In the first of four exclusive extracts in the lead up to this year’s Dylan Day, leading Thomas expert Professor John Goodby explores several aspects of what we know about Thomas, and what we only thought we knew. As with so much relating to Dylan Thomas, writes John Goodby in the introduction to his hotly anticipated new book, Discovering Dylan Thomas, the story of the discovery of the fifth notebook is both entertaining and intriguing.
As homeless newly-weds, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas stayed at the home of Yvonne Macnamara, Caitlin’s mother, in Blashford, Hampshire, often for extended periods, in the late 1930s. We know that during these stays Thomas wrote poetry; we know, moreover, that he often took his poetry notebooks with him on his travels in order to do so, and was prone to mislay them. This was evidently what happened in the case of N5; a note discovered with the notebook, in the hand of Louie King, one of Mrs Macnamara’s domestic servants of the time, tells us that she was given it with other scrap paper from the house with an instruction to burn it in the kitchen boiler. She saved it from destruction, however, and from then until her death in 1984 the notebook lay hidden in a drawer. It was presumably inherited by Louie King’s family, but its existence remained secret until late 2014. It had no impact, therefore, on the 1971, 1988 or 2014 editions of the poems, or on Ralph Maud’s editions of the collected notebook poems of 1967–8 and 1989. It is undeniably, and by some way, the most significant addition to the corpus of Thomas’s work to have appeared since 1941 – and, since Swansea University decided, with admirable determination, to acquire it when it came up at Sotheby’s in December 2014, I was lucky enough to be the first Thomas scholar to examine it, in January 2015.
Without pre-empting research which is still ongoing, it can be said that the new notebook changes our understanding of Thomas’s work in at least three basic respects.
First, it gives a clear idea of the order in which the poems of 1934–5 were written, one which is at odds with the order agreed hitherto.
Secondly, recording as it does Thomas’s development immediately before and after his departure from Swansea for London in December 1934, N5 gives the lie to claims that he did little work when he hit the capital for the first time. On the contrary, he continued to write purposefully, tackling ever more complex forms and subjects during the first half of 1935.
Thirdly, while it does not contain any previously unseen poems, N5 includes several for which there had previously been no autograph manuscripts or drafts, including two of the most complex and innovative, ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ and ‘I, in my intricate image’.
As a result, we can see how the poems were conceived, and, in several cases, their final stages of composition. The tripartite ‘I, in my intricate image’, for example, is entered in the notebook as three separately numbered poems (one of which is separated from the other two by another poem), raising the possibility that Thomas did not initially consider it to be a single work. In addition, as with many of the other poems in N5, Thomas altered ‘I, in my intricate image’ after he had entered it. In many cases the alterations are fairly minor, and the poems are very close to their published versions. But in several, and ‘I, in my intricate image’ is one of these, the alterations are so extensive in places that they amount to fairly sustained efforts of poetic composition and recalibration. (Quite a few poems, for example, were revised in some way when Thomas was in Donegal in summer 1935, as his records of the date and place of his labours show.) Crucially, the interpolated material (and almost all the deleted material) is decipherable. All of which means that N5 deepens the insight we have into Thomas’s astonishingly rapid development as a poet from spring 1933 onwards, in many ways completing the picture revealed by the third and fourth notebooks.
There was a fortuitousness about the timing of the appearance of N5 in November 2014 and the rediscovery of ‘A dream of winter’ in Autumn 2015. Thomas is both a popular writer and a demanding and difficult one, a hybrid blender of traditions and cultures. As a result, critical ambivalence has surrounded his work from the start. The response to the problem of how to present his work in 2014 was, in many quarters, to dumb him down. By unexpectedly appearing at the tail end of the centenary, notebook and poem served as timely reminders, first, that the body of texts we refer to as ‘Dylan Thomas’ is not fixed or static and, secondly, that his significance can only be fully understood through sustained engagement with his poetry. This is not, of course, to belittle the many genuinely imaginative populist responses of the year; Thomas’s own genius and taste for mass media cultural forms should warn anyone against snobbery. (Indeed, ‘DT– 100’, as it was branded, was arguably the first genuinely inclusive, all-Wales cultural phenomenon (rugby tournaments aside) since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly in 1997.) But, some corrective to the excesses was undoubtedly necessary by late 2014, and the new material helped to reinforce the claims for Thomas’s seriousness and the range of his achievement as a poet. It provided, that is, additional fuel for the critical project of reinterpreting Thomas which has been in train for over a decade now, one which in turn has implications for the way mid-twentieth-century poetry is understood more generally.
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.
Discovering Dylan Thomas is available now.
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This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.
John Goodby is a Dylan Thomas expert and contributor to Wales Arts Review.