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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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About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb

Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns .  .  .

 

And it ends thus:

 

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

 

Certain one-syllable words recur over and over again in Thomas’s poetry, almost like a mantra. They are simple words of power that could figure in a Norse saga or Anglo-Saxon poem: bare, beak, bell(s), blade, bird, blood, bone, breath, chains(s), claw, cloud, crotch, dark, dead, death, dome, dust, fire, flame, flesh, globe, grain(s), grief, hair, hawk, heart, hill(s), ice, king, light, love, moon, night, pain, rain, saint, sea, seed, shade, sing, skull, sky, snow, son(s), spit, star(s), stone, thief, tide, tree(s), wave(s), wind. 

To write this, I have reread the whole canon of Thomas’s poetry. At first, those power-words zoom into one’s consciousness crisp and fresh; but as I read on, they began to have a numbing effect, not pleasurable. I recalled Evelyn Waugh’s words in Brideshead Revisited:

A blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull .  .  . pain and the doubt whether another like it could be borne—that was how it felt .  .  .

I haven’t actually totted up how often each of the power-words appears in Thomas’s poetry, but I would guess that “bone” is the clear winner. Along with Thomas’s obscurity, the thudding reiteration of the power-words would be part of the case against him. If making the case for him, one could point to many individual lines and couplets that are almost Shakespearean—among them: 

 

The bones of men, the broken in their beds,

By midnight pulleys that unhouse their tomb.

 

The secret oils that drive the grass.

 

The hand that signed the paper felled a city .  .  .

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

 

Black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle .  .  .

And what’s the rub? Death’s feather on the nerve?

Your mouth, my love, the thistle in the kiss?

The hero’s head lies scraped of every
legend .  .  .

O keep his bones away from that common cart .  .  .

 

And then there are sublime passages that are Dylan Thomas and could be no one else.

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees

Is my destroyer. .  .  .

The force that drives the water through the rocks

Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams

Turns mine to wax. .  .  .There was a saviour

Rarer than radium,

Commoner than water, crueller than 

      truth .  .  .

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the 

     light. .  .  .

And death shall have no dominion.

Dead men naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon;

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion. .  .  .

 

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