Dylan Thomas. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty. Tinting by Dan Murrell
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Myth busting: Rowan Williams on Dylan Thomas

The former Archbishop of Canterbury and lead NS book reviewer discusses a new biography of the Welsh poet and a new edition of his short stories. 

The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas 
Hilly Janes
Robson Press, 320pp, £18.99

Collected Stories 
Dylan Thomas
Phoenix, 384pp, £8.99

In her attractive and level-headed book, Hilly Janes (the daughter of one of Dylan Thomas’s closest Swansea friends, the artist Alfred Janes, whose three portraits of Thomas frame the narrative) muses on whether it was residual Welsh puritanism that so long delayed any serious public recognition in South Wales of perhaps its most famous modern writer. She is perfectly correct in saying that local disapproval of Thomas’s morals and habits died hard (it was alive and well in the Swansea of my teenage years) and that he was impossible to fit into a tidy story of Welsh, even “Anglo-Welsh”, literary development. “Too Welsh for the English and too English for the Welsh” is a familiar judgement.

I suspect that there is another factor that has somewhat complicated the reception of Dylan Thomas and still complicates his reputation in this centenary year of his birth; and that is embarrassment – a degree of cultural and political embarrassment to start with – over a writer whose near-total indifference to politics is still startling and whose attitudes to women are likely to win few allies today. But there is a deeper embarrassment yet. For so many male readers, he is the quintessential poet of adolescence. How many of us were convinced on reading him that this was what poetry was really like, heady, incantatory, obsessively sensual? How many proceeded to write terrible imitations of him in the back of school notebooks? That is what people wince over: the young Dylan, with his off-the-peg bohemianism, his obscure, symbolically coded resentments, his wild and frustrated sexuality, can look, to the literary (male) adult, like the fearful caricature of a half-forgotten self. And that embarrassment reinforces the element of caricature in depictions of him. Even the recent BBC drama about his last days in New York, with its splendid performance from Tom Hollander, reached for the mythological dressing-up trunk.

Which is where Hilly Janes’s book comes as a welcome refreshment. No one is likely to publish a biography of Thomas demonstrating that he was a monogamous and placid soul who could hold his drink and manage his money. But Janes simply sets him in the context of a group of variously gifted Welsh friends and gives some sense of how and why – exasperating as he undoubtedly was – he retained their love and (intermittently) tolerance. The remarkable circle that met in Swansea’s Kardomah Café in the late 1930s was in no sense an echo chamber for Thomas’s ego. These men – Fred Janes (as Alfred was known to family and friends), Daniel Jones, Vernon Watkins, among others – were deeply serious artists, prolific, thoughtful and self-critical. Watkins’s importance to Thomas as a sounding board for both ideas and poetic drafts tends still to be brushed aside a little, largely because of Watkins’s own idiosyncratic poetic style, highly traditional yet extraordinarily adventurous in subject matter and metaphorical range.

In other words, here is Dylan Thomas in conversation with those he thought of as peers. Reading Janes’s book, you realise that none of his friendships in the literary life of London, let alone the United States, provided anything like this atmosphere of creative sparring and nourishing (and hilarity). If Thomas’s relation with the mainstream narratives of English poetry in his lifetime, whether modernism or “the Movement”, is complex and often adversarial, if he never sounded like someone at or near the centre of a trend, this owes something to the robust provincial nursery of the Kardomah – a group of confident artists who felt little need of metropolitan reassurance.

Thomas’s work was belittled by Kingsley Amis and Larkin; Geoffrey Grigson, with a mixture of typical acidity and perception, described it as Victorian subject matter clothed in symbolist rhetoric – in essence no more than a final, eccentric flowering of Romanticism. There is a true insight here into Thomas’s Romantic sensibility (“Gothic” would also suit him); but what this judgement misses is the sheer iron discipline of his work, in which every word and every placement of a word is tested over and over until we have a poetry that is “saturated”. It makes no concession to the conversational, few to the colloquial – when it does, the deliberation is evident and powerful.

Tracing Thomas’s evolution as a poet, it is possible to see how the stylistically precocious but emotionally chaotic register of the early pieces mutates into a rare capacity for sustained self-awareness. The late poems – such as “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, “Poem on His Birthday”, or, yes, “Fern Hill” (over-anthologised almost to death though it may be) – have the effect of a single string tuned to an exact pitch, surrounded by sometimes jagged and unexpected harmonics but insisting on its steady presence.

And the inventiveness of form, the ability (even more clearly than in the less mature work) to construct and manage tight verbal patterning means this is poetry that has to be read intelligently. One of the worst mistakes to make about Thomas is to think of his undoubted musicality as indicating an underlying “bardic” woolliness.

Of course, there are failures. A fair number of the early poems are a bit hard to take too seriously (and there is good reason to think that some were written not too seriously, exercises in patterning more than anything else); and the auto-erotic obsession of many of these early pieces brings its own kind of sentimentality. Even in later works, such as the remarkable “Ceremony After a Fire Raid”, you can find a painful gap between the almost feverish assonances of the phrases and an underlying emotional unease. Embarrassment again. The poetic resolution has not been earned by quarrying actual sensation. The words have to do the work of feeling – which is part of what we mean when we identify sentimentality in language.

But – just as with some Romantic or high Victorian verse – what we should beware of is assuming that every heightened verbal moment is fraudulent, simply because we ourselves have somehow lost our footing, slipped away from the place where we might have been able to grasp its emotional gravity. What makes “Fern Hill” still a stunningly beautiful and moving poem is that it challenges us in the nakedness of its sentiment; it says, in effect, if you find it difficult to “own” a pattern of feeling like this, it is no more than you might expect. You have forgotten something and all the embarrassment in the world should not make you conceal from yourself the reality of loss.

That reality of loss dominates so much of Thomas’s late work (not least the birthday poem, with its apparent premonitions of death). And the loss of the radiance of a childhood world was intensified by another kind of loss – the chaos of his marriage, a relationship becoming ever more complicated and toxic. Janes, thank goodness, cuts through the clichés about Caitlin’s “free-spirited” personality and states the obvious: she was an abused child and young woman who came to display a near-psychopathic indifference to the feelings and the well-being of those around her; whose almost perpetual state of boiling frustration led to physical and psychological violence on her part and often provoked violent reaction in others. Janes does not condemn or make light of Caitlin’s emotional solipsism and roots it in the neglect she experienced in childhood and the sexual violence she endured as Augustus John’s model (there is none of the tolerant tut-tutting that some male biographers have brought to this subject). In turn, Dylan’s infidelities are not condoned or minimised but seen as an increasingly despairing search for the unconditional mothering that he longed for – not out of childhood privation but more out of the excess of maternal indulgence he had always taken for granted (another very recognisable Welsh story).

And it was the repository of warm childhood memory that provided the material for his best-known and best-loved stories and broadcasts – and the brilliant and chilling radio piece Return Journey, depicting his search among the bombed ruins of postwar Swansea for his younger self. The reprinted volumes of Thomas’s work conveniently brought out by Phoenix provide a good selection of his prose as well as his poetry – though since they are mostly photographic reprints they represent a pre-critical text; there are several obvious misprints and there is a real need for critical work on the stories as well as the poems. (John Goodby’s edition of the poetry, due later this year, is eagerly awaited.)

For anyone who thinks of Thomas’s prose writing as predominantly autobiographical genre work, the earlier short stories will be a shock. They have been compared to the satirical tales of rural west Wales by Caradoc Evans. But – despite Thomas’s admiration for Evans – this is deeply misleading: they are not satires in any sense but Gothic tales, written in fantastically convoluted and highly charged prose, dealing with incest and witchcraft and mania. They have more in common with American Southern Gothic than any conventional rural British fictions. Their landscape is just about recognisable as Carmarthenshire but it is also a landscape of the psyche (as one of the stories, “The Map of Love”, spells out in a characteristically involved and elusive way). If there is a local pattern for the style and content, Arthur Machen would be a better bet than Caradoc Evans. Machen’s depictions of Gwent landscapes, in which unspeakable atrocities and nightmares take place, were familiar to Thomas and the parallels deserve some more study. Even so, there is a quite distinctive feel to these fictions. It is not surprising that they found few enthusiasts at the time and that Thomas’s prose took other routes. Yet a contemporary cultural sensibility for which the Gothic has (appropriately) been raised from its grave may yet find it can read these pieces with less, well, embarrassment.

If we can conquer both embarrassment and the lure of cliché, Dylan Thomas will amply repay study. He was half stifled by his own mythography while he was still alive – as well as being one of the first casualties of celebrity culture (which is not to ignore the plain fact, established by research in the past 15 years, that his death was caused ultimately by breathtaking medical clumsiness, rather than simple overindulgence on his part; mythography again). This is why it is helpful to have a memoir like that of Hilly Janes: Thomas becomes human again, not a doomed Dionysus. He was undoubtedly all that he has been represented as being – a drunkard and philanderer, compulsively incompetent and dishonest about money, a parasite on the generosity of many friends. But he was very deeply loved by those friends. All testify – even at times through gritted teeth – to a fundamental sweetness of nature. And when we might be tempted to think him portentous, we should remember his genius for self-parody and his underlying honesty about his neediness and his posturing.

Vernon Watkins wrote in an obituary that Thomas had lived his life as a consistent manifestation of Christian principle. This has provoked some mockery, or at least some condescending remarks about the blind affection felt by the fathomlessly patient, saintly and charitable Watkins. But he was serious. Thomas was no admirer or adherent of conventional religion; but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all the varieties of human oddity.

Eli Jenkins’s evening hymn from Under Milk Wood is another over-anthologised piece, certainly inviting the label of sentimentality. Yet those rather haunting words – “O please to keep Thy lovely eye/On all poor creatures born to die” – tell us volumes about Thomas; about a poetry (and prose) “singing in chains” about our human invol­vement in a material world where death and birth alike open doors of perception. 

Rowan Williams is a lead book reviewer for the NS. His new poetry collection, “The Other Mountain”, will be published by Carcanet in August

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era