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The Day Dylan Thomas's Poetic Brilliance Triumphed Over His Sad Alcohol Dependency

He couldn't even pour a glass of water. Then, he began to read his poetry...

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I saw and heard Dylan Thomas only once. De mortuis…. Perhaps it is unbecoming to remember him as I do; but this memory is deeply engraved as his mark of greatness for me; and it is by this mark that I shall always remember this man and poet whom I did not know.

It was a public reading of poetry at a university. At three o’clock—who reads poetry at three o’clock in the afternoon?—the large lecture hall was half-filled with students, visitors, and a sprinkling of the faculty. The introduction was stiff, formal, academic, and distant. Then the poet stepped forward to the lectern. Only it wasn’t the poet. It wasn’t the lean, sensitive face with the Grecian curls and dreamy, far-away look in his eyes familiar from the youthful portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John which had become a trademark for every edition of the poet’s works. (It is, fortunately on the cover of the present volume.) Instead, the man behind the lectern was quite pudgy and stocky, with a fleshy face, a fiery, almost angry, eye, a thrust of the jaw, unruly hair, a wrinkled suit and a loose collar and tie.

There was time to absorb the initial shock; for he had trouble finding his bearings behind the lectern. He appeared unsteady, nervous and ill at ease. The notes from which he was going to read were written on loose sheets which looked like scraps of paper. As he was shuffling them rapidly, perhaps to put them into some kind of order, they fluttered to the floor. He stooped down, scrambled after them and scooped them up in awkward gestures—all the while cursing in sotto voce obscenities. Then he poured himself a glass of water; only he didn’t. He held the water pitcher with an outstretched arm and aimed at the glass below; but he missed; and a steady stream of water ran from the pitcher onto the floor. There was no doubt now that he was unsteady. Nobody laughed. There was deep silence in the room.

Dylan Thomas' writing desk, above which he kept a photograph of Walt Whitman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Then he began to read, without a word of greeting, from his notes. He read hurriedly and half-audibly as if embarrassed; but what he had written, as an introduction and commentary to his readings, was excellent: quick, sharp pen sketches of the poets—he seemed to like Hardy best—catching them in a live portrait on a bicycle ride or in a family group around the table, and subtle, sensitive insights laying bare the heart of the poem with an empathetic eye and ear and an attitude loving, hesitating, and reticent as if these confessions were not meant, as they were not, for a public reading before a college audience. Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible, because I am suffering—he seemed to say and said it in almost these words. And then the initial shock gave way to a wave of deep sympathy among his listeners; for he obviously was suffering. This was some kind of an indignity, and he responded to it with ill-concealed disdain and suppressed anger.

Let’s get this over quickly so that I can read a poem. For when he reached for the books on his side he was a being transformed. There was nothing unsteady about his hand and voice. He rose from a withdrawn crouch into a posture of majestic freedom and self-sufficient isolation. He was alone with the poem. And reading it redeemed the indignity and cleansed the sense of shame. He read as if it were an act of worship.

His voice still lives in the grooves of the black celluloid cylinders—for all to hear who did not hear him when he was alive, for all to share this magic incantation of the sacred rites of poetry. It was the lilt and resonance of his Welsh singing voice, they say, perhaps…. It was also a ritualistic invocation in praise of the power and glory of words, rhythms, and images as the sacramental instruments for transmuting the infinite variety, sensuous depth, and ephemeral transitoriness of experience into permanent symbols.

“These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t,” he said in a daring confession in the preface to his Collected Poems. There is no doubt about their love of man. However private a “record of my individual struggle from darkness towards some measure of light” they celebrate the love of living and the hate of dying for all men, they pray to the potencies of rebirth and resurrection in nature and human love and inveigh against the grief and sorrow of actual existence. Man’s spiritual metamorphosis centers around the symbolic act of the “Holy Spring” and runs through a succession of poetic symbols touching—and perhaps limited—in their simplicity: spring and the seasons, the sun and the moon, Fern Hill and the Jarvis Hill of Wales, the sea and the sap rising from the “cauldron roots” of ancient trees, lovers and madmen, children and death. It is a simple act of affirmation of living and loving, a simple wreath laid on the altar of natural piety—through the images and words out of which it is woven are often obscure, exotic, dithyrambic, and profoundly introspective. “And death shall have no dominion” whether the death of Anne Jones, the father, a centenarian or a small child in a fire raid—a simple message in a grave, majestic, biblical phrase, but not religious in the Christian sense.

For the God he praised is a pagan deity. Pagan is the “raging moon,” pagan is the worship of the trees, the night, the sun, and the sea; pagan are the visions of rebirth from fire and the burning stars; pagan are the images drawn from the deep well of the unconscious self and mingled with Welsh myth, folklore, and ancient rites; pagan is the animistic infusion of nature with these private visions; pagan is the celebration of this world and its joys and sorrows, and the refusal to be comforted by the blessings of another; pagan is the absence of symbols of guilt and sin to account for human failure and suffering; and pagan is the transubstantiation of religious symbols into the natural order of things. For when Thomas celebrates “the marriage of a virgin” the religious significance of the poem is retranslated into a pagan marriage song: “For a man sleeps where fire leapt down and she learns through his arm / That other sun, the jealous coursing of the unrivalled blood.” And when he approached the heart of the Christian mystery itself, was it not to render its meaning in the spirit of Dionysus?

This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap. 

It is true Dylan Thomas stood apart, twenty years ago, from the social revolutionary poetry of the then young English poets like Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis. It is true that, from the beginning, he—unlike them—was not a formalist, but an imagist, a herald of a dark, Dionysian world of unconscious stirrings and transmutations; but, perhaps, it is also true to say, I think, that he remained apart to the bitter end of his brief days. He was a proud, wild, angry pagan celebrating the goodness of nature, living in an age and a poetic tradition which has increasingly returned to a “religious” outlook—so often but a sad reflection of the despair of life and love.

Pagan, and deeply poetic too, is the prose collected in the present volume, which contains a long fragment of an unfinished novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, and twenty short stories, most of them not previously available in book form. The stories are a prose record of the poet’s struggle from darkness towards some measure of light. And it is overwhelmingly how dark, somber, yes, macabre the moods and fantasies are which are conjured up in these prose images. Thomas was full of humor. His laughter surging from the depth of the human wilderness often breaks through in other prose works, especially in the autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. And there is humor, ribald laughter, and picaresque satire in the unfinished Adventures of the present volume, a fanciful continuation of the earlier Portrait.

But the twenty short stories forming the bulk of this prose work are not relieved by much humor and light. Instead the atmosphere is dark and nightmarish, almost as in Poe and Kafka. The stories are peopled with witches, madmen, and murderers. There is murder in “The True Story” and in two other stories named after pieces of clothing, “The Dress” and “The Vest.” The stories are consumed by conflagration: “The Orchards” are on fire; and “The Burning Baby,” offspring of incest between father and daughter, is set on fire by the Reverend Rhys Rhys who believes his child is an incarnation of the savior: “The world is ripe for the second coming of man,” he says preaching in Church. “Burn, child, poor flesh, mean flesh, flesh, flesh, sick, sorry flesh, flesh of the foul womb burn back to dust,” the father prays madly while placing the dead child on the burning funeral pyre on top of the mountain. It is a pagan world of Phoenix rising from fire, or, in “The Tree,” of the crucifixion of an idiot by a child upon the Jarvis Hills, “their trees drawing up the moon out of the grass,” or, in “The Mouse and the Woman,” of a “madman howling like a dog” at the birds in the eaves of the lunatic asylum “who whistled the coming in of spring.”

It is a mad, sad world of the inner wilderness of man—saddest perhaps and most poignantly relieved by an infinite compassion and love in some of the shortest stories of a few pages, written in the simplest language. “Hold my hand,” says the dying man to his wife in “The Visitor” when death approaches. “And then: Why are you putting the sheet over my face?” “She did not hear him, but stood over his bed and fixed him with an unbreakable sorrow.” Or, in the moving story called “After the Fair,” which brings together a woman, lost, penniless, and wanted by the police, and the circus Fat Man, “I am the Fat Man, there is nobody to touch me for fatness,” with whom she seeks shelter and who goes out to fetch a foundling baby deposited in the Astrologer’s tent, a strange holy family on their flight to Egypt. When the child begins to cry inconsolably, the Fat Man and the woman go out into the night to crank up the engine of the merry-go-round on the deserted fair grounds:

As the roundabout started… the child at the girl’s breast stopped crying, clutched its hands together and crowed with joy. The night wind tore through its hair, the music jangled in its ears. ...And so the men from the caravans found them, the Fat Man and the girl in black with a baby in her arms, racing round and round on their mechanical steeds to the ever-increasing magic of the organ. 

It is a sad world; and the struggle for some measure of light—must have been intense and painful despite the supreme achievement of art.

He died. And the beginnings of a new world for the poet, a path leading from these private confessions of his poetry and prose towards a more public form of expression under which began the radio script, Under Milk Wood, a poetic radio drama in the manner of Wilder’s Our Town, and the screenplay called The Doctor and the Devils constructed on the old moral theme that the “end justifies the means”—even murder; therefore, “let no scruples stand in the way of the progress of medical science”—these new beginnings were cut off by death in 1953, at the threshold.