A Terrible Thing, Thank God

Adam Phillips

  • Dylan Thomas: A New Life by Andrew Lycett
    Weidenfeld, 434 pp, £20.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 297 60793 6

Kingsley Amis called Dylan Thomas’s life, the life told by Thomas’s first thorough biographer Paul Ferris, ‘a hilarious, shocking, sad story’. Thomas was very important to the Amis-Larkin club partly because he seemed determined not to be seen to be taking anything, including himself, too seriously. In 1941, Larkin refers to Thomas coming to the English Club at Oxford: ‘Hell of a fine man: little, snubby, hopelessly pissed bloke who made hundreds of cracks and read parodies of everybody in appropriate voices.’ But as a poet Thomas was a significant puzzle to Larkin. ‘I think there is no man in England now who can "stick words into us like pins” … like he can,’ he wrote to Amis in 1948, ‘but he doesn’t use his words to any advantage. I think a man ought to use good words to make what he means impressive: Dylan Thos. just makes you wonder what he means, very hard.’ What, if anything, Dylan Thomas’s poems meant; and what, if anything, his life as a poet meant to him seems to have been as confounding to Thomas and the people who knew him as it has been to his readers and his biographers. Several friends and acquaintances of Thomas quoted in this new but not new enough biography talk about Thomas’s ‘sweetness’ as a man: but so many more, including the biographer himself, are suspicious of him and what he was really up to. Like all very amusing people, he made people wary; he had so many appropriate and inappropriate voices, and couldn’t always tell them apart. If the disapproval he seems fated to meet in his biographers is to be more than some soppy nostalgia for a lost dignity, something new has to be said about why bad behaviour is also often impressive.

‘I know what you’re thinking, you poor little milky creature,’ Polly Garter says to her baby in Under Milk Wood. ‘You’re thinking, you’re no better than you should be, Polly, and that’s good enough for me. Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?’ Dylan Thomas’s biographers have mostly thought of him as a big baby – ‘infantile’ is Andrew Lycett’s preferred word, though he has others – who was nothing like as good as he should have been; and whose life, a terrible thing with all its fecklessness and boozing and blathering, was redeemed only by the extraordinary things that were his poems. Because being interested in bad behaviour often makes people feel rather complicit – is, indeed, one of the safer ways of behaving badly oneself – Thomas’s many biographers have tended to be rather too moralistic where they might have been a little more curious. Clearly, choosing Thomas as one’s subject is not going to be a good idea if disapproval is the best one can do; when people are not all that they might be – and Thomas seems to have been something of a genius at getting people to imagine what he might have been if he hadn’t been who he was – it is too self-regarding to be merely disappointed or contemptuous. So when Lycett refers to Thomas as ‘a snivelling wreck’ as he begins to collapse on one of the reckless reading tours of America which eventually killed him, and then qualifies this with ‘– a not unprecedented fate among poets (Chatterton and Rimbaud were earlier examples), but Dylan’s troubles seemed self-inflicted’ – we are in no doubt that there are things Lycett just won’t put up with. The trouble is that he doesn’t like so many of the things that were part of Thomas – excessive, insistent drinking, compulsive facetiousness, schoolboy lechery, marital violence, sponging, stealing his host’s shirts etc. It might be misleading to think of Thomas as the Genet of Swansea, but it’s worth taking seriously his evident pleasure in his life as a terrible thing; and his sense that there was nothing much to him except his poems. And that that was the point and not the problem.

Every distinctive poet notices something new about the language: Thomas’s notion was that if you looked after the sound it didn’t matter whether the sense took care of itself; that it was possible to write great poems without worrying too much what they meant. The pleasure one gets from a Thomas poem has nothing to do with the pleasure of working it out or even the sense that one day one will be able to work it out; and because it isn’t just a matter of time before you get it – as is the case, say, with John Ashbery – you can’t get much literary criticism out of a Thomas poem. (Nothing reveals the banality of paraphrase more than a commentary on one of his poems; his best critics – Empson, Lowell, MacNeice – are inclined to say that they don’t know what can be said.) So for those people in the 1930s and 1940s who wanted poetry either to replace religion as a source of belief, or to restore an eloquence to politics – people who had grown up on Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden – Thomas was a fascinating phenomenon, a poet who wrote (some) utterly convincing poems from which no one could extract any kind of message. Either this was poetry as a new kind of consolation – without belief or prophecy, a music of words without ideas – or it was fraudulent, the poetry of a con artist, the work of a man who Paul Ferris, still Thomas’s best biographer, referred to as ‘a chronic liar’. Writing Thomas’s biography, in other words, was always going to be unusually challenging for anyone who believed that people should behave reasonably well, that poems should have meanings, and that they have something to do with the lives of the poets who write them. ‘Dylan Thomas is now as much a case history,’ Seamus Heaney began his wonderful Oxford lecture, ‘Dylan the Durable?’, ‘as a chapter in the history of poetry.’ In this dutifully chronological new biography it’s not obvious what Thomas was a case history of, and no real case is made for the poetry, or for the history of which the poetry is such an important part.

One of the most interesting things about Thomas was the amount of hope invested in him by other, often younger poets. For MacNeice and Empson and Larkin and W.S. Graham – and for Lowell and Berryman and Jarrell in America – Thomas was the real but inexplicable thing. And yet all of them in different ways were baffled about what it was that they had recognised and were celebrating. ‘Nothing could be more wrongheaded,’ Lowell wrote in 1947, ‘than the English disputes about Dylan Thomas’s greatness . . . He is a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.’ It wasn’t that he was trying to write archly ineffable poems, or the then fashionable Sitwellian waffle (though Edith Sitwell, to her credit, was one of Thomas’s most consistent admirers), but that his poems sounded uniquely eloquent and unpretentious and mystifying. Modern poems in 1936 did not have lines in them like ‘The insect certain is the plague of fables’ or sonnets that opened with such couplets as:

Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway-house

The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.

The first two books, Eighteen Poems (1934) and Twenty-Five Poems (1936), described by Empson as ‘overwhelmingly good, though one resisted them because one couldn’t see why’, sounded a bit like Hopkins, who Thomas claimed to have barely read, and a bit like Shakespeare, who his father, an English teacher, had read to him from birth; but they only really sounded like Thomas. And, unusually for an ambitious young poet of the time, Thomas was not trying too hard to be original: there just seemed to be something he could do with words that no one else could do. He was, in that sense, tailor-made for the romantic myth of the poet as self-fashioned genius, arch-improvisor and breaker of traditions. Determinedly impoverished and unworldly – Lycett is very good on Thomas’s way with, and, more usually, without money – and always impervious to notions of formal education or sexual fidelity, he turned the myth of the poet into a cartoon; more bohemian than the bohemians, he lived the myth by caricaturing it. In fact, the tradition Thomas most wanted to break with, and which makes his life so interesting and so poignant, was the nobility of the poet. He taunted people with his disreputableness and mocked anything that smacked of self-regard, anyone bewitched by their own dignity. This often made him ungenerous about other ‘great’ poets and turned his life into increasingly reckless performance art, an art calculated to distract attention from the poems.

Thomas didn’t have to go on about the impersonality of his poems (or of poetry in general), didn’t have to tell anyone that the man who sat down for breakfast was quite different from the man who wrote the poetry. In his best work, which is always his least intelligible, nothing is being owned up to; there is neither self-concealment nor self-confession. There is no poet whose (best) poems are less suited to biographical explanation, which are indeed defined by this very fact. But the way the poems resist biography, and the ways in which the poet in his life encouraged biographical speculation by his very public misdemeanours, make him an unusually interesting candidate for a new Life. He is a test case for that death of the author that spells the death of the biographer. Thomas, Kenneth Tynan remarked, was ‘a surly little pug, but a master of pastiche and invective. Thinks himself the biggest and best phoney of all time, and may be right!’ Anyone skilled as Thomas was at eliciting other people’s prejudices; anyone who can make people wonder so much about his own authenticity; anyone with what he himself called ‘the familiar Thomas puffed innocence’ would seem to be peculiarly topical in a celebrity culture.

The story of Thomas’s life – he died in 1953, at the age of 39 – is relatively well known, and Lycett adds nothing startling to it. By the age of 20, he seems to have written most of his best poetry, if only in rudimentary form. His first two published books, which virtually made his reputation, were mostly reworkings of the extraordinary teenage poems he wrote in notebooks. Until he moved to London in 1933 he lived with his parents and older sister in the now famous 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in a middle-class suburb of Swansea. He had an undistinguished career at school: though he was a notoriously good actor and mimic, he was not academic. He worked on a local newspaper after leaving school but preferred to spend his time, when not obsessively writing his poems, drinking and chatting with his friends, some of whom were arty, and devoting himself to his hypochondria. He was nothing special, by all accounts, but he was very entertaining, and quite rude and embarrassing given the chance. By 1937, at the age of 23, he had published two remarkable books of poems, made the beginnings of an extraordinary reputation in literary London – a reputation for poetry, drinking, promiscuity and general unreliability – and married Caitlin Macnamara, who, as she made sure everyone knew, gave as good as she got.

But before his marriage – that is, during his childhood and adolescence – the only thing that seemed remarkable about Thomas was his poetry. Ferris had said as much in 1977: ‘The problem for anyone wishing to chronicle the first 15 years of Thomas’s life is that the outward episodes were essentially trivial, of the kind common to many childhoods, while inwardly the odd process of becoming a poet was in progress.’ Even the inwardly bit is tricky when the only real sign of becoming a poet is beginning to write poems. Like lots of children Thomas wrote poetry, but unlike lots of children he published a poem written by someone else under his own name in a local paper (perhaps as a child he thought writing poetry meant putting your name to a poem – whoever had written it). Ferris’s refusal to be super-subtle or overly psychological about Thomas’s childhood at least has the merit of not trying to rig up some inevitability about who he turned out to be. This is particularly important in Thomas’s case because the evidence doesn’t add up to much. Lycett doesn’t give him too poetic a childhood either, but by entitling his second chapter ‘A Precocious Childhood’, for example, he promises rather more than the available material can deliver. He may well have been ‘a petulant child . . . who cried, would not sleep, and had difficulty keeping food down’, with ‘a talent for getting into scraps’. He was almost certainly, as Ferris among others has recounted, indulged by a doting, anxious, unliterary mother, and intimidated and encouraged by his morose, unfulfilled, English-teaching, literature-loving, unsmiling father. But the reader looking for clues as to why so many naughty boys don’t turn into Dylan Thomas will be stumped. Where, if anywhere worth trying to describe, the poetry – the ‘innumerable exercise books of poems’ that Thomas referred to in a letter to Geoffrey Grigson in 1933 – came from is no clearer. He began writing seriously around the age of 16, and there were, it seems, ten books of which four survived. The biography tells us nothing substantive about what made for the poems, or what we might make of them. All we really know is that in the first half of his life he became a poet, and in the second half of his life, roughly speaking after his marriage, he performed being a poet. His marriage may be worth a biography; his early life isn’t. What is interesting is how he responded to being the poet that he was, not how he became that poet.

Once Dylan married Caitlin – a dancer of Irish descent, and a model and former lover of Augustus John, who became a friend of sorts to the couple – promiscuity turned into infidelity; and it sounds, from both his accounts and hers (she wrote two books about what is euphemistically referred to as their ‘stormy’ relationship), as if her many infidelities were largely retaliatory. During the war he was away in London cadging money, working on film scripts and making broadcasts; and she was left with the children, the ever present rumours of his disreputable life, and the begging letters, pledging eternal love and demanding eternal forgiveness. The four now infamous postwar reading tours of America were more of the same, except that there he seems to have had two genuine love affairs, rather than the usual series of harried encounters. Lycett, like Ferris, and like John Malcolm Brinnin before them in Dylan Thomas in America (1956), makes his time as a star in America sound at once squalid and futile, above all to Thomas himself. But he seems to have known that when he talked of doing things for the money he was always talking about something else. He was usually talking about finding a way to leave the family. That is, his relationship with Caitlin, like his relationship with himself, was only viable if there was enough absence to sustain it.

He seems always to have been unsettled by his own company, so there was something compulsive about his sociability. But when he was writing, he couldn’t entirely keep away from himself. What recurs most hauntingly in Lycett’s sober, informative account are Thomas’s own words, well quoted, about how troubled and suspicious he was of his talent for what he called his ‘little Wilde words’. It is worth considering, though Lycett doesn’t, why it’s Wilde who is called on here; why Thomas had already at a very young age begun to feel that his facility undid him. ‘Thomas’s poetry is turned on like a tap,’ Stephen Spender wrote, and Thomas feared as much. ‘It is just poetic stuff,’ Spender said, ‘with no beginning or end, shape, or intelligent and intelligible control.’ Incontinence was not supposed to be a mark of talent; and Thomas couldn’t help being intimidated by poetry’s costive presiding judges. He was too fluent, and came to no conclusions; according to Spender, he hadn’t learned how to write real poems. There had to be something disingenuous about him. ‘Give me pen and paper,’ he writes in a letter of 1932 (he is 18), ‘the trick’s done: a thousand conceits, couched in a hermit’s language, spoiling the whiteness of the page.’ This is stagy, but it expresses the terror of a certain ease. He worked extremely hard at his poetry, as everyone who knew him attests, and many of them are quoted in this book. But they all seem to have underestimated how baffled he was by his gift. Poetry, ‘the spinster’s friend’, was much mocked by Thomas, but writing it was the only thing that wholly engaged him; and for much of his life, apart from those miraculous few years of late adolescence, he could barely write it, or write it in the way he wanted to.

As a young man it was as though his words had an ambition for him that he could not have for himself. He was a failed schoolboy, leaving as soon and sooner than he could; he was, briefly, a failed journalist (one of his editors described his time on the South Wales Daily Post as ‘entertaining, but a sore trial to the chief reporter’); and he was, in his own eyes, a failure as a husband and provider. And the one thing he could and wanted to do made him more absolutely distrust himself than anything else he did. His writing, at its best, made him more not less doubtful of his own authenticity. In self-deception there has to be a self that is doing the deceiving. Thomas suffered and enjoyed his own writing as a form of self-deception but the deceiver himself was absent; there was no one who knew what he was doing. He had a good ear but a bad character, or perhaps no character at all. This was what he tried to clown and seduce and drink his way out of; and Caitlin seems to have been the perfect accomplice for his inner vagrancy. His friend Fred Janes referred to him as ‘tremendously restless, coming and going at all times, now a furious burst of work, often sitting up in bed with his hat and coat on to keep warm’.

He could never settle anywhere; in his early twenties his life was more or less an extended pub-crawl round London and the parts of Wales he had either grown up in or was pretending to explore with a view to writing about – which he never did. As a married man with three children, he moved regularly between Oxford, London, Hampshire and his beloved Laugharne in Camarthenshire; and all the many houses he lived in belonged to other people. The ‘Welsh sponger’, as he is referred to at one point in Lycett’s book, moved around ostensibly in search of work, or in search of a place to work, even in 1949 going to Prague as a guest of the Czech government (according to Lycett, he gave ‘a cringing speech about his respect for the Czech revolution’), and in 1951 to Iran to make a film for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Like a lot of very homesick people he liked the idea of home rather more than home itself, and much of his remarkable correspondence is about not really wanting to be wherever he is; wanting desperately to get back to Caitlin and the children, but doing whatever he can to delay his return. He didn’t want to be marooned, but he needed a pretext to leave. His close friend, the poet Vernon Watkins, said that he would always ‘walk up to the tallest man in uniform in the pub and insult him, his country and the war so grossly that almost inevitably a fight developed’. He would do what he could to get people to get rid of him, to punish him, to stop him having to stay for too long. ‘I disliked Dylan Thomas intensely,’ A.J.P. Taylor wrote – and he had more reason than most because his wife, Margaret, desired and financially supported Thomas for much of his short life. ‘He was cruel. He was a sponger even when he had money of his own. He went out of his way to hurt people who helped him.’

Even among those who loved and liked him the consensus seems to have been that Thomas took what he could get, i.e. provoked people and moved on. ‘Who kills my history?’ begins the last stanza of ‘Then Was My Neophyte’, one of Thomas’s greatest poems. Killing a history, or the supposed continuities that sustain it, was part of Thomas’s resolutely anti-biographical life. More driven by what he calls (in a poem called ‘Unluckily for a Death’) ‘a fate got luckily’, he tried to free himself of a life of good intentions; not because he believed in such a life, or was capable of living one, but because it seemed to be the only life available to him. The shrewd earthiness of Thomas’s poetry keeps reminding us that shame has ecstasies all of its own. No one was more public about his own abjections and objections; no one more determinedly ridiculous. With what Lycett calls, rightly, his ‘fall-guy innocence’, Thomas wanted the joke to be on him (‘On one occasion Dylan managed to stab himself in the eye, eating a plate of meatballs’). And the readings for which he became so famous sound rather more like a parody of poetic grandeur, their hamminess embarrassing in its absurdity. It’s hard to believe he didn’t know this, and secretly enjoy the fatuousness of it all.

So Lycett, like Thomas’s previous biographers, often grasps at straws to make Thomas sound like a (conventionally) substantial person, a man with qualities, rather than just a dubious character, the drunken slapstick bard with ‘one pleasure he never tired of – the sound of his own voice’. And there are three obvious – or at any rate available – ways to make Thomas into a more conventional character. First, and perhaps most obviously (partly because Thomas himself was so adept at milking it and mocking it, usually at the same time), there is his Welshness, which means both his family history, and his feeling for the Welsh bardic tradition. ‘He said he knew nothing about Welsh bardic poetry,’ Aneirin Talfan Davies, his Welsh radio producer, said, ‘but I often talked to him about it. You have to be wary of Dylan – he was always laying false trails.’ He was certainly the kind of man you would be able to talk to often about things he knew nothing about; and it would not, strictly speaking, be true to say that his Welshness was a false trail. It was just one of the facts about his life that he played his own kind of havoc with. It is true, for example, as Lycett reports, that his great uncle Gwilym Marles was a minister and bardic writer at Llwynrhydowen; and his life, too, ‘was characterised by an unstable mixture of emotional exuberance and deep depression’. But Welshness, like virtually everything else of any moment in Thomas’s life, was used as a non sequitur; he was canny enough to resist the considerable pressure he was under, from both the literary and the political company he kept, to take it too seriously. It was more like the fashion accessory of a character he wasn’t that interested in. ‘I want to be in Wales, but it offers me nothing at all,’ he wrote to a Welsh friend, Keidrych Rhys, deadpan as ever about himself and his wants. He knew just how Welsh people wanted him to be, and anything people wanted him to be he could make use of. In what he called his ‘impermanent, oscillating, ragbag character’, Welshness was a performance rather than a passion. When he talked about Wales he was talking about himself, the self that wasn’t there.

The second way of making Thomas seem more ordinary is linked to his supposed Welshness: it is the possibility, apparently validated by the biblical diction of his poetry, that he was, however eccentrically, a religious man. ‘The Welshness of my poetry,’ he wrote to Henry Treece, ‘is often being mentioned in reviews and criticism, and I’ve never understood why’: certainly it would have been understandable if Wales, ‘this hymnal blob’ as he called it, had produced a genuinely religious poet in an increasingly secular age. But what Lycett calls Thomas’s ‘dizzying theology’ has more to do with language than with belief: where other people saw vision, Thomas only heard extraordinary eloquence. And he was unusually explicit in his rejection of Christ as a model for the artist. ‘The artistic consciousness is there or it isn’t,’ he wrote to a friend in 1933. ‘Suffering is not going to touch it.’ This alone, if it were to be taken with the kind of seriousness he distrusted, makes Thomas a radically secular writer. He liked what words could do to people when they didn’t make them believe anything.

The third recourse for the biographer would be to legitimate Thomas through an account of his reading; modern poets, after Eliot, were supposed to be inspired students of the many traditions of European and other literatures. The curriculum was vast, and the creature was weak and distractible; but modern poetry was all about the family romance with other writers. Declaring important influences was second only to writing the poems. So when Thomas was asked to play the modern influence game and declare his allegiances, he was characteristically shrewd, candid and trail-laying without pretending to be trail-blazing: Peele, Webster, Beddoes, Clare, Lawrence, Tennyson, and ‘some very bad Flecker and, of course, a lot of bits from whatever fashionable poetry . . . I’d been reading lately’. The Elizabethans, after Eliot’s strictures, were de rigueur, but Thomas is also eager to keep it haphazard – and to imply that the question is not one he is that bothered by. From Lycett, and from Ferris before him, it is clear that he was a refreshingly uncommitted reader, preferring to drink and talk and live on the run. His tastes were interesting – he loved Wozzeck, for example, and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood was one of his ‘special books’, and Harpo was his favourite Marx brother – but self-education, like most other available forms of self-improvement, was not Thomas’s bag. He wasn’t interested in reading-lists, and he needed this to be known. But he managed to make a boast out of what many people were a little too keen to think of as a cultural inferiority complex. So when he describes his own poetry in a letter as ‘like a walled city with many gates, it doesn’t really matter which door you go in by – in fact it doesn’t matter a tinker’s toss if you don’t go in at all,’ Lycett is keen to tell us that Thomas added, ‘disingenuously’, that poetry was not the most important thing in his life. ‘Frankly,’ Thomas said, ‘I’d much rather lie in a hot bath sucking boiled sweets and reading Agatha Christie.’

But it’s more likely that he wasn’t being disingenuous at all: indeed, much of Lycett’s account would lead us to take Thomas at his word. He wrote with a great deal of care some great poetry, but for much of his life the reading and writing of poetry don’t in fact seem to have been very important to him. If his life as a poet reveals anything about his biographers it is how bewitched they, and we, are by the idea of the vocational life. The game he played was the game of not playing the game of the Christ-like artist. To read him as a man who always preferred poetry to boiled sweets, as a man who evaded adult responsibility for childish comforts, is merely another way of idealising the artist’s life. Most of Thomas’s so-called behaviour was also a targeting of the pieties of the bohemian writer’s life; the poet, Thomas wants us to know, is an idiot, not a holy or even an unholy fool. He keeps saying – possibly because it was true – that poetry only sometimes mattered to him: that the life of the poet, his life as a poet, could only be lived as farce. The poet is a comic figure now because his poetry is not funny. He didn’t have a theory about this because he didn’t have theories – or not that kind – but he had noticed something. It was becoming increasingly difficult for poets to take themselves and what they did at all seriously. Poetry might matter to people who liked poetry, but it wasn’t important.