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Welshman and chaotic drunk, but a sublime poet
Collected Poems 1934 - 1953 - Dylan Thomas
Member Name: ladybracknell
Collected Poems 1934 - 1953 - Dylan Thomas
Date: 10/01/12, updated on 10/01/12 (86 review reads)
Advantages: All his published poems plus a couple of others, all in one volume
Disadvantages: The notes are copious but irrelevant to most readers with no explanations on the text
Not my words but those of one of Wales' favourite, though somewhat flawed sons, Dylan Thomas. Thomas was one of, not just that country's but the World's best poets and following his death, his stature amongst British poets was high enough to merit him a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.
English as we all know, can be a wonderfully lyrical and descriptive language and when in the hands of a master such as Dylan Thomas it can paint vivid pictures and create deep emotions merely from the way he groups words on the page. The quote above is probably not one of his best and despite that rather petulant outburst, he lived for a large part of his life in Wales, finally settling in Laugharne in Carmarthenshire in a small house right on the coast with views which surely fired some of his most inspired poetical imagery.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea in 1914, the son of a grammar school English master. After leaving school, he worked briefly for a local newspaper before moving to London and embarking on a full time writing career and quickly establishing himself as one of Britain's finest living lyric poets. He published his first collection of poetry, '18 Poems' in 1934 and continued writing until his untimely death in 1953.
Like so many artists, Dylan Thomas had his demons and was famously alcoholic and much of his life revolved around drinking to such an extent that his wife frequently had to lock him in to ensure he fulfilled his writing obligations. His own view of alcoholism differed greatly from that of the medical profession. 'An alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do.'
Thomas didn't just confine himself to poetry, however, but also published short stories, film scripts and probably his most famous work, the wonderful play for voices 'Under Milk Wood'. He also undertook several lecture tours to the USA and it was on the fourth of these tours that he collapsed and died. He had just celebrated his 39th birthday.
The Collected Poems
This book of Thomas's collected poems covers his output from 1934 to 1953 and includes his five published collections of poetry as well as some poems original excluded from previous collected works and also includes his unfinished poems, 'Elegy' and 'In Country Heaven'. The latter was a project Thomas had embarked upon following the dropping of the atom bomb.
This definitive collection has been edited by Walford Davies, who holds the chair of Literature at the University of Wales, and Ralph Maud, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, an acknowledge expert on the works of Dylan Thomas. Davies and Maud are jointly responsible for the notes on the poetry which also form part of this book.
I know many people regard poetry as one of the lesser arts coming a poor second to music and painting and even within the bounds of literature it frequently takes a back seat but in its purest form, a single poem can distil emotions and paint pictures far more vividly than pages and pages of prose. To my mind, Dylan Thomas was unparalleled amongst his contemporaries.
The structure of this book which prints the poems chronologically allows the reader to see how Thomas's work grew and developed over time with his earlier poems being much lighter in tone and subject matter turning more serious as the years went by and with his later poems showing that he was very aware of his own mortality, probably emphasised by his failing health, and these poems seem to focus very much on reflective self-awareness, the cycle of life and impending death with such poems as 'Lament' which details a life from optimistic youth to old age and the poem 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' which he wrote following his father's death, little realising that his own would shortly follow.
'Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rage at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light'
Dylan Thomas acknowledged that not all of his poems were immediately comprehensible, stating that his work frequently contained 'too much overweighted imagery which leads too often to incoherence' Thomas wrote in a letter to his publisher that though some of his work was difficult, 'every line is meant to be understood; the reader is meant to understand every poem by thinking and feeling about it...' I have to admit that with some of his poems, I do sometimes struggle to catch the meaning, especially as he often gets so totally carried away with his descriptions of a fairly innocuous element within the poem that the overall meaning becomes completely obscured. Having said that, the incredible beauty and musicality of the language Thomas uses more than helps to compensate for any lack of understanding. Some, of course, are much easier to comprehend and Thomas' love of words is evident on every page.
'In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath,
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death'
I think what all these poems reveal about the poet himself, however, is that despite his being a deeply flawed man with his finger firmly on the self-destruct button, Thomas was first and foremost a man of intense feeling and spirituality and that is what shines out of the pages of this book. Given his prodigious capacity for drink, I can only assume that some of these poems were written whilst under the influence. Most drunks attempting to write poetry would come up with some kind of appalling doggerel but not Dylan Thomas and, in fact, towards the end of his life by which time his alcoholism was completely out of control, he wrote some of his best and most eloquent poetry.
The subject matter is diverse ranging from love and loss and lust to home and God and country, all delivered in Thomas's own fabulously lyrical style. Although the poems are given in chronological order, the book begins with Prologue written in 1953 and includes a facsimile of the poem in Thomas's own handwriting as it was submitted to his publisher. After than they follow the order in which they were published.
The poems take up the first 152 pages of the book with the remaining 100 or so pages being given over the notes. Sadly, I found these notes to be very little help in reading those verses I found difficult to understand. Instead they seem to waffle on about whether he intended to use a particular word or not and comparing various published versions of a poem. I'm sure they would prove very useful to anyone studying Dylan Thomas's poetry in great depth but for the layperson they are really very inadequate.
Overall, this collection of Dylan Thomas's poetry is comprehensive in that it includes just about every poem Thomas published during his lifetime but its accessibility is somewhat limited by the lack of explanations about the poems themselves, dwelling far too much on matters of syntax and word choice instead which are totally irrelevant to the general reader.
Summary: The collected poems of one of Wales' finest sons
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