Dylan Thomas’s list of Robert Browning poems is found on back of an envelope
Dylan Thomas’s unsent envelope addressed to Osbert Sitwell.Photograph: Peter Harrington
Dylan Thomas’s list of Robert Browning poems is found on back of an envelope An enigmatic list of 12 Browning poems – scrawled by the Welsh poet on the back of an unsent envelope addressed to Osbert Sitwell – has been discovered by a rare book dealers
BY ALISON FLOOD
The Guardian, Monday 3 November 2014
It’s the back-of-an-envelope jotting of a mighty literary mind: a mysterious envelope on which Dylan Thomas has scrawled a list of poems by Robert Browning has come to light at a rare book dealers.
Dated to after 1943, the envelope has been addressed by Thomas to Osbert Sitwell – writer and brother of Edith – but is unstamped, and was never sent. Instead, on the back, Thomas has written an enigmatic list of 12 Browning poems, and then set it aside. Today, it is scuffed, dirty, “and has even been trodden on”, said Adam Blakeney at Peter Harrington book dealers, who stumbled upon it in an auction.
The list includes Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, a dramatic monologue in which the narrator tells of how he murders a woman – “ No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain” – and then sits beside her propped-up corpse, as well as the equally chilling tale of a murder, My Last Duchess (“Then all smiles stopped together”). The book dealer said that “given the immense variation of light and shade in the selected poems, a real tour de force of Browning’s work, we like to think of it as a top 10 list”.
“It’s Dylan Thomas writing on the back of an envelope a list of some of the greatest poems ever written,” said Blakeney. The fact the poems are scrawled on the back of an envelope Thomas had been planning to send to Sitwell is, believes Blakeney, “a wonderful, mad coincidence”.
“Though we know that Thomas was friends with the Sitwells (particularly Edith, who acted as his patron), and although we can date the envelope to 1943 or after based on Osbert inheriting his father’s baronetcy and the honorific “Sir” in that year, the true status of this unsent envelope is fittingly lost in the mists of time,” said the book dealer in its listing for the envelope, which it has priced at £1,500.
“Lost too is the Thomas’s exact reason for compiling this list of notable Browning poems. What can never be lost however is the small but entirely indicative glimpse into the poetical sensibilities of Thomas in his capacity as one of English poetry’s all-time greats. Of course he would rate Porphyria’s Lover – and how right he was to do so. These kinds of primary source manuscripts are of their nature surpassingly intimate and rare on the market.”
The poems listed by Thomas in full are Summum Bonum, Confessions, A Likeness, Porphyria’s Lover, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, My Last Duchess, Johannes Agricola in Meditation, A Light Woman, The Lost Mistress, Evelyn Hope, May and Death, and Never the Time and the Place. The Welsh poet was born on 27 October 1914 in Swansea, with the centenary of his birth marked last week at an event which saw the actor Michael Sheen read a previously unpublished Thomas poem, Song.
Professor John Goodby of the University of Swansea, editor of the bestselling new edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems, believes that Thomas could have been pulling the list together for a reading. “Thomas would very rarely read just his own poems to an audience – he’d combine them with others,” said Goodby. “It was a sort of modesty – ‘you’ve come all this way, you don’t only want to hear me read my poems.’ He’d have been thinking about an audience, rather than just listing his favourites, if this is what he was doing – and perhaps that’s why he hasn’t included [one of Browning’s most famous poems, the lengthy] Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”
Goodby said the list also shows “the falseness of the claim, often made, that Thomas wasn’t well read and simply warbled his woodnotes wild in a semi-drunken stupor”.
“This is a claim usually made by those who think that if you didn’t go to Oxbridge, you couldn’t have read much more than Palgrave’s Golden Treasury,” said the academic. “In truth, Thomas was as well-read as any poet of his generation; but he disguised the fact by rarely talking about poetry. In reality, he was very widely read, and completely au fait with all the writers in the English literary canon. His father was the head of English at the local grammar school, and he gave Thomas the run of his personal library from the age of seven onwards.”
Goodby described Browning as a “rough, rugged poet, who wasn’t in fashion – not like Tennyson, smooth and fashionable and a lord”. He was also “interested in very extreme psychological states - Porphyria’s Lover is the mind of a psychopath, My Last Duchess is too”. Several of Thomas’s early stories explore similar themes, said Goodby, with his short story, The Vest, telling of a murderer who throws his wife’s blood-stained vest on the bar in a pub.
“These extreme mental states are very Browning-esque but are also very similar to early Dylan Thomas,” said Goodby. “So that fits.”
Goodby said there were echoes of Browning to be traced in Thomas’s work – lines from his 1934 poem Should lanterns shine run: “the holy face / Caught in an octagon of unaccustomed light / Would wither up, and any boy of love / Look twice before he fell from grace”, echoing these in Browning’s Bishop Bloughram’s Apology: “Under a vertical sun the exposed brain / And lidless eye and disemprisoned heart / Less certainly would wither up at once / Than mind, confronted with the truth of him.”
“The echo isn’t close, but its likelihood is strengthened by the sense of the poem,” said Goodby. “Browning was, like Thomas, a craggy and edgy, experimental poet, with a taste for the Gothic-grotesque very like his, and I’m sure there are traces of Browning in many other Thomas poems, as yet untraced.”