|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The social vision of Dylan Thomas
With the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Dylan Thomas now being remembered in events and publications, his commitment to socialism should be recognised, argues VICTOR PAANANEN.
This is a shorter version of an article by Victor Paananen which appears in Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, Volume 8/2003 [£12.95/ISBN 0-70831-829-0], edited by Tony Brown, published by New Welsh Review Ltd (tel: 01970 626230) and distributed by University of Wales Press (tel: 029-2049-6899). We would like to thank Tony Brown for permission to extract the article and for providing us with the rare Vancouver photograph of Dylan Thomas. The current issue of WWE has several articles on Dylan Thomas, including Victor Golightly’s, ‘Writing with dreams and blood’: Dylan Thomas, Marxism and 1930s Swansea.
THROUGHOUT THIS YEAR there will be events and publications to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death, at the early age of 39, of Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet, short-story writer, dramatist, and film writer. Interest in Thomas remains high, and many of his poems (such as ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ and ‘Fern Hill’) continue to have a wide popular appeal that few other 20th century poems retain. Discussion of Dylan Thomas in this anniversary year must acknowledge not only that Thomas was a poet of astonishing technical gifts but a man fully conscious of social conditions, a thinker with a grounding in Marxism, and a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist.
Writing about Dylan Thomas got off to a bad start with a book by Henry Treece (Dylan Thomas: ‘Dog Among the Fairies’) that asserted that Thomas had outgrown the Marxism of his youth. Treece’s book is a confused polemic against the practice of ‘left-wing poets and critics’, and when Thomas was given chapters to read in manuscript, he wrote to Treece to say, "surely it is evasive to say my poetry has no social awareness – no evidence of contact with society", adding "actually, ‘seeking kinship’ with everything… is exactly what I do do" (Thomas, Collected Letters, pp310-11). Thomas made his opinion of Treece’s book even more clear when a friend asked him to inscribe a copy for him, and Thomas wrote in it ‘to hell with this stinking book’.
With Treece as a forerunner, literary critics like ML Rosenthal assigned Thomas a role as the poet of ‘introspective personalism’. It was readily admitted by the critics that most of Thomas’s ideas and language were already there in his adolescent notebooks, but they assumed that he had jettisoned his Marxism and retained the poetic materials of this period. More recently, however, the letters collected by Paul Ferris in 1985, the memoirs of friends and acquaintances that have been published with some frequency, and especially the film scripts unearthed and published by John Ackerman in 1995, have provided powerful evidence for a consistent social – in fact, socialist – vision in Thomas’s work and life.
A socialist to the end
JOHN MALCOLM BRINNIN, Thomas’s host and chronicler of his visits to the USA, found him "actually more censorious of the status quo than any of the other British poets". The less than sympathetic Brinnin says that Thomas "expressed himself strongly on political matters and tended indiscriminately to support the far left".
From these American visits, Professor William York Tindall of Columbia University, offered an important report that has been ignored by Thomas’s biographers. "Thomas told me (in 1952) that he was a Communist. My disbelief was shaken, however, at a party a few days later. Here Thomas suddenly arose, kicked the cat which turned and bit me and, to the embarrassment of our hostess, called a distinguished and once radical American novelist, who was also a guest, both ‘renegade’ and ‘prick’."
One must regret the unfortunate outcome that Thomas’s explosion had for the cat, but the incident does point to convictions passionately held by Thomas. No doubt Thomas had, as so often, been drinking, but in vino veritas [there is truth in the wine].
The reports from Brinnin, Tindall and others all express surprise that, at what proved to be the end of his life, Thomas had political interests and convictions. His description of himself as a communist is greeted with ‘disbelief’. Nevertheless Thomas’s support for a revolutionary party had been publicly announced nearly twenty years before. Thomas’s statement in New Verse in 1934 – "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 of man… from the sources of production at man’s disposal" – was written during his close association with AE (‘Bert’) Trick, a man twenty-five years older than Thomas, and his political mentor. In letters from the time of his association with this socialist grocer – identified as ‘a Communist’ by Thomas’s wife Caitlin and others, but now known to be a revolutionary socialist who remained in the Labour Party – Thomas’s politics can be seen taking shape.
Twenty-five percent of the population of Thomas’s native Swansea were chronically out of work and the letters reflect Thomas’s awareness of the resulting conditions. In November 1933, writing to Pamela Hansford Johnson, Thomas, just 19, speaks of "an outgrown and decaying system" in which "light is being turned into darkness by the capitalists and industrialists... There is only one thing you and I, who are of this generation, must look forward to, must work for and pray for", writes Thomas. "And, because, as we fondly hope, we are poets and voicers not only of our personal selves but of our social selves, we must pray for it all the more vehemently. It is the Revolution. Later, in another letter, I will give you a more reasoned outline of Revolution, the hard facts of communism... and hope that you, too, may don your scarlet tie... The precious seeds of revolution must not be wasted". (Letters, pp55-56)
The letter with the ‘more reasoned outline of Revolution’ was apparently not written, but Thomas does write to Trevor Hughes in January 1934 that "society to adjust itself has to break itself; society... has grown up rotten with its capitalist child, and only revolutionary socialism can clean it up". "Capitalism is a system made for a time of scarcity", observes Thomas, who has reached the socialist insight that capitalism, because it seeks only profit for the few, is not an efficient mechanism for satisfying the needs of the many. With modern technology, it would, under socialism, be possible to make "the truth of today the truth of fertility" (Letters, p92).
In a letter to Glyn Jones, Thomas labels himself a ‘socialist’ but on 2 May 1934 he tells Hansford Johnson, "I could go to Russia with a Welsh Communist organisation" (Letters, p127). On 3 July 1934, when Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party (CP), and Tom Mann, another well-known British Communist, were on trial for ‘seditious speeches in the South Wales coalfield’ Swansea seemed "the centre of all revolutionary activities" (Letters, p146). Thomas’s characterization of the moment is understandable: thousands marched to the Swansea Assizes at which Pollitt and Mann were being tried. "I have just left the Socialist Party [not the Socialist Party that produces Socialism Today in 2003!]", Thomas tells Hansford Johnson, "and offered my services to the Communists" (Letters, p146).
Later in July 1934, Thomas wrote to Hansford Johnson, "If it can be forced home on the consciousness of the people that the present economic system is ethically bad, the seed has been planted that may in time grow into a fine revolutionary flower". He saw a society "composed, at top and bottom, of financial careerists and a proletarian army of dispossessed. Out of the negation of the negation", he said, "must rise the new synthesis". He expressed impatience with parliamentary processes for the achievement of social ownership: "Alternatively, there is the confiscation of property by force... If constitutional government cannot, in the space of a year after the next general election, fulfil their policies... the army and the police force must be subdued, and property taken by force" (Letters, pp158-59). At a meeting of a Swansea literary society in October of that year, Thomas was "introduced... as a Young Revolutionary" and answered questions about "the Communist Erewhon" [anagram of ‘nowhere’, meaning ‘utopia’] (Letters, p171-72).
Whether Thomas was actually a member of the CP is, in fact, impossible to resolve with any sources now available. His frequent labelling of himself as a C/communist in reported conversations in fact left it to the transcriber to supply either a capital C or a small one. There were and are communists, small c, who belong to other organizations. Bert Trick, whom Thomas called a ‘communist grocer’, small c, was – as his son Kerith Trick said at the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea in 2000 – "always a member of the Labour Party, albeit on the extreme left". Until the era of Tony Blair, the Labour Party included socialists, many of them Trotskyists, but now of course Clause Four advocating public ownership has been dropped, and most socialists not expelled from the Labour Party have left.
All the evidence points to Thomas’s holding revolutionary convictions both before he moved from Wales to London in 1934 and throughout his life. In 1944, for instance, Thomas wanted the Communist Party cultural journal Our Time to publish ‘Ceremony after a Fire Raid’, ‘pressing’ the poem "upon [Arnold] Rattenbury because, he said, he wanted to advertise that he remained a socialist" (Hobday, p233). Thomas contributed not only to Our Time but to its successor Communist Party periodicals Arena and Circus. On his 1952 visit to America, he also agreed to do a poetry reading for the Socialist Party of the USA without expecting his usual fee. And, as we have seen, Thomas called himself a communist and relished opportunities for political discussion in the final days in New York city.
Not surprisingly though, Thomas, who was ill-at-ease with the university-educated and with academics, disliked the sort of communist intellectual that was a characteristic product of the 1930s. As he said, he disliked them precisely "as revolutionaries and as communists, for, born in fairly wealthy middle-class homes, educated at expensive prep schools, public schools, and universities, they have no idea at all of what they priggishly call ‘the class struggle’ and no contact at all with either any of the real motives or the real protagonists of that class struggle" (Letters, p185). These were the kind of people that Bert Trick had taught him to call ‘Parlour Pinks’. Thomas, in his own "semi-proletarian, bourgeois, provincial upbringing" had seen in Depression era-Wales the material basis for the class struggle that a Marxist understands to be the motive force of history. In opposition to theoretical Marxists, who would as poets try to versify theory, Thomas appealed to concrete experience and to a perspective that embraces what Karl Marx would call the totality of human life-activity. "The individual in the mass and the mass in the individual", Thomas said, "can be made poetically important only when the status and the position of both mass and individual are considered by that part of the consciousness which is outside both" (Letters, p185).
In this often misunderstood rejection by Thomas of the literary Marxists of the 1930s, one can in fact recognize the stance that he would take in his own poetry, rejecting propagandizing for the search for that authentic human being-in-the world that awaits humanity when alienation and indeed class struggle ceases. Of course, as the language in the letters shows, Dylan Thomas had some knowledge of Marx, gained, probably, under Trick’s tutelage. And, as his prose writings and film scripts reveal, he understood poverty and class consciousness and could describe them as experienced in Wales and the world.
Dylan Thomas as social writer
BECAUSE THERE IS not room here for a close analysis of Thomas’s socially conscious writing, a few examples must suffice. ‘The Peaches’, one of Thomas’s finest and most often reprinted stories, is, for instance, a story about class consciousness. Annie, based on Thomas’s beloved aunt, Ann Jones, ‘brown-skinned, toothless, hunchbacked,’ forgetfully wearing her usual tennis shoes, despite having changed into her best dress, tries to please her wealthy relative, Mrs Williams, by serving a can of peaches she has saved for a long time. Mrs Williams, whose physical uneasiness in a poor household has been evident throughout, will not eat in Mrs Jones’s smelly parlour: ‘I can’t bear peaches’. This refusal leads to a final break between these class-divided relatives, with Mr Jones in his rage demanding, "Who does she think she is? Aren’t peaches good enough for her? To hell with her bloody motor car and her bloody son! Making us small". Because of the refusal of the peaches, Mrs Williams’s son, Jack, and the young Dylan are, at the end of the story, on opposite sides of the barrier of class: "The chauffeur came back. The car drove off, scattering the hens. I ran out of the stable to wave to Jack. He sat still and stiff by his mother’s side". There can be few demonstrations in literature of how class consciousness is created more sensitive or more accurate than ‘The Peaches’.
The film-scripts reveal a socialist understanding of the cost to humanity of a failed economic system. Wales – Green Mountain, Black Mountain was too political for the British Council to show overseas. One memorable passage answers the early critics who said that Thomas ignored the social reality of Depression-era Wales:
The ‘old-young men’ have been denied the opportunity for free creative labour that humans require. Such lives are over before they have begun: a point made again in the image of "the hunger born pit boy" that Thomas uses to invoke Wales in Our Country, another of his documentary films. Socialists demand a society "in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (Marx), and Thomas, with his concern for unlived lives, makes such a demand. In A City Re-born, which focuses on Coventry in England, Thomas’s commentary asserts that "After the war there can be no thinking of returning to the good old days, the days of cramped housing in crippling streets". In the same film, the comment about war-time production is that it "makes you think what a hell of a lot they can produce if it’s for use and not for sale...". No wonder that, as John Ackerman writes, "there were objections to some sections of the film" which had the appearance "of political propaganda".
The Introduction to John Ackerman’s 1995 edition of Thomas’s film scripts announces a changed view of Thomas’s political commitment from the opinions that had been usual since Treece. Ackerman writes, "Instinctively on the left, [Dylan Thomas] was one of the few poets of the 1930s who remained steadfast in his political allegiance throughout his life". The British documentary film movement was from the days of John Grierson onwards leftwing in its orientation and, as Ackerman says, "Dylan Thomas was comfortably at home with the political ethos of those working on the documentary propaganda films". Quoting Thomas’s statement that "writers should keep their opinions for their prose", Ackerman says that Thomas’s "work on these documentary films encouraged him to articulate political and social views".
The Marxist poet: beyond propaganda
THOMAS’S SOCIAL VISION is one that longs for an outcome in which alienated existence ends and humanity assumes its place in natural process. But Thomas would not write ‘propaganda’ poetry, or rather he would not ‘publish’ such poetry except as it would be heard as commentary in the film-scripts. A study of his notebooks supports Ralph Maud’s recognition that "Thomas could write about ‘the century’, ‘the state’, ‘civilization’, and ‘man’s man-made spare time’ (ie unemployment) with the rest of the thirties poets". The differences between the notebooks and the collected poems reveal a conscious decision, however, not to include direct social commentary in his published work. Thomas, with his revolutionary outlook, saw through bourgeois social arrangements – of which he offered a critique in his letters, his published prose, and the film-scripts – to the more fundamental and enduring processes of nature.
Thomas chose, in his poetry, not to write propaganda within bourgeois society, but to write for the timeless realm that comes with the removal of classes. This approach appears in one of Thomas’s earliest poems:
Here Thomas speaks out of the freedom that is the consciousness of necessity. He is not tied to a self-absorbed ego, but he loses self in common humanity and in process. When Thomas writes, ‘Though lovers be lost love shall not;/ And death shall have no dominion’, he recognizes that the individual passes but that what his fellow poet and critic Christopher Caudwell calls "desires as ancient and punctual as the stars" endure.
Perhaps Dylan Thomas should have written propaganda poetry as did his less radical contemporaries; but what he did write gives him a stronger claim to readers in the more fully human world of the socialist future in which social conflict and inequality will no longer inhibit human development and self-knowledge.
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