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The Anti-Eliot

A centenary appraisal of Dylan Thomas

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By BEVIS HILLIER
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The main link between 2014 and literature is, inevitably, the outbreak of the First World War and the war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke. (Though a virtuoso technician, Brooke is nowadays held in less regard than the other two, as he depicted war as glorious, they as hideous.) But 1914 has another anniversary resonance in literature: It was the year the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was born. 

Dylan Thomas (1946)

Dylan Thomas (1946)

By one of those ironic quirks of fate, 1914 was also the birth-year of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose often acidic letters were published last year. Trevor-Roper had a Great War association of his own: Though it is likely that he was gay, he married the eldest daughter of Sir Douglas Haig, one of the Great War generals satirized in the phrase “lions led by donkeys.”

It is hard to imagine that Trevor-Roper—one of Nature’s reactionaries-—would have had much time for the poetry of his contemporary Dylan Thomas, which bubbled and burbled and gurgled over the traces, defying any kind of classicism or rule-book, with a modernism quite distinct from that of T. S. Eliot or W. H. Auden. (We know from Andrew Lycett’s biography that Thomas was in a bad “state at a gathering for Lord David Cecil and Hugh Trevor-Roper, who recalled: ‘He .  .  . overturned a full decanter of claret—good claret too—drenching the fastidious Lord David.’ ”)

If I am right about Trevor-Roper’s distaste for Thomas’s poetry, he was not alone. My old Oxford tutor and friend A. J. P. Taylor (Trevor-Roper’s greatest rival and foe in academe) wrote of Thomas’s poetry that “it seemed to me sham, written to show those who admired it as fools.” Admittedly, Taylor could be considered prejudiced in the matter: If he was not actually cuckolded by Thomas, his wife had a long flirtation with him, and Thomas sponged on both for money, drink, and property. 

Taylor’s opinion of Dylan Thomas’s poetry was shared by Viscount Samuel-—-the English barrister-politician satirized in H. G. Wells’s The New Machiavelli (1911)—as I discovered when writing my biography of John Betjeman. In 1952, Betjeman was awarded a prize by Foyle’s Bookshop in London. It was presented to him at a “literary luncheon” at the Dorchester Hotel by Lord Samuel, who took the occasion to say how much he admired Betjeman’s lucid verse as opposed to the mangled prosody of Dylan Thomas. To reinforce his point, Samuel read out some lines of Thomas, emphasizing what he took to be their nonsensical content by putting on a funny voice. These are the lines he read, from Thomas’s collection Twenty-Five Poems (1936):

 

A grief ago,

She who was who I hold, the fats and flower,

Or, water-lammed, from the scythe-sided thorn,

Hell wind and sea,

A stem cementing, wrestled up the tower,

Rose maid and male,

Or, malted venus, through the paddler’s bowl

Sailed up the sun .  .  .

 

Samuel said that he was “appalled to find the degree to which the vice of obscurity was afflicting English verse.” It was, he thought, “self-conscious posturing.” Stephen Spender, present at the lunch, bristled with indignation, glared at Samuel, and stalked out the door. The drama of this exit turned into farce when Spender bumbled by mistake into the Dorchester’s kitchens, from which he emerged sweating, blinking, and “poppy-faced.” He told a Daily Mail reporter that he was “furious” and “disgusted,” adding, “I was a great admirer of Dylan Thomas, and was the first person to write to him about his poetry. It seems that if you are going to give £250 to a modern poet you have to denounce modern poetry. It is the price you have to pay.”

I must admit I find it difficult to unravel much meaning from “A Grief Ago.” But I still feel that, at his best, Thomas had the true poetic ichor—unlike Eliot, who was busy laying his dead hand on English poetry in the year Thomas was born. My own introduction to Thomas’s work came in 1952 (the year before his death), when I was 12. My esteemed English master at Reigate Grammar School, Leslie Sherwood, gave me Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill,” which had been published only six years earlier in the collection Deaths and Entrances. I was entranced by the lyrical outpouring and have never lost my affection for it, even though John Bayley, in a characteristically perceptive essay on Thomas, explicitly excludes it from what he regards as Thomas’s best work. It begins:

 

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

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