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Dylan Thomas: singing flashes of light

From the outset he knew where he was headed: toward a fuller appreciation of Deity. Yet with Dylan Thomas, as with so many other modern poets, it is hard for us to get beyond the wild-eyed Welshman, the bard of dark and compelling mysteries, the reader whose sonorous voice enchanted audiences across Britain and America. Most people remember him as a tousle-headed, hard-drinking, full-grown boy whose intemperance was his demise. To look to his biography is to find implacable mental turmoil from within, impossible adulation from without, and a keen sensitivity battered by every kind of feeling. All the storms that ever broke over the mastheads of those who speak with new tongues broke, it seems, over his fragile bark. His life was a desperate attempt to carve, from the lumber of his language, a succession of new rudders.

And what rudders they were. For if his life was beset by darkness, his art was set about with flashes of light. Yet so difficult was his journey, and so sensitive was he to the potential mockery of those who scorned religious delvings, that his poetry wove an almost impenetrable web of ambiguity around his deepest feelings. Though tough, dense, elliptical, his early poems are shadowy, enigmatic. But he knew why he was writing. ''Seasons must be challenged or they totter/Into a chiming quarter/Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars,'' he once wrote, tossing down the gauntlet at the feet of a contemporary society he elsewhere described as ''half convention and half lie.'' He kept, nevertheless, his brooding search for an adequate theology well out of sight. When it managed to escape into prose, he usually cloaked it in irony -- as in his statement that he intended to produce ''poems in praise of God's world by a man who doesn't believe in God.''

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Yet as his career progresses, a curious thing happens: the ambiguity recedes, the music strengthens, and his subjects turn more explicitly to Deity. Not, to be sure, to the organized religion of the chapels and churches of his native Wales, nor to the nature-worship of Romantics like Wordsworth, whom he archly dismissed as ''a human nannygoat with a pantheistic obsession.'' His was, instead, a language of praise built out of the rhythms of the Psalms, the imagery of the Apocalypse, and the fire-and-brimstone preaching of the Welsh pulpits. ''Yet, though I cry with tumbledown tongue,/Count my blessings aloud,'' he writes in the late ''Poem on his Birthday'':

Four elements and five Senses, and man a spirit in love

Tangling through this spun slime To his nimbus bell cook kingdom come . . . It is a poem that rises to a climax of what he calls ''this last blessing most'':

That the closer I move To death, one man through his sundered hulks,

The louder the sun blooms And the tusked, ramshackling sea exults;

And every wave of the way And gale I tackle, the whole world then,

With more triumphant faith Than ever was since the world was said,

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Spins it morning of praise . . . It is a late poem, written in the same period in which he ended a nine-page statement of his poetic principles with a clear articulation of his goal. ''The joy and function of poetry,'' he wrote, ''is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.''

Midway in this journey from gnarled ambiguity to luminous insight comes one of his most powerful expressions of purpose, the poem ''In my craft or sullen art,'' reprinted here. Like the art he most admired, it hides beneath a seemingly casual surface a highly wrought structure: seven-syllable lines (dropping to six at the end of each stanza), weaving together five rhymes, and packing multiple meanings into single words. To hear his recorded reading of it - in a voice at once brooding and intense, charged with an almost druidical passion - is to sense the power of the imagery.

As its first line suggests, it is a poem about poetry - both as ''craft'' and ''sullen art,'' where the adjective has all the force of its root meaning (solitary) as well as its standard meanings (incommunicative, morose, austere). For however much Thomas was seen as a public personality, his art came out of an isolation of man alone with words, in the ''still night'' under the ''moon'' of deep feeling.

The poem, like all great poetry, is a work of redemption: while lovers lie ensnarled in their griefs, ''I labour by singing light.'' Perhaps he works by the light of a lamp whose illumination reminds him of music. But his labor, too, consists of ''singing'' out a powerful kind of illumination. To their dark grief , he brings light. His purpose? Not to satisfy his own ambition, nor to earn his bread, nor even to win fame on the world's stages. His goal is something far simpler: the appreciation which the ''common'' lovers, deep in their secret hearts, earn and pay.

For however complex his poetry may have been, he longed (what poet doesn't?) for a place in the heart of the common man - a point he pursues in this poem's second stanza. He is not writing (he says) for those who, proud of the rationality, have separated themselves from the intuitive world of the ''raging moon.'' Nor is he writing in the tradition of the ''towering'' major poets of the past (like Keats, who wrote ''Ode to a Nightingale''), nor even in the tradition of David's Psalms. His audience is much simpler: ''the lovers'' who embody ''the griefs of the ages.'' They, above all, can understand him. Yet they are blind to his art: they ''pay no praise or wages, / Nor heed my craft or art.''

A somber poem? Only partly. It answers a question central to the poet's craft - ''Why do you write?'' - with a depth of insight applicable to all great poetic art. Not for self-glorification, or money, or fame; not to please the intellect, or to emulate the poetric traditions. He writes for those who, though most capable of appreciating his art, are least apt to listen. They are the ones who, in the penumbral imagery of this poem, most need the poet who comes singing light. For them this highly wrought music is set - and for all of us who, clutching the world's age-old problems in a tight embrace, pay no head to the illumination. Never mind: the poet will go on singing. Someday we will see.

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