A centenary appraisal of Dylan Thomas
Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By BEVIS HILLIER
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:
And then there are sublime passages that are Dylan Thomas and could be no one else.
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