adam or Eve, the adorned holy bullock
Or the white ewe lamb
Or the chosen virgin
Laid in her snow
On the altar of London
Was first to die
In the cinder of the little skull.

In the last section the poet moves from grief and mourning to the final triumphant music, the organ ‘voluntary’. Clearly ‘steeples’, ‘statuary’, ‘weathercocks’ and ‘luminous cathedrals’ etches wartime London's skyline at night, whether bombed St Paul's luminous with searchlights or the poet's view from his high office window in Golden Square, Soho, of ‘the blitzed church of St Ann's … the weathervane on the spire was still intact and glinted, a golden arrow, in the sun’.6 It was here Dylan Thomas worked on such film scripts as Our Country; and here, too, he did his rooftop fire-watching. As in Our Country urban destruction (‘slum of fire’) is mingled with religious metaphor (‘the golden pavements laid in requiems—surely also a ‘Golden Square’ prompting!) and above all, images of natural energy and the glory of the cosmos. The earlier eucharistic imagery of the bread and the wine is joined with the life-giving puissance of the sea, always one of Thomas's key affirmations, and the Genesis story of the creation. In the controlled yet soaring ritualistic music of this final section the poet transfigures the pain and lamentation to a cosmic organ-roll of triumph. Only Thomas's recorded reading of it, undoubtedly his most exalted performance, can evoke and unravel the power of these lines. He is, as he so memorably said of Wilfred Owen, ‘the intoning priest over the ceremony … the bell of the broken body’:7

Into the organpipes and steeples
Of the luminous cathedrals,
Into the weathercocks' molten mouths …
Over the sun's hovel and the slum of fire
And the golden pavements laid in requiems,
Into the cauldrons of the statuary
Into the bread in a wheatfield of flames,
Into the wine burning like brandy,
The masses of the sea
The masses of the sea under
The masses of the infant-bearing sea
Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter forever
Glory glory glory
The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis' thunder.

Of Thomas's delivery of these lines, the BBC producer Aneurin Talfan Davies wrote: ‘his reading of the closing liturgical lines was most majestic’. He adds this unforgettable picture:

Thomas sat before the microphone in the Swansea studio, a forgotten cigarette stub in his fingers, his shoulders thrust back, his chest bulging out from his oversized jacket and displaying a vast expanse of rumpled shirt, while in contrast to this almost comic picture, there came from his mouth like thunder made articulate [the poem's last-lines].8

Davies claims that Thomas's ‘poetry reading was a revelation of the poet's creative impulse’.

‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ also shows Thomas's vision of man's final reabsorption into natural life. Again, inspired by the incendiary raids on London, the poet uses biblical language from the account in Genesis of the first creation of the world to commemorate contemporary events: ‘And darkness was upon the face of the deep … and God said, Let there be light … and God divided the light from the darkness … And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2-6). But though he refuses to mourn he does write an elegy for the child killed by the bombing. He refuses to mourn because the fact of death must be accepted as part of the processes of life and mutability in man and nature. Never until the end of the world, when that unifying darkness, in which human, animal and vegetal life is fathered, overwhelms all, light and earth obliterated, and the very seas themselves are stilled:

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

and never until the poet's own death, whereby he returns to the primal elements of earth and water, here given religious identity (‘Zion,’ ‘synagogue’):

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead,
And the synagogue of the ear of corn

will he with tears or prayers lament the burning of the child. The poet refuses to mourn because the child is once more part of the elements from which she came: her body is part now not of human existence but the more ancient, elemental unity of earth (‘the long friends’). Mystical reunion with mother earth and the veins of her own mother has effected nature's redemption from mortality (‘the grains beyond age’). The waters of the Thames, part of nature's processes of the life and death that are change and transformation such as London's daughter has suffered, are unmourning:

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.

We may compare Wordsworth's more meditative, less bardic, elegiac lines on Lucy:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.

(‘A slumber did my spirit seal’)

and Shelley's similar, albeit triumphant assertion of the same idea in ‘Adonais’: ‘He is made one with nature’. In his study Religious Trends in English Poetry Fairchild has stated that ‘despite all its Christian images, Thomas's “A Refusal to Mourn …” is … loyal to traditional romantic pantheism. … It affirms the unity of all creatures, human and nonhuman, living and dead, with death as a return to the holy, hidden germs of life in water and corn’.9 Yet Dylan Thomas has gone beyond nineteenth-century romantic pantheism, as represented by Wordsworth, and recast for our own time this belief in, and sense of, ultimate return to nature. Unlike the passivity of Wordsworth's lines, Thomas's view of this return suggests the shared energy of this reabsorption: it is there in the renewed vigour and resurgence of the last stanza. Nor is it a momentary drifting into such faith (‘A slumber did my spirit seal’) but a sustained and argued belief related to the mythopoeic concept of man's relationship to nature built up in the rest of the poet's work. In this context the final line: ‘After the first death, there is no other’, ‘though provocatively ambiguous … promises, not resurrection, but continuing organic life’.10 The thought of the poem suggests not so much a belief in Christian immortality but the simpler belief in the return to first elements embodied in the commonly held idea of ‘pushing up the daisies’. Likewise, in so far as meaning in Dylan Thomas's poetry is partly the physical and sensory enactment of the idea, the rhythmic structure promotes a sense of the motion, the force, which the child now shares with the organic and elemental universe she has joined. Similarly the image of ‘the sea tumbling in harness’ evokes physical and primal energy. The ritualistic reading that the poem requires, as evidenced in the punctuation and structure, and as demonstrated in the poet's own recitation, is an essential part of its power and effect.

This poem has again indicated two major aspects of the role of nature in the poetry of Dylan Thomas: his pivotal awareness of the unity between man and the natural world and its increasingly mystical and ritualistic expression in the later poetry; and the poetic craftsmanship by which ‘the description of a thought or action’ can be brought ‘onto a physical level’, which continues as the basis of the originality of Thomas's poetic style and of his vision of the world of nature. Though an elegy ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ has also anticipated a third aspect, that pantheistic celebration of the natural universe (incorporating the liturgical tone and sacramental metaphor of ‘Zion of the water bead … synagogue of the ear of corn’) that is a major preoccupation in the later work.

The line ‘The country is holy: O bide in that country kind’ from ‘In Country Sleep’ is perhaps the summa of Thomas's later development as a poet, subsuming his concern with the ubiquity of death, with childhood's visionary experience, and with the destiny of sexual and spiritual love in the shared mutability of human, animal and vegetal life. The Carmarthenshire countryside of Fern Hill, near Llangain, and the landscapes of nearby Laugharne provide, with two exceptions, the inspiration and setting of this later work. Thomas had known this corner of west Wales since his earliest days; and his development as a poet is the history of his increasing immersion in it. ‘Dylan had to have West Wales and the sea and that solitary abandonment’ notes Caitlin.11

Undoubtedly the impact of war contributed to the poet's impulse to re-create childhood's lost vision. The first of such poems drawing their inspiration from a particular Welsh setting, and interestingly the last to be taken from some earlier verses in the Notebooks just before Thomas sold them, was ‘The Hunchback in the Park’, completed in July 1941. Cwmdonkin Park, which bordered the poet's home in Cwmdonkin Drive, is remembered and evoked in the fluid yet patterned rhythms he was to use in ‘Fern Hill’, the absence of punctuation deliberately instructing us in the incantatory reading of the poem Thomas himself used. Consequently such detail as the hunchback, the park's trees and pools, the drinking fountain, and the evening bell are charged with childhood's still haunting resonances, and re-created in flowing images:

The hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark
Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship

Clearly the poet's recollections of his carefree childhood games in the park are part of the recherche du temps perdu—‘Proust-like in my conservatory’ he described himself in 1933.12 It is a desire to recreate emotionally these times: in such celebrative lines as:

While the boys among willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors

and night's less boisterous but similarly heightened flow of feeling:

All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries

The circumstantial precision and relevance of the images has aroused much critical speculation. Thus there ‘was indeed a hunchback’ who frequented the park at this time,13 the customary fountain basin with the chained cup; and ‘tigers’ does aptly evoke the boys' animal games and fantasies—with possibly an echo of Blake's ‘Tyger’. But why, we may ask, were the groves ‘blue with sailors’, the wild boys ‘innocent as strawberries’? The transferred epithet from the more familiar ‘wild strawberries’ and ‘innocent boys’ is a characteristic device of Thomas's; while no doubt the poet's knowledge that the strawberry plant reproduces asexually reinforced for him the idea of sexual innocence. Likewise the groves where the boys played evoked for the poet the sailor suits then fashionable for boys, while the park's bluebells, sometimes called ‘sailors’ trousers' because of their flowers' similar colour and shape, were also linked in the poet's mind. But as in ‘After the funeral’ it is the nostalgia, the looking back to a now buried past, that has transformed the Notebook source to a haunted and haunting recollection, where the bell-like chimes are the sombre notes of mutability.

If it was the need to turn away from the war and its destruction which prompted the need to re-create the joys of childhood, clearly Thomas's frequent return journeys to Wales at this time led to his poetic inspiration being increasingly centred in the re-creation of remembered childhood landscapes, places that kept something of what he later called our ‘Edenie hearts’.14 It was while staying with his parents in the cottage at Blaen Cwm, Llangain, near Fern Hill farm and across the estuary from Laugharne, together with Caitlin and Aeronwy, a cramped household but safe from the flying bombs then falling on London, that Dylan Thomas wrote to Vernon Watkins describing ‘Poem in October’ as ‘a Laugharne poem: the first place poem I've written’.15 He enclosed a copy in a second letter and added ‘It's got, I think, a lovely slow lyrical movement’ and the apt request ‘Will you read it aloud too?’16 Thomas had contemplated the poem for three years, says Vernon Watkins,17 and in so far as it is the first of his lyrically expansive poems, celebrating the natural world in subtly wrought but flowing rhythms and concentrated but exact, radiantly developed, images it is not surprising that this crucial development in poetic maturity took three years in its fruition. In ‘Poem in October’ there are the first intimations of the optimistic pantheism that informed the later poems, as the natural life of land and sea celebrates the poet's birthday walk in the early morning and later awakens in him the boy he once was. The lines are resonant with the lapping tide, the calls of seagulls in flight, and the rooks on the wooded slopes of Sir John's Hill:

                                        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
                              And the mussel pooled and the heron
                                                                      Priested shore
                                                            The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
                                                                      Myself to set foot
                                                                                That second
                              In the still sleeping town and set forth.

Biblical metaphor suggests the sacramental identity of the natural world (‘water praying’, ‘heron / Priested’ and later ‘the parables of sunlight’, ‘the legends of the green chapels’). Interestingly, the heron are priest-like in their solemn stance on the estuary's low tides; while locally the word ‘priest’ is used for the implement fishermen use to kill their catch,18 tapping it on the head, not unlike the heron's beak stabbing the waters for fish: another example of Thomas's use of the associative powers of language, complementing the visual and rhythmic. On this autumn day the birds of land and sea are flying. The bare branches of the trees they inhabit are themselves like birds in flight—‘winged trees’: originally ‘bare trees’ in the manuscript sent to Vernon Watkins but the substitution of ‘winged’ is characteristic of Thomas's method of working through the individual word. Birds fly above the farms, horses, and sea-waves, greeting the poet on his birthday: ‘flying my name’ above the estuary recalls the Mabinogion derivation of the name Dylan—‘sea-son of wave’. But, more significantly, October rain showers are transformed into the shower of long gone childhood days:

                                        My birthday began with the water—
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
                              Above the farms and the white horses
                                                                                And I rose
                                                                      In rainy autumn
                    And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

Crossing the estuary from his Boat House home, the poet now ascends Sir John's Hill on the other side of the bay, and sees below him the dwindling rainy scene of church and castle:

                    Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
          With its horns through mist and the castle
                                                            Brown as owls

But ‘fond climates and sweet singers’ as he listened and wandered that morning moved him from time present to time past (‘beyond the border’), and the vision of childhood summers like parables of a sunlit land floods from the sky:

And down the other air and the blue altered sky
                    Streamed again a wonder of summer
                                                            With apples
                                        Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
                                                                                Through the parables
                                                                                                    Of sun light
                                                  And the legends of the green chapels

In the prismatic light that falls from the skies' windows of nature's natural cathedral the timeless landscapes, like Vaughan's ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’,19 are relived in the child's intensity of vision. The increasing importance for Dylan Thomas of time past, the urgency and poignancy of his Proust-like search, provide the key to the structural and metaphoric complexity of his verse, as the boy he once was lives again and it is through his tears and passion that the poet rejoices in the rediscovered mystical sense of communion with nature. It is not simply a matter of nostalgic recollection, but rather the re-creation of the mystery of the boy's empathy with the natural world. In this heightened, essentially ‘illogical, unintellectual’20 and intuitional awareness that nature affords, the dead enjoy ‘the listening / Summertime of the dead’. The ‘true joy’ of the child the poet once was, what Wordsworth called ‘the glory and the dream’,21 is visually and passionately registered in lines where the natural world of trees and stones, river and sea, fish and songbirds people and activate the boy's harmonious vision:

                                                            And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
                                                  These were the woods the river and sea
                                                                                                    Where a boy
                                                                                          In the listening
                    Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
                    To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
                                                                                          And the mystery
                                                                                                    Sang alive
                                        Still in the water and singing birds.

In a later letter Thomas tells how through tears of remembrance this Laugharne setting always kept for him a timeless epiphany, the past undead and held in a present state of happiness, and the lost paradise regained (cf. ‘his tears burned my cheeks’, ‘the listening / Summertime of the dead’):

the clock of sweet Laugharne … that tells the time backwards, so that soon, you walk about the town … to the gulls on the Strand, in the only Golden Age … and then, but only through my tears, the hundreds of years of the colossal broken castle, owls asleep in the centuries, the same rocks calling as in Arthur's time which always goes on there as, unborn, you climb the stones to see river, sea, cormorants nesting like thin headstones … and the undead … the … gulled, and estuaried one state of happiness!22

This detail is close to the morning stroll that the poet takes on his thirtieth birthday; more importantly, it hints at how the structure and metaphor of such works as ‘Poem in October’ derive from the poet's aim of embodying ‘remembered tellings’ for as he later explained the rememberer may live himself back into active participation in the remembered scene, adventure, or spiritual condition.23 Thus, while immediate delight in the beauty of this scene has turned into the deeper, ‘active participation’ of the visionary state nature can give, the sense of the oneness of man and nature presented in terms of the boy's revivified joy, the poem closes with the passing of the epiphany, a return to the actual autumn scene of falling leaves (‘leaved with October blood’). Self-admonishingly he declares his longing that at a future time (‘a year's turning’) he may again be able to celebrate on this hill his ‘heart's truth’:

                    And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
                    Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                                                                                In the sun.
                                                            It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
                                                  O may my heart's truth
                                                                      Still be sung
                    On this high hill in a year's turning.

Remarkably, just over a year later Dylan Thomas did again rediscover his ‘heart's truth’ in ‘Fern Hill’. There is, however, an interesting difference. While ‘Poem in October’ begins with evocation of the present natural setting and it is in the course of the poem/walk that he experiences and re-creates the childhood vision, ‘Fern Hill’ sings from the beginning with the ‘remembered tellings’, registering the fading of innocence and joy, the chains of mutability only at the close.

‘It is a poem about happiness’, said Dylan Thomas in 1950 about the projected poem ‘In Country Heaven’. An earlier and undoubtedly the most famous of his poems about happiness, was ‘Fern Hill’, named after the Carmarthenshire farm whose landscapes inspired the ‘remembered tellings’ the poem records. Near the end of his life Thomas described the farm as ‘a place with which I have come to associate all the summer of my child[hood] … a lovely farm—a lonely farm—and a place with which I have come to associate all the golden—never shone sun like that old rolling’.24 That childhood and summer gold now shines on orchard and field, daisies and barley, barking foxes and whinnying horses, lilting house and pebbly streams in this uniquely radiant and singing paean of happiness—perhaps the most difficult of poetic subjects. Thomas neither philosophises, like Wordsworth, on childhood's lost ‘visionary gleam’ nor evokes it with Blakean simplicities of infant joy, but re-creates in a physical and direct way the experience of childhood so that, as his friend Vernon Watkins declared, ‘out of a lump of texture or nest of phrases he created music, testing everything by physical feeling’.25 The ‘created music’ casts an irresistible rhythmic spell as the state of joy, excitement and wonder flows before us:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
                                        The night above the dingle starry,
                                                            Time let me hail and climb
                                        Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
                                                            Trail with daisies and barley
                                        Down the rivers of the windfall light.

A ‘prince … lordly’ in his happiness and youthful innocence, unaware of mortality, for Thomas's childhood tale is told not ‘once upon’ but ‘once below a time’; for him the rural settings and joys flow by with a visionary intensity that invites our participation in its emotional and sensuous life. It corresponds with the poet's call for the ‘active participation in the remembered scene’,26 and is in contrast with the heavily elegiac meditative tone of Hardy's lines (‘heydays’ a possible derivation?):

                                                            Swift as the light
                                        I flew my faery flight;
Ecstatically I moved, and feared no night.
                    I did not know
That heydays fade and go.

(‘Regret Not Me’)

Dylan Thomas's aim is to create the boy's ecstatic movement, his heydays and ‘faery flight’, so that although Thomas used a consistent and transforming development of metaphor (as ‘apple boughs … apple towns … windfall light’ demonstrates), rhythmic and sensuous intoxication subsumes the traditional use of language in the immediacy and directness of our response. Consequently the subtle intellectual subtext of the metaphor yields on the surface to our emotional involvement. The farm landscapes, birds, and beasts re-create for the adult poet the lost, visionary world of childhood, and interestingly the child is the only person in the poem:

          And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
          About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
                                                  In the sun that is young once only,
                                                                      Time let me play and be
                                                  Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
                                                            And the sabbath rang slowly
                                                  In the pebbles of the holy streams.

Characteristically Thomas mingles Christian metaphor (‘sabbath’, ‘holy’ and later the child, echoing the nativity story, is ‘blessed among stables’) and pagan nature-worship; while the familiar nursery rhyme ‘Little Boy Blue, / Come blow your horn / The sheep's in the meadow / The cow's in the corn’ is no doubt echoed in such phrases as ‘the calves / Sang to my horn’ and the later ‘sky blue trades’.

Again, the ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ adopts Rimbaud's reasoned derangement of the senses to produce this visionary verse. The farm landscapes have the fiery and fluid intensity of impressionist painting, as they evoke the boy's excited delight in fields where ‘fire green as grass’, ‘tunes from the chimneys’, air and water flow by in one intoxicating, sensory flux. The substitution of ‘sun’ for ‘day’ in the familiar phrase ‘all the day long’ introduces these luminous scenes sustained by hortatory and hypnotic rhythms:

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
                                                            And playing, lovely and watery
                                                                      And fire green as grass.

Night, too, and its natural worlds of owls and nightjars, protects the child who rides to sleep, ricks and horses entering the beneficent moonlit dark. In similar, though less ecstatic vein, the poet relates how he fell asleep, in the prose description of his visit to the farm (‘The Peaches’): ‘There was a stream below the window; I thought it lapped against the house all night until I slept.’27 Now we watch and listen ‘all the moon long’ under the stars:

                                                  And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the night-jars
                                                  Flying with the ricks, and the horses
                                                                                Flashing into the dark.

With the new day the world returns in all its pristine, primeval glory and appears to the boy as Eden did to Adam. It is as though he sees Creation spinning from the hand of God the creator (‘the first, spinning place’). Thomas personifies the farm as a returning wanderer, and the lines have a sensuous beauty that in the poet's empathy with the natural world recalls Keats's personification of autumn, though Thomas's evocation has more religious, albeit pantheistic, tones of feeling and celebration. He seeks the ancient lineage of the morning's birth (he seeks a similar ancestry for the returning spring in ‘Hold hard, these ancient minutes in the cuckoo's month’):

          And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
          With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
                                                  Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
                                                                      The sky gathered again
                                        And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
                                                            Out of the whinnying green stable
                                                                                On to the fields of praise.

Such lines are close to Traherne's: ‘I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me. All time was Eternity and a perpetual Sabbath.’28 Whereas for Shakespeare or Keats life progresses towards a serene consummation where ‘ripeness is all’, for certain seventeenth-century writers such as Vaughan and Traherne, and Dylan Thomas follows them in this, childhood, with its intimations of immortality, is the ideal age. Then we were a rung nearer heaven. Vaughan celebrated childhood's innocent and visionary moments in such lines as ‘Happy those early days! When I / Shin'd in my Angell-infancy’ (‘The Retreat’); while Traherne's glimpses of eternity through the child's delight in nature in such meditations as ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. … The green trees when I saw them first … transported and ravished me … made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy’29 suggest how, like Dylan Thomas, he was ‘environ'd with eternity’30 in this blissful state. Substituting heart, with its associations of love and joy, for the word ‘day’ in the familiar phrase Thomas continues to evoke his ecstasy in elaborately wrought but essentially simple images of the farm's environment (foxes, pheasants, sun, sky, hay), where all is held in the spell of innocence and grace:

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
                                                  In the sun born over and over,
                                                            I ran my heedless ways,
                              My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
                                        Before the children green and golden
                                                                      Follow him out of grace.

There are, however, intimations of mutability and mortality as the adult poet hints, for these morning songs must fade like the ‘lamb white days’ (a New Testament image) of the ‘green and golden’ children. Soon come lengthening shadows, the migrating swallows at summer's end, for though ‘young and easy’ the child was also paradoxically ‘green and dying’ like all nature's manifestations, animal and vegetal. Both innocent and passing from innocence, held in the chains of mortality, the child's morning song rings like the sea's sounds in these lilting landscapes. It is a poetic vision aptly defined in Yeats's words ‘meaning by vision the intense realisation of a state of ecstatic emotion symbolised in a definite imagined region’.31 Thus in ‘Fern Hill’, as increasingly in the later verse, ‘nature-description becomes a language for feeling’,32 so that it is not simply a matter of Thomas's poetry delighting in describing the natural world but rather the means by which the ‘active participation’ of the reader in the life of nature described is effected.

T. S. Eliot has said of the poetry of vision:

Dante's is a visual imagination. It is a visual imagination in a different sense from that of a modern painter of still life; it is visual in the sense that he lived in an age in which men still saw visions. It was a psychological habit … seeing visions was once a more significant, interesting, and disciplined kind of dreaming.33

I think this comment can illuminate the role of nature in Thomas's later verse: the natural world is conveyed not with the static realism of a still-life presentation but rather with the fluid, active and heightened evocation more peculiar to visionary experience; while the ‘disciplined’ aspect of this presentation lies in the elaborate, painstakingly achieved structure of sound, which produces an intensified emotional and affective response in the reader. Though of course it must be remembered that the relationship between form and content is not a divisible one, as Dylan Thomas pointed out to Vernon Watkins, emphasising ‘the wholeness’ in his work:

I think you are liable … to underrate the value—or, rather, the integrity, the wholeness—of what I am saying or trying to make clear that I am saying, and often to suggest alterations or amendments for purely musical motives.34

We may, too, usefully recall Coleridge's ‘I see them all so excellently fair / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are’.35 The impulse and aim in Thomas's poetry is to ‘feel’, to share in, and thereby register an ‘active participation’ in the beauty and wonder of the natural world. The duality of the role of nature in his poetry lies in the fact that it is a major preoccupation thematically and also determines his poetic style, since Thomas's intuition of the organic unity of man and nature led him to stress modes of sensory and instinctive apprehension, and ‘the strong stressing of the physical’ in the texture and aim of his verse. As an iconoclastic eighteen-year-old he had revealingly, if unfairly, criticised the ratiocinative and reflective, static rather than active, aspect of Wordsworth's nature-mysticism:

He hadn't a spark of mysticism in him. … And mysticism is illogical, unintellectual, and dogmatic … Wordsworth was … the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods … He writes about mysticism but he is not a mystic; he writes what mystics have been known to feel.36

Interestingly, Dylan Thomas excludes from his dismissal of Wordsworth the ‘Immortality Ode’ and ‘the pantheistic creed expressed in Tintern Abbey’37 whose sentiments, though perhaps less their expression, Thomas shared. Nevertheless his criticisms show his early awareness of the non-rational basis of mysticism, and the feeling of energy and active involvement rather than trance or dream his own verse sought to bring about in the reader.

Of course, the element of ‘discipline’ in Thomas's verse is demonstrably present in the unremitting and elaborate craftsmanship that lay behind the seemingly ‘pure’ inspiration of the effortlessly flowing rhythms, with their echoing verbal harmonies. The fact that Thomas's poetry is more easily understood after hearing it read aloud, particularly by the poet, proves the importance of the aural pattern in its structure. Sound and rhythm frequently indicate which words and which ideas are linked; for the structure of the poem was often musical rather than syntactical. Thomas often began a poem with a phrase or rhythm. This would be modulated, extended and brought into a longer sequence of word-patterns. There were over two hundred manuscript versions of ‘Fern Hill’, not unusual in his later, scrupulously crafted verse, since after adding a new phrase or even single word or small alteration in punctuation, Thomas would rewrite the whole poem. It was a method of composition he favoured, giving as it did an organic growth and unity to the emotional and intellectual life of the poem. The process resembled that of musical notation, following an already determined musical pattern, with a subtly increasing interplay of chiming consonants and vowels, as the stanzas of ‘Fern Hill’ show. Relatedly, the corresponding lines in each of the six stanzas have, with rare exceptions, the same number of syllables: a sound-structure that links stanza to stanza, as well as line to line. Above all, it is one maintained not at the expense of meaning but is rather a method of shaping, developing and communicating the sense—in all senses!

‘A Winter's Tale’, included in Deaths and Entrances, is the first of the pastoral poems that weave, and seek to reconcile, the pattern of life and death in terms of past and present. This increasingly proved his primary inspiration, as his preoccupation with the past widened and deepened beyond his concern with childhood. ‘A Winter's Tale’ is ‘the tale of rebirth which nature tells [‘the snowblind twilight ferries’ and later the reborn nightingale ‘spells’ and the voice of the dust of water ‘tells’] even in the dead of winter’.38 The poem opens with an expansive yet exactly evocative celebration of country life in winter whose sensuous richness appeals to sight, sound, touch and smell:

                                                                                                    It is a winter's tale
That the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
And floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales,
Gliding windless through the hand folded flakes,
The pale breath of cattle at the stealthy sail,
                                                                                                    And the stars falling cold,
And the smell of hay in the snow, and the far owl
Warning among the folds, and the frozen hold
Flocked with the sheep white smoke of the farm house cowl
In the river wended vales where the tale was told.

Thus ‘hand folded flakes’ evokes the shape and touch of the falling snowflakes, ‘stealthy sail’ contrasting their delicately arriving whiteness with the breath of cattle in the cold air; while the smell of hay, the owl's cry, and the movement of smoke from the farmhouse chimney (like the white of the sheep in the fields), build up the physical immediacy of this picture.

The present tense of these opening stanzas changes to the past tense as the tale of the man ‘Torn and alone in a farm house in a fold / Of fields' begins; and we see him, ‘the hurled outcast of light’, at prayer: ‘He knelt, he wept, he prayed.’ It is a prayer for love, expressed in sexual terms, but a love that survives ‘the time dying flesh astride’:

                                                                                Deliver him, he cried,
By losing him all in love, and cast his need
Alone and naked in the engulfing bride

At the moment of prayer for love, nature comes mystically alive from the past, and the tale is now narrated in the present tense, as the poet calls the reader's attention to this reborn life. Initially the emphasis is on sound, and the ‘intricately dead’ come miraculously to life in delicate and precisely recorded images:

                                                                                                    Listen. The minstrels sing
In the departed villages. The nightingale,
Dust in the buried wood, flies on the grains of her wings
And spells on the winds of the dead his winter's tale.
The voice of the dust of water from the withered spring
                                                                                                    Is telling. The wizened
Stream with bells and baying water bounds. The dew rings
On the gristed leaves and the long gone glistening
Parish of snow. The carved mouths in the rock are wind swept strings
Time sings through the intricately dead snow drop. Listen.

At this moment's vision of the revivified past life of nature, the ‘she bird’ appears on the snow that is like manna on the ground at this time of miraculous transformation, and the narrative resumes in the past tense:

And there outside on the bread of the ground
A she bird rose and rayed like a burning bride
A she bird dawned, and her breast with snow and scarlet downed.

Again, the symbol of regeneration has sexual energy and implications. In the next stanza description of the revivified life of nature continues in the present tense, now with a visual emphasis; ‘look’ rather than ‘listen’ is the poet's address to the reader:

                                                                                                              Look. And the dancers move
On the departed, snow bushed green, wanton in moon light
As a dust of pigeons. Exulting, the grave hooved
Horses, centaur dead, turn and tread the drenched white
Paddocks in the farms of birds. The dead oak walks for love.
                                                                                                    The carved limbs in the rock
Leap, as to trumpets. Calligraphy of the old
Leaves is dancing. Lines of age on the stones weave in a flock.
And the harp shaped voice of the water's dust plucks in a fold
Of fields. For love, the long ago she bird rises. Look.

Thus, the long-dead horses gallop again, and trees, rocks, leaves, stones and water, like the dancers and the pigeons, share this renewal of energy and life and surpassing joy. We may contrast Eliot's evocation of the past in ‘East Coker’, presented in the context of human history rather than nature and with ecclesiastic rather than dionysiac emphasis:

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of men and women
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie.(39)

Stanzas 17-22 relate (in the past tense) how the man followed the she bird across winter landscapes; while the vision of nature dying back into the past is again recorded as a present reality, its rites now completed:

                                                                                                              The rite is shorn
Of nightingale and centaur dead horse. The springs wither
Back. Lines of age sleep on the stones till trumpeting dawn.
Exultation lies down. Time buries the spring weather
That belled and bounded with the fossil and the dew reborn.

Time now reasserts its dominance, burying ‘the spring weather’ of rejuvenation and ‘exultation’. Significantly, man and nature shared the regenerative power of sexual love (we may compare the earlier, less lyrically expansive expression of this in Thomas's earlier verse ‘And yellow was the multiplying sand / Each golden grain spat life into its fellow’).40 A bird is the mythological figure which brings about this dionysiac and ecstatic state in man and the natural world, momentarily defeating time and death. As in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale there has been a movement from the absence of love to its revelation whose source owes more to nature and its myths than to reason or psychology. At the poem's close, sexual unity is mysteriously linked to unity with nature. If we compare this with Yeats's ‘Leda and the Swan’ there is both a reversal of sexual roles, for it is the man who is visited by the part real, part symbolic bird; and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of harmony and renewal (‘melting snow’) rather than of rape and violence. Yeats, too, is more concerned with the social, historical consequences (‘A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead’).41 Contrastingly, it is with that ‘image of Nature as Paradise that has continued to haunt the imagination of Men’42 and in a climax where “she bird” and the man “die” in sexual union, but phoenix-like rise to new life’43 that Dylan Thomas's tale ends, winter snows appropriately melting in the springtime of nature's bridal chamber, albeit with intimations of the grave:

                                                            And he was hymned and wedded,
And through the thighs of the engulfing bride,
The woman breasted and the heaven headed
                                                                                                    Bird, he was brought low,
Burning in the bride bed of love, in the whirl-
Pool at the wanting centre, in the folds
Of paradise, in the spun bud of the world.
And she rose with him flowering in her melting snow.

But it is now time to turn to Thomas's last poems, what he called ‘statements made on the way to the grave’44 but which energetically and healingly registered that optimistic pantheism his last poems divined, while in solitary meditation he watched the passing life of land and sea from his ‘water and tree room on the cliff’.45 It is a setting now famous and, unlike many stories that accrued to the poet's life, a place of true legend and poetic pilgrimage.


  1. John Donne, Deaths Duell, Sermons of John Donne, vol. x, ed. Simpson and Potter (California, 1961) p. 231.

  2. See the review of Our Country in Dylan Thomas in Print: A Bibliographical History, ed. Ralph Maud (London, 1972) pp. 138-9.

  3. Dylan Thomas, Our Country, Wales, Autumn 1943, p. 76.

  4. Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (London, 1985) p. 487.

  5. Ibid., p. 518.

  6. J. Maclaren-Ross, ‘The Polestar Neighbour’, London Magazine, vol. 4, no. 8 (November 1964) p. 103.

  7. Dylan Thomas, ‘Wilfred Owen’, Quite Early One Morning, p. 102.

  8. A. T. Davies, ‘Preface’, Quite Early One Morning (London, 1954) p. viii.

  9. H. N. Fairchild, Religious Trends in English Poetry, vol. vi (New York and London, 1968) p. 412.

  10. Walford Davies, ‘Notes’, Dylan Thomas: Selected Poems, ed. W. Davies (London, 1974) p. 125.

  11. Caitlin Thomas, with George Tremlett, Caitlin (London, 1986) p. 110.

  12. Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (London, 1985) p. 11.

  13. Daniel Jones, ‘Notes’, Dylan Thomas: The Poems, ed. Daniel Jones (London, 1971) p. 271. Dr Jones also confirms that the hunchback ‘stayed from the moment the park opened until it closed’.

  14. Dylan Thomas, ‘Three Poems’, Quite Early One Morning, p. 157.

  15. Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 518.

  16. Ibid., p. 519.

  17. Vernon Watkins, Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins, ed. Vernon Watkins (London, 1957) p. 115.

  18. In confirmation of the use of the word see Bill Bundy, ‘Spreading the Net: Survey of the Lore and Language of Welsh Fisher Folk’, Anglo-Welsh Review, no. 59 (Autumn 1977) p. 70.

  19. Henry Vaughan, ‘The Retreat’, The Works of Henry Vaughan, vol. i, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1957) p. 419.

  20. Thomas's words to define mysticism, Collected Letters, p. 26.

  21. William Wordsworth, ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’, Poetical Works, ed. E. de Selincourt and H. Derbyshire, vol. 4 (Oxford, 1947) p. 280.

  22. Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 689.

  23. Thomas ‘Three Poems’, Quite Early One Morning, p. 154.

  24. Dylan Thomas, quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (London, 1977) p. 45.

  25. Watkins, ‘Introduction’, Letters to Vernon Watkins, p. 13.

  26. Thomas, ‘Three Poems’, Quite Early One Morning.

  27. Dylan Thomas, ‘The Peaches’, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (London, 1940) p. 16.

  28. Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations (London, 1908) p. 157.

  29. Ibid., p. 157.

  30. Thomas Traherne, The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. G. L. Wade (London, 1932) p. 198.

  31. W. B. Yeats, in ‘Letter to His Father’, July 1913, The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. A. Wade (London, 1954) p. 583.

  32. Walford Davies, Dylan Thomas (Milton Keynes, 1986) p. 80.

  33. T. S. Eliot, ‘Dante’, Selected Essays (London, 1934) p. 243.

  34. Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 382.

  35. S. T. Coleridge, Poetical Works, ed. E. H. Coleridge (London, 1978) p. 364.

  36. Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 26.

  37. Ibid., p. 26.

  38. Derek Stanford, Dylan Thomas (London, 1954) p. 101.

  39. T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets (London, 1952) p. 16.

  40. Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems: 1934-53 (London, 1988) p. 21.

  41. W. B. Yeats, ‘Leda and the Swan’, Collected Poems (London, 1952) p. 241.

  42. ‘Introduction’, The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse, introduced and edited by J. Barrell and J. Bull (London, 1974) p. 2.

  43. Davies, ‘Notes’, Dylan Thomas: Selected Poems, ed. W. Davies (London, 1974) p. 126.

  44. Dylan Thomas, quoted in Harvey Breit, ‘Talks with Dylan Thomas’, A Casebook on Dylan Thomas, ed. J. M. Brinnin (New York, 1960) p. 197.

  45. Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, p. 707.

Eleanor J. McNees (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: McNees, Eleanor J. “Wounding Presence: The Sacrificial Poetry of Dylan Thomas.” In Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Presence in the Writings of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill, pp. 110-46. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, McNees discusses religious imagery in Thomas's poetry.]

… the story of the New Testament is part of my life.

—“Poetic Manifesto”

Aligned with Donne or Hopkins, Dylan Thomas is at best a religious renegade, a Welsh nonconformist with neither a strictly Anglican nor Roman Catholic affiliation. Though familiar with the Bible and with the Protestant Welsh Chapel, he was not raised with a reverence for the Eucharist nor with the Anglo-Catholic's belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament.1 He cannot be said finally to ground his poetics on an explicitly Christian faith. Yet, his poetry, like that of Donne and Hopkins, is riddled with religious imagery and frequently assumes a sacramental view of mankind and nature, and their link to God. Like his two predecessors, he employs similar tropes of amplification to heighten the immediacy of his poetry and to explode ordinary logic. The result of this revelatory mode is a surprisingly sacramental vision. Searching for the source of this vision, however, is fruitless, for Thomas's eclecticism defies any attempt to pigeonhole his poems into neat categories. Donne and Hopkins root their work in an overtly Christian ontology, whereas Thomas has no steadfast dogma on which to lean. That he is attracted to Roman Catholicism and equates it with the inner world he longs to express in his poetry is evident in an early (Feb. 1933) letter to his friend Trevor Hughes:

You may think this philosophy—only, in fact, a very slight adaptation of the Roman Catholic religion—strange for me to believe in. I have always believed in it. My poems rarely contain any of it. That is why they are not satisfactory to me. Most of them are the outer poems.2

In fact, reading Thomas's poems, one is left largely with the outer world and the way it comes to absorb the inner world so that the two are often indistinguishable. The self, always carefully preserved in Donne and Hopkins, loses its boundaries in Thomas, and this amorphousness generates confused clusters of images and rhythms. At their best, the rhythm and imagery recall Donne's paradoxes and Hopkins's compression. At their worst, they collapse, like the body, into a morass of dense and disconnected images.

In a later letter to Hughes, Thomas admits that his goal is to draw the external in, “to bring those wonders into myself, 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. It is the simplicity of religion” (CL, 89-90). Yet this religion and its attendant poetic expression are far from simple. The mixture of religious, sexual, and bestial allusions thwarts the critic who wishes to argue for a thoroughgoing Christian interpretation of the poetry.

Nevertheless, an effort to discover a common ground from which the poems spring reveals the dilemma in which many modern poets find themselves. Bereft of the traditional Christian trinity of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, yet still saturated with the vocabulary of that structure, they wrench the religious images out of their orthodox context. The effect of such dislocation is at first shock, then a puzzling sense of doubleness as sacred images are subordinated to or merged with secular ones. Consequently, the traditional upward typological movement toward increasingly spiritual types collapses.

This doubleness of sacred and secular yields a presence akin to that in Donne's and Hopkins's poetry where the reader is made to view sacramental and secular worlds simultaneously. Thomas does not, like Donne, parallel the two, nor, like Hopkins, devise a method of reciprocity based on a kenotic/pleromic process of instress and inscape; rather, he randomly intertwines natural, biological, and religious realms, and announces that all three are equally sacramental. He bases this conclusion on his own body, substituting himself for God and Christ and thereby assuming a prophetic authority.3 For Thomas, Christ is not the ground of being unfolding himself in man and nature. Instead, man and nature seem, especially in the earlier poetry, to usurp Christ's place. As protean prophet, Thomas can variously be Adam, Noah, Christ, even God, as well as an unborn baby speaking from within its mother's womb. To what extent the body can stand as a replacement for a universal faith or how successful the body as ground of being is in generating presence are two questions Dylan Thomas's “religious” poetry poses.4

Acknowledging the lack of a common spiritual climate in the twentieth century for poetic metaphor, Karsten Harries identifies a descent to the body characteristic of poets like Thomas. Harries pinpoints Thomas's quasi-sacramental stance when he refers to the modern poet's effort to erect a private ontology where he can satisfy his “desire to reincarnate the dislocated spirit, the longing for words that will let us rediscover where we belong and thus defeat that sense of contingency and arbitrariness.”5 The danger of such a stance, as Harries warns, is a solipsism in which the poet's language is sealed off from the audience he is trying to reach. The gift of tongues is as remote as unfallen Adam's power to name and hence to identify his world. As faith weakens, so does the belief in the world's ability to create presence. Yet this same loss seems to make the modern poet more desperate to discover a revelatory language with which to redeem himself and his world. Poetic language thus tries to return words to their lost incarnational status. As Harries notes:

A longing remains to find words that would capture this mystery, words which, as the poet writes, were he to find them would force to their knees the cherubim in which he does not believe. For such words would close the gap between language and reality. They would be the creative words of God.6

At most, according to Harries, the poet can employ a form of Ricoeur's “limit-language” by using “metaphors of collision” that catapult the reader out of a world of dead metaphor and anticipated referentiality toward a new sense of presence.

In an early (1934) letter to Trevor Hughes, Thomas explains the poet's struggle with a dead language and expresses the need to create a new living language. Old ground, like dogmatic faith, needs to be ruptured to be renewed:

We look upon a thing a thousand times; perhaps we shall have to look upon it a million times before we see it for the first time. Centuries of problematical progress have blinded us to the literal world; each bright and naked object is shrouded around with a thick peasoup mist of associations; no single word in all our poetical vocabulary is a virgin word, ready for our first love, willing to be what we make it. Each word has been wooed and gotten by a vast procession of dead litterateurs who put their coins in the plate of a procuring Muse, entered at the brothel doors of a divine language, and whored the syllables of Milton and the Bible.

But consciousness of such prostitution need not lead us, as it has led James Joyce, into the inventing of new words; it need not make us, as it made Gertrude Stein, repeat our simplicities over and over again in intricate and abstract patterns so that the meaning shall be lost and only the bare and beautiful shells of the words remain. All we need do is to rid our minds of the humbug of words, to scorn the prearranged leaping together of words, to make by our own judicious and … artistic selection, new associations for each word. Each word should be a basin for us to cough our individual diseases into, and not a vessel full already of others' and past diseases for us to play about with as a juggler plays with puddings.

(CL, 93-94)

Thomas tackles the problem of an overused language by a direct assault on this “prearranged leaping together of words.” Often mistakenly called a surrealist, he severs words and syntax from their common associations.7 As he tells Pamela Hansford Johnson, “It is part of a poet's job to take a debauched and prostituted word … and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin” (CL, 25).

At first this task seems to demand that Thomas assume the role of God or Adam. In his early poetry, he employs an inverted typology within which he seeks to return to an edenic state before the sullying of the Word. Such a search for original presence without self-sacrifice carries him back to prenatal and precreation imagery where he attempts to mime the creating Word. In such “genesis” poems as “Before I Knocked,” “The Sun Burns,” “Through These Lashed Rings,” and “In the Beginning,” he simultaneously recreates his own birth and that of the world. This equation of self and world or of world as microcosm of self is the hallmark of Thomas's early poetry. The equation is both medieval and modern. The medieval assumption that human beings were microcosms of the greater macrocosm was predicated on a belief in God as supreme creator. One was not responsible for the correspondence between his body and the external cosmos; one simply accepted the correspondence as proof of God's omnipotence. Unlike Donne who personalizes and internalizes biblical types to give his poems religious authority, Thomas uses religious imagery to magnify himself. Thomas posits his own body as ground of being and as proof of external nature's validity. In the early poems God seems an adjunct or a helpful metaphor through which the poet can project the authority of his own identity. It appears that the presence Thomas wishes language to call forth is his own, not that of God or Christ. Where Hopkins and Donne seek to reconcile their individuality with conformity to Christ, Thomas uses Christ to reinforce his own individuality, an act the earlier poets would have considered heretical.

Reduced to his own self-taste in his final sonnets, Hopkins can only hope for a spiritual presence to reemerge. With faith in its eventual reappearance, however, Hopkins refuses to despair. Knowing only self-taste from the start, Thomas builds outward, stretching Whitmanesque filaments toward nature, other people, and, most of all, toward death. Death in Thomas's poetry becomes the backdrop or absence against which the words at first fight and with which they finally collude. That he moves, like Donne, toward eschatological fulfillment along a Hopkinsian incarnational route becomes increasingly persuasive if one compares the religious language of certain early poems with that of his later “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” “Vision and Prayer,” and “Author's Prologue.” The key to this route is Thomas's gradual acceptance of the inevitability of sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the model for personal sacrifice is Christ.

Among the critics who view Thomas primarily as a religious poet, Elder Olson, Rushworth Kidder, and Aneirin Davies perceive a movement from darkness and doubt to light and faith—a steady progression toward a Christian sacramental vision. All three argue for a coherent set of religious symbols that, according to Olson, makes “immediate and factual what metaphor and analogue would have left remote and fanciful, to coerce the imagination and so coerce belief; he arouses our emotions before we have time to doubt.”8 Davies emphasizes the difficulty of constructing this symbology and blames it on the “erosion of Christian dogma”:

Every poet of any stature needs a solid superstructure of belief to sustain his imagination. The erosion of Christian dogma, which has been the foundation of Western civilization, has faced the modern poet with a double task, the first of which is to assemble or create a dictionary of relevant symbols, capable of sustaining his creative activity. Much of his energy, therefore, is taken up with this task of creating a superstructure of private dogma, with an attendant hierarchy of symbols.9

Yet up until “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” and “Vision and Prayer,” Thomas's poems militate against such a superstructure. His religious allusions seem to tease the reader toward dogmatic coherence, but the syntax and juxtaposition of sacred and secular continually shatter any such cohesiveness.

Arguing less for a specifically Christian progression and more for an innate “animal faith” are Derek Stanford, W. S. Merwin, and Staurt Holroyd. Stanford regards Thomas's poetry as progressively pantheistic. He notes that pantheism allows Thomas reign to interchange matter randomly, yet still to acknowledge an immanent God as the authority for such random transubstantiation:

When … the poet deals with matter of one kind or another, he is dealing with, partaking of, God; and when he substitutes for the image of this matter the image of matter of a different type, he is creating a sacrament, and establishing a sacramental view of the world.10

Yet the sacramental view, as Stanford concedes, is achieved without sacrifice or tension; it does not point beyond itself to a divine purpose nor to an eschatological conclusion. For this reason, Stanford does not rank Thomas with Hopkins; rather, he sees him as an “agnostic who has retained a naturally religious imagination.”11

Similarly, Stuart Holroyd argues that Thomas's God is wholly immanent. Holroyd pushes beyond Stanford to assert that only through descent into his own body and its sexual processes can Thomas discover God:

The god of Dylan Thomas is wholly immanent, felt along the bloodstream or in the sexual organs, buried in the unconscious. He possesses no attributes, is capable neither of love nor anger, but is conceived rather as a vague Force or Power which is responsible for the harmony of the world and is most clearly discernible in that harmony.12

According to Holroyd, the moment of orgasm is analogous to the moment of religious revelation because one surrenders one's identity and briefly moves beyond the confines of the flesh. Such an experience introduces the consciousness of death, a constant theme in Thomas's poetry:

… sex, together with the process analogous to it in the natural world, was Dylan Thomas's god. The sexual act between man and woman was therefore invested with a grave significance. The act that created life was symbolical of the moment of death; for death was the entry into the womb of the universe, and as man and woman surrender their separate identities at the moment of union, so does man give up his identity when submerged by death.13

This serious emphasis on sex as a regenerative force in Thomas's poetry finds its counterpart in Donne's wittier love lyrics. The explosive syntax and juxtaposed images recall Hopkins's sensuous mimesis of the experience of uplifting grace. Yet, for both Donne and Hopkins, God is still the authorization for all “limit-experiences.” He is both ontological ground and eschatological promise. Because rebellion against such a God is both inevitable and futile, Donne's and Hopkins's poems employ rebellious language like tigers lashed to posts. They are certain of their inability to uproot the posts but must nevertheless convey the agonizing drive toward self-assertion together with the equally agonizing but necessary pursuit of self-sacrifice.

For Thomas, however, the post has already been uprooted—hence, the struggle to be both God and rebel soul simultaneously. Such an effort actually mocks the dogmatic goal of Real Presence: instead of sacrificing himself as a tribute to the sacrificed Christ and merging with him at the moment of communion, Thomas extends himself in an attempt to absorb and appropriate nature, humanity, and God. As W. S. Merwin states, “he will see himself, man, as a metaphor or analogy of the world. The human imagination will be for him the image of the divine imagination; the work of art and the artist will be analogous with the world and its creator.”14

Yet for Thomas, like Hopkins, human and divine do not stand in metaphorical relation to each other; they are mutually dependent and equally literal. It is this realization of a simultaneous secular and sacred presence that underlies both Thomas's early and late poems. What finally separates his genesis poems from his later ones is a deepening sense of the inevitability of sacrifice, both human and divine, in the creation of a sacramental universe. It is ultimately this emphasis on sacrifice that links him both thematically and linguistically to Donne and Hopkins. Like them, Thomas forces language to strain against itself to expose the wound of the poet who finds himself in a world of fallen speech. Not surprisingly, this image of wounding appears constantly throughout his poetry. It connects his earlier genesis poems with his later death-oriented ones, and it harks back both to Adam's wound—the loss of his rib—and to the wound in Christ's side. The act of writing is, for Thomas, a sacrificial wounding akin to the actual wounding of Christ at the crucifixion.

As early as 1933, Thomas had established his body as the central ground of his poetry. In the poems the body is lashed through two great sacrifices—birth and death. This original ground gradually expands to include identification with other wounded figures—Adam, Christ, Noah, and always with nature. In a section of a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson entitled “Defence of Poesie,” Thomas proposes Donne's Devotions as the great example of writing rooted in the physical:

The greatest description I know of our own “earthiness” is to be found in John Donne's Devotion, where he describes man as earth of the earth, his body earth, his hair a wild shrub growing out of the land. All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Therefore the description of a thought or action—however abstruse it may be—can be beaten home by bringing it onto a physical level. 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. All I write is inseparable from the island. As much as possible, therefore, I employ the scenery of the island to describe the scenery of my thoughts, the earthquake of the body to describe the earthquake of the heart.

(CL, 39)

Later in the same year, this apocalyptic imagery shifts to specifically eucharistic imagery. Thomas announces his desire to resurrect the “dead flesh,” a theme that gradually grows more insistent in his poetry:

For the time at least, I believe in the writing of poetry from the flesh, and, generally, from the dead flesh. So many modern poets take the living flesh as their object, and, by their clever dissecting, turn it into a carcase. I prefer to take the dead flesh, and, by any positivity of faith and belief that is in me, build up a living flesh from it.

(CL, 72-73)

Here he proposes to become consecrator and reviver, focusing, like the priest, on the sacramental power of words to transform death to life.

Coexisting with the role of resuscitator is that of absorber. Both fuse to create an image of a godlike poet who can vanquish death and human inferiority by sheer will and self-assertion. In the early letters and poems, Thomas wrestles with God from the position of a superior being; instead of denying God's existence, he subordinates it to his own. The reciprocal process of instress-inscape or kenosis-pleroma, so prevalent in Hopkins, is absent in Thomas. Thomas senses the potential danger of usurping God's place, yet he defends his own poetic ability to appropriate nature to himself:

But I defend the diction, the perhaps wearisome succession of blood and bones, the neverending similes of the streams in the veins and the lights in the eyes, by saying that, for the time at least, I realise that it is impossible for me to raise myself to the altitude of the stars, and that I am forced, therefore, to bring down the stars to my own level and to incorporate them in my own physical universe.

(CL, 90)

Instead of “meeting” and “greeting” God in nature like Hopkins, or reaching toward Him at death like Donne, Thomas must pull Him down and cover spirit with flesh in a mimesis of the Incarnation. His vision is immanent, often irreverent, his poetic imagery and syntax semantically discordant but aurally rhythmic. The building rhythms stand in contrast to the destruction of logical syntax. This gap between melodic rhythm and disruptive imagery marks much of the early poetry and announces one of Thomas's most persistent themes—the paradox of destruction and creation occurring everywhere simultaneously.

In 1933 this paradox leads to an explicit poem about faith. To believe in God, the poet must kill Him, then resurrect Him. “No Man Believes” records the confrontation of faith with death and illustrates the need to “wound” the former to make it firm. There are subdued echoes of both Christ at the Crucifixion and Job at the height of his despair on the dung hill, though Thomas does not assume those personae directly. The poem introduces the death-resurrection theme of much of the later poetry and employs favorite linguistic devices of repetition and oxymoron to push the point home. As in Hopkins's early poems, syntax does not yet mime semantic action. The repetition is imitatively biblical and heavy-handed, the style prescriptive instead of presentational.

After describing man's confrontation with natural death, Thomas asserts that “No man believes who … does not make a wound in faith / When any light goes out, and life is death.”15 The final paradox of the first stanza—“life is death”—is unexpected and dogmatic; it reverses and echoes the traditional Christian teaching that “death is life.” Yet this reversal is more a shift of emphasis than a perverse denial. Throughout his early poems Thomas tends to equate birth with death. Only later does he come to the eschatologically-oriented belief in death and resurrection. Here the death-resurrection process is more a metaphor for abstract faith than a literal equation. Hence it does not activate presence; it explains the process by which presence may be realized.

The poem operates through negatives reminiscent of the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments; in fact, it contains ten basic assertions couched in negatives. These assertions lead to a final affirmative faith reached through the process of “breaking and making,” analogous to the eucharistic fraction and communion. In the final stanza, Thomas graphically spells out the death-resurrection dilemma on which faith hinges:

And this is true, no man can live
Who does not bury God in a deep grave
And then raise up the skeleton again,
No man who does not break and make,
Who in the bones finds not new faith,
Lends not flesh to ribs and neck,
Who does not break and make his final faith.


In “Presence and Absence in Modern Poetry,” James Hans notes that “descent into the world of absence is linked to the ascent of presence.”16 For Thomas, this descent involves a confrontation with death and a realization of a presence beyond death. Although this confrontation recalls both the crucifixion-resurrection and its eucharistic recreation, it differs from them in its attitude toward the victim-communicant. Instead of submitting himself will-lessly to death to be reborn, the poet actively kills the natural objects of his world and presumes to resurrect them himself. As Hillis Miller explains:

it is the act of returning upon the world of created things after their deaths, assuming them all sacrificially, dying their deaths again for them, and by this doubling saving them, affirming them as alive in the midst of their deaths.17

At this early point of “No Man Believes,” the sacrificial quality is absent; the poet kills and resurrects but does not die himself. There is no sense of reciprocity, only a desire to control and through controlling to affirm belief on the poet's terms, not on God's. This is the opposite of Donne's pleas for grace or Hopkins's desire for instress in which both earlier poets understand the need to relinquish control to God.

The central poetic device in the poem is the assonance of the long “o” words, expressed primarily in the repetition of “No,” “Not,” “God.” As Thomas mentions in a letter, “God moves in a long ‘o’” (CL, 73). The aural equation of God with the negatives “no” and “not” reinforces on a syntactical level the thematic statement “life is death.” It also hints that faith must be achieved by a negative and rebellious route, not through blind affirmation.

Thomas continues in several early poems to emphasize this simultaneous creation-destruction based on his observation of the body and its “limit-experiences” of birth and sex, both of which he equates with death. Admitting to Pamela Hansford Johnson that “the equilibrium between flesh and non-flesh can never be reached by an individual” (CL, 70), he opts for the former, although he realizes its artistic limitations. Yet he seems to believe that by absorbing and expressing different speakers, he can break out of a purely solipsistic confinement. This assumption of multiple personae, as well as the increasing emphasis on biblical imagery, provides a route from the self to the outside world in such poems as “Before I Knocked,” “The Sun Burns,” “Through These Lashed Rings,” and “In the Beginning.” As Rushworth Kidder points out, however, the imagery is still allusive and referential, not yet thematic. The biblical personae and allusions are still subordinated to the poet and poem, not the reverse. The felt presence is that of the poet and his own vocabulary, not that of God or Christ.18

“Before I Knocked” employs one of Thomas's favorite doubling devices—that of multiple speakers. Like the natural elements, the individual and people are interchangeable. Human beings are no longer rooted in a Christian scheme—hence, their peculiar mobility and Thomas's fluid imagery. Here Thomas is alternately or simultaneously himself and Christ. As in “No Man Believes,” he is determined to subordinate spirit to flesh to control and believe in the incarnational process. Sex paradoxically unites with divine annunciation in a poem that has parodic overtones. Unborn, the persona, Thomas or Christ, can transcend or avoid human time, death, and sex until the moment of birth. Here, the first explicit hint of personal sacrifice enters Thomas's poetry. Here too he reinforces his earlier assertion that “life is death.”

Just before birth, he depicts entrance into life as a crucifixion:

My veins flowed with the Eastern weather;
.....As yet ungotten, I did suffer;
The rack of dreams my lily bones
Did twist into a living cipher,
And flesh was snipped to cross the lines
Of gallow crosses on the liver
And brambles in the wringing brains.


The crucifixion is twofold. Not only is the child born to death, but its birth is a physical crucifixion for the mother whose dreams are twisted into reality (“living cipher”) and whose womb is split (“crossed”) during the birth. By doubling the speaker's identity, Thomas can combine the literal physical level with the spiritual or, more accurately, force the latter into the service of the former. Christian imagery, specifically that of the Passion and Resurrection, underlies the poem. Yet Thomas transforms the nouns “lily” and “gallow” to adjectives that modify his own body in an effort to make even the syntax and grammar support his emphasis on the physical and personal over spiritual and universal.

The confusion of speakers becomes especially apparent in the last two stanzas as the persona nears death:

I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither
A ghost nor man, but mortal ghost.
And I was struck down by death's feather.
I was a mortal to the last
Long breath that carried to my father
The message of his dying christ.
You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother's womb.


To insist on the double identity of the speaker Thomas purposely confuses uppercase and lowercase letters. In stanza 3 he capitalizes “Eastern” weather, thereby hinting at both east and Easter, but emphasizing the latter. In these final two stanzas he chooses to keep the trinitarian ghost, father, and christ in lowercase and to capitalize “Him” in the last stanza. Stanza 7, consequently, places the emphasis on Christ's subordination to the human speaker, and stanza 8 appears to emphasize Christ at the moment of the Incarnation. Derek Stanford perceives this stanza as a reversal of the communion supplication to God to pity the communicants who remember Christ.19 It seems more plausible, however, that Thomas has cleverly introduced a third presence into the poem—God. If so, one could read stanza eight as a united rebellion by Christ and Thomas against God. Is Christ-Thomas asking the reader to pity a god who has to assume “flesh and bone for armour” against mankind and who “doublecrossed” or cheated a mother out of sexual satisfaction? The possibility for multiple interpretations is rife in this confusion of speakers and is supplemented by the transformation of uppercase and lowercase letters. Also, “doublecrossed” is packed with both profane and religious connotations. In addition to echoes of Christ's crucifixion, it could mean crossed twice—once at conception and again at birth; technically, it means cheated; punningly, it could serve as a key to the double nature of the speakers who seem to cross paths throughout the poem.

“The Sun Burns the Morning” offers “Before I Knocked” an interpretation of “doublecrossed.” After alluding to the Old Testament episode of the appearance to Moses of the Angel of Jehova (Exod. 3:2-4) and the New Testament interpretation of the burning bush as a type of the Virgin Mary—“The sun burns the morning, a bush in the brain” (l.1), the first two stanzas continue to embed biblical imagery in often obscurely inverted syntax. Stanza 1 echoes Adam exiled to the wilderness and Christ as the second Adam at the Crucifixion: “Here in my wilderness wanders the blood; / And the sweat on the brow makes a sign, / And the wailing heart's nailed to the side” (ll.3-5). Stanza 2 hints at Christ's birth—“a saviour who sings like a bird” (l.7) and “the stable under the skin” (l.10).

The final stanza interprets the Crucifixion as already inherent in both the Christ child and, by extension, in all children and their mothers. Here, as in “Before I Knocked,” the mother in labor is presented as double-crossed:

Under the ribs sail the moon and the sun;
A cross is tattooed on the breast of the child,
And sewn on his skull a scarlet thorn;
A mother in labour pays twice her pain,
Once for the Virgin's child, once for her own.


The mother, a type of “all women” or of the Virgin, as the child is a type of Christ, begets a child doomed to suffer like Christ. Birth carries with it the stigmata of torture—“scarlet thorn”—and death—a tattooed cross. The mother, like all believers, has already suffered spiritually for Christ; now she must suffer physically at the birth-death of her own child.

Instead of confusing personae, the poem merges people and nature by implanting the human in the natural. Here Thomas's main feat, like that of Hopkins in the Terrible Sonnets, is severe compression of biblical images and their absorption into the body: “bush in the brain,” “stable under the skin.” By internalizing biblical episodes, Thomas moves beyond Donne's equation of himself with biblical types. Thomas forces spiritual significance to incarnate itself in physical sensations; likewise he makes intellectual comprehension dependent on physical sensation. This tactic is not unlike that of the eucharistic sacrament where one must literally eat the spiritual bread and wine that have been transformed into body and blood. Absent, however, from both “Before I Knocked” and “The Sun Burns” is any hope of resurrection. Crucifixion and incarnation are ends in themselves. Both pervade persons and nature and unite them in the same process, but neither guarantees immortality.

“Through These Lashed Rings” represents a departure from the previous two poems. It internalizes God instead of Christ or nature, and forces God to serve the speaker. Although Donne and Hopkins both move to an affirmation of faith through sensuous identification with God, they would strongly dispute Thomas's subordination of God to a human body:

And through these eyes God marks myself revolving,
And from these tongue-plucked senses draws His tune;
Inside this mouth I feel His message moving
Acquainting me with my divinity;
And through these ears He harks my fire burn
His awkward heart into some symmetry.


Here, in a radical departure from dogma, Thomas has forced God to praise a human being, not the reverse. God's function is not only to acquaint the speaker through language with the speaker's own divinity but also to derive “His tune”—from the speaker's “tongue-plucked senses”—eyes, mouth, and ears. here self-knowledge, although still relying on God, replaces faith. The last two lines recall Blake's “The Tyger,” which asks the nature of a God who would frame an animal with such “fearful symmetry.” Yet in Thomas's poem the speaker himself becomes the symmetrical framer of God's heart. Having presumably framed man, God is now dependent on man to reshape His divine plan in poetry. The synesthetic “He harks my fire burn / His awkward heart” disrupts ordinary semantic interpretation and recalls biblical revelations in which divinity is mysteriously manifested to humans through a mixture of physical sensations. Even if the poem seeks to reinterpret God's Word through the speaker's senses, one would have to concur with Stuart Holroyd that, for the modern poet, “Religion is not so much man's attempt to know God as his attempt to know himself.”20

“In the Beginning” fuses the Old Testament account of the creation with the New Testament doctrine of the Incarnation. In so doing, it dispenses with chronological time and makes the moment of creation and the moment of Christ's Incarnation simultaneous. The poem finds its cornerstone in the trinitarian combination of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost. The star in the beginning is “three-pointed”; the “pale signature” is “Three-syllabled”; and the “mountain fire”—the son-sun—is “three-eyed.” Here Thomas travels backward as he does in “Before I Knocked” to affirm the existence of Christ before the Incarnation. The last stanza disrupts chronological and biblical time in its insistence on the temporal “before.” It places the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ before the creation of either the world or the birth of Christ:

Before the pitch was forking to a sun;
Before the veins were shaking in their sieve,
Blood shot and scattered to the winds of light
The ribbed original of love.


Thomas evinces here a tendency both to scramble and compress time in the poem. A possible motive for this ploy is his desire to reverse the reader's logical and linear thinking. One result of this reversal is a realization of the coterminous quality of divine events. Thomas urges one to regard secular events as sacred. Here the doctrine of the Real Presence provides a viable analogy. In the Real Presence of the Eucharist both linear time and geometrical space disappear or are no longer applicable. Likewise, in all divine events, time and space transcend one's limited linear perspective. Stanza 2 announces the spiritual fuse—blood—that makes all time coterminous: “The blood that touched the crosstree and the grail / Touched the first cloud and left a sign” (ll.11-12). Here again, the element of sacrifice is implicit in the allusion both to the Crucifixion and the Eucharist. The sign on the first cloud is a warning of Christ's impending sacrifice. The blood image extends to unite creation with destruction.

With “This Bread I Break,” Thomas shifts to a specifically eucharistic subject away from speculations on human birth and death. Although the imagery recalls the eucharistic sacrament, the order of events, like that of the genesis poems, is scrambled and reversed. Unlike the early eucharistic poems of Hopkins, Thomas absorbs Christ and priest into himself. By doubling the personae and confusing their roles, Thomas is able to articulate the eucharistic sacrament from different vantage points. Such confusion of speaker and stance jolts the reader into an unorthodox view of the ceremony. At the same time the juxtapositions allow for a doubling or tripling of presence. Not only is Christ's presence felt, but also that of the elements and the priest-poet become equally urgent. What binds all three, aside from the multiple voices, is the element of sacrifice implicit in each speaker.

On one hand, the poem mocks the dogmatic belief in transubstantiation by reversing the process and moving from body and blood to bread and wine. Conversely, it reinforces belief in consubstantiation by granting identity and equality to all the elements—both natural and divine. Natural is not subordinated to supernatural. Yet both natural and supernatural are destroyed in the fraction that precedes the actual communion. Thomas still cannot see past destruction to resurrection.

Christian interpretations of this poem proffer it as testimony of Thomas's increasing sacramentalism. Both Davies and Spender argue for Thomas's orthodox belief in the Catholic Eucharist. Spender notes:

At his best, one really has the impression of the word becoming flesh. In a poem like “This Bread I Break” the mystery of the transubstantiation seems to be hidden within the changes going on in the words themselves. If one completely understood what was happening with these verbs and nouns, one would have a deeper knowledge of the Christian mystery.21

More likely, however, this early poem is a reinterpretation of the Eucharist from Thomas's own viewpoint. It incorporates an ambiguous persona, a descent of the spiritual into the physical, and a literal description of a human being's inseparable relationship to nature. Although Derek Stanford suggests that the poem is a “sort of ‘pantheistic’ eucharist,” he goes on to aver that it is addressed to a lover, not to a congregation.22 Given Thomas's penchant for rooting much of his imagery in bodily processes, this may be plausible, but it is certainly secondary to the literal nature imagery. Kidder's reading seems more to the point. He sees the poem as a prototype of later thematic poems and an early instance of language giving way to theme instead of obscuring it.23

The imagery demonstrates the disruption of the eucharistic sacrament. By the end of the poem, the body and blood are returned to bread and wine in a typological reversal of the actual Eucharist. The speaker in the first two stanzas looks backward to the natural origins of the elements instead of forward to their spiritual anti-types:

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wind at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grapes' joy.
Once in this wine the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.
This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.


Thomas anthropomorphizes nature to make man's destruction of it almost cannibalistic. The eucharistic imagery acts subversively; it lends seriousness and sanctity to the original oat and grape. The staccato syllabic verses are propelled by short, destructive verbs, primarily versions of “break.”

In stanza 1, either man or the wind has harvested or destroyed the oat and grape. Here harvesting and natural destruction are equal evils. In stanza 2, this destruction is intensified by allusion to “summer blood” and “flesh” of the vine. Furthermore, man has broken the “sun,” a thinly veiled allusion to the Son, and controlled the wind. In other words man, not Christ, exacts the sacrifice. Stanza 3 reverts to the present tense and addresses an ambiguous you—the reader, a lover, a congregation? It fuses the allusions of the previous two stanzas and causes an almost dizzy series of transformations: flesh and blood hark back to oat and grape, then become wine and bread in a return to the present tense. Thomas adds a living element to the ceremony by introducing man-made wine and bread in their pristine forms of grape and oat. The entire poem operates on the principle of decomposition.

The full rhyme “sap” and “snap” of the final two lines is unusual for Thomas and stresses the now static quality of nature overwhelmed by man's violent action. All in all, this eucharist is a violation, not a restitution. The real presence is that of the living oat and grape, not of Christ. Significantly, Thomas avoids the word “body” throughout the poem and limits it to the synecdoche “flesh,” thereby intensifying the visceral focus on natural over spiritual elements.

Finally, one again encounters the problem of the ambiguous persona. Is the “I” of stanza 1 the same “I” of stanza 3? If so, both “I” and “you” are complicit in their plot to destroy nature. If not, the second “I” would appear to be Christ equating himself with “the sensual root and sap.” The “desolation in the vein” would then signify man's participation in the sacrificial part of the sacrament, his kenotic self-surrender and his fusion with Christ and Christ's Passion. In either case, “This Bread I Break” heralds a movement away from the more personal “I” of the genesis poems toward a sustained exposition of sacramental imagery. It remains for “Altarwise by Owl-light” further to untangle (entangle) Thomas's religious stance.

“Altarwise by Owl-light,” a series of ten sonnets written in 1935 and 1936, marks a midpoint in Thomas's effort to make a religious theme speak through language instead of having the linguistic texture obscure the theme. Here both content and verbal texture merge, at times clouding each other, at others creating an almost shocking sense of presence. The title is an accurate indicator of the complexity one encounters throughout the poem. It contains several of Thomas's favorite tropes of amplification—tmesis (transposition of the words “wise” and “light”), paradox (“Owl-light” equals darkness), and homonymic pun (“Altarwise” equals close to the altar or wise as to the sacrificial meaning of the altar). Most of all, the title indicates the “halfway” quality of the entire poem: much of the imagery is paradoxical and disconnected as if the speaker were writing in doubt as to which way to turn. “Altarwise” in this sense could mean lacking any wisdom of the sacrifice, remaining near the altar in doubt and darkness.

Although several critics have argued that the sonnet sequence moves from doubt to faith, several others focus on the density of language that threatens to cloud content.24 One cause of this cloudiness, as Bernard Knieger suggests, is that Thomas “simultaneously denies and affirms Christ's divinity.”25 Indeed, the language seems to mime this conflict; it staggers backward and forward without an identifiable pattern of imagery. Part of this confusion may be, as Kidder suggests, due to the uncertainty of a narrative framework that “gives the impression of an emphasis on Biblical specifics to the exclusion of religious commitment.”26 Kidder goes on to note the absence of any coherent thematic imagery as the central problem of the poem.27

Yet this lack of a thematic thread may be precisely Thomas's point. Refusing as he has said to raise himself to the stars or to orthodox Christian dogma, he chooses to pull the stars down to his own level. In fact, this level has various surfaces, each of which contains its own cluster of imagery and evokes its own tone. These tones—variously sarcastic, bitter, and revelatory—change with the choice of persona who seems alternately to be Christ, Thomas, and an obscure prophet, or perhaps a mixture of the three. As in his earlier poetry, Thomas incorporates Old and New Testament allusions and twists them into morbidly visceral images. At times the sonnets parody both Incarnation and Resurrection and posit a person's obstinate confrontation with death as the ultimate reality. “Death is all metaphors, shape in one history” (l.15), he says in sonnet 2, affirming his persistent equation of birth and death in the genesis poems.

In “Altarwise,” as in “This Bread I Break,” however, Thomas moves past this simple equation by tackling the problem of sacrifice. One must be wounded with the Word to experience redemption. The sonnets almost literally wound the ear in their often ugly straining against the confinement of the sonnet structure. Here Thomas approaches Donne and Hopkins both thematically and linguistically. He deranges ordinary perception, as Jacob Korg suggests, to reach a reality beneath linear syntax.28 Thomas frequently speaks of this elusive reality as “the magic beyond definition,” and the “attempt at an expression of the summit of man's experience.”29 In his “Poetic Manifesto” he avers that poetry is “figures of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realized truth I must try to reach and realise.”30

Like the beginning of Donne's “Godfriday,” “Altarwise” tries to speak doubt and conviction simultaneously by transforming Christ into a degraded “penny-eyed … gentleman of wounds, / Old cock from nowheres and the heaven's egg, / With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds” (ll. 7-9). This dubious figure will not leave the Thomas persona alone; he “Scraped at my cradle in a walking word / That night of time under the Christward shelter” (ll.11-12). The counterpart to the Christward shelter in the first sonnet is the halfway house in which the gentleman lies “graveward with his furies,” descendent of Abaddon (angel of death) and Adam (instigator of death). Although Kleinman argues that sonnet 1 is a “transformation of the Nativity story according to St. Luke,” it is difficult to perceive even a semiorthodox treatment of the Incarnation here.31 Rather, the extension of the Incarnation into the present is more like a curse than a blessing, for it reminds one of the sacrifice (“gentleman of wounds”) and the uncertain origin (“Old cock from nowheres”) of Christ, not his promised Resurrection nor redemption of mankind.

The salient doubling device of sonnet 1 that serves as a thematic key is the repetition of “half-way” and its echoes throughout in such words as “graveward,” “hangnail,” “Christward,” and hyphenated compounds. The directional markers, “graveward” and “Christward,” mean pointed toward, not accomplished. “Hangnail,” in addition to its literal meaning as a painful piece of flesh, also conjures up Christ's flesh hanging nailed to the cross, a painful reminder to man of his own impending death. “Owl-light,” “atlas-eater” and “penny-eyed” all provoke almost impossible contradictions; “owl-light” and “penny-eyed” simultaneously suggest and deny sight, and “atlas-eater” indicates a physical impossibility—a creature eating the world. Finally, the “long world's gentleman,” transformed from “that gentleman of wounds,” foreshadows the climactic assertion of the ambiguous poet-Christ persona of sonnet 8: “The world's my wound” (l.102). Christ, not Adam, has imposed his wound on the entire world. Instead of resting complacently in Adam's sin, one must now contend with the problem of sacrifice to be redeemed.

In addition to the syntactical and thematic dislocations, the sonnet form is violated by lines of eleven beats, and the meter does not scan smoothly in iambic pentameter. As Kleinman notes, “We are cut adrift from syntax.”32 This severing of form and syntax mimes the halfway quality of the Thomas persona who is loath to fasten himself to one specific structure but must drift midway between doubt and faith. The halfway quality of the imagery, syntax, and rhythm in sonnet 1 indicates a failure to recreate a “limit-experience” in “limit-language,” perhaps because the truth and nature of that experience are still uncertain. Language is neither referential nor revelatory; sound and sense cannot harmonize.

It falls to sonnets 8 and 10 to create some kind of coherence and in so doing to break the words open to sacramental presence. Both sonnets operate by compression; they fuse images synesthetically and introduce ambiguous personae. Sonnet 8 compresses time to expose the fallacy of human chronology. It announces both Crucifixion and Resurrection and transforms Christ to “Time's nerve in vinegar” (a temporal echo from sonnet 1—“That night of time under the Christward Shelter”):

This was the crucifixion on the mountain,
Time's nerve in vinegar, the gallow grave
As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept;
The world's my wound, God's Mary in her grief,
Bent like three trees and bird-papped through her shift,
With pins for teardrops is the long wound's woman.
This was the sky, Jack Christ, each minstrel angle
Drove in the heaven-driven of the nails
Till the three-colored rainbow from my nipples
From pole to pole leapt round the snail-waked world.
I by the tree of thieves, all glory's sawbones,
Unsex the skeleton this mountain minute,
And by this blowclock witness of the sun
Suffer the heaven's children through my heartbeat.


Of all the sonnets and the earlier poems, sonnet 8 comes closest to merging secular and divine time in the “mountain minute”—the moment of Christ's death and the promise of his Resurrection and consequent redemption of mankind. Christ's death catapults human beings into a new dimension of eschatological time. The “gallow grave” in line 2 compresses both Crucifixion and tomb; it unites death and burial by alliteration, semantic proximity, and grammatical equality (the two words are both nouns).33

In line 3, blood and tears fuse through the thorns, a simultaneous image of sacrifice and grief. The “I” here is ambiguous: Are the mourners or Christ weeping, or both? At death, the “gentleman of wounds” from sonnet 1 transfers his wounds to the world where the speaker, now seemingly Thomas, inherits that wound at the moment of Christ's death.34 The second half of the line is ambiguous—“God's Mary in her grief.” It either modifies wound or “God's,” and also acts like a contraction in which God becomes Mary in her grief as the world becomes the speaker's wound. The two possibilities illustrate Thomas's technique of exploding meaning through two equally plausible interpretations of the same phrase. The teardrop pins echo the thorns and nails as teardrop crosses back to “the bright thorns I wept” of line 3. The unexpected “minstrel angle” for “minstrel angel” seems a purposeful slip and indicates the multiple angles of the singer-speaker as well as arousing a visual image of angels at the four angles of the cross.

The persona of the final four lines is again uncertain. Kleinman perceives the “I” as Christ unsexing death,35 though another possibility suggests that the “I” is God who, by the witness of the sun (Son), affords mankind entrance into eternal life. The unsexing of the skeleton echoes the early poem “No Man Believes” where one must first kill an anthropomorphic God and reduce Him to a skeleton in order to raise and clothe Him. Here God must perform the same action on Christ to ensure mankind's belief. Again Thomas asserts that there is no faith without sacrifice. Finally, the “I” may be Thomas himself who “unsexes” the skeleton through the revelatory words of the poem.

The final two lines recall the proclamatory saying of Christ, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matth. 19:14), reinterpreted and internalized in a transformation similar to “My camel's eyes will needle through the shroud” in sonnet 4 (l.52). Both allusions refer to Christ's parabolic statements about life after death in the “other” kingdom. Like Christ, Thomas disrupts ordinary logic by borrowing the eschatological language of the parables and proclamations. He goes further, however, and disrupts the accepted sense of the parables by scrambling syntax and transforming parts of speech. As Paul Ricoeur notes, parables “disorient” us to “reorient” our imagination “to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule.”36 Thomas twists parables not only to thrust the reader into a new way of seeing but also to make him question the freezing of parabolic language into dogma. He plays with “limit-language” in the “Altarwise” sequence to displace dogma and renew active faith. He degrades parable to rhetorical riddle; he distorts the speaker's stance and denies the reader a visual image. By this disruptive process, Thomas shows how traditional syntax reinforces dogma—the “peasoup mist of associations”—that obscures true divinity.

As M. J. Hammerton states:

Thomas's originality appears in a favorite device of his which consists in taking a well-known phrase, using enough of it to provide recognition, and just when we are about to settle comfortably on the cushion of a well-established formula, we find ourselves sitting on something sharp and unaccustomed, for he has deftly deflected the ending of the cliche to provide the shock and surprise that all original writers can create.37

Such abruption, characteristic of Donne and Hopkins as well, creates a temporary mental block in which the mind harks back to the original (in this case, parable), then darts forward to the discrepancy or gap between the original and the actual text. By this device, Thomas succeeds in forcing the reader back toward familiarity and forward to unforeseen revelation. These distortions of the familiar slice through time and space simultaneously to push together and pull apart associations. Furthermore, because parable and kingdom saying carry within them a disruption of human time, the reader is already predisposed to see beyond temporal logic.

The final sonnet, as Kleinman notes, echoes and subtly transfers many of the words in sonnet 1. “Altarwise” is now “Atlaswise”; the globe is balanced, not eaten; the word blown, not walking. Compression is again evident in line 6—“December's thorn screwed in a brow of holly”—fuses allusions to Incarnation and Passion. There is here also a remnant of the random transubstantiation of “This Bread I Break” as well as the metonomy of “December's thorn” and “brow of holly.” The persona is submerged, save for the “I” of the first five lines, the teller of the tale “from a Christian voyage.” This teller is a survivor who balances “Time's [a periphrasis for Christ] ship-racked gospel” atlaswise on the globe. The teller still has to balance time with Christological time; he has not yet reconciled the two. “Ship-racked” recalls the more traditional word shipwrecked and also images a ship stretched in two or a person (Christ?) split on a rack (cross?). It also, perhaps inadvertently but temptingly, echoes Hopkins's line in the Deutschland: “Is the ship-wrack then a harvest?” (l.248). Likewise, the gospel (Christ's words) is “racked” and held “half-way off the dummy bay,” (again an echo of the Deutschland's wrecked position off the Welsh coast), still not given directly to prospective believers. “Dummy” as an adjective means fictitious, a definition that adds further ambiguity to the gospel's destination.

Line 4 uses hyperbaton and synesthesia—“So shall winged harbours through the rockbirds' eyes / Spot the blown word” (ll.130-31)—to emphasize the flux and chancy reception of the gospel. The counterpart to “winged harbours” is the flying garden” of line 10—allusions, respectively, to eschatological kingdom and ontological Eden. The transformation of flying garden to diving garden, while it captures the darting and soaring of the rockbirds, also links Christian ontology and eschatology through the images of the “two bark towers”—tree of knowledge (death) and cross (Resurrection).

The sonnet pushes beyond the temporal transformations of “This Bread I Break” to illustrate the Christian concept of redeemed time. Here elements are not randomly transubstantiated; instead, a clear pattern of descent and ascent, absent from the former poem, emerges. The final two lines, however, are puzzling. Clearly referring to Judgment Day, they state, “When the worm builds with the gold straws of venom / My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree” (ll.139-40). Perhaps the threat of the worm or of death's poison is preparatory to the realization of mercy through sacrifice. “Rude, red tree” recalls the homonym rood or cross as well as Christ's blood on the cross. The tree of knowledge and its consequent sin foreshadow both Christ's bloody sacrifice and his redemption. Judgment Day will abolish death and sacrifice for those who have received mercy.

Unlike Hopkins's Deutschland, “Altarwise by Owl-light” seems to stop short of actually asserting redemption. Though it refers to Judgment Day and though its imagery appears redemptive—“blown word,” “sown,” “flying,” “soar,” “build”—the final sense is of the necessity of sacrifice, not of rebirth. The “nest of mercies”—symbol of suffering, not joy—is built in the tree. The straws, though golden, are venomous. The presence here is not clearly analogous to the Real Presence of the Eucharist where Christ and communicant are mutually sacrificed and united. It seems that such presence, contingent on sacrifice, is still only anticipated, not achieved. It falls to the later poems, specifically to “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” and “Vision and Prayer,” to realize sacramental presence through human sacrifice.38

In “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” and “Vision and Prayer,” Thomas attempts to fuse language and theme into sacramental ritual. Here syntax finally supports rhythm, and a central theme arises from this collusion. In these two poems, he moves beyond the biological consubstantiation of elements in the genesis poems to a specifically religious typology. The poems are erected on an inherently Christological framework; they posit Christ as the nexus of temporal and eternal. Like Hopkins's Deutschland, they use Christ as the route from death to rebirth. Christ offers a release from Adam's mortality, yet Christ must die to redeem mankind. As John Nist notes, “The blood of Christ is that final light which the dark in man cannot ultimately escape.”39 Like Davies and Kidder, Nist argues that Thomas finally subordinates himself to the religious myth instead of subsuming the myth to himself. Davies sees “Ceremony” as “bringing together … the legend of Adam, and the Mass of the ‘broken body’ of Christ the second Adam.”40 Though less inclined to acknowledge a strictly typological movement, Kidder perceives a transformation from hollow ritual to fleshed-out sacrament where words and theme conspire:

Ritual … may be taken to mean language that refers to some form and order of worship. Sacrament, involving ritual, goes farther and calls attention to the poem itself—to the process of poetic creation and to the very words on the page—as symbol of a deeper religious realm.

The sacramental “rises from words about things towards things in themselves.”41

Although “Altarwise” appears to rise “towards things in themselves,” it ultimately fails to make form analogous to content. There is always a gap between the ritualistic rigidity of the sonnet form and the seemingly random juxtaposition of images. “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” departs from Thomas's longer syllabic lines to emphasize the jagged, nonlinear process of faith. Unlike the denser “Altarwise,” the persona and progression are guided by verbs that propel the progress instead of retard it. Similarly, the prepositional phrases designate direction; they do not disrupt it.

The doubling devices begin with the “Myselves” of the persona, a boldly ungrammatical assertion of communion, in which the dead child, Christ, poet, and mourners are fused. Throughout the poem this double persona allows personal and public to merge in a mimesis of the eucharistic ceremony where communicants and priest are united through the language of the Mass. Here the language of the poem, like that of the Mass, activates the vision in each stanza. Part 1, guided by the verbs “grieve,” “sing,” and “forgive,” moves like a formal communion prayer addressed not to Christ but to the child who by stanza 4 is equated with Christ in the image of “Child beyond cockrow.” Like the crucified Christ, denied by Peter before the cock's third crow, the child is now beyond the denial of the living.

Stanza 3 moves like the “flesh-burst” stanza 8 of The Wreck of the Deutschland: It explodes the communion wafer in a violently hyperbolic image. The ritualistic repetition begins with a penitential prayer and ends in a celebration of the death-life paradox similar to the last line of “Altarwise's” sonnet 8: “Suffer the heaven's children through my heartbeat.” Like “No Man Believes,” the persona, “myselves the believers,” needs the sacrifice of death to experience true faith:

Us forgive
Your death that myselves the believers
May hold it in a great flood
Till the blood shall spurt,
And the dust shall sing like a bird
As the grains blow, as your death grows, through our heart.


The supplicatory “Forgive” introduces a new kenotic element absent from the earlier poems. With faith and forgiveness—the necessary kenotic ingredients for grace—the persona can understand the sacramental significance of the child's (Christ's) death as it grows through “our heart,” another paradoxical doubling device in which many hearts are emptied into one communal one. Here too is a subtle typological movement from the Old Testament allusion to the “flood” to the New Testament sacrifice of “blood,” as the internal rhyme stresses the transition. The “blow”/“grow” rhyme of line 24 furthers this movement and pushes toward the resurrection from death and its realization in the communal “our heart.”

Another doubling device that operates kenotically or sacrificially in “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” is reverse typology in which the grievers are advised to sing back to a synesthetic beginning before the Word when “the caught tongue nodded blind.” The child's “decreation” has (however blasphemously) dictated a sympathetic decreation of the Word in an effort to recreate a new faith and a new language in which to express that faith. This typological reversal—New Testament collapsing back to Old—underscores part 2. Here the speaker speculates which holy figure—Adam, Eve, Christ, Mary—was the first to die in the child's skull. He then offers his own interpretation: He fuses Old Testament with New in a feat of compression where the words strain both forward and backward:

I know the legend
Of Adam and Eve is never for a second
Silent in my service
Over the dead infants
Over the one
Child who was priest and servants,
Word, singers, and tongue
In the cinder of the little skull,
Who was the serpent's
Night fall and the fruit like a sun,
Man and woman undone,
Beginning crumbled back to darkness
Bare as the nurseries
Of the garden of wilderness.


The white “skeleton / Of the garden of Eden” of the first verse has become the bare “nurseries / Of the garden of the wilderness,” as original sin begets barrenness or death. If, as in “Altarwise,” death is still “all metaphors, history in one shape,” then Old and New Testaments are identical, each hedged by death. Yet part 2 does not wholly support such despair. The child, both itself and Christ, is the serpent's “Night fall,” Satan's death, as well as Satan's institution of death. If Christ vanquishes Satan and death, however, it is only after his own and that of mankind. This is the great lesson with which the poem struggles to come to terms. As Thomas will aver later in “Poem on His Birthday,” “Dark is a way and light is a place,” but “dark is a long way” (ll.49, 64). Likewise, in his final sonnets and letters, Hopkins lives in a nighttime world where he realizes that to the living, light is more a promise than a reality.

Part 3 of “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” employs repetition of the kenotic “into” and pleromic “over” to announce the sacrifice of death and the victory of resurrection. Here Genesis unites with the Revelation to St. John in a resounding declaration of light:

Into the organpipes and steeples
Of the luminous cathedrals,
Into the weathercocks' molten mouths
Rippling in twelve-winded circles,
Into the dead clock burning the hour
Over the urn of sabbaths
Over the whirling ditch of daybreak
Over the sun's hovel and the slum of fire
And the golden pavements laid in requiems,
Into the bread in a wheatfield of flames,
Into the wine burning like brandy,
The masses of the sea
The masses of the sea under
The masses of the infant-bearing sea
Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter for ever
Glory glory glory
The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis' thunder.

(ll. 60-76)

The brutal burning of the child has been transformed into a gloriously sacramental burning that will become the scalding purgation of “Vision and Prayer.” The earthquake imagery of the last stanza not only recalls the biblical Revelation but also catches the moment of communion—the Mass—when the bread and wine assume living properties and force the communicant into a realization of a new presence united with his own. This presence connects both the creation of Genesis and the eschatological kingdom of St. John's Revelation by vanquishing death. Thomas has used the occasion of the child's death to force an odyssey through and beyond death in “Ceremony after a Fire Raid.” Unlike the “half-way” gospel held off the “dummy bay” of “Altarwise,” “Ceremony” enacts and commemorates a sacrifice that was previously regarded askance with fear and skepticism. The explosive quality of repeated words thrusts meaning forward instead of restricting it. The reader is pushed by sound instead of lulled or distracted by it.42 Yet Thomas must still realize presence through a human, not a divine, tragedy. The act of coming to grips with the child's death pushes him toward reconciliation with God. As he must in the early poems descend into himself to realize presence, he now moves into an empathic identity with the dead child.

Refusing to acknowledge any sacramental fusion of language and belief in “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” Jacob Korg argues that the poem is a “ritualistic rehearsal of established articles of faith.” He goes on to state, “The spiritual victory of the poem, encountering too little resistance, is too easily won … it moves, like a ceremony, among symbols divorced from their sources of value.”43 Yet this divorce is precisely Thomas's intention. As in “Altarwise,” he dislocates symbols to jar the reader out of complacent orthodoxy. He then reassembles these symbols into a new pattern to suggest a new meaning. As he says in his letters, first to Charles Fisher in 1935 and later to Henry Treece in 1938, a poem should “work from words from the substance of words and the rhythm of substantial words set together, not towards words. Poetry is a medium, not a stigmata on paper” (CL, 182). Korg is anxious to view Thomas's work as either hermetic—a self-referential artifact—or as purely referential—a hollow mimesis of an orthodox ceremony. To Henry Treece Thomas justifies his dialectical method of composition, which makes the two poles of Korg's view converge:

Each image holds within it, the seeds 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 … an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions. Out of the inevitable conflict of images—inevitable because of the creative, recreative, destructive and contradictory nature of the motivating centre, the womb of war—I try to make that momentary peace which is a poem. … A poem of mine is a watertight section of the stream that is flowing all ways, all warring images within it should be reconciled for that small stop of time.

(CL, 281-82)

“Vision and Prayer” literally illustrates this dialectical method both in its concrete appearance and in its extension of this creation-destruction theme. Like The Wreck of the Deutschland, it is a conversion poem, moving from birth to death to rebirth in twelve patterned stanzas. Of the numerous interpretations of the stanza shapes, one fact is clear: the diamonds of part 1 are reversed to hourglasses in part 2 as if to mark two contrasting times—the first ebbing away from, and the second fulfilling the first.44 A further interpretation would insist on the personal visionary quality of part 1 and the public prayerlike quality of part 2. The self-enclosure of part 1 and the expansiveness of part 2, as Sister Roberta Jones suggests, may mark the descent and metaphorical death of the persona and the ascent of the convert, or, as Kidder suggests, the death of the poet and the birth of the convert.45 The emblematic hourglass stanzas of part 2 visually reinforce the kenotic emptying and pleromic fulfillment of the eucharistic service.

Like the genesis poems and like parts 1 and 2 of “Ceremony,” part 1 of “Vision and Prayer” is concerned with a birth that Thomas equates with death. There is no way out of this world, both shape (womb = tomb) and statement—“And the heart print of man / Bows no baptism / But dark alone / Blessing on / The wild / Child” (ll.12-17)—suggest. Birth foreshadows crucifixion: “… the shadowed head of pain / Casting tomorrow like a thorn” (ll.24-25). “And the winged wall … torn / By his torrid crown” (ll.29-30). Although the imagery is familiar (see “Before I Knocked”), the shape and speaker are more formal than in the earlier poems. No longer is the ground of the poem exclusively based on the poet's body and its biological functions. Instead, like “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” the foundation rests on a human child who is equated with the Christ child, not on Thomas himself. In both poems, however, the child, not the grown Christ, spurs the poet's conversion. Here Thomas, like Donne, has designated an external event as a type of internal event and has reversed his earlier tendency to view the world as a microcosm of himself. Self-absorption has been transformed to self-sacrifice.

Stanza 4 insists on the necessity of self-sacrifice as a prerequisite for redemption. Like part 3 of “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” the imagery recalls that of St. John's Revelation. The slightly varied repetition of lines 6 and 11 adds liturgical formality to a vision whose swirling imagery threatens to break out of its tightly controlled form:

                                                  The spin
                                        Of the sun
                              In the spuming
                              Cyclone of his wing
                    For I was lost who am
          Crying at the man drenched throne
          In the first fury of his stream
And the lightnings of adoration
Back to black silence melt and morn
          For I who was lost who have come
          To dumbfounding haven
                    And the finding one
                    And the high noon
                              Of his wound
                                        Blinds my


Synesthetic recognition of the wound that blinds and makes dumb (“dumbfounding haven”) paves the way for the culmination of the vision in which the speaker ascends from “the vultured urn / Of the morning / Of man” (ll.81-83) to “The world winding Home” (l.98). The diamond shape of part 1 has become an equation of Genesis with Revelation, Alpha with Omega, through the speaker's participation in the wound: “And the whole pain / Flows open / And I / Die” (ll.99-102). One is reminded of Donne's insistence on personal crucifixion as a requirement for God's grace. The pun on “dumbfounding” illustrates the paradox of language and vision in part 1. To surrender the self to the wound of Christ's crucifixion means to lose one's voice, hence Kidder's assertion that part 1 indicates the death of the poet.

Part 2 does not immediately announce the resurrection attendant on the sacrifice. Instead, the voice prays “In the name of the lost” from “the centre of dark,” not in the name of God, nor from heaven. It asks that Christ let the dead lie in darkness, for “Forever falling night is a known / Star and country to the legion / Of sleepers whose tongue I toll” (ll.154-56). Because Christ's martyrdom demands a reciprocal martyrdom from humans, Thomas asks that human beings be allowed to avoid the pain, that Christ return to “a grave grey / And the colour of clay” (ll.184-85). The final stanza, however, like that of “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” heralds a sudden reversal. Unexpectedly, the speaker experiences a revelation in which sun and Son fuse to mark the climax of the vision and the answer to the prayer:

I turn the corner of prayer and burn
          In a blessing of the sudden
                    Sun. In the name of the damned
                              I would turn back and run
                                        To the hidden land
                                        But the loud sun
                                                  Christens down
                                                            The sky
                                        Am found.
                              O let him
                    Scald me and drown
                    Me in his world's wound.
          His lightning answers my
          Cry. My voice burns in his hand.
          Now I am lost in the blinding
One. The sun roars at the prayer's end.

(ll. 199-215)

Here the cry is not, as in part 1, blinded or muted. Rather it is heard and answered. Prayer and poetry coincide, or rather poetry is transformed into prayer, as wordless vision gives rise to praise—“my voice burns in his hand.” Reciprocity finally replaces assertion and appropriation.

Recognition of the necessity of sacrifice pervades Thomas's later poems. “Poem on His Birthday” and “Author's Prologue” act as sacramental responses to the vision achieved in “Vision and Prayer.” This underlying realization of sacrifice allows Thomas to view death without rancor and with hope for salvation. “Poem on His Birthday,” written two years before his death, recapitulates the doubt and lostness of “Vision and Prayer” until the last three stanzas. The prayer, like the prayer in the name of the lost, is “Faithless,” but the final enumeration of blessings pierces through the unreconciled “brambled void” of Heaven to announce a victorious voyage toward death:

                    That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
          The louder the sun blooms
And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;
          And every wave of the way
And gale I tackle, the whole world then,
          With more triumphant faith
Than ever was since the world was said,
                    Spins its morning of praise,
                    I hear the bouncing hills
Grow larked and greener at berry brown
          Fall and the dew larks sing
Taller this thunderclap spring, and how
                    More spanned with angels ride
The mansouled fiery islands! Oh,
                    Holier then their eyes,
And my shining men no more alone
                    As I sail out to die.


Having given himself over to death, he is able to “inscape” the sacramental quality of nature in which he can now participate. Despite Karl Shapiro's caveat against this sacramental view, Thomas is able both to celebrate and enter his own death through the poetic process.46 As mourning shifts to rejoicing, he has gained, like Hopkins before the Terrible Sonnets, a sense of the consubstantiation of man and nature through Christ's example of sacrifice.

The final stanza converts fall to spring through synesthetic images of growth. Thomas “hears” the hills grow greener and “sees” the larks “sing taller” in “this thunderclap spring,” a possible reminder of the thunder of Revelation. The last two stanzas are filled with comparative adjectives that directly equate proximity to death with expanding life. It is as if Thomas has assimilated Judgment Day into his own personal life and death. By internalizing the imagery of Revelation, he at once makes his own death more divine and the Eschaton more human. Like Donne in his final “Hymne to God My God,” Thomas is now able to assert his identity with divinity at the moment of death. His “sundered hulks” have been transformed to “shining men” surrounded by angels. Like the “myselves” of “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” the speaker is no longer isolated but infused with both natural and spiritual presence. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he learns that prayer and blessing—a specific type of prayer—can effect a consecration of self and nature. From “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” to “Vision and Prayer” through “Poem on His Birthday,” Thomas becomes a consecrator, invested with the ability to make the relationship between words and their referents sacramental.

“Poem on His Birthday” is a subtler evocation of sacramental presence than either “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” or “Vision and Prayer.” Although some critics perceive Thomas's late poems as a failing of poetic power, the reverse seems to be true.47 This poem and “In Country Sleep,” for example, do not take the reader abruptly by storm. They do not pinpoint the revelation of a sacramental universe; rather they survey the effects of what Hopkins might term “after-gracing” or a kind of resignation to a limited time on earth. Instead of recalling Genesis, they push toward a typological and eschatological view of life. Allusions to Christ are muted; stanzas are regular and strictly syllabic. The rhythm flows through the words instead of bursting through them or acting against them. Assonance and internal half-rhyme contribute to the steady softer beats. Once accepted, the wound imagery too fades in anticipation of the final wound of death.

Thomas's final finished poem, “Author's Prologue,” gathers up the selves of “Poem on His Birthday” and “Ceremony after a Fire Raid” as well as his other chosen Collected Poems into a metaphorical ark that he sends out on the flood to his readers. Its form—two stanzas of 51 lines each rhyming backward from the middle—recalls the hourglass shape of part 2 of “Vision and Prayer.”48 Its progression, however, is more linear and chronological. Choice of the typological image of Noah building his ark is unusual for Thomas who generally avoids such a sustained single analogy. Unusual too at first glance are the simple syntax and short lines that, in a sentence of 33 lines, operate by listing and thereby accumulating sea life. Yet both theme and form are carefully wrought to enclose the Collected Poems in a timeless present—the now of the first and last lines and the sun of “God speeded summer's end” (2nd and 101st lines). If one regards the poem as a sacrificial offering to the reader as Thomas indicates in a parenthetical insertion one should do—“(though song / Is a burning and crested act, / The fire of birds in / The world's turning wood, / For my sawn, splay sounds)” (ll.24-28), the “Prologue” reinforces the movement toward a sacramental vision of nature the earlier poems had promised.

The tropes of amplification—often full, identical rhymes, mirrored reverse stanzas, onomatopoeia, direct address, exclamation, parenthetical asides—move away from the tight paradoxical compression of such poems as “Altarwise” toward a less conflicted vision, a “poor peace,” as Thomas states in the poem and in his letter to Bozman. Noting the intricacy of the rhyme and the difficulty of composition, he says, “Why I acrosticked myself like this, don't ask me” (CL, 838). The pun's closeness to the Crucifixion is unmistakable and provides a clue to the poem's sacrificial character.

M. J. Hammerton argues that for Thomas writing was the supreme sacrifice. He implies that such a sacrifice united him with Christ and allowed him a sacramental view of man and nature.49 “Author's Prologue” spells out this sacrifice to the reader:

At poor peace I sing
To you strangers (though song
Is a burning and crested act,
The fire of birds in
The world's turning wood,
For my sawn, splay sounds),
Out of these seathumbed leaves
That will fly and fall
Like leaves of trees and as soon
Crumble and undie
Into dogdayed night.


Poetry is a wound, the act of writing a self-wounding as such poems as “On No Work of Words” assert.50 Though it may purport to preserve life by praising it, the process of writing is itself life draining, not life sustaining for Thomas. The imagery of the “Prologue” makes this clear as it equates building (preserving) with wounding and hacking:

                                                  as I hack
This rumpus of shapes
For you to know
How I, a spinning man,
Glory also this star, bird
Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest.


And again:

                                                            my flood ship's
Clangour as I hew and smite
(A clash of anvils for my
Hubbub and fiddle, this tune
On a tongued puffball)


Thus in a very literal sense, the “Prologue” and the other Collected Poems are bloody sacrifices transformed into sacramental songs. Though the recreation of Noah's ark in the “Prologue” would seem to introduce a new life as it sails out on the flood, its images recall particularly the end of “Poem on His Birthday” where the sun blooms as the men sail out to die:

We will ride out alone, and then,
Under the stars of Wales,
Cry, Multitudes of arks! Across
The water lidded lands,
Manned with their loves they'll move,
Like wooden islands, hill to hill,
Huloo, my proud dove with a flute!
Ahoy, old, sea-legged fox,
Tom tit and Dai mouse!
My ark sings in the sun
At God speeded summer's end
And the flood flowers now.


Both Stephen Spender and J. Hillis Miller recognize the dilemma of poets like Thomas who struggle with their own rebellious wills under the shadow of a larger cosmic will. Hopkins and Donne believed in the necessity of subduing their individual wills to the will of God, whereas Thomas had no such direct path. His obssession with wounding and sacrifice throughout his poetry attests to an intuitive belief in the efficacy of sacrifice as a prerequisite for sacramental presence. As he sloughs off his godlike persona, he moves toward the embodiment of this sacramental presence in his poems. The price of this achievement is, as Miller notes, agonizing. Either one can absorb the world, or he can surrender himself to it: “The act by which man turns the world inside-out into his mind leads to nihilism. This can be escaped only by a counter revolution in which man turns himself inside-out.”51 The turning inside out perhaps epitomized by the visual hourglass of “Vision and Prayer” and the aural hourglass of “Author's Prologue” requires death as a prelude to resurrection.

In a late letter to Marguerite Caetani, Thomas refers to himself as a miraculous Houdini bent on submerging himself, then rising in a parody of Christ's death and resurrection:

I see myself down and out on the sea's ape-blue bottom: a manacled rhetorician with a wet trombone, up to his blower in crabs. Why must I parable my senseless silence? my one long trick? my last dumb flourish? It is enough that, by the wish I abominate, I savagely contrive to sink lashed and bandaged in a blind bag to those lewd affectionate racous stinking cellars: no, I must blare my engulfment in pomp and fog, spout a nuisance of fountains like a bedwetting what in a blanket, and harangue all land-walkers as though it were their shame that I sought the sucking sea and cast myself out of their sight to blast down to the dark. It is not enough to presume that once again I shall weave up pardoned, my wound din around me rusty, and waddle and gush along the land on my webbed sealegs as musical and wan and smug as an orpheus of the storm: no, I must first defeat any hope I might have of forgiveness by resubmerging the little arisen monster in a porridge boiling of wrong words and make a song and dance and a mock-poem of all his fishy excuses.

(CL, 915-16)

Gone is the “found” persona of “Vision and Prayer,” the “shining men” of “Poem on His Birthday.” As Thomas stated in a prophetic letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1933, a writer must choose between the world of flesh and the world of nonflesh:

… under the philosophy … which declares the body to be all and the intellect nothing, and … limit(s) the desires of life, within the walls of the flesh; or under the philosophy which, declaring the intellect and reason and the intelligence to be all, denies the warmth of the blood and the body's promise. You have to class yourself under one heading … for the equilibrium between flesh and non-flesh can never be reached by an individual. While the life of the body is … more directly pleasant, it is terribly limited, and the life of the non-body, while physically unsatisfying, is capable of developing, of realising infinity, of getting somewhere, and of creating an artistic progeny.

(CL, 70-71)

Both Donne and Hopkins struggle with this equilibrium in their poetry. Strongly orthodox Anglican and Roman Catholic, they have in the Real Presence of the Eucharist a precedent for this balance between flesh and nonflesh. Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Hill lack faith in such a model, yet they try to achieve an analogous presence through words that echo the eucharistic Prayer of Institution. Thomas falls heavily into the way of the flesh or what Stephen Spender terms the “way of the self,” whereas Hill pursues the opposite route. Spender notes in an essay on Auden and Thomas that applies equally well to Hill and Thomas:

The way of the self or the way of the not-self: the way of intensively living the contemporary experience, turning it into the flesh and soul of the poet's own personality, out of which closed world he hammers his romantic poetry; or the way of knowledge, analysis, depersonalization and bringing into the area of poetic symbolism the instruments of science and religion which can dissect the modern world. The way of intuition or the way of learning.52

Together, the fleshed sacramental vision of Thomas and the skeletal skepticism of Hill mark two divergent routes open to the modern religious poet. Although Donne and Hopkins could combine voluptuous and ascetic in their poetry, Thomas and Hill lack the orthodox foundation that would permit such a tension to exist. In the absence of an integrating belief, they rely on language itself to revive this tension. Whether they work from word to idea or from idea to word, they have not inherited the spiritual thread that would mend the two. As both Thomas and Hill admit, the world has been tarnished beyond recognition. The task of reclaiming it entails a search for a new ground in which to plant their poems. Although this ground is for Thomas most often like the shifting uncertainty of the sea, his poetry nevertheless identifies a process of sacrificial death and resurrection modeled on the Christological myth: One must first drown before being scalded or saved, a process that Thomas's later poems constantly enunciate.


  1. Aneirin Talfan Davies, Dylan: Druid of the Broken Body (J. M. Dent, 1964; reprint, Swansea: Christopher Davies, 1977), note 7, p. 34. Davies notes, however, that Thomas sometimes attended a local Anglican church and even borrowed Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, a history of Catholicism and Anglicanism. Thus he would have been familiar with the significance of the Eucharist in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

  2. Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 12. Subsequent citations are noted parenthetically in text as CL.

  3. Henry Treece was the first to argue for Thomas's indebtedness to Hopkins, a debt that Thomas denied. Treece says, “While Hopkins calls out to God, throwing the light of Heaven upon his anguish, Thomas again looks inwards, and as a God unto himself, analyzes and diagnoses for his own disorder” (Dylan Thomas: “Dog Among the Fairies” (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1949), 62. Comparing Thomas to Hopkins in a recent article, Jacob Korg denies that Thomas struggles with similar spiritual problems. He concludes, “For Hopkins the contradictions of a world that offers both anguish and joy were occasions for self-questioning and self-discipline; for Thomas they were, far more simply, and far less painfully, materials for poetry” (“Hopkins and Dylan Thomas,” in Hopkins Among the Poets: Studies in Modern Responses to Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Richard F. Giles (International Hopkins Association Monograph Series 3, 1985), Hamilton, Ontario, 93. I argue throughout this chapter that Thomas did progress painfully toward a spiritual vision of self-sacrifice in nature, and that this progression was far from effortless.

  4. Karl Shapiro denies the importance of God in Thomas's poetry as opposed to the role of God in Hopkins's poems: “Hopkins draws his symbology almost entirely from the God-symbol. God, in various attributes, is the chief process in Hopkins's view of the world. Sex is the chief process in Thomas's view of the world” (“Dylan Thomas,” in Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. C. B. Cox [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966]), 174.

  5. “Metaphor and Transcendence,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 86.

  6. Ibid., 88.

  7. In fact, Thomas takes pains to abjure Surrealism, especially in his own poetry. As he tells Richard Church who accused him of the taint of Surrealism, “I am not, never have been, never will be, or could be for that matter, a surrealist, and for a number of reasons: I have very little idea what surrealism is; until quite recently I had never heard of it; I have never … read even a paragraph of surrealist literature” (CL, 204-5). And to Henry Treece, he says, I haven't … ever read a proper surrealist poem” (CL, 282).

  8. The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 15.

  9. Druid, 60.

  10. Dylan Thomas: A Literary Study (New York: Citadel Press, 1965), 37. Stanford uses the term “sacramental” loosely; he does not equate sacramentalism with sacrifice nor with the spiritual implanted in the material.

  11. Ibid., 203.

  12. Emergence From Chaos (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 81.

  13. Ibid., 83.

  14. “The Religious Poet,” in Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet, ed. W. E. Tedlock (London: Heinemann, 1960), 236.

  15. The Poems of Dylan Thomas, ed. Daniel Jones (New York: New Directions, 1971), 54-55, ll. 1-6. Subsequent citations for this edition are noted parenthetically in text.

  16. Criticism 22(1980): 331.

  17. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 214.

  18. Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 115-19.

  19. Literary Study, 49.

  20. Emergence from Chaos, 15.

  21. The Making of a Poem (1955, reprint; New York: Norton, 1962), 38.

  22. Literary Study, 73.

  23. Country, 129.

  24. In The Religious Sonnets of Dylan Thomas: A Study in Imagery and Meaning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), H. H. Kleinman notes, “The poem begins with a sonnet mocking the descent of the word; it concludes in a spiraling ascent of faith” (11). In an elaborate exposition in which he argues for the astrological influence on the sonnet sequence, Elder Olson, Poetry of Dylan Thomas, sees the poem moving in an eschatological fashion from pagan elements to Christian faith. This movement culminates with the Christian interpretation of sonnets 4 and 5 (64-86, passim).

  25. “Dylan Thomas: The Christianity of the ‘Altarwise by Owl-light’ Sequence,” College English 28, no. 8(1962): 627.

  26. Country, 136.

  27. Concurring with Kidder's verdict, Robert Adams compares Thomas with the metaphysical poet Crashaw and notes, “a poet may certainly enrich his poem by meaning two things at once, but he will certainly confuse it by meaning sixteen things at once, without making clear the relation between them” (“Crashaw and Dylan Thomas: Devotional Athletes,” in C. B. Cox, Dylan Thomas, 137).

  28. Dylan Thomas (New York: Twayne, 1965), 51.

  29. Dylan Thomas, James Stephens, and Gerald Bullett, “On Poetry: A Discussion,” Encounter 3, no. 5 (1954): 25-26.

  30. “Poetic Manifesto,” Texas Quarterly 4(1961): 46.

  31. Religious Sonnets, 13.

  32. Ibid., 66.

  33. Ibid., 94-95. Kleinman sees sonnet 8 as the initiation of New Testament time, which culminates in sonnet 10. Sonnets 1 to 7 have illustrated the seven days of creation. He views “gallow grave” as a fusion of Golgotha and Christ's tomb.

  34. Knieger, “Dylan Thomas,” views Thomas as speaker here: “the poet participates vicariously in the crucifixion of Christ, the world is his wound; also suggested is the wounding operation of time” (623).

  35. Religious Sonnets, 99.

  36. “The Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God,” Anglican Theological Review 62, no. 1(1980): 39.

  37. “Christian Love in Dylan Thomas,” Theology 49, no. 548 (February 1966): 76.

  38. Both “Fern Hill” and “In Country Sleep” exact personal sacrifice to realize sacramental presence also. In the former, Thomas depicts the prelapsarian world of his childhood and its inevitable ruin in adulthood. Yet here, the religious images are governed by human time. The persona's sacrifice fails to ensure a permanent presence.

  39. “‘No Reason for Mourning’: A Reading of the Later Poems of Dylan Thomas,” Approach 42(1962): 6.

  40. Druid, 68.

  41. Country, 145.

  42. Louise Baughan Murdy in Sound and Sense in Dylan Thomas's Poetry (The Hague: Mouton, 1960) discusses sound and sense in “Ceremony” and concludes that Thomas progresses “toward a phonetic ‘symbolism’” in which sound truly echoes or symbolizes sense” (105).

  43. Dylan Thomas, 114-15.

  44. Davies, emphasizing Thomas's orthodox adherence to the Incarnation and Resurrection, sees part 1 as womblike, part 2 as crosslike, and Incarnation being completed by Crucifixion and promise of Resurrection (52). Nist agrees with Davies's interpretation of part 1 but sees part 2 as a chalice offering in communion the seal of the Resurrection (6).

  45. Country, 164. Sister Roberta Jones sees part 2 as the intersection of the God-Man symbolized by the Greek chi or cross (“The Wellspring of Dylan,” English Journal 55, no. 1[1966]: 81).

  46. Shapiro in “Dylan Thomas,” states, “Unlike Hopkins, he has no vision of nature and cannot break open the forms of nature; he cannot break open words. He focuses madly on the object, but it will not yield” (177).

  47. Stanford in Literacy Study, sees in the final poems, particularly “In Country Sleep,” a movement from expression to description and a resultant focus on surface as opposed to essence (136). In Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964), Harvey Gross sees the later poems moving toward “declamation” over presentation (271). Both critics blame this movement on a failure of vision and an angry reaction against this failure.

  48. Asked by his editor to write a prose prologue to the Collected Poems, Thomas instead labored over an elaborate poem. As he tells Bozman, “I set myself, foolishly perhaps, a most difficult technical task: The Prologue is in two verses … of 51 lines each. And the second verse rhymes backward with the first. The first and last lines of the poem rhyme; the second and the last but one, and so on and so on” (CL, 838).

  49. “Christian Love,” 58.

  50. The first two stanzas stipulate the agony of not writing and the sacrifice involved in commencing:

    On no work of words now for three lean months in the bloody
    Belly of the rich year and the big purse of my body
    I bitterly take to task my poverty and craft:
    To take to give is all, return what is hungrily given
    Puffing the pounds of manna up through the dew to heaven,
    The lovely gift of the gab bangs back on a blind shaft.

    (ll. 1-6)

  51. Poets of Reality, 7.

  52. Making of Poem, 43.

Seamus Heaney (essay date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Heaney, Seamus. “Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas.” Salmagundi, no. 100 (fall 1993): 66-85.

[In the following essay, Heaney examines Thomas's critical reputation in the years since his death.]

Dylan Thomas is by now as much a case history as a chapter in the history of poetry. Mention of his name is enough to turn on a multi-channel set of associations. There is Thomas the Voice, Thomas the Booze, Thomas the Debts, Thomas the Jokes, Thomas the Wales, Thomas the Sex, Thomas the Lies—in fact there are so many competing and revisionist inventions of Thomas available, so many more or less corrective, reductive, even punitive versions of the phenomenon that it is with a certain tentativeness that one asks about the ongoing admissibility into the roll-call of Thomas the Poet.

Yet it was very much Thomas the Poet that my generation of readers and listeners encountered in our teens. He died at the age of 39 in New York, immediately because of a wrongly prescribed dose of morphine, but inevitably because of years of spectacular drinking, and he died at the height of his fame, at the moment when print culture and the electronic media were perfecting their alliance in the promotion of culture heroes. Indeed, to recollect that moment is to have second thoughts about any easy condescension towards the role of the media in these areas. The records of Dylan Thomas reading his own poems, records which were lined up on the shelves of undergraduate flats all over the world, were important cultural events. They opened a thrilling line between the centre and the edges of the English language collective. For all of us young provincials, from Belfast to Brisbane, the impact of Thomas's performance meant that we had a gratifying sense of access to something that was acknowledged to be altogether modern, difficult and poetry.

Later, of course, there were second thoughts but Dylan Thomas will always remain part of the initiation of that first 11+ generation into literary culture. He was our Swinburne, a poet of immense, immediate impact who swept us off our ears. And yet nowadays he has become very much the Doubted Thomas. In this essay, therefore, I want to ask which parts of his Collected Poems retain their force almost 40 years after his death. In the present climate of taste, his rhetorical surge and mythopoeic posture are unfashionable, and his bohemianism is probably suspect as a form of male bonding, which only makes it all the more urgent to ask if there is not still something we can isolate and celebrate as Dylan the Durable.

Dylan Thomas was both a uniquely gifted writer and a recognizable type. Within the sociology of literature, he was a Welsh version of what Patrick Kavanagh called in the Irish context a “bucklepper”, which is to say, one who leaps like a young buck. The bucklepper, as you might guess, is somebody with a stereotypical sprightliness and gallivanting roguery, insufficiently self-aware and not necessarily spurious, but still offering himself or herself too readily as a form of spectator sport. Thomas's Welshness, his high genius for exaggeration and for entertaining (which was genuine and genuinely beloved), his immense joie de vivre and his infectious love of poetry, the intoxication (in every sense) of his presence—all of this qualified him as a fully developed specimen of the bucklepping tribe, an image of the Celt as perceived by the Saxon, a principle of disorder and childish irresponsibility complementary to the earnest, gormless routines and civility of Albion. But the clamorous spectacle of writers such as Brendan Behan or Dylan Thomas quickly becomes, according to Kavanagh, a way of getting credit as an artist without having to produce the art. In fact, the very conventionality of Thomas's anti-conventional behaviour contributed to his being too easily slotted and accommodated. He was inevitably co-opted by the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic as the in-house bohemian, and no matter how sympathetic we may find his masquerade as the lord of misrule, no matter how attractive his recklessness and his mockery of fiscal and social rectitude may at times appear, it is still regrettable to think of his acting out the allotted role so predictably. Indeed, one of one's regrets about Thomas is that he did not follow the example of a far sturdier interloper from the Celtic realms, the example, that is, of W. B. Yeats himself. Yeats in the 1890s punted into the scene on the Celtic current, but once in the swim, he used his mystique to initiate a counter-cultural move within English poetry itself. But Thomas never did have that kind of ambition.

In the end, Thomas's achievement rests upon a number of strong, uniquely estranging, technically original and resonant poems, including one of the best villanelles in the language, and it is to these that I am going to direct my attention in this essay. His “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood, is of course an idyllic romp, as if The Joy of Sex were dreamt under the canvas at a Welsh Eistedfodd. It will always occupy an honourable place in that genre which Graham Greene usefully christened “entertainments”, as will his many broadcast talks and stories. But the poems are his indispensable achievement. They promote his melodramatic apprehension of language as a physical sensation, as a receiving station for creaturely imitations, cosmic process and sexual impulses. But they also manage to transform such unremarkable obsessions into a mighty percussive verse. No history of English poetry can afford to pass them over. Others may have written like Thomas, but it was never vice-versa. Call his work Neo-Romantic or Expressionist or Surrealist, call it apocalyptic or overrated or an aberration, it still remains sui generis, a body of real poems that are fit though few.

Thomas himself was good at recognizing and describing the real thing although unfortunately he rarely paused to do so. Vernon Watkins, however, brought out the best in him. Here is Thomas, at twenty-three years of age, writing to Vernon Watkins about poems which Watkins has sent him:

Poems. I liked the three you sent me. There is something very unsatisfactory, though, about ‘All mists, all thoughts’ which seems—using the vaguest words—to lack a central strength. All the words are lovely but they seem so chosen, not struck out. I can see the sensitive picking of words, but not the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down … They (the words) seem, as indeed the whole poem seems, to come out of the nostalgia of literature … A motive has been rarefied; it should be made common. I don't ask you for vulgarity, though I miss it; I think I ask you for a little creative destruction, destructive creation.

This is the voice of somebody who knows what the demands are. There's a wonderful sureness about the passage, an authority that comes from the writer's knowing what it feels like to have composed something true and knowing the difference between it and all imitations, however worthy. What Thomas is talking about here is the élan which distinguishes the most powerfully articulated metrical verse. Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium,” Pope's “Epistle to Arbuthnot,” the prologue to Marlowe's Tamburlaine—these and other moments of passionate utterance in English poetry do not depend upon what Thomas fondly but critically terms “the nostalgia of literature.” They are literary, certainly, in that all of them take a self-conscious pleasure in stepping it out correctly, showing their prosodic paces and their rhyming heels; but they are not what Thomas calls nostalgic, the poems I mention are not concerned with “effects.” Like all definitive poems, they spring into presence and stand there, as Czeslaw Milosz says, blinking and lashing their tails. They break the print-barrier, as it were, and make their sonic boom within the ear. All of which can be said without exaggeration of “Before I Knocked and Flesh Let Enter,” an early Thomas poem about incarnation in both the biological and the theological sense of the term. Eternal life enters and exits the womb, and in crossing that threshold twice, it double-crosses it, as the poem says. The poem speaks out of a moment that could either be the moment of the Christian annunciation or the moment when the sperm fertilizes the ovum and the spirit of life knocks to be admitted through the door of the flesh:

Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm.
I who was deaf to spring and summer,
Who knew not sun nor moon by name,
Felt thud beneath my flesh's armour,
As yet was in a molten form,
The leaden starts, the rainy hammer
Swung by my father from his dome.
I knew the message of the winter,
The darted hail, the childish snow,
And the wind was my sister suitor;
Wind in me leaped, the hellborn dew;
My veins flowed with the Eastern weather;
Ungotten I knew night and day.
As yet ungotten, I did suffer;
The rack of dreams my lily bones
Did twist into a living cipher,
And flesh was snipped to cross the lines
Of gallow crosses on the liver
And brambles in the wringing brains.
My throat knew thirst before the structure
Of skin and vein around the well
Where words and water make a mixture
Unfailing till the blood runs foul;
My heart knew love, my belly hunger;
I smelt the maggot in my stool.
And time cast forth my mortal creature
To drift or drown upon the seas
Acquainted with the salt adventure
Of tides that never touch the shores.
I who was rich was made the richer
By sipping at the vine of days.
I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither
A ghost nor man, but mortal ghost.
And I was struck down by death's feather.
I was a mortal to the last
Long breath that carried to my father
The message of his dying christ.
You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother's womb.

Dylan Thomas died long before men landed on the moon, before we saw our planet from that perspective, profiled like the greenwebbed X-ray of a foetus's head. But even though he missed those photographs of earth, round and gelid with oceans, translucent like a cell under the microscope, this poem offers a corresponding superimposition of images, of the microcosm and macrocosm. Thomas listens in for the potential at the first place in the sperm and the ovum, but he also lets himself go as far as his metrical sound waves can reach across aural space. Even if there is something Godawful about the maggot in the stool, there is still something superbly forthright about the verse itself, a sense of the poet going head-on and barehanded at the task in front of him. There is no sense of him hovering over a word choice or taking a bow because of some passing felicity. There are, of course, several flourishes, yet these high-flown phrases like “the rainy hammer”, “the vine of days”, “death's feather”, “the fathering worm”, and so on go sweeping past like eddies on a big flow. They aren't set out for our admiration: instead, they are going swiftly about their business. The words, to quote the letter to Watkins, are “struck out” rather than “chosen”.

There is, of course, always a temptation to caricature this early poetry as a kind of tumescent fantasia, but to take that line too glibly is to demean a real achievement. One must beware of confusing the subject with what the poet makes of it. At twenty, Thomas knew about art as a making and a discipline and was writing to Charles Fisher: “I like things that are difficult to write and difficult to understand. I like ‘redeeming the contraries’ with secretive images … But what I like isn't a theory, even if I stabilize into dogma my own personal affections.” We might say, therefore, that in the case of “Before I Knocked …” and “The Force that through the Green Fuse drives the flower” and “A Process in the Weather of the Heart” and in the early poems generally, affections and impulses have been stabilized not into dogma but in the form. Work has been done. Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language: something intuited and reached for has had its contours and location felt out and made manifest.

Thomas himself was often given to speaking of the process of composition as one of bringing the dark to light, although in his case, the creative work of hauling forth the psychic matter and discovering its structure probably has more to do with the story of Caedmon than with the practices of Freud. In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede recounts the brief and simple tale of the calling of the poet Caedmon, an event that is set near the monastery at Whitby. Caedmon, the cowherd, found it impossible to contribute any improvised verses when it was his turn to take the harp and keep the banquet lively. But he always managed to find a way of dodging these crises by contriving to be at his yard-work when the harp was being passed. He would be out among the cattle, busy being busy. Then, one night when he was in the byre stalls as usual, he fell asleep and an angel appeared and commanded him to sing the creation of the world; and he did so, in the poem known ever since as Caedmon's Hymn, a poem dictated in a dream and entered into the language as a marvel and a bewilderment. Caedmon wrote “It is meet that we worship the Warden of heaven, / The might of the maker, His purpose of mind,” and I am reminded of that hymn every time I read the last sentence of Thomas's ‘Note’ to his Collected Poems. “The poems,” Thomas declared there, “with all their crudities, doubts and confusions are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn fool if they weren't.”

To his contemporaries, however, Thomas was not the Caedmon of Cwdomkin Drive but its Rimbaud, and his status as enfant terrible combined with the opacity of his writing to give the nickname a certain appropriateness. Rimbaud's famous conjunction of the vowels with colours corresponded to Thomas's helplessly physical relationship with his medium and the French poet's readiness to let the id menace the proprieties and categories of literal sense would have been congenial to him also. He went at full tilt into the sump of his teenage self, filling notebooks with druggy, bewildering lines that would be a kind of fossil fuel to him for years to come. For composition to be successful, Thomas had to be toiling in the element of language like a person in a mudbath; the hydraulic passage into and through the words was paramount, the strain of writing palpably muscular. “I think [poetry] should work from words, from the substance of words and the rhythm of substantial words set together, not towards words.” So he wrote to Charles Fisher in the letter I have already quoted, and in doing so played a variation on a theme that was preoccupying him at the time, namely the difference between working out of words, as he called it, and working towards them. He blames John Clare for working towards them, not out of them, “describing and cataloguing the objects that met his eyes … He could not realize,” said Thomas, “that the word is the object.” How far this is fair to John Clare or how good it is as linguistic theory is not the point: what it does is to clue us in to Thomas's need for an almost autistic enclosure within the phonetic element before he could proceed. Probably the most famous of his utterances about the physicality of writing is in the letter where he tells Pamela Hansford Johnson that the greatest description of the earthiness of human beings is to be found in John Donne's Devotions, where the body is earth, the hair is a shrub growing out of the land, and so on. He continues as follows:

All thoughts and actions emanate from the body. Therefore the description of a thought or an action—however abstruse it may be—can be beaten home by bringing it on to a physical level. Every idea, intuitive or intellectual, can be imaged and translated in terms of the body, its flesh, skin, blood, sinews, veins, glands, organs, cells and senses. Through my small bone island I have learnt all I know, experienced all, and sensed all.

There is something about this passage that might be called Egyptian. Thomas, on the evidence here, would have been completely at home in a world where the cycles of life manifested themselves in the mud and floods of the Nile and the god of the dead was Anubis—a doghead, so to speak; and creation myths involving the almost glandular collusion of the elements would have suited him down to the ground. So the Caedmon comparison should take in not only the note of praise in each poet, but should extend to the inescapably physical conditions in which each of them laboured: the body heat of Thomas's imaginings corresponding to the reek of the byre and the breath of the beasts. And perhaps it should extend also to the language they both used, insofar as the stress and alliteration of Caedmon's Anglo-Saxon are still clearly audible in the following early creation song by Thomas:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores. And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind How
time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

When I thought of Dylan Thomas as the subject of this essay, I intended to stress the positive metrical power of these early poems, and had hoped to find in them an echo still travelling outward from Christopher Marlowe's mighty line. In my recollection, Thomas's poems retained a turning, humming resonance, as if they had a purchase at one and the same time on the hub of the iambic pentameter and the circulation of the blood itself. Remembered fragments conspired to strengthen this impression. “I see the boys of summer in their ruin / Lay the gold tithings barren …”. You intoned that and you felt again in your bones and joints a trace of the purchase it had on you at your first reading. The words did indeed “thud beneath the flesh's armour,” so much so that they constituted a kind of Finneg-onan's wake. Still, I wanted to be able to praise a poetry of such fullness, to commend without reservation the heave of positive gesture, to feel that the recurrent obscurity and bravura of the poems were a small price for the authentic power that produced them. What I was wanting, in fact, was a return to poetic Eden. In my mind, Thomas had gradually become the locus of a longed-for, prelapsarian wholeness, a state of the art where the autistic and the acoustic were extensive and coterminous, where the song of the self was effortlessly choral and its scale was a perfect measure and match for the world it sang in.

Even so, I would still like to be able to affirm Thomas's kind of afflatus as a constant possibility for poetry, something not superannuated by the irony and self-knowledgeable tactics of the art in post-modern times. I would like to stand up for the kind of fine contrary excess that had preceded Thomas in the poetry of Hart Crane and succeeded him in poems like Geoffrey Hill's “Genesis” and Sylvia Plath's “Ariel”. I would like to discover in the largeness of his voice an implicit ethic of generosity that might be worth emulating because of its inclusiveness and robustness.

But too often in the Collected Poems the largeness of the utterance is rigged. The poet is under the words of the poems like a linguistic body-builder, flexing and profiling. Too often what he achieves is something Martin Dodsworth called “redundancy” rather than intensity, a theatrical verve, a kind of linguistic hype. The generosity promoted by poems such as “In the White Giant's Thigh” turns out to be a kind of placebo, and the robustness of “Lament” becomes more and more an embarrassingly macho swagger. All in all, what his work begins to lose after the dark “Egyptian” mode of Eighteen Poems is a quality that might be called “tonal rectitude”, taking tone in the radically vindicating sense attributed to it by Eavan Boland in an essay in a recent issue of Poetry Nation. Boland is writing there about Elizabeth Bishop—in particular about Bishop's tone, and this leads her to meditate as follows upon the primacy of tone in general:

Poetic tone is more than the speaking voice in which the poem happens; much more. Its roots go deep into the history and sociology of the craft … Even today, for a poet, tone is not a matter of the aesthetic of any one poem. It grows more surely, and more painfully, from the ethics of the art. Its origins must always be in a suffered world rather than a conscious craft.

This last sentence is a wonderful formulation of what we seek from any poet's undermusic. The power of the final chorus of Doctor Faustus or the opening lines of Paradise Lost or the whole somnambulant utterance of a late Wallace Stevens poem such as “The River of Rivers in Connecticut” has not to do simply with their author's craft. The affective power in these places comes from a kind of veteran knowledge which has gathered to a phonetic and rhythmic head, and forced an utterance. It is, for example, the undermusic of just such veteran knowledge that makes Emily Dickinson devastating as well as endearing and makes the best of John Ashbery's poetry the common, unrarefied expression of a disappointment that is beyond self-pity.

The gradual withdrawal of a suffered world and the compensatory operations of a conscious craft weaken much of Thomas's poetry and rob it of emotional staying power as well as “tonal rectitude”. The snowscape of a later poem like “A Winter's Tale”, for example, is meant to be a visionary projection, but it rather suggests a winter-wonderland in the Hollywood mode. It is too softly contoured, too obligingly suffused with radiance and too repetitive—the verbal equivalent of a Disney fantasia:

                                                                                                                        It is a winter's tale
That the snow blind twilight ferries over the lakes
And floating fields from the farm in the cup of the vales, Gliding
windless through the hand folded flakes, the pale breath of cattle
at the stealthy sail,
                                                                                                                        And the stars falling cold,
And the smell of hay in the snow, and the far owl
Warning among the folds, and the frozen hold
Flocked with the sheep-white smoke of the farm house cowl
In the river wended vales where the tale was told.

This displays a genius for lyricizing, for setting forth to good advantage its own immediacy and naivety and textures. And as the poem goes sweeping forward for the whole of its twenty-six stanzas, one move forward for every two moves back—in keeping with the swirling motions of its blizzard world—Thomas does rise to the technical occasion. He meets the demands of a difficult rhyme scheme (ABABA) that also involves from time to time the deployment of internal rhyme and the manipulation of end-of-line assonance—and he does it so resourcefully that it almost feels like an injustice to question the poem's excellence and blame it for having just too much of the craftsman's effort about it. Yet the demand for more matter, less art, does inevitably arise. The tone is a rhetorical pitch framed for the occasion. The reader is tempted to quote Thomas's letter to Vernon Watkins against Thomas himself and to say “all the words are lovely but they seem so chosen. I can see the sensitive picking of words, but not the strong, inevitable pulling …” For example, in the second stanza above, in those lines about “the frozen hold / Flocked with the sheep-white smoke of the farm house cowl,” there is a little too much winsomeness about the oddity of “hold” where we might expect “fold;” and there is a little too much self-regard about the submerged pun on the word “flocked” which has the sense of white fluff as well as a herd of sheep. All the more so because the adjective “sheep-white”, with its own double-take on “snow white”, comes along immediately in the same line:

                                                                                                                                                      and the frozen hold
Flocked with the sheep-white smoke of the farm house cowl
In the river wended vales …

It may be a bit smart-assed to see this more as a case of “vended Wales” than “wended vales”, but the poet's own verbal opportunism encourages the reader to indulge in this kind of nifty put-down. Indeed, I have the impression that negative criticism of Dylan Thomas's work is more righteous and more intoned with this kind of punitive impulse than is commonly the case. Even a nickname like “The Ugly Suckling” has an unusually cutting edge. It often seems less a matter of his being criticized than of his being got back at, and my guess is that on these occasions the reader's older self is punishing the younger one who hearkened to Thomas's oceanic music and credited its promise to bring the world and the self into cosmic harmony.

I count myself to some extent among this disappointed group but not always. Not, for example, when I re-encounter a poem like “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” which fulfills its promise precisely because its craft has not lost touch with a suffered world. The villanelle form, turning upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution, is not just a line-by-line virtuoso performance. Through its repetitions, the father's remoteness—and the remoteness of all fathers—is insistently proclaimed, yet we can also hear, in an almost sobbing counterpoint, the protest of the poet's child-self against the separation:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deed might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This poem was written at a late moment in Thomas's life, when he was 37, almost twenty years after “Before I Knocked …”. The year before, in 1950, he had worked on the too deliberate raptures of “In the White Giant's Thigh” and the never-to-be-completed “In Country Heaven.” And on and off, he was all the while fiddling with the genial dream scape of “Under Milk Wood”. But now, in 1951, at a time when his father was dying from cancer and his relationship with his wife Caitlin was in a kind of deep freeze because of his affair with the American woman whom biographers call “Sarah”, now Thomas came through with a poem in a single, unfumbled movement, one with all the confidence of a necessary thing, one in which again at last the fantasy and extravagance of imagery and diction did not dissipate themselves or his theme. Words “forking lightning”, frail deeds dancing “in a green bay”, blind eyes blazing “like meteors”—these defiant and lavishly affirmative phrases could conceivably have appeared in a windier ambience such as “Lament”, a male chauvinist tirade written at the same time, but within the genuinely desperate rhetoric of the villanelle itself they are informed with an urgency which guarantees their immunity from the virus of rant and posturing.

This is obviously a threshold poem about death, concerned with the other side of the mortal coin which obsessed him in “Before I Knocked …”. In that earlier poem, the body was about to begin what Thomas calls elsewhere its “sensual strut;” here the return journey out of mortality into ghosthood is about to be made, so in fact the recurrent rhymes of the villanelle could as well have been “breath” and “death” or “womb” and “tomb”—but what we have instead are “night” and “light”. And the night is a “good night”, but for once, a characteristic verbal tic has become an imaginative strength instead of a clever surface irritation. “Good night” is a pun which risks breaking the decorum of the utterance but instead it finally exemplifies its complexity and strength. The mixture of salutation and farewell in the phrase is a perfect equivalent for the balance between natural grief and the recognition of necessity which pervades the poem as a whole.

This is a son comforting a father; yet it is also, conceivably, the child poet in Thomas himself comforting the old ham he had become; the neophyte in him addressing the legend; the green fuse addressing the burnt-out case. The reflexiveness of the form is the right correlative for the reflexiveness of the feeling. As the poem proceeds, exhortation becomes self-lamentation; the son's instruction to the disappointed father to curse and bless him collapses the distance between the sad height of age and physical decay in the parent and the equally sad eminence of poetic reputation and failing powers in the child. “Do Not Go Gentle” is a lament for the maker in Thomas himself as well as a farewell to his proud and distant schoolteacher father. The shade of the young man who once expressed a fear that he was not a poet, just a freak user of words, pleads for help and reassurance from the older, sadder literary lion who apparently has the world at his feet.

Not that Thomas intended this meaning, of course. One of the poem's strengths is its outwardly directed gaze, its breakout from emotional claustrophobia through a powerfully capable engagement with the specifically technical challenges of the villanelle. Yet that form is so much a matter of crossing and substitutions, of back-tracks and double-takes, turns and returns, that it is a vivid figure of the union of opposites, of the father in the son, the son in the father, of life in death and death in life. The villanelle, in fact, both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.

Indeed, there is something Rilkean in the tendency of “Do Not Go Gentle,” for we are here in the presence of knowledge transformed into poetic action, and the extreme claims that Rilke made for poetry are well enough matched by Thomas on this occasion. The following, which comes from a Rilke letter about his Duino Elegies, seems relevant and worth quoting:

Death is a side of life that is turned away from us … the true figure of life extends through both domains, the blood of the mightiest circulation drives through both: there is neither a here nor a beyond, but a great unity, in which those creatures that surpass us, the ‘angels’, are at home.

In its canvassing of the idea of a great unity and its employment of the bodily image of circulating blood, this statement by Rilke is reminiscent of the murkier, more biological statements of the young Thomas. Yet in “Do Not Go Gentle” I would suggest that the old murkiness has been worked through and a new set of angelic rather than Egyptian words has been worked towards. I would also suggest that the mighty vaunt of “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London” has now been made good, and its operatic, death-defying strains have modulated into something even more emotionally persuasive. In fact, in the light of Rilke's statement we can begin to discern the mistake which Thomas made during his twenties and thirties when he confined himself to the repetition of his own early procedures and convictions as a poet.

Eliot once diagnosed the problem of a younger contemporary as being a case of technical development proceeding ahead of spiritual development. It is a suggestive observation and what it suggests is that there should be a correspondence between the maturation of a sensibility and its methods of expression at different stages. Thomas's methods as a teenager, bogged in his masturbatory claustrophobia, desperately seeking in language the fulfilment of clandestine sexual needs, the kind of thing that the old Yeats mysteriously called “the touch through the curtain”—those teenage methods were suited to the phallocentric, percussive, shortcircuited poetry proper to his situation then, but they were not what he needed later as a sexually mature, world-scarred and world-skilled outsider at the literary centre. Thomas's anti-intellectualism, for example, is a bad boy's habit wastefully prolonged and this doctrinaire immaturity, which was at once tedious and entertaining in life, was finally retrograde for his art. But “Do Not Go Gentle” is a positively magnificent achievement. This poem does not “begin with words,” as the young Thomas too simply insisted that poetry should, but it “moves towards them.” And it is exactly the sensation of language on the move towards a destination in knowledge which imbues “Do Not Go Gentle” with a refreshing maturity. “The Force that through the Green Fuse drives the Flower” gained its power from a language entrapped and certified by its obsessions, and was the kind of poem that an eighteen year old of genius could properly and prodigiously deliver. But as long as he kept too rigidly to those bodily, earthy, Egyptian imperatives, it was not possible for Thomas to admit into his poetry the presence of that which Rilke calls the angels. The jurisdiction of the bone-bound island, to which he had pledged his loyalty, forbade the necessary widening of scope. The poems of his twenties and thirties pursued a rhetorical magnificence that was in excess of and posthumous to its original, vindicating impulse. They mostly stand like elaborately crenellated fabrications, great gazebos built to the extravagant but finally exhibitionist specifications of their inventor.

Thomas did recognise the need to open and seek what Rilke calls “that great unity which is neither here nor beyond,” but when he does so time and again what fails him is the tone. The suffered world peels away from the proffered idiom. The great first gift, which enabled him to work instinctively at the deep sound-face and produce a poetry where the back of the throat and the back of the mind answered and supported each other, this did, alas, weaken. His original ability to discover a path for the poem's progress by means of a sixth sense—what he called “creative destruction, destructive creation”—began to atrophy: the enigmas of “Altarwise by Owl-Light” seem to be forced rather than discovered. “After the Funeral” even goes so far as to diagnose the problem and to suggest a way out of it by admitting into the high-pressure conditions of the poem the sweet, uninflated particulars of the world such as “a stuffed fox and a stale fern” and fern seeds “on the black sill.” But the problem of harmonizing rhetorical pitch and emotional content remained and was only overcome when Thomas opened the texture of his language and allowed the affirmative strains of “Poem in October” and “Fern Hill” to rise into the higher, less bodily and more “angelic” registers:

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
          In the sun born over and over,
                                                  I ran my heedless ways,
          My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
                    Before the children green and golden
                                                            Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
                    In the moon that is always rising,
                                                  Nor that riding to sleep
          I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
                                                  Time held me green and dying
                    Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

“Fern Hill” is buoyant upon memories of a sensuously apprehended world and suffused by them. Its poetry is admirably and bewitchingly candid, held out at an unclammy distance between poet and reader. It is far from Egyptian. Its green singing spaces are swept by less breathy airs than the too artfully pleasing spaces of “A Winter's Tale” and one has the gratifying sense of the poet completely absorbed in his very own subject. Yet its dimensions as a poem of loss become plainer if we set it beside Wordsworth's “Immortality Ode.” It is unfair, of course, to do this, but it makes clear what “Fern Hill” lacks in the intonation arising from the “years that bring the philosophic mind”; it is more intent upon overwhelming its sorrows in a tidal wave of recollection than facing what Rilke calls “a side of life that is turned away from us.” It is as if Orpheus, grown older, reneged on his larger task, that of testing the power of his lyre against the gods of the underworld and wresting life back out of death, and went back instead to his younger, happier but less world-saving task of casting musical spells upon the whole of nature.

My questions from Rilke are taken from a study of the myth of Orpheus by the distinguished classicist, Charles Segal, and I want to conclude by considering both the excitements and limitations of Dylan Thomas's poetry in the light of Segal's reading of that particular myth. According to his understanding, Orpheus, in his early manifestations within Greek culture, is “the oral poet par excellence. He sings outside, under an open sky, accompanying himself on his famous lyre. His fabled effect upon wild beasts, stones and trees generalizes to the animal world that mimetic response that an oral audience feels in the situation of the performance … This compulsive, incantatory power of oral song … the animal magnetism with which it holds its hearers spellbound, all find mythical embodiment in Orpheus”. And so, in turn, I would want to find—in the undiminished incantatory power of early Dylan Thomas poems on the page, and in the spellbounding memory of his oral performance of poems from all periods of his career—, I would want to find in all of those things a continuing aspect of the Orphic principle, and an example of the survival of rhapsodic poetry of the most ancient kind.

Yet this is the kind of poetry which Plato describes and disavows in his Ion. He suspects it in much the same way as critics have suspected Dylan Thomas, and he is against what Segal calls its “magical, quasi-hypnotic-effect, emotional response, power to move and compel large audiences.” As far as Plato is concerned, the way in which this poetry works bodily, through the agency of the senses, is a limitation. He underrates it because it is powerless to know reality through the intellect. In the Symposium, for example, he tells a version of the story of Orpheus which is clearly meant to indicate that Orphic power operates only in the realm of illusion. According to Plato, when Orpheus goes to the underworld and sues for the return of Eurydice, he is given only a phasma, a wraith or shadow, a phantom woman.

But this pejorative version of Orpheus as an energy absorbed in the unconscious flux of nature and exemplifying a process which it cannot know—this is only a beginning. Subsequent poets, from Virgil to Rilke, seek to outflank Plato's objections by developing and extending other parts of the myth besides the musical, spellbinding gift of the singer. Their treatments emphasize the truth-to-life-and-death in the story and they abstract meanings that are variously sombre or symbolic from the drama of Eurydice. Thus, from one perspective, Orpheus's trip to the land of the dead and his initially successful bid to have Eurydice released from the underworld can represent the ability of art—poetry, music, language—to triumph over death; yet from another perspective, Orpheus's fatal backward look must equally represent “the failure of art before the ultimate reality of death”—or, to put it in Charles Segal's more drastic formulation, the loss of Eurydice expresses “the intransigence of reality before the plasticity of language.”

To make the final application of all this, then, to Dylan Thomas: we can say that he continued to place a too unenlightened trust in the plasticity of language, that he emphasized unduly the romantic, positive side of the story and overrated the lyre's ability to stay or reverse the course of nature. The backward look of “Poem in October” and “Fern Hill”, however radiant and understandable, becomes in this reading like the backward look of Orpheus himself. They avert the eyes from the prospect of necessity. “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”, on the other hand, keeps its gaze firmly fixed on the upward path, and works against the gradient of relapse. Its verbal elaborateness is neither otiose nor merely ornamental. On the contrary, its art is as straightforward and homely as Caedmon's, and as extremely engaged as that of Orpheus in the underworld. In the telling of its rhymes and repetitions, the litany of Dylan the Durable will always be credible and continuing.

James J. Balakier (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Balakier, James J. “The Ambiguous Reversal of Dylan Thomas's ‘In Country Sleep.’” Papers on Language & Literature 32, no. 1 (winter 1996): 21-44.

[In the following essay, Balakier discusses the conflicted feelings of a father for his daughter in Thomas's “In Country Sleep.”]

Among the relatively few father-daughter poems in the “canon,” Dylan Thomas's “In Country Sleep” is striking for its frank portrayal of a caring though conflicted state of fatherhood. Other poems belonging to this diverse lyric sub-genre, such as Jonson's “On my First Daughter,” Wordsworth's “Surprised by Joy,” Yeats's “A Prayer for My Daughter,” are essentially expressions of the poet-father's deep concern for the well-being of his living or dead daughter that have little to do with the existence of the child in her own right. Thomas's poem, an arguably Browningesque dramatic monologue of “a soul in action,” addressed just after story-telling bedtime to the sleeping child, voices the playing out of a universal parental crisis, that of loving but letting go of the son or daughter so nature can take its course. Thomas's poem for his eldest son Llewelyn, “This Side of the Truth,” is, on the other hand, one of his most didactic lyrics. In it the poet-father kindly tells the boy that there are two ways of “moving about your death,” “good and bad.” “In Country Sleep” is a far more arresting and complex treatment involving a loving father's deep, oedipally colored attachment to his daughter and his concern that she retain her natural innocence and faith in life.

The popularity of Thomas's poem since his death may be attributed in part to the wide appeal of the straight-forward situation it dramatizes—a father confronting his concerns for his sleeping daughter's welfare.1 However, when William York Tindall told Thomas that he “thought this poem to be about how it feels to be a father, Thomas cried, but whether from vexation, beer or sentimental agreement I could not tell” (Tindall 273). In actuality, “In Country Sleep,” despite the immediate sense of connection readers may feel with it, has been the subject of varied critical interpretations2 turning on the identity of the mysterious Thief who the father fears will steal his sleeping daughter's faith in “the green good” of country existence. Thomas once told a woman that the unidentified Thief, usually assumed to be Time or Death,3 was in reality jealousy, and that the poem was addressed to his wife Caitlin (Ferris 226), from whom he was increasingly alienated in the 1940s. Their marital problems in fact figure in several poems, including “I make this in a warring absence,” “How shall my animal,” and perhaps most notably “Into her Lying Down Head,” in which the speaker's enemies enter his wife's “faithless sleep.” Still, Thomas gave a quite different explanation at another time to a reporter in New York: “Alcohol is the thief today. But tomorrow he could be fame or success or exaggerated introspection or self-analysis. The thief is anything that robs you of your faith, or your reason for being” (Quoted in Ferris 227).

By the same token, all three of the figures involved in the central action of “In Country Sleep” have a Joycean resonance and reflect multiple prototypical identities. Joyce was Thomas's “most admired prose writer” from whom “he learnt wordplay” (Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins 14). The influence of Joyce's mythmaking, pun-filled “funferal,” Finnegans Wake, which has been described as “a prodigious, multifaceted monomyth, not only the cauchemar of a Dublin citizen but the dreamlike saga of guilt-stained, evolving humanity” (Campbell and Robinson 3), is subtly evident in Thomas's poem, though his mythologizing operates on a much smaller scale. Thomas's persona is in a sense all fathers (and possibly all husbands too) and has affinities with figures ranging from Shakespeare's benign father-magician, Prospero, to the biblical or Miltonic Adam, the father of humankind, out of whose “yawning wound” God extracted the rib from which he made his helpmeet Eve. The sleeping daughter herself is an amalgamation of fairy tale heroines such as the “Haygold haired” Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, along with Adam's beautiful but disobedient wife, Eve. The sly, shape-shifting Thief parallels the metamorphosing Satan who in serpent-form tempted Eve, in the garden of Eden, and whom Milton describes as “the first grand thief” who climbed “into God's fold” (Paradise Lost IV. 192). He also recalls Zeus, who took various forms to seduce mortal women, including that of a swan, a golden shower, and a woman's own husband.

Thomas's highly lyrical, allusion-rich poem belongs to an unfinished series titled In Country Heaven, which includes two other completed poems, “Over Sir John's Hill” (1949) and “In the White Giant's Thigh” (1950). Thomas disclosed the subject of In Country Heaven in a BBC Radio broadcasts he gave on September 25, 1950. As a result of such broadcasts in the pre-Television, post-WWII radio days, Thomas “became a familiar voice in every home, and in every sense a celebrity” (Tremlett 107) for his over-the-air readings and literary talks. He was a mid-century media star, but one who was tragically ill-equipped for handling fame.4 Thomas explained in this particular broadcast that these three poems “form separate parts of a long poem which is in preparation” (“Three Poems” 177). The plan,” he confided to his listeners,

is grand and simple. … The godhead, the author, the milky-way farmer, the first cause, architect, lamplighter, quintessence, the beginning Word, the anthropomorphic bowler-out and black-baller, the stuff of all men, scapegoat, martyr, maker, woe-bearer—He, on top of a hill in Heaven, weeps whenever, outside that state of being called his country, one of his worlds drops dead, vanishes screaming, shrivels, explodes, murders itself. And, when he weeps, Light and His tears glide down together, hand in hand. So, at the beginning of the projected poem, he weeps, and Country Heaven is suddenly dark. Bushes and owls blow out like candles. And the countrymen of heaven crouch all together under the hedges and, among themselves in the tear-salt darkness, surmise which world, which star, which of their late, turning homes, in the skies has gone for ever. And this time, spreads the heavenly hedgerow rumour, it is Earth. The Earth has killed itself. It is black, petrified, wizened, poisoned, burst; insanity has blown it rotten; and no creatures at all, joyful, despairing, cruel, kind, dumb, afire, loving, dull, shortly and brutishly hunt their days down like enemies on that corrupted face. And, one by one, these heavenly hedgerow-men, who once were of the Earth, call [to] one another, through the long night, Light and His tears falling, what they remember, what they sense in the submerged wilderness and on the exposed hairsbreadth of the mind, what they feel trembling on the nerves of a nerve, what they know in their Edenie hearts, of that self-called place. They remember places, fears, loves, exultation, misery, animal joy, ignorance and mysteries, all we know and do not know.


Thomas concludes his description of the projected long poem by explaining that it becomes,

at last, an affirmation of the beautiful and terrible worth of the Earth. It grows into a praise of what is and what could be on this lump in the skies. It is a poem about happiness.


The In Country Heaven poems were to be, according to Thomas, a loosely related set of monologues or “rememberings” revealing what has meant the most to the assorted tellers' happiness—what they know “in their Edenie hearts” of “that self-called place” the earth. The other completed In Country Heaven poems seem to fit this formulation. In “Over Sir John's Hill” the speaker, a self-proclaimed “young Aesop,” exults as he witnesses nature in action outside his boathouse window in all of its sublime beauty as a magnificent hawk drops “on fire” to kill a sparrow. Similarly, the poet-speaker of “In the White Giant's Thigh” elegizes, while walking on the site of ancient Celtic fertility rites, the “animal joy” of dead country maids. As Tindall, one of Thomas's most astute interpreters, notes, the various parts of the projected work are “among his happiest poems” (Tindall 274).

Any attempt to consider how “In Country Sleep” relates to this “grand and simple” conception must, I think, take into account the ambiguous reversal that occurs at the end of the poem. Throughout Thomas's poem the Prospero-like father, who seems to have cast a spell of blissful sleep over his daughter, projects onto her his fears of a sly but meek intruder. Suddenly, in the closing lines, the daughter's previously unmentioned opposite fear, that the Thief will not after all come (“He comes to leave her … / Naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come” lines 105-065) bursts into the open as the underlying problem with which the father must come to terms. This is a pivotal development that has been glossed over by critics. The apparently ambiguous transition or transposition that the unwanted and despised Thief undergoes in the father's mind is the crux of “In Country Sleep.”

Thomas wrote the poem in 1947 while with his family in Italy on an extended vacation, financed by Margaret Taylor, a particularly devoted patroness. He complained to her in correspondence that his thoughts were fixed on his home in Wales where his father was “chronically ill” (Ferris 225). He also reported to her on the slow poem he was writing:

My poem, of 100 lines, is finished, but needs a few days' work on it, especially on one verse. Then I'll send you a copy. The manuscript is thousands & thousands of foolscap pages scattered all over the place but mostly in the boiler fire. What I'll have to send you will be a fair copy. I think it's a good poem. But it has taken so long, nearly three months, to write, that it may be stilted. I hope not.

(Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters 651)

In spite of Thomas's concerns about stiltedness, “In Country Sleep” is a masterful example of free-flowing syllabic verse, his preferred medium for his later poems.6 Because it is based upon syllable count rather than the patterned alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, syllabic-verse allows for a more individual reading and even perception of a poem than conventional verse. Since there is no strict indication of how the poem should be read, the reader has more than ordinary freedom in weighting words and alternating rhythms. Syllabic-verse thus provided Thomas with a flexible verse-medium for expressing subtleties of voice and meaning.

The poem, which totals 111 lines, is divided into two sections. Part I consists of 9 seven-line stanzas following an a-b-c-b-a-a-c pattern of half rhymes; Part II is made up of 8 six-line stanzas with an a-b-b-c-c-a pattern. The fifth line of the stanza-form used in Part I and the fourth line of that used in Part II are four syllables; the other lines range from 12 to 13 syllables. Proportionally there are more 13 syllable lines in Part II (about one-half of the 48 lines, compared to about one-third of the 63 lines of Part I). Thomas's insertion of a short line near the end of the stanza deepens the expressive value of the poem by incorporating a long visual pause into the stanzaic framework that substitutes a pregnant aural silence for the missing eight or nine syllables that occur in the normative lines. The extended lines, on the other hand, metrically suggest the expansive landscape spaces of the poem, with its references to the girl's “hilly / High riding” over the countryside. The stanzas are heavily enjambed within themselves and from one stanza to the next, a feature which also reinforces the girl's far and wide riding, along with the urgent tone of the father's monologue, and the Thief's tireless movement, likened to the sea of dew that “Flows to the strand of flowers” (line 98).

“In Country Sleep” begins on a heart-felt note of parental assurance:

Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep,
Fear or believe that the wolf in a sheepwhite hood
Loping and bleating roughly and blithely shall leap,
                                                                                                                                                      My dear, my dear,
Out of a lair in the flocked leaves in the dew dipped year
To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood.


He further prays for her to “Sleep, good, for ever, slow and deep, spelled rare and wise” (line 8). This metaphorical sleep in the heart of nature (in its “greenwood keep”) plays a special role in the poem as a nourishing state of being, a blissful state of deep timeless rest that will make her “rare and wise.” It is the only foolproof protection against deception and faithlessness and suffering.

The imagery of “In Country Sleep” is often charmingly oblique. It is characterized by a “reflexive arrangement” that results in “glancing hints” rather than direct hits (Tindall 275). Thomas writes, for example:

                                                            … no gooseherd or swine will turn
Into a homestall king or hamlet of fire
                                                                                                                                                      And prince of ice. …


The words “homestall” and “hamlet,” “king” and “prince,” “fire” and “ice” form pairs that neatly play off of one another, though not profoundly (Tindall 275). Tindall critically notes that “Hamlet seems a little out of keeping with the other personae” (275), but this Shakespearean reference calls to mind a triangle of somewhat parallel relationships: namely, the vulnerable Ophelia, her over-protective father Polonius, and the fiery lover Hamlet. Similarly, the Prospero-Miranda-Ferdinand triad in The Tempest parallels, if loosely, the triangle of figures “In Country Sleep.” Miranda, the sweet but naive daughter of the bitter exiled magician Prospero—who uses his art to make her sleep while launching his counterplot—falls in love with Ferdinand, the son of Prospero's enemy. Further, Prospero's half-human slave Caliban, son of a witch, has designs on his daughter, similar to Thomas's Thief, and has once been stopped on the point of violating her. Literary parallels such as these, even if submerged, add interesting shades of meaning to the poem.

The dramatic movement of the poem proceeds from fatherly reassurances that she need never fear that fairy tale wolves will pounce, or that ordinary farmhands will metamorphose into either fiery or frigid princes with a mind to woe, to an all-out celebration of nature, the “sanctum sanctorum.” For

who unmanningly haunts the mountain ravened eaves
Or skulks in the dell moon but moonshine echoing clear
                                                                                                                                  From the starred well?


The night is full of holy sights and sounds: a hill “touches an angel” (line 27), like a monolithic Old Testament patriarch; the nun-like nightingale “lauds through nunneries and domes of leaves / Her robin breasted tree,” that is, the robin-red, blood-stained cross of Christ, before which in the moonlight kneel a trinity of Marys (lines 27-29), his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and a mystery Mary7; the rain “tells its beads” like a nun dangling her long shiny black rosary (line 31); the owl “knells” like a grave preacher (line 32); the fox and holt “kneel” reverently before their sacrifice of blood (line 32); a star rises over the pasture, a reminder of the star-of-Bethlehem (line 34); and throughout the night the grass “bows” on the “lord's table” (line 35), the fertile fields of the whole countryside. The sacred activities of unspoiled nature are thus carried and linked by a host of holy, active verbs. The “prayer-wheeling moon” (line 41) Tindall sees as “a Buddhist intrusion” (276) upon the religious tales and fables to which Thomas has shifted in these stanzas, but it could be said that it evocatively gives the imaginary landscape a more universal quality.

Two transitional words, however, signal that trouble is afoot even in the midst of all the sacred goodness and beauty of the country. There is something, after all, that she must fear, for her own good, with all of her life. “Fear most,” he warns, not the imaginary “baaing” wolf or the “tusked prince” disguised in a pigsty, toiling away for her love, “but the Thief as meek as the dew” (line 38), for “out of the beaked, web dark” (line 48), like the god / swan who seized Leda, he will find a sure, sly way to her, the speaker's own “lost love” (line 53). The Thief's nightly arrival, continuing until she is “tolled” to sleep by the “stern bell” of death (lines 51-52), is conveyed through falling images:

This night and each night since the falling star you were born,
Ever and ever he finds a way, as the snow falls,
As the rain falls, hail on the fleece, as the vale mist rides
Through the haygold stalls, as the dew falls on the wind-
Milled dust of the apple tree and the pounded islands
Of the morning leaves, as the star falls, as the winged
                                                                                                                                                      Apple seed glides,
And falls, and flowers in the yawning wound at our sides,
As the world falls, silent as the cyclone of silence.


The catalog of falling objects to which the Thief's arrival is compared—snow, rain, hail, dew, leaves, winged seeds, a falling star—includes “the cyclone of silence” that kills the world, possibly an apocalyptic allusion to the atom bomb. These images associate the Thief with nature as both a creative and destructive force, and also, suggestively, with the girl herself, who we are told was born under a “falling star,” or rather was the star itself falling to her earthly home. The winged-apple seed, which “glides / And falls, and flowers in the yawning wound at our sides,” requires special analysis. It is probably an allusion to the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the eating of whose fruit brought death into the world. The universal human wound within which its seed takes root may be original sin. It could also be a reference to the sword-wound inflicted upon the crucified Christ, who was sacrificed in repayment for mankind's sins, or the wound in Adam's side from which the rib was removed for Eve's creation.

The first section of the poem thus silently ends on ambiguous notes of destruction and creation, sin and redemption. This silence has mixed meanings, suggesting, on the one hand, a tornado of annihilation, but on the other, through a string of associations, the graceful, easy seasonal fall of natural phenomena. The imagery seems to signal a deep-seated, unresolved ambivalence in the father's consciousness concerning an impending change in his daughter's existence. Still, he believes that the sleeping girl need only remain “cool” in her vows (line 47) to be spared an awful fate.

Out of the substantial pause with which the first part concludes grow more ambiguities in the second part of the poem. Strange images, familiar but undergoing a dream-like distortion, arise in stanzas 10-12, all of which are given an ambiguous spin as nighttime obscurity and uncertainty seem to deepen with the Thief's approach to the idyllic cottage where the girl sleeps “under linen and thatch / and star” (lines 44-45). The rush of dissonant images and the thirteen fragmentary exclamations that occur throughout stanzas 10-13 reveal a battle in the father's psyche over the meaning of the Thief's sly and sure arrival.

The images themselves are drawn from the poetic materials out of which the father-persona could have woven his bedtime stories. But now, colored by his acute fears, these tales, parables, fables, and sagas “tell of” or signal the Thief's coming on the scene:

Night and the reindeer on the clouds above the haycocks
And the wings of the great roc ribboned for the fair!
The leaping saga of prayer! And high, there, on the hare-
                                                                                                                                  Heeled winds the rooks
Cawing from their black bethels soaring, the holy books
Of birds! Among the cocks like fire the red fox


Thomas describes here, and in subsequent stanzas, Santa's magical flying reindeer, presumably pulling his sleigh above the haycocks, off their usual Christmas course, as if to rescue the girl; Sinbad's gigantic killer-bird the “roc,” beribboned for the fair like a domesticated 4H project, who could be imagined beating his formidable wings furiously in alarm; the fox among the cocks (perhaps an allusion to Aesop), burning gloriously in the barnyard and arousing a stir; and the cleric-like rooks who solemnly read their dark, foreboding gospel out of the book of nature. The wood itself—with the branches of its trees compared to a priest's black sleeves with cuffs of white frost—is like a clerical presence that sternly witnesses what is to come (lines 72-73). The sense of something impending is further heightened by the shrill, wind-like speech (“The upgiven ghost / of the dingle torn to singing” (lines 74-75) of a dead soul who finds a lost voice as the Thief draws nears.

The urgency conveyed by these images is reinforced by a plethora of internal half rhymes (e.g. haycocks, roc, cocks, fox; reindeer, vein; nightingale, din and tale, pail; lake, makes, wakes) and heavy consonance (e.g. blood, laced, wood) and assonance (e.g. thistling, upgiven, dingle, singing, hill).8 Thomas, additionally, has switched in Part II to a six-line stanza-form, with a predominant a-b-b-c-c-a pattern of partial rhymes and a short fourth line. The cutting of a whole 12 or 13 syllable line from the stanza-form intensifies the poetic development of Part II.

The end of stanza 12 acts as a transition from the “leaping” saga and “sermon of blood”9 to an epiphany involving the speaker-poet's ecstatic realization, in the middle of his dream-like evocation of imminent danger, of the power of poetry to illuminate reality:

                                                                                          All tell, this night, of him
Who comes as red as the fox and sly as the heeled wind.
Illumination of music! the lulled black-backed
Gull, on the wave with sand in its eye! And the foal moves
Through the shaken greensward lake, silent, on moonshod
                                                                                                                                                      In the wind's wakes.
Music of elements, that a miracle makes!
Earth, air, water, fire, singing into the white act. …


In a sudden flight of the imagination, the poet rises above his acute fears and finds meaning and inspiration in expressed nature. His own faith is renewed with the realization that his prayer (or poem) for his daughter parallels the pure and spontaneous “act” out of which nature, from the four elements of earth air fire and water, was created. Calmer now, he envisions nature at peace with itself, represented by a gull lulled to sleep by the waves, and a foal walking in a moonlit field of grass. As he contemplates these tranquil, reassuring images of nature at peace his attention shifts to his darling daughter, sleeping placidly, just as susceptible as the sea gull or foal to attack. But the speaker believes wholly that the girl will be safe as long as she remains in harmony with nature—as long as the earth, which holds all of God's creatures, turns in “her holy heart” (lines 94-95).

In stanza 15 Thomas subtly changes from an a-b-b-c-c-a to an a-a-a-b-b-b pattern of almost entirely full rhymes:

Only for the turning of the earth in her holy
Heart! Slyly, slowly, hearing the wound in her side go
Round the sun, he comes to my love like the designed snow,
                                                                                                                                                      And truly he
Flows to the strand of flowers like the dew's ruly sea,
And surely he sails like the ship shape clouds. Oh he
comes. …


The open sound of the long o's in the a-a-a position of the first three lines, amplified internally by “Only” and “slowly,” has an exclamatory quality, which is made explicit in line 99 with the words “Oh he. …” The constricted quality of the long e vowels of the latter three rhymes seems aimed at dramatizing the Thief's imminent entry through a sound expressive of tightening and even fear. For the Thief, who is near at hand now, comes hearing “the wound in her side” (line 95). The wound is an image of human frailty that “makes her one with mankind” (Tindall 279) insofar as it connects her to both Adam and Christ, as discussed above. It is so all-encompassing that it goes “Round the sun,” overshadowing even the light of day. The Thief comes to her like the cold, symmetrically designed snow, and like “the dew's ruly sea” that operates according to strict meteorological laws (lines 96-98).

The emotional pitch of the poem peaks in stanzas 16 and 17, in which the father, coming as if full circle, shifts from the angry third person back to the intimate second person mode of address of Part I:

                                                                                                                                                      … Oh he
Comes designed to my love to steal not her tide raking
Wound, nor her riding high, nor her eyes, nor kindled hair,
But her faith that each vast night and the saga of prayer
                                                                                                                                                      He comes to take
Her faith that this last night for his unsacred sake
He comes to leave her in the lawless sun awaking
Naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come.
Ever and ever by all your vows believe and fear
My dear this night he comes and night without end. …


The phrase “he comes,” repeated four times, heightens the dramatic tension which is then released with the unexpected words with which this sentence concludes, “He comes to take / Her faith … to grieve he will not come.” This long, unusual sentence flips over on itself syntactically in the middle and then rejoins its beginning like a moebius strip, signaling a critical turn in the speaker's argument. He reveals unexpectedly that the Thief is not just some arch sexual adventurer,10 for he has not come to steal her beauty (“her eyes or her kindled hair”); or her virginity, for “tide raking / Wound” seems to be a reference to the tidally related, post-lapsarian “wound” of menstruation, which would be discontinued or “stolen” during pregnancy. The other element in this parallel grouping, her “riding high,” may refer to her outward freedom. On the other hand, on the Caedmon recording he made of “In Country Sleep” in March 1952 (Murdy 111) Thomas substitutes “riding thigh.” Though “riding high” appears in the printed versions of the poem, including his Collected Poems, also published in 1952, this substitution may indicate that Thomas found “riding thigh,” at least at some point in the textual history of the poem, a suitable alternative with its obvious sexual connotations. In any case, the Thief comes, instead, “for his unsacred sake,” to steal her faith in his very coming.

A surprising reversal has occurred. The speaker's attitude to the dreaded Thief has seemingly undergone a sudden and ambiguous change. Through the body of the poem he has gravely voiced his fears concerning the silent, sly intentions of this relentless Thief. All along, the Thief's ill-fated coming has been a terrible concern; now the thought of his not coming has moved, paradoxically, to the forefront as a problem. Not just for the daughter, who (the father assumes) needs to believe in his arrival; but also, it appears, for the father himself in so far as he empathizes with his daughter's feelings. The father continues to regard the Thief's irreversible coming with alarm; yet when interpreted in the context of his daughter's fear of being “forsaken,” his passionate insistence that her happiness depends upon always believing in the Thief's arrival can be read as a dramatic change of heart.

The ambiguity of this reversal is encapsulated by the statement that she should both “believe and fear” (echoing “believe or fear” in line 22) that he comes “night without end.” The phrase “believe and fear” has a contradictory ring, as if he is telling her to both want him to come but at the same time to recoil from his coming. But it can also be understood to mean that she should trust that he will indeed come, “by all [her] vows,” while remaining conscious of the real dangers that his entrance into her life presents. The father-persona's mixed perception of the Thief, in the end, is indicated by Thomas's straddling of the matter of whether the Thief is an absolute evil or necessary good in the sleeper's life. He comes, we are told, for his “unsacred sake,” but at the same time the father has finally if reluctantly acknowledged that the Thief's destined coming is a cherished event in the girl's life.

What, then, is the significance of this change and how does it reflect upon the possible identities and meanings of the Thief? The poem is framed as a father's prayer-like monologue to his sleeping daughter. Read on this most external level as the dramatic monologue of a father in a state of crisis concerning his daughter's predestined coming of age, the climax of “In Country Sleep” takes on the power of a Freudian catharsis in which the father may be seen spontaneously coming to terms with his daughter-fixation. The father-persona's choice of words (“My dear, my dear,” “my love asleep,” “my own, lost love”) is suggestive of lover's language. His painful outburst that the Thief “comes designed to my love” suggests subconscious sexual jealousy. Further, the reference to her “riding thigh” (on the recording), and the image of her waking “Naked and forsaken,” hint strongly that a sexual preoccupation with the sleeper has surfaced. When asked if he was influenced by Freud, Thomas replied:

Yes. Whatever is hidden should be made naked. To be stripped of darkness is to be clean, to strip of darkness is to make clean. Poetry, recording the stripping of the individual darkness, must, inevitably, cast light upon what has been hidden for too long, and, by so doing, make clean the naked exposure. Freud cast light on a little of the darkness he had exposed.

(“Replies to an Enquiry” 190)

The breadth and depth of Thomas's knowledge of Freud and modern psychology in general have been questioned.11 Within his poetry and his visionary short stories, however, a search “for a relationship between the conscious and unconscious” (Pratt 148) is embodied and references to dreams, hallucinations, and madness are common. Surely, too, the obscurity which is a defining characteristic of much of his work is to be understood as an artistic by-product of the exploration of the psychological complexities associated with a Freudian or related model of consciousness. Whether Thomas actually expected his readers to be familiar with Freudian theory in order to be able to properly understand his works is questionable. Still, an inherent Freudian dynamic is present in the situation of a father dreading his own displacement by a lover who seems destined to steal his daughter's heart; or if we take seriously (as we probably should) Thomas's remark that the sleeper is his wife Caitlin from whom he was estranged, of a husband agonizing over his wife's fidelity and happiness.

But this Freudian interpretation of the father's state of mind is undoubtedly too limited. It falls short of accounting for the interrelated symbolic values of the poem. It requires that the Thief be viewed essentially in the most concrete narrative terms as the sleeper's potential sexual suitor and the father's (or husband's) rival for her love, while it is clear from Thomas's imagery here and in other poems (such as “Grief Thief of Time” and “Fern Hill”) that the Thief is a more profound phenomenon.

Two prevalent views of the Thief are that he is Christ or Time / Death. Moynihan, for example, argues that the Thief is either Christ, who in II Peter III. 10 is said to come “as a thief in the night,” or the Thief of the Apocalypse, in Revelation XVI 15, who would have the believer “keep his garments” of faith (“Dylan Thomas and the ‘Biblical Rhythm’” 91). Moynihan points out, however, that they do not come “to steal the faith of the believer in ‘the saga of prayer’ as Thomas's Thief does” (92). It may also be pointed out that “the saga of prayer” could ambiguously refer to either the daughter's bedtime prayers, or the father's prayer for her well-being that is embodied by the poem itself.

Alan Bold holds that “At its finale the poem is resolved as a contest between the Christ of the child's simple prayer and Time, the Thief” (167). He argues in fact that the “He” in these lines is at times the Thief/Time and at other times Christ:

The sense of these syntactically difficult lines is that he (i.e. Time, the Thief) comes to steal the child's faith (which is that Christ comes to her each night in prayer—‘He comes’) and to take away her faith (which is so that Christ comes for his own, ‘unsacred,’ sake to her) in order to ‘leave her in the lawless sun’—that is, leave her in a world without order. Time threatens the child's belief that everything is holy. Time introduces nightmare into the world of the sleeping child. Thomas, however, promises his daughter that Christ will come to her every night and will continue to do so, despite the Thief. If she accepts this paternal assurance then her faith will endure.


The lines are admittedly complex, but Bold's interpretation of the “He” as variously the Thief and Christ seems strained and not warranted by a close reading of the text. The Thief is an ambiguous phenomenon in and of himself, an ambiguity that turns on the conflicting views the father and daughter have of the Thief and that is reflected by the father's advice to both “believe and fear” that he will come. There is no reason for thinking that the father is here making a simple distinction between Time as an evil force and Christ as the object of faith.12 It is the gap between the father's and the daughter's perceptions that is significant and that Thomas seems to bridge, however tentatively, in the finale.

It is entirely in keeping with Thomas's poetic practice in general for “In Country Sleep” to reach an ambiguous climax. Thomas was a master of the open-ending as stunningly exemplified by some of his most famous poems. The early poem “The Boys of Summer,” structured as a debate between youth and old age, ends with these two poles of life “kissing” ambiguously “as they cross.” At the end of “Fern Hill,” one of his most celebrated poems, Thomas seamlessly juxtaposes childhood joy and adult bitterness as he tells the reader how “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea” while playing on his aunt and uncle's farm, ironically unaware of time and death. “Poem on His Birthday” concludes in what could be triumphant exhilaration or utter tragedy with the words “I sail out to die.” The “torn and alone” man in a farm house in “A Winter's Tale,” for whom “the world turned old / On a star of faith,” finds love enfolded in the wings of a she-bird he has envisioned and pursued across the frozen fields, but he also finds death in the snow. Thomas's war-inspired poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” resoundingly ends, “After the first death, there is no other.” As Tindall explains,

That ‘there is no other’ death after the first means, as the context demands, that death is followed by perpetual life: Christian heaven or natural rebirth in bird or flower. … But, whatever the demands of context and the elegiac tradition, the line is ambiguous. ‘After the first death, there is no other’ can mean that death is death. There is no other because, once dead, you are dead for good. A poet as aware as Thomas of what he was about must have intended this ambiguity. …


Tindall's comment that Thomas must have meant the line to be ambiguous is, if anything, understated, for a poet who wrote early on in his career that “the womb / Drives in a death as life leaks out” (“A Process in the Weather of the Heart” lines 8-9) plainly saw the world in extraordinarily contradictory terms. The conclusion of “A Refusal …” is a majestic example of the intense interplay of polarities of thought and feeling that produce an often engaging ambiguity in Thomas's poetry as a whole.

“In Country Sleep” is no exception. The contradictory nature of the Thief's coming, as either a seducer or savior, is suggested by the diversity of critical views on his identity. However, Thomas's barroom disclosure, cited above, that the Thief is anything that robs your faith, that steals your sense of self, makes clear that the Thief, rather than being a personification of a specific abstraction or a Christ-symbol of some kind, was in reality conceived as an externalization of whatever blocks or impedes a more natural state of existence, represented in the poem by the “green good” of the country where, sleeping “shielded by chant and flower,” one is “spelled rare and wise.” It is “a state of being” (like God's “country,” referred to by Thomas as a subjective reality in “Three Poems”) which is characterized by freedom from fear, uncertainty and doubt, the causes of deep-rooted, psycho-emotional stress. The Thief, it would thus seem, is an unnatural force in the psyche which jeopardizes or overshadows its happiness and wholeness.

Importantly, Thomas's Thief bears a strong resemblance to William Blake's “spectre,” a shadowy figure who is the enemy of what Blake refers in a letter as the “Real Man[,] the Imagination which Liveth for Ever” (The Poetry and Prose of William Blake 707). Blake's visionary poetry was one of the most seminal influences on the young Thomas. Korg clarifies the relationship of Thomas's work to Blake's:

Though Thomas' cosmos is far more fragmentary than the one found in Blake's Prophetic Books, it has some of the same energies, gigantic deities, and above all, the same ‘fearful symmetry’ of balanced patterns formed by opposing forces.


In Jerusalem, for example, Blake bitterly sets a crippling rationalist/scientific worldview in opposition to the true life of the imagination through the antagonistic “Spectrous Chaos” figure who tells Albion, a Blakean archetype for the disintegrated self, that

I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form

You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long

That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun

In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost

It plows the Earth in its own conceit.


The spectre mocks the idea of the existence of the higher self or “Poetic Genius” as a delusion fabricated out of memories and dreams. This predicament, involving a clash between, on the one hand, the cut and dry activities of experimental science, and on the other, the inspired approach of art—an opposition central to the Prophetic Books—is resolved in Book II of Blake's Milton in which the long dead poet, returning to the earth as the “Awakener,” aspires to a higher state of imaginative redemption than he attained in his life. In the process, Milton casts out his own spectre or internalized, egotistical “Satan,” and is recreated new and whole. As Blake writes:

To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the Not Human
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albion's covering
To cast off his filthy garments, & clothe him with
                                                                                                                                                      Imagination. …


Thomas's dark power, the Thief, is associated like Blake's spectre with rationalistic reductionism, but by means of sterile, impotent images such as the lifeless “designed snow,” and the disempowered “ruled” sun at the end of the poem. And just as the spectre must be cast out or annihilated in order for Blake's Milton to gain the Waters of Life or, in the words of “To the Christians,” the “Intellectual Fountain” (Blake 229), Thomas's menacing Thief is at once negated and transformed into a beneficial figure who can help the girl awaken to a higher state of innocence, aware of time and death and the world's ambivalences but not overclouded by them. Ultimately, then, the Thief has the power to steal her old limited image of her self so that she can be liberated from captivity to dualities.14

Notwithstanding Blakean and other levels of meaning, the “grand and simple” idea of the poem is that the greatest obstacle to fulfillment the girl faces is a debilitating loss of faith in her own inner resources. This is what the father most fears will be taken from the girl, but it is a theme which the father's complex state of conflicted emotion prevents from becoming sentimental, and to which his last minute about-face concerning the mystery Thief adds great dramatic force. In the final analysis the father-poet seems to leave open-ended whether belief in the Thief's coming is actually desirable either because it will put his daughter on her guard so she will deny the Thief an opportunity to steal her faith and goodwill, or because it will affirm her faith in something or someone in which she has already placed all her trust. Her happiness is what is at stake; it is what she stands to lose if she forgets through a mistake of the intellect her connection to the source of all the joys imaginatively associated with the ever green and good country. The father is simply a witness of a process that is out of his direct control, though not entirely out of reach of his loving influence.

The ending is appropriately conditional, given the above line of reasoning, for she is told that only if she believes and fears that the Thief will come shall she wake

                                                  … from country sleep, this dawn and each
                    first dawn,
Your faith as deathless as the outcry of the ruled sun.


These closing lines (with the overlong 14 syllable line 110 calling special attention to itself) emphasize undying faith and spiritual rebirth, but with an ironic twist. The “ruled sun,” which contrasts with the “lawless sun” of the penultimate stanza, may be the sun of scientific fact, against whose quantifications the imagination revolts.15 But it is also almost certainly a serious, punning reference to the son of God, who was “ruled” in the sense that he submitted to his father's will by accepting crucifixion for the sake of humanity, but who cried out from the cross the “deathless” words recorded in the New Testament, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” This implied evocation of Christ's human outcry against suffering challenges any conventional notions of blind faith and obedience. Ironically it stresses the absolute importance of challenging even an omnipotent parental authority if it appears to compromise the integrity of the heart—a powerful message with which to conclude a monologue ostensibly about a father-daughter relationship.

“In Country Sleep” effectively fits Thomas's description of the In Country Heaven poems as the “tellings,” all through the long night, of what the “heavenly hedgerow-men, once of Earth” remember in their “Edenie hearts”: “places, fears, loves, exultation, misery, animal joy, ignorance and mysteries, all we know and do not know” (“Three Poems” 179). It is a satisfying, meaningfully ambiguous reenactment of the deep-seated psychological tensions between a father-husband and his daughter-wife, the resolution of which, however tentative, supports the autonomy of the beautiful, high-spirited sleeper. The sleep of the title is a metaphor for the power of the imagination, which is unlocked by dreams and fairy tales and myths. It holds the “heart's truth” that Thomas prays at the end of “Poem in October” will continue to inspire him on his next birthday. Thomas sees it as a solution to the fact-bound, hard-realities of modern life, that can numb the sensibilities. This magical sleep has the power to make the sleeper happy and whole, like the fully awakened Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, or the heroines of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest. This is the father's holy wish for the charmed dreamer as she wakes.


  1. His daughter Aeronwy, who was four at the time the poem was written, has I believe given well-received public readings of “In Country Sleep” in America. The poem's appeal is in considerable measure due to the special father-daughter bond it reflects and that Thomas must have actually had at some level with his daughter. Recently the writer Norman Zerold told me that while attending the University of Iowa in the early 1950s he talked with Thomas, who had arrived early for a Sunday morning poetry reading. When he asked him how he was able cope with such a heavy travel schedule, Thomas answered that his family in Laugharne “made it all worth while,” and he mentioned Aeronwy in particular.

  2. Tindall writes that the Thief “could represent the knowledge that destroys innocence and glory” (280). Jacob Korg argues that he stands for “the encroachments of maturity” (127). Annis Pratt explains that “The Thief, while bringing experience with its knowledge of death, is also Christ, since the young girl seems to represent the virgin earth violated by incarnation” (165). The Thief has thus been seen ambiguously as everything from an inducer to a fall from innocence, like the serpent in Eden, to an incarnating divinity.

  3. For example, “Above all, time for Thomas was a thief and the source of grief. ‘Grief thief of time …’” (Moynihan, The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas 250). See also Paul Ferris 226.

  4. Tremlett's thesis in his revisionest biography is that Thomas was the pioneer of a kind of fame based upon “establishing contact with his audience aurally” (180)—a phenomenon that exploded when “rock ‘n’ roll revolutionized the music industry in the Sixties” (109).

  5. All quotes from Thomas's poetry are from The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, which contains all the poems Thomas wished to preserve.

  6. See Daniel Jones's “A Note on Verse-Patterns” in The Poems of Dylan Thomas, 245-49.

  7. Tindall quips that “The third Mary is a problem, unless quite contrary or followed by a lamb” (276). Maybe so, but Thomas could have had in mind Mary, sister of Lazarus, who sat at Jesus's feet and devotedly heard his words, while her complaining sister Martha bustled about trying to serve her guests.

  8. Moynihan in The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas discusses Thomas's establishment of this technique of “affinitive patterning” in Part I of “In Country Sleep” (147-48).

  9. The phrases “The leaping saga of prayer” and “the sermon of blood” illustrate Thomas's highly compressed metaphor-building method. In the first (it could be said) the leaping of fleeing animals is treated as a kind of metaphor for a life and death saga which inspires anxious prayers; in the second, the spilled blood, whether animal or human, may provide a sermon or lesson on our mortality.

  10. “He comes to leave her in the lawless sun awaking / Naked and forsaken,” however, explicitly makes a sexual connection between the sleeping girl and the mystery Thief in the context of betrayal.

  11. See Pratt for an overview of this issue (24-25).

  12. See also Burdette, who sees the girl as the “soul” and the Thief as Christ (69, 133). His interpretation is based on parallels between Thomas's religious beliefs and “a long tradition of religious experience that is closely allied to the ‘occult tradition,’ represented here by Gnosticism” (9).

  13. All Blake selections are from The Poetry and Prose of William Blake.

  14. Another parallel, though a non-Western one, is the Vedic (referring to the ancient Hindu texts called collectively the Vedas) concept of pragyaparadha, which translates as “the mistake of the intellect.” This condition is the result of the intellect's fragmentation, its loss of its own self-aware state, through identification with the objects of perception. Robert Keith Wallace, a researcher in Vedic studies, explains pragyaparadha as follows:

    The intellect has the ability to shift our attention in one of two directions: either outward toward the diversity of life, or inward toward the unity of consciousness. … In this condition [of pragyaparadha], the intellect becomes so absorbed in the diversified value of creation that it cannot perceive the underlying unity of life. …


    Although there is no reason for believing that Thomas's vast reading extended deeply into Eastern philosophy, his Thief appears to personify “the mistake of the intellect”: the Thief is that which the father believes will steal the girl's innocent enjoyment of all things wonderful. I mention this seeming convergence of Thomas's eclectic thought with an Eastern insight as an interesting, even illuminating parallel insofar as it suggests the depth of Thomas's exploration of the psyche's “darkness,” upon which he, like Freud, sought to cast light.

  15. Tindall conjectures along these lines that “‘The lawless sun’ could be the world of fact and nature's apparent disorder. Is the father praying that, growing up and gaining knowledge of fact, the girl may keep her faith in the realities of the imagination … ?” (280).

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Bold, Alan. “Young Heaven's Fold: The Second Childhood of Dylan Thomas.” Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art. Ed. Alan Bold. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 156-74.

Burdette, Robert K. The Saga of Prayer. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Campbell, Joseph and Henry Morton Robinson. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. New York: Viking, 1944.

Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Korg, Jacob. Dylan Thomas. New York: Twayne, 1965.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1957.

Moynihan, William T. The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1966.

———.”Dylan Thomas and the ‘Biblical Rhythm.’” Critical Essays on Dylan Thomas. Ed. Georg Gaston. Boston: Hall, 1989. 70-95.

Murdy, Louise Baughan. Sound and Sense in Dylan Thomas' Poetry. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.

Pratt, Annis. Dylan Thomas' Early Prose: A Study in Creative Mythology. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970.

Tindall, William York. A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas. New York: Noonday, 1962.

Thomas, Dylan. Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters. Ed. Paul Ferris. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

———. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1957.

———. Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins. New York: New Directions, 1957.

———. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Ed. Daniel Jones. New York: New Directions, 1971.

———. “Replies to an Enquiry.” Quite Early One Morning. New York: New Directions, 1954. 188-190.

———. “Three Poems.” Quite Early One Morning. New York: New Directions, 1954. 177-187.

Tremlett, George. Dylan Thomas: In the Mercy of His Means. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Wallace, Robert Keith. The Physiology of Consciousness. Fairfield, IA: Institute of Science, Technology, and Public Policy, 1993.

Marc D. Cyr (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Cyr, Marc D. “Dylan Thomas's ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’: Through ‘Lapis Lazuli’ to King Lear.Papers on Language & Literature 34, no. 2 (spring 1998): 207-17.

[In the following essay, Cyr contends that Thomas's treatment of impending death in “Do not go gentle into that good night” is more closely connected to Shakespeare's play rather than to Yeats's poetry, as is commonly believed.]

Dylan Thomas's “Do not go gentle into that good night” has been noted to bear the influence of and even echo W. B. Yeats, especially “Lapis Luzuli,” and, secondarily via this poem, Shakespeare's King Lear. One scholar notes its “Yeatsian overtones” (Fraser 51); another judges Thomas's villanelle to have “much of the concentrated fury of expression which the poetry of the older Yeats contained, but … more tenderness and sympathy” (Stanford 117), and goes on to say, citing “Lapis Lazuli,” that “Yeats described the poet as one who knows that ‘Hamlet and Lear are gay’” (118). William York Tindall cites not only “Lapis Lazuli” but also Yeats's “The Choice” as sources (204). Another scholar seems to skip over Yeats entirely (though his own phrasing echoes line 1 of “Lapis Lazuli”), seeing the “Grave men/blind” tercet (which contains the injunction to “be gay”) as “perhaps invok[ing] the Miltonic” (Tindall also mentions Milton 205) and the effect of the phrase “be gay” as “rather hysterical sentimentality” (Holbrook, Dissociation 53); of the earlier “Wise men/lightning” verse, however, he says “The images are merely there, histrionically, to bring in the phrase ‘forked no lightning’ to give a Lear-like grandeur to the dirge” (52).

I would like to propose that “Do not go gentle into that good night” bears a much stronger and more direct connection to Shakespeare's play than is suggested by references to Yeats or to “Lear-like grandeur.” I would like to propose that the attitudes towards death—or, more precisely, the attitudes towards how one lives in the face of impending death—that Thomas explores in this poem—the implied attitude his speaker attributes to his direct audience, and the one he urges be adopted in its place—are similarly explored in King Lear and dramatized in the characters of Gloucester and Lear. I also propose that the voice we hear in “Do not go gentle” may not be a directly lyric speaker but an obliquely drawn persona, that of Gloucester's son Edgar. Further, when read in the shadow cast by King Lear, the tone of Thomas's poem grows dark indeed.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is addressed to Thomas's father, David John, known as D. J. According to biographer Paul Ferris, D. J. was “an unhappy man … a man with regrets” (27); born with brains and literary talent, his ambition was to be a man of letters, but he was never able to advance beyond being “a sardonic provincial schoolmaster” in South Wales, feared for his sharp tongue (26-33). After his first serious illness, though—cancer in 1933—“A mellowing is said to have been noticeable soon after; his sarcasm was not so sharp; he was a changed man” (104). As he grew more chronically ill in the 40s, mostly from heart disease and with one of the complications being trouble with his sight, the mellowing intensified: As Ferris puts it, “It must have been [D. J.'s] backbone of angry dignity that his son grieved to see breaking long after, when he wrote ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ (27), and the poem is “an exhortation to his father, a plea for him to die with anger, not humility” (259).

The poem was first published in November, 1951, in Princess Caetani's Botteghe Oscure, on consecutive pages with “Lament,” a dramatic monologue spoken by an old man on his deathbed who recalls his rollicking youth and middle-age spent in the pursuit (and capture) of wine, women, and song, but who has married at last in order to obtain a caretaker, and must suffer pious comforting in his final, helpless days. (Bibliographic evidence suggests the two were also composed, or at least finalized, more or less simultaneously; Kidder 188.) In the letter to Caetani that contained “Do not go gentle,” Thomas remarked that “this little one might well be printed with [“Lament”] as a contrast” (qtd. in Kidder 188).

As Ferris suggests, it would be difficult to over-estimate D. J.'s influence on his son: “… the pattern of [Dylan's] life was in some measure a response to D. J. Thomas and his wishes. For the early books that Dylan Thomas read, the rhythms he absorbed, and probably for his obsession with the magic of the poet's function, he was indebted to D. J.” (283). Prominent among those “early books” read by Thomas are the works of Shakespeare. In 1948 (and Thomas might have begun his, as usual, protracted drafting and revision of “Do not go gentle” in 1945, after D. J. suffered a nearly fatal illness; Tindall 204), Thomas wrote a journalist that D. J.'s “reading aloud of Shakespeare seemed to me, and to nearly every other boy in the school, very grand indeed; all the boys who were with me at school, and who have spoken to me since, agree that it was his reading that made them, for the first time, see that there was, after all, something in Shakespeare and all his poetry …” (qtd. in Ferris 33; his ellipses). That Thomas was familiar with and admiring of Shakespeare is, of course, no surprise, but his direct linkage of his father with Shakespeare, particularly at this point in time, is interesting, and he demonstrated more than familiarity with King Lear: In 1950, during one of his reading tours in America, he spent an evening with novelist Peter de Vries (who would later use Thomas as the basis for the poet Gowan McGland in Reuben, Reuben) and, among other conversational gambits, “declaimed some Lear” (de Vries, qtd. in Ferris 233). That he was equally well-immersed in Yeats is verified by the fact that poems by Yeats were among those he performed on his 1950 tour of America (Ferris 239 note 6).

Such biographical information takes on more significance than simple background when considered in conjunction with the two final stanzas of “Do not go gentle”:

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


The clearest poetic debts owed by these lines are, as is often noted, to “Lapis Lazuli” and Yeats's use of Hamlet and King Lear to illustrate his argument that individual destruction or the destruction of whole civilizations is not the end of the world, but the way of the world:

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found, and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
.....All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

(9-24, 35-36)

The linguistic and imagistic ties are very strong: the use of the words “gay” and “rage/rages” (from Lear raging on the heath, III.ii); Yeats's “Heaven blazing into the head” is picked up by Thomas in “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors”; and there is a hint of “Do not go gentle into that good night” in Yeats's “Do not break up their lines to weep,” with Yeats's “weep” again possibly echoed in Thomas's “fierce tears.” (I should also note that in some notes toward his unfinished “Elegy” for D. J., Thomas wrote, “His mother said that as a baby he never cried; nor did he, as an old man” [qtd. in Ferris 27].) Also, Yeats's use of the theatrical and military term “Black out” might be part of the impetus toward Thomas's “the dying of the light” metaphor.

Thematically, besides the issue of being gay and/or raging in the face of extinction, Yeats's statement that “All men have aimed at, found, and lost” can be seen to underlie all four of Thomas's “body” stanzas. Stanzas 2 and 3 deal with men who have failed to achieve the ends they “have aimed at,” either “Because their words had forked no lightning” (5), had not, even momentarily, lit up the world (and, I would suggest, like lightning been noted and wondered at by the world); or because their “frail deeds,” done in the hurly-burly of the open sea and not the sheltered confines of “a green bay,” never “danced” (8). Stanzas 4 and 5 deal with men who have actually “found,” or achieved their aims, but bitterly regret their success: “Wild men,” who indeed “caught … the sun,” regret “they grieved it on its way” (10-11) by wasting their own and perhaps others' lives in their hedonistic pursuits; and “Grave men,” who may have spent their lives in the gloomy contemplation of life's sorrows, regret that their melancholy focus made them blind to the possibility of experiencing, to apply Yeats, “Gaiety [amidst] all that dread.”

Three key elements of the last two stanzas do not seem to find genesis in “Lapis Lazuli,” though, but to lead farther back, to King Lear itself and to Gloucester, Edgar, and Lear: blind eyes (though the “ancient, glittering eyes” [56] of Yeats's Chinamen might suggest these), the “sad height,” and the speaker's prayer that his father “Curse, bless” him.

It would be odd if Thomas, who so focused on the failing vision of D. J. that for years he exaggerated how bad it was (Ferris 366), and echoing a poem that deals with King Lear and imminent death, did not think of Gloucester, whose eyes are torn out by Cornwall and Regan. Another (though I think more tenuous) physical parallel is that D. J.'s primary ailment was heart disease, and ultimately it is the bursting of his “flaw'd heart” (V.iii.197) that kills Gloucester. There are also similarities in personality: D. J., the man with the feared tongue, mellowed as he aged and grew increasingly ill; early on, and in terms reminiscent of those used by “the old ram rod” speaker of Thomas's “Lament,” Gloucester is a man capable of making ribald witticisms, in front of Edmund, about the “good sport” he had at the making of his “whoreson” (I.i.123-24), and capable of towering anger, as when he swiftly condemns to death his legitimate son, Edgar. His blinding, though, quickly alters him, and he becomes filled with regret and self-pity—“O dear son Edgar, / The food of thy abused father's wrath!” (IV.i.21-22); “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36-37)—and ultimately a despair that leads him to attempt suicide at Dover, utterly reversing the defiant man who, just before Cornwall tore out his eyes, cried, “I am tied to th' stake, and I must stand the course” (III.vii.54).

The Dover cliff scene is key to the imagery of the last stanza of “Do not go gentle” and to the impetus of the poem as a whole. Gloucester, preparing (as he thinks) to hurl himself off the cliff into the sea below, prays in terms similar to the acquiescence Thomas's speaker attributes to his subject audience, and in language echoed in line 2 of the poem (“Old age should burn and rave and close of day”):

                                        O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and in your sights
Shake patiently my great affliction off.
If I could bear with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. …


Also, the Dover cliff itself parallels Thomas's “sad height” (16), which Jonathan Westphal argues, I believe correctly, is “a metaphorical plateau of aloneness and loneliness before death … a moment in life represented as a place” (114-15). Being the “sad height” (my emphasis), it also paradoxically represents the apex of life achievement and, simultaneously, the end of life's potential.

A paradoxical situation, or perhaps in the context of both “Do not go gentle” and King Lear, more correctly a conflicted situation is also evident in the positions of the sons in both works, Thomas's speaker and Edgar, and here, I think, it is necessary to discuss Thomas's affinity for disguise. Paul Ferris points out that in both his life and his art, Thomas created for himself personas or disguises. In life, it was that of the “raconteur with the bellyful of beer” (76); he expended himself “manufacturing a character for the world to be entertained by, part-poet and part-clown; the two went together” (116). In his writing, “Disguises were part of his basic repertoire. He might be the landscape or the weather; he could be the foetus or the egg; he took on the role of The Poet or Man or Christ, separately or at the same time” (97). Interestingly, particularly in regard to the relationship between Edgar and the speaker of “Do not go gentle,” Ferris notes that madness “fascinated” Thomas and that one likely persona is the madman in the story “The Mouse and the Woman” (128).

David Holbrook perceives something similar to a persona in “Do not go gentle,” “a pose struck to disguise the true feelings” (Dissociation 53), though he sees no uncertainty in the underlying feelings, which he calls “a fierce hatred, a wish that the father should suffer more, because otherwise he is not yielding sufficient spiritual substance for his son, but betraying him by his inadequacy” (Code 197). However, Ferris speculates that Thomas's life persona was “a convenient disguise for someone who is uncertain of himself, who has trouble establishing his true identity. There are ample indications that Thomas was an unsure, divided man” (76), and I see such a lack of surety leading to disguise in the speaker of “Do not go gentle,” a perception reinforced by knowing that Thomas was focused on dramatized speakers when he composed the poem, because at the same time he was writing the dramatic monologue “Lament,” and he himself suggested (successfully) that the two poems be published as a pair (Kidder 188).

At least initially, though, Edgar does not appear to share the uncertainty of Thomas's speaker. Edgar, in disguise as Mad Tom (whose improvised autobiography as a self-centered hedonist in III.iv.85-94 is very reminiscent of the “Wild men” of Thomas's fourth stanza, and of Thomas himself), fools Gloucester into believing he is at the cliff's edge when he is actually nowhere near it, and says in an aside that “… I do trifle thus with his despair / … to cure it” (IV.vi.33-34). For Edgar, at least at this point in the play, there seems to be little self-doubt about the propriety of his course of action in prolonging his father's life and consequent suffering. Indeed, he's something of a Pollyanna: After meeting Lear on the heath, he notes “the mind much sufferance doth o'erskip, / When grief hath mates, and bearing fellowship. / How light and portable my pain seems now, / When that which makes me bend makes the King bow …” (III.vi.106-09). And, just prior to meeting his blinded father, he remarks in Yeatsian fashion that “To be worst, / The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, / Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear. / The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst returns to laughter” (IV.i.2-6). Edgar's emphasis on perseverance survives meeting his maimed father, though the hope of “laughter” to come seems abated. After the abortive suicide attempt and in yet another disguise, he convinces Gloucester that it was a “fiend” (IV.vi.72), a devil-monster that had led him physically to the cliff, and metaphorically led him to the evil attempt on his own life, and “that the clearest gods, who make them honors / Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee” (IV.vi.73-74). Gloucester resolves “Henceforth [to] bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself / ‘Enough, enough,’ and die” (IV.vi.75-77), a sentiment Edgar approves and later encapsulates in the precept “Ripeness is all” (V.ii.11).

Thomas's speaker in “Do not go gentle” is neither so firm in purpose nor so sure of the righteousness of his position, and neither was Thomas: In the letter submitting the poem for publication, Thomas noted in a postscript that “the only person I can't show the little enclosed poem to is, of course, my father, who doesn't know he's dying” (Letters 359), which rather limited the efficacy of the appeal so far as D. J. was concerned. Within the poem, the final stanza distills the conflict between the urging of a blazing defiance of death's closing off of possibility, and the underlying recognition of the futility of that defiance, that it is “too late” (11) to do anything about the failures and mistakes in life because there is no suggestion, however much they burn, rave, and rage, that wise men shall ever fork lightning with their words, good men see their deeds succeed, wild men find (and perhaps give) joy rather than grief, or grave men be gay.

The speaker of “Do not go gentle” is caught between his desire that his father continue to live, and live vividly, and his recognition that death is “that good night,” perhaps inherently “good” because it is the order of life / nature, perhaps more immediately “good” as the agent for stopping pain, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. This conflict is present in the image of the “sad height,” and cries out from the speaker's contradictory request that his father “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray” (17). In King Lear, Edgar, in recounting his father's last moments, remarks (albeit in reference to himself, not Gloucester, who never quite gave up on the hope of dying with dispatch; see IV.vi.230-31 and V.ii.8) about “our lives' sweetness! / That we the pain of death would hourly die / Rather than die at once” (V.iii.185-87) and tells how he “Never (O fault!) reveal'd [himself] unto [Gloucester], / Until some half hour past …” when he “ask'd his blessing. … / … But his flaw'd heart / (Alack, too weak the conflict to support!) / ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly” (V.iii.186-200). In these lines are found the conflict between extreme urges as well as the request, with a sense of guilty regret, for a blessing.

The requested “Curse” and the “fierce tears” are, however, I think drawn from a separate source within the play, from the direct model for the “Old age” that burns and raves and rages: Lear himself. Old, stripped of his life's labors and honors, even of his sanity, Lear will not go gently. On the heath he rants for vengeance (III.ii) and later vows “when I have stol'n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (IV.vi.186-87) Even when he and Cordelia are made captive by their enemies, he promises “we'll wear out, / In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones, / … / The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell, / Ere they shall make us weep! We'll see ‘em starved first” (V.iii.17-18, 24-25). And, at his very end, he has fire enough to kill Cordelia's executioner and take pride in the futile, “too late” act, and his very last words voice the mad conviction that Cordelia still lives.

Lear recognizes, though, the pain of life, seeing himself “bound / Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead” (IV.vii.45-47), and these may well be the “fierce tears” Thomas's speaker urges from his father, and the reason why he sees them as not only blessing, but cursing: Not wanting to believe Lear has died, Edgar beseeches, “Look up, my lord” (V.iii.313). But Kent replies, “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass, he hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (V.iii.314-16).

The philosophical conflict between Edgar and Gloucester, and briefly but tellingly between Edgar and Kent, finds a single and unresolvedly conflicted voice in the speaker of “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There is no hint either in the poem or in Shakespeare's play of the seeming optimism of Yeats's “Lapis Lazuli,” but the darkness inherent in Thomas's poem can too easily be obscured by the force of his voice acting on a hopeful audience, and by its echoes of Yeats—obscured, that is, until we set “Do not go gentle” in palimpset with King Lear. Thematically, imagistically, and linguistically, Thomas's poem looks back clearly, but darkly, through and past “Lapis Lazuli” to King Lear, and Thomas, who worked so hard at creating his public persona of the bohemian poet, found a familiar in the role-playing Edgar. Both urge their fathers on to life, but Thomas is far less sanguine. He cannot, for all the burning, dispel the dark.

Works Cited

Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas. New York: Dial, 1977.

Fraser, G. S. Vision and Rhetoric. London: Faber, 1959: 211-41. Rpt. as “Dylan Thomas.” A Casebook on Dylan Thomas. Ed. John Malcolm Brinnin. New York: Crowell, 1960: 34-58.

Holbrook, David. Dylan Thomas: The Code of the Night. London: Athlone, 1972.

———. Dylan Thomas and Poetic Dissociation. London: Southern Illinois UP, 1964.

Kidder, Rushworth M. Dylan Thomas: The Country of the Spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1604-05. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Stanford, Derek. Dylan Thomas: A Literary Study. London: Spearman, 1964.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1953: 128.

———. “Lament.” Collected Poems: 194-96.

———. Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas. Ed. Constantine Fitzgibbon. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Tindall, William York. A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas. New York: Farrar, 1962.

Westphal, Jonathan. “Thomas's ‘Do not go gentle into that goodnight.’” The Explicator 52.2 (1994): 113-15.

Yeats, William Butler. “Lapis Lazuli.” Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, Ed. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: Collier, 1966: 159-60.

Barbara Hardy (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Hardy, Barbara. “The Green Poet.” In Dylan Thomas: An Original Language, pp. 132-52. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Hardy discusses nature themes and imagery in Thomas's poetry.]


There are very few of Thomas's poems which do not offer a meditation on nature. Many can be called poems about nature. As I have been showing, some consider art and nature, with equal or unequal emphasis. More rarely, some are about love and nature.

In “The force that through the green fuse” and “Fern Hill,” Thomas is meditating on art and nature at one and the same time. Neither subject is subordinate, and both are imaginatively ingrained in the language, music, and form. The poems are Janus-faced, looking evenly in two directions. They are flexible forms, like those outlines shaped one way like a face, the other like a vase. They are poems which almost succeed in crossing the threshold from human nature to nonhuman nature, which attempt to assert—and demonstrate—that such a threshold does not exist. But each good poem is an individual entity, and each poem makes its imaginative statement—perhaps “essay” is a better word—in a different way.

These two big poems are both occupied with greenness, in its many meanings. I believe that Thomas is a green poet, who fully understands the politics of greenness, anticipating our present wishes and efforts to care for the globe, our polluted environment, and to displace the human animal from a still prevailing arrogant centrality.

Thomas fills his poetry with greenness, and admired earlier poets, like Traherne and Blake, who shared his celebratory and re-creative sense of sensuous and symbolic significances of green. In his twinned “Nurse's Songs,” one bitter, sterile and jealous, the other liberated, fresh and enabling, Blake provides a model for comprehending and expressing the sense of greenness. Thomas follows this model, explicitly or implicitly, in “The force that through the green fuse” and he wrote “I am in the path of Blake” (CL [see abbreviations list at the end of this essay], p. 79, quoted in CP, p. 183.) But long before his English models, the medieval Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym and his contemporary and friend Gruffydd ap Adda, colored their nature and love lyrics with many shades of green, and Iolo Morgannwg, four centuries later, wrote “The Poet's Arbour in the Birch-wood,” almost as green as “Fern Hill” or “The force that through the green fuse.”

“The force that through the green fuse” names the natural force as green, then in a leap of metaphor both new and traditional, immediately includes the human life, “my green age,” in which the old use of green, as in the “green judgment” of Cleopatra's salad days and the common sense of “silly-ignorant-innocent,” is transmuted by association with the plant's stem, and becomes a welcome hybrid, meaning young and fresh. “Drives my green age”: the poem proves, or demonstrates, in the way poems do prove, or demonstrate, what it says. It does so by a forceful impassioned repetition of the word, and by the cunning intrication of a set of associations which initiate or make a language change. Green is made new, and since it is itself the sign and symptom of nature made new, there is a special wit, liveliness, and freshness about its renewals. Green is, of course, in politics as in poetry, wrenched from literal meanings for the purposes of metaphor, belonging as it does, chiefly though not exclusively, to the least regarded, vegetable, part of creation. There are green birds and insects and reptiles, but one of the puzzles of science is the absence of green mammals, the so-called green monkey not being an exception. So the human adoption of the color for the raised ecological consciousness is both especially ironic and especially appropriate. This choice of a nonhuman color to symbolize ecological justice offers a semantic apology for anthropocentrism.

The epithet “green,” shared by human and nonhuman nature, here makes a statement about the identity, or intimacy, of both, and starts off the sequence of statements about a natural unity—what Coleridge called the unity of being—which does not depend at all on greenness, as the poet turns to rocks, water, wind, clay, lime, sheets, and bodies. (As in recent political usage, Thomas's green is both taken literally and knowingly deployed as metaphor for nature.) As I have said, he imagines nature as a force, but the word “force” is too conceptual, so it is animated but not anthropomorphized, magnified, and bodied, with organs: “The mouthing streams” and “the hand that whirls the water in the pool.” Sensation and abstraction are made to cross and kiss, (to double-cross, in Thomas's own pun) and to conceive a new creature, as Joyce creates a physical but also mythological Finnegan in the fluidity and fragmentariness of his last novel's process, a form of necessary chaos out of which to bring order. Thomas's short poem isn't as chaotic, but it is dynamic, fast, teeming, rushing and swirling in movement, and filled with images of rushing, swirling, streaming, pressing, and propulsion, explosion, sap rise, growth, water flow, wind, erection, tumescence, chemical cycle—and also breakdown, execution, decay, dissolution, detumescence.

“Fern Hill” is about his green age, and is both like and unlike “The force that through the green fuse” in its playful and serious insistence on greenness. Its many greens compose the greenness of the first world, in the lyric which is Thomas's “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained.” It tells, like Milton's first epic, and as a narrative inset, the story of creation. I have already emphasized Thomas's imagery of art—the play, the games, the dreams, the songs, the stories—and these, like the green age in the sonnet, are colored by the green of the natural world in which they are located, with which they play, and which they praise.

It is a Rhapsody in Green, repeating and permuting the green images. Its green goes back to the “Green as beginning” in the final poem of the earlier sonnet sequence “Altarwise by owl-light.” Greenness begins in the title, Fern Hill, a place-name title which remembers but slightly though significantly changes the name of his first green place, rechristening his aunt's farm, Fernhill, as Fern Hill, formalizing, analyzing, carefully enunciating, separating its syllables and words, emphasizing the two natural elements of vegetation and earth, making a title, referring to a hill as well as a man-made farm, appropriately renaming the experience he is recalling and resurrecting.

There is green in each of its six, flowing, occasionally rhyming, highly assonantal and alliterative stanzas. (This was first pointed out, as far as I know, by Henry Treece, though he does little beyond making the observation.) The repeated greens are linked and varied, emerging as themes but also working like notes and chords in music, and shifted from literal to metaphorical meanings, as images in poetry.

In the first stanza the speaker was “happy as the grass was green” in his young days, naturally, freshly, and brightly happy, now using a new comparison for which there are familiar analogues, especially “happy as the day was long.” There is a conversion to greenness. The second stanza is the only one in which “green” appears twice, as if to reinforce the beginning and show the key image, but in both appearances the color becomes metaphorical: “as I was green and carefree” and “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman”; the first perhaps a touch more abstract, the second made more sensuous by that companionable “golden” and the suggestion of the huntsman and herdsman in green fields and woods. In the third stanza the word returns to color, but startlingly, “fire green as grass” reminding us that fire can burn green but at the same time turning up an unexpected variation, in a comparison which begins by sounding traditional, like the two earlier “greens,” and of course contains a traditional comparison, but ends by amazing sense and mind. In the fourth stanza we have what is perhaps the strangest of all these greens, when the first horses are imagined “walking warm / Out of the whinnying green stable.” And in the fifth and last stanza we go back to the early tradition-hallowed metaphors of green meaning young and silly and ignorant and innocent, but here defamiliarized by its new collocation, “green and dying.” This suggests both the early beginning of dying and the youthfulness and silliness and ignorance and innocence of all ages.

Green is dominant, but it is not the only color, though we get a favored palette rather than a complete spectrum. Green is qualified by the slightly less frequently used “golden,” which is like green both a color word and an old traditional metaphor. It appears once in the first stanza, twice in the second, and once in the fifth, but twice in a prominent position at the beginning of lines with parallel syntax, “Golden in the heydays of his eyes” and “Golden in the mercy of his means.” We have only one “white,” a wanderer white and the dew,” one dark, “flashing into the dark,” and one vivid metaphorical, new and old, blue, “at my sky blue trades.” Here the blue associates the boy's “horn” with Little Boy Blue, coincides with Wallace Stevens's emblematic color for art (as in “The Blue Guitar” which must play the green world), and in a brilliant intuition chooses the perfect color for the innocent joys of childhood. Like the two greens in “The force that through the green fuse,” the colors identify and join the human and nonhuman natural world, all its creatures and elements made new and strange.

Art and nature are inextricably fused in the poet's new creation story, which remakes Milton and uses the child's wild and brave imagination to present the bizarre image of those horses “walking warm.” It brings together the extremes of creativity, the great English poet's epic, and the child's-play dream: both are creative, and also re-creative, as they remake the Bible story. It also brings together the extremes of unprofessional creativity, in memory and dream. And of course the modern poet binds the epic, the play, the dream, and the memory together, in a lyric which rings with the joy of knowing nature and art.

The horses are warm, because they are newborn, just out of the wet womb, because they are walking into the heat of the first light, and because horses always feel warm to human touch. They are walking out of a green stable not just because they are a child's horses, or because a poet can make a stable green, as Stephen Dedalus made a rose green, but also because, though stables aren't green, this one is brand-new. It is the very first stable for the very first horses and the poet gives it an appropriately original color. Thomas, like the Green politicians and parties, uses the color sign of that least privileged part of nature, vegetation, which all of us, even vegetarians, destroy. And he uses it in a way which brings out the reason and the strangeness of its signature. Violently yet quietly unsettling man's centrality, “green” is made to stand for the basic fundamental creative principle or life force.

“On to the fields of praise”—where else, in a poem about wondering at wonderful creation, and restoring the innocent excited playful eye, touch, and imagination of childhood most properly, in order to wonder? Thomas gave a broadcast on the “Poems of Wonder” (TB, pp. 63-73), and though he didn't mention the color green, most of the poets he read in that talk imagine greenness—Vaughan, Marvell, Traherne, Blake, de la Mare, and John Crowe Ransom. Like them, and also like Milton and Lawrence, both powerful influences on his work, Thomas himself wrote a poetry which peels habit from vision to make the stale and tired reader wake up to wonder. A century and a half apart, the romantic Coleridge1 and the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky in various discussions of ostranenie2 insist that art makes things strange. There can be few better twentieth-century proofs of art's creative defamiliarizing than this poem.

In a now familiar letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, who like Vernon Watkins, but earlier, stimulated Thomas by ideas and poetry, he criticized her for attempting to write poems about the unity of being without showing the relationship of parts of nonhuman nature not only to the human creature, but to each other. As soon as he formulates his ideal you see that it is a hard thing to write because it is a hard thing to imagine:

Though you talk all through of the relationship of yourself to other things, there is no relationship at all between the things you example. If you are one with the swallow and one with the rose, then the rose is one with the swallow. Link together these things you speak of; show, in your words & images, how your flesh covers the tree & the tree's flesh covers you.

(CL, p. 79)

So how does Dylan Thomas do what he advises, link and show the link? The linking and the showing are matters of imagination, not willed craft, and his imaginative linkings are various. One way is through transformative imagery, as in the new hybrid epithet “green,” half-literal color and half-metaphorical quality, and the old hybrids of the parsed permuted “mouth” which are first shown to cover human and vegetable life, then human and mineral life. Another way is through the embodiment and individuation of a placed and imagined passionate vision, the madman's, the god's, or the child's, which merges and mingles parts in a new-made whole, like the animated asylum, or the freshly imaged stable matrix.

These are complex and elaborate transformations and characterizations, extending over lengths of language, but Thomas is also very good at jamming together and uniting differences and disparates briefly, in a compound word. One example, from “Poem on his Birthday,” is “mustardseed sun,” a brilliantly plural joining through unlikenesses: one object is vegetable and one a star, one very small and one very large, one graspable and everyday, one remote and not wholly known, one a culinary aid, the other essential to life; and through the likenesses: both are natural objects, both are dense bright yellow, both round, and both provide intense heat. The result is the kind of thing which happens in the ancient Japanese form of haiku, which may in small compass collate two experiences, neither of which is made a subordinate or vehicle for the other. This is a compressed way of showing the things in the nonhuman world related to each other, and such images are characteristic original imprints of juxtaposition or comparison which relate without the hierarchy implicit in the making of metaphor. It is a form of rhetoric perfected for a decentering of the human vision.

There are other powerful examples in this magnificent poem: for instance, the “sandgrain day,” “thunderclap spring,” “ramshackle sea,” and the “thistledown fall.” These are all images like the mustardseed sun which bring together natural objects from different categories, forming compounds which refuse to subordinate either element, and refuse or resist separation into the conventional rhetorical components of tenor (subject signified) and vehicle (carrier or signifier of subject). The day is like the sand grain in being small, one amongst many, uncountable, light and bright, but the conjunction tells us as much about the sand grain as the day. The thunderclap coexists with the spring, rather than simply illustrating its explosive bursts of arrival. Thistledown does almost as much for the fall, of which it is a part, as the fall does for the thistledown, the phrase rejecting the instrumental element at work in most synecdoche as in metaphor and simile. The sea makes the shackled ram more rough, turbulent, dangerous, violent, and wild, drawing them both closer to the human being in his shore lookout. But the bucking ram makes the tusk-curved waves and tides more uninhibited, sexual, dangerous and intransigent as they obey the necessities of their regulation and rhythm. This metaphor also takes us back, like so many of Hopkins's images, to etymology, to discover that the dictionary does not give what I assumed to be the origin of the word and image, but merely guesses—with an O.E.D. [Oxford English Dictionary] “perhaps”—at possible derivations, none of which seem as plausible as the one suggested by Thomas's component-conscious compound. Thomas invents—or perhaps reinvents and discovers—the etymology, by placing an existing compound in an inventive context which makes it strange and makes us analytic. This poem's image set (noticeably but not uniquely) brings together parts of nature as equalities, so that the two syllables of ramshackle, whatever its origin, are joined and re-created as a hobbled strong sexual creature.

As I have said, these compounds work like haiku. The sea is compared with a shackled animal, the day with a grain of sand, the spring with a thunderclap, the fall with thistledown, and we accept and admire the aptness, which does the work of a precise detailed substantiation, which is not Thomas's way with nature. But there is companionship not subordination, demonstrating—or rather dramatizing—that relationship between aspects of the natural world which Thomas explained to Pamela Hansford Johnson. There is reciprocity, as in haiku. Though several Thomas critics convincingly interpret Thomas's vision of natural unity as religious, sometimes pantheistic, sometimes Christian, it may also be read as an agnostic poetry, a physical rather than a metaphysical vision, an acceptance of the human being's place in what Wordsworth called the very world in which we live, without invoking the supernatural—which after all involves hierarchy and hegemony—except as metaphor, “fabulous, dear God,” who seems to be invoked as Wallace Stevens—great postmetaphysical poet of the green world—recognized the necessary angel of our human imagination.

Thomas also joins the poetry of nature with love poetry, which he writes more rarely than most poets. One of his best love poems is the extraordinary “Into her lying down head,” which he describes as a “poem about modern love” (CL, p. 455). It is like some of the other poems I have mentioned—“Where once the waters of your face,” for instance—in presenting an ambiguous balance and relationship of tenor and vehicle, so that at first it is possible to read it—perhaps impossible not to read it—as offering two faces: is it a love poem in which the natural world is a metaphor, or a poem about nature in which human love is a metaphor? If we conclude, as I did after many readings, that the first is the most plausible reading, this is backed by Thomas's exegesis, offered to Vernon Watkins in the letter I have just quoted.

It turns out to be a poem about jealousy, but the extensive metaphors of mineral and bird make it also a proving and a linking, another poem about the unity of being. The display of unity is moving in itself but also makes the human pair, and their needs, desires and severance, larger, more intense, and more powerful. This is seen most clearly in the last section, where Thomas's favored images of sand and bird come together, linked with each other as well as linked with the human loving—and hating:

                    Two sand grains together in bed,
                    Head to heaven-circling head,
          Singly lie with the whole wide shore,
The covering sea their nightfall with no names;
And out of every domed and soil-based shell
                    One voice in chains declaims
          The female, deadly, and male
          Libidinous betrayal,
Golden dissolving under the water veil.

Sand and water here form a remarkable image both of married love and promiscuity, and though they may eventually be seen as metaphors of a human situation, so neatly apt but weirdly unlike, so particularized is the image of coupled sand grains, close and compact as sleeping or coupled lovers, the wide expanse of beach, and the appearance of soft yellow sand in water, that the images offer a statement in themselves, suggestive of sexual love but also of a companionable proximity of mineral items. The natural world appears to create a sense of huge collective extension, and amorphous fluidity, shape taking and shape losing. The shell also takes its place in this drama, the dome suggesting amplitude and space, the “soil-based” position a tethering. Sand and sea and shell story are followed by an equivalent bird version, with similar suggestions of texture and companionably fitting bodies but with its own impression of joy: the sand grains were content, perfectly fitted, but the bird is ecstatic, welcoming both bliss and destruction, which the speechless sand grains merely suffer:

                    A she bird sleeping brittle by
Her lover's wings that fold tomorrow's flight,
                    Within the nested treefork
                    Sings to the treading hawk
Carrion, paradise, chirrup my bright yolk.

The last movement doubles images of grass and stone, not suggesting a pairing but with a scrupulous accuracy, solitude and anonymity for the stone, but company and membership for the grass blade:

                    A blade of grass longs with the meadow,
A stone lies lost and locked in the lark-high hill.

We finally return to the human creatures, in a total and profound presentation of two points of view, the amoral view of nature, and the human sexual and social suffering which can't reach that larger natural view as it suffers. Humanity is presented in a series of compressed images which are sensuous but need intellectual unpacking: nakedness, implying companionship with the unclothed, so unprotected and undecorated air; innocence but only “between wars”; lust, secret, and uninhibited in the cause of life-force fertility, but also the private and social dimension of jealousy, solitude, and enmity. But we return to the larger viewpoint as the “severers,” the deaths, obliterate the personal moralities and passions. The last image of faithless sleep makes another scrupulously accurate observation:

Open as to the air to the naked shadow
          O she lies alone and still,
          Innocent between two wars,
With the incestuous secret brother in the seconds to
          perpetuate the stars,
          A man torn up mourns in the sole night.
And the second comers, the severers, the enemies from the deep
Forgotten dark, rest their pulse and bury their dead in
          their faithless sleep.

In such a reticently and obscurely narrated love story, rendering the emotions of desire and jealousy and anger, the natural world stands out in a vivid particularity. (It is a little like the way in which an organ or object, displaced in cubist painting, may stand out in relief and new close-up.) But what is impressive about that particularity is its convincing characterization of the sand, water, bird, grass, stone and hill as live, individual, active participants. For instance, as I've said, the grass blade is allowed to long—to have a form or purpose and a belonging—while the stone is locked, imprisoned but also companioned. Sometimes the recognition of a natural object is registered simply through a precise image: for instance, “brittle” is just right for the light-boned bird, and the nonhuman amorality of the slung together “carrion, paradise,” perfectly apt. The nonhuman phenomena can only be described, as scrupulously as possible, by the human creature standing on the threshold of their existence, doing his best to invent a language for his empathy, allowing them to refuse to be subordinates, instruments, and symbols.

Nature is wonderingly and wonderfully imagined, as nature, and even when human emotional and ethical language is used, as in “libidinous,” “love,” “longs,” and “lost,” it is not farfetched or inappropriate. The nonhuman identities and relations are never romanticized in this poem which is both a highly original, strange, love lyric and one of Thomas's best nature poems.

It is a poem which has always reminded me of one of Lawrence's best, but not especially typical, love poems, “The Ballad of a Second Ophelia,” whose bright yolk and interdevastation of human, animal, fruit and blossom Thomas's piece echoes, so I was delighted to find Thomas quoting three stanzas of Lawrence's poem as one he admired (CL, p. 558). (He had already written this poem, but wasn't reading Lawrence for the first time.) Its ejaculatory and ecstatic eroticism is also like the tone and feeling of Lawrence's poem. “Chirrup my bright yolk” compounds celebration of the egg, distress for its spilling, and the endearment of a bird's little language, and like the language composed for the unborn child in “If my head hurt a hair's foot,” this scrap of idiolect is piercingly live and vibrant, another new language, freshly minted for a mother bird, though like Lawrence's “Cluck, my yellow darlings!”—included in Thomas's quotation—using traditional little-language bird words too.

Like many seaside children, Thomas passed time lounging and watching, as well as playing and exploring, on the sands. He knows the soft, fine, gritty feel of it: his sand imagery is textural—in “From Love's First Fever” the sand spits—as well as visually evocative of the varied flat sand and dunes of the Gower peninsula. He knows the sound of sand too, and in the meditative and joyous “We lying by seasand,” there is no particular seascape invoked, but we are brought close to what they all have in common, sand and sea.

The heavenly music over the sand
Sounds with the grains as they hurry
Hiding the golden mountains and mansions
Of the grave, gay, seaside land.

This seems like a composite seascape, dune country recalled in those golden mountains, the gay seaside land, the populated Swansea beach or South Gower beaches, the more isolated feel of rock and tide watch in the remoter Rhossilli or North Gower country. The scurry of sand is there too.

But the poem's sensuous nature imagery is a vehicle for feeling. The poem utters an unusually simple cry, in a laconic clipped language which Thomas probably learned from Auden, whom he disparages at times but admired:

We lying by seasand, watching yellow
And the grave sea …
Watch yellow, wish for wind to blow away
The strata of the shore and down red rock;
But wishes breed not, neither
Can we fend off rock arrival,
Lie watching yellow until the golden weather
Breaks, oh my heart's blood, like a heart and hill.

He uses the silence and stillness and beauty of the scene as a sounding board for the heart's longing. “Yellow” resonates like green in other poems, and like green is wonderfully substantiated, in the substantive of the two key watching lines. It has its own assonant mellow melody, like a hollow shell, like Billie Holiday singing “Sweet and Mellow.” That short move from the metaphorical heart's-blood to the simile “like a heart” is simple but daring, breaking and starting up within short compass in a way expressive of the heartbreak it describes but doesn't quite name. The final collocation of heart and hill manages to feel for the broken hill as well as the broken heart, establishing both as strong but vulnerable objects of care.

Though less strikingly than “Into her lying down head,” this is another one of many examples of the poet's love poetry for nature. This is often written—and imagined—without the detailed particularizations of nature poets like Dorothy Wordsworth or Hopkins. Blake pulls off the same trick of convincingly embracing objects in an abstract, rather than an individualized, apostrophe. His blade of grass, his grains of sand, his robin redbreast, and his pebble are very like similar natural objects in Thomas's animations.

Some of Thomas's early poems are written, as Yeats said of his own much more romantically desirous, but less erotic, early love poems, in desire and longing. But here too the imagining of the natural world often powerfully displaces the human center, and pushes itself sturdily and individually forward. This is what happens in “A grief ago,” where the desolations and pleasures of love are done in substantial nature imagery. In “She who was who I hold, the fats and flower,” for instance, the bodily “fats” and the metaphorical flower, linked as so often by a pun—the cooking pun—make a strong image, new and traditional, for woman's flesh and beauty, while “a chrysalis unwrinkling in the iron” is a literal example of birth and an adroit, unusually subtle, phallic symbol.

“From Love's First Fever” is another green poem (with some yellow) which particularizes the growth of a human creature through natural images:

Shone in my ears the light of sound,
Called in my eyes the sound of light.
And yellow was the multiplying sand,
Each golden grain spat life into its fellow,
Green was the singing house.

The poem's images are particular and complex, and sometimes synaesthetic, joining the mineral and animal in that wonderful spitting image, which is sandily dry, wet, and stinging. In that personal and radical revision of Yeats's singing school, the green singing house, there is a fusion of what is literally animal and vegetable and metaphorically human. As the sand grains spit life into each other, as I've mentioned, they sting sharply and grittily like actual sand, and they are also given an imaginary method of reproduction animistic but also physically apt, thoroughly felt.

Once more the metaphorical vehicle for the human story and situation is unsubdued, and here it is not only strongly particularized by being realized through sensations of look and feel, but is itself complicated by being imagined in animating human terms—“spat life into its fellow”—so that the vehicle in its turn becomes tenor. Like the ambiguous narrative of “Where once the waters of your face,” this cellular compounding of metaphor makes a love poem a nature poem too.

Something similar happens in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” which I described in the last chapter as holding together the subjects of art and death. It also presents itself as a nature poem, and contains a powerful rejection of anthropocentricity:

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn.

This poem whose apocalyptic metaphors blend Christian and Jewish temples in easy companionship begins by equalizing mankind and the rest of nature, in that wonderfully dignified beginning vision—in which there shall be no more sea, as well as no more land—where those principles of power, “making” and humbling, stand strongly together, to act out the stated unity of being. This is a part of the poem's curious action of occupatio, through which the speaker refuses to mourn for what is a tragic wasted young life and death because he is unwilling to separate death from life, and insists on celebrating the natural circulation and recycling of nature. (How could anyone with this kind of accepting and enabling imagination sympathize with nationalism?) It would be a mistake to think his position was apolitical. As I have said, Thomas was a good untheoretical caring grassroots Socialist, who said on at least one occasion that the poet had a global responsibility, and should be in touch with what was happening on this planet.

Thomas's imagination leaps to generalize, and abstract, the human condition. Sometimes he does so while sympathizing with the individual—and poetically individualized—creature, like the hunchback, Ann Jones, and Raymond's dying brother; sometimes, most extraordinarily, without individualizing human features and feelings at all, as in the speech of the unsexed fetus, or in the feeling for sap driven through stem, or in this elegy for a dead child and all the dead, human, vegetable, and mineral. (Thomas, like Blake, has a soft spot for stones.)

Without creating hard-and-fast categories and compartments, I think it important to distinguish between the handful of character poems, which are always lyrical, but are also narrative poems, and more “purely” and concentratedly lyrical poems like “The force that through the green fuse,” and “A Refusal to Mourn,” which avoid, fragment, or reduce narrative and character, to dwell intensely on sensation and feeling.

These highly emotional poems present the human element by generalization and abstraction, but because they are lyrically impassioned, what is made general and abstract is also made fresh, lively, and particular. In “The force that through the green fuse” and “A Refusal to Mourn,” the human element is generalized and abstracted because Thomas is taking, in a tremendous imaginative essay, the vertiginous viewpoint and remarkably long perspective from which human nature is grasped as part of nature. He manages to assimilate the human element, as he believes the life force assimilates it, to rocks and stones and trees, or to substitute some of his favorite nonhuman images for those of the less green, and more hesitant, conservative, romantic, and compromised pantheist Wordsworth, to ferns, foxes, stems, sand grains, air, water, herons and hawks. The human being, especially the poet using his language as personally and passionately and particularly as poets can, cannot exactly comprehend or imagine the nonhuman phenomenal world which he contemplates, but this is what Thomas seems to achieve. It is perhaps that touch of genius which makes his very early poems so brilliant, depending as they do not on what is learned but on what is imagined in sensuous and emotional contact—the germinal experience. It seems odd that someone who was so nurtured and extroverted to participate in social culture could create or inhabit this interiority of kinship with the green world.

Two final comments. Dylan Thomas's articulated sense of natural unity makes any suggestion of provincial self-consciousness seem irrelevant, certainly for the understanding and appreciation of his poems and stories. More importantly, it explains why he could go on mining these adolescent poems for so long, revising their language, often expanding their action and scene, but keeping the germinal experience, intuitive and imaginative. Thomas is sometimes judgmentally described as immature or infantile, but I'd like to turn this analysis round and propose that he is Wordsworth's best philosopher, that lost visionary child who felt itself in easy relationship with the rest of creation, that past creative self the mature Wordsworth labored unceasingly to recall and restore. Like Wordsworth, but without the sense of loss through growth, Thomas articulated a preserved sense of the childhood intimacy with the natural world, the freedom and excitement of playing in nature, the vision of, the fusion with, “the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower.”

In much of his splendid poetry he found a language, rooted in the adolescent writing, for presenting that sense of unity, a unity of the observer with what is observed. When he writes the poem which begins “I, in my intricate image, stride on two levels,” he is speaking Cartesianly about the ghost-laying poet, “the brassy orator” containing the ghost who holds “hard in death's corridor,” but he also discovers a language for natural unity, a poetry like that of the great classical haiku poets, Bashō and Buson, who imagine images, narratives, and patterns without metaphorical subordinations, for expressing union and equality.

Thomas's intricate image in which he strides on two levels is an original vision of the human animal as language maker, companioned by the nonhuman animal, vegetable, and mineral phenomena, which only the human language maker is empowered to identify and to articulate, easily, frustratedly, joyfully, and bitterly. The politics and the aesthetics of this poetry are profound, and its art rare.


  1. [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, [London: J. M. Dent, 1991], chap. 13.

  2. See, for instance, Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917). reprinted in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. and ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).

List of Abbreviations

CL Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris. London: J. M. Dent, 1985.

CP Dylan Thomas, The Collected Poems, 1934-1953, ed. Walford Davies and Ralph Maud. London: J. M. Dent, 1996.

CP52 Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems, 1934-1952. London: J. M. Dent, 1952.

CS Dylan Thomas: The Collected Stories. London: J. M. Dent, 1983.

EPW Early Prose Writings, ed. Walford Davies. London: J. M. Dent, 1971.

FS Dylan Thomas: The Filmscripts, ed. John Ackerman. London: J. M. Dent, 1995.

JA A Dylan Thomas Companion, by John Ackerman. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1991.

NP Dylan Thomas: The Notebook Poems, 1930-1934, ed. Ralph Maud. London: J. M. Dent, 1989.

PAYD Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, by Dylan Thomas. Introduced by Aeronwy Thomas. London: Everyman, J. M. Dent, 1993.

QEOM Quite Early One Morning, ed. Aneirin Talfan Davies. London: J. M. Dent, 1954.

TB Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts, ed. Ralph Maud. London: J. M. Dent, 1991.

TP Dylan Thomas: The Poems, ed. Daniel Jones. London: J. M. Dent, 1971.

TR Dylan Thomas: Dog among the Fairies, by Henry Treece, London: Ernest Benn, 1947. Rev. 1956.

UMW Under Milk Wood, ed. Daniel Jones. London: J. M. Dent, 1954. Rev. ed. 1974.

Unless otherwise stated, references for the poems are to CP and for the stories to PAYD.


Dylan Thomas World Literature Analysis


Thomas, Dylan (Short Story Criticism)