Dylan Thomas

The Late Acoustic Poems

Part I: Over many years I have been interested in the art of reading poetry aloud, perhaps as a partial antidote to the usual silent reading of poems from the printed page. As a teacher I found that students would always ask to see the printed page after hearing an acoustic performance of the poem, saying that way they could understand it better. In fact the acoustic performance was so far from their usual experience that many of them could not comprehend the meaning at all. I felt this was an unfortunate limitation, especially as my work was with ancient Greek poets where the voice was an essential part of the performed art-poem. And throughout antiquity poetry and prose alike were read aloud even in one's private study, as the normal way to deal with a sensitive art-form. I have written on this in an article which outlines the movement toward silent reading, writing in more detail than I can cover here.

A few words about Dylan Thomas, who was borne in Swansea, Wales UK in 1914 and died in 1953 before he had reached his fortieth birthday. As a youth he was weak, neurotic, already devoted to the idea of becoming a poet, but it was in the early 1930's that he fell into contact with literary people who helped him get his work published in journals, review and a series of small books. During the late 'thirties with war looming book publication was limited, but he fell in with BBC broadcasting and produced a series of remarkable poetic works which where designed to be heard on radio rather than read. Already becoming alcoholic he somewhow managed to avoid conscription, but after the war he spent time in America where he was already becoming known, pursuing a questionable life on the West Coast, with warm welcome by the literati of the coast cities and the girl's colleges of the SF area. Wife and children left in England, he was a curious kind of young celebrity, entrancing audiences and disgusting celebrities up and down the Coast with his bad manners .

He was not well, he weakened perceptibly and died in 1953 just a year after the publication of the Collected Poems meticulously edited by his field Daniel Jones. His early death, like that of Mozart and Purcell, left the scholarly public wondering what important new work he would have produced had he lived through a decade or two. In the case of Mozart it is apparent that he knew he was soon to die, and his late Symphonies and Concertos mark a gigantic move forward in several respects. As a close reader of Dylan Thomas for many years, I believe he was on the threshold of a very different poetic venture which was less constrained and more acoustically centered than before, and would like register some thoughts on both influences and the new directions of the last poems after the war.

Thomas was from early years always interested in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins whose poems were first published posthumously in 1918 and certainly influenced the young Thomas in a new way of choosing and joining disparate words in new ways in a highly developed metrical array. Thomas was always conscious of his metrics, in the complex world of internal as well as final assonances assembled in a matrix of artfully construed English cadences. Slowly the reading world became aware of a new nuance in the flow of poems from the desk of Dylan Thomas, and of course after his death there was a cascade of essays, analyses and college courses on this unique "Welsh poet" who was drawing his style from himself and from a variety of local colored sources. In fact he knew no Welsh.

Most of the poems in the collection of 1952 were novel for the time, the early ones were quizzically interesting , but rather dry as the poetry a person might read in an armchair in silent meditation. The early Thomas spoke to an audience which knew that poems are printed black on white pages of paper, and traditionally read in a gentlemanly silence. That was and still is usually the temper of the times regarding "poetry". But when Thomas started working for the BBC during the war, he began to change. The scripts for the audio production could not be read when printed as poetry, but the use of voice was clearly a discovery, and did in fact lead to some new directions. A few stressed Thomas' Welsh connection and labored to note his musicality, but that would appear only in the poastwar period, and it is these musical poems which I want to discuss.

At poem 156 titled "Fern Hill" (of the Collected Poems 1952 as henceforth cited), we see a remarkable change. The line have become long, some are correspondingly short, and with the freer use of word-metrics there is also a warmer and more visual use of vivid wording. Rhymes still dot here and there and full internal sound recollections are found everywhere, as each poem seems to be reaching out from the page and asking for attention from a sympathetic voice. The poems after this date have many variations, but they are of a new nature which is apparently part of an artistic leap forward, probably accelerated by failing health, habitual heavy beer drinking and a sense that it was all coming to a close. "In Country Sleep" #158, written in 1947 not published until after his death, was apparently part of a planned lengthy work with the "Country Heaven" title, announced in 1950 but only written out in scattered parts, of which this poem is one coherent piece.

Far more wonderful is "Over Sir John's Hill", first published in 1949 as an intended part of the planned Country Heaven complex. It is itself a high point of the late-developing richer poetic art of Dylan Thomas. "The White Giant's Thigh" from a 1950 BBC broadcast and only later printed, again was destined for the Country Heaven project, although there seems a restraining quality in it at least to my mind; but some of these poems demand years of intimacy until they come into full bloom.

But about "Over Sir John's Hill" there is no question. It is a complete masterpiece. First published in 1949, the scene is from Langharne where Thomas had lived for a while, as viewed from his window where the eye could range out over Sir John's Hill to an estuary where the river Towy feeds into it. This was a haunt of all kinds of bird life, which Thomas weaves in elaborate and varied word-patterning into a tapestry of hunter and hunted, of time now and anciently past, of fact and myth and finally of life and death. It is an unique poem in terms of vivid visual display and the high end of Thomas's acoustic sensitivity in a new and dramatic vein. As often happens, scholars lift from this matrix of sound the metrics, which they can grasp best on a paper copy, for special analysis. It is true that there is much metrical forethought in this complex poem; but Metrics is only a part of the art of Poetry, and metrics cannot be isolated for analytic study in a scholarly vacuum. This is a poem which demands sensitive acoustic acoustic performance reading, which I am working on in another paper.

The poem "Do Not Go Gentle in That Good Night", which Thomas wrote in May 1951 in reference to his father who was sick but didn't die until more than a year later in December 52, has become so famous throughout the reading world that it is almost the earmark of Dylan Thomas himself. The family association, the religious feeling in the face of death as a universal theme, and the poem itself which is closely written and tight, have given it a literary notoriety. And it is indeed a fine poem which again should be used well as an example of Performance Poetry.

But most people reading the poem silently or aloud will not know that it is a borrowed French form called the Villanelle, actually derived from one poem about a dove from Jean Passerat (1534-1602) but embraced by the formalist critics of the late 19th century in England as a contrived art-form. It has only two rhyme words dominating the five three line stanas throughout the 19 line poem, while the two theme-lines repeat four times each. Of course nobody needs to know this, but reading it aloud we do hear the tight insistence on two high-pitched front vowels which dominate the tone of the poem. But we are so accustomed to read the poem with a school footnote saying that Thomas wrote this to memorialize the death of his father, that we miss a curious detail. Thomas was indeed devoted and close to his father. But sitting down to write, a year and a half before his ill Dad 's death, a classical Villanelle on his expected demise, does seem more of an experiment in a recondite art-form, than a feeling familial farewell. Despite the formalism, this a fine acoustic poem with only one pause in the theme with "curse,bless me...", which is probably a guilty detail from his own life. Most people know nothing else than this as a poem of Dylan Thomas, it rings to our ears somberly the chord of age and death, but the form might seem overbearingly literary to someone who knows the history of this curious verse-form.

In 1951 Thomas wrote a friend that the "Lament"#161 was nearly finished and it was published in that year. This remarkable poem tracing out five stages of a man's life, somewhat in the manner of the Solon's poem on the stages of human life, is in a much simpler format that, say" Sir John's Hill" with it wild sweeping ranged of meters and sounds. Here each stanza of the five is a modular copy in form of the first one, with the lines limited to four stresses each. This might remind one of his earlier metrical patterns from before the war, but everything is changed. The stanzas are laid out perfectly but not in an obtrusive way for the reader who may easily pass by some of the technique. Each first line of each stanza marks a decade or more of life., each third line in brackets is a reminiscence from when the final stanza ends. Each second line rhymes with each sixth, and the word coal and black pervade the texture of this verbal tapestry.

This is a highly acoustic poem, it simply must be read aloud to get the drift and sense of it. On the other hand a college professor standing at his lectern and reading the lines in his usual academic voice, will miss the drive and thrust of the poem entirely. So I come back to what I was saying at the beginning of this essay, and what I had outlined in greater detail in the other article to remind you again that Poetry is at heart a Performance Art, that access to a good poem will usually demand a sensitive and interpretational reading to bring out the full sense of the words in their artful display. This leads me to the second part of this essay, which I devote to a display of the text of "Lament" in stanza sections, coupled with a recorded reading of the words in Performance Mode, as it were. Of course no performance style is fixed for recording, there are many different acoustic approaches, and if I read this to a poetry audience one day, I will probably read it is slightly differently than my recordings below. Print is fixed forever and copyrighted and academically edited away in textbooks with footnotes, while sound is fluid and constantlywelcomes change with changing interpretations.

Part II: The Lament.

When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,
The rude owl cried like a tell-tale tit,
I skipped in a blush as the big girls rolled
Nine-pin down on donkey's common,
And on seesaw sunday nights I wooed
Whoever I would with my wicked eyes,
The whole of the moon I could love and leave
All the green leaved little weddings' wives
In the coal black bush and let them grieve.

listen. .

When I was a gusty man and a half
And the black beast of the beetles' pews
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of bitches),
Not a boy and a bit in the wick-
Dipping moon and drunk as a new dropped calf,
I whistled all night in the twisted flues,
Midwives grew in the midnight ditches,
And the sizzling sheets of the town cried, Quick!-
Whenever I dove in a breast high shoal,
Wherever I ramped in the clover quilts,
Whatsoever I did in the coal-
Black night, I left my quivering prints.

listen . .

When I was a man you could call a man
And the black cross of the holy house,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of welcome),
Brandy and ripe in my bright, bass prime,
No springtailed tom in the red hot town
With every simmering woman his mouse
But a hillocky bull in the swelter
Of summer come in his great good time
To the sultry, biding herds, I said,
Oh, time enough when the blood runs cold,
And I lie down but to sleep in bed,
For my sulking, skulking, coal black soul!

listen. .

When I was half the man I was
And serve me right as the preachers warn,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of downfall),
No flailing calf or cat in a flame
Or hickory bull in milky grass
But a black sheep with a crumpled horn,
At last the soul from its foul mousehole
Slunk pouting out when the limp time came;
And I gave my soul a blind, slashed eye,
Gristle and rind, and a roarers' life,
And I shoved it into the coal black sky
To find a woman's soul for a wife.

listen. .

Now I am a man no more no more
And a black reward for a roaring life,
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),
Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room
I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw--
For, oh, my soul found a sunday wife
In the coal black sky and she bore angels!
Harpies around me out of her womb!
Chastity prays for me, piety sings,
Innocence sweetens my last black breath,
Modesty hides my thighs in her wings,
And all the deadly virtues plague my death!

listen. .

Or you can hear the whole poem in sequence here now.


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College