The making and unmaking of Dylan Thomas.
By Adam Kirsch
June 27, 2004
To begin at the beginning: In October, 1914, when the Swansea schoolmaster David John Thomas decided to call his newborn son Dylan, the name was virtually unknown, even in Wales. D.J., as he was called, had found it in the Mabinogion, the collection of medieval Welsh tales, where it is the name of a minor character—“a fine boy-child with rich yellow hair.” Florence, the boy’s mother, had her doubts about the odd name: the correct Welsh pronunciation, which the family used, is “Dullan,” and she worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.” Later, when broadcasting on the Welsh service of the BBC, Dylan Thomas had to instruct the announcers to say “Dillan,” the way he himself pronounced it.
By 2003, according to Social Security records, “Dylan” had become the nineteenth most popular boy’s name in the United States—just below “James.” For the parents of many of those American Dylans, the name probably evokes the teen heartthrob on the TV series “Beverly Hills 90210”; for their grandparents, it will always recall the singer formerly known as Robert Zimmerman. But those later Dylans only borrowed its aura of brooding, youthful rebellion; in the most literal sense, Dylan Thomas made his name.
To achieve that level of fame as a poet demands more than talent, or even genius. From Byron to Sylvia Plath, it has also required scandal, tragedy, and early death. And the glamour of Dylan Thomas has always been peculiarly potent in the United States, because the last acts of his tragedy were played out here, in Manhattan. His Stations of the Cross are the Chelsea Hotel and the Ninety-second Street Y, the White Horse Tavern and St. Vincent’s Hospital—where he died of alcohol poisoning on November 9, 1953, just after his thirty-ninth birthday. Wales was Thomas’s great subject, and England made his reputation; but it was America that created his legend.
The question, raised by many at the time and fiercely debated ever since, is whether America also killed him. During his four American tours, between 1950 and 1953, Thomas put on a better show than any visiting writer since Dickens. His rich, honeyed baritone, and a dramatic instinct honed by years of broadcasting, made him a powerful reader of his own and others’ poems. But what drew crowds from New York to San Francisco, and on every college campus in between, was not just the performance; it was the possibility that Thomas would finally, irreparably, crack up. Elizabeth Hardwick remembered how professors and students alike were mesmerized by his alcoholic high-wire act: “Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exciting possibilities.” As Andrew Lycett writes in his new biography, “Dylan Thomas: A New Life” (Overlook; $35), Thomas “exhibited the excesses and experienced the adulation which would later be associated with rock stars.”
What makes him unique among poets, even famous poets, is this distinctly modern and American cast of his celebrity. He took part in the savage transaction of stardom: his reckless self-indulgence satisfied his audiences’ fantasies, and his destruction satisfied their moralistic envy. Many people shared an obscure sense of gratification that Thomas had died young, as a poet should. That way, he could be mourned in the grand style, like Adonais: “. . . the loveliest and the last, / The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew.” Or, as the critic Alfred Kazin wrote in his journal when he heard the news, “Dylan. How much light goes out with the passing of our wizard . . . he embodied the deepest cry of poetry, he was our young singer!” The death of an old singer—a Yeats or a Frost—offers less scope for plangency.
Those closest to Thomas worried about this loving American vampirism. Caitlin, his wife, complained about many things he did—Caitlin’s volcanic temper, and the battles it provoked, is no small part of the Thomas legend—but she complained most loudly, and with most justification, about his visits to America. When he came back from his third trip, in the spring of 1953, she vowed not to let him return. As Thomas wrote ruefully to John Malcolm Brinnin, his American host and lecture agent, Caitlin told him, “ ‘You want to go to the States again only for flattery, idleness, and infidelity.’ This hurt me terribly. The right words were: appreciation, dramatic work, and friends.” But Caitlin was more right than either of them knew: the next trip turned out to be the fatal one. As she wrote in her memoir, “Leftover Life to Kill,” “Nobody ever needed encouragement less, and he was drowned in it.”
“Don’t encourage him,” of course, is what we say about a child who misbehaves; and, while Thomas’s misbehavior took lethally adult forms, it was unmistakably a kind of childishness, a testing of boundaries. Lycett’s thorough and well-written biography—rich in anecdote, if short on psychological and literary penetration—shows that Thomas’s entire life was an experiment in how much he could get away with. Probably the most dramatic example—missing from Lycett’s account, it can be found in Paul Ferris’s 1977 biography—concerns a dinner party at the house of a psychiatrist, to which Thomas was invited by a mutual friend. When Thomas arrived, he told the host’s wife that he wanted to wash up, and was shown upstairs. When he came back down, he had taken off his own clothes and was wearing his host’s suit, tie, socks, and shoes. But what makes the story really astonishing is that no one said a word about it. As Hardwick observed, “Thomas was acknowledged, unconsciously perhaps, to be beyond judgment.”
Most people, especially women, readily granted him this immunity; a few bystanders, almost all of them men, found it infuriating. One story Lycett does tell involves John Veale, a young composer, who lent Thomas some money for a taxi. Two weeks later, Veale made the mistake of asking for it back; Thomas gave him “a look as if I’d delivered an unforgivable insult.” Veale’s loss was only three shillings and sixpence—many agents, publishers, friends, and total strangers were stung for hundreds of pounds—but it showed him an important truth about Thomas: “Dylan was accustomed to being trailed around by people in whose eyes he could do no wrong. He was allowed to get away with anything.” Under the circumstances, Thomas could hardly avoid becoming ruthless and even contemptuous in his exploitation, feeling that—as Lycett writes—“anyone who made a fuss of him was a fool and to be treated with disdain.” As the historian A. J. P. Taylor—whose wife, Margaret, was Thomas’s most generous sponsor—put it quite bluntly, “I disliked Dylan Thomas intensely. He was cruel.”
The virtue of Lycett’s biography is that although he does not fall under Thomas’s spell, he also resists such summary assessments. Paul Ferris, whose “Dylan Thomas: The Biography” was issued in a revised edition in 2000, remains Thomas’s best and most comprehensive biographer; but half a lifetime spent with Thomas—he also edited the poet’s letters, and wrote a life of Caitlin—clearly sapped his patience. (His index to the “Collected Letters” contains, under the heading “Finances,” the entry: “needs money, passim ad infinitum.”) Ferris takes an unmistakable satisfaction in exposing Thomas’s lies and outrages; Lycett, a journalist and biographer whose past subjects include Muammar Qaddafi and Ian Fleming, simply shares with the reader his pleasure in the whole gossipy spectacle. When Lycett differs from Ferris about a particular episode, his interpretation is usually more charitable.
The affair of Vernon Watkins’s wedding is a good example. In October, 1944, Thomas was to serve as best man at Watkins’s wedding in London, but he did not appear. Lycett writes that Watkins “then received an envelope from Dylan containing two fawning letters, one apologising for having failed to post the other; and the other claiming that, in a confusion of missed trains, Dylan had forgotten the name of the church.” This would be bad enough, but Ferris’s version is worse. He reports the suspicion of Watkins’s wife that the letter Thomas allegedly failed to post on the day of the wedding was a fake, deliberately creased and grimed to make it look as though he had accidentally been carrying it around in his pocket. In any case, the sequel was as usual: Watkins vowed, “That’s the end of Dylan as far as I’m concerned,” and then forgave him.
It was natural for people to indulge Thomas as though he were a child, since he was barely out of childhood when he became famous. By the age of nineteen, Thomas had already written many of his major poems: “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” “Before I Knocked,” “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” The world got a glimpse of what Thomas was up to in his “bedroom by the boiler” in March, 1934, when “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines” was published in The Listener. Its completely assured voice drew the notice of T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender, among others, and its suggestive imagery brought angry letters from subscribers:
That December, when Thomas’s “18 Poems” was published as the winner of a contest sponsored by the newspaper Sunday Referee, it created a minor sensation in literary London. The book was far from a commercial success—it took two years for the edition of five hundred copies to sell out—but it was widely reviewed, and gained Thomas some important champions. The critic Desmond Hawkins called it “the sort of bomb that bursts no more than once in three years”; the influential man of letters Cyril Connolly declared himself “completely ensnared.”
A début like “18 Poems” would have attracted attention at any time, but in the mid-nineteen-thirties a poet of Thomas’s particular gifts was especially welcome. Ever since W. H. Auden’s “Poems” appeared, in 1930, British poetry had been dominated by his cool, intellectual, ominous music; along with such disciples as Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, Auden created what sounded like the inevitable idiom for a decade of crisis. After five years of the “pylon poets,” as they were sometimes called, Thomas’s intoxicated lyricism was greeted like a rainstorm in a dry climate. Thomas could be as hermetic as any modernist, but his passionate incantations seemed to come out of an older Romantic tradition; it was not long before he was being hailed as a bard. Hawkins announced, “The Audenesque convention is nearly ended; and I credit Dylan Thomas with being the first considerable poet to break through fashionable limitation and speak an unborrowed language.” The editor Geoffrey Grigson, whose early friendship with Thomas was ruined, predictably, over money matters, put it more snidely: Thomas was “a Young Poet untainted with Eliot or with Auden . . . whose poems, though a bit unintelligible, sounded at least familiar in an old grandiloquent way.”
Thomas was alert to the danger of becoming merely a prodigy—like the surrealist poet David Gascoyne, who published his first book in 1932, at the age of sixteen—and insisted that his work be judged without reference to his age. But at the same time he played up his boyishness for comic or pathetic effect: at age twenty-three, he was still joking about his “particular baby bulbousness . . . like an Aryan Harpo bitten by wasps.” In her memoir, Caitlin recalled that when they first met “Dylan may have been a skinny, springy lambkin, but I was more like its buxom mother then, and distinctly recollect carrying him across streams under one arm.” And his early love letters try to enlist her in a conspiracy of Peter Pans: “You mustn’t look too grown-up, because you’d look older than me; and you’ll never, I’ll never let you, grow wise, and I’ll never, you shall never let me, grow wise, and we’ll always be young and unwise together.”
This hope—like Thomas’s assurance, in a letter to his sister just before his marriage, that Caitlin cared “absolutely nothing for the responsibilities of husbandly provision”—was inevitably disappointed. For it was Caitlin who had to bear the full brunt of Thomas’s womanizing, drunkenness, unemployment, and simple domestic helplessness. (On one occasion, Lycett writes, Caitlin asked her husband to make a cup of tea, and “he came back with a curious greasy concoction, explaining he could not find a top for the pot, so had covered it with half a pound of cheese.”) Not unnaturally, she grew bitter, to the point of becoming, by most accounts, a monster. Lycett tells the story of how, when she suspected Thomas of flirting with a woman at a party, “she came up behind her supposed rival and, without saying a word, stubbed her cigarette down hard on the back of [her] hand. Then she said, ‘Hullo’ and walked calmly away to talk to someone else.” Lycett acknowledges the extent of Caitlin’s infidelities, but does not mention her nonchalant admission to Ferris, in the late nineteen-seventies, that “only a miracle had saved” her three children by Thomas “from being somebody else’s.”
The only person more revolted by his weakness than Caitlin was Thomas himself. Philip Larkin, the leading British poet of the generation after Thomas’s, claimed to have read his published correspondence “with almost supernatural boredom, scrounging, apologising, promising, apologising again, fixing up appointments, apologising for not keeping them.” But Thomas was well aware of the impression he made, writing to one editor that “nobody, one might think, could say that he was sincerely sorry so many times and still be sincere about it.” Thomas, however, was sincere, every time; he just wasn’t able to change, and his helplessness left him prey to a venomous self-loathing. “The selfish trouble,” he explained to the poet and critic Henry Treece, “is that I myself have had to put up with these seriously annoying faults for so long that I’ve almost come to think other people can bear them. I am the one who wakes up nearest to myself, and the continual horror that comes from the realisation of this individuality has made me almost to believe that the reactions of others to my horrible self . . . are small enough, in comparison.” Two years before his death, in a letter written to Princess Marguerite Caetani—the American-born editor of the international literary magazine Botteghe Oscure—he offered a more damning self-portrait than any enemy could: “I’m sick of my always hurdygurdying these little griefs out and me like a monkey on the top of it all with my beggar’s cap.”
The many people who tolerated and encouraged Thomas’s vices used his genius as an excuse. More accurately, his vices were seen as an indispensable part of his genius; he fit the vulgar stereotype of the poet whose head was in the clouds, what he himself derided as the “Dreamy Poet Type B classified by Punch.” And when Thomas’s life of helplessness was consummated in a helpless death, brought on by weeks of hard drinking and a doctor’s morphine injection, there was a widespread, if disguised, satisfaction at this perfection of the stereotype. Thomas’s end could be appreciated on the terms Saul Bellow described in “Humboldt’s Gift”: “For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. . . . The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. . . . So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.”
Indeed, Thomas’s death was at least a dress rehearsal, and possibly a direct inspiration, for the fates of a generation of American poets. Delmore Schwartz, in the psychotic and alcoholic haze of his last years, began to haunt the White Horse Tavern, the famous site of Thomas’s dissipations. Elizabeth Bishop, whose reticent, lucid poetry could not be more different from Thomas’s, felt an “instantaneous sympathy” when they met in 1950, during her tenure as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Writing to Pearl Kazin—whose affair with Thomas was by far the most serious of his American romances—just after his death, Bishop claimed her own kinship with Thomas: “In my own minor way I know enough about drink & destruction.”
Most possessive of all was John Berryman, who was a graduate student at Cambridge when he first met Thomas, in the late nineteen-thirties. Berryman—who was born just two days before Thomas—was staying at the Chelsea when Thomas had his final collapse there, and was the only person at his bedside when he stopped breathing. As Pearl Kazin recalled, she and Berryman both attended a conference at Bard College during Thomas’s last, comatose weekend; on one country walk, Berryman “kept saying, as he took long gulps of air: ‘I’m breathing for Dylan, if I breathe for him perhaps he will remain alive.’ ” Months before Berryman’s suicide, in 1972, following his own battle with alcoholism, he wrote “In Memoriam (1914-53),” an elegy for Thomas:
Although Thomas stood at the head of what Berryman called a “wrecked” generation of poets, he himself never blamed poetry for what befell him. The bitterest part of his shame was that, while he profited from the popular equation of poetry with weakness, he knew that it was in poetry alone that he was strong. “My selfish carelessness and unpunctuality,” he wrote Treece, “I do not try to excuse as poet’s properties. They are a bugbear & a humbug.”
In fact, with a strange symmetry, Thomas’s poetry takes the very things that cursed his life and turns them into blessings. In his verse, self-absorption becomes intense awareness; childishness becomes freshness of perception; and heedlessness becomes verbal daring. These are the virtues of youth, and it remains astonishing how very young Thomas was when he began to write his great poems; his precocity rivals that of Keats and Rimbaud.
Unlike Keats’s, however, Thomas’s poems reflect their creator’s rawness. His thought is rudimentary—as Randall Jarrell noted in an early review, “the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst”—and much of his verbal tumult seems willfully obscure. Confronted with lines like “The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, / Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream,” many early readers grouped Thomas with the surrealists as a deliberate maker of nonsense. But Thomas passionately, and rightly, refused this label. “I agree,” he wrote, “that much of the poetry is impossibly difficult; I’ve asked, or rather told, words to do too much; it isn’t theories that choke some of the wilder and worser lines, but sheer greed.” His difficulty is not the cool provocation of the avant-garde but the heat of the teen-age poet writing for no ear save his own.
Isolation and appetite, in any teen-ager, naturally find release in self-gratification; in that sense, Thomas’s poetry can fairly, and without insult, be called masturbatory. It is also frequently masturbatory in a more literal sense: he writes of being “tickled by the rub of love,” “rehearsing heat upon a raw-edged nerve,” “the scalding veins that hold love’s drop.” The last line of “My Hero Bares His Nerves” quickly became notorious: “He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.” Like Whitman, another great poet of onanism, Thomas sees his body from a certain remove, awed and even frightened by its capacity for sensation: “Ears in the turrets hear / Hands grumble on the door, / Eyes in the gables see / The fingers at the locks.”
The same tendency, carried to its extreme, is what allows Thomas to see his entire existence as something that essentially does not belong to him. In his seething, pantheistic poems, his own life becomes just one moment of a universal process, a temporary habitation of the life force. At times, this can sound like narcissism—“My holy lucky body,” Thomas writes in one poem—but in a deeper sense it is a shocking denial of the self. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer”: death is the implicit, inescapable end of growth. At his best, Thomas has a nearly metaphysical ability to make us see all the moments of a life, from birth to death, in a single instant: “The oak is felled in the acorn / And the hawk in the egg kills the wren.” And when the Second World War came it was this power simultaneously to see death and to see through death that produced his great war poems: “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged a Hundred,” and—the most significant title of all—“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
But that poem, which beautifully imagines the child’s death as a homecoming to Nature—“Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother”—also reveals the limitations of Thomas’s vision. It is not, finally, a truly consoling poem; in his haste to adopt a cosmic view of the tragedy, Thomas seems indifferent to its human meaning. The refusal to mourn is a refusal to love the dead child as an individual, the way those who knew her might have; it turns her immediately into a symbol. “After the first death, there is no other,” Thomas writes in one of his many unforgettable lines. But first there is the first death, in all its irredeemable particularity; and Thomas’s language, with its totem words and sorcerer’s rhythms, is not scaled to the particular. His poetry, as Elizabeth Bishop noted, has a “desperate win-or-lose-all quality,” which “eliminates everything from life except something almost beyond human supportability after a while.”
This insupportable intensity was, perhaps, the price of Thomas’s adolescent genius. In some ways, Thomas resembles Wordsworth, whose lament for lost childhood, the “Immortality Ode,” haunts several of Thomas’s later poems. What makes Wordsworth the larger poet is the experience he captured in a line from “Elegiac Stanzas”: “a deep distress hath humanised my Soul.” Thomas’s sorrows, terrible though they became, never had that effect; instead of broadening and renewing his gift, they eroded its early momentum. At the age of twenty-six, Lycett points out, “Dylan had already written more than eighty percent of his published verse.” In the last eight years of his life, he wrote only six poems. And the self-inflicted decay of his final years, though accelerated by his American tours, was surely rooted in this loss of inspiration. Being treated as a poet, with all the indulgence and condescension that entailed, was always bad for Dylan Thomas. Writing poems was what allowed him to survive it, as he gratefully acknowledged: “To take to give is all, return what is hungrily given / Puffing the pounds of manna up through the dew to heaven.”
Published in the print edition of the July 5, 2004, issue.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?”
THE NEW YORKER
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