In the latest part of our series in the lead up to Dylan Day, Professor John Goodby examines how Dylan Thomas’ work fits into the canon of English poetry.
To align Thomas with history in this way is to raise questions about his own place in the history of English (and British, and Welsh) poetry, questions which have a material bearing on why we should pay attention to his work today, and on how we might be rewarded by it. The most distinctive aspect of his reputation has always been its anomalous relationship to the standard narratives of twentieth-century poetry, whether ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’. Even at the height of his critical acceptability, in the 1950s and 1960s, he did not fit easily within them; and, since the late 1970s, uneasy tolerance has been replaced largely by dismissal or patronage – that he is, at worst, a kind of fake poet, and at best merely an interesting one, in a dead-end, fascinating-but-inconsequential way.
Thomas’s response to Modernism, informed by Joycean attitudes to language, New Country’s revival of form, Lawrence’s expressionist Modernism and Blake’s iconoclasm, gathered under the sign of his own hybrid Anglo-Welsh identity, was an event of major significance in the development of the English lyric. I argue there that if it is taken as seriously as it should be, a radical rethinking of standard narratives of mid-century poetry is required. However, as I also note, this would inevitably threaten long-cherished beliefs, particularly anglocentric ones – in particular the anglocentric myth of the 1930s as ‘the Auden decade’ and the 1940s as poetically dire – as well as acquiescence in the primacy of ‘the English tradition’ of plain-style discursive-empirical poetry, from Hardy to the present. Partly as a result, despite the positive reception of CP14 as an edition, almost no reviewer referred to the literary-historical case it advanced, namely that Thomas, author of the experimental ‘Altarwise’ and anthology classics like ‘Fern Hill’, problematises the division of British poetry into ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ strands, and straddles the fault-line opened up in English poetry by The Waste Land. Thomas’s poetry, dealing with major existential issues (birth, being, sex, faith, death, with an emphasis on the question of (im)mortality), fused the traditional forms revived by Auden and his followers and Modernist content. Following Gabriel Pearson’s 1971 review of Daniel Jones’s edition of Thomas’s poems, I rejected the idea that Thomas and Auden were simply polar opposites, finding their much-touted opposition best understood in terms of what they initially shared – that, as poets of post-1929 crisis, they belonged to the same ‘spiritually-orphaned generation’, responding apprehensively to a looming world war with different forms of ‘nervy apocalyptic jokiness’ – and that they should therefore be regarded as complementary, ‘the sundered halves of the great modernist poet that English [sic] poetry, after Eliot, failed to throw up’.
In formal terms, both Thomas and Auden also belonged to a conservative, distinctively British attempt to domesticate avant-garde disruptiveness, which was under way as they were starting their careers. As the contemporary avant-garde poet-critic Drew Milne notes, this established that the only kind of Modernist-derived British poetry sanctioned by the mainstream was, for many decades, that which presented itself as the inheritor of pre-modernist English poetry, and especially as ‘retrospective conceptions of the modernism of seventeenth-century poetry’. The best expression of this was Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), which built on Eliot’s criticism, but valorised polysemy and structural complexity in ‘a major development of modernist poetics within criticism’. It offered a blueprint for the rewriting of earlier poetry according to Eliotic tenets and for ‘writing modernist poetry by other [i.e. critical] means’.
Both Auden and Thomas reflected this trend towards containment; however, while Auden rejected Modernism after The Orators (1932), Thomas maintained an intense dialogue with it until at least 1938; indeed, his ratchetting up of polysemy and fugitive allusiveness, above even Empsonian levels, was a challenge to its domestication. en, in 1938–9, Thomas’s version of ‘nervy apocalyptic jokiness’, now tempered by his experience of marriage and parenthood, supplanted its previously dominant Audenesque twin on the poetry scene, in the form of the New Apocalypse poets. Throughout the war, and for some years afterwards, Thomas set the tone for British poetry, and not just that of his own generation. During this period there existed both a new visionary-apocalyptic Modernism and a renewed 1920s Modern-ism: the outcomes included not only W. S. Graham’s The Night Fishing and Lynette Roberts’s Gods With Stainless Ears, but Eliot’s Four Quartets, David Jones’s The Anathemata, and H. D.’s The Towers Fall. Far from being a wasted decade, as Movement ideologues later claimed, the 1940s was one of the richest of the century.
The consequences of how the Thomas–Auden split has been construed have shaped British poetry to the present day. Broadly speaking, poets following Auden’s example tried to curb what they saw as Modernism’s excess of linguistic and metrical defamiliarisation in an effort to make formal control of tension and ambiguity the cornerstone of a continuing humanist enterprise. Those inclining towards Thomas and/or experiment, fewer in number (but including W. S. Graham, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath), rejected liberal humanism and its reliance on pre-modern concepts of language and the self. Yet despite this divide, there have always been poetic practices which blurred and overrode it.
Since the early 2000s, this divide has become – in the era of the internet and print-on-demand technology – increasingly difficult to police. As a result, Thomas’s subaltern, tricksterish credentials and his pioneering role as a outer of distinctions (not to mention his role as a proto-post-colonial ‘mimic man’, biomorphic body-writer and pacifist prophet of ecological crisis) make him an increasingly appropriate representative figure of mid-twentieth-century poetry for our own times.
An overhaul of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene is long overdue. Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J. H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W. S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’. Further exploration of the relationship of Thomas’s poetry to their work and that of others will follow, as well as of his as-yet-unexplored intertexts and contexts, from crossword puzzles to Paul Celan and John Cowper Powys. These will help to flesh out a richer, more genuinely nuanced and paradoxical history than we currently have. It is with this future prospect in mind that Discovering Dylan Thomas, in its oblique and supplementary way, is offered as a contribution towards establishing Thomas’s dissident place near the heart of that history.
In the lead up up to International Dylan Day on May 14th, Wales Arts Review will publish a series of extracts from John Goodby’s Discovering Dylan Thomas, looking at Thomas’ influences and his place in the canon of English literature.
Read the story of the discovery of ‘The Fifth Notebook’ here.
Discovering Dylan Thomas is available now.