Dylan Thomas: Poems


Poetic style and influences

Thomas' refusal to align with any literary group or movement has made him and his work difficult to categorize.[133] Although influenced by the modern symbolism and surrealism movement he refused to follow its creed.[133] Instead Thomas is viewed as part of the modernism and romanticism movements, though attempts to pigeon-hole him within a particular neo-romantic school have been unsuccessful.[133] Elder Olson, in his 1954 critical study of Thomas's poetry, wrote "... a further characteristic which distinguished Thomas's work from that of other poets. It was unclassifiable." Olson continued that in a postmodern age that continually attempted to demand that poetry have social reference, none could be found in Thomas's work, and that his work was so obscure that critics could not explicate it.[148]

Thomas's verbal style played against strict verse forms, such as in the villanelle "Do not go gentle into that good night". His images were carefully ordered in a patterned sequence, and his major theme was the unity of all life, the continuing process of life and death and new life that linked the generations. Thomas saw biology as a magical transformation producing unity out of diversity, and in his poetry sought a poetic ritual to celebrate this unity. He saw men and women locked in cycles of growth, love, procreation, new growth, death, and new life. Therefore, each image engenders its opposite. Thomas derived his closely woven, sometimes self-contradictory images from the Bible, Welsh folklore, preaching, and Sigmund Freud.[149]

Who once were a bloom of wayside brides in the hawed house And heard the lewd, wooed field flow to the coming frost, The scurrying, furred small friars squeal in the dowse Of day, in the thistle aisles, till the white owl crossed

“ ” From "In the white giant's thigh" (1950)[150]

Thomas's early poetry was noted for its verbal density, alliteration, sprung rhythm and internal rhyme, and he was described by some critics as having been influenced by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.[3] This is attributed to Hopkins, who taught himself Welsh and who used sprung verse, bringing some features of Welsh poetic metre into his work.[151] When Henry Treece wrote to Thomas comparing his style to that of Hopkins, Thomas wrote back denying any such influence.[151] One poet Thomas greatly admired, and who is regarded as an influence, was Thomas Hardy.[3][152] When Thomas travelled in America, he recited Hardy's work in his readings.[152]

Other poets from whom critics believe Thomas drew influence include James Joyce, Arthur Rimbaud and D. H. Lawrence. William York Tindall, in his 1962 study, A Reader's Guide to Dylan Thomas, finds comparison between Thomas's and Joyce's wordplay, while he notes the themes of rebirth and nature are common to the works of Lawrence and Thomas.[153][nb 11] Although Thomas described himself as the "Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive", he stated that the phrase "Swansea's Rimbaud" was coined by poet Roy Campbell.[154][155][nb 12] Critics have explored the connection between the creation of Thomas's mythological pasts into his works such as "The Orchards", which Ann Elizabeth Mayer believes reflects the Welsh myths of the Mabinogion.[107][156][nb 13] Thomas's poetry is notable for its musicality,[157] most clear in "Fern Hill", "In Country Sleep", "Ballad of the Long-legged Bait" and "In the White Giant's Thigh" from Under Milk Wood.

Thomas once confided that the poems which had most influenced him were Mother Goose rhymes which his parents taught him when he was a child:

I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance ... I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever.[158]

Thomas was an accomplished writer of prose poetry, with collections such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and Quite Early One Morning (1954) showing he was capable of writing moving short stories.[3] His first published prose work was After the Fair, printed in The New English Weekly on 15 March 1934.[159] Jacob Korg believes that Thomas's fiction work can be classified into two main bodies, vigorous fantasies in a poetic style and, after 1939, more straightforward narratives.[160] Korg surmises that Thomas approached his prose writing as an alternate poetic form, which allowed him to produced complex, involuted narratives that do not allow the reader to rest.[160]

As a 'Welsh' poet

Not for the proud man apart From the raging moon I write On these spindrift pages Nor for the towering dead With their nightingales and psalms But for the lovers, their arms Round the griefs of the ages, Who pay no praise or wages Nor heed my craft or art.

“ ” From "In my Craft or Sullen Art" Deaths and Entrances, 1946 [161]

Thomas disliked being regarded as a provincial poet, and decried any notion of 'Welshness' in his poetry.[151] When he wrote to Stephen Spender in 1952, thanking him for a review of his Collected Poems, he added "Oh, & I forgot. I'm not influenced by Welsh bardic poetry. I can't read Welsh."[151] Despite this his work was rooted in the geography of Wales. Thomas acknowledged that he returned to Wales when he had difficulty writing, and John Ackerman argues that "His inspiration and imagination were rooted in his Welsh background".[162][163] Caitlin Thomas wrote that he worked "in a fanatically narrow groove, although there was nothing narrow about the depth and understanding of his feelings. The groove of direct hereditary descent in the land of his birth, which he never in thought, and hardly in body, moved out of."[164]

Head of Programmes Wales at the BBC, Aneirin Talfan Davies, who commissioned several of Thomas's early radio talks, believed that the poet's "whole attitude is that of the medieval bards." Kenneth O. Morgan counter-argues that it is a 'difficult enterprise' to find traces of cynghanedd (harmony) or cerdd dafod (tongue-craft) in Thomas's poetry.[165] Instead he believes his work, especially his earlier more autobiographical poems, are rooted in a changing country which echoes the Welshness of the past and the Anglicisation of the new industrial nation: "rural and urban, chapel-going and profane, Welsh and English, Unforgiving and deeply compassionate."[165] Fellow poet and critic Glyn Jones believed that any traces of cynghanedd in Thomas's work was accidental, although he felt Thomas consciously employed one element of Welsh metrics; that of counting syllables per line instead of feet.[nb 14] Constantine FitzGibbon, Thomas's first in-depth biographer, wrote "No major English poet has ever been as Welsh as Dylan".[167]

Although Thomas had a deep connection with Wales, he disliked Welsh nationalism. He once wrote, "Land of my fathers, and my fathers can keep it".[168][169] While often attributed to Thomas himself, this line actually comes from the character Owen Morgan-Vaughan, in the screenplay Thomas wrote for the 1948 British melodrama The Three Weird Sisters (Screenplays 299). Robert Pocock, a friend from the BBC, recalled "I only once heard Dylan express an opinion on Welsh Nationalism. He used three words. Two of them were Welsh Nationalism."[168] Although not expressed as strongly, Glyn Jones believed that he and Thomas's friendship cooled in the later years as he had not 'rejected enough' of the elements that Thomas disliked – "Welsh nationalism and a sort of hill farm morality".[170] Apologetically, in a letter to Keidrych Rhys, editor of literary magazine Wales, Thomas's father wrote that he was "afraid Dylan isn't much of a Welshman".[168] Though FitzGibbon asserts that Thomas's negativity towards Welsh nationalism was fostered by his father's hostility towards the Welsh language.[171]

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