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:

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