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Dylan Thomas: populist

Credit: Francis Reiss / Stringer / Getty Images

Credit: Francis Reiss / Stringer / Getty Images

March 1, 2019   4 mins

Once upon a time – 1930s Britain – there were two strikingly different but equally popular poets. Oxford-educated W. H. Auden wrote a lot of intellectual poems in a style that’s easy to make sense of; Dylan Thomas, who left school at 16, produced more instinctive verse that often appears, at first glance, to be complete nonsense.

At the time, these two men were widely thought of as the era’s most exciting poets, alongside the modernist-in-chief, T. S. Eliot. Since then, the canon has been significantly kinder to Auden, whom the literary establishment finds more palatable than the famously bawdy Thomas.

Type ‘Auden’ into the search bar of the London Review of Books, and you’ll find 660 results; ‘Dylan Thomas’ by contrast yields just 182. The equivalent figures on the Paris Review website are 181 and 98. Yet a general internet search tells a very different story: there are 6.76 million Google hits for ‘Auden’; but a massive 121 million for ‘Dylan Thomas’.

These stats support a now recognised fact: the literary elites has neglected Dylan Thomas, despite overwhelming popular interest in his work. Why is that? Partly, and ironically, because of that popular interest.

At first, it was Auden’s reputation that suffered. On the eve of WWII, he abandoned the UK and sailed for America, accusations of cowardice ringing in his ears. Thomas, meanwhile, moved from Wales to London and fashioned himself as a poet doing essential war work. By the end of the decade, recordings of him reading his own work were being broadcast on the BBC, laying the groundwork for his ascent to cult status. By the 1950s, he was doing lengthy reading tours of America, where he died in 1953 aged 39.

“He died at the height of his fame,” wrote Seamus Heaney – one of the most commercially successful poets of the 21st century – in 1993. “Print culture and the electronic media were perfecting their alliance in the promotion of culture heroes,” meaning that even after his death, Thomas’s voice continued to spread, feeding his fame. Heaney continues:

“The records of Dylan Thomas reading his own poems, records which were lined up on the shelves of undergraduate flats all over the world, were important cultural events. They opened a thrilling line between the centre and the edges of the English language collective. For all of us young provincials, from Belfast to Brisbane, the impact of Thomas’s performance meant that we had a gratifying sense of access to something that was acknowledged to be altogether modern, difficult and poetry.”

Heaney, who grew up in a small village in Northern Ireland, is emphasising Thomas’s appeal to the ordinary people who lived beyond the metropolis, where “the English language collective” was centred.

Up-and-coming “young provincials” were perceived by the metropolitan elite as unfashionable, simple and prosaic. But Thomas forged ahead anyway, proving that “provincials” could succeed despite this snobbery.

But when his cult started to die down in the 1970s, most academics dismissed him as a populist trend. The literary establishment focused their energies not on unpicking his poetry, but on magnifying the persona of the bawdy bard from the backend of Wales who drank too much and spoke nonsense. Implicit was the assumption that any poet so beloved by the young, so stubbornly regional, so interested in sex and so often transmitted by the new-fangled media, couldn’t possibly be good.

This is ironic, because in the Seventies, English faculties around the world were enthusiastically cleaving the personalities of authors from their works. In 1967, Roland Barthes had published the influential essay ‘The Death of the Author’, which encourages readers to disregard the biography, personality or intentions of an author when reading a text, and to instead judge that text based on its intrinsic merits. Perhaps Thomas’s texts were too difficult to judge – they’re known for mockingly evading all kinds of authority.

Besides, the literary authorities were altogether more focused on the death of an author: “after W. H. Auden’s death in 1973, Thomas was the main casualty of a critical urge to make the 1930s solely the ‘age of Auden’,” points out Dylan’s most staunch defender, Swansea-based Professor John Goodby.

At first it didn’t matter. Each December, the BBC still broadcast a recording of Thomas reading his micro-memoir, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’; his rousing poem, ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ was still read at funerals up and down the UK.

But then the students of the academics who denigrated Thomas became our English teachers, and before long they were writing exam papers and curricula. By the turn of the millennium, the current state of affairs, described in the FT, had consolidated itself: “although the poet is widely celebrated on TV and radio, his poems themselves are frequently left off the academic curriculum.”

This matters. In the Internet age, it’s easy to forget how much control university faculties have over what corners of culture get noticed. With Google at our fingertips, it feels like we have access to every miniscule piece of information, and we have free reign to decide what’s important. But there’s a place where, during our formative years, we spend even more time: school. And the dictates of academia trickle down to decide what voices are included and excluded in our education.

Maybe it’s not such a tragedy. Thomas is a dead white man, after all – the demographic best represented in our lessons, lectures and literature. But he’s also a case study in how an author can get overlooked not despite but because of qualities we ought to celebrate: mass appeal, resistance to authority and a marginal perspective.

As a master’s student, I wanted to write my dissertation about Dylan Thomas. When I outlined my proposal, my tutor made a face: “There’s not really anyone who’s interested in him in the department” – a department that is, by some measures, the best place to study English Literature in the UK. Stubbornly, I stuck to my topic.

In the course of my research, I discovered that Dylan Thomas has been credited with kickstarting the audiobook industry. His early poems were lauded by T. S. Eliot (unlike Auden’s: Eliot told him to go away and try again). The young Sylvia Plath adored him – and was profoundly influenced by his verse. His words appear in multiple mediums, from blockbusters like Interstellar (2014) to the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Yet despite his huge cultural impact, universities so often treat Thomas as a minor poet.

Perhaps this is a reflection on academia’s determination to retain its influence, rather than a reflection on Thomas’s actual influence. Ignoring a poet adored by the masses contributes to a general attitude that the elite knows best while hoi polloi are misguided, tasteless, or just plain stupid.

Sound familiar? The gulf between Thomas’s reputation in pop culture and his reputation in academia is a microcosm of our times – times in which teams of well-educated experts continuously underestimate the masses.

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