Dyland Thomas accomplished something rare for a poet: he became famous. And his work became popular - an rarer achievement. Touches of that fame and popularity are still evident: every Christmas, for example, bookstores sell numerous copies of A Child's Christmas in Wales , an exnchanting memoir Thomas wrote about his childhood. His best poems - "Fern Hill," for example, or "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good. Night" - have lost little of their power in the years since Thomas died at age 39 in New York City. The lush diction of his poems, and the rich voice with which he delivered them to the world, are still imitated by some poets today.
But The Deaths of the King's Canary , a novel Thomas wrote in collaboration with John Davenport, is not likely to inspire much limitation. The novel is a satirical portrait of the literary world of pre-war England. The story centers on a party thrown by hilary Byrd to celebrate his selection as the new poet laureate - the "king's canary." The party turns into a literary freak show, full of confusing activity and elliptical depictions of improper behavior. In the spirit of Timon of Athen, who served warm water for dinner, Hilary offers his guest certain "queer little creature" which "looked horribly like mice." They are in fact mice and how his guests respond to this man course is one of the funnier bits in the novel. And from time to time, there are flashes of brilliance in the narrative: a "nature poet," for example, who is intimidated by the great outdoors and sees apples as "big red threats on a tree."
Literary satire has definite limitations. As a kind of writing, it has a built-in tendency to be, or become, distinctly minor, as the victims of the satire fade and are forgetten. The Death of the King Canary owes much to the literary satires of Thomas Love Peacock, the Romantic novelist who remains the master of the genre in English. But this novel by Thomas and Davenport is too thin and obscure to come close to the quality of Peacock's best work. (Viking, $7.95.)