Dylan Thomas: The Death of the King’s Canary

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Dylan Thomas’s first villanelle–his only other villanelle besides “Do not go gentle into that good night”–was a parody of William Empson titled “Request to Leda,” composed for a novel titled The Death of the King’s Canary. Like Auden and Empson, Thomas and Empson were friends; in 1936 the twenty-one-year-old Thomas was having “Nights Out” with “old Bill Empson,” who was a dozen years older than he was, and who had just given his poetry a rave review (Thomas, Letters 222). Friendship and favorable criticism, however, did not deter Thomas from parodying Empson’s poetry, just as it had not deterred Empson from poking fun at Auden. Friendly rivalries, debates, satires, and even insults were a hallmark of the mid-century poetic culture, and much of this signifying was done in print.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In a 1938 letter Thomas characterized the poets of his generation as “New-Versers, intellectual muckpots leaning on a theory, post-surrealists and orgasmists, tit-in-the-night whistlers and Barkers, Empson leaning over his teeth to stare down an ice-cold throat at the mathematical mystery of his doom-treading boots, Grigson leaning over his rackets to look at his balls, Cameron riding on the back of neat graves” (Letters 311). In 1940, he was at work on a book that would flesh out these judgments at length. Thomas began collaborating in that year with his friend John Davenport on The Death of the King’s Canary, a mock-detective novel satirizing modern British poetry and poets. Thomas had originally conceived of the novel several years earlier, and had had two previous collaborators before Davenport, but the whole manuscript would not be finished until 1941. The book, which might well have laid Thomas and Davenport open to legal action, remained unpublished until 1976.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Several modern poets, including Thomas himself, are caricatured in the narrative of The Death of the King’s Canary, but it is the first chapter that contains the core of the humor: the verse parodies. The novel begins with a harassed Prime Minister suddenly saddled with the task of choosing a new Poet Laureate (hence the “King’s Canary”). The Prime Minister, who “did not read much English poetry later than Pope, although he admired Tennyson’s ear,” is a typically unimaginative and hidebound member of the English gentry–but the modern poetry he is suddenly required to read looks even more foolish than he does (2). Author by author, school by school, Thomas and Davenport send up the contemporary poets. At the end of the chapter, after a hasty and horrified evening of reading, the Prime Minister chooses to bestow the Laureate on a caricature of Dylan Thomas himself on the basis of a poetic parody that the Prime Minister does not recognize as parody.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The first poem encountered by the Prime Minister is titled “Lamentable Ode,” by “Albert Ponting,” author of a volume titled “Claustrophosexannal.” “Lamentable Ode” reads in part:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The urge of the purge of the womb of the worm
I renege in the flail-like failing of
The detumescent sun.
This my crepuscular palimpsest is:
I am so greatly him that lazarhouses and such
Lascivious lodges of the unloved
Peel like pomegranates at my nasal touch
And Balham faints in a scalecophidian void. (3)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This was a sesquipedalian smack at Surrealism. The particular Surrealist poet lampooned might be David Gascoyne, whom Thomas had also mocked in his poem “A Letter to My Aunt Discussing the Correct Approach to Modern Poetry”: “Fie on you, aunt, that you should see / No genius in David G.” (The Poems 83). The target might instead (or also) be George Barker, another Surrealist (“tit-in-the-night whistlers and Barkers”), whose 1937 Calamiterror could have inspired the portmanteau coinage “Claustrophosexannal.”

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Too-Celtic imitators of Yeats are swatted with a deft hand, and patriotic poets are spattered across the windshield in a poem called “All Honour and Glory,” which ends in a paean to “English dawns, plashy with English dew, / And English water-wagtails on English lawns, / And Englishmen walking in the English way / In England …” (18).ᅠWystan Hugh Auden the inveterate pasticheur becomes “Wyndham Nils Snowden,” the author of a volume that “seemed to consist of a series of conversations; or rather, a series of lectures. They were all addressed to other, dead, writers. There was a long squabble with a tongue-tied Spenser in the metre of the Faerie Queene; a rap on the knuckles for Scott in the metre of Marmion” (9). T. S. Eliot is let off more lightly in a parody of “The Hollow Men” titled “West Abelard” that includes the lines “Even the end is similar. It ends / and there’s an end,” concluding “It is not different and it is better / that so it should be. / Everything is the same” (16). Even the dim Prime Minister is moved by this: “He felt queerly depressed, and reached once more for the brandy. […] That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so” (17).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Of Stephen Spender’s war poetry, described as a bit “red” by the Prime Minister’s secretary, the Prime Minister wonders, “What did red mean? Surely that adolescent indignation wasn’t so very alarming? The poems were full of gasworks and power stations, and bewildered boys” (13). A representative stanza from the Spender parody, titled “The Parachutist,” describes with idiotically saturated sympathy a German soldier who has just parachuted into England:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Now these once loving-kindly hands
Cherished, like an adder picked up on a walk,
A tommy gun, cold threat to love in steel:
Icarus he stands; his silken clouds of glory
Trailing behind him–a bird’s broken wing–
Still trembling from his fallen angel’s flight
Down the sky weeping death. (14)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Andrew Lycett, the author of Dylan Thomas: A New Life (2004), describes young Oxford’s reaction to this parody:

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 At the start of the Second World War, Oxford poets such as Sidney Keyes regarded Dylan Thomas as a welcome antidote to Auden and his circle. They invited him to address the University English Club, an undergraduate society, in November 1941. Thomas had been working with John Davenport on a novel, The Death of the King’s Canary, which interwove an unlikely story about the murder of the poet laureate with brilliant parodies of contemporary poets. Philip Larkin noted appreciatively: “Hell of a fine man: little, snubby, hopelessly pissed bloke who made hundreds of cracks and read parodies of everybody in appropriate voices. He remarked, ‘I’d like to have talked about a book of poems I’ve been given to review, a young poet called Rupert Brooke–it’s surprising how he has been influenced by Stephen Spender.’ There was a moment of delighted surprise, then a roar of laughter. Then he read a parody of Spender entitled The Parachutist which had people rolling on the floor.” (Lycett)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Thomas’s parody of Empson, as it turned out, was the only part of The Death of the King’s Canary to be published in Thomas’s lifetime; it appeared in the journal Horizon in 1942 with the epigraph “Homage to William Empson.” Titled “Request to Leda,” the poem parodies Empson’s most immediately recognizable poetic traits: his semantic opacity, his predilection for scientific images and vocabulary, and his affection for the villanelle:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Not your winged lust but his must now change suit.
The harp-waked Casanova rakes no range.
The worm is (pin-point) rational in the fruit.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Not girl for bird (gourd being man) breaks root.
Taking no plume for index in love’s change.
Not your winged lust but his must now change suit.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Desire is phosphorous: the chemic bruit
Lust bears like volts, who’ll amplify, and strange
The worm is (pin-point) rational in the fruit. 1

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “Was it the brandy or was he losing his reason?” thinks the hapless Prime Minister after reading “Request to Leda.” “He had always been terrified of going out of his mind. It had happened to so many of his colleagues. He concentrated hard, but it was no good: the rest of the poem was just as obscure. It looked clear enough, too” (19).

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Bereft of the Prime Minister’s gloss and of the aggregate hilarity of the other verse parodies in The Death of the King’s Canary, the poem as published in Horizon loses much of its comic power. No doubt the “appropriate voices” that Thomas adopted in live readings were also necessary to appreciate the parody fully. Read thus out of context, it might even be difficult to recognize “Request to Leda” as a parody. Thomas’s own early poetry, like Empson’s, had been open to the charge of obscurity; Stephen Spender wrote that Thomas’s early work had seemed to be that of “another ‘opaque’ poet”; a reviewer of the first book-length study on Thomas asserted that obscurity was Thomas’s “most obvious quality”; and a school friend of Thomas’s described his early work as “verse of the kind which many people can’t understand” (qtd. in Davies 295, 296, 19). The first stanza of “I fellowed sleep,” from Thomas’s first book, 18 Poems (1934), may illustrate this quality:

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain,
Let fall the tear of time; the sleeper’s eye,
Shifting to light, turned on me like a moon.
So, ‘planing-heeled, I flew along my man
And dropped on dreaming and the upward sky.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Thomas’s mechanical imagery in early poems such as “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” and “When once the twilight locks no longer,” too, parallels Empson’s scientific vocabularies as well as Spender’s “gasworks and power stations”; all were attempts to introduce metaphors of technologized modernity into poetry. Karl Miller notes of Thomas and Empson, “I believe that I now see resemblances between the two of them (say, between the Eighteen Poems and an Empson poem like ‘The Scales’) which I was not aware of in the forties, my frantic youth, when Thomas seemed a working-class Dionysus come out of the West and Empson seemed like the ancient universities” (Gill 43).

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The resemblance between Empson’s poetry and Thomas’s may have been a case of direct influence, in fact. One prominent word in Empson’s “Villanelle” of 1928 is the unusual adjective “chemic,” which Thomas repeats in the 1942 “Request to Leda”–another arrow aimed at the recognizable target. But a 1934 piece by Thomas, “Especially when the October wind,” had used the word “chemic” unironically in its final stanza:

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make of you the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds. (Collected 19)

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 In Empson’s “Villanelle,” the word had been used in the first stanza: “It is the pain, it is the pain, endures. / Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through. / Poise of my hands reminded me of yours” (Collected 22). Thomas probably would not have seen “Villanelle” when it was first printed in the Cambridge Review, but Empson’s first villanelle had also appeared in at least two well-known anthologies before Thomas’s poem appeared: Cambridge Poetry 1929 (1929) and Recent Poetry 1923-1933 (1933). 2 Both Empson and Thomas seem to be using the word in several senses at once, like good disciples of ambiguity. The primary sense for Empson seems to be “harsh substance,” however. His love’s beauty burns through muscle. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “chemic” is the name given to both “A bleacher’s name for chloride of lime as a chemical bleaching agent” and “A dye consisting of a very acid solution of indigo in sulphuric acid.” The OED tells us that the word can also refer both to alchemy and to chemistry, the alchemical and the chemical, and both the ancient and the modern transmutative connotations are probably at work in both “Villanelle” and “Especially when the October wind”–though Thomas’s choice of the word “chemic” seems less grounded in phenomenal, observed reality than Empson’s, which may be another indicator that it is a borrowed word.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 According to Constantine Fitzgibbon’s introduction to The Death of the King’s Canary, “Dylan Thomas maintained that Davenport had written most of the verse parodies. This may well be untrue, for if Dylan was not proud of them, he would have given their authorship to John. Others have said that their skill is far beyond what were Davenport’s capacities” (x). Obviously the Empson parody was Thomas’s, since he published it; he did also lay claim at least once to “The Parachutist,” as we have seen. Thomas might well have later denied authorship of the verse parodies in The Death of the King’s Canary not because they were bad, but because they were a little too good. It may be that his clear-sighted recognition of the faults of his contemporaries was matched with a too-clear recognition that his own verse too often shared many of the same faults, and this comparison would undoubtedly have contributed to the lyrical paralysis Thomas notoriously suffered from, especially after 1945. Empson was not the only poet whose work may have seemed too close to Thomas’s own. The Surrealist parody “Lamentable Ode,” for instance, makes heavy use of alliteration, internal rhyme, and consonance, piling comically excessive sound effects one upon the other in phrases such as “flail-like failing” and “The urge of the purge of the womb of the worm.” To a lesser extent Thomas’s own poetry–often equally baffling, semantically–depended on such acoustic elements for much of its power. “Womb of the worm,” moreover, is a particularly Thomasish phrase; the word “womb” recurs so frequently in Thomas’s poetry that detractors have characterized him as the “womb and tomb” poet.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 That Thomas used the villanelle to parody Empson is not at all remarkable; it was perfectly in keeping with his wild-child “welcome antidote” role. What is more surprising, or ought to be, is that Thomas returned to the form unironically. Thomas was clearly not as different from the poets he satirized in The Death of the King’s Canary as he might have wished, and he may have begun to realize it by 1951. “Do not go gentle into that good night” also indicates that Thomas, like Empson and Auden, regarded the form in the abstract, separate from any acquired connotation. The villanelle’s associations with Parnassian prosodic rivalries, France and Frenchness, queer sexualities, chivalric values, moonlight and maidens, the naïve, the decadent, the trifling had lost their power, and even the villanelle’s new character as a risible foible of Empson’s did not last.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Notes:

  1. 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0
  2. Text taken from Horizon 5.30 (1942): 6.
  3. Christopher Saltmarshe, John Davenport, and Basil Wright, eds., Cambridge Poetry 1929 (London: Hogarth, 1929) and Alida Klemantaski Monro, ed., Recent Poetry 1923-1933 (London: Gerald Howe and The Poetry Bookshop, 1933).
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