Reading Dylan Thomas on his birthday

Dylan Thomas

It’s after midnight, the small hours of a new day, the birthday of Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914 – November 9, 1953). Since he was born on this day, I am reading his poem, In My Craft or Sullen Art.

In My Craft or Sullen Art
By Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

The romantic Dylan Thomas

The poet is writing about his solitary craft or art. The lovers he writes about neither praise nor pay him, yet “I labour by the singing light/Not for ambition or bread… But for the common wages/ Of their most secret heart.”

First published in his book of poems, Deaths and Entrances, in 1946, the poem describes a poet who must write for the sake of his craft rather than any material gains that may come from his work.

Read now, it also seems to anticipate the crisis in humanities today when writers and artists and students of history and literature must follow their passions without any assurance of rewards, when art must be practised for art’s sake.

I am mesmerized by the haunting beauty of the poem. Utterly romantic, this is a poem depicting the poet at work alone at the dead of night writing about the lovers in bed, oblivious to his verses. It is a romantic ideal, a romantic  concept of poetry. Poets don’t always write in the still night and even poets have to sweat the small stuff — sweat over words and verses and revise their poems. Poems are not necessarily a spontaneous outpouring like birdsong. But, never mind how the poem is produced, what matters is the effect it has on the reader. And, as I said before, I am mesmerized. This is a poem I can, and have, read over and over.

Fern Hill

Dylan Thomas wrote some of the finest poems of the 2oth century. The Second Coming by WB Yeats and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock  by TS Eliot may be more widely quoted, but I love Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. It’s one of the most lyrical poems ever written. WH Auden’s poem, In Memory of WB Yeats, is as lyrical, but that’s an elegy while Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill is a celebration of childhood more poetic than anything I have ever read. Here are the opening lines:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes…

Read the full poem, Fern Hill.

I love the last lines:

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

That’s how life is — we may live life to the full, but there’s no escaping death. There’s another poem by Dylan Thomas which begins, “And death shall have no dominion“, but there he is echoing John Donne and Death, Be Not Proud. I like Dylan Thomas more when he says:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

That’s more like him, this zest for life, this desire to live, to live life to the fullest. Read the full poem, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.

Today, this day in October, is his birthday, so we should also be reading Poem on His Birthday and Poem in October. Yesterday I wrote about his “sensual light” and his poem, Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines.

Under Milk Wood

The poet Robert Lowell, according to Wikipedia, said about Dylan Thomas, “He is a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.”

Dylan Thomas certainly dazzles. I was mesmerized by the quotes from his play, Under Milk Wood, long before I read the play. The Penguin Book of Quotations had quotes such as this from the play: “The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea.” I was still in high school then and, of course, I was dazzled.

Under Milk Wood was a radio play Dylan Thomas wrote that was broadcast by the BBC and was made into a film in 1972 starring Richard Burton as the First Man, Peter O’Toole as Captain Kid and Elizabeth Taylor as Captain Kid’s lost love, Rosie Probert.

These are the opening words from the play:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night
in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat
there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock,
the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds.
And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are
sleeping now.

Like much of Dylan Thomas, it’s pure magic.

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