I blogged about Dylan Thomas earlier this year, and I really should have mentioned him in my post on the collapse of the Christian literary tradition in the twentieth century. The trouble (for me) is that the Thomas who I remember, think about and re-read isn’t a Christian.
I think he’s a great poet for two reasons: firstly, he can suddenly produce truly breathtaking lines in otherwise poor poems, and secondly (and more importantly) he wrote a handful of poems that are great by almost any standards; these make up my personal Dylan Thomas ‘anthology’ and they’re not Christian works: The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait is about adolescent sex, The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower is about the horrors of time and decay seen from a purely naturalistic perspective, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a poem to his dying father, tells his father to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – death is seen as simply the end of life. Now, the usual comment on the lack of any reference to the after-life in this last poem is that Thomas was simply respecting the beliefs of his atheist father; this is no doubt true, but if I thought that someone I loved was about to face a judgement that would consign them to eternal pain or bliss and felt that I could make no comment on this issue I wouldn’t bother to write a poem on the trivial matter of how resigned they were to the natural process of dying. This is a poem on death without a trace of Christian sentiment (and reading it at Thomas’s grave was among my most moving experiences as a literary pilgrim).
One of the works that feature in my personal Thomas anthology makes a neat transition to the almost definitely Christian poems, Refusal To Mourn The Death, by Fire, Of A Child In London (it can be heard read magisterially by Thomas at this site:
This poem ends with the resonant line:
After the first death, there is no other.
The sentiment here might be Christian (the child will live forever in heaven), anti-Christian (there is no second death of hell and therefore probably no heaven either), or not related to religion at all (in human history and/or in war only the first death counts as a painfully new experience – after that we have a different kind of entity although we still call it ‘death’) – and there are many other interpretations. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thomas had the line pop into his head, thought it was tremendous (it is) and didn’t give a second thought as to what it might or might not be thought to mean by later commentators.
The most important of Thomas’s Christian poems are those in the sequence Altarwise by Owl-Light. One critic has suggested these poems are ‘unreadable’ – in the sense that they are too complex and obscure to be open to interpretation. That sounds right to me:
Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream….
Actually I don’t care what this means; only a fine poet could have thought up lines like these, only one with very confused ideas about poetry could have published them in that form. The sequence probably is Christian, but, in my view, when Thomas divides himself between his atheist father and his pious mother, it’s dad who gets the best of the deal. I’m aware that this might be my own bias, and that my choice of ‘best poems’ might be too strongly influenced by my own atheism, so I’ve no real argument with those who take a different view, but I shall never read Altarwise by Owl-Light again, unless I have to.
Anyway, leaving the poems themselves aside, what did the man himself say about his religious beliefs?
(These are) poems in praise of God’s world by a man who doesn’t believe in God.
These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.
That was helpful. I think, bearing all this in mind, that although I should have mentioned him in my original post, the case of Dylan Thomas does bear out the general thesis: Christianity up until about 1900 was capable of producing great literary talents; in the first half of the twentieth century it could only do so if the writer was a convert, partly created by another type of culture – or, I might now add, represents an ongoing duality in his own person, being part Christian, part Freudian/Surrealist/Sceptic. And today, the game is over. There will never be great Christian literature produced in these islands again.
 But even this can be doubted:
At one end of the scale, critics do not dispute that Thomas used religious imagery in his poetry; at the other end, critics generally agree that, at least during certain periods of his creative life, Thomas’s vision was not that of any orthodox religious system. The range of interpretations was summarized by R. B. Kershner, Jr., in Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force, and with Thomas himself.”