Beasts, Priests and Virgins: Dylan Thomas and the Love Concept
The two poems that were my portals to poetry were Pádraig Pearse's 'The Mother' and Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill'. Lines from them still fill up the chatter gaps in my perseverant mind. With other iterated themes and phrases, they are stewed in a kind of psychic groundwater and seep onto the surface at random moments. I retain the body memory of reciting, with full (virtually-medalled) chest: 'I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge / My two strong sons that I have seen go out / To break their strength and die....'; and repeating to myself in a state of float: '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....'
'Shall it be male or female? say the cells,
And drop the plum like fire from the flesh.'
– Dylan Thomas: 'If I Were Tickled by the Rub of Love'
My life was over already and it had barely begun. I was leaping from the present to contextualise it, looking back on my future. I would be—not an occupation, but a heroic consciousness, not a dancer but a leaping imagination. It is said, so it is done. I am here, so I am gone. I am a capsule. I see my end in my beginning.
According to himself, death is all Dylan Thomas ever wrote about, and all he ever wanted to write about.(2) He had plenty to feed the topic in war-time England, but the ominous presence of Time and its brother, the big D, had constituted the ambient sea of his poems from the beginning. In his first book, 18 Poems, (Sunday Referee, 1934) Death is an immanent presence, darkly 'punctual' and 'summoned from a summer woman'. 'I see you boys of summer in your ruin. / Man in his maggot's barren.'(3) Time, 'like a running grave', 'tracks you down'. 'Your calm and cuddled is a scythe of hairs, / Love in her gear is slowly through the house, / Up naked stairs, a turtle in a hearse....'(4)
What more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? that we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another.
– Virginia Woolf(1)
Which brings me to the real subject of this rumination, which is that ubiquitous yet elusive concept, Love; that which, it is tacitly presumed, we all understand; that conversation-courier and -stopper. I've begun researching its treatments, its definitions, its elucidations. My research will necessarily be centred on my personal questions, and couldn't be remotely complete or definitive, Love as the reproductive imperative being the source and goal of all. Simply, I'm wondering what it is and if I've ever experienced it in the same way as other people. If not, why? I'm also wondering how people live without it. I'm calling the process 'biographical exploration', an expression that I think also describes the thrust of Savage Solitude.(5)
I opened Dylan Thomas again after reading Edna Longley's Yeats and Modern Poetry, in which she briefly refers to his 'neo-romantic symbolism', derived from the cosmic significance of the human body.(6) I became engrossed in the poems, this time focusing on how he viewed and treated the Love theme. Yeats wrote individually-directed love poems, but Thomas, in his 'craft and sullen art', hurled the notion and emotion into his seething, churning sea of generation and transmutation, giving it an elemental persona beside, and battling with, Time and Death. The poet is at his desk when the 'moon rages / And the lovers lie abed / With all their griefs in their arms...'(7) The poems are written for the lovers, but they don't care about poems. They are driven by compulsive desire, like the randy young man in 'Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait' and the 'boys of summer'(8). Women are compulsive too, but as victims, the virgin in 'On the Marriage of a Virgin' tenanted first by the sun, then by the man who teaches her 'through his arm' / 'That other sun, the jealous coursing of the unrivalled blood'.(9) In 'Into her lying down head'(10), the man is an enemy, but here desire itself is an enemy to both genders. 'If I Were Tickled by the Rub of Love' , with characteristic word-play, opposes the 'knobbly ape that swings along his sex' to the 'beauty in the breast'.(11) There is always disappointment: 'the furious ox-killing house of love'(12); 'The sky is torn across / This ragged anniversary of two / Who moved for three years in tune / Down the long walks of their vows.'(13) (Unhappy Anniversary, unDarling!)
Love and Death are the perennial themes, but in Dylan Thomas they are yoked together in a particular way. Almost visually, they occupy the world as characterised streams and in this, I think, the poet's romantic grammar touches a postmodern sensibility. Humans are not fixed units where feelings originate, but sounds and currents, lights that spark and darken, as in the play, Under Milk Wood; they are cells in the ocean of cosmic forces that spawned them, with only the illusion of individuality and attachment. Love rises as a current and sweeps the small selves to a conclusion—usually a shipwreck—before they are swallowed and another cycle starts, but with different avatars. It is this galaxy that disorientates the reader and confounds expectations in The Map of Love (1939).
Although Thomas's Love is not necessarily expressed in an altruistic manner, nor in the manner of undying attachment, he retains a sense of this kind of Love as an ideal. The ideal is best attained in his poems of war and mourning, and in his prose, with its exuberant and sympathetic depictions of personalities. There is also his sheer involvement with language and the voices that rise from the populous sea, which is also a compulsive love, a rampant desire to which his assiduous work was true.
Thomas's view that 'Man is denying his partner man or woman and whores with the whole night, begetting a monstrous brood'(14) is, I think, a key to exploring his use of the word 'love' in his work in general. There's very little to suggest permanent devotion, idealisation of a specific person, or soul-connection. Even such a declarative title as 'They Are The Only Dead who Did Not Love'(15) devolves to an encapsulation of Love as the 'warmth' a woman gives—physical comfort or pleasure with a content of 'goodness'.
'Into her lying down head' seems to encapsulate much of Thomas's conscious and intuitive thinking on the subject. Regarding this poem he wrote:
All over the world love is being betrayed as always, and a million years have not calmed the uncalculated ferocity of each betrayal or the terrible loneliness afterwards.(16)
Based on this idea, the poem was originally to be called something 'matter-of-fact', like 'Modern Love' (though this may have been after George Meredith's work of the same name and similar pessimism). How can one have a notion of something called 'Love' and then say it has always been betrayed? Surely that means the notion is not founded in fact? But I suppose that's the nature of an ideal—it's based on some felt desire that can't be rationally defined, like the notion of a god or gods. The ideal in this sense crops up over and over in Thomas's work. Bride-white is opposed to the dark beast; the white being nature in its careless, naïve wisdom and ideal celebration, the dark or black all that we have constructed to defile it, including bureaucratic religion.Here are some motifs I can distinguish in 'Into her lying down head'.
Rape: The title itself suggests that the woman is 'taking it lying down', a kind of 'head-fuck'. Then there are 'his enemies' who 'entered bed.' Not 'the' bed, but bed as generic mating place. These enemies seem to be elemental, based on the subsequent lines, and constitute a 'raping wave'. Later, there is a 'broken body', the 'Trespasser and broken bride'.
Female innocence representing ideal purity: 'his runaway beloved childlike'; [he resembled] 'to her dull sense / The thief of adolescence'; 'Crying, white-gowned'; 'A she bird sleeping brittle'; 'Open as to the air to the naked shadow / O she lies alone and still, / Innocent between two wars'.
Property: 'under the encumbered eyelid'. In 'On the Marriage of a Virgin', we see the entering of the eye as sexual penetration and tenancy.
Religious traditions and denials: 'Noah's rekindled now unkind dove'; 'the 'Mutter and foul wingbeat of the solemnizing nightpriest / Her holy unholy hours with the always anonymous beast.'
Love as multiplicity, acting on the one: 'There where a numberless tongue / Wound their room with a male moan....'; 'Early imaginary half remembered / Oceanic lover....'
Both nature's imperatives and religious traditions are offended by a lack of reverence (coming from where? we might ask). There is a 'good night' and a 'bad bed', the good being female, the bad male. Is the poet burdened by the moral conventions of his time? There doesn't seem to be any salving unity between the sexes, certainly no transcendence in the sex act. Earthy elemental consciousness, which pervades the poems, seems irreconcilable with the divine ideal.
This is a skim. At present my overall impression is that, in Dylan Thomas's poetic vision, Love is a possible goodness never achieved, and his notion of goodness is nebulous. Where can he solidify it? His is a poetry of impressions, and in that kind of awareness everything is molecular, including gods, moralities and words that domino each other towards image and sense. Natural forces simply do what they do, and we are constituent in them, mere expressions—the virgin, the incense-wielding priest, the male accidental marauder with his 'long-legged heart', all singing in their chains like the sea.
(1) Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928), reprinted in Selected Works of Virginia Woolf, Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2012.
(2) Gwen Watkins, Portrait of a Friend, Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1983, 88. (Quoted in Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, ed. Prof Walford Davies and Prof Ralph Maud, London: J. M. Dent, 1996, 238.)
(3) 'I see the boys of summer', Dylan Thomas The Collected Poems, ed. Prof Walford Davies and Prof Ralph Maud, London: J. M. Dent, 1996, 7.
(4) 'When, like a running grave', opus ibid., 19.
(5) Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude, Dedalus Press, 2013.
(6) Edna Longley, Yeats and Modern Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
(7) 'In my craft or sullen art', Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, ed. Prof Walford Davies and Prof Ralph Maud, London: J. M. Dent, 1996, 106.
(8) opus ibid., 132, 7.
(9) opus ibid., 105.
(10) opus ibid., 94.
(11) Dylan Thomas: The Poems, ed. Daniel Jones, London: Dent / Everyman, 1985, 94.
(12) 'Ballad of the Long-legged Bait', opus ibid., 132.
(13) 'On a Wedding Anniversary', opus ibid., 103.
(14) ed. Vernon Watkins, Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins, Ware: J, M. Dent and London: Faber and Faber, 1957, 455. (Quoted in Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, opus cit., 237.)
(15) Dylan Thomas: the Poems, ed. Daniel Jones, London: Dent / Everyman, 1985, 23.
(16) ed. Vernon Watkins, Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins, Ware: J, M. Dent and London: Faber and Faber, 1957, 455. (Quoted in Dylan Thomas: The Collected Poems, opus cit., 237.)