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Beginning Further Back: Dylan Thomas’s Early Work

Geoff Charles Visits Laugharne with his Camera, Dylan Thomas Country.
Fig. 1. Geoff Charles Visits Laugharne with his Camera, Dylan Thomas Country. Photo by Geoff Charles. July 28, 1955. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To begin at the beginning is a cliché, Dylan Thomas knew, worth opening with, and also a task more difficult than it seems, as Wittgenstein points out:

471. It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back.

Then,

472. When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what is not. When it learns that there is a cupboard in the room, it isn’t taught to doubt whether what it sees later on is still a cupboard or only a kind of stage set.[1]

Beginnings, or cupboards and stage sets, might at first seem unrelated—and yet here we find them sitting next to one another. And so comes the readerly temptation to “go further back,” beyond the bounds of the text, certainty, or even seriousness, in a search for clues or source-traces. This is, in Thomas’s case at least, a temptation a careful reader might find difficult to resist. When Thomas began his Under Milk Wood (1953), “To begin at the beginning,” he was well aware of the irony that, with that line, he had already begun; as Eric Griffiths had it in a lecture on Hamlet, “I’ll begin just before the beginning, with the title.”[2]

It is difficult to take Thomas’s beginning entirely seriously, it being both too obvious and not exactly true; as readers who have learnt language, then subsequently learned how to ask a little more of the words we read or use, we might begin to investigate the productive “doubt’” Wittgenstein highlights and question whether, say, a cupboard really is a cupboard, or actually part of a stage set. And this might involve refusing to take things quite seriously, or learning to take seriously that which might be otherwise dismissed as trivial: the stuff which happens before the proper bounds of the “beginning,” stage sets, rehearsals, false starts and flirtations, rather than confining ourselves solely to what literary criticism might traditionally take seriously. Studying Thomas we may well “go further back”: to his notebooks, early letters and reading habits, taking a serious interest in what some would call “juvenilia” (or just juvenile), and studying it as a formative, instructive template for his lifelong poetic habits.

What was the first poem Dylan Thomas ever wrote? In his Dylan Thomas: A New Life, Andrew Lycett claims to have found it, or something like it; aged “six or seven,” Thomas would write about “literally anything”—and also on “literally anything,” like the “cardboard that came back from the laundry as a stiffener inside [his father’s] ironed shirts.”[3] One of these, perhaps the only one we have record of, reads in its entirety:

I like

My Bike. (Lycett, Dylan Thomas, 26)

Don’t be ridiculous, you might say, but the fact remains that Thomas, author of poems as striking (and strikingly different) as “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Altarwise by owl-light,” is also the author of this small work. It rhymes.

Acknowledged as unserious, Thomas’s juvenilia nevertheless deserve to be taken seriously. Lycett sticks with this pre-poetic work, finding in one of Thomas’s physics exercise books a doodle or couple of lines “on the physical properties of light”: “Light is invisible / Light travels in straight lines”—“It could almost have been a draft of his early poem ‘Light breaks where no sun shines’” (Lycett, Dylan Thomas, 30). Lycett’s impulse bears reflection on how we approach writing which—for want of better words—we call “juvenilia.” Labelling it “juvenilia,” that is, allows the critic to implicitly apologize for its poor quality or embarrassing habits, and justify taking it seriously for what it might foreground or suggest; it allows us to “go further back,” ostensibly without really leaving the enclosure of a writer’s “serious” adult œuvre.

Reading “juvenilia” is always a reading backwards, looking for signs of things which may or may not be there in the name of better understanding later work. It is perhaps surprising that there has been little scholarly work done on unpacking “juvenilia”: what the term denotes, how it has been used historically, and how we might manage it now. Early work always seems to appear at the end of an author’s Collected Works, appendixed, like a cute post-credits scene. It is as if you are only allowed to read “juvenilia” once you have read an author’s “real work,” making sure that a reader is well aware that the person they are reading was serious, and also setting us up to recognize early traces through the lens of mature work. Embarrassed or embarrassing teenage drafts (which are really, frequently not embarrassing at all) are excused, editorially, by the reassurance that an author went on to do great things.

Dylan Thomas. Drawing by Jessica Dismorr. 1935.
Fig. 2. Dylan Thomas. Drawing by Jessica Dismorr. 1935. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Volumes such as Christopher Ricks’s edition of T. S. Eliot’s early work, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (1996), or A. T. Tolley’s edition of Philip Larkin’s Early Poems and Juvenilia (2005) make the case by virtue of their presence for the importance of considering a poet’s “juvenile” work, impressing upon us the necessity of making this work public while also keeping it separate from a writer’s “proper” body of work. [4]  Tellingly, neither Ricks nor Tolley comments on the significance of “juvenilia” as category; Ricks notes that his edition “is based on the conviction that . . . the important thing is evidence of where the poems came from, and of where they went to in Eliot’s other work,” but the actual question of how an author’s work is separated and, subsequently, how it might be read is left unanswered (Ricks, Inventions, xxii).

The fact that we as readers might approach earlier work with a greater degree of leniency, or even a patronizing touch of the cute, is a problem which is solved by separating writing into “young” and “mature,” so that sticky readerly fondness is unable to migrate to “serious” older work, and “juvenilia” can remain safely a curiosity for the critic only. We might instead read Thomas’s early work and appreciate it on its own terms, while also ameliorating our understanding of how a writer—of how this particular writer—forms, and learns to write.

In his edition of Thomas’s Notebook Poems (1989), Ralph Maud includes what he terms Thomas’s “Early Rhymed Verse,” or “Juvenilia from Manuscripts,” dated to as early as 1929, when Thomas would have been fifteen or so.[5] However, what Maud publishes does not include, for example, “I like / My Bike,” or even the “nursery rhymes” Thomas wrote “extra-specially” for his sister Nancy in around 1926, among them “The Sea”:

Behold the wonders of the mighty deep,

Where crabs & lobsters learn to creep,

And little fishes learn to swim,

And clumsy sailors tumble in. [6]

By not including these small, playful verses by a small, playful Thomas (aged twelve or so), Maud makes his editorial position visible: to include such verse in a collection of Thomas’s notebook poems and “early verse” would be to go too far back beyond the bounds of reason or serious scholarship: they simply can’t be taken seriously.

But, of course, they can—or, at least, Thomas was a poet who made a habit of not taking himself seriously. Asked once what his poem “Ballad of the Long-legged Bait” was about, Thomas announced succinctly that it described “a gigantic fuck.”[7] But he could be heart-warmingly earnest as well as shocking: speaking to Alastair Reid once about the “Ballad,” he noted that writing it “had been like carrying a huge armful of words to a table he thought was upstairs, and wondering if he could reach it in time, or if it would still be there.”[8] To “go further back” and take an interest in Thomas’s early writing, his draft-poems and letters, is to stick with an instinct for caprice or serious play which we find throughout his work, and also to investigate the difficulty of writing which evades seriousness—where we might also learn usefully to destabilize writing which we are told we should take seriously.

On Emily Dickinson’s poetic fragments, and how we manage them as critical readers, Virginia Jackson points out that “formal criteria will not separate finished poem from draft”—“[b]oth sets of lines may be scanned in the alternating three- and four-foot patterns typical of Dickinson’s writing.”[9] We simply don’t have a critical idiom to differentiate between formative draft and polished final piece; nor, perhaps, do we need one. This ultimately comes down to readerly approaches: “we would only know that a poem intended (if poems could intend) to be a lyric once it has been critically rendered as such at various moments before the moment in which you encounter it” (Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery, 115). The words we read of writers who have been covered over with innumerable analyses are subsequently mediated by their criticism. To “go further back,” then, offers both a liberation from critical stickiness, and an opportunity to reestablish ways of reading Thomas which are themselves open to difficulty, ambiguity, un-seriousness and the spirit of flirtation.


Notes

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1995), 62.

[2] Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices (London: J. M. Dent, 1979), 1; Eric Griffiths, “A Rehearsal of Hamlet,” in If Not Critical, ed. Freya Johnston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 86–111, 87.

[3] Andrew Lycett, Dylan Thomas: A New Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 26.

[4] Christopher Ricks, Preface to T. S. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, ed. Christopher Ricks (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), xi–xxxiii, xii; Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenilia, ed. A. T. Tolley (London: Faber and Faber, 2005).

[5] Dylan Thomas: The Notebook Poems, ed. Ralph Maud (London: Everyman, 1999).

[6] Dylan Thomas to Nancy Thomas [?1926], in The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris, 2nd ed. (London: J.M. Dent, 2000), 7.

[7] John Goodby, notes to “Ballad of the Long-legged Bait,” in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Centenary Edition, ed. John Goodby, 2nd ed. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 370–73, 370.

[8] Alastair Reid, in Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet: A Collection of Biographical and Critical Essays, ed. E. W. Tedlock (London: Heinemann, 1960), 53–54, 54.

[9] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 24.