POETRY IN THE 30s-40s: DYLAN MARLAIS THOMAS

 ESSENTIAL HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND

At the beginning of the 1930s the political and social situation determined in Britain and in the Western World by the 1929 Wall StreetCrash, also called The Black Friday, brought economic slump, discontent and unemployment. In the meanwhile the success of Fascism inItaly and Nazism in Germany worried the political scene. As President Roosevelt stated in one of his speeches, hunger and unemployment fostered dictatorships. At their beginning both Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy seemed to be improving their country’s economic problems. Liberal forms of Government seemed to have lost power to control events and political extremism seemed to be expanding.

The experiment of Soviet Union, instead, seemed to offer a model for the radicals of all Europe, who were the indignant witnesses of the poverty and oppressions of the poor classes. After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their control of the country. The Russia under Stalin had become a world industrial power. It was an inspiring achievement and most intellectuals of the period, ignorant of Stalin’s methods, felt sympathy with the Bolsheviks.  The principle of Marxism offered them an optimistic view of the future and attracted the new generation who manifested solidarity with the oppressed and the persecuted.When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, they went to fight against the fascists on the side of the Republicans, enlisting in the International Brigade.

In 1938 Hitler annexed Austria and the following year invaded Poland. The Western Powers were responsible for this situation because they had adopted a policy of non-intervention and had let Hitler become more and more powerful. They had believed that a strong Germany would provide protection against the growing power of theSoviet Union. When they realised the danger coming from Nazism, they declared war on Germany. In 1940 Hitler invaded Denmark,Norway,Holland,Belgium and France.England had to face hard continued bomber raids which half destroyed London and other important towns. In 1941 the Nazis attacked Russia and the Japanese attacked the American Naval Base of Pearl Arbour and theUSA entered the War. The war lasted until 1945: in May it was over in Europe and in August the H-bombs released on the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima andNagasaki ended it definitively.

World War Two ended millions of lives, destroyed houses, factories and roads, changed the political asset of Europe and brought the horror of the atomic bomb. Most important of all, German and then Russian conquests in Eastern Europe had provoked a massive refugee problem, with millions of people wandering across Europe in search of a new home. Anyway its most cruel impact was on ordinary people. Unlike The First World War, which affected mainly soldiers, there was no one living in the countries at war whose life was not affected in some way. This was the experience of British people, too.

At the end of the war a General Election in Britain brought to the Government the Labour Party. A period of reforms started and the so called Welfare State was created to remove social injustice. The State took care of its poor citizens and assured them a system of social service: The Education Act, the National Health Service Act, the National Insurance Act, provided respectively free school education, free medical and hospital service and assistance in case of unemployment, sickness, and maternity as well as retirement pensions. The Welfare State had of course its cost and the Government was obliged to increase its income by taxation. A policy of nationalization was started, too: the Bank of England, the Coal Industry, The British Railway, Gas and Electricity were nationalized. The Government didn’t forget the Homeless and a programme of house-building was begun.

                                      POETRY IN THE 1930s-1940s

Poetry in the 1930s/1940s was enormously influenced by the pre-and-post war situation.As far as the literary influence, it developed under the influence of the French Surrealist Movement, Marx’s theories and the new psychology of Carl Jung. A great influence   came from the works of two Cambridge critics: I.A. Richard and F.R. Leavis.    In Principles of Literary Criticism  Richard maintained that literature should help man to better understand and organize his experiences in order to produce a more successful society; in Culture and Environment  Leavis underlined the importance of maintaining cultural standards in the face of industrialism, the growing power of the Mass-Media and of universal education.Both Richards and Leavis considered that a writer must write clearly and simply about things as they were, and this was what the writers of the thirties did.The poets of the thirties wrote their poems with a purpose: to make people realize the implication of what was happening around them. They also realized that Western Society was beginning to lose its organic vitality and that people were in danger of losing their individuality.

As a reaction to the Modernist and Georgian Poets, a group of poets in the thirties, labelled as The Pylon Poets, had a social and political commitment (The word “Pylon” was used to allude to their use of industrial images in their poetry: power stations, roads, trams and trains).They were also known as The Divided Generation because they were divided between their longing of being poets and committed citizens as well. The majority of them were militant political activists and proposed left-wing solutions. They believed in Communism as the ideal means to overcome alienation, poverty and sufferings. They saw in capitalism the source of all social evils, and advocated Revolution as the only possible solution . They wrote about man in society and also analysed the crisis of modern man in psychological terms. They took the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War but many of them changed later their mind because disillusioned with Stalinism. The most outstanding figure was Wystan Hugh Auden.

They were attacked by a group of young poets,   The New Romantics.   They were against intellectual and committed poetry and were in favour of a poetry in which they felt they could liberate their emotions. They wrote poems dealing with love, sex, birth and death. Following Surrealism, they went beyond the rational and concentrated on images which came spontaneously to the mind.One of the most important among the was Dylan Thomas.

DYLAN MARLAIS THOMAS( 1914 – 1953 )

Dylan Thomas was one of the leaders of the New-Romantic Poets. He had a very stormy life and died tragically in New York of brain damages caused by alcohol on November 9th, 1953.

LIFE:  He was born in Swansea, Wales, on 27th October, 1914. He did not go beyond grammar school. After working as a reporter on a Swansea newspaper, he moved to London and worked at the BBC writing some radio-plays. He was constantly in need of money because he spent it as soon as he earned it, and further he was very fond of drinking. Even after his marriage, he went on living a bohemian and penniless life quite often depending on the generosity of his friends. After the Second World War he moved toUSA and became very popular there taking on a series of public poetry readings. But the alcohol had mined his health and he died inNew York at the age of 38.

WORKS: The most important part of his literary production consists of poetry, even if he wrote prose works, a play and a number of film scripts. Among his prose works we can mention Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, an imaginary autobiography, mocking Joyce in the title. Among his drama and film scripts we can mention Under Milk Wood, a radio-play for voices recorded by Thomas himself. The most important volumes of poetry are Eighteen Poems, Twenty-five Poems, The Map of Love and Collected Poems.

FEATURES: To better understand his poetry, we have to focus on some elements of his life. The first was his Welsh origin and his childhood spent in Swansea, in Southern Wales, in close contact with the beautiful landscape of the coast and its people and tradition (Wordsworth) but also a depressed area with unemployment and poverty. His Welshness and his childhood remained one of the main sources of inspiration in his poetry which was mainly nature poetry. The second element that affected his poetry was the Second World War. When it broke out, Thomas fell into a deep state of depression and became more socially committed. Many of the poems written during this period deal with the tragic consequences of the War. The third element was his unconventional life-style his fondness to alcohol and his constant need of money. As far as his literary influences, they are described in an Essay titled Notes on the Art of Poetry. He wrote that the main influences on him were the Bible, the Folk Tales and the Scottish Ballads, Shakespeare, Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and the forces of Modernism in the early decades of the century.

Thomas’s poetry is complex, difficult and not fully comprehensible even if it is based on simple universal themes: love and suffering, birth and death, man and woman, sex and the bond between the humans and the natural world, the innocence of childhood, the corruption of the world, the never ending cycle of nature, creation and destruction. He makes frequent use of imagery, powerful and suggestive but also obscure. The poet himself was aware of it when he wrote: ‘My lines, all my lines are of the tenth intensity. They are not the words that express what I want to express. They are only the words I can find that come near to express a half.’ This is a good description of many of his poems where the meaning is not fully clear. His poetry is seen as a natural organic process of constructive and destructive images. Thomas wrote to a friend: “ A poem by myself needs a host of images. … … I make an image and let it bread another. I let this image contradict the first. … … I make a third and a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict. Each image holds within it the seeds of its own destruction; my method is a constant building up and breaking down of images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time“.

NATURE: Thomas reacted and opposed the social realism and political commitment of the 1930s returning to themes of Nature. He sees Nature as a life-giving force, an energy that flows through every living creature and unifies all things. It is connected with the life itself, from birth to death. There is a certain unity between life and death, between creation and destruction. Both life and death are involved in the same process of regeneration driven by the Supreme Will who is at the heart of the universe. This superior Will drives both vegetables and human life and it is preserver and destroyer at the same time (Shelley). He believes in a cosmic nature where death isn’t seen as an end to living, but as a metamorphosis into a perpetual life in a cosmic eternity.Death is only a stage in the eternal cycle of living and dying which involves not only man but all nature. In And Death Shall Have No Dominion (of one of his best known poems) the rebirth of man takes place through Nature: “Dead men naked they shall be one/ With the men in the wind and the west moon; / When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone. /They shall have stars at elbow and foot … …’ and their heads will ‘hammer through daisies/ break in the sun till the sun breaks down“.

 The unity between man and nature is also the main theme of The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, in which man is seen immersed into nature, involved in the natural process of the cycle of life and death: ” The force that … … drives the flower/ drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ is my destroyer“.

Thomas’s message is contained in another poem, This Bread I Break, in which, contrasting past and present, he laments about how man’s intervention on nature has destroyed it. In the past man and nature lived within the merry cycle of natural life. Man has shattered the natural harmony,”broke the grape’s joy … … broke the sun and pulled the wind down“.   Nature suffers at man’s hand, but notwithstanding that she makes a sacrifice for man, then every man must make a sacrifice for the salvation of nature.Just as death and life, man and nature coexist in the eternal cycle of destruction and creation.

THE ROLE OF THE POET: His idea on the role of the poet is rooted on the Welsh tradition: the poet is a spiritual guide for the people; he is a bard endowed with a visionary power and has the function of a prophet.

STYLE: Thomas loved words and music and considered his poems like songs. His poetry is intensely musical. The importance of the musicality goes back to the influence of the Mother Goose tales his parents taught him when he was a child. He was fascinated by their acoustic effects because he thought that the musicality of words could help poetry to reach people’s minds and soul long before the real meaning of words. He believed that a poet was a singer of songs and used, as said before, to have public readings of his poems aloud. He often revised and polished his verses taking into account that they had to be also read aloud. He put particular attention to how they would sound.

THOMAS/THE ROMANTICS: Thomas shared many themes with the Romantics. Among them, the most important are the conception of nature as a living force flowing through everything, men, animals, plants and apparently inanimate objects and the idealization of childhood seen as a mystical age in which the glory of creation shines through everything.

THIS BREAD I BREAK

This bread I break was once the oat,                Questo pane che spezzo un tempo era avena,
This wine upon a foreign tree                             Questo vino su un albero straniero
plunged in its fruit;                                               si immergeva nei suoi frutti;
Man in the day or wine at night                         L’uomo di giorno o il vento nella notte
laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.          ha piegato le messi e spezzato la gioia                                                                                               dell’uva

Once in this time wine the summer blood        In questo vino, un tempo, il sangue dell’estate
knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,       pulsava nella carne che vestiva la vite;
Once in this bread                                                Un tempo, in questo pane
the oat was merry in the wind;                           l’avena gioiva al vento;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.       L’uomo ha spezzato il sole e ha rovesciato il                                                                                      vento.

This flesh you break, this blood you let             Questa carne che spezzi, questo sangue a   Make desolation in the vein,                              cui lasci  devastare le vene,                       Were oat and grape                                             Erano avena ed uva                                    born of the sensual root and sap;                        nati da radice e linfa sensuali;                     My wine you drink, my bread you snap           Bevete il mio vino, mangiate il mio pane.

It was published in 1936 in the “25 Poems”. As in other poems, the main theme  is the analogy between   the life of nature and the life of man: nature and man coexist just as life and death coexist in the eternal cycle of destruction and creation.

The word that may help us to interpret the poem is ‘ONCE’, contained in the first two stanzas. It contrasts past and present and let us see how man’s cruel intervention on nature has destroyed it: man “broke the grape’s joy ….broke the sun and pulled the wind down”. The oat and grape lived “merry in the wind”, then man’s destructiveness “broke the sun, pulled the wind down”.

The Keywords  of the poem are oat/grape/bread/wine/flesh/blood. Oat and grape, the products of man’s tilling of the soil, are strictly connected with bread and the wine, man’s fundamental physical survival . They  stand respectively for  Flesh and blood  then bread stands for man’s body and wine for man’s blood. This internal relationship between the world of nature and the human one underlines that the essence of man and nature is the same.

The analogy between bread/wine and flesh/ blood suggests a religious interpretation reminding us of the dogma of the transubstantiation of the Catholic Church. In the last stanza they become Christ’s flesh and blood as the host and wine in the liturgy of the Mass:”My wine you drink, my bread you snap”. This allusion extends the connection between the vegetal and animal world to the divine. The poet wants to point out that nature suffers at man’s hand but it makes a sacrifice for man just as Christ himself made a sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. Then every man must make a sacrifice for the salvation of nature.   The poet also involves the reader   in the natural cycle when he shifts from the “I” of line 1 to the “you” of line 11.

In the lines 11-12 there is   an autobiographical reference: blood is referred to wine that “make desolation in the veins”. It is a clear allusion to the self-destruction Thomas was causing to himself  by drinking too much wine.

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION

And death shall have no dominion.                    E la morte non avrà dominio.

Dead men naked they shall be one                     I morti ignudi saranno tutt’uno

With the man in the wind and the west moon;   Con l’uomo nel vento e la luna in occidente;

When their bones are picked clean                     Quando le loro ossa saranno spolpate

and the clean bones gone,                                     e l’ossa pulite scomparse,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;            Stelle avranno essi al fianco e sotto i piedi;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,            Benchè impazziscano, saranno sani di mente,

Though they sink through the sea                      Benchè sprofondino nel mare,

they shall rise again;                                             risaliranno a galla;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;                 Benchè  gli amanti si perdano, l’amore no;

And death shall have no dominion.                    E la morte non avrà dominio.

And death shall have no dominion.                    E la morte non avrà dominio.

Under the windings of the sea                            Sotto i meandri del mare

They lying long shall not die windly;                 Giacendo a lungo non moriranno nel vento

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,         Sui cavalletti contorcendosi mentre i tendini                                                                                    cedono,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;  Legati a una ruota, non si spezzeranno;

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,              La fede tra le loro mani si schianterà in due,

And the unicorn evils run them through;         E l’unicorno del peccato li passerà da parte a                                                                                   parte;

Split all ends up they shan’t crack;                    Distorti da ogni parte non si smembreranno;

And death shall have no dominion.                    E la morte non avrà dominio.

And death shall have no dominion.                    E morte non avrà dominio.

No more may gulls cry at their ears                  Più non potranno i gabbiani gridare ai loro                                                                                        orecchi

Or waves break loud on the seashores;         O l’onde non infrangersi fragorosamente a riva;

Where blew a flower may a flower no more       Dove sbocciò un fiore mai più un fiore

Lift its head to the blows of the rain;                   Sfiderà i colpi della pioggia;

Though they be mad and dead as nails,              Benchè siano pazzi e morti stecchiti,

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;  Le teste di quei tali spunteranno                                                                                                        martellanti dalle margherite;

Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,             Irromperanno al sole fin che il sole                                                                                                     sprofonderà,

And death shall have no dominion.                         E la morte non avrà Dominio.
The poem deals with the theme of the final redemption after death. The title is taken from Saint Paul’s The Epistle to the Romans as translated by King James in his version of the Holy Bible:”knowing that Christ being raised from the death, died no more, death shall have no dominion on him”.

The title line opens and closes each stanza both to stress the immortality of the soul and the triumph over death and to introduce the main theory of his philosophy, that is the idea of birth and regeneration. It is an affirmation of faith in life: whatever suffering our body withstood at death,” twisting on racks when sinews give way/ strapped to a wheel …… split all ends up”, they shall not break and crack because they will become whole and sane again at the resurrection.

To stress that death will be always defeated the poet uses in the first two stanzas contrasting images: “ Though they go mad they shall be sane / Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again/ Though lovers be lost love shall not /……lying long shall not die/ strapped to a wheel shal not break/ split all ends up shall not crack”; the use of anaphora in the first stanza(Though….Though …Though)reinforces the idea of the triumph over death.

The poem is made up of elaborate images where death isn’t seen as an end to living but as a metamorphosis into a perpetual life in a cosmic eternity.

The rebirth takes place through nature: “ Dead man naked ……when their bones are picked clear and the clear bones gone” they will be one with the wind and the stars, “they shall have stars at elbow and foot” and their heads “ will hammer through daisies and break in the sun till the sun breaks down .

The poem opens in a biblical style with an ‘and’ followed by an imperative like in ten commandments. This opening places the poem in a timeless context.

In line 3 the poets dislocates two terms may be to obtain unexpected meanings. The man in the moon and the west wind become “the man in the wind and the west moon”. The man in the moon refers to the human face suggested by the moon’s surface. This image linked to the other image, “stars at elbow and foot”, makes man become part of the universe.

THE HUNCHBACK IN THE PARK

1 A solitary mister                                                   un signore solitario

Propped between trees and water                        puntellato tra alberi e acqua

From the opening of the garden lock                     dall’apertura del lucchetto

That lets the trees and water enter                       che l’acqua e gli alberi fa entrare

Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark                    fino alla cupa, a sera, campana domenicale

7 Eating bread from a newspaper                          Mangiava pane da un giornale,

Drinking water from the chained cup                     beveva acqua dalla tazza incatenata

That the children filled with gravel                         che i bambini riempivano di ghiaia

In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship         nella vasca della fontana dove salpavo la                                                                                         mia barca

Slept at night in a dog kennel                                   Dormiva di notte in un canile

But nobody chained him up.                                     ma nessuno lo incatenava.

13 Like the park birds he came early                     Come gli uccelli del parco mattiniero,

Like the water he sat down                                       come l’acqua sedentario

And Mister they called Hey Mister                         E Signore chiamavano ehi Signore

The truant boys from the town                                gli scolari vagabondi

Running when he had heard them clearly             scappando quando li aveva uditi

On out of sound                                                          fuori portata di voce

19 Past lake and rockery                                         Oltre il laghetto e i finti scogli,

Laughing when he shook his paper                         gobbi per burla, ridendo quando

Hunchbacked in mockery                                  agitava il giornale, dentro lo zoo chiassoso

Through the loud zoo of the willow groves         del boschetto di salici, sfuggendo

Dodging the park keeper                                    al guardiano del parco col bastone

With his stick that picked up leaves.                  con cui raccoglieva le foglie.

25 And the old dog sleeper                                     E il buon cane solitario

Alone between nurses and swans                     sonnecchiava tra cigni e bambinaie

While the boys among willows                          mentre i ragazzi tra i salici

Made the tigers jump out of their eyes              lanciavano tigri dagli occhi

To roar on the rockery stones                          a ruggir sugli scogli ed i boschetti

And the groves were blue with sailors              erano blu di marinai.

31 Made all day until bell time                             Per tutto il giorno fino alla campana

A woman figure without fault                              una figura perfetta di donna,

Straight as a young elm                                      alta e diritta come un giovane olmo,

Straight and tall from his crooked bones            dalle sue ossa contorte creava,

That she might stand in the night                       che potesse restare la notte,

After the locks and chains                               dopo i lucchetti e le catene,

37 All night in the unmade park                              tutta la notte nel parco disfatto,

After the railings and shrubberies                   dopo che le inferriate e le macchie d’arbusti

The birds the grass the trees the lake              gli uccelli l’erba gli alberi il laghetto

And the wild boys innocent as strawberries     e i ragazzacci innocenti come fragole

Had followed the hunchback                               seguito avessero il gobbetto

42To his kennel in the dark.                               al suo canile nel buio.

(Trad. di A. Marianni)

This poem is contained in the collection Deaths and Entrances published in 1946. Unlike other poems by Thomas, it is more easily understandable.The poet is recollecting an episode of his childhood. The poem is set in a park with trees, birds, a lake, a fountain, rockery stones and groves. The habitual visitors are the hunchback, the children, the truant boys and the nurses. There is the park keeper, too. The setting and the actions of the people are very realistic. The hunchback’s actions evoke feeling of solitude and poverty while the boys’ ones evoke happiness and carefree mood.The park represents freedom both for the boys and the hunchback: the boys escape from houses and schools and the hunchback feels free, “nobody chained him”.The only limitation he has is his malformation which prevents him from enjoying life as the other people. He is the only character in the poem not to have responsibilities: the nurses look after the children, the park keeper opens/closes the park and has to keep it tidy.  One of the truant boy was Thomas himself as we can guess from  line 10: “In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship”.

The poem describes a day in the poor life of an hunchback: he eats “bread from a newspaper” and drinks water from the fountain using “ the chained cup”, he sleeps in a dog-kennel. The boys play tricks to him, filling the cup with gravel, tease him “hunchbacked in mockery” an run away when he shakes his paper. Notwithstanding their ruthless actions, the boys are not described as wicked. In line 40 they are    “innocent as strawberries”. They play their wild games and they imagine tigers roaring on the rocky stones. In some way they are important for the hunchback because they make him feel alive. The only moment of joy for the hunchback is when he dreams. His recurrent dream is a beautiful woman “ without faults/straight as a young elm”.   The poem contains many similes taken from the world of nature (“like the park birds ….. like the water …. Straight as a young elm …. Innocent as strawberries “)and some metaphors (made the tiger jump out…).


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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