A centenary appraisal of Dylan Thomas
Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By BEVIS HILLIER
If only all of Thomas’s poems were on that level. Too often, they are little more than windy blather. As Bayley has written: “At its most disruptive, we feel there is simply no connection between the poem and what exegesis can suggest its meaning is, what it seems to be about.” A polite way of saying that some of the poems are incomprehensible.
At times, one can’t help wondering: How many pints of beer had Thomas drunk before he wrote this? He was a notorious drunk. The old joke about him runs: “He was a bard; but also—as he was excluded from so many pubs—he was barred.”
When we call Thomas a “bard,” we are, of course, referring to his Welshness, the Celtic lyricism in his blood. There are two reasons why that quality speaks to me. First, as with Thomas, Wales was the land of my fathers: My paternal grandmother was a Davies, a kinswoman of Lord Byron’s great friend Scrope Berdmore Davies, to whom the poet dedicated “Parisinia.” And second, in 1944, aged 4, I was evacuated to Glamorgan, South Wales, with my mother and baby sister when bombs began to fall too often on our hometown near London. I first went to school in Glamorgan. The older evacuee children had to learn Welsh, but I was thought too young for that.
I vividly remember one incident from those days. Our class teacher, Miss Penrose Davies, took us on a nature walk to learn about wild-flowers, birdsong, and so on. As teacher’s pet, I walked along beside her, but some of the other children sped on ahead. When we caught up with them, most of them were sitting on a five-barred gate and singing joyously, “Where have you been all the day, Billy boy, Billy boy?” It was a magical scene. They sang at the top of their voices, beautifully in tune. Recalling that moment, years later, I was reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem about soldiers in the Great War.
Also in maturer years, I understood that English children would never have behaved like those Welsh ones, spontaneously and joyfully bursting into song. It is that quality of spontaneous, floodtide lyricism that is predominant in Thomas’s poetry. There is in it something of incantation, so that it sounds good even when it does not mean a lot—especially when read by Thomas himself in his rich baritone, a voice rivaled only by that of his compatriot and fellow drinker Richard Burton, who so memorably narrated Thomas’s Rabelaisian radio drama Under Milk Wood in 1954.
T. S. Eliot is the 20th-century poet to whom most scholars and critics today pay the greatest obeisance; it is nothing short of heresy to say about him what I am about to say. Eliot was a critic of formidable intellect, but what he desperately wanted to be seen as was a poet. And it seems to me that he lacked precisely the quality that Thomas had in superabundance: that instinctual, fountaining lyricism, the poetic ichor (defined in my Chambers Dictionary as “the ethereal juice in the veins of the gods”).
Eliot was an outrageous plagiarist, notably (as was first pointed out by academic Robert Ian Scott in 1995) of the Kentucky poet Madison Cawein; Eliot even pinched the title of The Waste Land from him. (In 1996 I gave further examples of Eliot’s borrowings from Cawein, who had conveniently died in the year of Dylan Thomas’s birth.) Poor Cawein gets nil mention in most dictionaries of English literature, in which massive space is hogged by Eliot.
I think that Eliot, being the astute critic he was, may have come to a painful realization of his own limitations as a poet. In his play The Confidential Clerk (1954), written in plain prose masquerading as verse, he portrays the tycoon Sir Claude Mulhammer, a man who realized in the nick of time that he had no vocation for the art he most wanted to practice.
Why did Eliot choose pottery as the art Sir Claude had wanted to excel in? Most people, in their fantasies, do not aspire to be humble potters. It’s only a hunch, but I think he may have chosen thus because “pottery” and “poetry” are close in sound. Perhaps the fêted and garlanded Eliot was admitting, in a coded public confessional, that he, too, didn’t have it in him—that he, in poetry, was a second-rater. What Sir Claude does shine in is connoisseurship of pottery—in Eliot’s case, read “criticism of poetry.”
Eliot was such a panjandrum in the period when Thomas was writing poetry that the younger poet may have taken from him the idea that it was acceptable, if not obligatory, for poetry to be obscure—though it has been pointed out that Thomas was probably mocking Eliot in “We Lying By Seasand” (one of his best), in which, allegedly, Eliot is the “dry tide-master” who rules the tides of contemporary verse and is mocked for his sterility through the image of red rock.
Eliot versus Thomas is like Ingres versus Dela-croix; Glad-stone versus Disraeli; Sir Niko-laus Pevs-ner versus Sir John Betje-man: chill mastery confronts swash-buck-ling roman-ti-cism. (Writing in the 1930s and ’40s, Thomas has much in common with British Romantic artists of the same period, such as John Piper and Graham Suther-land, who were inspired by William Blake and his disciples John Linnell, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.)
In a 1946 review of Thomas’s Deaths and Entrances for the Daily Herald, Betjeman-—-whom Lord Samuel lauded as the antithesis of Thomas-—-wrote that “the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, is not only the best living Welsh poet, but is a great poet.” That is, perhaps, going too far. As a discriminating verdict on Thomas the poet, I prefer what William Empson wrote: “There is . . . a lot of his poetry where I can feel it works and yet can’t see why.”
Bevis Hillier is the author of the three-volume authorized biography of Sir John Betjeman.
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