The poetry of Dylan Thomas

The poetry of Dylan Thomas

It may be that some words by a poet long ago read actually do make sense viewed from the perspective of a pandemic we are now in the throngs of. The bell has tolled, and the mystics of the age try and divine what can be done to get out of the rut the Coronavirus pandemic has dug for humanity. Some of us are sad that so many are dying, some of us are untouched and are in fact slightly bemused: disease like war teaches human beings to rally together for a common cause; it actually forces them to unite against a common enemy, which is good.

Impending danger and death paint a bleak scene, for we are creatures that thrive on hope, we are creatures that depend on blind faith to get through the day. The two virtues are now being put to their ultimate test as the Coronavirus statistics rise and we are forced to dig in. The words of the politicians will go some way to assuage the reality of our anxiety, and the words of the preachers from the pulpit will go on to help us garner whatever little faith we have left.

These are hard times in the real sense, and the words of the poet can sing some hope into our psyches and help us believe in faith again.
Dylan Marlais Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales, on the 27th of October in 1914. Thomas’s father chose the name Dylan, which loosely translated means, ‘son of the sea’. After he left school at the age of sixteen, he started working as a journalist in Swansea. His childhood was spent largely in Swansea, with regular summer trips to visit his maternal aunts’ Carmarthenshire farms. These rural sojourns and the contrast with the town life of Swansea provided inspiration for much of his work, notably many short stories, radio essays, and the poem Fern Hill.

Thomas was known to be a sickly child who suffered from bronchitis and asthma. He shied away from school and preferred reading on his own. He was considered too frail to fight in World War II, instead serving the war effort by writing scripts for the government. Thomas’s formal education began at Mrs. Hole’s Dame school, a private school which was situated a few streets away on Mirador Crescent. He described his experience there in Quite Early One Morning:

Never was there such a dame school as ours, so firm and kind and smelling of galoshes, with the sweet and fumbled music of the piano lessons drifting down from upstairs to the lonely schoolroom, where only the sometimes tearful wicked sat over undone sums, or to repent a little crime — the pulling of a girl’s hair during geography, the sly shin kick under the table during English literature.

In 1937, Thomas married Caitlin McNamara who gave birth to three children. Their marriage was the epitome of a typical British, conservative and straightforward approach to family life. However, Dylan started drinking heavily after the family’s move to London, and Caitlin is rumoured to have had several extramarital affairs, even with colleagues and friends of her husband (alcohol and indulgence were expensive for the young family, so they could not cover their costs anymore and lived on the poor side of things).

Thus, in 1950, Thomas announced that he would emigrate to the United States because he thought he would be paid better there than in England. He settled in New York where he recited his works, and there earned a degree of admiration and respect. Nevertheless, the money he earned was spent on alcohol, which led his marriage with Caitlin into a serious crisis. On November 9, 1953, he died of pneumonia after a heavy drinking binge in a Manhattan hotel, at the age of 39; he had fallen into a coma from which he never woke. Later, Thomas’s body was repatriated to Wales. He was buried in the churchyard of Laugharne, Camarthenshire.

In a period of just over two short decades, Dylan Thomas established a reputation as a poet and storywriter of remarkable power and reach. Dylan now stands not just as one of Wales’ most important cultural figures, but as a writer of international stature and renown. Dylan was not only a writer and poet, but also a remarkable broadcaster. Fostered and championed by the BBC, he became a dazzling radio poet. His broadcasts and recordings took his voice and his ideas far beyond his homeland, and he used the compelling intimacy of the medium to conjure extraordinary images and characters that seduced millions of listeners. It seems the troubled figure found his comfort in passing the message in his poetry on to the people, the listeners to his BBC radio programmes. Born into the First World War, the asthmatic Dylan Thomas fought the ghosts of his disease and went on to become one of the most remembered voices. He lived on tiny fees from writing and reviewing and borrowed heavily from friends and acquaintances, writing begging letters to random literary figures in hope of support, envisaging this as a plan of long term regular income. A pretty sad tale of a figure that was best known for writing self-contradictions that defined each other in their oppositeness. Dylan Thomas was in essence the rock star of the 1940’s and 1950’s poetry scene, however forgotten he may be at the moment in time.

It is said that Dylan Thomas saw biology as a magical transformation producing unity out of diversity, and in his poetry he 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 again. Therefore, each image engenders its opposite.” Thomas derived his closely melded, sometimes self-contradictory images from the Bible, Welsh folklore and preaching, and in the teaching of Sigmund Freud. This led to Thomas’s poetry being noted for its musicality, most clear in poems such as Fern Hill, In Country Sleep, Ballad of the Long-legged Bait or In the White Giant’s Thigh from Under Milkwood:
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…

Written those many years ago, the poem, And Death Shall Have No Dominion carries a look into the ways in which death controls mankind and the fact that even though it is powerful, it cannot control everything. It seems to have been the sole belief of Thomas as a poet that mankind has the power to stand up against death and its evils, to stand up again unified in the aftermath. All that is lost before the advent of death is soon regained, for most of the ties that bound the people together before it came actually never fray; families stay families even after death, and entire communities rally together to collect the pieces scattered by death in its many forms.

Faced with the threat of a plague, a close reading of Dylan Thomas’s poem engenders a spirit of hope that this too shall come to pass, and that none of the cloth that makes the fabric of our society shall be frayed. We may be scathed by the statistics and the death toll, but then the waiting for the virus to strike shall not break our spirits. In the spirit of the James Shirley masterpiece The Glories of our Blood and State the poem proclaims:
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man 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.

It is true that fear mongers are on the loose, and every state is going through a closing down; this has in the words of the Ecclesiastes (1:9) been seen before, will be seen again. In the words of the Ecclesiast, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Thomas’s poetry refuses to give in to death, and his villanelle to his father Do not go gentle into that night, a call to the living not to give in to the temptation to give up on life.

Imminent death has the tendency to leave people anxious, and it takes the words of encouragement from a man or woman gifted with words to bring things back into perspective. Like patients with trypanophobia waiting for the needle’s prick with cringed insides, we wait for the advent of the Coronavirus. I guess we should wait for the day after tomorrow when the virus is gone. Like Dylan Thomas we should be singing a song of rage against the virus:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas justifies the improbability of the supernatural incidents in his poetry and in this manner manages to achieve an immediate accessibility to the reader’s subconscious. Those readers whose imagination is quick to grasp the gist of the creativity can only do so because the poet allows them room through usage of imagery and other stylistic devices. Dylan Thomas in his poetry appeals to Man’s suppressed self by exploring and exposing the hero’s “naked desire.”

Through this, he seeks to cast light on the realm of the unconscious, in this manner bringing it to the conscious level. In October 1934, he had personally stated that, “Whatever is hidden should be naked. To be stripped of darkness is to be clean, to strip of darkness is to make clean. Poetry, recording the stripping of the individual darkness, must, inevitably, cast light upon what has been hidden for too long, and by so doing, make clean the naked exposure.” We should have been enlightened before the disease got out of control as to what it really entailed, its nakedness should have been put before the world.

In his essay “The Religious Poet,” W. S. Merwin defines the religious artist as the one who perceives in the universe a force of love or creation which is more divine than either man or the world, and a force of death or destruction which is more terrible than man or the world.
“Although his ultimate vision is the tragic one of creation through suffering, his ultimate sense will be of joy. For in the act of love, the central act of creation, he will see the force of love, in man and the world, emerge inextricably and mysteriously with the force of death, and yet from this union new creation is born through suffering.”

Great cities fell to rubble in the course of the World Wars; they were rebuilt to their former glory in the years following the end of the war. Our health systems are now globally revealed to be a mish-mash of half-hashed plans, but the advent of the Coronavirus will perhaps help us to come out the other side better organised. Always secluded to the poorest corners of societies across the globe, it is up to the authors of this here world to wake up to the realities of the type of media that spreads hopelessness. I guess that for a while we should learn to be like Dylan Thomas and let the beauty of our words inspire others to be more courageous in the face of impending doom.

It was just an idea that one should write when one began to do so those many years ago, the purpose was not known yet, the objective was absent, and the goal was understood only in terms of readers that would make me the writer rich by buying the books I wrote. Honourable in a childish sort of way it was, though very far from the description given by Dylan Thomas on the purpose of his works:

The idea that I write a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the town I live in, and to write it simply and warmly and comically, with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, through sight and speech, description and dialogue, evocation and parody, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it.
We have to lean in close and stick together and present the reality of what is unfolding as it is, unless we want to create an illusion of progress as per the words of the politicians in the early days of the flu virus outbreak. We have lost battles and wars against different anomalies of character simply because we had the wrong messengers, verbose as politicians, loquacious as lawyers, dilly-dallying as doctors and ranting as preachers. We need to be poetic about this one this time around. If we are to live.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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