Swansea was the “ugly lovely town”1of Dylan Thomas’s childhood and it was through his explorations of Swansea and the surrounding area that he formed his first impressions of childhood. Thomas grew up during the depression after the First World War and during this time there was massive unemployment in Swansea and this would have influenced his outlook on society, but although Thomas’s poems often contained bleak imagery he was not a war poet and his poems dealt with personal issues such as innocence, experience and death rather than being political.
Thomas’s death was an epitaph of his life, his use of alcohol to escape social structures resulting in his premature death characterises Thomas’s struggle against structures but his final acceptance of them. He described his youth as the “years … before I knew I was happy”2, which can be interpreted as being before he lost his innocence and became aware of society and it’s restrictions. Some critics have argued that Thomas considered being a poet as a job and that what he wrote didn’t actually mean anything personal to him.
Karl Shapiro’s impression of Thomas as someone who deliberately aimed “to keep people from understanding his poems” is inaccurate as Thomas himself argued that “Much of the obscurity is due to rigorous compression”3 this is also the “clotting” that Tindall described. One of Thomas’s largest problems in accepting society was its use of language and the fact that in expressing something using words some of “the colour”4 – the meaning – was lost.
Thomas felt that in putting his ideas down on to paper they lost some of their clarity and in his poetry he aspired for his writing to be as precise as the original source of inspiration. The idea that Thomas couldn’t accept the fact that if he acquiesced with society then he would be unable to express himself freely can be clearly seen in ‘The Spire Cranes’5 in which he talks about “songs, that jump back / To the built voice”. Walford Davies believes that this is “a fear of the utter privacy of his [Thomas’s] verse”6, possibly the “voice” is the poets voice and it is “built” into a poem.
An inch in froth” is very precise and this can be interpreted as being the precision that Thomas demanded when trying to convey an idea, or else it could be the accuracy Thomas needed to write the poem but just as the froth on the sea disappears, Thomas felt that the effort he went to is wasted because the poems meaning is still lost on people. The lexical set makes it impossible to say the lines at any great speed emphasising Thomas’s meticulousness even more.
Thomas’s poems have been called surrealist works but William York Tindall defines them as merely having a “semi-surrealist surface”, suggesting that it was the surrealist movements influence on Thomas which led to Thomas’s poems appearing obscure at first and this again can be seen in ‘The Spire Cranes’. The poem is hard to interpret because everything in it is a metaphor but some metaphors can be difficult to interpret. The “cranes” are the words that belong to the “spire” who is the poet, but “cranes” can also be personifying the “spire” as it stretches above everything else.
The spire might also represent religion stretching over everything else and so casting society into a shadow. But while the surrealists’ work came directly from the subconscious Thomas has a hidden structure within the poem. The line endings involve assonantal slant rhymes e. g. “aviary” and “feathery”, and “pelter” and “water”. The poem is eleven lines long with every line except the middle one containing 12 syllables and the middle line represents a turning point in the poetry.
David Gascoyne called surrealism “a perpetual flow of irrational thought in the form of images”7 but Thomas’s work contains clear ideas which don’t flow but are more like “carved birds” – each clearly defined and worked on. Thomas uses bird imagery throughout the poem to convey the freedom he has in his poetry and how it breaks social structures because of the association between birds and madness. Thomas implies that the mad are free because they aren’t restricted by society; this idea is also echoed in ‘Love in the Asylum’ in which Thomas describes “A girl mad as birds”.
Tindall writes that “At the Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 … Thomas carried a cup of boiled string around. ‘Weak or strong? ‘ he asked”, but Thomas didn’t consider himself a Surrealist and may have merely been mocking the people who considered themselves Surrealists, and rather than automatic writing Dylan Thomas in fact “laboured every afternoon testing… words”8. Thomas viewed the way society labelled people, jobs, artists and writers as ridiculous, he refused to let himself be categorised into being a certain type of poet and scorned critics who tried to do this.
I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm… Thomas in this statement tried to confuse the critics by employing complex language and using technical language to such an extreme that he made the words seem unreal, which may well have been his aim as he felt that poetry should just be poetry and not a combination of writing techniques.
In ‘The Hunchback in the park’ Thomas uses many images of chained nature – “the garden lock … hained cup … dog kennel”, the image of society restricting nature is a metaphor for the way society “chains” itself up using labels. Thomas believed poetry should be natural but the irony was that he needed to use structures to make it appear natural. His poetry was like the “hunchback” who “slept at night in a dog kennel”, emphasising his links with nature, but wasn’t left alone by the “truant boys” who personify society’s structures, but lived inside the garden which was surrounded by “locks and chains” and so was never truly out of society’s influence.
Tindall’s conclusion that Dylan Thomas was an “artificial surrealist”, shows how Thomas worked hard to appear to be a surrealist because the way surrealism flowed was natural but in essence wasn’t a surrealist because he worked hard at his “craft”9. Life and death were two structures that fascinated Thomas and many of his poems explore the closely connected relationship between the two. While Shapiro feels Thomas’s poems contain a “fatal pessimism”, according to Tindall this is just because of Thomas involving “Freud and the Bible” in his work. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’10 contains a villanelle form where the intertwined stanzas offer an insight into how Thomas observes the connection between life and death. The rigid structure of the form symbolises the definite structure of death, and the repetition of “rage, rage against the dying of the light” emphasises the progression from birth to death and the cycle of life. Thomas admits that accepting death is “wise” and that “dark is right”, but still argues against “the dying of the light”.
This is allegorical of the way in which Thomas challenges the structures of poetry (and in doing so challenges the structures of society), but still acknowledges that they are necessary. Shapiro describes Thomas as having “no poetic” but Tindall writes that Thomas was “as rational and orderly as any poet this side of Alexander Pope”. ‘Prologue’11 shows how Thomas took poetry to heart, refusing to write a prose prologue but instead creating a poem. Thomas felt that Prologue encapsulated his poetic, but Shapiro may have felt Thomas lacked poetic because his poetry doesn’t conform.
In Prologue rather than having an obvious and unoriginal rhyming scheme Thomas chose to develop a rhyming scheme where one half of the poem was a mirror image of the other: Lines 51 and 52 rhyme, lines 50 and 53 rhyme etc. These more subtle structures represented the structures of life, which although not immediately obvious were still there. Thomas found that the constricting structures that society placed on itself were unnatural and that his poetry was a natural “rumpus of shapes” which he just had to “patch”. The religious imagery that appears throughout Thomas poetry and is prominent in ‘Prologue’ is also part of Thomas’s poetic.
The “bellowing ark” contains Thomas’s poetry and the “dove” is the meaning in the poetry that Thomas tries to convey. The “ark” could also be a metaphor for the freedom from social and poetic structure but shows the irony that Thomas clearly felt that in escaping one set of structures he has to “build” his own. The religious connotations in “dove” and “ark” can be traced back to Thomas’s strict chapel childhood and it is possible that the images link to the concept of creation with Thomas creating a new world in his poetry.
Everything Thomas created, his poetic existed but in a less than obvious form, and incorporating what he wanted rather than what it was expected to contain. Although some phrases in Thomas’s poetry can appear obscure, Thomas doesn’t use them for the sake of appearing surreal. The image of “All the sun long”, in ‘Fern Hill’12, illustrates the fact that nature is also at the mercy to time. Shapiro criticises the fact that he finds it “hard to locate the distinctiveness of Thomas’s idiom”, but Tindall embraces it, believing that the “‘irrational element’ is a “distinguished mark of great poetry”.
The idiom Dylan Thomas used was at the time unique because it broke the structures set on poetry through it’s syntax and in doing this Thomas articulated his frustration with society. The juxtaposition between the innocence of “green” and the accepting experience of “dying” summarises Thomas’s innocence in refusing to accept structures but his awareness that they exist and that he must conform to them. It is the irony: that the “sea” appears free while being in “chains” because of the land, which Thomas feels applies to his poetry. Fern Hill’ is Allegorical of life; Thomas acknowledges this by linking it to the Genesis chapters of the bible with references to “Adam and maiden”. By using enjambment and natural imagery to symbolise the passing of time Thomas gives the poem a sense of innocence; descriptions such as “all the moon long” suggest that people who aren’t constricted by unnatural social barriers are innocent because for them time just flows and isn’t restrained by putting it into hours and minutes.
The poem, which remembers Dylan Thomas’s aunts farm, uses natural imagery, communicating Thomas’s opinion that innocence and nature go hand-in-hand. Shapiro’s disparagement of Thomas’s style could be seen as being nai??ve; Thomas employed an individual approach to poetry and this approach encapsulated Thomas’s attitude towards society. Thomas spent his life struggling against what he saw as the “chains” of society’s structures but also his acceptance that they are necessary and this can be seen in his poetry by the outward appearance that they lack structure but the deeper structures found within them.
Thomas tried to confuse critics so that they couldn’t pigeonhole him into a certain type of poem, not only this but he also disliked writing titles to his poems as that categorised them – in some publications of ’18 Poems’ the poems are just numbered. His unique style and experimentation caused him to become a cultural icon, and he is probably the most famous welsh poet.