Sand in the Oyster: Auden, Eliot, & the Making of a Poem by Dylan Thomas

Updated: Jul 24


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.