Young Dylan Thomas: The Escape to London

Since the death of Dylan Thomas at the age of thirty-nine, a legend has grown up about the poet and his life unsurpassed since the days of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Constantine FitzGibbon, novelist and historian, and a friend of Dylan’s, was selected by the trustees of the Dylan Thomas estate to write his biography. This first of two excerpts from THE LIFE OF DYLAN THOMAS,to be published this month by Atlantic - Little, Brown, reveals several hitherto unknown facets of the poet’s early years.

THE ATLANTIC

BY CONSTANTINE FITZGIBBON

SWANSEA, the town in which Dylan Thomas spent his first twenty years, or more than half his life, was in three ways a frontier: geographically, in that it is a seaport, and here was the junction between land and ocean; culturally, in that this was the meeting point of the Welsh and English languages, and it is to this that Dylan was referring when he wrote of Swansea’s “two-tongued sea"; socially, in that here lies the dividing line between the ancient, agricultural Wales of “the good, bad boys from the lonely farms” and the Wales of the mining valleys with their own particular and very vivid life. Such deepseated conflict can be destructive and stultifying, especially if it leads to mutual hatreds. On the other hand, it can also be highly stimulating to the questing mind. One of the functions, perhaps the most important and fruitful function, of the artist is to make a pattern out of chaos, to find an imaginative synthesis for the antitheses about him. And it was in the very nature of Swansea and of the Wales he knew that Dylan found one of his principal themes, for the divisions of the town passed, as it were, through his own body. He was a Welshman, but he was an English poet; no major English poet has ever been as Welsh as was Dylan. His instincts were those of a countryman, as is most of his imagery, yet he was happy only by the sea.

Dylan’s earliest education was a haphazard affair. According to his mother, she used to read to him when he was ill in bed, but she could not really spare the time. He more or less taught himself to read, she said, from the innocent English comics of the day, Puck, Rainbow, and Tiger Tim. Then, in stark contrast, there were the hours with his father, whom everybody called “D.J.” When D.J. came home from the grammar school where he taught, he would read to his little son, and what he read him was Shakespeare. Mrs. Thomas has said, “When he was very small I used to say to his daddy: ‘Oh, Daddy, don’t read Shakespeare to a child only four years of age.’ And he used to say: ‘He’ll understand it. It’ll be just the same as if I were reading ordinary things.’ So he was brought up on Shakespeare.”

D.J.’s pupils have never forgotten the passion, humor, and conviction with which he read Shakespeare to his English classes. One of them has told me that if D.J. missed his real vocation, it was not that of poet but of actor. The effect upon the little boy, in his sickbed or before sleep, was profound and lasting. The greatest poetry in the English language, perhaps in any language, flooded into an open, receptive, and above all fresh mind. Mr. Colin Edwards, who tape-recorded an interview with Mrs. Thomas shortly before her death, asked her at what age Dylan started to write. She replied, when he was about eight or nine. And what did he write?

“He started with poems. And, you know, he would ask his sister sometimes: ‘What shall I write about now?’ and you know what sisters are, not very patient with their brothers, and she’d say: ‘Write about the kitchen sink.’ He wrote a poem, a most interesting little poem, about the kitchen sink. And then another about an onion. That kind of thing.”

Did he write prose at that age too?

“No, poems, always poems.”

At ten, when he entered the grammar school, he suddenly found that he was one of the youngest, smallest, and weakest among four hundred boys. He was also one of the worst educated — but he had this one talent: he could write poems, and a poem of his appeared in the school magazine during his first term there. He was extremely sensitive and perhaps even more self-centered than most artists. To this must be added the fact that, like so many undersized men, he was determined to excel, to beat the record. (Was not one of his last recorded remarks “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.”) His ambition was enormous, but at this early age quite undirected even in regard to the sort of poetry he wished to write. In another family or at another school this clever boy’s flamboyant idleness would have been punished. He would have been compelled or at least encouraged to conform. But such compulsion, such encouragement, existed neither in his home nor at his school. Besides, he was so very good at English. And he was so lovable and small and odd that nobody had the heart to be hard on him. From the very earliest age he expected, and usually got, the treatment that was to be his throughout his life: there were always people to “look after” Dylan, to be delighted and astounded by him, to pick him up and dust him off, to accept him at his own idiosyncratic value. And if, as has so frequently been said, he never grew up, his friends too must bear some of the responsibility for this. He was so obviously vulnerable, and Dylan soon learned how this could be turned to his advantage.

His father frequently said that Dylan would never see forty. When he was eighteen, a “damned, diabetic doctor” told him that unless he drank and smoked less, he would be dead in four years. So of course time was short, too short for study. On the other hand, he did not die as soon as he had expected. And by the time he was thirty-five there is evidence that he was regretting his lack of education. It was one cause of insecurity, even of fear. He said to Randall Swingler, and to others, “One day they’ll find me out,” “they” being the clever, educated ones; he was afraid that he would be intellectually unable to cope with the opera he was to write with Stravinsky; he was afraid above all that he had exhausted his first lyric sources and that he was unequipped to move on. For by then the damage had been done, and it was done early. At the end of his life he said to John Davenport, “I can’t go on. I’ve already had twice as much of it as Keats had.”

Apart from the mysterious maladies which afflicted him when due to sit for examinations, his health was satisfactory during the grammar school years: had he then been tubercular, he could hardly have won the races he did. Dylan’s father wanted him to go to the university after the grammar school, though it is hard to see why. Perhaps he hoped that Dylan would get a degree which would enable him to fall back on teaching English should he fail to survive as a poet. But Dylan had every intention of surviving as a poet. Also, he had no wish to go on studying, and in view of his miserable academic record, he was surely right. Besides, with his usual timidity and his skill at self-protection, he must have feared that he would make a fool of himself at a university and be mocked. Cunningly he played on his father’s hero worship of Bernard Shaw: Shaw had had no higher education, and look what a fine, successful writer he bad become! So why should Dylan go on studying? He only wished to be a poet, “as good as Keats,” he told his mother at the time, “if not better.” His parents seem, as usual, to have surrendered quite easily to this rather specious argument. And if he were not to go to the university, there was no point in his continuing at the grammar school, where, in his last year, he had really done nothing save act, and edit and write most of the school magazine. Why not edit a proper magazine? Why not write poems all the time? In the summer of 1931, when he was sixteen and a half, he left Swansea Grammar School. His formal education was over.

DYLAN THOMAS first went to live in London in November of 1934. Until then his home remained his parents’ house at No. 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in Swansea. The three years from the time he left grammar school until he went to London were the most important period of his life as a poet.

It was in Swansea, living the somewhat anomalous life of an adolescent still at home but no longer at school, that he wrote all the poems in his first volume, 18 Poems, most of those in his second, Twenty-five Poems, and, in embryonic form at least, a considerable number of his later ones. Not only was this his most productive period, but it was also the one in which his style became set, and it was to be scarcely modified until about the middle of the war. Thereafter he wrote about twenty poems in all, and these seem to me to mark a new departure. It is therefore 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. Its importance is thus obvious.

“Yet it is a difficult period about which to write biographically. The basic facts of his life are known: that he worked as a journalist, first on a paper and then free-lance; that he acted a great deal; that he began to drink, and did not fall in love; and above all, that during these years he created not only his own poetry but also his own image of the poet, upon which the Dylan Thomas legend is based. But to clothe these bare bones with human flesh I have had to rely on the memories of others, inevitably unreliable after thirty years and often contradictory. Until the long series of letters to Pamela Hansford Johnson begins, in September of 1933, there are very few written records or letters.

Swansea in 1931 was not a happy place. What town was in that year of political crisis, of deepening depression, and of widespread unemployment? And South Wales was among the areas worst hit: the mining industry had never recovered from the terrible strikes of 1925 and 1926, and to this was now added the shutdown, partial or complete, of many steel mills and factories and the further closing of coal mines. This was the time when young men with good degrees from Oxford or Cambridge were lucky to get jobs as shoe salesmen: when shoe salesmen whose shops had gone smash were lucky to get jobs as unskilled laborers; when unemployed laborers were lucky if the Means Test allowed them to draw a dole. Dylan was therefore lucky to be taken on, first as a reader’s boy and then as a very junior reporter, by the South Wales Daily Post, now the South Wales Evening Post, when he was not quite seventeen.

He seems to have realized this, and, in the beginning at least, to have taken his career as a journalist seriously. For a few weeks he even took shorthand lessons, about twelve in all, on the advice of his friend Charles Fisher, who also worked on the paper. Mr. Jeffreys, who tried and failed to teach him shorthand, has written, “I remember him as of medium height, a chubby, round red-faced boy. He used to come into my middle room and try to take an interest in what I was teaching him, but he seemed to be miles away — far off in a dream world of his own.” And Miss Phoebe Powell, a telegraphist on the paper, remembers him as he then was: “nice, quiet boy. You couldn’t get a word out of him. He was always well dressed — nice linen — and he had darkish curly hair. It was obvious his mother kept him beautifully turned out.” His pay on the paper was of course very small, but since he lived at home, it was all pocket money. “For two years,” he wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson, “I was a newspaper reporter, making my daily call at the mortuaries, the houses of suicides — there’s a lot of suicides in Wales — and Calvinistic ‘capels.’ Two years was enough.” Indeed, it was considerably too much. His job on the Post lasted in fact for some fifteen months, during the first part of which he was employed reading proofs, and spent a considerable portion of his time writing doggerel on the back of the long green galley sheets. Mr. Eric Hughes, who worked on the same paper at the same time, has told me that when Dylan was promoted to reporting, he was without doubt the worst newspaperman there ever was. Not only was he totally inaccurate, getting the names of the suicides wrong and bringing back false information from the mortuaries and the chapels, but he rapidly developed the habit of writing what he, rather than what his editor, wanted. Thus when ordered to report a choral rendition of Hiawatha, he devoted two lines to the performance and the rest of his piece— which should, of course, have gratified the singers and their relations by listing all their names — to a sustained attack on the poetry of Longfellow.

As if this sort of thing were not enough, he soon made a discovery which will eventually prove fatal to almost any cub journalist — namely, that one hockey match, one bazaar opening, one auction, one local wedding is very like another, and that it is possible to report them without having actually attended them, the time thus saved being devoted to billiards in the YMCA. Nor did he always take the rudimentary precaution of checking with someone who had attended. As was bound to happen sooner or later, he filed, and the Post published, a report of a sporting event — a lacrosse match, I believe — which had in fact been canceled. On another occasion he forgot to put in the routine telephone call to the fire station, and the paper thus missed the news of a big fire at the hospital. Mr. R. M. Jones, who is still with the Post, has recalled, “In those days Dylan’s chief beverage was coffee which he and his cronies would drink in the Kardomah while they put the world to rights after a morning’s reporting in the police court. On arriving they would ask the girl at the cash desk where Malcolm Smith, the paper’s manager and a regular client, was sitting. If he was upstairs they would go down: if he was down, then they went up.”

By Christmas of 1932 it was agreed between the editor, Mr. J. D. Williams, and himself that it would be as well if his employment on the staff of the paper were terminated. To Pamela Hansford Johnson he wrote, late in 1933, “I, too, have a wicked secret. I used to write articles for the Northcliffe Press on ‘Do Novelists Make Good Husbands?’ and ‘Are Poets Mad?’ etc. — very literary, very James Douglas, very bloody. I don’t do that any more now: I ran the Northcliffe Press into a libel suit by calling Miss Nina Hamnett (who wrote the book called Laughing Torso, I don’t know whether you remember it) insane. Apparently she wasn’t, that was the trouble.”

there were other troubles. For the Post he wrote a series of articles on the poets of Swansea. This was considered quite safe, and Dylan was given a free hand to say what he wished about the local bards, long dead and usually long forgotten until he dug up their literary remains for brief examination before final reinterment. Unfortunately, though, one local worthy was not dead. A Mr. Howard Harris arrived in an immensely bad temper at the Post offices. His anger was not lessened by the discovery that the critic who had so airily dismissed his life’s work was himself not yet age nineteen.

WE KNOW a great deal about what Dylan was writing during this Swansea period because his poetry notebooks have, with one exception, survived. There are four of these, starting in April, 1930, and ending in April, 1934. One, covering the period July, 1932, to January, 1933, is missing, but typescripts of some of the poems it contained were left with Trevor Hughes, who has deposited them with the British Museum. Assuming that during these six months he wrote about the same number of poems as in the previous and subsequent half-year periods, we find that during these four years, between the ages of fifteen and a half and nineteen and a half, he wrote over two hundred and fifty poems which he considered successful enough to transcribe into his notebooks.

From those notebooks that have survived he published, in his lifetime, fifty-four poems, sometimes in their original form but more frequently in a revised form or even almost totally rewritten. It is again permissible to assume that some of the published poems, other than those in the British Museum typescripts, existed at least embryonically in the missing notebook. This means that of all the poems he chose to publish, over half were written, in at least their original form, before he ever left Swansea. During this same period he wrote all the “poetical” short stories which together formed the unpublished volume called The Burning Baby (1938).

In these four years the poet’s style shows a progression toward an ever greater density of meaning as he twisted syntax, piled image upon image, and juxtaposed unexpected adjectival nouns in his determination to produce maximum effect and the greatest possible measure of poetic truth. While experimenting in the boldest way with the sound and meaning of words, his rhythms at this time were cautious, almost monotonous, the five-beat line or some minor variant thereof being his usual meter. And almost all these early poems are short. Nor does he seem to have been as preoccupied with rhyme as he was later to become when writing longer poems with a far more ambitious rhythmic structure. In the early days it was really all words; it was, as he put it, the color of saying.

One early theme, or set of themes, of which he quite quickly wearied was madness, witchcraft and diabolism in general; he soon recognized this type of morbidity as adolescent and essentially derivative. He disliked it when he encountered it, wearing new feathers, in the work of the surrealists. And out it went. His preoccupation with death, however, grew stronger and more profound with the passing years. The subjective basis for this preoccupation — his belief that he had not long to live — was in some ways transcended by his own sort of pantheism, by the identification of himself and his mortal body with all nature:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age: that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer.

This famous poem was first written in the summer of 1933, but the concept remains central throughout his work. Even earlier is “And death shall have no dominion,” in the original version of which occurs the line:

Though lovers shall be lost love shall not.

Finally, there is what might be loosely called a Freudian synthesis in his poems between the death wish and the urge to procreate, expressed now through one set of images, now another, often through several sets simultaneously, physiological, biblical, even astronomical: death and life cease to be antitheses, but are the yin and the yang of one great, mysterious process that the poet shares through his own body with all nature. Such, in crude oversimplification, was Dylan Thomas’ principal contribution to English poetry. And it is already present in many of his earliest poems.

IN THE spring of 1933 Dylan’s sister, Nancy, had married Haydn Taylor. They were living on a houseboat in the Thames Valley, and in July of 1933 Dylan wrote to Trevor Hughes:

I will be in London for a fortnight, from Bank Holiday on, staying on the Thames with Nancy, my sister, who married some months ago. Write and tell me where I can come to see you, or where I can meet you sometime. We might go to the ballet together. Or we might sit and talk. Or sit.

Bank holiday in that year was August 7. Either just before this visit or immediately after his return to Swansea, he wrote to Geoffrey Grigson, who had earlier that year begun publication of New Verse, probably the most important poetry magazine, with the exception of Poetry (Chicago), to be published in the English language so far in this century. To him he wrote:

I am sending you some poems to be considered for publication in New Verse. . . . Out of a large number of poems I found it extremely difficult to choose six to send you. As a matter of fact, the enclosed poems were picked almost entirely at random. If you think the poems unsuitable for publication, and if, of course, you are sufficiently interested, I could let you see some more. I probably have far better ones in some of my innumerable exercise books.

A considerable period lies between the writing of some of the enclosed poems, as perhaps you will be able to see. Whether time has shown any improvement I find it hard to say, as I have developed, intellectually at least, in the smug darkness of a provincial town, and have only on rare occasions shown any of my work to any critics, generally uninterested or incompetent. If you could see your way clear to publish any of these poems, or find in them sufficient merit to the reading of some more, you would be doing me a very great favour. Grinding out poetry, whether good or bad, in such an atmosphere as surrounds me, is depressing and disheartening.

In fact, this visit had for Dylan a far more important purpose than merely to see his sister. (There he fell into the Thames after a long session in the local pub. He could not swim, but fortunately his brother-in-law managed to fish him out with a boathook.) It was a sort of reconnaissance into literary London.

He had then had only one poem and no prose published in London. The poem was “And death shall have no dominion,” in its original form, which he later revised drastically before including it in Twenty-five Poems. It had appeared the previous May in The New English Weekly, of which A. R, Orage was then editor. Politically rather eccentric — Orage advocated a sort of guild socialism and also Major Douglas’ ideas on Social Credit — the N.E.W.’s literary side was very good. Ezra Pound kept a benevolent eye on it, and later George Orwell was its unofficial literary adviser. But unfortunately it could not afford to pay its contributors anything at all. Other outlets were essential.

During this August visit Dylan saw Orage, who, Dylan claimed, opened the conversation by asking him if he were a virgin; whatever his reply, it was apparently satisfactory, for the first of his stories appeared a few months later in The New English Weekly. He also saw Sir Richard Rees, who had recently taken over the editorship of the Adelphi from Middleton Murry. Rees accepted a poem “No man believes, when a star falls shot” and published it in the next edition of his magazine, the first of Dylan’s poems to be bought in London Trevor Hughes believes that it was at this time that Dylan took some of his poems to T. S. Eliot, who then edited The Criterion and who, from Faber and Faber, was already publishing virtually all the good young English poets. The meeting, which may have taken place a few months later, was not a success. Not only did Eliot fail to find merit in Dylan’s poems, but Dylan mistook his somewhat distant, though courteous, manner for condescension. He told Trevor Hughes that Eliot had treated him as if he were a case “of pitboy to poet,” a curiosity in a raree-show. Anyone who ever met T. S. Eliot will know that this can only have been a gross misunderstanding on Dylan’s part, resulting from timidity and from an inferiority complex. Eliot had himself no recollection of this first meeting. He wrote to me, shortly before his death:

I remember being shown a number of his poems before his work was taken on by Richard Church for Dents and I remember discussing the poems with Sir Herbert Read. I think he agreed with me but I will not swear to this, when I came to the conclusion that I wished all the poems were as good as the best. I regret having been so fussy because Dylan Thomas’s work was always hit or miss. It was a peculiarity of his type of genius that he either wrote a great poem or something approaching nonsense and one ought to have accepted the inferior with the first-rate. I certainly regarded him always as a poet of considerable importance. I do not remember who or what brought him first to my attention. It may have been Herbert Read or someone else or he may have brought them to me himself.

I never knew Dylan Thomas well. I always liked him. . . .

This first visit to London was neither an unqualified success nor a total failure. He had discovered which magazines and papers might publish his poems, and he had had at least a whiff of the literary atmosphere in the capital. One editor besides Sir Richard Rees accepted his poems. This was Victor Neuburg, who ran “Poets’ Corner” in a newspaper called The Sunday Referee, of which Mr. Mark Goulden was editor, and Mr. Hayter Preston literary editor. “That sanity be kept” was published there on September 3, 1933, and was described by Neuburg as “the best modernist poem I have yet received.” On October 29 he printed “The force that through the green fuse,” which he called “cosmic in outlook ... a large poem, greatly expressed.” And before “Poets’ Corner” was wound up two years later, Dylan had had five more published there; by then he was famous in literary circles and could publish his poems almost where he wished. But it was “Poets’ Corner” that gave him his start as a poet, and it was indubitably Victor Neuburg, with Mark Goulden’s backing, who set him on the path that was to make him, within twenty years, the most widely read English poet of the age — indeed, perhaps the most widely read since Byron.

BACK in Swansea, Dylan felt frustrated and depressed. His friends were leaving or had left, Fred Janes to London to study painting, Dan Jones soon to Budapest on a music scholarship. Nancy had gone, and 5 Cwmdonkin Drive was an unhappy house, for Dylan’s father now had cancer of the tongue, for which he was undergoing painful and protracted treatment with radium needles.

Dylan’s correspondence with Pamela Hansford Johnson would seem, during this sad winter, to have been almost his sole intellectual outlet. To the girl whom he had then not met he poured out his heart and soul, or at least such parts of them as he believed suitable for her inspection. It was she who had begun it all, writing him a fan letter when his first poem appeared in “Poets’ Corner” on September 3. Neuburg had already published several of her poems, and Dylan was clearly delighted by his first letter of appreciation from the great world. That she was both a poet and a young woman — he hoped an attractive one, and was soon reassured when she sent him the photograph he had asked for — helped enormously. Writing to Pamela in October, 1933, from BlaenCwm, he described what it was like to be a boy who has tasted briefly the freedom and excitement of the city but has been forced back by frosty circumstance upon his own dull roots:

I am staying, as you see, in a country cottage, eight miles from a town and a hundred miles from anyone to whom I can speak on any subjects but the prospect of rain and the quickest way to snare rabbits. It is raining as I write, a thin, purposeless rain hiding the miles of desolate fields and scattered farmhouses. I can smell the river, and hear the beastly little brook that goes gingle-gingle past this room. I am facing an uncomfortable fire, a row of china dogs, and a bureau bearing the photograph of myself aged seven — thick-lipped, Fauntleroy-haired, wide-eyed, and empty as the bureau itself. There are a few books on the floor beside me — an anthology of poetry from Johnson to Dryden, the prose of Donne, a Psychology of Insanity. There are a few books in the case behind me —a Bible, From Jest to Earnest, a History of Welsh Castles. Some hours ago a man came into the kitchen, opened the bag he was carrying, and dropped the riddled bodies of eight rabbits on to the floor. He said it was a good sport, showed me their torn bellies and opened heads, brought out the ferret from his pocket for me to see. The ferret might have been his own child, he fondled it so. His own eyes were as close-set as the eyes of the terrible thing he held in his hand. He called it “Billy fach.”

Later, when I have finished this letter, I’ll walk down the lane. It will be dark then; lamps will be lit in the farmhouses, and the farmers will be sitting at their fires, looking into the blazing wood and thinking of God knows what littlenesses, or thinking of nothing at all but their own animal warmth. . . .

It’s impossible for me to tell you how much I want to get out of it all, out of narrowness and dirtiness, out of the eternal ugliness of the Welsh people and all that belongs to them, out of the pettiness of a mother I don’t care for and the giggling batch of relatives. What are you doing? Pm writing. You’re always writing. What do you know? You’re too young to write. (I admit that I very often look even younger than I am.) And I will get out. In some months I will be living in London. You shall call every day then and show me the poetry of cooking. I shall have to get out soon or there will be no need. I’m sick and this bloody country’s killing me.

In his letters Dylan soon was adopting what he must have regarded as a masterful, masculine tone. It is typical that he should have done this through poetry, or rather through his sensitive, intelligent, kind, but extremely firm criticism of the poems she sent him. Poems were his world, and here he was the dominant male. Although Pamela was then a much-better-known poet than he, and was soon to have a book of her poems published, this literary relationship was established almost at once and lasted as long as their friendship. It surely says much for her, both as a woman and as a writer, that she accepted it without hesitation.

She had recently escaped from a youthful love affair which had collapsed because the man had shown insufficient comprehension of her emotional requirements, which were finding expression in her poems. Her life in Battersea, an office worker by day and a poet by night, was not an exciting one. Nor did Victor Neuburg and the Creative Lifers satisfy her eager and curious mind, which is presumably one reason why she wrote to Dylan in the first place. There was thus, on her part as on his, every reason to welcome the huge correspondence that passed between London and Swansea before ever they met. It is sad that her side of it has been lost. We can only be grateful that she has preserved his and that it is now in the Lockwood Memorial Library of New York University in Buffalo. Seldom can there have been such literate pen pals, and seldom had a poet on the very threshold of his career written as much about what he was and how he lived and what he hoped to do. In late 1933 he wrote to her:

Swansea.

Night and Day: a Provincial Rhythm.

At half past nine there is a slight stirring in the Thomas body, an eyelid quivers, a limb trembles. At a quarter to ten or thereabouts, breakfast, consisting of an apple, an orange, and a banana, is brought to the side of the bed and left there along with the Daily Telegraph. Some five minutes later the body raises