I OWE YOU so many apologies I don't know where to begin, but as I must begin somewhere let me please say, shaggy forehead to ground and tail wagging in a desperate effort at propitiation, how very very sorry I was not to have been able to answer at once your kind and charming, censorious and forgiving letter -- which I did not deserve a bit but which I was deeply delighted to have." Dylan Thomas was not the great poet that people used to think he was, but he surely deserves some sort of immortality as one of modern literature's most shameless and adroit apologizers. On the evidence of these collected letters, barely a month of his adult life passed without the need for him to plead for somebody's forgiveness. And he knew how to hit the right note for the right grievance -- or so it would seem, since nearly all the wounded came limping back for more.

Admittedly, most of Thomas's sins were small-scale: trifling debts he had "forgotten" to repay, appointments he had broken, scripts he had not delivered, lectures he had not turned up to give, poems he had promised to one magazine and then sold to another. As the years passed, explaining away this kind of misdemeanor became child's play. The cuddly Welsh cherub simply reached into his word-hoard and let rip -- either with an excuse so elaborately improbable that the recipient would be charmed into submission or, if the injury really was inexcusable, with a blast of lively self-abasement. He knew -- or came to learn -- that most injured parties could be mollified by a page or two of vintage Thomas verbiage, could be dazzled into believing that the same God that had touched the poet's tongue with fire had also withheld from him a desk-diary, a train time-table and a head for figures. The more august and respectable the addressee, the more likely that he would be titillated by the brilliant, beery chaos of this Artist's Life. Thomas knew this, and exploited it, well past the bounds of either comedy or decency.

Those who saw through Thomas, and yet still cared about his welfare, were no less susceptible. But they had to be approached quite differently. Thomas liked to think of himself as "the artist as a young dog." Time and again, he encouraged his friends to view him as a recalcitrant but essentially lovable domestic pet: "If, in some weeks' time, you see a dog-like shape with a torn tail and a spaniel eye, its tail between its legs, come cringing and snuffling up Heatherslade gravel, it will be me; look carefully at its smarmy rump that asks to be kicked, its trembling, penholding paw that scribbles, 'kick me,' in the dust. It will deserve your anger."

Much the same techniques are on display throughout the block of letters that form the other main thrust of this rather desolate collection. When Thoms was not apologizing, he was scrounging. Again, he could play the tormented, otherwordly bard if his target happened to be an art-intoxicated patroness, but if he was dealing with some hard-eyed bank manager, he could just as fluently present himself as the responsible husband-and-father, heroically trying to make ends meet. As his financial affairs became more tangled, and as his drinking made it ever more unlikely that he would be able to untangle them by honest toil, so he became more wordily inventive, and more ruthless -- quite ready, by the end, to cheat his own agent for the sake of a few extra guineas.

"If I look at the exterior world," Thomas once said, "I see nothing or me." He could have said much the same about his view of other people. He was a literary vagrant, forever on the lookout for loans, advances, grants and handouts, so that in the end all his relationships were discolored by the taint of money. When a check arrives, Thomas wags his tail with gratitude, but he is ready enough to sneer at his benefactors behind their backs, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he would ever have done anything for them. Or for anybody. The writer John Davenport, for example, was probably one of the few people Thomas would have named as a "real friend," but when Davenport ran into financial trouble Thomas backed away as if from an obscene mirror-image of his own fecklessness and sloth.

BUT THEN, even those who loved Thomas most devotedly could never quite persuade themselves to trust him. After a time, so expert had his act become that he himself could not separate the genuine Thomas from the fake. Impassioned letters to his wife resort to the same manufactured cadences, the same calculated flourishes of verbal "brilliance" as those in which he sucks up to Edith Stilwell when he wants her to provide him with a trip to Italy. "I am a freak user of words, not a poet. That's terribly true," he had confessed when young, and there is indeed something rather terrible in watching his abundant gift of eloquence dwindle into a mere manipulative instrument. Admirers of Thomas's early poems will no doubt regard this as the most significant of all his many treacheries.

At the outset, and for the first few years of Thomas's career, when he appears before us as a provincial prodigy trying to stir up the London literary scene, there is much to be admired, we think, in his all-out commitment to the idea of the poetic life. He is, at this point, a free spirit, free enough, certainly, to exercise a fierce critical disdain for most of the important figures of the day. Edith Sitwell, whom Thomas later in life approaches on all fours, was in 1934 able to be seen as "a poisonous thing of a woman . . . a literary publicist." By the time she was ready to publicize him, he was ready to be publicized. Thomas similarly alters his view of Geoffrey Grigson when that editor, rather suprisingly, begins to print his poems in New Verse. As soon as Thomas gets to London, and gets noticed, he is lost.

This volume spans the years 1933-53. These were, of course, momentous years in European history, but you would never thing it from a reading of Dylan Thomas' letters. The upheavals of the '30s pass him by: he sneers at cocktail party socialists and takes pride in his indifference to the Fascist threat. When war comes, his single concern is how to avoid active service. He has no intention, he declares, of wasting his "little body . . . for the mysterious ends of others." At first, he strikes the pacifist posture, but when he learns that C.O.s are often made to work harder than most army privates, he begins trying to wangle a soft job with the military. Throughout the war, his letters give no hint that the world is up to anything more serious than failing to provide Thomas with a decent living.

In the postwar period, Thomas seems to have known that his gift for poetry had gone and that he was doomed to a career of self-parody and histrionic self-destruction. The reading trips he made to the United States were, he said, meant to solve his financial troubles once and for all. But he knew, and those close to him suspected, that what he really wanted from America was (in his wife's words) "flattery, idleness and infidelity." He got all three. The most moving letter in this book is, in fact, the only one not written by Thomas. In 1953, Caitlin Thomas wrote to one of her husband's American benefactors, warning him that "Dylan has set his mind on returning to America to start the old racket in full swing again":

"I know you are haunted by this money bugbear too, which makes it all the better of you to bother with Dylan's vast complications and wangles. And since he has, as good as, given up writing, for the actor's ranting boom, and lisping mimicry, anything he sells is either a rehashed bubble and squeak of adolescence, or a never to be fulfilled promise in the future. Which obviously, when the future comes, and it always does in the end, makes things very difficult. And the only way out is to run, which we are just about, on the verge, of doing again.

"And what is more, it looks ominously like, in your direction. So look out, and bolt the doors . . ."

The doors were not bolted, though; they rarely were. Just over six months later, Thomas was dead, felled in New York by that famous "insult to the brain." The last two "letters" he wrote were actually telegrams: one an apology, the other a request for cash.

Paul Ferris is a meticulous editor (which is more than could be said for Constantine Fitzgibbon, whose Selected Letters this volume wholly supersedes), and he is to be admired for having emerged from this large labor, and from the writing of a full-scale Thomas biography, with his regard for the poet pretty well intact: "For every dissimulation, there is a plain statement of things as they are. For every piece of clowning, a splinter of melancholy. For every gibe at the shortcomings of others, a recognition of his own." The Thomas spell, it seems, still works on those who want it to. Perhaps it always will.