Chapter Four: Grave Truths, Grave Men

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Probably the best-known villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” of 1951. 1 This chapter attempts to account for this famous villanelle’s form in terms of the poetic culture and community in which it was written. Like previous chapters, this chapter sees a particular poem’s form as the product not only of the poet’s struggle for noumenal and phenomenal truth but also of the poet’s struggles for livelihood and reputation in a social context. Both are valid battles, keenly felt, and every important poem bears their imprint. Obscuring the social aspects of a poem’s composition and reception can lead to vague romantic illusion and overblown hagiography, whereas obscuring the purely intellectual or emotional aspects of a poem’s composition and reception can lead to a snide and arid criticism. Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” flatters a king in an Italian style calculated to please the monarch, but it also captures the obsessive bewilderment of grief and loss. Théodore de Banville’s “Villanelle de Buloz” is a frivolous and ephemeral taunt, but it also reminds us not to take the whole literature thing too seriously. Edmund Gosse’s “Wouldst thou not be content to die” drips with bathos and trite beauties, but his efforts to introduce the French forms to English poets reflect an unprejudiced commitment to the enlargement of a xenophobic English literature. James Joyce’s “Are you not weary of ardent ways” is pedestrian and juvenile compared to his adult achievements in prose, but A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man lets us see that the hour of any poem’s composition is indelibly important to the poet, even if the poem is not important to anyone else nor ever again to the maturing poet.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Dylan Thomas played the role of romantic outsider to a literary set that James A. Davies describes as “incestuous” (38). In the thirties, most of the established and emerging British poets were Oxbridge-educated; T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day-Lewis, and William Empson. Thomas, by contrast, was Welsh, poor, and under-educated. Rather like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas had been dredged up from a vast slough of young poets by the equivalent of a Hollywood cattle call. He had gained his first notoriety at the age of eighteen thanks to the offices of a popular paper called the Sunday Referee, “a newspaper with serious pretensions trying to tap a more literary market” (Davies 25). The poetry of the Oxbridge set, though not entirely homogeneous, shared a strong emphasis on intellectualism as an appropriate response to both political and aesthetic problems. Thomas, by contrast, professed an anti-intellectual Dionysian ethic in private, in public, and in poetry.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London” (1945), for instance, implicitly criticizes other modern poets writing about the war:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth. (Collected 1988 86)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The poet’s refusal to mourn is also a refusal to write as his peers have done–but he can hardly help it, as, we suspect, he can hardly help mourning. Indeed, “Refusal to Mourn” itself concludes with something that might easily be called a “grave truth”: “After the first death, there is no other.” And of course the mortal pun on “grave” is meant, and will recur in “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which speaks of “Grave men, near death.” The pun echoes wounded Mercutio’s “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Thomas himself was something of a Mercutio figure, scoffing and romping through the tragedy of modern poetry declaiming the occasional faery vision. He was especially wont to play the role of the anti-intellectual adolescent, treating other poets even of his own generation as portentous, portly elders. The alphabetical simplicity of the rhyme scheme of “Refusal to Mourn” (abcabc defdef ghighi jkljkl) seems itself a child’s rebuke of adult convolution.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 But Thomas was not really such an outsider to that incestuous literary coterie, nor was Thomas’s poetry so different from theirs. Like Auden, Thomas paid careful attention to rhyme and meter, making full use of the new freedom to use slant rhyme and novel nonce schemes; like Empson, Thomas privileged sound over semantic clarity. For Empson, Auden, Thomas (and for other poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote her first villanelle in 1950, and Weldon Kees, who published five villanelles in his 1947 The Fall of the Magicians), the desire to write a villanelle was only one manifestation of a more general formalism. This formalism, even Thomas’s, was essentially part of the tendency toward intellectualism that was characteristic of the period, an intellectualism that was itself an attempt to impose order upon the disarray of the twentieth century. 2 In the thirties, Auden and other young intellectuals had been attracted to Communism because it was a political philosophy that promised to order society rationally. In the same period, Empson, influenced by I. A. Richards’s brand of practical criticism, founded a “scientific method” for the study of literature that held sway in the form of New Criticism for decades. He was also instrumental in reevaluating the Metaphysicals, whose abstruse images and techniques had long been out of favor.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The villanelle at mid-century amounted to a pet of Empson’s, a nonce revival–but the members of the dominant poetic culture, not excluding Dylan Thomas, were so close to one another that they passed their bugs around like kindergarteners. As the notes to the 1988 edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems remark: “The villanelle form for the poem [“Do not go gentle into that good night”] is something Thomas would have picked up from William Empson, if nowhere else” (256). This erratic viral character of the villanelle was new: in the nineteenth century, the villanelle had been systematically wielded in certain well-defined literary arguments; in the period of high modernism, the villanelle had been systematically ignored except by backward provincials and amateurs. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, the villanelle had been all but stripped of signification. The Parnassians were no longer an issue. William Empson’s sudden adoption of the form was apparently entirely idiosyncratic, and he did not attempt a programmatic resuscitation of the villanelle. But then, as Stephen Spender remarked in 1946, the poets of the thirties “were not in a deliberate sense a literary movement; they were rather a group of friends, contemporaries at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, influenced by each other in a personal way” (qtd. in Firchow 83). This personal influence is the context for the minor revival of the villanelle at mid-century, a revival that was anchored by Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Notes:

  1. 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0
  2. When asked about my dissertation, I say that it is a history of a poetic form called the villanelle. People usually look blank. I then say, “Probably the best-known villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ of 1951.” Brows clear, and people say, “Oh, yes.” Sometimes they add cheerfully, “‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'”
  3. On the intellectualism of the Auden group, the Movement, and other poets of the period, see Peter Edgerly Firchow, W.H. Auden: Contexts for Poetry (Newark and London: University of Delaware Press, Associated University Presses, 2002).
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