Lightning and Lullabies

Dylan Thomas was not only a young genius but a genius of youth.

Sometimes a poet’s most memorable lines are his least characteristic. If style, as Johnny Cash supposedly said, is a product of your limitations, a sudden stylistic shift can represent both the crossing of an inner boundary and a self-critique from the other side. When an aging Wallace Stevens writes in “Madame la Fleurie”:

It was only a glass because he looked in it. It was nothing he could be told.
It was a language he spoke because he must, yet did not know.

he’s describing his own poetic idiom, which he’s forced to admit is private, mannered, and obscure, rather than a faithful “glass” or mirror of the world. Every poet confronts this reality eventually; for Stevens, who cultivated an impersonal, philosophical style, the admission is especially poignant. But it’s the next line that kills, because it’s so precisely un-Stevensian:

It was a page he had found in the handbook of heartbreak.

Throughout his career Stevens uses the word “despair”—more refined, more abstract—some half a dozen times. “Heartbreak” he uses this once and never again.

Similarly, the Dylan Thomas lines I always remember first are from Thomas’s most famous and, in some ways, least characteristic poem:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

I love that wonderfully dry “forked no lightning”—love it all the more because Thomas was not known as a poet of understatement. Where Stevens mourns language’s failure to mirror the world, Thomas—nearing the end of his own, much shorter life—mourns its failure to illuminate the world. Probably his “wise men” are meant to be elderly intellectuals, but the lightning reminds us of Thomas himself: the young prophet-poet straining to summon thunderbolts with every phrase.

In these lines he delivers, instead, a deft little shock. “Do Not Go Gentle” as a whole is far more plainspoken than the average Thomas poem: 146 of its 168 words are monosyllables. This is a way of stuffing the confined villanelle form to the gills; the poem rebels against restraint, sings in its chains. Its choppy melody keeps changing key from lively (“how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay”) to solemn (“Rage, rage”)—yet the “hook” of the great double refrain sticks in the mind forever. Ornate verse arias may have won Thomas his first celebrity, but this brief, rueful dirge became his trademark.

If there had been any chance of his growing old, Thomas would have turned 100 this October. His boozy death, now as famous as his life, turns 61 the following month.

The shrewdest summation of his art—and an excellent introduction to poetic craft in general—remains Gregory Orr’s 1988 essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” In it Orr outlines four qualities toward which poets gravitate in varying degrees: story, structure, “music,” and imagination. The scare quotes around “music” are his own, and he holds up Thomas as a poster boy for the dangers of its excesses:

… Thomas’s most successful poems are those where his primary musical temperament is constrained by the limiting qualities of structure (the villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”) or of story (the minor but effective story progressions of “Poem in October” or “Over Sir John's Hill”).… Hart Crane’s reputation, despite his great gifts, is precarious in large part because he so frequently relied on a fusion of “music” and imagination to make his poems. One can say the same of Dylan Thomas. Such a marriage makes it almost impossible to create closure, to constellate a wholeness.

Thomas, in other words, composes fundamentally by ear, sometimes to the exclusion of all considerations beyond the sonic. More often he gives free rein to both music and imagination—neither of which, according to Orr, helps shape a poem, because both “concern our longing for liberty, the unconditional and limitless.”

Orr’s scheme dovetails neatly with a more recent, ingenious theory about the lyric gift. Writing last year for the Kenyon Review website, Amit Majmudar pondered the mystery of poetry’s original teen prodigy:

Rimbaud attained his precocity, it seems to me, through music. The young Rimbaud only seems to be composing French poems; he is actually composing music using French word-sounds as his instrument, and the grammatical rules of language and the forms of poetry as compositional elements, like harmony or counterpoint. For all their clarity of theme or tone—this one is about a boat, that one about hanged men—Rimbaud’s poems hardly ever present a logical argument, character development, or narrative progression.…

This seems exactly right; Rimbaud embodied and perhaps inspired his lover Verlaine’s line “De la musique avant toute chose,” or “music before anything else.” He also showed the way for other prodigies to come. Hart Crane, for one, developed his signature style by his early 20s, and it’s no coincidence that he was deeply influenced by Rimbaud and the other Symbolists. Again and again, despite his epic designs in The Bridge and elsewhere, the logical girders of his narratives melt into the “unfractioned idiom” of wordplay and sound-play.

Thomas, too, was a young phenom indebted to Symbolism (“the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive,” he called himself—the nickname has not caught on), and he, too, was the kind of kid who rarely repaid his debts. More even than Crane, who at least gestures toward tragic autobiography and sweeping historical narrative, Thomas overwhelmingly sticks to the plainest possible “stories.” Man is born, grows up, loves, suffers, dies: the plot points are universal and hardly more than pegs on which to hang the music.

At times his sheer indifference to narrative is comic. Midway through the bombastic elegy “After the Funeral,” he pauses to acknowledge that the late Ann Jones needs “no druid of her broken body” to intone over her grave. Then, whoosh! he’s off again—raising his druidic chant, “call[ing] all / The seas to service,” so upstaging the deceased that the reader never learns she was his aunt.

Structural constraints proved more fruitful for him, if only to a point. One experiment with extreme structure—his sequence of “concrete” or “shape” poems—is a telling failure. Faced with the artificiality of corraling text into rhombuses and triangles, he starts plucking rhymes straight from the nursery: “wild / Child,” “bright / Light,” “I / Die.” It’s as if, far outside his comfort zone, he reaches for the simplest “ear candy” as comfort food.

Such crude chiming would embarrass an amateur; for Thomas, it exposes the heart of his process. As in a one-man jam session, he composes by acoustical noodling—working from assonances, rhythms, and rhymes rather than images, stories, conceits. When he’s “off,” the result is a formless riff. When he’s “on,” it’s a revelation.

Thomas’s reputation as popular bard—an Orpheus or Taliesin reincarnate—trailed him from his earliest career in Wales. From there, as detailed in Andrew Lycett’s Dylan Thomas: A New Life (and Adam Kirsch’s fine biographical essay in The New Yorker), he evolved into a proto-rock star. He may well have founded the clichés of the type: the whirlwind American tours, the adoring fans, the orgiastic indulgence, the death in the hotel later made infamous by the likes of Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, and Leonard Cohen. And, of course, Bob Dylan.

Dylan’s adoption of Thomas’s name remains an uneasy asterisk over the poet’s legacy. Noting the popularity of the name “Dylan,” which was once obscure even in Wales, Kirsch concludes that “later Dylans only borrowed its aura of youthful, brooding rebellion; in the most literal sense, Dylan Thomas made his name.” True enough—but Paul Simon’s ’60s satire “A Simple Desultory Philippic” tells the rest of the story:

He's so unhip that when you say “Dylan,”
He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was.
The man ain’t got no culture.

In that sense, Bob Dylan borrowed Thomas’s name and never gave it back.

The through-line between the two men is music—or rather the fusion, in different proportions, of music and words. Bobby’s lyrics didn’t really mature until he reached his mid-20s; craggy voice and soulful harmonica compensated in the meantime, securing his early fame. Likewise, Thomas’s talent as a “linguistic musician” (Majmudar’s term for Rimbaud) surely explains his precocious rise. His impassioned live performances didn’t hurt either. To revisit his breakthrough material—such as “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” composed before he turned 20—is to see afresh its magic and limits:

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

Chanted to the firmament this sounds terrific; on the page it raises questions. What is a “weather’s wind” as opposed to a normal wind? Has the wind ever asked a teenage poet to explain the concept of time? Even in his later career Thomas’s sound sways you far more than his sense—persuades you that his thoughts on time, love, and the universe matter at all. Isn’t the same true of nearly every pop singer?

Music speaks with special, primeval urgency to and through the young. Its mysterious intuitiveness, the sway it holds over bodies worldwide, lends its creators an aura of the cosmically attuned. These qualities have long transformed charismatic young musicians into cultural demigods, participants in an age-old tradition of consecrated youth. In the verbal music of poets such as Thomas, Orr hears “the infant's joy in the babble of coo and sound,” “the cadences of evangelists,” Dionysian “ecstasy and trance”—elements every bit as present in classic rock.

So Dylan yields to Dylan. The beat goes on, varied by generation: in our time this cultural authority has largely migrated to another form of lyric, one that Majmudar links with Rimbaud:

Consider Rimbaud’s closest kin in contemporary America: The rapper. Here, too, words get used more as musical instruments than logical tools; rappers are, with their relentless rhyme strings, even closer to pure music than Rimbaud….

This generalization might surprise the average rapper, who deals at least as much in story elements (personal narrative, political commentary) as abstract “linguistic music.” But there’s no question that heavy rhyming lends itself to associative thinking—to freestyling. And Majmudar’s not the first to compare Rimbaud, brash visionary and outlaw, with the rapper archetype. Theirs is a role that extends beyond them, beyond genre, dying and reviving with the times.

Call them the rebel prophets.

“I have never been one of you; I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race that sang on the scaffold...”
—Rimbaud, A Season in Hell (Paul Schmidt trans.)
I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither
A ghost nor man, but mortal ghost.
And I was struck down by death’s feather.
I was a mortal to the last
Long breath that carried to my father
The message of his dying christ.
—Dylan Thomas, “Before I Knocked”
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation, an’ they gave me a lethal dose
—Bob Dylan, “Shelter From The Storm”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
—Kanye West, “I Am a God” (from Yeezus)

The list could go on: Ginsberg’s “destroyed” and “reincarnate” beatnik in Howl; Plath’s images of torment and resurrection in “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°.” Hart Crane used to shout while drunk: “I am Baudelaire, I am Whitman, I am Christopher Marlowe, I am Christ!” Any artist you can picture a) doing this or b) making Crane’s list probably fits the type.

Rebel prophets are meteoric. They tend to die young or lose their touch by middle age; until then they seem both callow and wise beyond their years. (Think of Dylan’s weary croak.) They’re prone to mercurial, even manic behavior. They’re prickly outsiders fond of “me vs. them” distinctions. At the same time they’re magnetic: they gain impassioned followings, whether in life or death.

They like comparing themselves to Jesus. Or to their own, original versions of Jesus.

They sing.

And always—as with charismatic preachers—they have that instinct for bluster and charm. How else can they survive until the next masterpiece, paycheck, drink? In his introduction, Lycett can’t help but rationalize Thomas’s every sin:

But bourgeois society is unsympathetic to artists…. Dylan retaliated as best he could. He became drunk, he borrowed money and did not return it, he stole his hosts’ clothes…. He should have lived in an earlier age when medieval princes cared for their poets … during my research, the catalogue of Dylan’s vices seemed to grow inexorably. Yet, even at his most exasperating … by no means alone in regarding him as a secular saint—someone almost Christ-like.…

All this on one page! On the same page, Lycett wonders “how I would have got on with him.” I think it’s a safe bet that the friendship would have cost him the shirt off his back. Who among us can say otherwise? Who wouldn’t give the author of “Fern Hill” a break?

What’s finally most endearing about Thomas is that he was not only a young genius but a genius of youth. He retained a baby face and an “appealing innocence” (Lycett) throughout his life. He loved childhood profoundly and brooded on the disaster of maturity:

… time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
              Before the children green and golden
                           Follow him out of grace.…

(“Fern Hill”)

The great character in his poems was not himself but his younger self, which he occasionally projected onto other young people as well. Thus his elegy for a firebombing victim “Aged a Hundred” is sincere but inert, while “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London” plays its music straight down your spine:

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

It’s a gorgeous gesture of imaginative sympathy from a poet who felt the end of his own childhood as a kind of death. The singsong cadences, the fairytale eeriness (worms as “long friends”)—both weave an unnervingly visceral lullaby. We’re right down in the grave with this girl. She’ll never live to rage against old age; the best a bard can do is sing her to sleep, honor her passage into that good night.

Then too, the last line points toward something genuinely mysterious. We can guess what it means, but we can’t be quite sure—yet. At moments like these the original Dylan, self-made prophet and martyr, 100 years old and forever young, conjures the kind of lightning Randall Jarrell said good poets catch five or six times in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms.

Originally Published: July 23rd, 2014

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

  1. July 26, 2014
     Gene Boyles

    Fun to read, fine insights.

  2. July 29, 2014
     Dan D'Agostino

    Acoustical noodling? A perfect judgement for a tone-deaf age. How
    unfortunate that he couldn't workshop his one man jam sessions into
    something more anemic to suit today's taste. Let's face it, all Thomas had
    going for him was the ability to move people through words. How old
    school to think poetry's about using words to express an experience of
    emotion. Poetry's moved on!

  3. August 2, 2014
     Aura Sullivan

    This article by Austin Allen, is so beautifully constructed and written. I enjoyed this tremendously and feel I was given new insights into one of my favorite poets work.

  4. August 4, 2014
     Charles W. Pfeiffer

    Austin, thank you for the fine article. Dylan Thomas has been for me a "go to" poet for the last 60 years. His Child's Christmas in Wales has been a staple of my household for as many years as well.
    He was introduced to me by a speech teacher, Eric Lies, OSB, (Order of St. Benedict)who taught us in the Minor Seminary in St. Meinrad Archabbey. Fr. Eric died recently and I mourned his passing; what a contribution he made to my life. He taught us how to listen to a voice and how to use our own voices, and he used Dylan Thomas as a prime example of a sonorous, rich, and resonant voice and a man who knew how to use it fully.
    Thomas' voice and poetry and been a lifelong meaningful joy.