15 October (1933): Dylan Thomas to Pamela Hansford Johnson

Dylan Thomas

Pamela Hansford Johnson was Dylan Thomas’ first love. Johnson—who would go on to become an accomplished novelist, playwright, poet and critic in her own right—wrote to Thomas after the two twenty-somethings were both published in the same magazine. Their relationship soured when Thomas confessed a brief affair with another woman. He wrote to her: “I’ve wasted some of my tremendous love for you on a lank redmouthed girl with a reputation like hell.” 

TO PAMELA HANSFORD JOHNSON 

October 15, 1933, Swansea

Thank you. I should have been very sorry hadn’t I posted the card. The mutual outpourings of a crank and a romantic (there is little doubt as to which is which) would have been lost to posterity; creeds and beliefs, that will change as the years change us, but are nevertheless sincere, would have remained unexpressed; insults and compliments, hasty judgments, wisdoms and nonsenses, would have been unsaid; and a considerably nice friendship would have been broken up almost before it began. Even now twelve heartfelt pages are titivating the senses of a Dead Letter superintendent, and three heartfelt poems are lying beneath the pillow of some postmaster’s boy in the depths of Llangyfellach or Pwllddu. (I, too, know not a word of Welsh and these names are as fearsome to me as they are to you.)

What have I missed in your letter? Three poems, twelve passionate pages of affirmation and denial, a thought on Shakespeare and a sob for Siegfried! Dear God, and all for three-halfpence.

There is so much to talk about in your last letter, to agree with and to argue with most violently, that I must light my cigarette, and then, with a steady hand and a more-or-less contented mind, tackle the points in order from the very beginning to the last curve on the last letter of the totally unnecessary ‘Johnson.’

I) I’m glad you’re not as riddled with silliness as I am. I should have carried on for months, never writing your name, consciously avoiding such an ordinary gesture of friendliness as calling you Pamela, or Pam, or whatever I am to call you. My unusual name—for some mad reason it comes from the Mabnogion and means the ‘prince of darkness’—rhymes with ‘Chillun,’ as you suggest. I don’t know what Pamela rhymes with, unless the very cultured way of saying ‘family,’ and therefore cannot reply with a little couplet.

2) The Vicky-Bird [1], undoubtedly of the parrot variety, doesn’t appear to like what we sent him last week. But then I always said his taste was abysmal. I sent him a very short and obscure poem with one indecent line. What did you send him to be so ignominiously placed among the spavined horses? A very short and obscure poem with two indecent lines? No, I hardly think so. He doesn’t want to give too many prizes to the same people, on principle. He must print the work of others sometimes, and spread the vomit evenly and impartially over his pages. Miss Gertrude Pitt must show her mettle, rusty tin to me; and Mr. Martineau must patch his broken heart with a sentimental song.

3) I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight. I have been writing since I was a very little boy, and have always been struggling with the same things, with the idea of poetry as a thing entirely removed from such accomplishments as ‘word-painting,’ and the setting down of delicate but usual emotions in a few, well-chosen words. There must be no compromise; there is always only the one right word: use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations; I used ‘double-crossed’ because it was what I meant. It is part of a poet’s job to take a debauched and prostituted word, like the beautiful word, ‘blond,’ and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin. Neuburg blabs of some unsectarian region in the clouds where poetry reaches its highest level. He ruins the truth of that by saying that the artist must, of necessity, preach socialism. There is no necessity for the artist to do anything. There is no necessity. He is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. He has only one limitation, and that is the widest of all: the limitation of form. Poetry finds its own form; form should never be superimposed; the structure should rise out of the words and the expression of them. I do not want to express only what other people have felt; I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen. Because of the twist in myself I will never be a very good poet: only treading the first waves, putting my hands in deeper and then taking them out again.

But even that, to me, is better than the building of perfectly ornate structures in the sand. To change the image, one is a brief adventure in the wilderness, and the other a little gallop on an ordered plot of land.

4) I apologise for No Man Believes, but I really didn’t think it was obscure. I understood it so perfectly myself, but I was probably the only one who did. And even that’s ungrammatical.

 5) But why Wordsworth? Why quote that decay? Shelley I can stand, but old Father William was a human nannygoat with a pantheistic obsession. He hadn’t a spark of mysticism in him. How could he be a metaphysicist? Metaphysics is merely the structure of logic, intellect, and supposition on a mystical basis. And mysticism is illogical, unintellectual, and dogmatic. Quote Shelley, yes. But Wordsworth was a tea-time bore, the great Frost of literature, the verbose, the humourless, the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods. Open him at any page: and there lies the English language not, as George Moore said of Pater, in a glass coffin, but in a large, sultry, and unhygienic box. Degutted and desouled. Catch him in his coy moods, walking the hills with a daffodil pressed to his lips, and his winter woolies tickling his chest. Catch him in his pompous mood, his Virginity and Victoria mood, his heavy-footed humourlessness pursuing a wanton dogma down a blind alley full of the broken bones of words. I admit the Immortality Ode is better than anything he ever did (with the exception of the pantheistic creed expressed in Tintern Abbey); among the mediocrity and rank badness it stands out like a masterpiece; but judged from a proper perspective, along the lines of Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Blake, John Donne, Verlaine & Yeats, it is no more than moderately good. All it says has been said before and better, and all it was incapable of saying. Try to rub away its halo of fame and the mist of veneration that has grown up around it; try to forget the drummed-in fact that he is an English mystic—: and you will see it chockful of clichés, ridiculous inversions of speech and thought, all the tricks-of-trade of the unoriginal verse-writer whose bluff has not yet been called. I put by its side the poems of Matthew Arnold, and think what a delightfully loud splash the two would make if I dropped them into the river.

Perhaps you gather that I don’t like Wordsworth. I’m sorry, but he’s one of the few ‘accepted’ whom I refuse in any way to accept at all. This is my important point about him in summary: He writes about mysticism and its Relations to the Juvenile Mind.’ Just as an experiment, read him again with my adverse opinions at the back of your mind. I changed from loving to loathing Swinburne in a day. Enough. You shall have your own back.

6) I, too, should like to meet you. This possibly can be arranged, but not before the beginning of September when I am going to see my sister near Chertsey.

Don’t expect too much of me (It’s conceit to suppose that you would); I’m an odd little person. Don’t imagine the great jawed writer brooding over his latest masterpiece in the oak study, but a thin, curly little person, smoking too [many] cigarettes, with a crocked lung, and writing his vague verses in the back of a provincial villa.

7) David Gascoyne and Reuben Mednikoff! You move in exalted company. I read the Russian Jew’s (is he?) effort in the Referee, & thoroughly agree with you—as a poet he’s a bloody good painter. But Gascoyne? And his—before your letter came—in the new, New Verse, and thought he was raving mad. There are more maggots in his brain than there are in mine. But if he is so young there is a hope that the poetry will drop away from him and that the sore it leaves will soon heal. His New Verse poem is called ‘And the 7th Dream Is The Dream of Isis.’ Without wishing to provide a pornographic interlude over the tea-table, I’ll quote some of the actual lines: This is the opening:

‘White curtains of tortured destinies
Encourage the waistlines of women to expand
And the eyes of men to enlarge like pocket camera
Teach children to sin at the age of five
To cut out the eyes of their sisters with nail-scissors.’

And later:

‘The pavements of cities are covered with needles
The reservoirs are full of human hair
Fumes of sulphur envelop the house of ill-fame
Out of which bloodred lilies appear
Across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
A man is walking a tightrope covered with moths.’

And later:

‘She was standing at the window clothed only in a ribbon
She was burning the eyes of snails in a candle
She was eating the excrement of dogs and horses
She was writing a letter to the president of france.’

And later still:

‘The edges of leaves must be examined through microscopes
In order to see the stains made by dying flies
At the other end of the tube a woman is bathing her husband
When an angel writes the word Tobacco along the sky
The sea becomes covered with patches of dandruff
Little girls stick photographs of genitals in the windows of their homes
And virgins cover their parents’ beds with tealeaves.’

 And so on. All the rest is just as pretty and just as meaningless. Ugliness & eccentricity must have a purpose. So much for Mr. Gascoyne. May he teach the bats in his belfry better manners. (By the way, I just thought, I hope he isn’t a near & dear friend of yours. If he is, I’ve been very impolite.)

8) I’ve heard such a lot about ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ that I’ll have to get hold of it. It sounds incredible. Isn’t there a Grandma Doom in it who once saw something frightful in the woodshed?

9) The Steyning incidents are almost too good to be true. Mrs. Runia Tharp! I’ve been muttering the magic names all day. It’s enough to Runia, and I hope you’ll excuse that. Don’t take any notice of what the intellectual bullies told you. Tell ‘em you’ve got more in your little finger than they have in the whole of their fact-crammed brains.

10) But for God’s sake don’t defend the Sunday Referee literary whippets any more. I’m repeating myself, I know, but I regard the verses printed (with very few exceptions—you, notably) as schoolgirl posies plucked from a virgin garden, and the saccharine wallowings of near-schoolboys in the bowels of a castrated muse. Even the Bentley bodies covering the Ford engines are badly battered. I’d like to carry the image further and say that the chassis is made from a scrapheap of dis-used spare parts. Neuburg indulges in a horrid compromise: between the outlooks of the romanticist and the theorist, the mincing tread of the ‘one-line and memorable passage taster and memoriser,’ and the galumphing of the dogmatic theorist. In fact the compromise [is] between Beer and No Beer. The result is partial inebriation—his muse is never drunk enough to be really emotional and never sober enough to be really intellectual.

11) Please don’t type again; the warmest words look cold.

And now I, too, must finish, not because of any business appointment, but because I think I’ve written plenty. Now it is your turn. There are many things I want to write about, but they’ll do next time. I’ll expect a letter very, very soon—and as long as mine.

Dylan

P.S. Three poems for you. Tell me if you like them or not. And why. I’ll do the same if you’ll send me some. The ‘conversation’ poem is very violent, as you will see, the ‘Noise’ poem very romantic, and the other in my more usual style. Take your choice, mum.

 
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FOOTNOTES  
 
[1] Victor Neuburg (1883-1940) was a poet with a considerable occult pedigree, having dabbled in “sex magick” with Aleister Crowley himself. 
 
 

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