The Celtic Strain
The Life of Dylan Thomas.
by Constantine Fitzgibbon.
An Atlantic Monthly Press Book. Little, Brown and Company. 370 PP. $7.95.
The choice of an Anglo-American writer to write what must surely be the “official” biography of this Welsh poet is a fortunate one. Mr. FitzGibbon is an American citizen; I do not know how deep his American roots are, for he seems to have spent the bulk of his life in England and to have been educated there. I for one always assumed that he was an Englishman until I looked at the dust-jacket of this volume. But this dual nationality will have enabled, in fact it manifestly has enabled, Mr. FitzGibbon to understand the situation of a poet whose parents were born in Welsh-speaking families, and who was torn between England and Wales all his life.
Nothing is more revealing than the harsh, angry contempt aroused in a certain kind of Englishman by even the most harmless manifestations of Welsh cultural nationalism. The Scot can walk about London in his kilt, the Irishman can wrap himself in blarney and shamrocks, but when it comes to the Welshman's natural wish to preserve his own language, the Englishman—of a certain kind—begins to feel personally affronted. There is more than a hint of the jackboot in the violence of his reaction: of course it is foolish, and probably cunning and self-seeking as well, for the Welsh to hold eisteddfodau and encourage the writing of poems in strict classical meters; of course every attempt to preserve Welsh local custom is simply another way of fleecing the English tourist; of course the Welshman's reverence for the word, his passion for oratory and poetry, is one more mark of his garrulous unreliability.
What hidden passions fuel this violent animosity I do not know; as an Englishman I can only feel ashamed of it. One reason may be that Wales, instead of being tucked away tidily at the northern end of Britain or even more tidily across the Irish Sea, lies so close to England; intimacy has prevented the fostering of any romantic illusions. The Scots, for instance, have never ceased to brag about the royal house they gave to England, the Stuarts, in spite of the fact that the Stuarts were obstinate and stupid and a complete failure; whereas the Welsh, who gave to England the most intelligent and original royal dynasty of all, the Tudors, are never even allowed to mention the fact.
These random reflections are in order when one considers the life and work of Dylan Thomas, if only because of the total failure of most English critics to allow for his Welshness; to “allow for” it not in the sense of making excuses and overlooking faults, but in the sense of seeing it intelligently and sympathetically, of recognizing it as one of the features that give interest and value to his work; and also, where biography is in question, as one of those tragic tensions that pulled him apart and destroyed him as a man.
Most of the bad, unilluminating criticism that Thomas has had—and he has had plenty—has come from critics to whom his Welshness is merely part of a general phoniness, to whom it has never occurred that if they saw him in a more generous light and a better perspective he would not seem phony at all. (Time has not dealt generously with some of these critics. Mr. Wolf Mankowitz was finely contemptuous of Thomas in an article in Scrutiny in 1947, referring to his metrical virtuosity as “Ersatz”; in view of his subsequent and almost total involvement with big-time showbiz, is Mr. Mankowitz himself quite the holy shunner of “Ersatz” he once was? There are sad ironies here.)
Mr. FitzGibbon is quite free of this habitual blindness, as he is free of the over-compensation shown by some Welsh critics who relate Thomas's work too patly to the tradition of a language he never learned. He shows his seriousness by starting out with a very interesting section on the family and social background, and right away, on the first line of the second page, he is risking the opinion that Dylan Thomas had memories of a rural, Welsh-speaking world that were not only personal but “atavistic.” To some people, the claim will be meaningless, and certainly “atavistic” cultural and social memories are not the kind of thing one can demonstrate and prove by evidence, or not the evidence that would be acceptable in a court of law. I myself believe that some such explanation is the only one that makes sense: Thomas was the son of an English teacher, he grew up in Swansea, which is a completely Anglicized big town, his reading was entirely English; so why did he not write like an English poet? And I must admit that I have now, finally, lost all patience with the answer, “Because he was a phony,” which for so long has been the stock response of his denigrators.
This business of atavistic and ancestral relationships is vital to the criticism of many artists today, when centralization has gone so far and the “world languages” are unmanageable monoliths. In an interesting passage about Thomas's religious beliefs and non-beliefs, Mr. FitzGibbon writes: “It would be nearer the truth to suggest that he felt, as a poet, the beauty and glory of the divine concept as revealed to, and by, the great English religious poets, Donne, Vaughan, Crashaw, George Herbert, Hopkins.” I don't know whether Mr. FitzGibbon realized it as he wrote down the names, but of the poets in that list, Donne was at least partly of Welsh ancestry, Vaughan and George Herbert were Welshmen outright, and Hopkins had a passion for Wales and for the Welsh language, which he studied, that might fairly indicate some such “atavistic” yearning on his own part. The point is that the Welsh contribution to English literature has always been distinctive, so much so that when one names “the great English religious poets” from whom Dylan Thomas might have gained his underlying notions about God, most of them turn out to have been Welshmen. Indeed, essentially “English” poets like Keats, Pope, or Tennyson, hardly touched him at all. His affinities were with the poets who have that “Celtic” strain that is so hard to define but so immediately perceptible when it is there.
Mr. FitzGibbon, with all the narrative skill of the accomplished novelist he is, takes us through the rumble and rummage of Dylan's life, the debts, the drinks, the moonlight flits, the litter of journeys and parties and quarrels and good times, but under the scurrying surface the gaunt outline is as plain as an aerial photograph: this was a poet without a home. It isn't only that he and Caitlin had no money, though this was a terrible burden; never, never, never from the moment they got married did they have enough money to live in decent comfort, and this was what bred the habit of wild celebrations when they did get their hands on a few pounds; it was, quite simply, that Dylan couldn't sit still. Welsh life meant either the respectability of suburban Swansea or the slow, rooted rural life which he loved but from which he was always escaping to London with its anonymous, uncaring freedom. In 1949, at a very low ebb in his life, Dylan Thomas left England for Wales, and celebrated his homecoming in one of those funny, clowning, overwritten broadcasts that sometimes contained a disconcerting crumb of truth. In it, with a scatter of hilarious detail, he told his listeners the real problem: that when living in England he could not remember his Welsh self.
I could not remember, try as I might, if the old, booted body that bore its grumbles and juices so scowlingly up Portland Place to do its morning rant was the same as that which, hoofed with seaweed, did a jig on the Llanina sands and barked at the far mackerel.
Lost and blown about in London town, a barrel-shaped leaf, am I still the same, I said to myself, as that safe and sound loller at the corners of Wales who, to my memory, was happy as a sandman.
How could I answer my silly questions unless I went back to Wales?
This is the classic problem of the expatriate. And if he is an artist, it confronts him in his art also. Dylan Thomas could do no other than try to express a Welsh sensibility in the English language. The immense effort that went into his poetry, the long and toilsome writing and re-writing, sometimes a hundred times over for a single poem, perhaps indicates that there was something unnatural, against the grain, in this task. There is what seems to me an important sidelight on this point in Mr. Gwyn Williams's introduction to his anthology, Presenting Welsh Poetry:
There is little that is vague, misty, effusive or “bardic” about Welsh poetry. Its qualities are rather tightness, clarity and pungency. This we owe to the strictness of the rules of versification and to the hardness of Welsh rural life. When a Welshman writes in English he is apt to kick his heels in a wider meadow of vaguer imagery and a so-called Celtic quality emerges which is absent, or has until recently been absent, from poetry in Welsh. A remark once made to me by Mr. T. S. Eliot illuminates this point. We were discussing what happens to writers who use a language other than their own, and he said (these are not his exact words but my memory of his meaning) that such a writer was exploring an aspect of himself which could not readily be reached, or perhaps could not exist, in the medium of his own language. The use of foreign language implies the extension of one's experience, therefore, beyond one's inherited traditions and becomes inevitable if one's native language fails to widen its scope with changing ideas and conditions.
Since Dylan Thomas knew no Welsh, it was not, for him, a matter of “extending” his own experience but of substituting for it an experience that was in many ways alien to him. I cannot believe that this was without strain and anguish.
In the years 1941 through 1944, the poet was employed as a film scriptwriter; Mr. FitzGibbon discusses his attitude to this work, which kept him away from poetry for three whole years, and, while leaving open the question of whether or not it was a bad thing for him to work in films, is quite firm that Thomas himself had a relish for the job: “He did not regard his work as a prostitution of his talents. . . . On the contrary, Dylan was fascinated by films—had he not been film-struck all his life?—and he was in this, as in all the other aspects of his work—whether as reader, actor, or writer—a pro.”
If Dylan Thomas was “a pro” in film-writing he must have been aware that the film is primarily a visual, not a verbal, medium. The pleasure he took in it must have been at least partly that of a release from the writer's loneliness, the sinking of his individual personality into the collective personality of the film. (It sometimes happens that a film is dominated by one man, but that man is never the scriptwriter.) And this, too, is revealing. The split between Welsh poet and English poem—to put it even more crudely, between Welsh inspiration and English art—did not make itself felt when he wrote for films.
Of course this English-Welsh conflict was not the only one that tore Dylan Thomas apart; but the others were, I think, related to it. An only son (his sister was much older, so that one might almost as well say “an only child”), he was much indulged at home and consistently allowed to avoid doing what he didn't want to do. He took not the slightest interest in his school work, and with an admirable consistency refused to bother with it; if things got too hot at school he could always throw an illness and stay at home. From this root sprang the almost pathological refusal, in adult life, to take responsibility or face up to anything awkward—in his dealings with the world, that is; the problems of his “sullen art” he faced with unwavering courage, if often with a sinking heart.
One thing this biography makes clear is that the most productive phase of Dylan Thomas's life was the period between leaving school (at sixteen) and going to London (at nineteen). During these years, from July 1931 to November 1934, he lived with his parents (“the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”), enjoyed as much local celebrity as was good for him, and was completely sheltered from the world. His one attempt at breadwinning, a humble job on the South Wales Daily Post, lasted fifteen months before the inevitable recognition on both sides that he was simply not cut out for day-to-day journalism; and even in that period he lived on his father and used all his pay as pocket money.
Naturally, during these years, he was discontented: his powerful adolescent sexuality was unsatisfied; fame and recognition, though they came quickly, did not come quickly enough; his mother's love was cloying; Wales was a prison. But discontented or not, he worked better—more copiously, with more assurance—at this time than at any other. For all its irksomeness, life in the womb suited him better than life out of it. He was a true Rimbaud in this at least, that the bulk of his life's work was done as an adolescent. Rimbaud wrote nothing after eighteen; if Thomas had stopped at nineteen, the parallel would be complete, since, as Mr. FitzGibbon writes: “It is . . . no exaggeration to say that three-quarters of his work as a poet dates in style, in concept and often in composition from this Swansea period.”
It is, I think, Mr. FitzGibbon's particular service to Thomas's memory that he has emphasized the importance of these years, and done his best to unearth every available fact about them. The documentation is poor, indeed, compared with the wealth of detail about the later years, but what there is he has found. And the answers to most of our questions about Dylan Thomas lie hidden somewhere in these adolescent years, just as Yeats's Irish childhood is full of meaning for the mature man and his work.
Could he, with better luck, caution, a longer span, have developed into the Yeats of Wales? Our estimate of him will depend, finally, on our own individual answer to that question. But one thing is clear. To do for Wales what Yeats did for Ireland would call for an even greater poetic discipline and dedication. The initial confusion, the chaos that would have to be reduced to order before starting, is so much greater. Ireland in the days of the young Yeats (or the young Joyce or O'Casey) had what a small nation needs if it is to produce artists: it had separateness and self-awareness. For all the feuds and hatreds, for all the loss of tradition and the forgetting of the Irish language, Ireland was a country, whereas Wales is no more than a region. Yeats, in his middle years, was made a senator in recognition of his important part in the national life. Even if Dylan Thomas had had any such ambition, there was and is no Welsh Senate for him to take his seat in. His position was thus rather like that of the Jewish writer who feels no tug toward Israel: his special place, his special idiom, were racial, not national. And are these “the right twigs for an eagle's nest”?
One day, Wales may have the poet who writes in English and still manages to unite all the diverse fragments of Welsh feeling and thus be a truly national voice. But before this can happen, Cardiff must become a city as metropolitan as Dublin or Edinburgh, the Welsh language must be felt as a unifying rather than a divisive force, and Welshmen must share a vital belief in themselves as a nation. No poet can, by himself, call these things into being. And unless and until they are called into being, the Welsh poet, however exquisitely gifted, can only follow one of two paths: the anarchic lyricism and personal nostalgia of Thomas (Dylan) or the beautiful elegiac hopelessness of Thomas (R.S.). Read these two poets together, and you have the Welsh situation in all its poignancy.
Or so, at least, it seems to an Englishman who loves poetry and loves Wales.