Everything is good news
- The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The New Centenary Edition edited by John Goodby
Weidenfeld, 416 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 297 86569 8
- Under Milk Wood: The Definitive Edition edited by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud
Phoenix, 208 pp, £7.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 78022 724 5
- Collected Stories by Dylan Thomas
Phoenix, 384 pp, £8.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 78022 730 6
- A Dylan Thomas Treasury: Poems, Stories and Broadcasts
Phoenix, 186 pp, £7.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 78022 726 9
Dylan Thomas’s foredoomed premature death feels intrinsic to his late romanticism, part of what made him the ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, as he labelled himself. But he could have escaped the legend to which he had devoted such energies. As Paul Ferris’s excellent biography established some time back, while Thomas was certainly in a bad way, his death was down to a medical blunder. He wasn’t martyred by the barbarians of the Inland Revenue: by the time he died Thomas was on the verge of being what he had never been before – a success. A collaboration with Stravinsky was planned: they were to work on an opera set in a post-nuclear age in which the world was to be invented again from scratch, possibly with the help of aliens. Thomas’s interest in film, which had begun during the war, was well developed and he continued to concoct ideas for movies: he hoped they would make money, of course, but it wasn’t only the money that drew him. He was very keen at one stage on a project unpromisingly called ‘Me and My Bike’; and he actually finished a screenplay, quite a good one, about the body-snatchers Burke and Hare. His friend William Empson remembered him speaking in detail about a film he wanted to make about the life of Dickens, ‘very profound and very box office’, as Empson remembered it, adding loyally: ‘If Dylan had lived a normal span of life it would have been likely to mean a considerable improvement of quality in the entertainment profession.’ Talks on BBC Radio had started to turn him into a lucrative personality: his reminiscences of a Welsh childhood hit something very like the note of hard whimsy that would later make Betjeman the nation’s favourite. ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, based on a talk for Children’s Hour and a piece for Picture Post, became one of Thomas’s most popular works, and there was plenty more where that came from. He had already appeared on television twice (no recordings survive). Everyone recognised the new departure represented by Under Milk Wood, which brilliantly occupied a space between poetry and popular entertainment. ‘A radio comedy about Wales’, as he once referred to it, it was one of those works which become an old favourite while still brand new. And finally, America adored him. Geoffrey Grigson, an early supporter and subsequently an astringent critic, thought Thomas appealed especially to ‘persons of a kind needing shots of the notion of art as others need shots of insulin, of a kind put on heat by the slightest contact with artists of any nature’; ‘America proved fantastically full of such people,’ Grigson judged bleakly.
If it hadn’t been for the alcohol, his widow, Caitlin, once remarked, Thomas would have made a splendid old man; but had he survived, he would have made an odd fit with old age. He was one of those types whose attraction he had analysed, with a barely covert sense of a career plan, in an early prose piece about the poets of Swansea: ‘Those around whom a world of lies and legends has been woven, those half-mythical artists whose real characters become cloaked for ever under a veil of the bizarre’. A big part of Thomas’s myth was his perpetual boyhood. Everyone thought of him as a child, including himself – ‘the shape of a boy, and a funny boy at that’, as he told his early lover Pamela Hansford Johnson. ‘I’m like a baby in the dark,’ he explained to Henry Treece, an Apocalyptic poet who wrote the first critical book about him, and with whom Thomas had a long and revealing correspondence. Being infantile was useful as a would-be disarming way of acknowledging his worldly incompetence: ‘These apologies, we both know, are child’s play to make and we’re not children,’ he wrote in his last year, having mucked things up with yet another publisher, ‘(though I feel, sometimes, even now, as useless as a fat child in a flood).’ But his child complex was more than a strategy. Caitlin said he liked to think of them both as ‘two terrible children’. And he certainly could be terrible: his misdemeanours were many, sometimes colourful and usually involved a reversion to the style of his childhood, in which he was naughty and incorrigible. ‘He was a bugger for wine gums,’ a schoolfriend said of his gifts as a shoplifter. I think the apogee of his dreadfulness was his failure to show up at the wedding of Vernon Watkins, one of his most supportive and devoted friends, to whom he was meant to be best man. His belated letter of apology – written in what Grigson described as his ‘pre-adolescent, unpersuasive hand’ – is a document in the history of human disgrace; and although the saintly Watkins forgave him, his wife, Gwen, was less easily moved. ‘I always felt the seeds of destruction were there, that he couldn’t grow up.’ An evening down the pub with him would become wearisome, according to one of his drinking partners, as soon as Dylan got to the stage of wanting to play at being a dog. He had reached that stage when E.M.W. Tillyard encountered him at a party in an undergraduate’s rooms in Cambridge in 1937: Tillyard remembered that Thomas ‘spent his time crawling under the table and round the furniture, making vague animal noises. He was entirely good-natured, and was kept happy by an occasional stroke of the head or a pat on the back.’
Such donnish tolerance was rare. The most ferocious analyst of his immaturity was probably David Holbrook, whose account of Thomas’s ‘infantile egocentricity’ in Llareggub Revisited (1962) represents a high-water mark of Leavisite moralism. Thomas shows ‘an impotence of language belonging to an impotence in living’, Holbrook said, and quoted Grigson’s view with approval: ‘His poetry as near as may be is the poetry of a child, volcanic, and unreasoning.’ These remarks pick up on Thomas’s own line in self-representation, a fascination with premature experience which was manifest not just in his life and letters but in his poems too. ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green’: no modern poet has written with a more intent exuberance about what he called ‘the twice told fields of infancy’. The intoxication of this condition comes from not yet having to be grown up. He was accordingly moved by the thought of a childhood suspended, as in one of his wartime masterpieces, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’. The death of a little girl in the bombing is at once terrible and a liberation from getting old:
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
The lines manage to portray death as a marvellous place for a game of hide and seek without a suspicion of mawkishness or false consolation.
The dead girl at least managed to be born. Many of Thomas’s best and most deeply absorbed poems inhabit a mysterious imaginative space that seems to predate experience altogether, or somehow trembles on the edge of it. He shared with Beckett a fascination with the thought that, as Mrs Rooney says in All That Fall, a person might never really have been born. Perhaps he felt that way about himself: Ferris reports the astute remark made by one of Thomas’s lovers, that there was ‘a curious sense of unreality about Dylan’s personality’, that he was ‘always building it up and reassembling it – almost as if he didn’t believe in himself, not as a complete person.’ His hit-and-miss genius lay in those moments when he made a personal sense of unreality into charismatic verse. Faced with a poem that begins ‘Light breaks where no sun shines;/Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart/Push in their tides,’ Glyn Jones, a sceptical friend, ventured that it ‘probably expresses something pretty trite and commonplace, in prose terms, about the foetus and the pre-natal state’. That puts it harshly, but Jones was shrewd to pick up on the feeling in the lines, in which different possibilities somehow co-exist in a riddling state of as yet unrealised potentiality. Treece was more sympathetic to the ‘pre-natal magic, so tenderly evoked’ that informs many of the best poems – such as ‘If My Head Hurt a Hair’s Foot,’ a marvellously odd anti-dialogue between a mother and her about to be born baby. The child is anxious not to cause pain and offers not to come out at all. No, the mother replies, you must come; but the appeal of life outside hardly sounds irresistible:
Now to awake husked of gestures and my joy like a cave
To the anguish and carrion, to the infant forever unfree,
O my lost love bounced from a good home …
The poem ends with the child about to emerge – ‘the endless beginning of prodigies suffers open,’ the mother says, evidently anticipating a life filled by her prodigal son’s antics.
Many of Thomas’s poems grew from verse he had first written in exercise books, at an astonishing rate, between the ages of 15½ and 19. His first book, Eighteen Poems (1934), mostly contained things written in the months before publication; his second, Twenty-Five Poems (1936), included material from the early notebooks; and he continued to draw on them until as late as 1941, when, short of money as always, he sold them to the enterprising State University of New York at Buffalo. Caitlin grew impatient with Thomas in his final years for seeming to do nothing but rehash his adolescence, but that lost self seems to have been the wellspring of his best writing: by his own admission, Thomas found poetry harder and harder to write as he grew older, and revisiting his earlier self was one way through. His revisions were sometimes light, sometimes very thorough, and seem to me to have been consistently well judged. ‘After the Funeral’, a poem about his dead aunt, was, as first written in 1933, loftily disdainful about the shallow performances of grief: ‘Another well of rumours and cold lies/Has dried, and one more joke has lost its point.’ But as recast and extended in 1938 it became much richer and finer, at once commemorating the unsentimentalised reality of the dead woman (‘her scrubbed and sour humble hands’) and also transforming her into a priestess of natural magic (‘that her wood-tongued virtue/Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads’).
Childhood for Thomas, as for Wordsworth, was a collection of formative episodes, but it was also associated with a particular philosophical position, of which the dead aunt’s magic is one expression. ‘Thomas is not an intellectual poet,’ Treece wrote, and this view seems to have lodged in the minds of many readers; but, as Empson pointed out on several occasions, there are actually a small number of notions that deeply inform Thomas’s poetry. Like most of his generation, he felt exasperated with Wordsworth, ‘the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods’, as he told Hansford Johnson, but he admired what he called ‘the pantheistic creed expressed in “Tintern Abbey”’; and there was some comfort to be drawn from Wordsworth’s example as one who ‘can write of mysticism without being a mystic’. The lines from ‘Tintern Abbey’ he had in mind are numinous and abstract, an evocation of pantheistic emotion:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
I think this is one of the places Thomas starts, with the intuition of, in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘the latency of all in each’. The idea threatens a comfily inclusive anti-individualism which accepts everything as good news. Wordsworth would have had a very different view of the all-encompassing spirit of nature, Aldous Huxley remarked, if he had had to fight off poisonous bugs in the rainforest; and, certainly, the position lends itself readily enough to cheerful philistine parody: ‘I am the batsman and the bat,/I am the bowler and the ball,’ as Andrew Lang put it, sending up Emerson. Thomas once told Treece that ‘I think a squirrel stumbling at least of equal importance as Hitler’s invasions, murders in Spain, the Garbo-Stokowski romance, royalty, Horlicks, lynch law, pit disasters, Joe Louis, wicked capitalists, saintly communists, democracy, the Ashes, the Church of England, birth control, Yeats’s voice … ’ He is showing off, but something like that collapsing of normally distinct categories enabled the startlingly foreshortened perspectives and abrupt cuts of his poetry.
His great stroke of intuitive brilliance, to put things over-schematically, lay in combining a Wordsworthian perception of allness with a nervously acute, sometimes gothic sense of physical repulsion. He could not have known about T.S. Eliot’s roughly contemporary attempts to do something similar (perhaps even creepier) with the pantheist idiom – ‘I am the husband and the wife/And the victim and the sacrificial knife/I am the fire and the butter also’ – for they would lie buried for years among unpublished manuscripts; but he shared Eliot’s instinct that the full vision needed the horror and the boredom as well as the encompassing glory. To be fair, Wordsworth wasn’t so oblivious of the terrible things: his great elegiac poem ‘The Ruined Cottage’, say, has a pantheist buoyancy, but remains conscious, too, of the awful physicality of his heroine’s death: ‘She is dead,/The worm is on her cheek.’ Still, morbid worms are not common in Wordsworth, and you can’t move for them in Thomas. ‘I write of worms and corruption,’ he cheerfully confessed to a friend, ‘because I like worms and corruption.’
‘His chief power as a stylist,’ observed Empson, whose scattered remarks constitute the best criticism written about Thomas, ‘is to convey a sickened loathing which somehow at once (within the phrase) enforces a welcome for the eternal necessities of the world.’ ‘Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?’ as Polly Garter puts it in Under Milk Wood. From the ‘interfused’ forces of ‘Tintern Abbey’ Thomas quickly found his own style, in a poem that earned him the publication of his first volume as a prize and established a coterie fame he never lost. ‘What hit the town of London,’ Empson recollected, ‘was the child Dylan publishing “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”’ in 1934:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Towards the end of his life Thomas came to dislike his early poems, with their ‘vehement beat-pounding black and green rhythms like those of a very young policeman exploding’; but he remained fond of that one, and you can see why. It exemplifies the Thomas effect, the forcing together of diverse kinds of experience to produce ringing paradoxical statements of equivalence: ‘The flesh which covers me is the flesh that covers the sun,’ as he said in a letter of about the same date, ‘the blood in my lungs is the blood that goes up and down in a tree.’ The tone in which he announces such connectedness is magnificent and imponderable: you would be hard put to say whether any particular Thomas poem describes a state of affairs to be deplored or celebrated. He comes across as at once the victim of the universe of which he is the embodiment and as its principal accomplishment.
‘O see the poles are kissing as they cross.’ No wonder Empson liked him so much: you could hardly invent an imagination which demonstrates more completely the simultaneous expression of ‘contradictory impulses’ that Empson had celebrated in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). The poems Empson wrote about there, by Hopkins and Herbert and others, were mostly about the dazzling clash of contradictions that constituted the person of Christ. ‘Scapegoat and tragic hero; loved because hated; hated because godlike; freeing from torture because tortured; torturing his torturers because all-merciful,’ he wrote about a figure in whom the realms of death and life crossed inextricably. It was a topic that Thomas, no more Christian than Empson was, found equally compelling. ‘I care not a damn for Christ,’ he told Hansford Johnson, no doubt hoping to impress, ‘but only for his symbol.’ He liked to refer to ‘Jack Christ’, as though divinity were conjoined with the sort of mortality you might meet down the pub. One of his strangest masterpieces, the early poem ‘Before I Knocked’, combines his obsessions: it seems to be voiced by an unflappable Christ, who recollects his pre-natal prescience of all that was to come:
As yet ungotten, I did suffer;
The rack of dreams my lily bones
Did twist into a living cipher,
And flesh was snipped to cross the lines
Of gallow crosses on the liver
And brambles in the wringing brains.
Thomas recognised this was the real thing, ‘more of what I consider to be of importance in my poetry’: the magic, as often, lies in the deliberate mis-pitching of individual words within phrases that unexpectedly resonate – ‘lily bones’, ‘wringing brains’. The whole weird coincidence of contraries finds its stylistic embodiment in Thomas’s inspired jumblings of pitch.
I don’t think there is any firm evidence that Thomas read Seven Types of Ambiguity, though he always pretended to have read less than he had. He was pleased to write back to Swansea friends from London that he was regularly hobnobbing with ‘old Bill Empson’, the sort of nonchalance normally reserved for mentioning heroes; and he publicly declared allegiance in a nicely cryptic poem, ‘Request to Leda’, which may have started as a spoof on Empson’s metaphysical manner but soon modulated into the ‘homage’ it announced itself to be in its subtitle. Certainly, when Thomas described his creative method to Treece he made it sound very much like a quest for Empsonian contraries, ‘so that’, as Empson said of his seventh and most extreme form of ambiguity, ‘the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind’:
I make one image – although ‘make’ is not the word, I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual & critical forces I possess – let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth and contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seed of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time.
It is difficult to believe that a good poem could ever come from so well-marshalled a process, and Thomas himself had no sooner described his technique than he admitted it looked ‘preciously like nonsense’, but it probably is a version of how he went about things. Most poetry begins, as Dryden said, with a confused mass of thoughts tumbling over one another in the dark; this was truer for Thomas than for most. He always insisted he wrote ‘out of words’ and not, like a realist novelist or a poet with an ideology to impart, ‘in the direction of them’. The words came first, and the business of writing a poem was the attempt to exercise some control on the multiple and mutually interfering ripples of possible meaning the words brought with them. It does not always come off, as even his keenest admirers would admit. I’m not sure anyone has ever cracked ‘All all and all’, a poem that grows dark with the effort of getting it ‘all’ in: ‘How now my flesh, my naked fellow,/Dug of the sea, the glanded morrow,/Worm in the scalp, the staked and fallow.’ And ‘Altarwise by Owl-Light’ must be the most sheerly difficult sonnet sequence ever written. Most of his great poems retain at least something of this formative confusion. He once said, portentously, in a response to a questionnaire, that ‘poetry must drag further into the clean nakedness of light more even of the hidden causes than Freud could realise’; but pellucid enlightenment is not the effect of most of his poems. Reading him we struggle through a dense verbal murkiness and then suddenly hear language realise itself in a line such as ‘And rivers of the dead around my neck’ or ‘When the worm builds with the gold straws of venom/My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree,’ or ‘the soft,/Unclenched, armless, silk and rough love that breaks all rocks.’ There are countless others.
The New Centenary Edition is the first full-dress attempt at a new version of Thomas since the excellent Collected Poems 1934-53 by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud in 1988. That edition was based on the canon of works Thomas established in the Collected Poems 1934-52, which gathered, as he said in a prefatory note, ‘most of the poems I have written, and all, up to the present year, that I wish to preserve’ – to which Davies and Maud added a couple of poems on which Thomas had been working in his last year, including the fragmentary ‘Elegy’ for his father. This policy meant that a lot of verse got left out, mainly the poems in the notebooks that had never made it into print, as well as some pieces that were published in magazines or appeared within stories but were never independently collected. John Goodby takes a much more permissive line, incorporating poems of all sorts and arranging them in chronological order – rather than, as Davies and Maud did, placing them in the order they assumed in the volumes in which they originally appeared. This inclusiveness leads to some startling juxtapositions, as when the moodily impressive ‘It is the sinners’ dust-tongued bell’ – ‘Nutmeg, civet, and sea-parsley serve the plagued groom and bride/Who have brought forth the urchin grief’ – is followed by:
There was an old bugger called God
Who put a young virgin in pod
This amazing behaviour
Produced Christ our saviour,
Who died on a cross, poor old sod.
The disjunction tells us something about him, perhaps exemplifying the ‘curious rhythm’ to his character once observed by Dan Davin. ‘Dylan is very emotional but like a good Welshman also very suspicious. Thus when he has expressed himself very warmly, in fact exposed himself, he will suddenly react violently towards a self-sneering cynicism.’
‘After all you can say,’ Coleridge once reflected, ‘I still think the chronological order the best for arranging a poet’s works’: it may exhibit, as other arrangements may not, or not so easily, ‘the progress, maturity, and even the decay of genius’. I think most modern editors would agree with that; but nothing is simple and, as Goodby recognises, it is especially tricky to implement such a policy in the case of a poet who spent so much of his writing life returning to his youthful notebooks and reworking what he found there. Where do you put a poem of 1932 that gets rewritten in 1941? Goodby allocates a poem’s position ‘on a case-by-case basis’ depending on how much rewriting went on: some poems are placed at the date of their original entry in the notebooks, some at the date of their ‘most substantial revision’ and some at the date of their belated publication. One way of recording something of the complications of Thomas’s practices would have been to print early and late versions of those poems that changed most strikingly, each at their chronological moment. Goodby does this with ‘How shall my animal’ (on the grounds, I think, that it is ‘one of the very best early notebook poems’); but he doesn’t do it for ‘After the Funeral’, which might have proved even more illuminating. No doubt the volume was fat enough already; but it is a shame the author’s tinkerings and overhaulings were not recorded more fully since they are so large a part of his writing life.
The notes could have been a good place to convey something of that detail; but, as the introduction explains, ‘variant passages and poems’ are to be reserved for ‘a future Guide’. Still, it would be very grumpy not to commend the commentary for its many acts of assistance: the two hundred pages of notes are full of information and the product of an obviously deep acquaintance. Goodby has a sensible determination, of which Empson would have approved, to ignore the heresy of paraphrase. ‘Old cock = a informal salutation to a male friend; b the penis; c the Holy Spirit; d weathercock’ exemplifies his helping hand.
Despite its title, this volume is not quite ‘complete’. The principle of inclusion appears to be that a poem which was published in a newspaper, magazine or book gets in, but one that exists only in manuscript doesn’t, unless it is in a letter. It isn’t set out plainly, so far as I can see, what the text here is based on. Goodby praises Davies and Maud for establishing ‘definitive texts’, so I suppose he is adopting their practice. When it came to the actual texts they used versions of the poems as they were printed in their first book appearances, not those of Thomas’s 1952 Collected Poems. That was a good decision, I think, since it is not at all clear how much of his distracted attention Thomas managed to bring to the 1952 edition. His dealings with the proofs were pretty desultory; he managed to lose them altogether more than once. But in a few places Goodby’s text is not quite the same as Walford and Maud’s, and you can’t tell, in the absence of any textual notes, whether the divergences are slips or hard-won new readings. Every edition is, to adapt what Randall Jarrell once said of the novel, a work of some length which has something wrong with it, but you do want to know what Thomas wrote. He was not a good proofreader himself. One of his oversights enjoys a mild celebrity: ‘Once in this wine the summer blood’, from ‘This Bread I Break’, was wrongly printed throughout his life as ‘Once in this wind the summer blood’ and corrected only posthumously. Goodby gets ‘wine’ right but recasts the line as ‘Once in the wine the summer blood’. Perhaps the line is jinxed.
It is odd, as his centenary year comes to a close, to reflect on the great distance between the work that’s most characteristic and the work that makes Thomas so widely popular: it’s difficult to think of another writer of whom this is the case. Along with some of the autobiographical prose, Under Milk Wood is unquestionably at the heart of Thomas’s posthumous celebrity. Thomas began to move towards the manner of Under Milk Wood in the stories he collected in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), anecdotes of Welsh provincial life that have, as their title admits, a resemblance to Joyce, though the Joyce of Dubliners not of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They are funny and winning and a great improvement on the doom-laden visions of the earlier stories – ‘Eeeeeh, cried the burning baby, and the illuminated hill replied’ and so on – but what is significant is their adoption of a Joycean theme: the people in these stories, including the narrators, are all lonesome. His poetry, too, began to turn more on the privacy and remoteness of different lives: in place of the hectic interconnectedness that was the chief theme of the young poet, the wartime writer of Deaths and Entrances (1946) dwelt increasingly on existences that don’t join up. There are still great poems, but they are different: elegiac, simpler in their manner. I am not sure they are as well known as they should be: ‘The Conversation of Prayers’ is a stunning and stark poem about fathomless childhood grief; ‘Into Her Lying Down Head’ is a portrait of separateness within the marital bed, where the couple ‘singly lie with the whole wide shore,/The covering sea their nightfall with no names’; ‘There Was a Saviour’ is a meditation on the meaning of lamentation for the death of strangers. The atmosphere of Under Milk Wood could not be more different, but in its whimsical mode it occupies the same world: as Davies remarks in the excellent introduction to the edition of the play he did with Maud in 1995, now reissued, the play is about the simultaneous existence of ‘private worlds’. The characters are locked up in their comic individualities; no one has what you might recognise as a conversation; they spend much of their time in the ultimate privacy of sleep or speak from the solitude of the grave. It is a study in what child psychologists call parallel play.
It is also an exercise in overwhelming charm. Thomas had no shortage of charm, which, as charm does, alienated as often as it won over; and he knew very well the shape moral failure would take for him: like the youngest son in Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’, his works could become but ‘extensions of his power to charm’. For all its pleasures, it is hard not to think of the play as a capitulation to that threat, so long resisted in his verse – ‘an idyllic romp’, as Seamus Heaney put it, ‘as if The Joy of Sex were dreamt under the canvas of a Welsh eisteddfod’. Heaney underplays the great tugging undercurrent of desolation within the work, but I think the most distinctive Thomas lives somewhere else, and Thomas would not have disagreed. He knew he had given up on something: ‘I renounce my Art to make money,’ he mock-heroically complained to a correspondent in 1951, ‘and then make no money.’ Empson thought so, anyway. He didn’t want to review the Collected Poems when they appeared in 1952: ‘I would have had to say I liked the early obscure ones best, and I was afraid this would distress him,’ he wrote, with Thomas in the grave, ‘so I now have one of those unavailing regrets about my timidity, because he knew all that kind of thing very well and could be distressed only by a refusal to say it.’