Dylan Thomas: Getting One Big Thing Right

NOVEMBER 2008: ESSAY

by Robert Lowes

I don’t like walking around by myself in dark buildings late at night, but there I was in my church’s basement at 9 p.m., lugging sacks of loaves and pastries that a restaurant had donated to our food pantry. A harsh solitary light revealed the leftovers of a rummage sale we had held to benefit another of our ministries, a homeless shelter. Books, clothes, toys, and what-have-you were bagged, boxed, and awaiting delivery to sites unknown, perhaps a landfill, or a bonfire. Rejects from a rummage sale–now that was a depressing thought.

My eye caught a stack of book boxes near the door to the boiler room, and I picked up a red hardbound book, in surprisingly spry condition, entitled The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. I leafed through the poems by the rowdy Welsh poet who drank himself to death at age forty–another depressing thought. However, my evening brightened when I came across the author’s Foreword, and this passage in particular:

I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: “I’d be a damn’ fool if I didn’t!” These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.

I found these remarks immensely refreshing, especially when I considered the source. Dylan was the sort of person who would be a black sheep in the average Christian congregation, subject to church discipline. He once said, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that is a record.” His poetry–musically lush, surreal, and difficult–would raise suspicions. What do you exactly believe about Christ, Mr. Thomas?

Yet, Mr. Thomas got one thing right. A big thing right. Wouldn’t I want my gravestone, much less my first and still unpublished book of poetry, inscribed with the motto: “For the love of man and in praise of God”? Don’t these words define our overarching purpose on Earth, whether we lay brick or lay words? We were made to worship God–that is, to praise him for who he is and what he has done. Performed habitually, this worship transforms us into people who love our neighbor with the same mercy and delight that we have tasted. Ministries like food pantries and homeless shelters just come naturally, or rather, supernaturally.

Dylan’s motto has particular significance for literature. That which is cynical–which fails to view imperfect people with compassion and hope–doesn’t qualify as being written for the love of man. Ditto for literature that doesn’t escape navel-gazing to engage the world and the travails of its inhabitants. And that which is despairing–which fails to celebrate the beautiful creation and mysteries that bespeak of dimly understood, but triumphant purposes–doesn’t qualify as being written in praise of God.

As a writer, I feel affirmed by Dylan’s admission that his dedication encompassed poems that were full of “crudities, doubts, and confusions.” I want honest literature, I want to write honest poems, I want to spend time with honest people. I want to be honest with myself. “Crudities, doubts, and confusions” describe many of my waking hours.   The messes we make for ourselves don’t confound God. They don’t prevent him from breaking through to us. If we wander in a wilderness, a bush will suddenly catch on fire and start talking. And we are steered back to the love of man and the praise of God.  These words also describe the experience of God’s people recounted in the Bible. The itinerant, conniving patriarchs of Genesis come to mind, as does King David, whose soap opera with Bathsheba qualifies as a murderous crudity. But the messes we make for ourselves don’t confound God. They don’t prevent him from breaking through to us. If we wander in a wilderness, a bush will suddenly catch on fire and start talking. And we are steered back to the love of man and the praise of God.

Great literature embodies such breakthroughs. A good example is the 1961 novel The Moviegoer by the late Walker Percy. The book’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, is a New Orleans stockbroker whose state of aching, wisecracking malaise can’t be cured by business success or a string of lovers. Binx’s rejection of stopgap faiths is seen in his mockery of the old radio program–recently resurrected on National Public Radio–called “This I Believe.” The crudities, doubts, and confusions of his “malaisian” life give way at the novel’s end, however, to an unostentatious, yet radical Christian confession. It emerges in a description of an African-American man who receives the gray, penitential daub of an Ash Wednesday service. The ritual strikes Binx, the story’s narrator, as both perfunctory and profound:

It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?

For me, the novel’s confession of faith is beautifully articulated by Kate, a young woman struggling with mental illness and, like Binx, groping for spiritual direction. On a wanderlust train ride to Chicago, she tells Binx of her longings for a “trust and obey” relationship:

What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do. If God were to tell me, Kate, here is what I want you to do: you get off this train right now and go over there to that corner by the Southern Life and Accident Insurance Company and stand there for the rest of your life and speak kindly to people–you think I would not do it? You think I would not be the happiest girl in Jackson, Mississippi? I would.

Kate and Binx eventually wed, their faith in God transmuting into a bond of faithfulness between them. For the love of man. In praise of God. I wish Dylan Thomas had lived to read The Moviegoer.

I will leave it to bona-fide scholars of Thomas to expound at length on the Christian themes of his work. That said, it’s easy to see the love of man in his elegies, especially “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” a villanelle that he wrote for his dying father. The praise of the creator shines through in this stanza from “Fern Hill” with its recollections of youth:

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

I also hear the praise of God in a series of twelve poems titled “Vision and Prayer,” although it is pained praise from a man who has wrestled with the Almighty–and who hasn’t? The first six are shaped like diamonds on the page, the latter six like hourglasses. I have included the last one in the series to honor the Welsh poet who was foolish when it came to the bottle, but wise when it came to the purpose of his vocation. I found a lifetime possession in the leftovers of a rummage sale.

I turn the corner of prayer and burn
In a blessing of the sudden
Sun. In the name of the damned
I would turn back and run
To the hidden land
But the loud sun
Christens down
The Sky.
I
Am found.
O let him
Scald me and drown
Me in his world’s wound.
His lightning answers my
Cry. My voice burns in his hand.
Now I am lost in the blinding
One. The sun roars at the prayer’s end.
Robert Lowes is an independent journalist in St. Louis, Missouri. His poetry has previously appeared in Perspectives.