Dylan Thomas | His Reading and Influences

Dylan Thomas | His Reading and Influences

In the second part of our series in the lead up to Dylan Day, Professor John Goodby explores the influences on Dylan Thomas, what we can learn from them, and how they helped form his work.


‘Anything in the world so long as it is printed’

The place where any annotator has to start is with Thomas’s ‘influences’. Of course, no poet can be reduced to their reading, reading is not synonymous with the sources of a poem, and sources, in any case, do not necessarily tell us very much about a poem’s meaning. Nor do poets learn of things solely through their reading, and certainly not in the garrulous artistic milieux and multi-media society Thomas inhabited.

Thomas is unusual, however, in the way he so often hides his allusions, or distances them: does the ‘dolphined sea’ of ‘Where once the waters of your face’ come from Yeats, or Anthony and Cleopatra, or anywhere (but there is always a somewhere)? As a result his allusions are often discounted or missed, with the result that he can seem not very well read – or, worse, to write in some naïve, ‘inspired’ way. Because of this, and because the reader is often in need of some kind of purchase on the more difficult poems, it is important to unearth as much empirical evidence as possible, albeit this should be offered in a way that does not nail the poem to a single interpretation.

More interestingly – if less immediately useful to the struggling reader – there is the question of just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely. Most poets want you to get their allusions, after all, or why use them in the first place? It seems to me that the secrecy and covering-up has to do with the way Thomas’s poems mean rather than what they mean, what we might call their general strategy of obscurity. Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo often signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion. This has fostered the impression that he was not very well read, or even that he was a philistine who read nothing but thrillers, detective fiction and Dickens as an adult. This in turn accords with the legend, and may have been part of an effect Thomas was trying to create, but it does not fit the facts.

When I began working on the Collected Poems, I drew up a list of possible sources I ought to read, initially based on accounts of Thomas’s own accounts of his reading. Its range surprised me, even allowing for the fact that he may have exaggerated occasionally. The poetry that most obviously shaped his own is well known – it includes the Bible, the Metaphysical poets, Renaissance and Jacobean poetry and drama, Milton (his favourite poem was ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’) and Blake (‘I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight’). Other favourites included Beddoes, Whitman, T. S. Eliot, the Sitwells, Richard Aldington, Wilfred Owen, W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden. Then there is the fiction he enjoyed – and we should recall that Thomas in the early 1930s presented himself to editors as a poet and short story writer equally, and that the early Fictions and poetry explore the same sexualised, Gothic modernist moods and landscapes, and share numerous verbal parallels. Consequently, fiction was crucial to his poetry, and it is clearly shaped by prose writers as different as Caradoc Evans, Arthur Machen, the Powys brothers, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence (he described reading e Plumed Serpent for ‘the hundredth time’). Joyce, indeed, with his ‘revolution of the word’, was as important as any poetic predecessor; and we know that in 1933 Thomas bought himself two Faber-published extracts from Work in Progress as a Christmas gift.12 And, given his taste for experimental prose, it should come as no surprise to learn that the chief model for the stylistic shift in his poetry in 1938–41 was Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

My task, of exploring Thomas’s reading, was aided by his early keenness to dispel any notion that he was a benighted provincial. His description of father’s library for Pamela Hansford Johnson, for example, was an exhaustive one:

Dad has a room full of all the accepted stuff, from Chaucer to Henry James; all the encyclopaedias and books of reference, all Saintsbury, and innumerable books on the theory of literature. His library contains nearly everything that a respectable highbrow library should contain. My books, on the other hand, are nearly all poetry, and mostly modern at that. I have the collected poems of Manley Hopkins, Stephen Crane, Yeats, de la Mare, Osbert Sitwell, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, & T. S. Eliot; volumes of poetry by Aldous Huxley, Sacheverell & Edith Sitwell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, D. H. Lawrence, Humbert Wolfe, Sassoon, and Harold Munro; most of the ghastly Best Poems of the Year; two of the Georgian Anthologies, one of the Imagiste Anthologies, ‘Whips & Scorpions’ (modern satiric verse), the London Mercury Anthology, the Nineties Anthology (what Dowsonery!); a volume of Cambridge Poetry & Oxford Undergraduate Poetry; most of Lawrence, most of Joyce, with the exception of Ulysses, all of Gilbert Murray’s Greek translations, some Shaw, a little Virginia Woolf, & some E. M. Forster.

Thomas went on to give evidence of his omnivorous tastes throughout the 1930s, often referring to books he was reading or reviewing. Later, as a reader and writer for the BBC, he broadcast on poets ranging from Philip Sidney to Alun Lewis, Dryden to W. H. Davies, as well as acting in productions of works that included In Parenthesis and Paradise Lost. Despite denials, he was au fait with French symbolist and surrealist verse (probably via the Paris-based journal transition), and was supplied with translations of Kierkegaard, Rilke, Novalis, Rimbaud, Lorca and other European writers by friends such as Norman Cameron and Vernon Watkins. Well before their critical recognition in British critical and academic circles, Thomas was in touch with new voices in American poetry, including those of Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Edgar Lee Masters, John Berryman and Richard Wilbur: Robert Lowell and Theodor Roethke feature in a broadcast he recorded in July 1952. He was capable of drawing an informed contrast between Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe, and had a particular penchant for underrated and eccentric writers such as Ruth Pitter, Sir Thomas Browne and Walter de la Mare.

Many readers will concede this much, of course, but still argue that Thomas’s reading was nevertheless not really ‘rounded’; what do they know of literature that only literature know? Again, it seems to me that this underrates Thomas’s knowledge and curiosity. No one would claim, I think, that he was a scholar, or that he read widely in non- literary areas such as philosophy, theology, history, botany, science, or politics. But it is all too easy – especially given some of the exaggerated claims made for his expertise in astronomy and suchlike in the 1950s – to dismiss him as a narrowly focused idiot savant; encyclopaedic, granted, when it came to poetry, but lacking contextual know- ledge. The over-inflated claims were rightly ridiculed by Daniel Jones, who claimed his friend had had no interest in any studies ‘with names ending in -ology, -onomy, -ography, -osophy, -ic, -ics, or, even, to a large extent, just -y (history, botany) . . . Dylan did not know by heart the Koran, the Zend Avesta, the Upanishads, the Lun Yu, and had no access to the Kabbalah’. But Jones overdid the demystification. Of the texts he listed, we know, for instance, that Thomas received the Koran as a gift for Christmas 1933 from none other than Jones himself. We also know that he read popular science books, newspapers, studies of politics and current affairs, science fiction, jazz and film journals, and much other printed matter. Like many other poets, he was a magpie reader with an above-average taste for glitter.

When I was seeking out what Thomas had read, then, I cast my net as widely as possible. Trawling the Victorian poets, I read Francis Thompson and George Meredith (finding echoes of both) as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins. I bore in mind that Thomas expressed a ‘theoretical dislike’ only of the Romantics, and found echoes of Wordsworth, Keats and Byron to prove it. I knew that the Georgians, too, so frequently mocked in his letters, had made an impression, as the echoes of Brooke’s ‘the Great Lover’ in ‘There was a saviour’ show. In reading so widely I was also able to eliminate from the reckoning some of Thomas’s favourite works, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Even so, ‘influence’ is often more a case of mood and milieu than simple allusion or echo, and much lies beyond the scope of annotation, which is a clumsy tool at best.

It is possible to say, however, that when Thomas began writing poetry again in 1944, after a gap of over two years, his use of allusion had changed. Perhaps because he was now, as a father and husband, embracing rather than resisting his own place in the cycle of process, he began to deploy allusion in a more traditional way. The use of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ as a template for ‘Fern Hill’ (1945) is the most obvious example, but similar examples can be found for all of the later, longer pastoral poems. Moreover, the poets evoked there are often of a smoother, more Virgilian kind than previously: Arnold, Keats, Chaucer and Traherne have supplanted Beddoes, Milton and Donne. It is as though Thomas’s sense of how directly he should draw on the central English poetic canon became more expansive as his own work edged towards permanent inclusion within it. ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Poem in October’ read like poems that already have anthology inclusion in mind, examples in a new mode of his talent for subversive mimicry and adaptation.

As I’ve noted, however, Thomas’s allusive strategies were more often about hiding, not revealing, his sources. One reflection of this is his occasional feigning of ignorance of work he knew perfectly well; of Hopkins, Welsh poetry and surrealism, for example. This can be partly attributed to an outsider’s defensive cockiness; having left school at sixteen, Thomas knew there were gaps, or what the university- educated might perceive as gaps, in his reading. He also knew that the difficulty his readers had in getting a handle on his poetry usefully burnished its aura of mystery and novelty. As a result, he turned disadvantage to account, even to the point of occasionally feigning ignorance to enhance the impression of autonomous self-invention. On the make in the metropolis, he availed himself of its desire for a pure, untutored, elemental genius, as his taste for role-playing and the omnivorous quality of his reading suggests. As Kenneth Rexroth noted in 1948, ‘[Thomas] . . . made the same violent assault upon official culture [as Hart Crane]. The thin erudition of the previous generation, the result of judicious schooling and back numbers of The Criterion, seemed dull and idle stuff beside his wolfing of books.’17

In this sense, the image of the purposeful autodidact requires a caveat or two. A few months after itemising the contents of his father’s ‘library’, when he knew Johnson better, Thomas gave a different account of his reading habits to the systematic one his listing had implied; he was, he told her, someone who spends his mornings browsing ‘translations out of the Greek or the Film Pictorial, a new novel from Smith’s, a new book of criticism, or an old favourite like Grimm or George Herbert, anything in the world so long as it is printed’. This eclecticism is confirmed by other self-descriptions and accounts by friends, and anticipates the account of how, as a teenager, he would write imitations of ‘whatever I was reading at the time. . . Sir Thomas Browne, de Quincey, Henry Newbolt, the Ballads, Blake, Baroness Orczy, Marlowe, Chums, the Imagists, the Bible, Poe, Keats, Lawrence, Anon., and Shakespeare’.

The poems, in their often oblique ways, testify to this ‘wolfing’ appetite; unpick their apparently seamless tone a bit, and you find a bewildering variety of discourses and tones, with allusions and echoes ranging from Schopenhauer to thrillers. The less guarded lists, then, mock the more straightforward ones, stressing a promiscuous mingling of texts, many outwith the canon, subverting whatever smacks of prescriptiveness. There is a comic point to them, but they are not merely haphazard; rather, they seem purposefully unpurposive, calculated to bring about novel lexical juxtapositions, cut-ups of genre and register. This is a major reason why, however much one tries to truth the out the ‘sources’ of Thomas’s forging of the process poetic in 1933–4, it is nearly impossible to trace many of the stages by which he created it; the fact that he made wordplay and textual heterogeneity the fundamental principles of his poetry at this time arose from a mode of reading and dealing with texts which is so complex and fugitive as to be impossible to trace.

Although born from a recognisably Modernist citational abyss, then, 18 Poems is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface. Ironically, given the charges of obscurity, Thomas’s early poems would be less difficult to understand if he had used the more technically ‘advanced’ collage techniques of The Waste Land; criticism has long since caught up with collage, but still has problems with such varied material so slyly wrapped in regular forms and (just about) regular syntax. It is for this reason, I think, that John Bayley described reading poems such as ‘When, like a running grave’, as being like an ‘obstacle course’ in which ‘even the most careful and devoted reader’ can be tripped up and ‘[i]t is as if the attitudes to language of Donne, Blake, and Swinburne were all to be encountered in the same poem’.


Over the next few weeks, leading up to International Dylan Day on May 14th, Wales Arts Review will publish a series of further 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.