John Idris Jones delves into Dylan Thomas’ archive and asks: is Thomas a great poet?
What is a Great Poet? By outcome, he is one who is deemed to be so by experts in the field. T.S.Eliot and W.B.Yeats are usually part of the English Literature syllabus in UK universities; they are also included in published anthologies of Twentieth Century Verse. But do they deserve such prominence? This question is rooted in matters of judgement. Is e.e.cummings a great poet? No. Why? Because his subject-matter (albeit well-written, witty and at times perceptive) is not essentially serious. This word can be misleading: I do not mean solemn or philosophical. I mean that the subject matter reaches the deeper aspects of life; that the content is worthwhile in that it touches the minds and feelings of persons when they are reflective. That the content is universal to mankind. The importance of the subject is central to the consideration of quality in literature; it turns it into Literature.
All his life, Thomas was moving in his work towards a position of being a great poet. Had he written a few more poems in the style that he finally discovered was truly his, his position in the pantheon would have been secure. He wrote one poem which is great from every possible viewpoint: Fern Hill. It is a masterpiece. It has a serious subject – mortality and immortality. It is magnificent in language and in theme, the two intertwining in an original method that was new to Literature in English. That method relied on his Welsh background. All his best poems have a style reliant on chiming – where the consonants and vowels echo one another; it is close to cynghanedd but without its rigidity. Thomas’s method is musical: he creates a beauty of expression based on sound. This musicality is there throughout his Collected Poems: there is barely a line clumsy to the ear. He never has the pedestrian, the limpid or the ugly in his lexis. However, having touched on one aspect of method, in assessing Thomas’ greatness we have to consider the importance of the subject.
Dylan Thomas took a long time to find his final true style. We know his background in Swansea: his Welsh-speaking unassuming mother and his English Literature graduate father, teacher and academic. He drew from both. He heard Nonconformist Christianity from the preachers in his local chapel, with their rhetoric and incantatory method. Is it possible to award the status of great poet to a writer with this style? This ‘preachy’ style lies deep in his early poems. Their subject-matter is narrow and repetitive, based on a growing boy’s experience of sexuality. Over and over he presents the urge to copulate, its energy and intensity, the act of conception and recreation, and birth as metaphor. Biblical themes are part of his young mind. The Bible is at the heart of Under Milk Wood, where a community is created allegorically. He writes ‘To begin at the beginning…’; beginning is not just the start of the day in Llareggub but an echo of the Genesis of mankind. The work is only half-done, and suffers as a work of art, lacking unity and coherence. Its incompletion may be indicative of Thomas’s exhaustion of biblical themes (the work also has strong derivations in the English mystery/miracle play tradition), of his moving to new ground mentally.
This is clearly marked by After the Funeral. The first eleven lines are packed with wordy phrases, irregularly arranged, impressionistically representing his old style. And then he inserts a clear indication of where he is going stylistically and thematically, ‘I stand, for this memorial’s sake, alone/ In the snivelling hours with dead, humped Ann / Whose hooded, fountain heart once fell in puddle/ Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun.” He rejects this hyperbole – it is a ‘…monstrous image blindly/ Magnified out of praise…” He is examining the morality of his old style; he needs to tell the truth about an aunt whom he respected, not just smother the scene with rhetoric.
On page 89 of the original edition of Collected Poems a poem appears which also stops the flow of self-absorbed phallo-centred rhetoric and presents the reader with a new tone. He asks – ‘Once it was the colour of saying/ Soaked my table the uglier side of the hill…’ He is saying it’s time to seek out a new poetical method; this biblical-inspired subject-matter of mine needs to be changed… that his instinctive use of the same subject-matter is his ‘undoing’. He is moving away from his obsession with his youthful sexuality; moving forward from procreation to what follows it, namely real life.
A Refusal to Mourn is hugely ‘preachy’. He writes as if he is addressing a congregation. It suffers from pomposity. And then, on the following page, as if he has had enough of rhetoric and conscious wordplay, comes the seriously good Poem in October. It is (at last) an account of a real incident: he discovers realism. It is about himself as a human being. He is thirty and he is evaluating his life. He tells the truth in a plain style. He takes a walk in Laugharne and he tells us clearly how he loves the place. The poem is so sincere and intimate that it can bring one close to tears. He reflects on the innocence of childhood and immortality. It has a magnificent ending: ‘… O may my heart’s truth / Still be sung / On this high hill in a year’s turning.’ Finally, after years and years of struggling, much of it off-course, cutting his teeth on language, Thomas finds his true style and subject. Following this poem comes This Side of Truth (for Llewelyn) which focuses on a real person (his son), for the first time. He is moving away from generalised rhetoric. He is beginning to see the universal in the individual life. Then, another individual, the hunchback in the park, comes on page 111, in a realistic setting. He is now finding his work in places in real-life, pictorialising and presenting narrative. The subject-matter is moving outwards, away from self-absorption and into the wider world.
Then there is Fern Hill, a poem that will last as long as Literature, a towering achievement. Centred on the universal theme of the innocence of childhood, it contains some of the most stunningly original and beautiful phrases ever written: ‘Down the rivers of the windfall light… And the Sabbath rang slowly/ In the pebbles of the holy streams… the tunes from the chimneys… Out of the whinnying green stable / On to the fields of praise… the children green and golden… Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’
Thomas’s poem In My Craft or Sullen Art is also a masterpiece. Beautifully formed, it makes one statement, sonnet-like, in which the poet tries to encapsulate his aim in writing. This is perhaps where he most reveals himself to be a great poet. It has directness, truthfulness and humility, and a welcome absence of the debilitating obscurity of his early style.
In these poems, Thomas was shaking himself free of bombast, rhetoric and obscurity, moving towards a musical clarity. He achieved this fully in only a handful of poems. If he had lived, I have no doubt that we would have had a regular production from him of the most wonderful work.
You might also like…
John Metcalf OBE talks to Carl Griffin about his seventh opera, Under Milk Wood and, in particular, his approach to creating the libretto and the importance of sound. Under Milk Wood has been five years in the making and will premiere in the UK at the Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea 3 April 2014, for a three-day run before touring around Wales.
This piece is part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Dylan Thomas from the Archive.
John Idris Jones is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.