Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Let’s do a thought experiment. Here’s the scene: It’s 1934, a decade less and less dominated by the powerful poetic voices of the near-50ish T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, those enfant arbiters who initiated the modernist movement in the Anni Mirabiles years of a decade ago, and more and more by the 20-something new generation of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and other politically committed intellectuals of their circle. W.B. Yeats, the 1923 Nobel Prize winner, is at age 69 an honored but increasingly distant master. Serious readers of poetry (yourself in this experiment) follow both these Modernist original and new generation writers, but their tastes are still satisfiable by the traditional formalist modes they grew up with. These trends, old and new, show in the major published work of this year, which includes Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Wine From These Grapes and James Agee’s Permit Me Voyage, but also Auden’s Poems (2nd edition: 1933 in Britain, 1934 in the USA), and Spender’s Vienna. The presence of the elders shows in William Carlos Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931, and in the unchecked and random dynamism of Ezra Pound, who publishes Homage to Sextus Propertius, and ABC of Reading, but also the often-unhealthily obsessive Eleven new Cantos: XXXI–XLI, the subjects of which include Jefferson, Adams, and other American founders, the American banking system and coinage, and various unpleasant anti-semite references; in a few years his political apocalyptic will overtake his poetry, and he will envision himself as a political theorist and world savior. He is moving toward crackpot status, already almost but not quite dismissible.
I see the boys of summer in their ruin Lay the gold tithings barren, Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils; There in their heat the winter floods Of frozen loves they fetch their girls And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.
And you think: What is this? Who writes like this? No one, is the answer, and no, don’t bother looking around because there is no one to tell you what this is, and there is no possible appeal to authority or precedent, because nothing like this is being published even in this poetically varied year of 1934, or for that matter in any other year in your reading experience. Even in this first reading we can sense tremendous force, an intense compression of the lines, drawing in many themes and setting them off against each other, although we may still wonder about what action is being described. What does it mean, after all, to say that someone lays “the gold tithings barren”? And in what sense are these boys “ruined”? The verbiage seems to suggest that the sighting happens in present tense, that they are ruined now, and yet there are ambiguities in the phraseology: does the speaker mean that they are ruined later as they age, or that they are ruined later in some way, that is, that they are still young and still boys of summer, but ruined ones? As we move through the poem from unsettling image to image, from winter floods and frozen loves and girls who are fetched (different than the frozen loves?) we come to the final line about “cargoed apples,” which we can sort of understand if we take it literally, as this is the Depression, and crops were sometimes dumped to insure higher prices for the remainder at market; but then, what does the Depression crop-dumping have to do with girls and tides and gold tithings? Nice as those auditory assonances may be (tides and tithings, girls and gold, etc.), do they tell us anything? Move us somewhere?
The questions pile up as we notice something else, how much at the level of the images and the words is concatenated in these few first lines: heat and cold, wet and dry, love and sterility, games (apple-bobbing, “fetching”) and death, creation and destruction. This is not a full encyclopedic run of all available poetic and thematic possibilities, but it is certainly broader than most of what we encounter in a single stanza in a single poem. We notice too that these lines scan like older poetry but read like new poetry, even if like poetry bitten by madness (to play a variation on Jacques Maritain’s wonderful “Art bitten by Poetry longs to be freed from Reason”). These lines are strange, even unsettling, but our sense of confusion may be allayed somewhat by the certainty of the tone, the definitive rhetoric of the stanza that says that this is exactly what the poet means, that he is not confused, that he knows what he is saying to us, and he means to say it. And so we think, there is sense here, there must be, the poet seems to insist on it, and so we just have to find it, to open ourselves to it to grasp it. But it is strange! There is no father to this, no predecessor. Seamus Heaney has said that “Others may have written like Thomas, but it was never vice-versa.” I would amend the first part of his statement only to say that others have tried to write like Thomas, but I know of no one who succeeded past a few lines or parts of a poem or two.
I’ve been reading through 18 Poems, trying to recover my initial experience at encountering these poems some decades ago, and finding it surprisingly not hard at all. When you enter their world, their power shows immediately, even aggressively: They are meant to be experienced that way. From the first line you read you are taken in and you live inside the poem as if there was no other world, and no other words or language but these on the page before you, for nothing else is possible in the moment of your reading. Stepping away, putting down the book, it comes to you how stunning it is that a 20-year old could have written so many of what we now regard as masterpieces: “I see the boys of summer,” “The force that through the green fuse,” “Before I knocked” (of which Heaney has said it “breaks the print barrier”), “Light breaks where no sun shines,” and many others. They share an extraordinary quality, presenting themselves as sui generis, and yet also as familiar and inevitable. The words, that is, feel inevitable, as if they have been there a long time, and yet we are conscious at the same time of how new they are, coming to us this way. Where does this come from? How do poems like this even get to the page?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the mysterious process of how poems come into being, and want to talk in this essay about what I think is part of that process, the way that frictional elements can sometimes help a poem along—that is, items that are not the source of the poem or of the poetry, but are the tiny pieces, some words, or a scene, the somethings, that help in its development, which for one reason or another lodge in the imagination and work there like the bit of sand in an oyster that helps produce the pearl. And there is also related item, a way of thinking about or validating the mode and construction of the created object, that gives license to how the thing is conceived and put together, an environmental piece that helps define and protect the final output.
Both of these pieces lurk behind and around this first poem in the book, and indeed around the book as a whole. One of them is from W.H. Auden, and one from T.S. Eliot. One Thomas embraced and used to strengthen and articulate his approach to his poetry, giving it a safe space in which to develop and mature; and one he also used but resisted, derogated, and denied, even as he admitted to its importance, almost as if he resented its influence. The Eliot contribution to Thomas came in his criticism, in the early 1930’s books Selected Essays and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. These were so helpful to Thomas that he cited passages from them often in letters and interviews as a justification and philosophical underpinning to his methods. They validated and created the environment in which his poems could thrive, and he recognized that and was grateful for it, for he needed it. But with Auden he had a different and deeply conflicted relationship. Auden’s voice, structure, and poetic is influential in this first poem and throughout the book. Thomas tried in various ways to differentiate himself from the other poet, and to deny his influence, and I will show some ways in which he tried to do this.
(Eliot and Auden are not the only influences to be seen in these poems. Although I don’t discuss it in this essay, there is also the significant influence of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, which can be seen in the scansions and rhythms of the lines, and sometimes more: Consider a possible ancestry of “If I were ticked by the rub of love” as being Hamlet’s “Ay, there’s the rub” from the great “To be or not to be” soliloquy.)
I want to be clear about this. These other items and authors do not create the poems, and they are not the motive or the force that makes the poem in the end definitive for its author and for us; and there is in any case no reason for them to be acknowledged, either in the poem or anywhere else, after the poem is completed. Think of their relationship to the poem, if you will, as similar to that of the angel that appeared to Caedmon and ordered him to sing the creation of the world; after which, following the command, Caedmon sang of the glory of the world, but not of the extraordinary appearance of the angel, whose holy instigating presence we know of only because Bede, the great historian and Doctor of the Church, told us so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
All the words [in Watkins’ poem] are lovely but they seem so chosen, not struck out. I can see the sensitive picking of words, but not the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down…They [the words] seem, as indeed the whole poem seems, to come out of the nostalgia of literature…A motive has been rarefied; it should be made common. I don’t ask you for vulgarity, though I miss it; I think I ask you for a little creative destruction, destructive creation.
I am taken by his phrase about the words needing to seem a “strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a still life or an experience put down.” This is as good a description of the authority that a poem’s truth can command as I know, written by someone who clearly understands what that is and why it is important, and why it must always stand in opposition to the “still life or an experience put down.” Thomas spent many hours working in the service of this vision of truth in poetry, seeking to find it and to make his poems different than those of others writing at the time; his letters are full of references to the insufficiency of the 30’s poems he read, and contain sharp asides on Auden, Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and others. He said, for example, in a 1934 letter to Glyn Jones that “I like to read good propaganda, but the most recent poems of Auden and Day-Lewis seem to me neither good poetry nor propaganda. A good propagandist needs very little intellectual appeal; and the emotional appeal in Auden wouldn’t raise the corresponding emotion in a tick.” This is judgment functioning as differentiation, a way of creating a boundary between what he was doing and what they were doing. Of Spender he wrote, “I find his communism unreal; before a poet can get into contact with society, he must, surely, be able to get into contact with himself, and Spender has only tickled his outside with a feather.” Again, the judgment, if sincere, can be made only by one who has in fact been in contact with himself; for if this is not a criteria yoked to one’s own aesthetic, then it is fatuous and narcissistically self-indulgent. To say it to another who knows you is to invite rebuke and embarrassment. It may also be worth noting how odd it is to suggest that the reality of communism is only possible to a poet who is truly in contact with himself; as judgment, this overwhelms its occasion.
But Auden, it was Auden he came back to, to both praise and criticize, for Auden was the big one, the one he could measure himself against, the one he could learn from, the one he never wanted to be compared to. He had to be different. His vision was different, and he was charting a new way. And for all his protestations and critiques of Auden, Thomas was influenced by him in ways which he knew and understood and so perhaps thought he must fight against. His literary relationship to the other poet was problematical, even passive-aggressive, at the same time deeply admiring and carefully distant. You can see it in his piece in the 1937 New Verse magazine’s salute to the poet: “I sometimes think of Mr. Auden’s poetry as a hygiene, a knowledge and practice, based on a brilliantly prejudiced analysis of contemporary disorders, relating to the preservation and promotion of health, a sanitary science and a flusher of melancholies. I sometimes think of his poetry as a great war, admire intensely the mature, religious, and logical fighter, and deprecate the boy bushranger.” This is praising, somewhat, but also catty, something one might say of a wartime environmental engineer given to writing with a florid streak who keeps a very neat office. He says nicer things about Auden in the following paragraph, that he is “wide and deep,” is “potentially productive of greatness” (note that “potentially”!) and that “He makes Mr. Yeats isolation guilty as a trance,” a nice two-fer of a joke. And then he ends his short piece by congratulating Auden on his 70th birthday—another joke: Auden at the time was 30 years old. The young dog keeps jumping forth uninhibited from the 20-something poet and doing something not quite respectable right there in the plain sight of God and man and everyone.
There is one more bit of information that may be useful to know about Thomas’ method of writing. It also shows his faith in Eliot, for he uses him as an external authority in an appeal to judgment. In 1933 he wrote to ask Eliot to “corroborate or contradict” a criticism that his poems were products of automatic writing, a charge that had been leveled by Richard Rees. He says in his cover letter that the “fluency complained of is the result of extraordinary hard work, and, in my opinion, the absence of ‘knotty or bony passages’ is again the result of much energetic labour… and many painful hours spent over the smoothing and removing of the creakiness of conflict.” Note the distinction here: it is not the conflict that is being removed by constant work and refinement, only its creakiness. The high rhetoric of his syntax holds together the otherwise disjunct and warring images and words. The technique is collage, the labor is to make it all seem both new and inevitable, or in Thomas’ words, “the strong inevitable pulling that makes a poem an event.”
And now, with that mess of conflicting emotions and scenery and explanation as backdrop, it is time to jump into it: For the first line of “I see the boys of summer in their ruin”—the first line of the first poem of this, his first book—is more or less a mash-up of a line in Auden’s “Consider this and in our time,” from his Poems (published in 1930 with a second revised edition in 1933). Here is the final stanza, that contains the “ruined boys” line:
Financier, leaving your little room Where the money is made but not spent, You’ll need your typist and your boy no more; The game is up for you and for the others, Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, Who are born nurses, who live in shorts Sleeping with people and playing fives. Seekers after happiness, all who follow The convolutions of your simple wish, It is later than you think; nearer that day Far other than that distant afternoon Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet They gave the prizes to the ruined boys. You cannot be away, then, no Not though you pack to leave within an hour, Escaping humming down arterial roads: The date was yours; the prey to fugues, Irregular breathing and alternate ascendancies After some haunted migratory years To disintegrate on an instant in the explosion of mania Or lapse for ever into a classic fatigue.
At first glance, this seems an odd place to find inspiration. Written in 1930, the poem is oddly dull for the Auden of these years, and to me reads as mechanical, even lusterless. Auden undertakes this kind of apocalyptic and cynically urban posture so much better in so many of his other poems that this seems not only unfulfilled but unfinished, as everything here, even the cliches, seem weary and not so much placed as dropped here by someone passing by: “where the money is made but not spent,” “the game is up,” “it is later than you think.” And the absurdist caricatures of people who “pace in slippers on the lawns,” who are “prey to fugues, / Irregular breathing and alternate ascendancies,” and so forth, seem set here from some other place, a better poem perhaps, or from discarded lines from some other writing. I can’t imagine that Thomas, so hungry for excellence and so quick to judge his contemporaries, found much to admire in the poem as a whole. Auden must have agreed, as much of the poem was rewritten for its appearance in his Collected Poems (Vintage, 1991), dropping the financier and the slippers on the lawn and other distracting elements altogether.
And yet, something in this first version caught something in Thomas’ imagination, perhaps the sense in the lines of a remembered generation that judges the present waste of the financier’s world, or perhaps just the phrase. Something clicked, in any
I see that from these boys shall men of nothing Stature by seedy shifting, Or lame the air with leaping from its heats; There from their hearts the dogdayed pulse Of love and light bursts in their throats. O see the pulse of summer in the ice.
There are other echoes from Auden in this poem and in this book. Some have suggested, for example, that the line in the first stanza about cargoes apples may reflect, in addition to market practices, the influence of Auden’s line, “Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,” from the villanelle “Paysage Moralisé.” There may also be learning structural techniques from poems such as “It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens,” or “The Witnesses.” For our purposes it is enough to say from the evidence that Thomas read Auden’s poems thoroughly and in depth, and found in one of them a line that created a response or variation—created something that was transubstantiated by the poetic imagination to the new thing.
Now I need to add this cautionary note: That this is poetry, and involves people, and so there is no one-to-one correspondence, no argument being made that Auden’s dross became Thomas’ gold. We are all of us more complex than that, and God knows, poetry is more complex. Nor is this some kind of argument about Bloomian “influence,” or outright theft or even a more subtle borrowing; Auden’s ruined boys do not “become” Thomas’ “boys of summer.” Rather the imagination of the poet encountered something that set it working on this image of ruined boys and this context or narrative of the poem until it became something else in this new poem. To return to an earlier image I used to describe this process, the Auden line is the grain of sand that becomes the line of poetry that launches in the first line of this other poem.
As for structure and aesthetic of this and other Thomas poems, I have said that Thomas used T.S. Eliot in defining and validating his approach to poetry. Consider these two examples from Eliot, both from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism:
The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking for some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. This is a normal situation of which I approve…
What I call the “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.
And this from Thomas, in a 1934 letter to Glyn Jones:
Remember Eliot: “The chief use of ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.” And again: “Some poets, asking that there are others minds like their own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity though its elimination’….
It is interesting that these are the parts of Eliot’s writings that Thomas chooses to retain and quote to others. I believe, as explained above, that he read deeply in Eliot and used him to justify and validate his method, that he needed Eliot because of the way he works, from the words up to the image and then to the poem as a whole: He works, that is, at the level of the poetry, not that of the narrative or of the poem. This methodology allows him to bind the pieces of his poem together at the syntactic or rhetorical level, finding and sometimes creating the hidden connections between the images and the lines that will exist once stated and brought into the light. The poem is thus assembled piece by piece, collage-fashion. Narrative, he says in “Replies to an Enquiry” (In Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1968), is essential:
Much of the flat, abstract poetry of the present has no narrative movement, no movement at all, and is consequently dead. There must be a progressive line, or theme, of movement in every poem. The more subjective a poem, the clearer the narrative line. Narrative, in its widest sense, satisfies what Eliot, talking of “meaning,” calls “one habit of the reader.” Let the narrative take that one logical habit of the reader along with its movement, and the essence of the poem will do its work on him.
Note the distinction: Narrative is the instrument that works upon the reader while the “essence of the poem” does its work on him, suggesting that narrative is not the essence. That essence is the thing that Thomas learned from or had confirmed by Eliot, and which is described as the “auditory imagination” in the quote above. The phrase is from Eliot’s essay about Matthew Arnold. Eliot admired Arnold’s The Study of Poetry, but demurred from the other’s description of the “life” of a poem. He thought that it did not go deep enough, an infirmity, as he saw it, so serious as to render judgment on the great Victorian: “He had no real serenity, only an implacable demeanor.” This is a devastating judgment by itself, but Eliot went further, saying that he sensed a lack of confidence and conviction in Arnold, tied to this imperfect sense of the life of a poem. You can see why Thomas would have found the quote and the sense of poetry it offered so appealing, to say nothing of the judgment in those lines.
A quick note on the structure of the poem. It is in three parts. The first part is a speaker talking about the boys of summer, which ends with ice. In the second section the boys speak, who “ring the stars,” and who after experience and thoughts of love and a description of acts of masturbation, find ability to “hold up the noisy sea and drop her birds,” which is an image of birth, and who therefore view themselves as “poles of promise.” The exuberance of the imagery in this section almost offsets the thematic images of sterility. The final section is just one stanza, a dialogue of alternating lines that calls out the lie of all the rest pf what has gone before in two devastating lines: “I am the man your father was. / We are the sons of flint and pitch.”
Each section is complex and rich with image and cross-talk. Each stanza and each section is held together by various devices. Within the stanzas we find that the lines scan and are bound aurally by half-rhymes and consonant rhymes, by a syntax that almost but never quite coheres in the kind of sentence structures we are used to, but flies off with undefined referents and apposite clauses. Each section ends with a parallel structure:
O see the pulse of summer in the ice. O see the poles of promise in the boys. O see the poles are kissing as they cross.
Promise joins ruin: The boy is the promise until he becomes the man, at which point destiny limits all choices, and each person enacts the life that has gone before. This is the point at which the poles of life kiss as they cross.
This is an incredible, masterful, wonderful poem, fun to read at the level of the “auditory imagination,” and even more fun to listen to in readings by Thomas and also, in an amazing reading by Richard Burton. Each reading tells us something new about the poem. Each approach releases something else in the magic of this classic poem, and of the poems in this book. Read them yourself and experience how the power and the magic of these poems remains so fresh and overwhelming, despite many readings. Something always comes and surprises.
I have several debts to pay for sources and authors who helped me along the way or suggested readings and interpretations for this essay. They are John Goodby, Under the Spelling Wall (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013); Seamus Heaney, “Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas,” (Salmagundi No. 100, Fall 1993); William York Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1962); New Verse, “Auden Double Number,” November 1937; Adam Kirsch, “Reckless Endangerment The making and unmaking of Dylan Thomas,” The New Yorker, July 5, 2004; Andrew Lycett, Dylan Thomas: A New Life (Overlook, 2003); The Poems of Dylan Thomas, ed. and intro Daniel Jones (New Directions, 1971) and The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas, ed. and intro Ralph Maud (New Directions, 1966). For quotes from or about Auden, I have used the wonderful The English Auden Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939 ed and intro Edward Mendelson (Faber and Faber, 1977). The T.S. Eliot quotes are from Selected Essays (Harcourt Brace 1932) and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Faber, 1933).