Poems to the People

Issue section: 
(288)

Dylan Thomas anniversary

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Dylan Thomas in Swansea in October 1914, although the poet is more remembered for his death in New York in 1953, overwhelmed by debts and drink.

Socialists in Scotland often complain that the ruling class have robbed Robert Burns of his radical politics and have turned him into a harmless face on a shortbread tin. It is worse in Wales - Dylan Thomas is now a face on a beer mat used to sell 'Dylan's Ale'.

However, there is much in his work for socialists to celebrate. He wrote about the great issues of his age, such as unemployment, war and the danger of atomic weapons. Thomas was a lifelong socialist and an internationalist, and he hated to be boxed as just a 'Welsh poet'. He said, 'I am sick of all this Celtic claptrap about Wales. My Wales! Land of My Fathers! As far as I am concerned my fathers can keep it.'

Thomas's view of Wales was far more contradictory than that. In Swansea in 1931, 10,000 people were out of work and 2,000 families were on the means test. Thomas remembered these dark years:

'Remember the procession of the old-young men
From dole queue to corner and back again,
From the pinched, packed streets to the peak of slag
In the bite of the winters with shovel and bag,
With a drooping fag and a turned up collar,
Stamping for the cold at the ill lit corner
Dragging through the squalor with their hearts like lead
Staring at the hunger and the shut pit-head
Nothing in their pockets, nothing home to eat.
Lagging from the slag heap to the pinched, packed street.
Remember the procession of the old-young men,
It shall never happen again.'

Dylan Thomas, like many others of his generation, looked to the left for answers. He was for a time a sympathiser of the Communist Party, but he never joined, as he disliked the way CP poets changed what they wrote to support the latest line coming from Moscow.

When Russia was attacked by the Nazis in the Second World War, the CP switched overnight to supporting the war. In 1945, an anthology of left verse was published called New Lyrical Ballads. Thomas had no place in it, as his sort of internationalism was beyond the pale. The British nationalism in the ballads is shocking for socialists today.

In contrast, the poems Thomas wrote during the war are among his very best - 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London', 'Ceremony After a Fire Raid' and others are about the victims of the bombing of London, but they are never anti-German, only anti-war. In our age of war without end they are as powerful as ever.

Dylan Thomas's socialism can be most clearly seen in the two screenplays he wrote after the war. The Doctor and the Devils is on the surface a horror story based on the exploits of the body-snatchers Burke and Hare, who provided the infamous Dr Knox with the bodies for his research. Thomas uses this story to show the class nature of society and how there is one law for the poor and another for the rich.

Rebecca's Daughters is based on the toll gate riots in Wales in 1843. It is a comedy with a serious message: governments only bring in reforms when they are 'afraid of a revolution'. Both scripts went unfilmed.

One biographer of Thomas, Andrew Sinclair, described him as a 'romantic socialist'. This is true in the sense that he saw no need to belong to a party - his view was that the artist is an isolated creator. However, Thomas saw that another way was possible. In 1934 he said:

'I take my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men to share, equally and impartially, every production from man and from the sources of production at man's disposal, for only through such an essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art.'