Kingsley Amis called Dylan Thomas's life, the life told by Thomas's first thorough biographer Paul Ferris, 'a hilarious, shocking, sad story'. Thomas was very important to the Amis-Larkin club partly because he seemed determined not to be seen to be taking anything, including himself, too seriously. In 1941, Larkin refers to Thomas coming to the English Club at Oxford: 'Hell of a fine man: little, snubby, hopelessly pissed bloke who made hundreds of cracks and read parodies of everybody in appropriate voices.' But as a poet Thomas was a significant puzzle to Larkin. 'I think there is no man in England now who can "stick words into us like pins" . . . like he can,' he wrote to Amis in 1948, 'but he doesn't use his words to any advantage. I think a man ought to use good words to make what he means impressive: Dylan Thos. just makes you wonder what he means, very hard.' What, if anything, Dylan Thomas's poems meant; and what, if anything, his life as a poet meant to him seems to have been as confounding to Thomas and the people who knew him as it has been to his readers and his biographers. Several friends and acquaintances of Thomas quoted in this new but not new enough biography talk about Thomas's 'sweetness' as a man: but so many more, including the biographer himself, are suspicious of him and what he was really up to. Like all very amusing people, he made people wary; he had so many appropriate and inappropriate voices, and couldn't always tell them apart. If the disapproval he seems fated to meet in his biographers is to be more than some soppy nostalgia for a lost dignity, something new has to be said about why bad behaviour is also often impressive.
LRB 4 March 2004 | PDF Download