Introduction to The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas
from The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (Original Edition)
Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It's no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night" is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there's a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas's poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.
Oddly, one of the main obstacles to readers immediately reaching the speed of sound, maybe even of light, is Dylan Thomas's own tabloidian history. Like some of his poems, Dylan Thomas had a habit of putting some things off, be it getting a job or paying the rent. It was, however, his not postponing an eighteenth straight whiskey in the White Horse Tavern that would lead to his death on November 9, 1953 at the age of 39. Paradoxically, it confirmed his already legendary status as the artist as old dog, the poet as shaman-bard. One's reminded of Michael Drayton's notion, expressed in his Poly-Olbion, of the furor poeticus which he associates with the Welsh bards in their "sacred rage," singing to a harp accompaniment "with furie rapt."
That sense of the history of the Welsh bard was instilled from the start in Dylan Marlais Thomas, born on October 27, 1914 in Swansea. The "Marlais" was the name used by his great uncle, William Thomas, in his own bardic forays and means something like "great blue-green." It's a name shared by two Welsh rivers, and along with the meaning of Dylan itself ("son of the sea") might be thought of as predisposing the poet to an extraordinary combination of fluency and force. We read the last line of "Fern Hill" ("Though I sang in my chains like the sea") with quite a new attentiveness.
"Fern Hill" was written in 1945, when Dylan was at the height of his powers, and might be said to be typical of his "mature" style:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
The "chains" in which this poet sings have, in some sense, been loaded upon him by himself. Like Marianne Moore, Thomas is engaged in a system of syllabics, this first stanza establishing a pattern of lines of 14, 14, 9, 6, 10, 15, 14, 7 and 9 syllables to which the poem adheres, sort of, in the highly modified way a sea might be expected to be contained by its chains. Such full end-rhymes as the poem displays ("stars" and "jars" in stanza 3, "white" and "light" in stanza 4, "long" and "songs" in stanza 5, "hand" and "land" in stanza 6) seem almost inadvertent, yet there are internal rhymes and echoes into which a lot of thought has been put. This delight in language play from line to line is a feature of Welsh prosody. We see it there in the internal rhyme on "boughs" and "about" in lines 1 and 2, or in "hail" and "heydays" in lines 4 and 5, as a kind of technical delayment, or withholding, which is at the heart of Dylan Thomas's formal method.
Another example of this may be found in the term "heydays" in stanza 1, which anticipates the days spent making "hay," both the subjects of stanzas 3 and 5. Such punning, which is itself another form of delayment in the sense of "hindrance," where one meaning of a word intervenes before another, may be found in a word like "lilting," which rather neatly combines the sense of a house in which one might hear someone "sing cheerfully or merrily" (OED) as well as a house that is "tilting." A more conventional form of punning is available in the word "down," which extends to both the senses of "descending direction" and "any substance of a feathery or fluffy nature" such as that one might find on barley, the word with which it is violently enjambed. Those "whiskers" that are a feature of barley bring to mind the beardless condition of someone who is "young and easy."
The combination of the words "down" and "young and easy" conjures up a setting which might be described as a diorama for "Fern Hill." It's the setting of W. B. Yeats's beautiful lyric "Down By the Salley Gardens," in which there is a great deal of shared vocabulary with the first stanza of "Fern Hill," including not only "down," "young," and "easy" but also "trees," "leaves," "river," and "grass." A Yeatsian influence extends to the "apple boughs" in line 1, apple boughs being a feature of any number of Yeats poems including "The Song of the Wandering Aengus," in which Aengus proposes to pluck "the silver apples of the moon, / the golden apples of the sun." The word "wanderer" appears in stanza 4 of "Fern Hill," while the first word of line 5 in both stanzas 1 and 2 is "golden". The fact that Thomas establishes such a pattern in stanzas 1 and 2, just as he uses the phrase "happy as the heart was long" at the end of line 2 of stanza 5, replicating the phrase "happy as the grass was green" at the end of line 2 of stanza 1, suggests that he might have harbored Yeatsian ambitions in the business of stanza-making. Again, it's an ambition he defers.
The spirit of Yeats is not the only one that threatens to loom between us and our capacity to read Dylan Thomas in his craft or sullen art:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Written in 1945, "In my craft or sullen art" owes much to W H. Auden's "Lullaby," written in 1937, with which it shares some key vocabulary— "lie," "arms," "night," "heart" —as well as the 7-syllable line count and something of the rhythm of part III of Auden's 1939 "In Memory of W. B. Yeats":
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
This rhythm is, of course, derived from Yeats's own "Under Ben Bulben":
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made.
The "trade" has itself been lifted wholesale from "Under Ben Bulben" to the "trade of charms," while the "strut" in the same line may be traced to "there struts Hamlet" of "Lapis Lazuli," a poem in which the rhyme "rages / stages" appears as in "In my craft or sullen art." "Strut" is a word that has a walk-on part, as it were, in another of Thomas's greatest poems, "After the funeral," with its stunning closing:
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm,
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
Although something of the power of that image is diminished if one remembers the "fern-seed footprints" so delicately made by Marianne Moore's "The Jerboa," which had appeared in her Selected Poems of 1935, it nonetheless represents Thomas at his own swaggering best.
This tendency towards brashness, along with those towards bluster and browbeating, may account for the slightly reticent quality of Marianne Moore's comments on him for the issue of The Yale Review that coincided with the first anniversary of Thomas's death. In November 1954, Moore described Thomas in a kind of boilerplate praise-speak:
He was true to his gift and he had a mighty power, indigenously accurate like nature's. And his mechanism at times is as precise as the content.
There seems to be a suggestion on the part of Moore (underscored by her own uncharacteristically lumpish prose) that there's another type of delayment all too often to be found in Dylan Thomas which has to do with his style more often than not hampering his subject-matter, only occasionally allowing a poem to sing out of its chains.
Even when a single stretch of a poem by Dylan Thomas is muddied by its influences, including the omnipresent Joyce, extending to usages such as "dingle" and "windfall" and the funster garbling of "happy as the grass was green" and "once below a time," there is nonetheless something sweet and clear and refreshing flowing through that same stretch. We find it in the gorgeous "And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns," which comes off the page as being oddly balanced rather than bodacious, as Dylan Thomas and no one else.
Dylan Thomas once remarked of posterity that its function should be "to look after itself." As part of our looking after ourselves we should acknowledge the possibility that what has sometimes come between Thomas's poems and our capacity to read them is as much our own sense of being "lordly" over his being "loudly," a fashionable looking down one's nose at his tendency towards high spirits, including those legendary eighteen straight whiskies. When we tear away the tabloidian tissue there is revealed a poet who has overcome so much—his influences, his being under the influence—that our impulse to reach for him when our own sense of the world is obstructed or obscured turns out to have been well founded.
About the Author
Paul Muldoon is Howard G. B. Clark '21 Professor at Princeton University and Chair of the Peter B. Lewis Center for the Arts, as well as poetry editor of the New Yorker. He has published several volumes of poetry, including The Annals of Chile (1994), Hay (1998), Horse Latitudes (2006), and Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), for which he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.