Oompah and High-Wind: Dylan Thomas, Richard Hughes

Dylan-Caitlin

(Dylan and Caitlin Thomas)

On 16 May 1938, Dylan Thomas updated Henry Treece, the poet and novelist to whom he was writing regularly for a time – they later fell out over Dylan’s refusal to identify himself as an adherent of The New Apocalypse, a movement co-founded by Treece:

‘I’ve been moving house. That is, I’ve left, with trunks and disappointment, one charitable institution after another and have found and am now occupying, to the peril of my inside and out, my rheumatic joints, my fallen chest, my modern nerves, my fluttering knutted pocket, a small, damp fisherman’s furnished cottage—green rot sprouts through the florid scarlet forests of the wallpaper, sneeze and the chairs crack, the double-bed is a swing-band with coffin, oompah, slush-pump, gob-stick and almost wakes the deaf, syphilitic neighbours—by the side of an estuary in a remote village.’

I, the first named, am the ghost of this sir and Christian friend
Who writes these words I write in a still room in a spellsoaked house:
I am the ghost in this house that is filled with the tongue and eyes
Of a lack-a-head ghost I fear to the anonymous end.

Laugharne_Castle_2015

The remote village was of course Laugharne: not yet the Boat House but the cottage in Gosport Street found for Dylan and his wife Caitlin by the novelist Richard Hughes. In the same letter, Dylan wrote: ‘The village also contains bearded Richard High-Wind Hughes, but we move, in five hundred yards, in two or more different worlds: he owns the local castle, no roof and all, and lives in a grand mansion by its side and has a palace in Morocco.’

‘High-Wind’ refers to Hughes’ most famous novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, originally called The Innocent Voyage, a tale of pirates and children: you’d feel safer with the pirates. He was the author of the world’s first radio play, Danger, broadcast in 1924. After In Hazard (1938), there was a gap of over twenty years before he published The Fox in the Attic (1961), the first part of his unfinished trilogy, The Human Predicament, tracing the history of the years following the Great War and the rise of Nazism. The Wooden Shepherdess followed in 1973 but Hughes died three years later.

I read them about ten years ago, in old orange Penguins but then acquired the New York Review Books editions, with introductions by Hilary Mantel. They’re so damned attractive that you could go for a walk with one of them on your arm or, indeed, one on each arm (not literally, perhaps). Their edition of The Wooden Shepherdess includes the twelve chapters that Hughes completed of the planned third volume before his death.

Fox-in-the-Attic

The two volumes we have are a really impressive achievement, a brave tackling of the near-impossible task of weighting both individual and collective histories in a novel so that the balance is held: the context not skimped but the individuals still not pressed like flowers between the pages. The central character, Augustine, is certainly unobservant enough in some instances to be believable and Hughes has a good grasp of the sleight of hand by which great gaps can be left which are satisfactorily filled in by the pressure exerted on either side by existing material rather than needing the writer to shovel in ballast for dear life before the structure cracks. Still, the murky world of the rising Nazi party perhaps convinces even more – because it is less familiar (to the British reader, anyway), and because Hughes is so obviously thoroughly conversant with the historical sources, to an extent that renders it unnecessary for him to labour the fact.

Do we now need to labour the unsettling echoes of that time in this? Probably not: anyone likely to be able to hear them has probably already done so. Martin Kettle certainly has:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/16/brexit-britain-weimar-germany-far-right-democracy-contempt-politicians

Also on this day in 1791, in an edition of 1750 copies (two volumes quarto, price two guineas), James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. Many of Johnson’s remarks, so faithfully recorded by Boswell, are specific to his time, to his social, cultural and political context. Others are applicable to other times too:

‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.—Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’

Dylan, Dai Greatcoat and Welshness

Dylan-Caitlin-via-Telegraph

(Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin via The Telegraph)

Dylan Thomas (born 27 October 1914) was probably my first poetic crush or obsession or, let’s say, preoccupation. No doubt I had others of a non-poetic kind and it was not solely as a spectator that I approached Thomas: I myself was to be a poet in the Thomas mode – a lord of language but also comedian, raconteur, champion drinker, roaring boy. I can see now that I actually read relatively few of Thomas’s poems: I just read them a lot. They were, for the most part, the ones that remain the best known and most often cited: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’, ‘I see the boys of summer’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘When all my five and country senses see’, ‘The hunchback in the park’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, ‘Fern Hill’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, and perhaps especially then, ‘Poem in October’ (I won’t worry too much about the indented lines, which will vanish when I post this):

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set forth
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.[1]

When I became aware of the scheme in ‘Prologue’, written especially for the 1952 Collected Poems—the two central lines rhyme, then the lines on either side of those and so back to the first and last lines—I admired that excessively for a time. (Then thought it a gimmick, mere ‘technique’ – and now simply like the poem.)

We tend to grow wary of youthful enthusiasms; we may encounter contrary or negative views of their objects; we may hug them protectively to ourselves and try to sustain them; but often other things crowd in to absorb our attention and the early enthusiasms—or infatuations or passions—are deprived of air and light and can’t always be resuscitated. Yet they’re not always gone for good. Sometimes we come back to them, years later, perhaps on quite other terms, and establish different but often surprisingly strong relations.

DJ-outside-Faber

(David Jones outside the Faber offices: http://www.david-jones-society.org/david-jones.html )

My most recent poetic preoccupation, still current in fact, is with David Jones. It’s a point of interest that, while Dylan Thomas was actually Welsh, born in Swansea—though much of his material is not substantially or conspicuously Welsh—David Jones, though he had a Welsh father, was born in Brockley, south-east London, spent very little time actually in Wales, but was hugely interested in Welsh history and literature. A great deal of his work, concerned with ‘the matter of Britain’, deals with themes of Welsh antiquity, mythology, language. Of course, both Dylan Thomas, ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, and David Jones speak in the accents of upper-class Englishmen.

(The remarkable 1965 interview—two hours of film edited down to around twenty minutes—between Jones and Saunders Lewis, produced by Tristram Powell, is available here: http://www.david-jones-society.org/research-resources.html
(Also accessible through this site are the three invaluable films about Jones by the late Derek Shiel)

Despite the prevalence of Welsh matter in David Jones’s work, he tends to be viewed—when he’s not being neglected or overlooked, which is still too often the case—in relation to British modernism. This can seem something of a drawback for those seeking to establish a distinct strain of Welsh modernism and situate Dylan Thomas centrally within it: ‘If modernism in Britain was largely imported – think of James, Conrad, Pound, and Eliot – it was heavily Irish-influenced [presumably Joyce and Yeats]. Predictably, the Welsh variety has been seen solely in terms of its input to the definition of British (i.e., English) modernism, in the shape of David Jones. Although its anomalousness and belatedness are arguably a sign of writing which deals with the condition of Welshness, concentration on Jones’ high modernism (endorsed by Eliot, and publication by Faber) has led critics away from Welsh modernism.’[2]

David Jones told William Blissett that he’d met Dylan Thomas on three occasions: ‘twice he was drunk and unreachable, though amusing, the other time sober, and they talked at some length about Welsh metres, in complete accord.’[3] Thomas Dilworth points out that, on this last occasion, 30 March 1953, David Jones did ‘most of the talking since Thomas knew little about it.’ Thomas regarded Jones with ‘“great reverence”’, and ‘expressed huge admiration for him as a poet’, while Jones thought that Dylan Thomas ‘invigorated English through an underlying sense of Celtic language’.[4]

Both of David Jones’s major poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata were dramatised on the BBC, and Dylan Thomas performed in both recordings. In 1946, David Jones went to the basement flat in Albany Street of his friend Douglas Cleverdon to hear the first broadcast of Cleverdon’s adaptation of In Parenthesis; and listened to the following evening’s repeat with his friends Harman and Margaret Grisewood. He felt that the actors, including Richard Burton and Emrys Jones, wrongly stressed words and exaggerated emotions. Jones ‘hated it, broke down, and went to bed for a week.’[5] But Dylan Thomas, who delivered Dai Greatcoat’s boast, seems to have escaped the author’s censure. And in 1954, a year after Dylan’s death, when Douglas Cleverdon’s version of The Anathemata was repeated on Friday 26 November, Jones wrote to his friend Jim Ede: ‘It’s a peculiar thing. They sweated on it, but of course, from my point of view, it is all over-dramatized etc. etc. etc.—one or two bits not so bad—Dylan Thomas said his [pre-recorded] bits beautifully and the Welsh women in Part VII are all right.’[6]

I read In Parenthesis for the first time more than thirty years ago but feel that I’m only now beginning to see David Jones properly for the first time; reading Dylan Thomas and experiencing that intoxication—language as if mainlined, shot straight into the vein—even longer ago than that, I think that seeing him for the second time, though less enthralling than the first, may, in the end, prove even more rewarding.

 
References

[1] Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 176-177.

[2] John Goodby and Christopher Wigginton, ‘Dylan Thomas’ modernism’, in Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, Locations of Literary Modernism: Region and Nation in British and American Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 99.

[3] Conversation dated 25 September 1970: William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 57.

[4] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 276.

[5] Dilworth, David Jones, 239.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 164.