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The Dylan Thomas Confessional. (Reviews).

Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters. New Edition. Paul Ferris, editor. Dent. [pounds sterling]50.00. 1062 pages. ISBN 0460-87999-5.

From his earliest years the sound of words was Dylan Thomas' music. The building of them into sentences, the arrangement of them into melodies of rhyme, and then into the thunder of Wagnerian lines of verse, remained his enduring passion. As poet, prosodist and epistolarian, words in their millions ran through his fingers, like the sands of the desert. He relished the sound and shape of every grain. And, later, he found that, taken with alcohol, words exploded into a staggering pyrotechnic of sound and fury, not always - even to him - signifying.

This calls to mind another poet, Yeats, rolling the word of his doctor's potential death sentence appreciatively on his palate and telling Frank O'Connor: 'Arteriosclerotic! Arteriosclerotic! Do you know, O'Connor, I would rather be called arteriosclerotic than Emperor of all India'. He, too, was a man in love with the colour of saying.

Dylan Thomas lived for 39 years and 13 days. He has been dead these last 48 years, after a life which, combining the Orphic myth with the cautionary tale, melted into the legend that lies now six feet down in Laugharne churchyard. There are, nearly half a century on, resurrected out of the grave two Dylans. One is perceived and all-hailed with honour as the fragile, consecrated Bard, who fell upon the thorns of life. The other is the histrionic, ranting, overpraised wordsmith; drunkard, cadger, thief and womaniser, who finally got what he deserved; the Americans would call it his come-uppance.

This new edition of his letters -- more than 1100 of them -- will certainly fuel, although equally certainly fail to extinguish, the smoke and smother of evaluatory disagreement. The hundred or so newly added letters include one written, aged eleven, to his grown-up sister, Nancy, which exhibits an extraordinarily precocious versifying facility. Then comes, also heretofore unpublished, a batch of letters to his former joint-editor of the Swansea Grammar School magazine, Percy Smart, departed to work in a London bank. There follows first publication of a substantial series of letters (1936-39), to Keidrych Rhys, editor of the Anglo-Welsh magazine, Wales.

A letter written on February 16th, 1953, to the ailing Welsh poet, Idris Davies, who in fact died later that year, offering what small mead of help he could, draws back the veil upon an aspect of the Cymric cadger hitherto well hidden. Here, too, for the first time identified, is a fragment of Dylan's letter of c. January 17th, 1951, from Abadan, to Pearl Kazin, the Harper's Bazaar magazine executive, who had been his New York mistress. A letter to Henry Treece, explaining how his poems were not organised about a single centre, but were 'a stream that is flowing always', together with things he has to say in other letters about his method of composition, go against the charge of Thomas the uninspired artificer.

Letters -- sad, comical, gossipy, shame-faced, ingratiatory, begging, bawdy -- help enormously to separate the man from the myth. These indispensable letters are Dylan Thomas' unconscious confessional.
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Title Annotation:Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters
Author:Whittington-Egan, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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