Green and Dying in Chains: Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill" and Kenneth Grahame's 'The Golden Age.'

Article excerpt

The next few years will obviously see a spate of writing about Thomas - his vision, imagery, technique etc. - and the writers will be beset by two distinct and opposite dangers - the danger of trying to equip him too exactly with a literary pedigree and the danger of isolating him as a sport, a Villon figure, a wild man who threw up works of genius without knowing what he was doing. The former mistake has been made for years by various academic critics, often Americans, who have dwelt at length on Thomas's relations to ancient Welsh poetry or to Rimbaud: though... it should be remembered that he had never read Rimbaud and could not read Welsh.

- Louis MacNeice (85-86)

Louis MacNeice made this observation shortly after Thomas's death in 1953, and time has proved him fight. As an academic, a poet himself, and a friend of Dylan Thomas, MacNeice was particularly well placed to comment: he had himself experienced the excitement of reading a poetry that, astoundingly, was both obscure and popular, and that found an audience of people who instinctively understood the poet even though they did not always understand the poetry (Shapiro 179). Whatever his subject, Thomas writes compellingly of himself in a voice that cannot be mistaken for anyone else's. The exhilaration of reading Thomas during his lifetime, of reading a poetry so defiantly antitraditional and personal, quickly led into a fascination with the charismatic, womanizing, and notoriously drunken poet himself. Thomas's early death at 39 from excessive drinking brought these Rabelaisian elements of his personality even more to the fore, just as MacNeice had predicted. Forty-three years after Thomas died in New York, his reputation is legendary. To this day, in Alan Bold's trenchant phrase, "scores of boozers claim to have known Thomas" (9), and I have met some myself, each with his tale of drinking on first-name terms with Dylan in the White Horse, his favorite bar in New York. And to this day the view persists that Thomas dashed down his poems in a rapture of alcoholic inspiration, pint in hand or whiskey bottle at his elbow, even though his manuscripts show that he would labor painstakingly for several days over a single line, and even though he was always sober when he wrote.

If reading Thomas's poetry is exhilarating, reading about it is bewildering. Exactly as MacNeice had foreseen, in their various quests to detach Thomas's poetry from his aura and to place him in a literary tradition, to explicate his poems or to explore his thought, critics call upon a dizzying array of sources and supposed influences: the Bible, the Welsh hwyl tradition, the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, Wordsworth, Blake, Arthur Machen, Hopkins, Eliot, Joyce, surrealism, astrology, the occult, and Egyptology. Even "Fern Hill," which is hardly an obscure poem in Thomas's oeuvre, has been yoked to Boethius, Sidney, Donne, Vaughan, Traherne, Marvell, and Freud.

To this list of influences on "Fern Hill," I venture to add the homelier and less illustrious name of Kenneth Grahame for his The Golden Age. First published in 1895 and reprinted regularly over the following 50 years, this is a collection of stories, written about children but for adults, that reverts to the Wordsworthian and Blakean ideas of children as "illuminati" whose perception is far superior to that of the unimaginative, pleasure-stifling adults ("Olympians") who control them. The children of Grahame's book, five orphans living with an aunt and visited by various uncles and grown-up friends of the aunt, had already been well received in The Yellow Book as well as in Grahame's earlier Pagan Papers, but their reappearance in The Golden Age made Grahame famous long before The Wind in the Willows, for which he is chiefly remembered today, was published (1908). For Swinburne, The Golden Age was "well-nigh too praiseworthy for praise" (qtd. in Chalmers 86), while a host of women's magazines prescribed it as compulsory reading for all English parents who wanted to understand their children better (Green 161). …