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.
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
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. . . .
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.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields;
on—on—and out of sight. . . .
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.
Yes, I did not want to be a financier. . . .
I wanted to be a potter. . . .
When I was a boy
I loved to shape things. I loved form and colour
And I loved the material that the potter handles.
. . . [But] I came to see
That I should never have become a first-rate potter.
I didn’t have it in me. It’s strange, isn’t it,
That a man should have a consuming passion
To do something for which he lacks the capacity?
Could a man be said to have a vocation
To be a second-rate potter? . . .
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.