In the third part of our series in the lead up to Dylan Day, Professor John Goodby explores the intertextual elements in Dylan Thomas’s work.
Dylan Thomas’s Modernist metaphysical poetry had many of the qualities mid-century critics like John Bayley admired, but it also often flouted the limits they set. As a result, by about 1960, it had come to mark one of the points beyond which such criticism could not go. In Winifred Nowottny’s brilliant study, The Language Poets Use (1962), a tour de force reading of ‘There was a saviour’ leads to the conclusion that several of its allusions are so recondite that Thomas could not have reasonably expected most readers to identify them. And while Nowottny did not believe that a full accounting for allusions was necessary for the poem to succeed, she was worried by whether the fainter echoes of other texts were unintended or deliberate; ‘Compost or Cue?’, as she put it. It all depends, of course, on what we mean by ‘reasonable’.
Thomas seems to have believed that, since we are never wholly in control of our language, and hence a poem’s sources, it is right to register this within the poem itself; non-‘reasonable’ in this context does not mean irrational, but truer reasonableness. No poet is able to wholly account for everything in a poem, of course; but Thomas makes it a conscious principle to allow for a residue of unexplained, unresolved material in his. This gives them a textual unconscious which works to thwart the separation of ‘Compost’ (genetics) and ‘Cue’ (meaning) which Nowottny feels is so necessary; they anticipate, that is, some of the new ways of thinking about literature which would emerge just a few years after Nowottny’s book, in particular the concept of intertextuality associated with Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva.
In intertextual terms, trying to account for a poem simply by tracking it to its sources is not only impossible but, to some extent, beside the point. Or, as Thomas once put it himself, justifying his avoidance of allusion to ‘conscious influence[s]’, the mere ‘heredity’ or ‘descendency’ of a poem ‘isn’t worth a farthing’. In 1922 The Waste Land had stressed that all poems were ‘fragments’ of others. But Thomas avoids such an ironic parade by his subversion of the allusive protocols, violating the convention by which other poets are permitted to keep their voices within the host text. Alert to allusion-hunting, he will even sometimes lure the unwary into over-explication with what Barbara Hardy calls ‘deceptive allusions’. In a similar way, aware of his own compromised relationship towards the textual mulch from which his poems grew, THomas’s poems often incorporate an understanding that language use itself is shaped by echo, false parallel- ism, phrasal slippage, palimpsestic overlay. They recognise that the creative process is not fully knowable or susceptible of authorial control, and in so doing allow the linguistic unconscious an enhanced degree of autonomy. Mastery over language is renounced as an illusion, even as virtuosic creativity within language is flaunted. Sound, un-or half-conscious intertextual echo, will invariably shape sense in poetry, we might say; rather than deploring it, or pretending it can be eliminated, better to be conscious of its inevitability and make that part of your conscious poetic practice.
Thomas’s procedures anticipate analyses of poetic language by contemporary poet-theorists such as Denise Riley, who has noted that ‘Sound runs on well ahead of the writer’s tactics. The aural laws of rhyme precede and dictate its incarnation—and this is only one element of an enforced passivity in the very genre where that irritating thing “creativity” is supposed to most forcefully hold court.’
‘Enforced passivity’ in Thomas is the backdrop to a drama of self-making on the part of the hybrid, Anglo-Welsh subject; thus, interlinked allusions to Freud, Hamlet and Eliot’s ‘The Problem of Hamlet’ in 18 Poems, constellate his relationship with a poetically usurped father and adolescent sexual angst in poems such as ‘My world is pyramid’, while also mimicking the Joycean ‘chaosmos’, the universe of process, to which everything belongs. More fugitive intertexts include the ‘process’ of ‘A process in the weather of the heart’, a reference to the ‘philosophy of process’ of Alfred North Whitehead, whose Science and the Modern World (1926) Thomas is known to have read.
Like other popular science writers of the day, Whitehead tried to reconcile modern physics with a spiritual principle, and this effort is mediated in Thomas by the intertextual code of his family’s Unitarianism. Typically, the allusions are blatant and cryptic, subversive and an attempt to channel the linguistic unconscious. It is the threat to this from a more (auto)biographical poetry which, it seems to me, haunts the turning-point poem, ‘Once it was the colour of saying’ of 1938.
The stylistic turning-points of his career – in 1933 (the Nazi seizure of power) and 1938 (the Munich Agreement) – hint at the fact that Thomas’s intertextuality taps an ‘out of joint’, overdetermined historical unconscious too. Far from being escapist, for many of his contemporaries, as R. George Thomas noted, his poems ‘accurately mirrored’ ‘the febrile grotesqueness’ of the 1930s, with a poem such as ‘The force that through the green fuse’ understood by many ‘as a fairly clear realization of unknown sources of physical suffering that must lie ahead of us, most probably in gas warfare or Guernica-like devastation’ – this because, not despite, their ‘macabre’ quality.
Paradoxically, it was the poems’ lack of reportage that ensured that ‘the nightmare quality in the drift towards Hitler’s war . . . was echoed more closely in Thomas’s non-political verse than in any of the Home Guard poems of C. Day Lewis or . . . Spender.’
Over the next few weeks, leading 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.