Dylan Thomas

John Goodby

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas is a unique example of a “difficult” modernist poet who is also a popular writer. This used to be reflected in a dual appeal to the general reading public and academics, but that has not been the case for several decades. While Thomas remains popular, largely through his later works (poems such as “Fern Hill”; his radio play for voices, Under Milk Wood), his academic reputation has declined severely since its heyday between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s. After W. H. Auden’s death in 1973, Thomas was the main casualty of a critical urge to make the 1930s solely the “age of Auden,” and more recently Welsh writing in English studies has found it difficult to accommodate such an anomalous and hybrid writer as its central canonical figure. These negative judgments have been aided by the potent Thomas legend, which makes it all too easy to personalize the response to the poetry, and have also reinforced a long-standing movement-dominated discourse surrounding British poetry, which still deems the 1940s a “dire decade,” making it almost impossible to contextualize his work. In truth Thomas is best seen as a writer who brilliantly exploited his subaltern origins and the belatedness of Welsh modernism to fuse the “macabre,” pseudo-Jacobean T. S. Eliot with Audenesque traditional form, as noted by Desmond Hawkins in a percipient review of 18 Poems published in the journal Time and Tide in 1935. His writing is clearly in the visionary tradition of William Blake, given expressionist energy and existential angst by virtue of his historical situation in the midst of the Great Depression, fascist upsurge, and looming world war. Offsetting this, often in an anguished manner, is an astonishing verbal power and playfulness derived from James Joyce and surrealism, while the sexual frankness of the work’s revolt against nonconformity also owes much to D. H. Lawrence and the gothic grotesque of Welsh writers, such as Caradoc Evans and Arthur Machen. Theorizing such an overdetermined position would require rethinking the Englishness of midcentury British poetry and the extent of the hybridity of Anglo-Welsh writing. To date, the attempts do so in contemporary criticism terms have been partial only; they have gained momentum in the early 21st century, however, and hopefully will continue, although it is unlikely that Thomas will ever enjoy the kind of academic favor he once did. The aim of this bibliography is to combine late-20th- and early-21st-century theoretical and empirical developments in criticism and scholarship with items illustrating the major debates of the past (including hostile readings) together with those seminal works of the “golden age” of Thomas criticism (between the 1950s and the mid-1970s), which are still the essential starting point for serious study.

Article.  14640 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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