On His Birthday: Dylan Thomas, Wordsworth, nostalgia and poetry.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, my first and best love in poetry. Lionized by the culture industry but ignored by the academy, this milestone date will hopefully present an opportunity to reassess the value of Thomas’s work, which I feel is sadly neglected.

Dylan Thomas

It is something of a commonplace for Thomas to be associated with the ‘romantic’ tradition, or to be called a Romantic poet. Such declarations are made based principally on the persona Thomas cultivated during his American tours (1950-53): the hard-drinking and misbehaving libertine. And while there is something of the Byronic in Thomas’s popularity and behaviour, his relation to the poetry of the Romantic period is one of ambivalence. He early professed a “theoretical hatred of Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth” (Collected Letters, 93). Though he later warmed to Shelley and Keats (and always worshipped Blake, though Blake was not a Romantic to him), his antipathy toward Wordsworth remained. Calling him a “human nannygoat with pantheistic obsession,” Thomas further accused him of being “a tea-time bore, the great Frost of literature, the verbose, the humourless, the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods” (Collected Letters, 44).

Despite Thomas’s resistance to Wordsworth, I’m going to explore an affinity that some of their poetry shares: the idea that nostalgia can be a productive force. Nostalgia usually suggests a certain sterile wistfulness or sentimentality about the past, and is often used as a pejorative label. I want to modify this definition, taking a cue from Linda Hutcheon. She theorizes the function of nostalgia as being akin to irony. While irony occurs in the difference between what is said and what is meant, nostalgia is “what you ‘feel’ when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight.” Nostalgia, in other words, occurs in the subject’s realization of the difference between two moments–the present moment compared to the perception of an instant in the past–allowing the emotional response.

The relationship of memory, emotion and inspiration is familiar to Wordsworth. Poetry is, of course, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Though Dylan Thomas did not leave us a manifesto as such, I suggest that his post-war poetry – which is about memory, youth and aging – uses nostalgia in a way similar to Wordsworth. Nostalgia, for both, can be the fecund source of poetic inspiration. John Clare, to give a negative example, seems to throw his hands up in despair when faced with the nostalgic realization: “Ah, words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away.” Such is not the sentiment of Wordsworth or Thomas.

With this idea of nostalgia in mind, let’s look at some of “Tintern Abbey.” From the first line the poet situates himself between two instances in time, creating the conditions for the nostalgic response. In the opening passage (ll. 1-22) the word “again” occurs four times, as each detail of the scene is perceived in relation to his previous visit:

                                                            Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone. (14-22)

The significance of this rural idyll is not apparent to us as modern readers. Tintern Abbey was from the 1780s onward a popular tourist attraction. The reflections upon solitude and the figure of the Hermit in this passage are contrary to the reality of the scene, which would have included other groups of ruin-bibbers, randy for antique. Rather than fault Wordsworth for idealizing the scene, I think we can read this as an example of nostalgia being used productively. The poet’s imagination registers the change that has occurred since the previous visit and creates the perception that occurs in the poem. The emotional content of the nostalgic response performs something vital for the poet:

                               These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:–feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure. (22-31)

The poet predicates his psycho-spiritual health upon the memories of nature in general and the scene at the Wye river in particular. The capacity for emotional response to memory is central to the function of Wordsworth’s imagination. In this sense, nostalgia is not a wistfulness but an earnest attempt to recreate the world. Turning to Dylan Thomas, we see that nostalgia can be a similar source for poetry and the imagination. For Thomas, however, the poetic vocation no longer allows for the reordering of the world. Rather, the nostalgic possibility is limited by the poet’s awareness of his own mortality.

Since Thomas’s later work frequently explored memory and nostalgia, he is often labeled ‘nostalgic’ in the wistful sense. More often than not, however, he is expressly unsentimental and forward looking. “Fern Hill” is the poem that most often is accused of nostalgia. Recalling the farm where his boyhood summers were spent, the poem casts Thomas’s remembered self within a pastoral scene:

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 (1-5)

We see the nostalgic at work here in the evocation of happy youth, the lush setting, and the awareness of Time that is obviously the reflection of the mature speaker and not the child. The child is unaware of Time and his subjection to Time’s will; he is like Wordsworth during “the coarser pleasures of my boyish days, / And their glad animal movements all gone by.” Unaware of Nature, the young Wordsworth exists blithely within it. The young Thomas here exists within Time and only becomes aware of it later. The end of the poem leaves the young Thomas still unaware of his subjection to Time: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea” (52-54). The youth’s unawareness of time is also an unawareness of death. With the knowledge of death comes the passing of time.

“Fern Hill” avoids being a purely sentimental recollection, such as the prose “Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the poet’s unspoken awareness of his own mortality. This awareness also limits the present possibilities of the imagination. Thomas’s radioplay “Return Journey to Swansea” (1947) gives utterance to these  boundaries. Thomas, as narrator, has returned to the remains of Swansea after the war in search of “Young Thomas.” He wanders the town cataloguing the missing buildings and the names of the dead, gleaning information from the inhabitants. The play concludes in Cwmdonkin Park as the sun is setting. The narrator asks the gatekeeper about Young Thomas as they approach the gate of the park. In his response, Young Thomas becomes every child that played in the park:

          Keeper: Oh yes, I knew him well. I think he was happy all the time. I’ve know him by the thousands.
          Narrator: We had reached the last gate. Dusk drew around us and the town. I said, what has become of him now?
          Gatekeeper: Dead…
          Narrator: …the park keeper said…
          Gatekeeper: …dead dead dead dead dead dead…

The play ends with the Gatekeeper ringing a bell, his voice tapering into silence as he repeats the same word. He has, presumably, closed the gate and left the Narrator outside the park. The awareness of death has overpowered the possibility of recollection and Wordsworthian imaginative recreation. Though this awareness will help guard against the sentimental mode of nostalgia, his access to himself is similarly limited.