“a demagogic Welsh masturbator who failed to pay his bills”

So Robert Graves, one of Dylan Thomas’s contemporaries, described him. But what do you think? In a letter to a friend, Thomas himself wrote that the difficulty, or “obscurity”, of his poetry was based “on a preconceived symbolism derived (I’m afraid all this sounds wooly and pretentious) from the cosmic significance of the human anatomy.” He also identified in his poetry an “immature violence, rhythmic monotony, frequent muddle-headedness, and a very much overweighted imagery that leads often to incoherence.” Would you agree with Thomas’s own negative estimate of his own work here? Or with those critics who argue that Thomas has been over-rated? Or, having heard Thomas read, do you find his poems powerful and moving? Do they operate at a level very different to that of the rational, logical mind? Or do you have different feelings about different poems of his?

Below are some links related to Dylan Thomas that you may find interesting, useful or amusing. If you find any others, do please add them below. Of course, the library remains your best resource!

DT CAITLIN SEAVIEW SUMMERSYou can hear the original broadcast of Under Milk Wood, Thomas’s radio play,  here. The first voice you hear is that of Richard Burton, another great Welshman.

I mentioned in class the great Welsh tradition of singing: here’s Dunvant Male Voice Choir performing one of the poems from Under Milk Wood on the Welsh coast.

A useful, short critical biography of Thomas on the Poetry Foundation website.

A review of three books on Dylan Thomas that discusses the critical debate over the value of Dylan Thomas’s poetry.

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More villanelles

villanelleThe villanelle is a form associated with pastoral song in the Renaissance, but adopted by many poets working in English in the mid twentieth century. In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus writes a villanelle, ‘Are you not weary of ardent ways‘. We looked at perhaps the most famous of twentieth-century villanelles in class together, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. There’s much more about Thomas’s poem here, part of a whole doctoral thesis on the villanelle form. Another example is Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’:

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Plath, as you’ll see, uses half-rhymes in places here. Anther well-known example of the modern villanelle is William Empson’s ‘It is the pain endures’, which Dylan Thomas apparently described as ‘Empson’s good poem’. In fact, Empson’s poetry is well worth reading. He’s better known as a literary critic, but critical respect for his poetry is steadily growing. Here’s his villanelle – you can find more information about it, and a reading by Empson himself, here.

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or change inures);
And when pain’s secondary phase was due,
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures —
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

W. H. Auden, too, tried his hand at the villanelle. Here’s his poem, ‘If I could tell you’:

Time will say nothing but I told you so
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be sold, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reason why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

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Life is a play and you should live it fast.
Get rid of your pains and have so much fun.
Direct your own play and choose your own cast.

Shape your future; do not stick to your past.
You can get whatever you want under the sun.
Life is a play and you should live it fast.

There will be some people that want your trust.
If they try to hurt you, leave them one by one.
Direct your own play and choose your own cast.

Do not stop learning; your lack of knowledge is vast;
Moreover, there will be a lot of things to be done.
Life is a play and you should live it fast.

Time is passing; you should live at full blast.
Your pains will follow you, but you must shun.
Direct your own play and choose your own cast.

Nothing is permanent; death will come at last.
Walking is not for you, you must always run.
Life is a play and you should live it fast.
Direct your own play and choose your own cast.

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Deadline extension for final midterm submission

Following the visit of a delegation from the people, your benevolent (well, benevolent-ish) dictator has agreed to extend the deadline for the submission of revised midterm papers until 0941 on Friday 5 April.

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Auden, Orwell and Murder

On Tuesday we talked about George Orwell’s criticism of Auden’s lines in  ‘Spain’ (1937):

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder

george-orwellFor Orwell, Auden can speak of murder as necessary “because he has never committed a murder, perhaps never had one of his friends murdered, possibly never even seen a murdered man’s corpse.” He goes on:

Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder.  To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person.  The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is ‘liquidation,’ ‘elimination,’ or some other soothing phrase. […] Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

w-h-audenAuden replied:

I was not excusing totalitarian crimes but only trying to say what, surely, every decent person thinks if he finds himself unable to adopt the absolute pacifist solution. (1) To kill another human being is always murder and should never be called anything else. (2) In a war, the members of two rival groups try to murder the opponents. (3) If there is such a thing as a just war, then murder can be necessary for the sake of justice.

But later, Auden would revise the lines Orwell criticized, from

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder


To-day the inevitable increase in the chances of death;
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder.

There’s a good article by T.R. Healy with more information about the argument between Auden and Orwell here, a useful essay on Auden and his relationship to Yeats here, and a blog on Auden’s words about poetry surviving only “in the valley of its making” here.

We had quite a lively discussion of the issues this debate raised in class, although only a few of you contributed actively to it. I’d be interested to know what the rest of you think – is Orwell right, or is Auden? Or is there another way? And does poetry only survive “in the valley of its making”, as Auden suggests in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’? Thoughts below please!


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Brueghel – Auden – Icarus – Williams


Pieter Brueghel (?), The Fall of Icarus (c.1565)

In class tomorrow we’ll be looking at W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Here is the poem, for anyone who didn’t get the handout:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The opening of the second stanza alludes to a painting by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus‘. (In fact, the painting is now thought to be a  copy of an original by Brueghel, who was one of the ‘old Masters’ of the Renaissance that Auden refers to, in line 2.) The poem takes its name from the museum in Brussels in which Auden saw this painting. We will discuss the relationship between poem and painting in our seminar, but please come along with some thoughts of your own on both text and image. As you read ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, it may also help to keep in mind the historical context we discussed on Tuesday: this poem was written as the Spanish Civil War was coming to an end and World War Two was about to begin. Real suffering was very much a daily reality for many.

Another modernist poet, an American, William Carlos Williams, also wrote a poem on this painting, a few years after Auden. It is interesting to compare the two:

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

You can read a brief summary of the myth of Icarus and how it relates to Williams’s poem, and a brief critical comparison of the two poems’ treatment of the myth, here. (I think it is quite possible to disagree with the second of these readings, in particular, but it provides a good starting point for thought and discussion.)

Please post your thoughts about the relationship between either one of the poems and the painting, or between the two poems, or simply on any one of these three works, in the comments below, either before or after Friday’s seminar.  You may even want to attempt your own poetic response to Brueghel’s work, or to Auden’s or Williams’s poem.

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‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’


We talked today about W.B. Yeats’ late poem, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, and I gave you some questions to think about for next week’s class. We’ll discuss these further then, but you’re welcome to post some initial answers (or to post your answers here next week, after the class discussion).  I’m also posting the questions here for those of you who missed the seminar today. If you have other things to say about this poem, or about Yeats’s other poems, please feel free to post those here too.



  1. What do the circus animals figure, or represent, here? What connotations do circus animals have? And what does this make the speaker of the poem?
  2. This poem is in ottava rima, an Italian form most often associated with epic poetry of great heroes. What is the effect of Yeats’ use of a metrical form associated with the epic hero here?
  3. How closely do you think we should associate this poem with Yeats himself? Why?
  4. Do you prefer the early Yeats of the Celtic Twilight, and such poems as ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ – or the late Yeats of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’? Give reasons for your answers.
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