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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. 

Dylan Thomas. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty. Tinting by Dan Murrell
Dylan Thomas. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty. Tinting by Dan Murrell

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