DYLAN THOMAS called himself "a fat little fool" a bad-natured slob," a "filthy, undignified creature." Others described him as "an angel," and some thought he read his work "like a Roman Emperor in the throes of an epileptic seizure." When he was young, Edith Stwell called his work "nothing short of magnificient." Towards the end of Thomas's life, Kingsley Amis reported that the poet often behaved "like a charlatan." He was the sort of man and poet, who provoked extreme reactions.
"I've lived a bit quicker than lots of people," Thomas wrote to a friend when he was only 21. The claim had some validity. By that time, Thomas had already published his first book, been through his first affair (with Pamela Hansford Johnson), acquired his lifelong taste for alcohol, and worked as a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post. By then, he had also left the stifling atmosphere of provincial Swansea for the excitement of London and a career as a poet.His starring role in what his new biographer calls "the drama of himself" was already getting off the ground.
Paul Ferris's account of Dylan Thomas's "quick" life is an intelligent, well written and impressively documented book that ranks with the best literary biographies of recent years - books such as Ronald Hingley's biography of Chekhov and Montgomery Hyde's life of Oscar Wilde. It displaces Constantine Fitz Gibbons's "authorized" biography of Thomas that appeared in 1965. Fitz Gibbon's Life of Dylan Thomas, though it is a readable and thoughtful book, is more polite and not quite so candid as Ferris's Dylan Thomas. There are times when Ferris seems to be digging deeper than is necessary - as when he passes on gossip about such matters as the size of Thomas's genitals. But mostly he is unpretentious and fair. And there is a stronger sense of the momentum of Thomas's life in this new book as well as a fuller history of Thomas's experience in America, than that given by Fitz Gibbon.
One of the last chapters in Ferris's biography is entitled "No Money, Few Poems." That title could describe most of Thomas's adult life. By 1953, the year he died in New York at the age of 39, Thomas had made himself famous. The fame rested on his reputation as a Welsh wildman and on his unique poems. No one quite like him had ever appeared on the literary horizon before: "His poetry and his life went to extremes in a way that people could recognize," Ferris writes.
But in both his life and his poetry, Thomas had great difficulties. His "colorful" escapades disguised a life of determined self-destructiveness. He lied to his friends, stole clothing and money, borrowed from everyone in sight with no intention ofpaying back; when drunk, he was capable of urinating and defecating on the floor and pretending to be a dog. He was frequently sick and demanded, throughout his life, much attention and babying. When he was 22, he married Caitlin Macnamara and began a turbulent, passionate union of love letters and tenderness balanced by what Caitlin described as "terrible physical fights, bangings and pummellings" and other varieties of incompatibility. With his poetry too, there were problems. Although he enjoyed creative periods later in life - "Fern Hill," quite possibly his best poem, for example, was written in 1945 - his style was formed and much of his best work was written in one version or another by the time he was 20.
In his poetry, Thomas did not "make it new," as Ezra Pound had urged poets to do. But he did set himself apart from the literary establishment of his time - as represented by poets like Eliot, Spender, and Auden - by re-shaping elements of the Romantic tradition into a style more suited to his excessive love of words and to his theory of images breeding and contracting each other within the poem.
Thomas's work, if not quite thought of contemptuously by poets today, is certainly not regarded with a great deal of respect in the literary/academic establishment. There is a Reverse Influence Effect in literature by which a poet's imitators can make his work look worse than it really is. And Thomas inspired plently of bad imitation. In her book, Leftover Life to Kill, Caitlin Thomas singles out those "ardent followers" of Thomas who could interpolate "an extra bone, or worm, or heron, in surprising places, to give it that extra touch of authenticity." Dylan Thomas impersonators are becoming rarer these days. His work is more likely to be parodied than aped. New York poet Tony Towle, for example, has given the world one memorable takeoff on a famous Thomas line: "and Beth shall have no opinion."
Ferris is sensitive to the problems Thomas's work presents: "The desire to display himself to the world as an artist was very real to Thomas. He did it in his life and in his work. His poems are thick with the affectations of poetry. It is hard to avoid a suspicion that his starting point was not so much that he had 'something to say' as that he desiredto be a poet."
Thomas once called himself "a freak user of words, not a poet." And his biographer notes that Thomas "wrote in a state of mind where words and objects became, for the moment, essentially the same." Yet Thomas was more than a freak of poetry. He was disciplined craftsman who used his talent for striking organiz imagery, as well as his sense of the sound and rhythm of language, in a number of poems that will be read for a long time: "Poem in October," "Fern Hill," "poem on His Birthday," and "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" among them. Had he been able to give to his poetry a measure of the humor and simplicity that mark other works of his such as "A Child's Christmas in Wales" or Under Milk Wood, his lesser poems might have been more successful.
But Thomas was not really interested in success. In his early days as a reporter he wrote an essay on an obscure Welsh writer about whom he said, "He failed to be great, but he failed with genius." Thomas seems to have had the same ambition.
As he grew older, his self-destructiveness became a major statement: a refusal to grow up, to accept maturity and responsibility, knowing somewhere inside him that to grow up would be cut off the primary source of his poetry - his extravagant Celtic soul forever taking sides against the grown-up world. He was one of the most precocious poets in the history of English literature and suffered the fate of many other precocious poets: as they age, they find themselves a hard, if not impossible, act to follow. Thomas was trapped: it was difficult for him to write out of any consciousness except that of a child-adolescent, yet he could not stop time from turning him into a man. This tension seems to have resulted in his defiance of mature, "proper" behavior.
If Thomas's behavior seems embarrassing today, as his work can sometimes seem bombastic, it is important to grant his memory one concession: he was completely serious in his devotion to his work. Most of his poems went through hundreds of rewrites. And he was admirably honest about his "place" in the literary world of his time, claiming at one point to be "top of the second eleven."
"Instant Dylan" - the beer-guzzling, story-telling, often offensive character he created out of himself - is a pose that has something terrifyingly human behind it: his naked vulnerability. He was a man torn apart by nothing more or less than his identity as a poet. If his work now seems exaggerated, and his famous reading voice too overblown to enchant new followers, his struggle with himself will remain a fascinating story. Paul Ferris tells it well.