The DTSA e-magazine, Down Under Milk Wood, edited by Helen Woosnam, comes out three times a year, in March, July and November. Below are some articles from newsletters over the last few years. Readers are invited to send articles to Helen at the postal or email address shown in the right hand column.
A DECADE AGO
Every new edition of Down Under Milk Wood will contain one article from the corresponding issue ten years earlier. The first in the series is Will Christie’s report on the DTSA’s original one-day outing, in March 1999. This was Will’s first imitation of Dylan Thomas, and was no doubt one step on his way to writing Under Mulga Wood.
If you can call it a story. There's no real beginning or end and there's very little in the middle. It is all about a day's outing by charabanc to Bowral and Burrawang, which of course we barely reached, but it happened, and we all became so high and much nicer.
The first any of us heard of the Outing was when sitting one evening in the library of the Concordia Club. I was pillowed on the largest of the Dylan Thomas Society's folders (its debts) and trying to read the Gothic script on the spines of unread and probably unreadable German books, which was all there were. The library was full of John Notoriety, and when Mr and Mrs Woozney, the Old Joneses, Olwen Porridge, Meg McNotscot, Dr Anne Schrinkbaum, Martin Codpiece, Cake Harmon, Susannah Feuillide, Pall Nautilus, and 01' Wyn Barndance came in, I thought it would burst. It was like all being together in a drawer that smelt of Welsh cheese and meths. Then, after a time, we all began to talk at once in the thickening fog of the hot, beery Club, and John Notoriety blew and bugled whenever he won a legal point, and Mr Woozney grumbled like a dredger, and I fell to sleep on the musty-scented mountain meadowof the Society's bills - only to be woken with a start not long after by an explosion of rare unanimity and exultation: 'Yes, by God!' and 'Our own Outing - why not?' and 'Bowral would be perfect'.
Old 'Bow-tie' Jones, it seems, knew the picture-show man in Bowral and Mr Woozney volunteered a modest selection from the ten thousand eight hundred and eleven continuous hours of video material on the poet in his collection - while the rest of us nodded with qualified enthusiasm and tried as politely as possible to ascertain whether there was a pub adjacent to the cinema. Old 'No-tie' Jones said she knew an ideal place for lunch at nearby Burrawang for barely $20 - and the committee members clicked their tongues, groaned audibly, and shook their heads in unison; 'inside a pub', she added - and the committee members smiled their best smiles, whimpered contentedly, and nodded their heads in unison. 'And if Will Sintrie can stay awake long enough he might get off his bum for once and find us a charabanc,' chimed in Annie Schrinkbaum, in her best professional manner.
It was agreed. An Outing there would be.
Martin Codpiece said that he had collected enough money for the charabanc and twenty cases of pale ale, with five dollars apiece over, excess that he would not generously redistribute among the members of the Outing when they first stopped for refreshment, he decided, but keep to pay off the Society's monumental debts. And he was about sick and tired, he said, of being followed by Will Sintrie.
'All day long, wherever I go,' he said, 'he's after me like a collie with one eye. A man has no privacy at all. I tell you he sticks so close it's a wonder to me he don't follow me into bed at night.'
'Wife won't let me’ I said.
And that started Martin Codpiece off again, and they tried to soothe him down by saying: 'Don't you mind Will Sintrie'. . . 'No harm in old Will'. . . 'He's only keeping an eye on the money, Martie.'
'Aren't I honest?’ asked Martin Codpiece in surprise. There was no answer for some time, then Olwen Porridge said: 'You know what the committee is. Ever since Bob the Fiddle they don't feel safe with a treasurer.'
'Do you think I'm going to drink the Outing funds, like Bob the Fiddle did?' said Martin Codpiece.
'You might,’ said Mr Woozney slowly.
'I resign,’ said Martin Codpiece.
'Not with our money you don't,' we said.
'I've drawn up the list,’ I said. 'Not that any member is paid up. You ask Meg McNotscot.'
Mr Woozney put on his spectacles, wiped his whiskery mouth with a handkerchief big as theflag of Wales, took 'Will Sintrie's list', removed the spectacles so that he could read, and then ticked the names off one by one.
'Pauline Ongley. Aye. She's good with her fists. You never know. Little Elaine Crew. Very melodious bass. Margot Campbell. That's right. She can tell opening time better than my watch. Alan Ashbolt. Of course. He's been to Paris. Ross Southernwood, ah, very peaceable. He's got a tongue like a turtle-dove. Never an argument with Ross Southernwood. Anne Fisher. Keep her off economics. It cost us a plate-glass window. And ten pints for the Sergeant. Mr Noel. Very tidy.'
'He tried to put a pig in the charra, the dirty bugger,' Cake Harmon said.
'Live and let live’ said Mr Woozney. Cake cooked.
'Cutthroat Meggy Hayward. Now there's a card,’ said Mr Woozney.
'She whistles after men,’ Susannah Feuillide said.
'So do you,' said John Notoriety, 'in your mind.' Mr Woozney at last approved the whole list, pausing only to say, when he came across one name: 'If we weren't a Christian community, we'd bury that Will Sintrie in a dung heap.'
'We can do that in Bowral,’ agreed both my wives.
That fateful Sunday morning, in a thick fog of recent sleep, members gathered apprehensively for the Outing in which so large a portion of their savings, not to mention their hopes, had been invested. The charabanc drew up outside, and when the members of the Outing saw Rosamund Christie at the wheel of the charabanc, catlicked and brushed in her Sunday best, they snarled like a zoo.
'Are you allowing a woman to drive?’ asked John Notoriety as we climbed into the charabanc. He looked at me with horror.
'Women drivers is nasty,’ said Mr Woozney.
'She hasn't paid her contributions,’ Annie Schrinkbaum said.
'Nor have you, Annie Schrinkbaum,’ I said.
'Might as well bring your children, Will Sintrie.'
'Twenty-six minutes to opening time,' shouted a thirsty looking woman in a panama hat, not looking at a watch. They forgot their female driver at once.
'Good old Margot Campbell,’ we cried, and the charabanc started off down the Parramatta Road, until 'Stop the bus!' Mr Woozney cried. 'I left my teeth on the mantelpiece.'
'Never you mind,’ they said, 'you're not going to bite nobody,' and they gave him a bottle with a straw.
'I might want to sing,’ he said.
'Not you,’ they said. 'Anyway, you can always hum'.
'Or recite "The Outing" when we get to the Burrawang Hotel’ he suggested - which was serious, so Will Sintrie loaned him his.
'What's the time, Margot Campbell?'
'Twelve minutes to go,’ shouted back the flame-eyed thirst-fiend in the panama, and they all began to curse her.
We were out of the city, at last. Over the bridge and up the hill and into the deep green woods and along the smooth road we wove, as strange pre-urban beasts that rustics call cows stared us out and things like ducks flew by (they were ducks, as it turned out). Then off the expressway and up the hill towards the Southern Highlands when Mr Woozney, with his list of names in his hand, called out loud in his borrowed teeth: 'Where's the Old Joneses? Old 'Bow-tie' and Old 'No-tie' Jones?'
'We've left the Old Joneses behind.'
'Can't go without the Old Joneses - they got the key and the morning tea.'
'They'll be waiting for us when we get there,' I assured them, 'with Olwen Porridge who was too mean to pay the price of the charabanc, but didn't want to miss out on the booze.'
'We didn't want to come at all,' the Old Joneses said when, finally, the charabanc had pulled up outside the Bowral Cinema and we hoisted ourselves off the side, 'You're a miserable lot of sods you are but we always go, and besides, the neighbours wanted us out of the house.' The Bowral contingent stood in the foyer of the fleas and itches to welcome us as we rushed, bleating, into the bar to wolf down what seemed an endless supply of Old 'No-tie' Jones's Welsh cakes and to guzzle tea and coffee before the big event.
And what a big event: The Kardomah Boys spread Dylan's fame more evenly over the rare troupe of circus animals with whom he shared his early passion for art and for sharing; Dannie Abse fussing in a more than usually perfunctory mode; Richard Burton -very young, very handsome, with that unmistakable voice that no one, surely, has ever rivalled - radiating through the graininess of old film and its awkwardly voluminous score some of the magic later sapped by Hollywood.
We watched. Listened.
And only we could hear and see in the ghostly characters on the screen the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams. Here was a feast indeed, as we sat mesmerized, keeping the rest of seething Bowral from its Sunday cinema!
Back to the car park and, praying that none of the locals would notice that our driver was only a woman, we struck out on a scenic voyage to prolong the anticipation and increase the pleasure of the only possible reason for making the journey to an animal and tree and flower infested backwater in the first place: a drink. Turning into Burrawang we saw it; from a flagpole by the hotel fluttered the flag of Wales. Mr Woozney sat visibly erect and beamed his pleasure. Now at last he knew where the Gents toilet was. The rest of us attacked the unsuspecting barmaids with thirsts as solid and uncompromising as Don Bradman's cricket bat. To add neurotic anxiety to urgency, someone had whispered that people in this part of the country hibernate, and the pubs would close for the winter in ten minutes. It was on for old and old (the young being barred from licensed premises).
Out of the fug and babel I heard: ' Come out and fight.'
'No, not now, later.'
'No, now when I'm in a temper.'
'Look at Will Sintrie, he's proper snobbled.' 'Look at his wilful feet.'
'Look at Mr Woozney lording it over the floor.'
Mr Woozney got up, hissing like a gander. 'That beer knocked me down deliberate,' he said, pointing accusingly at his schooner glass. Time clouded over, minds wandered; minds clouded over, and time wandered, wondering, away.
Then, lunch, and with the exquisite narcissicism of the inebriated we listened to Mr Woozney's rich recitation of precisely what it was we were all doing anyway!
A story, indeed; the Outing was lived and listened to, both, in its fullcomic measure.
Then out blew the first of our sorry company, hallooing and ballooning, and one by one members lumbered out together in a grizzle. We had drunk the public bar of the Burrawang Hotel dry. And when we looked through the back window of the thundering charabanc, we saw the pub grow smaller in the distance. And the flag of Wales, from the flagpole by the Gents, fluttered now at half mast.
On the way home, through the simmering moon-splashed dark, Annie Schrinkbaum began to sing for her supper in the middle of the charabanc. And when at last the Footbridge loomed menacingly out of an unfocussed darkness, Mr Woozney choked on his Celtic superstition and coughed himself blue in the face. 'Stop the bus,’ he cried, 'I'm dying of breath!' We all climbed down into the moonlight. There was, thankfully,no tree or flower or grass in sight. So we carried out our cases and sat down in a circle on the pavement and drank and sang while Cake Harmon produced pastries and cakes out of nowhere and the moon flew above us. And there I drifted to sleep against the Society's mountainous debts, and, as I slept, 'Who goes there, Will Sintrie?' called out the flying moon.
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Ian Lancashire has kindly allowed us to publish this outstanding explication of one of Dylan’s key poems. Ian is now an honorary member of the DTSA
"A Refusal to Mourn" seems just a poem of its time. It was first published in The New Republic in the summer of 1945 at the very end of World War II. Millions had died across Europe, Africa, and Asia, both combatants and civilians, young and old. What was another unknown child's death to the city of London, 30,000 of whose citizens had perished by Nazi fire-bombing and over 1,350 V2 rocket attacks? This rocket blitz was fresh in memory, having ended only on March 27, 1945. Why give more attention to one person's death than another's? Had not poems on the deaths of children been exhausted by keening Victorian poets? Was there much left to say about human mortality, five months after the Allies had entered Auschwitz?
But Dylan Thomas does more than not grieving a child's death. He emphatically refuses to mourn, not because he has contempt for conventional feelings, but because mourning seemed to him to be the wrong thing to do. The poem is not about neglect but about denial. Thomas celebrates rather than grieves for the girl's "burning." He declines to "let pray the shadow of a sound", hinting (because the idiom is "let fall") that praying would be a mistake. There is nothing to pray for, no favour to ask, no need to be released from agony. To utter a "grave truth" (15) would be worse than her death: it would "murder ... her going." The hackneyed pun on the adjective "grave" (punning on `serious' and `sepulchral') looks askance on using a child's death to moralize. Death does not wrong the girl, but turning her death into an occasion for someone to complain about human mortality would. An "Elegy of innocence and youth" would "blaspheme," that is, curse what is sacred. Thomas affirms the importance and dignity of the girl's death by refusing to associate it with the commonplace and the banal. But why is this child's death sacred? Thomas shows that she takes the fear of dying from us by investing death with "majesty" (13), the dignity and ceremonial splendour of royalty. When Thomas characterizes her last breaths as "stations" (16) -- "stations of the cross" are fourteen images or works of art depicting the stages of Jesus' suffering or passion -- the poet compares her with a redeemer on the road to Golgotha to be crucified. She is more than human, less than a goddess, but assuredly kin with birds, beasts, and flowers, and so with nature itself.
Dylan in St Martin’s Graveyard, with death all around
The child is redemptive, but (as Thomas interprets her death) she saves us, not from death, but from fearing death. Without relying on religious belief in personal salvation or an afterlife, Thomas represents death consolingly as part of life. The child returns to the "mankind making / Bird beast and flower / Fathering and all humbling darkness", and to "the dark veins of her mother" (1-3, 21). She goes home again to her parents, the darkness and the earth that together engendered her life. The child comes to somewhere sacred, like a Christian church as "Zion" and a Jewish "sepulchre" (8-9), but this holy place is open to all, no matter what sect or faith, no matter of which kind of life. Her home is "the water bead" and "the ear of corn" (8-9). Her "long friends" wait for her, "The grains beyond age" (20-21). She passes through death to become one with the dark earth and "the first dead," resting by the "unmourning water" (19, 22). The four elements themselves take her to them: earth, air, fire, and water. Fire transforms her, the darkness of the air falls on her, the earth receives her, and the water rides above her. She is not alone.
Most consoling of all for those who remain behind is this: once we see her death as Thomas portrays it, once we understand that "the first dead" have shown the way, death can no longer be a bogey. "After the first death, there is no other." This last line may appear minimalist consolation, a variation of "You can only die once." In this sense, it offers relief from double-jeopardy, being tried and punished twice for the same thing. Clearly Thomas completely rejects the Christian concept of a "first death" (Adam's) that entails, through original sin, death for all his offspring. Yet, by referring to "the first dead" at the beginning of that stanza (an allusion some have taken to refer to Adam), Thomas implies that the death after which there is no other is not the girl's, not his, and not ours.
That first death belongs to the first life at its very making, as if only by experiencing death could life itself discover the greater life into which it passed. "Refusal to Mourn" might be thought pantheistic, seeing god in everything at all times. Merely by living, mankind belongs to a much greater life in nature. (That is why darkness "fathers", not just "makes", the birds, beasts, and flowers: all living things are one.) "Grave truths" mistake in mourning the loss of life because life is not lost. The child's death expresses the "majesty and burning" of the four elements, the constituents of life. W. B. Yeats said this differently in yet another of his great poems, "Among School Children": "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" And everything rejoices, as he says in "Lapis Lazuli."
Thomas' majestic verse sweeps readers away, like the words of Old Testament prophets. He opens with a ten-word adjective for "darkness." His passionate, rolling opening sentence has so much energy that it comes to a stop only some eleven lines after it began. It is followed by two five-line sentences, and then a one-liner that a child could understand. Opening drama is followed by a gradual calming and then peace. Thomas uses such ordinary words, everyone's vocabulary, but their combinations make them new. Although we have not heard them before, they remind many people of the King James version of the Bible, and they share with Biblical scripture both immediacy and simplicity: we intuitively understand these words the first time we hear them, even though we may not be able to analyse why that is so. For example, everyone knows that clocks tell the time by chiming. Thomas turns that idiom into something strange: darkness tells the light by (striking) silence. Thomas mints this image: time is like light, measured by moments that darkness chimes with silence. The silences are deaths, but they are the way we tell or measure light and life. We know time by the sounds of a clock. We know life by the silences that a death brings.
Extraordinary too is the stanzaic form of "Refusal to Mourn": four rhyming stanzas, abcabc, that is, eight identical abc triples, each of them consisting of a long line, a short line , and a long line. In this metre, it seems to me at least, Thomas imitates "the sea tumbling in harness", "the unmourning water," and "the riding Thames." These three-line abc units are two waves and a trough -- the crest of a wave, its trough or valley, and then another crest. The poem moves like the sea in its round (Earth-like) "bead", rising and falling with the tides, every day the same, every month the same. The music of "Refusal to Mourn" moves counterpoint to the heart-felt consolation that Thomas speaks. Death is to life what a trough is to the crest of every wave in the tumbling sea.
WILL CHRISTIE offers some thoughts on reading one of Dylan's most celebrated poems,
"FERN HILL”, similar in so many ways to "Poem in October", is only a more complete poetic reversion to childhood. Where Thomas in "Poem in October" recalls the experience of recalling his childhood, reporting that on that high hill at the year's turning his child's heart moved again within his own, in "Fern Hill” the syntax, diction, aural pattern, and narrationare integrated in a more consistent and elaborate re-enactment. Syntactically, the poem is as repetitive and breathless as a child stammering out his daytime adventures to a loving parent. Even the repetition of the word "lovely" in stanza three, and of "happy" throughout, add to the atmosphere by interweaving a child's limited and indiscriminate vocabulary into an otherwise rhythmically and rhetorically sophisticated text. The excess of short, unstressed syllables as the verse races with the impulsive child "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs"; the linking of phrase after phrase with the word "and" that reflects a concatenation of endless, indiscriminate activities and an unwillingness to end the story:
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away
Controller and maker, the child is lord of a world 'magically' borne away by owls when he sleeps - just as the poet as maker and controller magically brings it back, out of the night; out of the past.
So effective is the re-enactment, in fact, that we become deaf to the past tense whispering insistently that the act of recreation itself - the art of recreation - carries intimations of mortality: "it was lovely", note, and "was shining"; the poet "was young and easy", "was green and carefree". But that is past. The heart of the ageing poet yearns to move in the heart of the eternal child, the Peter Pan, of the poem. Like the poet - with the poet - the reader momentarily gets caught up in the illusion of the eternal present of art, but Thomas's ubiquitous enemy, Time, lord of the young lord, also figured in the paradisiacal farmland where "it was Adam and maiden".
We can only know paradise by losing it, by falling into language, and grammar, and art. Present in personification and in the insistent use of the past tense, Time in the poem is said to have held the young Dylan "green and dying" (held with the double meaning of cradled and chained), but only old Thomas - only the poet, the user of the past tense - can, regretfully, know that.
"Green and dying": in my beginning is my end. This is where Thomas's obsessive reference to the greenness of his childhood world comes into its own: greenness as innocence, as nature, as freshness, as the commonest of miracles in grass and sea; but greenness also as naivety or ignorance, even as sickness ('green sickness' for one, the illness of adolescence: a blighting of growth). The word "Green" winds in and out of his breathless imaginings like a musical motif, variations on a theme. Like the other repetitions of common nouns and adjectives, the sheer, almost mindless repetition of "green" mimics the reality of the childhood that it renders intelligible. But each time "green" has a different meaning, a different connotation, and its variations are his tragic theme.
Far from being morbid, however, the poem's lyrical energy underwrites the stoicism of its final lines and rescues the poem from drowning in self-pity. Both as child and man, Thomas sang - sings - likethe moon-chained, tidal sea of the last line (the present lyric being a variety of song). Indeed, if it is true that the poet's ending - Time and death - was there in his beginning, we can just as easily read it the other way around: the poem itself testifies no less to the survival of his beginning in his ending. The child killed off by Time and grammar is, paradoxically, alive and well in the older poet. "To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child's sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances, which everyday for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar", writes Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, "this is the character and privilege of genius".
Why East Wind Chills
Reprinted from Down Under Milk Wood, Vol IX, No1, June 3, 2007
Dylan’s answer to those with all the answers - new meniber ALEX HANKINSON interprets "Why east wind chills".
In "Why east wind chills", Thomas meditates upon the limits of human knowledge and questions our capacity to arrive at objective truth. The universe of the poem is enigmatic and bewildering, the poet exploring the state of wonder that is provoked when one considers the staggering aptness of all things for their particular place in the world. Thomas is here revisiting his perennial theme of the interlocking of microcosms and macrocosms, the poet unfailingly rapt by the conjunction of tides in the blood and tides in the sea, and so on. His subject is therefore the Goldilocks enigma, i.e. why is it that the universe fits so perfectly together?
The poet can find no answer to this problem, stating that things simply are the way they are. He suggests that the attempt to discover "why silk is soft and the stone wounds" or to find a driving logic behind the various tempers of the four winds is therefore essentially futile, as the only answers one will ever get will be chronically partial and subjective. Here Thomas is bringing into question the notion of a divine plan or design underlying the shape of things, emphasizing instead the random and arbitrary quality of nature, a fact which can encourage existentialist readings of the poem.
However, Thomas's attitude to the problems posed by the poem is ultimately agnostic and should not be seen as cynicism. In fact, the very use of repeated negative and conditional clauses paradoxically builds up a greater sense of wonder in a reader. We are encouraged to consider the immensity of what we do not know or cannot understand whilst being simultaneously awed by the beauty of it:
Why east wind chills and south wind cools
Shall not be known till windwell dries
And west's no longer drowned
In winds that bring the fruit and rind
Of many a hundred falls;
Why silk is soft and the stone wounds
The child shall question all his days,
Why night-time rain and the breast's blood
Both quench his thirst he'll have a black reply.
The way that Thomas puts it, one cannot help but be struck dumb by the scope of the sky, or the intricacy of frost, or the swooning trajectory of a comet, all of which seem so expressive of a divine and ordering intellect. The Christian myth is, however, not offered as an adequate or conclusive explanation, the poet rather forcing himself to find satisfaction in his own bewilderment and to 'be content' - a position which in itself constitutes a sort of religious faith.
This willingness, or perhaps resignation, to exist in doubts and uncertainties is reminiscent of what the poet John Keats called "negative capability". Such a comparison, however, is complicated by the tone of despair that runs through Thomas's poem, in which so much is oblique and half-realised. The idea of obliqueness is particularly evident in the poet's use of a black/white antithesis to describe the results of the children's petitions, where they are first offered a "black reply" and secondly a "white answer". There is no hope here of transcendent understanding; the child and the adult are separated only by the differing qualities of their faiths, the innocent still eagerly holding out their hands for falling stars and the experienced fatalistically resigning. themselves to a state of ignorance.
It has often been pointed out that Thomas was no philosopher and perhaps "Why east wind chills" is a case in point, the poet here hanging up his philosopher's cap and abandoning further argument, resisting the burden of proof by his very denial that there can be any proof. We must admit that we "know no answer" and "be content".
Nevertheless, the poem does seem to argue for some sort of meaning or reason at the base of things, or at least for some essentially positive sort of materiality. This idea can be seen in the third stanza:
All things are known: the stars' advice
Calls some content to travel with the winds,
Though what the stars ask as they round
Time upon time the towers of the skies
Is heard but little till the stars go out.
This image, which plays upon the metaphor of astrological influence, is predicated upon the idea that there exists some sort of root substance or "content" for the stars to call forth in the first place, a universal quality (or quantity) upon which everything is hinged. Interestingly, the stars are here given motions and desires of their own, asking questions of the cosmos to which they, like the children, will never receive an answer. The universe Thomas constructs is therefore without design or hierarchy, the stars caught up in the same strange riddle as we ourselves.
Furthermore, this stanza takes up the idea so often explored by Thomas of an articulate universe, strung together by sounds and magic syllables. The impression here, however, is one of tragic incommunicability, an atypical attitude for a poet so obsessed with the possibility of translation and commerce between the individual and the outer world.
Indeed, the poem brilliantly conjures the sense of isolation that comes with the elusiveness of meaning. All the utterances in the poem are in some way incoherent: the 'white answer' of the second stanza echoes from the rooftops, its sound broken up and dazzling, whereas the wishes of the stars in the third stanza are quiet as whispers and hardly heard at all. This outlook, though gloomy, is no sense comparable with Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", yet it nevertheless strikes a note of bitter irony and sadness in that it contemplates a state of affairs that can never be resolved.
Finally, "Why east wind chills" seems to suggest that death is ultimately the only source true knowledge available to man, and that it is not until one has undergone the metamorphosis of dying that one can grasp the mystery of things. Hence the children shall never discover "when cometh Jack Frost" until "their dust/Sprinkles in children's eyes a long-last sleep/And dusk is crowded with the children's ghosts". What is more, as a poet, Thomas does not claim access to any sort of esoteric knowledge - he is humble about the limits of his understanding and admits to being as perplexed by the fundamentals as the next person, while remaining adamantly against any sort of passive supplication and being unwilling to accept glib or coldly doctrinal explanations for metaphysical arguments. This idea can be seen in the lines "I hear content, and 'Be content/Ring like a handbell through the corridors", in which the voice of authority is represented as a school bell tolling out orders, a metaphor which consequently contains within itself the notion of rebellion.
Thomas was emphatic about the need to think for oneself and thus the poem, despite its despairing quality, should not be seen as lamenting the pointlessness of metaphysical enquiry, but rather understood as a meditation on the very human impulse to go on wondering about things that can never be known. This last thought is beautifully articulated in the tragic image of final stanza, the poet admitting "I know/No answer to the children's cry/ Of echo's answer and the man of frost/And ghostly comets over the raised fists". Therefore, as Martin Dodsworth points out in his essay "The Concept of Mind and the Poetry of Dylan Thomas", "Why east wind chills"is ultimately a poem of praise.
POET’S CORNER v POETS’ CORNER
At the recent Legend and Poet night at Berkelouws, Leichhardt, we enjoyed excellent food and wine as well as a stimulating evening of poetry and other literature. Many people noted how appropriate it was that we were serving Poet’s Corner wines, but they perhaps didn’t all realise how appropriate it was.
The first poem Dylan ever had published in England was ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ in 1933. A few months later he sent his poem, ‘That Sanity Be Kept’, to Victor Neuburg, who published it inThe Sunday Referee. Neuburg declared it to be “perhaps the best modernist poem that as yet I’ve received” and placed it in a section of his newspaper called Poet’s Corner. An earlier contributor to Poet’s Corner was Pamela Hansford Johnson, who liked Dylan’s poem and wrote to tell him so. So began an amazing series of letters and a relationship which set Dylan on his feet – or, at least, on his knees - in London, as a penniless poet.
Poet’s Corner has other connections. It is, as we’ve seen, the name of an Australian wine brand, originally from Mudgee, while Poets’ Corner is the part of Westminster Abbey in which famous writers are commemorated. The first writer to be buried in Poets’ Corner was Geoffrey Chaucer, who was given that honour not for his literary endeavours but for his labour as Clerk of Works for the Palace of Westminster. Since then many writers have been buried there, including John Dryden, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Masefield, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Richard Sheridan, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. Other famous graves in this section of Westminster Abbey include those of George Frederic Handel, David Garrick, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Many writers, although buried elsewhere, have memorials in Poets’ Corner. They include William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Wordsworth, Thomas Gray, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Butler, Jane Austen, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Sir John Betjeman.
Lord Byron, who died in 1924, finally gained a memorial in 1969 when his scandalous lifestyle was no longer deemed an insuperable obstacle. This opened the way for Dylan Thomas, whose admission to this select area had previously been opposed because of his much publicised drinking. The prime mover in the quest to get a memorial to Dylan in Poets’ Corner was the 39th President of the USA, Jimmy Carter, who was, and is, a firm fan of Dylan’s work. The memorial was finally unveiled in 1982. Jimmy Carter wrote a poem about the event:
A President Expresses Concern on a Visit to Westminster Abbey
Poet's Corner had no epitaph
to mark the Welshman's
sullen art or craft
because, they said,
his morals were below
the standards there.
I mentioned the ways of Poe
and the censored Joyce's works;
at least the newsmen listened,
noted my remarks
and his wife, Caitlin, wrote.
We launched a clumsy, weak campaign,
the bishops met
and listened to the lilting lines again.
Later, some Welshmen brought to me
a copy of the stone
that honors now the beauty he set free
from a godhead of his own.
Given Dylan’s love of wine, he would no doubt have preferred the placement of the apostrophe to be where Jimmy Carter put it, rather than where Westminster Abbey decreed. Either way, by drinking Poet’s Corner wine at our Leichhardt function, we were commemorating not only Dylan’s early publishing success, but also the struggle to honour his work and the efforts of supporters like Jimmy Carter to place him in the pantheon of great writers in Westminster Abbey.
A DECADE AGO: FROM OUR ARCHIVES
This article appeared in the last edition of Down Under Milk Wood in 1999. This is a more complete version than the one originally printed.
DYLAN THOMAS: THE WELSH CONNECTION
CLIVE WOOSNAM discusses the poet's ambivalence towards his homeland and his birthplace
“The land of my fathers ... My fathers can keep it” is a statement often attributed to Dylan Thomas, though he wrote the words not for himself but for a particularly nasty character in a film script called The Three Weird Sisters. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Dylan said and wrote some very harsh things about Wales in general and Swansea in particular. “It’s impossible for me to tell you how much I want to get out of it all, out of narrowness and dirtiness, out of the eternal ugliness of the Welsh people and all that belongs to them.” By comparison with these quotations his best known description of Swansea seems almost complimentary: “I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War: a lovely, ugly town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling, slummed, unplanned, jerry-villa’d and smug-suburbed by the side of a long and splendid-curving shore.”
And yet, for all these barbs, Wales was the place he needed for inspiration. Probably more than forty of the ninety Collected Poems in their final or near-final versions, as well as some skeletons of later poems, came from his formative years in Swansea. So did many of his stories. Most of his remaining works, including Under Milk Wood, came from Laugharne and New Quay in South-West Wales. Laugharne did not escape his savage tongue. "A dead place," he called it. "The castle and the pretty water make me sick . . . The weather gets me like poverty: it blows and then blinds, creeps chalky and crippling into the bones, shrouds me in wet self, and rains away the world."
Let's face it, Dylan Thomas was pretty hard to please, once the novelty of any place or person had worn off. But he kept returning to Wales to write. One of his spells in England has been described by Paul Ferris in these words: "This post-war period was barren: in three years he wrote only one poem, during a visit to Italy. He was in the wrong place. Like many writers he drew energy from a location, even though he scorned it at times; West Wales, imprinted on him as a child, was the place that consistently provoked him to write, and his rude remarks about it were irrelevant to what he felt at a different level."
Once Dylan had returned to Wales after his first foray across the border, he seldom left of his own volition. It was usually an urgent need to get some money or the pressure of creditors that forced him to leave. Swansea and South-West Wales permeate his poetry and prose - and there were times when he was prepared to acknowledge his fondness for the area: "Never was them such a town (I thought) for the smell of fish and chips on Saturday night; for the Saturday afternoon cinema matinees where we shouted or hissed our thruppences away; for the crowds in the streets, with leeks in their pockets, on international nights; for the singing that gushed from the smoking doorways of the pubs."
In 1938 he affirmed to Charles Fisher, "Swansea is still the best place." A year later he described it as "my marble town, city of laughter, little Dublin." He described the studies in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog as being about "Swansea life: the pubs, clubs, billiard rooms, promenades, adolescence and suburban nights, friendships, tempers and humiliations." Returning to Swansea after the World War Two bombings, he wrote: "The ugly, lovely (at least to me) town is alive, exciting and real though war has made a hideous hole in it. I do not need to remember a dream. The reality is there. The fine, live people, the spirit of Wales itself."
He loved the coastline around Swansea, especially the Gower Peninsula, which he called "one of the loveliest sea coast stretches in the whole of Britain." He wrote in 1933: "I often go down in the morning to the furthest point in the Gower - the village of Rhossili - and stay there until evening. The bay is the wildest, bleakest and barrenest I know - four or five miles of yellow coldness going away into the distance of the sea, and The Worm, a sea worm of rock pointing into the channel." On another occasion he wrote, "This sea town was my world. Outside, a strange Wales, coal-pitted, mountained, river-run, full, so far as I knew, of choirs and sheep and storybook tall hats, moved about its business which was none of mine."
In 1947 Dylan wrote a prototype "play for voices" called Return Journey. The story-line was Dylan's return to Swansea after the war and his search for lost acquaintances, lost surroundings, and his own lost youth. Dylan acted as narrator in the play, which was produced on BBC by Phillip Burton. James Davies claims that there are 163 separate references to Swansea in the poet's work, and much of the material in Thomas's prose is essentially Welsh, not only set in Wales, but encapsulating in their characters and situations some of the essential ingredients of Welshness.
Dylan Thomas did not speak Welsh and claimed no special knowledge of Welsh literature. However, he must have absorbed a good deal of knowledge from his parents, who both spoke Welsh, and especially from his father, who at one stage taught the language. They were conscious enough of Welsh to give him the obscure names of Dylan, meaning "of the sea", based on a character in the Mabinogion, and Marlais, the stream in Carmarthenshire that his great-uncle used as his bardic title. But Dylan's father, D. J. Thomas, with a first-class honours degree in English, was determined that his son should concentrate on what was considered to be the language of the future and of mainstream culture. Indeed, he had Dylan educated privately at Mrs. Hole's "dame school" in Mirador Crescent before going on to the Grammar School, so that the young poet grew up with few traces of Welsh in his accent, though there was a lot of Welsh chapel pulpit in his vocal delivery. And there are many biblical phrases and references in his poetry, no doubt the result of his years attending Swansea's Walter Road congregational church or listening to his uncle, the Reverend David Rees, a man he once said he hated "from his dandruff to his corns."
While working on the Swansea Daily Post, or Evening Post as it became during his brief stay, Dylan joined The Little Theatre at Mumbles, and came under the influence of Thomas Taig, who produced some of the plays there. Taig, who later became Professor of Drama at Bristol University, wrote a book called Rhythm and Metre which influenced Dylan's writing and especially his approach to performing his work in public. Still, Dylan rejected the notion that he was a specifically Welsh poet. He wrote in 1938, "The Welshness of my poetry is often being mentioned in reviews and criticisms, and I've never understood it," and fourteen years later asserted to Stephen Spender that he wasn't influenced by Welsh bardic poetry since he couldn't read Welsh. He did, however, admit to basing "I Dreamed my Genesis" more or less on Welsh rhythms, and used patterns of rhyme and metre that some readers have compared to Cynghanedd, a system of alliteration and internal rhyme used in Welsh poetry. And he certainly loved obscure games with words and poems. As an eighteen-year old, writing the poem, The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, he wrote the line “that time has ticked a heaven around the stars” as a play on the Welsh words Amser, meaning Time, and Am Ser, meaning Around the stars.
Significantly, Dylan gave his children Welsh names: Llewelyn, for his eldest, Aeron(wy) Bryn for his daughter and Garan (Welsh for 'heron') as the middle name of youngest son, Colm. As he grew older, his attachment to Wales grew stronger, and the vitriol of his teenage years evaporated. But he always recognized that there were some critics in Wales that did not accept him because he did not write in Welsh, and there were some in England who did not accept him because he came from Wales. He summed up his position when speaking to an audience in a neutral nation, Scotland, with the following words: “Regarded in England as a Welshman…and in Wales as an Englishman, I am too unnational to be here at all. I should be living in a small private leper house in Hereford or Shropshire, one foot in Wales and my vowels in England”.
From Down Under Milk Wood, March 2010. Author: Elias Greig
DYLAN THOMAS & WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
The Legend and Poet afternoon will contain at least one poem by William Wordsworth alongside many excerpts from Dylan Thomas. ELIAS GRIEG looks at the conflicting works of the two writers and finds some surprising Wordsworth characteristics in two of Dylan’s works, Poem in October and Fern Hill.
Dylan Thomas, writing to Pamela Hansford Johnson, brimful of youth and promiscuous verbiage, says of Wordsworth, “old Father William was a human nannygoat with a pantheistic obsession … open him at any page: and there lies the English language…in a large, sultry, and unhygienic box. Degutted and desouled”. It is not surprising that Dylan would feel this way; a brief look at the works of the two poets shows an extraordinary disparity of style, and their distance in time makes this disparity all the more stark. It is impossible to imagine what Wordsworth would make of Dylan, indeed it must be said that the meeting would make for a particularly dull episode of Dr. Who. Yet in spite of this early show of distaste, a few of Dylan’s mature poems resonate surprisingly with Wordsworth’s. In particular, Poem in October and Fern Hill show an awareness of Nature, a tender nostalgia for childhood impression, and a loco-descriptive tendency that marks them as distinctly Wordsworthian, albeit with a remarkably different aesthetic.
In the same letter to Pamela Johnson, Dylan recognises only two poems by Wordsworth as having any worth at all, and of those two it is “the Immortality Ode” that “among the mediocrity and rank badness…stands out like a masterpiece”. Wordsworth’s Ode is an attempt to reconcile the changes in vision that time brings; the gradual slide into mortality and irreverence as the “lamb white days” and “sky blue trades” of childhood recede. Both Fern Hill and Wordsworth’s ode begin with a once-upon-a-time, a conjuring of a fabled childhood from which the poet has come. “There was a time” says Wordsworth, and Dylan echoes “Now as I was young and easy”. Both poets celebrate the beauty, ease, and newness of their childhood, the freshness of their senses in a world that is created anew with each thought or impression of the sense:
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place
Dylan’s imagery is overtly biblical, comparing the child’s new-born vision with Genesis and the act of creation to communicate the wonder he feels as his senses light the previously unknown world. The sun, in the child’s mind, has never before been round, but grows so “that very day”, just as it did in “the first, spinning place”, and the sky, disappearing as the child’s eyes close in sleep, “gathered again” as he wakes. Wordsworth, centuries earlier, uses similar imagery to communicate an identical feeling:
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
Light, “simple” or “celestial” gleams from both poems, as both poets strive to revive within them that first vision, the first rays that enter a child’s eyes from “the sun that is young once only”. This first seeing is the beginning of memory, and also, ironically, the beginning of the end of newness. The sun can only be young once and though Wordsworth states that “sunshine is a glorious birth”, once it is seen, “there hath passed away a glory from the earth”. However, it is precisely this first light, recollected, that both poets
William Wordsworth in Napoleonic pose
use to redeem their fallen vision, made dull by the traffic and cares of life and faded “into the light of common day”.Though transformed into the “shadowy recollections” of memory, these first sights
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing .
Though the vision of Fern Hill is never to return, Dylan moves further towards Wordsworth’s model in Poem in October. One of the finest and most approachable poems written by Dylan, itis also the one that shows the most significant Wordsworthian influence. In it, Dylan strives as Wordsworth does to recollect the “symphony and song” (to borrow from Coleridge) of his childhood, and the master-light of first seeing. He does so in a remarkably Wordsworthian fashion.
One of the birthday poems, Poem in October wakes with the narrator, to “water praying and call of seagull and rook”, and walks with him through both an external landscape and a landscape of memory. The loco-descriptive manner of the poem, as well as the mixture of sensual impression and memory are characteristic of Wordsworth, indeed it could be argued that he invented them. It is this mixture, the respiration between the world that is seen and the world that was seen, that gives the poem its power and approachability. Poem in October carries no inexplicable biblical references, no carefully inscrutable language or artificial enjambment. Rather, it is written in the language of the senses, illuminated with the colour of memory. As the poet walks, he is slowly overtaken by memory of himself as a child. Dylan expresses this exquisitely:
And I rose
In rainy Autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
The poet becomes immersed in “the twice told fields
of infancy” until “his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine”. Dylan has discovered his
“master-light” in the recollected “parables/Of sun light”, and this light, this umbilical memory of perception, draws all his birthdays together, connects him once again to his early self, and his vision is reborn:
And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
It is this that relates two wildly disparate poets, as both believe that in capturing their first vision of the world through poetry they also capture, however briefly, themselves as they were. As Wordsworth poignantly assures,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind,
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be.
July 2010 (photographs removed)
DYLAN THOMAS IN ITALY:
AN UNTOLD STORY
by Theodore Ell
Many admirers of Dylan Thomas may know that in 1947 he and his family spent part of the summer in Italy. He had been awarded a grant by the Society of Authors to find refreshing space and time to write. He spent time on the Ligurian coast at Rapallo, visited Rome and holidayed on the island of Elba, but he spent most of his time at Florence, in a villa in the hills south west of the city.
It sounds like the idyllic Italian visit, but anyone familiar with Dylan’s accounts of it will know that did not especially benefit from it. His letters reveal that after an initial fascination with his surroundings, he found the summer heat bothersome, and had difficulty concentrating. He did write In Country Sleep, but the poem gave him such trouble that he feared it might seem stilted.
He also happened to meet Stephen Spender and his wife in Florence, but the meeting gave him little joy. Spender was on a lecture tour aimed at fostering common understanding among European poets now that the Second World War had ended, but Dylan did not give him good odds of success. He derided Spender’s beliefs in the common language of all poets, and scoffed in a letter to John Davenport, “Who talks Spender?”
It seems that the greatest irritants during Dylan’s Italian trip, however, were local Florentine intellectuals. He complained that they were “rarefied and damp” and that to overcome language difficulties he had to perform the most dramatic stunts – “I have to stand on my head, fall in the pool, crack nuts with my teeth and Tarzan in the cypresses.” When Dylan eventually left Italy he seems to have felt more relief than remorse.
This is the only impression most readers ever have of Dylan’s time in Italy. This is understandable, since little else has been written in English about his visit. Yet there is another side to this whole story which has not really been told, and that is the question of what kind of impression Dylan made on the Italians.
Just who were these supposedly “rarefied and damp” Florentine intellectuals, and how did they react to Dylan’s antics? Some facts that I was lucky enough to find during my doctoral research into one of those intellectuals reveal that he and his colleagues were actually very impressed by Dylan. Despite the problem of language, they welcomed him as an antidote to the conformism and provinciality they had suffered under Fascism, and embraced his eccentric behaviour as an injection of vitality into the bleak life of Florence, which in 1947 was still recovering from the bombardments and street fighting which had ravaged it during the war. But Dylan’s presence was more than just a cheerful distraction. His energy inspired at least one of them, the poet Piero Bigongiari (1914-1997), to reconsider the bleak tendencies of his recent writing and send it in more life-affirming directions.
The Ponte Vecchio was the only original bridge over the River Arno left standing when Dylan visited Florence
The intellectuals Dylan met were part of a close-knit community which had flourished in recent decades, despite the strictures of Fascism (it was said that the regime was too bombastic and unsubtle to understand what was going on). Even after the hardships of war, many members of this community remained in Florence, and it was this battered but determined circle that Dylan encountered when he arrived there. Among the most senior were the future Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale and the translator Luigi Berti, who helped Dylan rent the villa and gave him advice on visiting Elba.
It was the younger members of the group, however, who gained the most inspiration from Dylan’s visit. Among them were three poets who later emerged as the major personalities in Florentine poetry in the second half of the Twentieth Century: Piero Bigongiari, Mario Luzi and Alessandro Parronchi.
Interviews with these three, as well as with Montale, concerning their encounters with Dylan, can be found (in English) in the second volume of the oral history Dylan Remembered, by David N. Thomas and Colin Edwards. Each of them also wrote about Dylan in essays, in Italian. Taken together, these writings tell some remarkable stories about Dylan’s visit.
The young Pieero Bigongiari and a later shot of Eugenio Montale
There is no disputing that Dylan indulged in all the eccentricities he mentions in his own letters, and more. Mario Luzi apparently first saw Dylan surrounded by empty wine bottles in a corner of Florence’s most prestigious ‘literary’ café. Dylan’s love for drink notwithstanding, Luzi believed that his readings of English poetry could be so theatrical that it was barely necessary to understand the meaning of the words. Indeed, for according to Piero Bigongiari, one evening, reading Shakespeare and Milton to an enthralled audience, Dylan exerted himself so much that he abruptly fell asleep on a sofa.
Bigongiari recalls elsewhere that he once took Dylan to see the church of Santa Croce, but instead of going inside, Dylan entered a bar and drank down an entire bottle of Chianti – all at ten o’clock in the morning. Dylan’s most spectacular performance took place one evening at Bigongiari’s house. Luigi Berti was due to take him to dinner with Montale, but rather than face another evening with the famously reserved master poet, Dylan hid in a cupboard, and compelled Bigongiari to play along. When Berti arrived, Bigongiari was obliged to say that he had no idea where their guest was, whereupon Dylan emerged
The Giubbe Rosse, Florence’s most prestigious literary café
grandly from the cupboard, with an empty Chianti bottle in his hand and a large straw hat on his head, and launched into a round of comic sketches. When he was finally brought to Montale’s house, he hid in another cupboard and did the act over again.
Despite the potential offensiveness of some of these escapades, and Dylan’s unforgiving comments in letters (later published in an Italian translation, a copy of which I found ominously in Bigongiari’s personal library), Bigongiari, Luzi and Parronchi all remembered him with respect. Each in his own way, they observed that Dylan’s eccentricities were actually in harmony with the emotional unsteadiness of Florence at that time. There were joy and relief in seeing the end of Fascism and at having survived the war, but also shock and grief at the terrible human price of that deliverance: much of Florence’s medieval heart had been destroyed. Bigongiari wrote that Dylan’s repertoire of moods and capers mirrored the bittersweet combination of dust, rubble, ruin and Tuscan summer beauty. Their equal emotional precariousness was a source of mutual understanding.
Mario Luzi in later life
As well as this, there was a more personal connection in the coincidence of their ages. Dylan and Bigongiari, Luzi and Parronchi had all been born in October 1914. Among themselves they felt especially close, but with the appearance of Dylan in their lives, Bigongiari in particular came to see him as a more contented alter-ego. He represented many of the ideals they had harboured since their youth, but which Fascist oppression had kept them from realising: he was absolutely secure in his Welsh origins, and yet could make that idiom understood to people on the other side of Europe, and be proud of it.
It was an example of simple confidence in identity and origins which Luzi, Parronchi and especially Bigongiari were anxious to develop in Italian culture, after years of Fascist perversions and exaggerations. In Dylan Remembered, Luzi says that no major Italian poet absorbed Dylan’s style, and this is true: the Italian language, though abundantly lyrical, does not have the right elasticity for poetry like Dylan’s. Nevertheless, Dylan certainly appealed to all three of these poets as an ambassador for the vocation of poetry. All they were really interested in was making musical collages of colour and suggestion, avoiding precise definition in favour of feeling and essence. In this they followed the French Symbolists more than Dylan, but they sympathised with his desire for spontaneity, adventurousness and breadth of feeling.
Of these three young poets, Bigongiari developed the most intimate appreciation of Dylan. He made remarkable Italian translations of many of Dylan’s best loved poems, including “Poem in October,” and wrote insightful commentaries for Italian readers, as well as an elegiac essay on Dylan’s death in 1953 (Alessandro Parronchi also commemorated him in poetry). This kind of engagement marks Bigongiari as the most important example of the good Dylan did for the Italians during his visit.
Bigongiari had endured much frustration before he encountered Dylan, to the point that he doubted his ability to write. He had been preparing a new collection for publication in 1947, Quaderno nero (The black notebook), but it came undone in emotional conflict. Bigongiari quarrelled with his publisher, but there was a more serious problem. The book was supposed to represent an uncompromising look at wartime experience and dogged survival, but it actually papered over a personal sense of tragedy with artificial confidence, and so did not truly accomplish its mission.
Bigongiari discovered Dylan in late 1946, during the worst of his contradictions, and realising that they were exact contemporaries, found a personal meaning in “Poem in October.” While Dylan’s “thirtieth year to heaven” had been spent in his beloved Wales, Bigongiari had spent his in the bombed out ruins of Florence. Dylan’s description seemed like a window into a parallel dimension, and Bigongiari was mesmerised. The chance to meet Dylan in 1947 must have been an incredible surprise, and it seems to have marked Bigongiari’s emotional turning point. Beyond his recollections of their meetings, he did not write much about Dylan’s personal legacy to him, but he did make one comment which can give us a clue to what this was.
A later photograph of Piero Bigongiari
He wrote that Dylan’s poetry was a struggle between “death, and the desire to overcome death” (my translation). Everything about Bigongiari’s activities after Dylan’s visit revolves around this same idea: his idea of survival shifted from one of dogged persistence to sheer, irreducible vital energy. It became the central symbol of Bigongiari’s poetry between 1948 and 1952, which built on the earlier contorted work, and actually redeemed it.
In those years Bigongiari also rediscovered his roots in the country provinces and found Italian precedents for his new ideas of survival, so that, like Dylan, he became completely confident in his own idiom and its value within literary tradition. Bigongiari even visited Britain in 1948 – his first trip abroad – as though to prove that he, too, could feel at home on the other side of Europe, and foster understanding with what he found there.
The degree of Dylan’s influence in this is speculative, and there are many other important details, but there is no doubt that Bigongiari was tremendously inspired by Dylan’s freedom of spirit, and that his encounter with Dylan put him in a much more contented frame of mind. Whatever the case, judging from the interviews and other writings of Bigongiari and his contemporaries, it is certain that Dylan’s effect on his Italian hosts was more uplifting than we might think, and that those apparently “rarefied and damp” intellectuals happily owed him a great deal.