‘Do not go gentle’
Thursday 6th November 2014
2014 marks the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. SEAN LEDWITH looks at the radical, and neglected, politics of the great Welsh poet and writer
Numerous radio and television programmes are appearing this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated Welsh poet and writer, Dylan Thomas.
Earlier this year, a fictionalised BBC film of his last few days perpetuated the most popular conception of Thomas as a phenomenal drinker and philanderer who also happened to be quite good at knocking out the odd bit of verse.
The film chose to depict the legendary story of Thomas’s last words — “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies… I think that’s the record” — even though recent scholarship indicates the story is highly dubious.
In his own lifetime, Thomas was aware of how his image was being distorted for the sake of commercialism and to propagate national stereotypes: “I am sick of all this Celtic claptrap about Wales. My Wales! Land of My Fathers! As far as I am concerned my fathers can keep it.”
Most of these programmes predictably neglect to explore an aspect of Thomas’s personality that is in fact essential to a full understanding of his motivation and creativity — his avowed socialist politics.
On a consistent and explicit basis, he expressed his left-wing views and his hatred for the capitalist system.
As a teenager, Thomas wrote: “I take my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men to share, equally and impartially, every production from man and from the sources of production at man’s disposal, for only through such an essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art.”
One of Thomas’s close associates towards the end of his life confirmed that the poet’s revolutionary ardour was undimmed decades later. Thomas, according to the observer, expressed himself strongly on political matters and tended indiscriminately to support the far left.
The backdrop to Thomas’s tragically short life are some of the most pivotal events of the last century, including the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, WWII and the coming of the cold war.
There are clear references to these developments in a number of his poems and letters. As an exceptionally sensitive and reflective individual, Thomas could not fail to assimilate these momentous developments into his writings.
The dominant image of his poetry as primarily bucolic, nostalgic and apolitical belies the undercurrent of radicalism and hatred of oppression that runs through a great deal of his output. He is buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey but the living Dylan Thomas would have been horrified at the thought of being eulogised by the ruling class.
This radical commitment on Thomas’s part is unsurprising in light of his background.
He was born in south Wales in 1914 and inevitably absorbed the radical spirit that dominated the area thanks to the preponderance of Christian socialism and militant trade unionism, especially the Communist Party-variety espoused by thousands of mineworkers.
As he grew into his teens, he witnessed the impact of the Great Depression that devastated employment in the heavy industrial base of the Welsh valleys. His 1943 poem, Green Mountain, recalls a scene that would have been grimly familiar to many: “Staring at the hunger and the shut pit-head/Nothing in their pockets, nothing home to eat./Lagging from the slag heap to the pinched, packed street./Remember the procession of the old-young men./It shall never happen again.”
In the 1930s, Thomas came into the political orbit of Bert Trick, a prominent left-wing member of the Swansea Labour Party and avowed Marxist.
The two became frequent contributors to the Swansea Guardian newspaper, a journal that was explicitly socialist in its content. Some of Thomas’s best-known poems stem from this period and their radical connotations are often clear.
The Hand That Felled a City indicates a searing contempt for Establishment politicians and the inhumane system they oversee: “The hand that signed the paper felled a city; /Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,/Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;/These five kings did a king to death.”
Extracts such as this indicate the young Thomas’s awareness of the lengthening shadow of war across European politics in the 1930s.
The verse illustrates his disgust at the newly-adopted tactic of aerial bombardment of civilian targets by imperial forces, as practised by Mussolini in Abyssinia and by the British in the Middle East. He was also alert to the related threat of fascism which had begun to manifest itself in Britain in the shape of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
Thomas participated in a demonstration outside the BUF’s HQ in Swansea when Mosley paid a visit in 1934. He reported to a friend: “I was there and was thrown down the stairs …. No harm done, however.”
Thomas also displayed his political acumen and commitment in his warning about the motivation and methods of Mosley’s movement: “…the rest of the careerists and the paunched exploiters of youth, must not be allowed to drive into a militaristic ignorance or to spoon feed with a propaganda that reeks of the death of culture and drips with the milk and honey of a curdled patriotism.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the fascist menace was even more palpable and deadly.
In the same year as the Swansea anti-fascist protest, a workers’ uprising in Vienna was crushed with ruthless ferocity by the right-wing Dollfuss regime. Thomas alluded to the events in verse: “I piece my flesh that rattled on the yards/Red in an Austrian volley./I hear, through dead men’s drums, the riddled lads,/Screwing their bowels from a hill of bones,/Cry Eloi to the guns.”
Also in 1934, Thomas wrote a piece fondly imagining the spectacle of London in the throes of a revolutionary upheaval.
Once again, Thomas’s affiliation with the oppressed is not disguised: “We imagined the silence and the distant noise of guns. There would be stillness and greyness, and blood in the streets. On a hill of bones we imagined the last financier counting his pennies, before they shot him down.”
The twin threats of fascism and imperialism, conjoined with the iniquities of the Great Depression, encouraged many left-wing poets of the ’30s to gravitate towards the Communist Party.
Thomas’s individualistic and unruly personality meant there was never any possibility of him joining the institutions of the left, unlike other contemporary poets such as Stephen Spender or WH Auden.
His letters, however, indicate an unambiguous sympathy and familiarity with left-wing thinking of the time. “There is and always must be a stream of revolutionary energy generated when society is composed, at top and bottom, of financial careerists and a proletarian army of dispossessed.
“Out of the negation of the negation must rise the new synthesis. The new synthesis must be a classless society … what is required is not a bloody revolution but an intellectual one. Alternatively, there is the confiscation of property by force.”
Thomas scholar Victor Golightly argues that this extract reveals not only the poet’s alignment with the left but also his acceptance of key components of Marxist theory, such as the dialectic in nature.
Golightly further argues that some of the most iconic lines created by Thomas also refer to this concept: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.”
During WWII, Thomas wrote a number of poems that were consistently anti-war but never degenerated into cheap anti-German propaganda or vainglorious patriotism.
In A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London, the poet reflects on the devastating loss of life caused by the German blitzing of the capital but he is only concerned with the inconsolable grief that affects all parents, regardless of which side they are on in a war. Politicians who seek to politically exploit the death of innocents are as culpable and cynical as those who cause them: “The majesty and burning of the child’s death./I shall not murder/The mankind of her going with a grave truth/Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath/With any further/Elegy of innocence and youth.”
During and after the war, Thomas was employed by the BBC to make a number of documentaries that are now seen as pioneering examples of social realism.
Like his poems of the time, they have a clear anti-war message but consciously steer clear of xenophobia or nationalism. Tantalisingly, he was also commissioned to write a number of scripts for film production but they were never realised due to their subversive political content.
For one of them, Rebecca’s Daughters, Thomas looked back for inspiration to a heroic but neglected episode in south Wales radical history that he would have been familiar with from his youth — the anti-tollgate protests of the 1840s.
The project was vetoed by conservative elements at the BBC but the script is another reminder of Thomas’s allegiance to the idea of rebellion from below.
Even on the mythologised visits to the US, that would tragically climax with his death in New York in 1953, Thomas found outlets to express his radical credentials.
The year before his death, he gave a free poetry reading for the Socialist Party of the United States, waiving his usual substantial fee.
Shortly before that he accompanied US leftist author Michael Gold on a trip to a writers’ conference in Prague, displaying a conscious contempt for the US government’s attempt to impose a cultural quarantine on eastern Europe.
His most famous poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, is traditionally read as an exhortation to enjoy the world and its pleasures to the maximum even in the twilight years of an individual’s life.
But it can just as easily be interpreted as a powerful expression of the unbending commitment of a socialist activist and writer who — although unorthodox — never gave up on his pursuit of the new synthesis: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”