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"There is in the Welsh bardic tradition much that is absolutely fundamental to Thomas' writing: its highly lyrical qualities; its strict formal control and an essentially romantic conception of the poet's function in society." (Selby 98) These traits parallel the three themes that will be belaboured in this essay: the aural/oral appeal of Dylan Thomas' work; his meticulous obscurity; and the role of the poet in society.
I: One of Thomas' more controversial and distinctive characteristics is his musicality. It is surprising that anyone would bring this up as a complaint; music is considered by many to be the purest art, and the highest poetry that which approaches nearest to music. Perhaps it is understandable that those critics who would limit meaning and contextualise art would also be aesthetically oriented such that they would find it offensive that a form for the eyes and mind should be so solicitous of the lips and ears.
It is also suggested that Thomas may be sacrificing meaning to sound, but this is hard to swallow when one considers the amount of effort he puts into codification (showing attention to meaning) and the fact that his poems simply aren't nonsense.
While attention to sound is considered a minor matter in many modern critical streams, it has always played a privileged part in Romantic aesthetics:
Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of those relations has always been found connected with a perception of the order of the relations of thoughts. Hence the language of poets have ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound, without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely less indispensable to the communication of its influence, than the words themselves, without reference to that peculiar order. (Shelley 92)
Even if it is true that the sound in some way detracts from the meaning, it is only in a temporary fashion, and is calculated. Stewart Crehan suggests: "Thomas' obscurity is calculated to foreground sound and its pleasures before the meaning sinks in." (Crehan 42) The sound has a hypnotic quality which opens up the mind and makes it more susceptible to the subtle suggestions of murky metaphysical musings.
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Poetry and rhetoric also get the spirit that animates their works simply from the aesthetical attributes of the object [presumably the poem or speech], which accompany the logical and stimulate the imagination, so that it thinks more by their aid, although in an underdeveloped way, than could be comprehended in a concept and therefore in a definite form of words. (Kant 87)
According to Kant, art is meant to take one "beyond experience" (see below). The confusing of the sensual and the intellectual is one of the means by which this is effected.
II: Some accuse Thomas' work of having no meaning. What could they mean by "meaning" that they find none in Thomas? They must mean something material, mundane, and perhaps containing a moral message. Not all would agree that this is the aim of poetry.
"A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth...is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature." (Shelley 93) The idea of a "germ of relation" is very appropriate to Thomas' style. His words do not force an interpretation. There is no bridge waiting to be crossed from the poem to some definite destination, rather there is a launching point, from which one may set out in any number of directions. The theme of many of his works may be construed as death; or sex; or youth; what is expressed in the poem is that element in each of these themes which is common-universal. The poet starts from an isolated earthly experience, say, a family illness; from there, she distils the experience down to its least particularised qualities and keeps this essence as the poem. This universal object, then, may be applied to a variety of different sorts of events-subjected to different sorts of interpretations.
The idea that the poet distils experience into its essences finds support in the letters of Arthur Rimbaud: " Toute les formes d'amour, de souffrance, de folie; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n'en garder que les quintessences. " (Rimbaud 11) ("All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he [the poet] looks for in himself, he exhausts all poisons, keeping only their quintessences.") Youth, energy, growth and innocence are reduced to green; gnawing worries of existence, looming death, and writhing sexuality are all united by the worm. These symbols do not stand for any one describable thing, they label forces just beyond description; the worminess that is common to both sex and death, but loses its commonality as soon as it is applied to one or the other, back in the realm of possible description.
According to Immanuel Kant, the poet seeks "to go beyond the limits of experience and to present them to sense with a completeness of which there is no example in nature." (Kant 86) Strict adherence to spatially and temporally consistent descriptions may actually stifle this attempt. Thomas' lines are given their universality by the density of myriad and inconsistent meanings folded therein. (Crehan 49) "Much of the obscurity is due to rigorous compression," (Thomas quoted in Korg 22) but this obscurity is itself the mystical element in the poetry, the intimation of the ineffable.
Thomas analyses his own style in "Today, this insect", whose title suggests both the lack of appreciation he feels as an artist and the insignificance of the artist next to the art. "Today, this insect, and the world I breathe / Now that my symbols have outelbowed space," (1-2) The world he breathes is both the world he takes in and the world he creates and gives life to. His symbols have "outelbowed" space by replacing all sense of orientation and groundedness with gravity-free abstraction. "The dear daft time I take to nudge a sentence, / In trust and tale I have divided sense," (4-5) Here he explains that the derangement of sense in his work is no accident. Sense is divided both in terms of double entendre and in terms of being put in jeopardy, perhaps due to over-codification. "Slapped down the guillotine, the blood-red double / Of head and tail made witnesses to this / Murder of Eden and green genesis." (6-8) Head and tail are the intellectual and the animal, both of which are being appealed to; at the same time, they bring to mind, with the previous line, a dismembered penis, perhaps representing the creative force which the poet detaches from himself each time he completes a work.
Contradiction and dualism are characteristic of Thomas' work. Destruction and creation always come together. On one hand, this binary structure skews reality, as no one can focus on or comprehend opposites simultaneously; a poem which simultaneously acknowledges the creative and the destructive does not correspond with how reality seems through our judgemental stainings. On the other hand, this is a more whole representation of reality, which favours no principle over its opposite and is quite indifferent to the distinctions of birth/death, good/evil, rational/irrational, future/past, or self/other. Thomas himself refused exclusionary partitioning:
I resolve not to label the brain into separate compartments, that is, not to differentiate between what is in me that writes poetry and what is in me that says, here comes one-o'clock; at this time I lunch. That is, again, a resolution not to differentiate between what is called rational and what is called irrational, but to attempt to create, or to let be created, one rationalism. (Thomas / Fitzgibbon 83)
The origin of poetry is the negation of poetry, 'destructive and constrictive at the same time', and it is this negation to which poetry must testify at the same time that it testifies to the inexhaustible fecundity of the source. Poetry, like its origin, must be 'creative destruction, destructive creation'. (Dylan quoted in Crehan 49)
It has been complained that Thomas' elucidations of his method are more obscure than the poetry itself. (Hulse 116) In fact, Thomas is perfectly clear about what he is doing, as long as one can accept that he intends to work on an expressly abstract level. Creation and destruction are not merely themes of stories, but the basis of all story-telling. Thomas' difference from, say, Auden, is that where the latter will paint a concrete picture and use the primary principles as forces within the story, driving it towards some worldly end, Thomas will make the primary forces the subject of the poem; any worldly imagery is subservient to giving a sense of the abstract ideas in play-creation and destruction being primary and generating increasingly particularised themes: death, birth, sex, expression, freedom, etc. This genealogy of elements is reminiscent of the generation of forces in Mediterranean mythologies: from chaos come light and dark; who generate heaven, earth, and water; from whom all other matter is derived.
"The force that through the green fuse" is simultaneously about youth, death, and sex, the point being that the same ineffable forces animate all these principles: creative, destructive, artisan, animal. "The force that drives the water through the rocks / Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams / Turns mine to wax." (6-8) Wet and dry are here presented as cosmic principles,1 but for what do they stand? "And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins / How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks." (9-10) He is unable to explain how it is that he simultaneously has different natures, yet these are all somehow united. "Beauty is in the sense of unity in diversity." (Thomas / Fitzgibbon 50) Wonder is a major effect evoked in Thomas' poetry. The very obscurity of his images and proliferation of paradoxes give the reader a sense of being stunned. Wonder before existence could not be conveyed clearly; clarity is antithetical to wonder: "The insect certain is the plague of fables." ("Today, this insect" 9)
III: This preoccupation with the abstract has led to charges that Thomas neglects his social duties as a poet. This charge will of course come as a shock to those who thought that one has social duties as a citizen, but only duties to one's craft as a poet. This is, in fact, exactly how Thomas responds to the charge: "You can't be true to party and poetry-one must suffer." (quoted in Crehan 43) Not only can moralising cheapen a piece, explicit references to political events and social conditions date a work. They will endure, but as part of history more than as living works of art. The only thing which could possibly diminish the relevance and viability of "Do not go gently into that good night", on the other hand, would be the mutation of the language to the point where the poem was as inaccessible to the general public as Old English.
Thomas comments on journalistic poetry: "So much new verse...can be summarised, 'Well, there's been a hell of a war, it's left us in a mess, what the hell are we going to do about it?' The answer is fairly obvious. But is it worth writing about? No." (Thomas / Fitzgibbon 21) He feels that attention to specific events brings poetry down from its timeless heights. It becomes the statement of a generation rather than the statement of a species faced with eternity.
The proper attitude towards Thomas' poetic role is well-expressed by Jacob Korg:
The value of his poetry is meant to depend, not on some possible functional usefulness, but on its power to unveil the cosmic drama which the adolescent Thomas first put together from his scraps of experience with nature, his own sexuality, and the deaths and illnesses in his family. (Korg 31)
The final word on Dylan Thomas' role and self-perception as a poet should be given by Thomas himself. This is what he attempts to give in "In my craft or sullen art". "Exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages." (2-3) The still night suggests the cold reception he feels to his work. The moon raging, given that "to rage" tends to mean "to resist", perhaps refers to how the literary world is sterile and unprepared to accept anything new, while the moon seems rebellious in comparison, shining against a sea of black. "I labour by singing light", a nod to the accusation that he is a light-weight rhymer, "Not for ambition or bread", i.e. reputation or wealth, "Or the strut and trade of charms / On the ivory stages" This suggests both high society cocktail parties and the bestowal of awards, "But for the common wages / Of their [the lovers'] most secret heart." (6-11) The raw experience of the soul is what is to be explored and evoked in Thomas' outpourings. "Not for the proud man apart / From the raging moon I write / On these spindrift pages" (12-13) His taking the position of rebel (from the raging moon) has nothing to do with cultivating a rebellious image (the proud man apart). The "spindrift pages" are another joke regarding accusations of fluffy writing. The similarity to "spendthrift" may be meant to suggest Thomas' economy of style. "Nor for the towering dead / With their nightingales and psalms" (15-16) This is a knock at the revered masters, namely those who specialised in pastorals and religious poetry, neither of which were considered very good art by Thomas (he quite disliked Wordsworth (Thomas / Fitzgibbon 25)). "But for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages, / Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art." (17-20) He writes to express the human condition, indifferent to his reception, reward, or interpretation.
Dylan Thomas has been charged with obscurity, immaturity, phallocentrism, superficiality, and, most bizarre of all, lack of talent. In fact, his poetry is not all that obtuse, only abstract; he is not immature, he idealises youth; it cannot be denied that his visions are sexually potent. The charge of superficiality can only be explained in terms of a dogmatic stance which defines any art which provides copious amounts of sensual pleasure as mere entertainment. In truth, Thomas' ability to combine sensuality and metaphysics is the finest proof of his genius.
Bold, Alan, ed. Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art. London: Vision Press, 1990.
Crehan, Stewart. "The Lips of Time." Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art: 35-64.
Dayton, Eric, ed. Art and Interpretation. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1998.
Hulse, Michael. "Dylan Thomas and the Individual Talent: A Dialogue. Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art: 114-124.
Kant, Immanuel. "Analytic of the Sublime." Art and Interpretation: 48-89.
Korg, Jacob. "Dylan Thomas' Concept of the Poet." Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art: 15-34.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems. Ed. Oliver Bernard.Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997.
Selby, Keith. "Hitting the Right Note: The Potency of Cheap Music." Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art: 89-113.
Shelley, P. B. "A Defense of Poetry." Art and Interpretation: 90-105.
Thomas, Dylan. Collected Poems 1934-1953. Ed. Walford Davies and Ralph Maud. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1988.
Thomas, Dylan. Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas. Ed. Constantine Fitzgibbon. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1966.
1 "My own obscurity is an unfashionable one, based, as it is, on a preconceived symbolism derived...from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy." (Thomas / Fitzgibbon 97)