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November 17, 1946 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1946-11-17

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... John Howard

To understand the poetry of Dylan
Thomas on its simpler levels it is nec-
essary to know that he is young, that
he is Welsh, and that he is a writer. In
this country he is probably best known
in an anonymous way, as the author of
scripts for certain British documentary
films. But readers of the New Direc-
tions catalog will find listed there thsee
volumes by Mr. Thomas, with a fourth
scheduled for publication soon.
Of the three books published in the
United States, the first, The World I
Breathe (1939), is roughly half poetry
and half prose. The second, Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940),
is a collection of short stories in which
the author appears as protagonist. For
this reason it is loosely classified as an
autobiography, but it partakes of the
nature of that medium no more than do
the seventeen poems in the third of the
three volumes, New Poems (1943).
There is little in the stories that is dif-
ficult for the reader experienced in
modern prose, but the poetry is some-
thing else again. - Mr. Thomas' verse
is the equal of any in effort required
to seek out meaning.
The casual reader (if there can be
such) will almost certainly find no
meaning in many of these poems, but
he will be impressed with the amount
of poetic music Mr. Thomas has at his
command. In generosity he does not
approach the prodigious torrents of
Swinburne, and in the niceties of pro-
sody he is not the equal of our modern
master, Mr. Wallace Stevens. It is ob-
vious, however, that the man loves
words and is extremely aware of their
uses in poetry:
Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glowworms
in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh
decks the bones.
Sheer music in poetry is very fine,
but working with words does imply a
meaning of some sort. And here the
difficulties begin. In starting to read
any poet, though, it is safe to assume
that there will be no startling :sew
themes presented. Poetry emanates
from man, and is thereby limited. Once
translated into more common terms,
Mr. Thomas' verse is found to have
what is probably the most common
theme in all poetry: the life of man.
Here the theme is extended to include
not only life as the term is ordinarily
conceived, but also life before birth and
life after death. The first and third
of these concepts ae hardly uncommon
in poetry, and. the second (especially
since the publication of Mr. Dali's pre-
natal memoirs) should cause no one to
boggle. Possibly the greatest difficulty
arises from the fact that Mr. Thomas
often attempts to give these subsequent
events as much simultaneity as a suc-
session of words will allow. So, in one
poem, there is the spectacle of Christ
yet unborn, but foreseeing all the
events of His life.
Religion is one of the dominant fac-
tors of Mr. Thomas' theme. Because of
his insistence upon the essentially hu-
man nature of God, his treatment is
often reminiscent of Rilke's intimate
attitude toward Christ. The other dom-
inant factor in Mr. Thomas' theme is
sex. If anything, the sex motif is
more prevalent than the religious;
there is, in fact, a faint coital odor
about the whole mass of poetry which
he has published. It may not be as
apparent always as the image of "A
candle in the thighs/Warms youth and
seed and burns the seeds of age," but
it 'is there, and obviously enough so

that one does not need a Freudian con-
sciousness to find it.
A relatively simple, but quite typical
example of Mr. Thomas' verse is the
poem "A Refusal to Mourn of Death,
by Fire, of a Child in London":
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humble darkness
Tells with silence of the last light
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in har-
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of
corn '1
Shall I let pray the shadow of a
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to
The majesty and burning of the
child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a
grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of
the breath
With any further
Elegy, of innoncence and.youth.
Deep with the first deal lies London's
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the " dark
veins of her mother
Secret by the mourning water
Of ,the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no
A paraphrase of this poem is not
too difficult: Never until the end of
the world (or until I am dead) shall I

of the world. The "harnessed" sea of
the last line suggests the ancient no-
tion of the waves being under the con-
trol of Neptune, while the last two lines
seem to indicate that at the end of the
world the creator will assume control
over even the sea.
From the impersonality of 'the first
stanza, Mr. Thomas goes to the per-
sonality of the second. Here he is
simply stating his belief in eternity.
Mr. Thomas sees his eternity in a drop
of water, in an ear of corn; Whitman
saw his in grass. Not until he is dead
and involved with the functions of
the cosmos will he pray with a voice
which has become as the shadow of a
sound. The last two lines of this stan-
za are capable of two interpretations,
as are so many of the lines in Mr.
Thomas' verse. First, he is not going
to weep for the child; secondly, and
more importantly, "salt seed" refers to
sterility of death.
The last two stanzas contain no ex-
tremely difficult matters. The pun on
"grave" in the third stanza should be
noted, as it is a typical device used by
Mr. Thomas. The "grains beyond age"
of the fourth stanza may seem a bit
puzzling, but the image is a statement
that in the grave there is no growth
and no maturity. The only other ob-
scure bit in this stanza is the "riding
Thames." Why "riding?" Apparently
the image is intended to refer to the
"harnessed sea" of the first stanza, and
to throw the whole poem into the un-
ending cycle of death.
Even so brief an anlysis serves to in-
dicate the amount of work that must be
done to begin to understand Mr. Thom-
as' verse. One other device, which is
unfortunately not shown in this poem,
adds a certain degree of obscurity, but
might be called double imagery. Its use

juke Box
A NICKLE in the slot, the miniature music
spurts; he lolls half-tired, half-distraught,
against the dark staccato-colored wall,
awaits the usual coke, slides over and hangs
upon the circular counter-seat: blue pants
on cheap red leather; lips to straw he sips
the bubble-dizzy glass, glaring at
his chromium face: bright-nothing-new but sharper
now, irresistible, still consisting
of one scowl, one nose, and two tight eyes:
consoled by coke, he whirls in ease from off
the platter-stool, seizing an ice-cream-cool.
young waitress as his dancing rhyme, and swings-
their legs to the muscular tempo of the time.
Cid Corman

gression from mule praises to brays the
reader is prepared for a greater varia-
tion from the original premise. It is
quite natural that these mule praises
should be emitt by mule- ike peopl
whose great, mule-like ears move in the
wind like boat-sails. If this final im-
age is compressed and added to the
two already used, the result is tle quo-
tation given above.
It is double imagery, twice removed.
Whether it is a distant (and probably
poor) relation of poetry or the logical
heir to ordinary verse is dependent up-
on the amount of work a reader is will-
ing to permit himself in reading a
poem. Whichever it is, the process makes
the reader something of a genealogist
who must search through generation
after generation of imagery to discover
the parent thought. Generation is pre-
cisely the term for the process Mr.
Thomas uses; the first, or ordinary
poetic image begets upon itself another
and another. These images are numer-
ous and contradictory at times, but they
are all aimed at crystallizing the nebu-
lousness of all such thought. Such a
process is infinitely extensible, of course
-although the reader's comprehension
may not be. Mr. Thomas plays fair,
though. When he does use this device,
he includes the parent image more often
than he does not.
These few guides will serve as an in-
troduction to the strange world which
Mr. Thomas presents. It is a world
which began:
From love's first fever to her plague,
from the soft second
And the hollow minute of the womb,
From the unfolding to the scissored
The time for breast and the green
apron age
When no mouth stirred about the
hanging famine,
My world was christened in a stream
of milk.
Again this is quite typical of the verse
Mr. Thomas writes, even to the sexual
A world which so began probably
would pursue an odd course. It does:
In the groin of the natural doorway
I crouched like a tailor
sewing a shroud for a journey
By the light of the meat-eating sun,
Dressed to die, the sensual strut be-
With my red veins full of money,
In the final direction of the elemen-
tary town
I advance as long as forever is.
Here tise starting point is the fetus
crouching "like a tailor" in the womb.
The shroud which this particular tailor
is "sewing" is his own skin, to be worn
in the journey by the light of a sun
which is meat-eating in the sense that
all flesh is wasted by the passage of
time. "Dressed to die" in his skin, he
begins the sensual business of life. The
direction of this journey is final because
it has no returning. It is a progression
from the simple to the complex, from
the country to the town. "Elementary"
suggests the basic nature of this town
in that it is common to all men. For
in such a "town" men are resolved
to their elements and it is a common
place for mankind. Finally, "Forever"
is not a very long time, for all time
will end with the death of the individ-
Such is Mr. Thomas' world. It isn't
meant to be a pleasant place, but its
tortured, often almost-mad beauty and
at least a degree of its truth must be
admitted. Mr. Thomas is the world,
a separate cosmos of the lesser sort. He
believes (as do many poets) that the
"i" of the microcosm which he is, should
be generalized to the "a" of macrososm.

mourn this child's death. I shall not
destroy the humanity of her death,
nor blaspheme life by speaking elegies,
because she is dead. And after this
one death, there are no more.
A more detailed analysis of the poem,
shows at least two references to the
Catholic religion in "water bead"
(rather than the expected "water
drop") and "stations of the breath."
The Jewish "synagogue" and "Zion"
combine with the Catholic references to
say that the things of life are sacred,
that a drop of water is a prayer, that
an ear of corn is a temple.
The apparent chaos of the first stan-
za is quickly resolved if the German
treatment of a non-restrictive clause
is remembered. Then the "mankind
making / Fathering and all humble
darkness" becomes the more usual "The,
fathering and all humble darkness
which makes mankind, and birds, and
beasts, and flowers." Until this "dark-
ness / Tells with silence the last light
breaking" is, in short, until the end

may be explained by understanding
that one of the functions of the poet
is to re-create his known world in terms
which not only re-create, but add emo-
tional implications. Mr. Thomas is of
the conviction that exact re-creation
is impossible, but that it may be most
closely approached by using a host of
images, each of which reflects a differ-
ent aspect of the matter at hand. An
example of this technique is found in
the lines " . .. the funeral, mule praises,
brays, / Windshake of sailshaped
ears. . ." The development of these
images may be traced ,from a starting
point which conceives of funerals as
consisting of coarse inelegant praises.
Such praises are likened to the praises
which mules might give. This might
seem an odd comparison, but it is per-
fectly understandable. Should it seem
still obscure, Mr. Tomas has emphasiz-
ed it and rendered the whole idea simp-
ler and more definite by using a mule's
trait: bray. With this the idea of
coarseness is furthered, and in the pro-

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