2 febbraio 2010

«Man and Being in Dylan Thomas» by Nicola D'Ugo


Dylan Thomas in his writing shed.
Laugharne, Wales
Human essence, the essence of an individual that is first of all a being, is the starting point for a criticism that wishes to turn its attention to Dylan Thomas’s work. "Man be my metaphor" ("If I were tickled by the rubs of love") is an expression that literally taken implies a split between man and being, an ideal differentiation that permits us to settle in the Welsh poet’s wide scenery, made of differentiated quick glances, of "dry worlds", "hills", "trees", "glow-worms", "oil", "seeds", "girls", "all" and "nothing".

To be an individual apart and separated from his flesh, a being ahead of his own birth and with his own course somehow already predestined, has meant to Dylan Thomas a way of planning his life, a way of conceiving the world and his own work as a great recall addressed to the entire mankind. Born in Swansea (South Wales) in 1914, he died at thirty-nine in New York in November 1953. He was not, and never wanted to be, an isolated poet, a solitary man, one of those writers that demonstrate a sort of modesty towards literature. This may appear in contrast with his exclusion from the minor or major literary movements of the twentieth century, but is not in contrast at all with the idea of a public literature, addressed to the audience and read aloud. Neither the idea of a retro and traditionalist poet can properly fit the bard of Wales and of the whole world, as he longed to be considered. Such an idea would be in contrast with his interest in cinema, radio and television. Under Milk Wood represents the high awareness of the radio play, with its characters not only set into the night and darkness, but also followed step by step into their own dreams, into the laconicism of their more intimate thoughts, so going beyond the social appearances, bringing light, sun and clarity into the shifting of the unity of time and place of the narrative. Facing the problem of writing a radio play, Thomas’s answer started from the means and the audience, from a means that couldn’t have anything broadcast but mere sound to an audience that couldn’t have seen anything but the images contained in the medium of words. It is not strange to note that in the two most important radio plays ever written in English, Under Milk Wood and Samuel Beckett’s Embers, blindness of night and sleep, or of illness, guarantees a reception of the play which meets the momentary sensorial condition of the listener. This is the beginning of Under Milk Wood:

    [Silence]

    FIRST VOICE (Very softly)

    To begin at the beginning:

    It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. All the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Dylan Thomas used darkness very often in his writings. Darkness is the synonym of "nothingness" and "antecedence", "where the maggots have their X" ("From love’s first fever to her plague"). It is employed so often that Dylan Thomas recurred to variations of it and its associated concepts as synonyms, such as "dark" and "blackness", as is the case of "innocent dark" and "guilt dark" ("This Side of the Truth") as well as "bible-black", "sloeblack" and "crowblack" above, in which "bible" reinforces the concept of atavic and divine blackness (a sort of blackness of the origins) and not only bookish (bible) and religious in a deteriorated sense, contributing to form extensive subsets from one concept (so as to give different tones of the same colour and different sentiments and feelings to each). And he arrives as far as to give a symbolic significance to dark and light in "Dark is a way and light is a place" ("Poem on his birthday"). This is possible by employing, as we can see, those neological combinations that make most of Dylan Thomas’s poetic language. This need of altering the canonical language, the langue with its prerogatives of being both social and natural, coincides with the idea of parting the being from man. The subject knows that his/her approaching man generates a new condition to him/her, caused by the transition from unity to plurality, as the poet puts it in "From love’s first fever to her plague":

    And from the first declension of the flesh
    I learnt man’s tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts
    Into the stony idiom of the brain,
    To shade and knit anew a patch of words
    Left by the dead who, in their moonless acre,
    Need no word’s warmth.
    The root of tongues ends in a spentout cancer,
    That but a name, where maggots have their X.

    I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret;
    The code of night tapped on my tongue;
    What had been one was many sounding minded.

    One womb, one mind, spewed out the matter,
    One breast gave suck to the fever’s issue;
    From the divorcing sky I learnt the double,
    The two-framed globe that spun into a score;
    A million minds gave suck to such a bud
    As forks my eye;
    Youth did condense; the tears of spring
    Dissolved in summer and the hundred seasons;
    One sun, one manna, warmed and fed.

We can observe with some profit the double value of the adjective stony, in that it means the monumentality, the establishment, the social and political rules to which a society must refer; at the same time stony refers to the tombstone, the grave, death as a predestination of the being, and "stony idiom" becomes also an epitaph, not only a regulated language, a social behaviour. The former meaning is also affirmed by "to twist the shapes of thoughts", whereas the latter fits with the individual biology that Thomas represents with the use of "flesh" and "brain", "womb", "mind", "breast", "fever" (body and mind are the two parts that a person is made of, according to Thomas epistolary with Pamela Hansford Johnson).

The whole language of Thomas is made of these multivalent terms. If the semantic value has manifold interpretations, this does not mean that it is ambiguous or contradictory. In the rare cases we find a contradiction in Thomas’s works, it always happens to be Thomas’s choice. It’s never a case due to sound overwhelming the semantic level of his poetic language.

One is induced to believe that Thomas’s writings lack somehow relevant meaning. One believes that the strong sonority of his texts, the alliterations he put in his pages, almost quibbling one with the others, have been the cause and inspiration of most of his scripts. Such an opinion is false, and meets contrary opinions by a more meticulous analysis of each text and those of his letters as, for instance, The Collected Letters, p. 327-8 (Letter to Vernon Watkins, October 14 1938). In that occasion Thomas explains why he puts "devilish" instead of "small", "turbulent" or "fugitive" in "The tombstone told when she died" (see also The Notebook Poems 1930-1934, pp. 161-3). For what concerns Thomas’s reflections on the relation between content and images, there’s much on the subject in his epistolary to Pamela Hansford Johnson, especially for what concerns delicate questions of the Thomasian criticism, for instance the pararhyme use in the strophes of Thomas’s poetry. It does not seem necessary then to face the question in this article.

It is interesting to note that moving from a gloomier poetry to one closer to polychromy, from a sort of nowhere to a environmental setting more and more underlined, Thomas’s writing has always remained complex, or at least articulated from a semantic point of view.

Not only in "Fern Hill", but even in "In my Craft or Sullen Art" that appears to have a simple structure, our interpretation must be very careful. One may wonder why, for instance, he writes:

    I write
    On these spindrift pages

and:

    I labour by singing light
    . . . for the common wages
    Of their [the lovers’] secret heart

when:

    . . . the lovers, their arms
    round the griefs of the ages,
    . . . pay no praise or wages
    Nor heed my craft or art.

What appears as an oddity represents the poet’s activity, his social function devoted to man, which has often brought critics to twist their own mouths when they read the note in the Collected Poems 1934-1952:

These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God.

What sounded faked in Thomas’s dedication was the contrast between a poet who loved to drink and chase women and this odd "love of Man". Reading Thomas’s lyrics, whose private life has been investigated as very few writers in this century, does not let appear much of his use of alcohol, excepting "This bread I break" read at least with some Dylan Thomas biography at hand.

Those critics though had better explain where does such a curiosity on topics not included in his lyrics comes from, related to an author that has been able with few others to write of the most daring subjects, laying himself open to criticism. Not in his letters, in which we find a serious young poor man with his wife and a couple of children to feed somehow, concerned or humorous, taken by his daily problems and by his reflections and expectations from the world.

At any rate, we can say though that "In My Craft or Sullen Art" deals with three main topics: death, sex and poetry. The poet writes for the lovers because he writes for society and its members. At a certain point in their life those people will become "lovers", at another moment they shall be "dead". In both cases they’ll meet a condition wherein there’s no room and no need for reading poetry, and wherein there’s such a concentration of birth and death, of origin and return to the origin (actual death and pre-conceptional activities) that they will have momentarily no need of a social language shared by an entire community (it does not seem that lovers use a very social language; in their stammering, cooing and reinventing their echolalia and glossolalia, they put meanings in which the tonal values replace the articulatory ones, forming a very efficacious private code wherein concepts of daily use are substituted by those of mutual appreciation or displeasure, mutual understanding, intention, agreement). For such a reason the images of "the towering dead" and that of "the griefs of the ages" appear in the poem. One more reason for their appearance is the sense of copulation, its touching a sphere of pre-birth, its being on the verge of copulation. The apparent contradiction of :

    the lovers . . .
    Who pay no praise or wages
    Nor heed my craft or art

is thus resolved in their being the emblem of life, reproduction and "love" of the introductory note to the Collected Poems, engendering a series of well-defined concepts, although they are expressed in an articulate manner.

It has been often said of the apocalyptic language of Thomas. He mainly adopted a Biblical style, and not necessarily apocalyptic. And he was very conscious of it. It wasn’t a momentary thematic adoption, like that of "Vision and Prayer". Christ often makes His apparition in Thomas’s texts, and represents a prefiguration of the Christian poet, since the latter cannot be a prefiguration of the advent of Christ any longer as was the case of the pre-Christian poets, prophets etc. Nevertheless he can be the prefiguration of the Second Advent, of when we will see God "facie ad faciem", according to Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians.

The exclusion of Thomas from the literary movements of the twentieth century is accompanied by a conception of Christianity completely apart from churches and institutions, with no value dictated by any man, by any institutional interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. "True poet" as he was, to use Blake’s expression on Milton, he couldn’t but converse directly with God, and be his instrument. There are many passages in Dylan Thomas’s works wherein we can observe his awareness of the importance of a Biblical language, from "It was my thirtieth year to heaven" ("Poem in October") to "I open the leaves at a passage of psalms and shadows" ("Over Sir John’s hill"), "Hymned his shrivelling flock" ("A saint about to fall"), "After the first death there is no other" ("Refusal To Mourn the Death, By fire, of a Child in London").

But Thomas’s language does not bow to a religious institutionalised creed, as was the case of T. S. Eliot. His intention was to reinterpret the language of the divinity directly, and redraw a new language accordingly. Passages such as Under Milk Wood’s "the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack" or the various puns in "Over Sir John’s hill" and "A Winter’s Tale" are glossolalia hints, spoke to or from a God, a divinity tongue that creeps into the text to put itself aside after few suspended syllables, hung in the air like the hawk flying over Sir John’s hill before and after the syllabic deflagration of:

    . . . a black cap of jack-
    Daws Sir John’s just hill dons . . .

to continue in the reaffirmed birds’ scattering flight on the same line:

    . . . hill dons, and again the gulled birds hare
    To the hawk on fire, the alter height, over Towy’s fins,
    In a whack of wind

so that the language of the community re-emerges and flow, here scattered, in the slaughtering scenery. Each word then appears in its own repeating sonority, and for a moment we feel the suspension of time, before the language takes possession again of an earthlier where and how, urban or rural as it may happen to be. Here is the voice whereby a poet does not say what to do, but judges with concern and deprecation, or utters his benevolent praises to the people and on the events. This is the poet’s role, the great mass-communicator, the witness that is also a reporter, attentive to what events are in everyone’s eyes, and in the newspaper columns.

"After the funeral" is a sort of manifesto. By the following passages one can also understand better what the "labour" of "In my Craft or Sullen Art" actually means. The poem is dedicated to Ann Jones (it’s not relevant to know that she was the poet’s aunt), a moment after the funeral:

    . . . [H]er death was a still drop;
    She would not have me sinking in the holy
    Flood of her heart’s fame; she would lie dumb and deep
    And need no druid of her broken body).
    But I, Ann’s bard on a raised hearth, call all
    The seas to service that her wood-tongued virtue
    Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads,
    Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods
    That her love sing and swing through a brown chapel,
    Bless her bent spirit with four, crossing birds.
    Her flesh was meek as milk, but this skyward statue
    With the wild breast and blessed and giant skull
    Is carved from her in a room with a wet window
    In fiercely mourning house in a crooked year.
    I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
    Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
    Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
    Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
    And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
    These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
    Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm,
    Storm me forever over her grave until
    The stuffed fox twitch and cry Love
    And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.

Here the poet is a witness of the funeral and is mindful of what Ann was like when she was still alive. The love language and the funeral language are intertwined, the event (Ann’s death and funeral) and life expectations (the life return onto the cemetery) exchange their centrality up to the last two lines, "call all" gives a light hint of glossolalia suspension, nature steps in from its deadly stillness, the poet reports the event to the living and calls for a return to life, so disclosing his human hope in the resurrection of the dead.

Hope assumes a central value in "The Conversation of Prayer". For two reasons: cyclicity and experience. What is relevant here is the cyclic condition of human experience, translated into the dislocation of two beings whose need to communicate with God has a different motive. Age gives man merely a different situation he must face at a certain moment of his life, since situations may change into what is already waiting for man in potentia. The game of death and life develops "in the dark" and on the sound of prayer. To the horizontal movement of the child corresponds the vertical movement of the adult, to a "bed" corresponds a "stair". As if suggested by a nightmare or imagination, the child’s thought expressed by his prayer "climbs" in his sleep, entering into a vertical movement wherein he immediately begins to "drown in a grief as deep as his made grave" till he himself has to ascend the "stairs to one who lies dead". Situations swap. Joy, sorrow and indifference elude the expectations. The predestination of the "grave" is not the only leading and meaningful element, there remains a "dark" in which things have to happen, in which they have to move somewhere. So "grief" does not mean simply a predestination in effect, but only in a general sense, in so far as it is a sentiment without a specific concept of objective life, without having any certainty that the lover is still alive or not. In this generational transformation there are the same elements that characterise "I dreamed my genesis". The journey of experience moves in the dark waiting for an answer, and predestination waits man, since his childhood, at the bottom of the road. Not everything is predestined as death and copulation and birth. Beyond this logic there remains the love of "Love in the Asylum", with its:

    Taken by light in her arm at long and dear last
            I may without fail
    Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.

The metaphor of man assumes all the forms of a journey of the being worn with flesh—even a seductive, brilliant and beautiful flesh—and poetry becomes the medium of expression for the being led into a social contest by his human destiny and will, by his actual existence and uncertain becoming.

For excerpts and references see the following books:
  • Collected Poems 1934-1952. New York: New Directions, 1971;
  • The Collected Letters, Ed. Paul Ferris. London: J. M. Dents & Sons, 1985;
  • The Notebook Poems 1930-1934, Ed. Ralph Maud. London: J. M. Dents & Sons, 1985;
  • Under Milk Wood. London: J. M. Dents & Sons, 1985.


[published in: Englishes, n. I/3, 1997, pp. 16-24.]




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