Professor Walford Davies is one of Wales’ foremost literary critics and a world authority on the life and works of Dylan Thomas. In the first of a new series of interviews from Jasper Rees centring on the life and work of the poet in his centenary year, Davies talks about his admiration for the work of Thomas, his first introduction and his views on the national celebrations.
Jasper Rees: When did you first become aware of Dylan Thomas?
Walford Davies: Two separate occasions when I was a boy in Caersalem Congregational Chapel in Pontyberem. The minister, a wonderful man, DE Williams, at one point in one sermon recited some wonderful lines and said they’re by Dylan Thomas.
Was it in English?
The whole chapel was Welsh but he quoted those lines in English and they were the opening of ‘There was a saviour Rarer than radium’. He had the most beautiful voice. ‘Commoner than water, purer than truth,/ Children come from the sun assembled at his tongue/ To hear the golden note turn in a groove.’
How old were you?
When I heard the minister I would only have been twelve, thirteen.
So Dylan would have been dead by then.
Only just. Thereby hangs a tale. Then very quickly in the Gwendraeth Grammar, Ralph Davies the English master obviously fed up with teaching the set books for O level said, ‘Listen to this.’ And he read out ‘Poem in October’ which is still one of my favourites. Both those poems because of their own merit are still favourites. Anyway I graduated in Oxford in 1962 and I was going to do research in Oxford. The subject I’d chosen was the classics and Victorian poetry with special reference to Matthew Arnold. And I remember a wonderful man, my undergraduate tutor at the time, Professor John Carey, said, ‘Why doesn’t anybody do anything about Dylan Thomas?’ ‘I thought the rule,’ I said, ‘was that you had to be dead for at least ten years before you could do that.’ ‘Well it’s close to that,’ he said. So I switched.
So that first mention in the chapel in Pontyberem, did the name Dylan Thomas mean anything to you at that point?
No I’d never heard of Dylan Thomas when D E Williams simply quoted these lines. You can see the relevance. ‘There was a saviour Rarer than radium’. It is about the role of Christ in a Blakeian sense. I hadn’t heard of him. On the other hand I remember my mother telling us children – telling my brother and myself who were the two eldest of the four – one day reading the paper, ‘Dylan Thomas has died.’ And that I didn’t fully understand. She explained. She was a collier’s daughter, virtually self-educated from the local library only, had to leave school because her mother died when she was 14 when her mother was only 38. But she loved reading. She had never read Dylan Thomas but she knew about him. So that’s easy to date: that would have been November 1953. So I then knew that the two names, Dylan Thomas, attached to somebody who was obviously newsworthy.
When John Carey suggested to you that you do something on him, how much did you know about him?
By then I’d got the Collected Poems, and quite a lot of the prose. I had read them. I though the poetry was amazing. The prose is extremely good at its best. I’d read a lot to the point where I liked it or was impressed by it or had questions to ask about it. I was lucky also in doing that research at Oxford, to have as my supervisor for the thesis Christopher Ricks. So I couldn’t have had two better teachers at Oxford: John Carey and Christopher Ricks.
Where did he stand in their eyes?
Very high. Problematic.
What do you mean by problematic?
They could see that there were some aspects that didn’t need to be challenged, but were in a tradition and from a background and from an emphasis in poetry different from, in Christopher Ricks’s case particularly perhaps, the tradition of the poets he himself most admired. On the other hand, having said that, Christopher Ricks was a great Tennyson scholar, and Tennyson and Dylan Thomas share one thing, and that is they’ve got a singing line. They understand what sound means in poetry. But problematic not in any sense of denying him or denying the work, or denial against the whole kind of poetry he stands for. But really having other appetites as well. So that was excellent. A first-class situation to be in, having as supervisor somebody who could correct any over-enthusiasm, which I’ve already corrected myself long since.
Where did Dylan Thomas stand in the early 1960s?
Funnily enough, my impression in the early Sixties then is that there was tremendous respect for him. John Carey himself I remember gave a lecture on Thomas to us as undergraduates – nothing to do with the course, because you weren’t allowed to study anything after 1840 in those days. Interestingly enough, when I started research at Oxford, I had a lot of contemporaries whom I got to know more widely than my own college, through the fact that they were in the English faculty doing an English research degree, and amongst them I found nobody who was against Thomas and one or two very, very keen for him, and very partial to a kind of resurgence of interest in him. Most of those contemporaries went into university teaching. So there might have been a switch starting there that could have produced a kind of counter-switch very soon afterwards or in between, but was a remarkable change from the Fifties, where there was a reaction against him.
The entire Movement poets reacted against Thomas because they felt that poetry needed to be made more chaste, and diction needed to be changed, the music of poetry needed to be changed. Amongst them there were some very great poets. Larkin is the obvious case, I think; others are very, very fine poets who came into prominence in the 1950s. Ted Hughes was a big fan of Dylan Thomas. The kind of partially Leavisite reaction had something to do with not having something equally forceful to put in Dylan’s stead or in his place. It’s interesting that Larkin said several times, as late as 1972 when he was editing the The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, ‘I don’t think we’ve had a poet since Dylan Thomas more worth having an argument about. Indeed I don’t think we’ve had his equal.’ Now that’s not being said by anybody lightweight – himself a very, very fine poet and a good critic as well. So I think, when you think of attitudes and fluctuations in reputation, it’s far too broad a brush to say that a reaction set in that lasted for two decades against him. It’s not as simple as that.
Has Wales looked after him in the last 50 years? You’re at the centre of that story from an academic point of view but more widely, has Welsh culture been prepared to accept this giant figure?
There is obviously a reaction that is bound to set in against him, partially because of the legend, partially because of the increasing language divide; in a sense – Welsh-speaking or not – and Welsh-language Wales would have a very strong representation in those who needed or felt they needed to cut him down a bit to size because he didn’t represent the Welsh-language side of Wales. Welsh is my first language so that didn’t bother me but I still say that I don’t think he was done any harm – and in fact much of the harm done to his reputation to some degree was the result more of an enfant terrible tendency in Thomas to say certain things off the cuff that of course, being a great raconteur and storyteller and phrase-maker, unfortunately tended to stick – like ‘Wales, land of my fathers, my fathers can keep it’. He found that irresistible. Unfortunately too irresistible.
And yet a lot of these things were said in his letters which were private places of communication. It’s only on publication that they become these lapidary statements.
You’ve got to remember that letters are also private in a particular sense as well as in that the sender very often matches his phrasing to the recipient and the same show-offness wouldn’t occur across the board in letters. I think he had relationships in Wales with people on the Welsh-language side – Glyn Jones for example, Aneurin Talfan Davies – who were a great help to him in retrieving a part at least of the awareness that his father had put a stop to, by preventing him and his sister from speaking or learning Welsh. And he learnt later, interesting things that made him think that there was a part of the other side of that divide that he belonged to, sensitively, temperamentally, even though the language itself had been denied him. And Glyn Jones once told me that Dylan had told him that, had he known more about that kind of tradition which friends like those and indeed his father knew a lot about – had he known more about it himself and had some help with learning the language – that is exactly the kind of poetry he would have written himself in Welsh. But he went on to write that kind of poetry in English – that is, a poetry that respects strict form, poetry that looks like poetry and sounds like it, and not like conversation overheard or something thrown off.
So the Welsh temperament in him slowly gained more and more respect, that he’s one of us. Saunders Lewis, in his famous lecture ‘Is there an Anglo-Welsh literature?’, said very unwisely – bad literary history – ‘There’s nothing hyphenated about him, he belongs to the English.’ Dylan Thomas is very Welsh indeed. And all the more so, and more memorably so in some ways, because having been denied – not lost the language which is a different thing – having been denied the language, yet having been brought up with it all around him (his parents spoke Welsh to each other; his father went out to teach evening classes in the Welsh language, lots of his friends were Welsh bilingual), he was aware that there was a part of himself that had been denied and that he had some kind of relationship, or should have some kind of relationship. But even that wouldn’t have needed to be all that conscious. He still had the survival in him of something like a Welsh temperament. And to him the English language was not something to be taken for granted as an English poet would take the English language for granted, but something to be looked at a little bit more closely from the outside.
How about the way in which he has fluctuated over in England?
I think it’s all evened out very well. In other words the impact of his career, the impact of his reputation, intensified by the nature of his death, the celebrity of his death as it were, not even either side of Offa’s Dyke but across the Atlantic, that has made him such a big figure that all the reactions pro, con and in between have evened out naturally. Because he has become a poet you cannot ignore. It would be silly to ignore his importance. You could argue it very, very narrowly in one sense. I don’t like playing this game at all but I would say that if you wanted to be just blindly prescriptive about it, in the twentieth century – which was after all a century he lived only the first part of – after Yeats and Eliot you come immediately to two poets: Auden and Dylan Thomas. And they represent to a certain extent as it were, the severed halves of the same figure that poetic modernism did not throw up after Eliot.
In other words you’ve got the Welsh temperamental Thomas, the one interested in music, myths, a religious world view, as against Auden, the intellectual, the cooler practitioner. I think Gabriel Pearson put it extremely well when he said that ‘WH Auden uses the English language like an athlete from the outside. Dylan Thomas burrows into the heart of the language and delivers oracles from the heat of his decomposition.’ Now that kind of duality that is being a different poet from Auden, who was a great admirer of Thomas, doesn’t give him only half a reputation. He became a necessary poet in that Dionysian, richer, musical, memorable tradition in his own right. And Auden did respect him.
At street level there is a sense in which the lasting influence of the chapel had somehow banished Dylan from popular taste even in Swansea. To what extent has the legend occluded the literature?
That widespread gut reaction ‘I won’t have anything to do with that drunkard’ has thinned out. It certainly lasted for a while. There is no doubt there was an element of that, usually from people who hadn’t read him, going by the reputation only. But I think it’s very helpful to take it as a dichotomy in a sense. I think this kind of dichotomy is the Yeatsian sense. Yeats said that ‘the poet who writes the poems is never the bundle of accidents and incoherence who sat down to breakfast’. There’s always division.
I must confess I’ve met people who thought ‘I will have nothing to do with that drunkard’ but they’ve never read any Dylan Thomas. They’re only talking about that one side. And you’ve got to make a division in the end that the work does survive and has an integrity of its own that is not dependent on the morality or otherwise of the man. But I would immediately add there that he’s had a very unfair press on the negative side as well. In other works, people have gone to town and not even touched the reputations of other people.
He didn’t help himself by boasting about those 18 whiskies. He certainly drank a lot.
To an extent, that would be true as well. But obviously without that degree of drink he would have survived. It goes back to what I said earlier. He was very fond of phrase-making. The very last words he said virtually on his deathbed in New York, somebody had talked about roses being out at home – I forget exactly the context – he said, ‘Is that roses with an apostrophe or not?’ Language to him was a sort of fatal Cleopatra. It had a great life of its own. He was doing himself no justice and no favours in being a little bit too witty and there’s no doubt about this aspect of the history of the man. He was a great, great storyteller, a great mimic, and a great entertainer in that sense. And the pub became a natural kind of locale – and a local.
But the greatest literary critic of poetry of the twentieth century century – William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity – said that the one thing you’ve got to remember about this man is he was very, very witty and very intelligent and all that side that came out flippantly perhaps, face to face now and again in a crowd, are serving very, very positive virtues in the work itself, in the poetry. He is an extremely witty poet. He is one of the great punsters in poetry. He belongs to the whole tradition of the conceit in poetry where images are made to become a fabric of their own. The two things are related, but in the end if you want to call him simply a drunkard, then I don’t think there’s any point in talking further with such a person unless that person also has something else to say about the poetry or about the work.
You’ve edited the collected poems, the stories, Under Milk Wood. No one in short knows the journey of his literary life better than you.
A frightening thought.
Do you sense that, as is sometimes suggested, he had written himself out or was in the process of writing himself out?
My first response to that would be not quite a full answer to it but it is relevant. He certainly felt at the end in New York very, very afraid that he had written himself out. It’s not quite the same thing because it wasn’t as simple even as saying, ‘I can’t write any more.’ But what you find him being quoted as saying is that his great fear was that he might not be able to. The linkage of his life with his creativity was that intimate. I think the answer to that question would have to be broadened out therefore to include the fact that his whole career was already a huge epic struggle. It wasn’t just simply finding, ‘oh my ease with words or the repartee element in delivering language has abandoned me.’ It wasn’t like that. The whole career was an epic struggle from huge originality at the age of eighteen, writing tremendous poems early on – I mean who at that age could be writing things like
Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was as shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha’s daughter
Or could write ‘The force that through the green fuse’ at the same age, same stage, and be honest enough to realise that he needed to change even then? Because the whole career hit a point in 1938 when he was twenty-four – and one should remember that TS Eliot very wisely said, and correctly said in many ways, that a poet has got to change at the age of twenty-four, if he’s going to change at all. That’s when the early period comes to an end. The year 1938 for Dylan was crucial and you find several of the poems talking about the nature of his use of language and his need to change. At the earth of it was
Once it was the colour of saying
Soaked my table the uglier side of a hill
With a capsized field where a school sat still
And a black and white patch of girls grew playing….
Now my saying shall be my undoing,
And every stone I wind off like a reel.
The need to become clearer. And he himself said in letters and replying to students, he had already felt the need to become more accessible. And you can see an urge, to some degree a crisis in his career, happening around that period. And of course another thing that came in immediately was the war itself, which gave him a huge range of new material, material that absolutely shook him. He was that moral a man that he was actually appalled by war, by death, and by 1945 learning what had happened under Hitler which wasn’t just warfare, it was genocide, and that war only came to an end by the creation of another atrocity, the atomic bomb – ‘The world has blown itself rotten,’ he said. Now all that suggests to me somebody struggling right throughout. And he had plans to write this, that and the other about it. But it only came out piecemeal.
He wasn’t the poet to write big composite federal poems with different parts interlocking. The parts ended up being good single poems. And when you think of the urge toward, the struggle toward a great accessibility, and a great simplicity, he starts from 1938 with ‘After the funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)’ where clearly he is now moving outside himself, outside his love of language, to a broader, richer world outside himself and responsibilities about himself, the war etc. and everything. And in the last phase those wonderful landscape poems based in Laugharne. ‘Over St John’s Hill’ is one of the great poems, I think.
There is presumably another section to your answer which is to do with Under Milk Wood. For most people the work by which they know him came right at the end of his life.
That’s a very good point but saying what I’ve just said, it’s shorthand to talk about only the poetry. You do deal with him as essentially a poet but what I’ve just said about the nature and development, crisis, the change and the resolution of the career, applies to the prose just as well. Because the movement in 1938 that I said in terms of the poetry was searching for a plainer statement etc., in the prose the very same year he starts Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the stories which take the outside, Dickensian world almost, the Joycean world outside him to be his field now, instead of the surreal made-up fantasy figures of the early prose. And it’s that change in 1938 with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and the broadcasts and the work for film – those naturally in prose lead on obviously to produce Under Milk Wood. But Under Milk Wood couldn’t have been written by just a plain prose writer.
To what extent is Caitlin relevant in this narrative about the march of his work?
I wouldn’t say that my response to the work is a response without being a response to the biographies written about him. Caitlin was an extremely important figure not only because he was in love with her. To some degree she became a muse, there are poems to her, about her, and about breakage with her. ‘I make this in a warring absence.’ To some degree she, though a muse, ceased to be amused like anybody else around Dylan and to good purpose, to a certain degree, because she tried to put a check on him in a losing battle, obviously, not to spend too much of his time on, let’s say, the broadcasts, the films, and to get to the poetry.
It was a losing battle because this man was responsible enough to realise that he had to earn a living. Nobody was supporting him for free. He’s been given a bad press for asking for money now and again. If anybody deserved financial support, here was he. And she did play that important role of trying to correct and remind him of where his real impetus lay which was either in the poetry proper itself or in that aspect of the prose that was the same creative force, and she felt at different stages that he was wasting his talents. So there is that part, which has got to be borne in mind. And it is in part of his conscience as well as his consciousness. And there was an element of the part of the whole of his career, there’s no doubt about this, that suggests – it sounds a paradoxical thing to say – a very strong puritanical streak in Dylan at heart, at base. The feeling that he wasn’t living up to what he knew he ought to be living up to in terms of outward life. But it was Caitlin after all who said in wonderfully plain odd mysterious simple phrase, ‘But he had this thing in him, you see.’ Now what a wonderfully ambiguous statement. It’s not ambiguous at all. Deep down he knew he was a poet, in the best sense, in the widest sense of the word. I don’t mean by poet somebody who wrote only poems.
What is this centenary for? What’s it going to achieve and is it going about its business in the right way?
I’m sure it is. First of all the occasion is worthwhile. It’s after all not any other old year. Celebration and volumes come out for so and so at 60 and you think, well hang around and there’s another one at 65. This is after all a centenary. There’s something about a centenary that suggest something beyond the individual, the person only. There is something about us, that is, the historic span, the period of time involved, that we have lived through part of it, some, very few have lived through all of it. I know some people who are contemporary with Dylan Thomas. So the 100 is not just a good round figure only, but it’s a big figure. A century is a century. So the occasion is very well justified. The energy people are putting into it is very enlightened and noble and I think to be praised for being varied as well, for taking it beyond academia to include the educational side of things and introducing Thomas to much younger generations.
What can he do for Wales?
He’s already done it. Since you put it that way.
What can he do for Wales this year then?
Renew the interest in literature, the arts generally, reinvigorate a sense of pride that we can produce creative people, not just politicians or bureaucrats.
What would he make of this centenary hullaballoo?
It’s very difficult to say, because it wouldn’t have happened, would it, if he were still here. If he were around and part of it and being feted by it – he’d have felt obviously very proud. But there is no realistic moment or occasion where I can imagine him as it were being there at the same place and time as that which celebrates him.
What’s your favourite poem?
That is a very, very difficult question. My temptation is to give you about eight and say why each one might strike me.
But as on Desert Island Discs you’d then have to choose one of the eight. So let’s expedite the process and just have the one.
It would be, and I’ll say before I name it, not necessarily the best. The favourite is not necessarily the best. There is something about favouritism that touches you whereas you could move to one side and see another poem and say, ‘Well yes that is a greater poem.’ And I therefore go for ‘Poem in October’. It’s interesting that I go for that because you could put next to it the poem I call its sister poem ‘Fern Hill’, which is clearly a greater poem, more complicated, it’s made a bigger impact.
There is something about ‘Poem in October’ that has about it the simplicity and yet that simplicity itself is a very complex simplicity, very elusive. It takes place in the history of a certain kind of topographical poem, a walking poem, a poem about walking through a landscape, that takes up back to Henry Vaughan, for example, or Wordsworth, and has about it also a sense I think Thomas probably realised and relished, that it would have represented something of the clarity and greater accessibility that he always yearned for and thought he should be achieving. He called it ‘my first place poem’. Not quite true. Every poem he wrote was a place poem in some sense. The early poems were written in suburbia in Swansea and they reflect that suburbia very vividly. But there is something in him prompted him to say about ‘Poem in October’ – ‘a Laugharne poem,’ he said, ‘my first place poem.’
original illustration by Dean Lewis