In celebration of the re-release of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Letters in two paperback volumes, I am going to choose a few of my favourite letters and upload them to this blog over the next few weeks. Many thanks to the team at Orion for giving permission for this and allowing a sneak preview of some of Dylan’s most fascinating writing.
The first letter is to Trevor Hughes from May 1933. Trevor was a Swansea friend that Dylan as a teenager wrote to about various literary matters, and the character Raymond Price in Dylan’s story Who Do You Wish Was With Us? was based on him. I’ve chosen this particular letter because it offers insight into Dylan’s own approach to writing and also shows the high standards he expected from poets and writers he thought highly of.
Many months passed between the posting of my letter, which, as you say, you found provocative of thought, and the written result. I have a very good mind indeed to send you a shallow letter. You would probably send an answer to it by return post, for the more lengthy and profound (?) my letter, the longer do you seem to take in replying. This little reprimand over, and never, I hope, to be repeated, I can now tackle your correspondence in as serious a manner as I am able.
You ask me for criticism of your story, but I would rather, if it is the same to you, and even if it isn’t, criticise the attitude of mind behind its writing & not so much the result of such an attitude.
Again I was struck by the brilliance of your letter, a subterranean brilliance, if you will, and too near the rim to be pleasant. But brilliance, nevertheless, of a high imaginative order as they say in textbooks. But how much do I prefer the passionate wordiness of your letter to the unnecessary wordiness of your story! I am not going to, even if I could, destroy your story in a couple of cheap sentences. It is a bad story, but that doesn’t matter. You are, and you know it despite your self-termed apologia, capable of a much better
This is my main contention: Why, when you can, as you show in your letter, struggle with the fundamentals of belief, & the rock-bottom ideas of artistic bewilderment, morbidity, and disillusionment, when you can write with a pen dipped in fire and vinegar, when you have something to say, however terrible it may be, and the vocabulary to say it with, do you waste time on the machinations of a Stacy Aumonier plot and on the unreal emotions of a pasteboard character whose replica one could find in a hundred novelettes of the nineties? Why go to the cafés, and French cafés at that, for your plots? You are not really interested in people. I doubt whether you are a fiction writer at all. Why go to the cafés for worn plots when the only things you are interested in are the antagonistic interplays of emotions and ideas, the rubbing together of sensibilities, brain chords and nerve chords, convolutions of style, tortuities of new expressions?
My contention boils down to the fact that the short story is not your medium. What your medium is I can do nothing but suggest. It is prose, undoubtedly, but an utterly non-commercial prose, a prose of passionate ideas, a metaphysical prose. I repeat my last letter’s advice to you: Write, write, write, out of your guts, out of the sweat on your forehead and the blood in your veins. Do not think about Mr Potter’s guide to the salesmanship of short stories produced, apparently, on the lines of the Ford works. Do not bother your head aboutthe length of the stuff you are writing. Don’t descend, that is the main point. You descended badly in the story I have at my elbow as I write. You tagged on, under some misapprehension as to the quality of the intellect of your audience, that magazine little bit about the inquest. You see that sort of ending in the Windsor and the Pall Mall periodicals, and even in the London Mercury on an off month. (Please don’t think that anything I say in this letter resembles a sneer at your work. I am honestly doing my best to help you.)
You descended from the Stygian heights—a very true paradox—of your real style, which I have only seen in your letters, when you make your pseudo-French characters say, ‘It is very difficult—difficile’, or words to that effect. Whether the addition of the foreign word is to add atmosphere, or merely to instruct junior readers, I don’t know. In either case, it’s a ghastly thing to do. What you want to do is to sit down & write, regardless ofplot or characters, just as you write a letter to me. You know Middleton Murry’s prose and Lawrence’s non-fiction prose. Murry is not interested in plots or characters. He is interested in the symbols of the world, in the mystery and meaning of the world, in the fundamentals of the soul. And these things he writes about. These things you are interested in. Write about them. You have a style as individual as Murry’s. Murry writes with a sober, contemplative pen, and you with an inebriate pen. But it doesn’t matter a bit. Write a story (if you must write stories) about yourself searching for your soul amid the horrors of corruption and disease, about your passionate strivings after something you don’t know and can’t express. (This is one of the few ways [of] knowing it and expressing it.)
In one letter I remember telling you to steer clear as quickly as you could from morbidity and morbid introspection. Now I am telling you to delve deep, deep into yourself until you find
your soul, and until you know yourself. These two bits of advice aren’t contradictory. The true search for the soul lies so far within the last circle of introspection that it is out of it. You will, of course, have to revolve on every circle first. But until you reach that little red hot core, you are not alive. The number of dead men who walk, breathe, and talk is amazing.
(I am not taking any trouble over the phrasing of this letter. You, from your peak of sultry glory where the gods of clauses and of commas walk under the exclamatory moon, might be annoyed at my rough way with words and grammar. But the faster I write the more sincere I am in what I write.)
It is not Utopian advice that I am attempting to ladle out to you. It is terribly practical. Forget the ‘annihilative reverse’ of the rejection slip, and the ‘intellectual catarrh’. Plunge, rather, headfirst & boldly into Charon’s ferry. And who knows? Charon’s ferry may turn at last into the river Jordan & purge you of ills.
You speak of a world in which the effort of thought will be unnecessary. Write of it. You speak of your ‘curious surprising of beauty’, and its metamorphosis into ugliness, your ‘charred crucifix’. Write, write, write.
You are one [of] the dark-eyed company of Poe & Thompson, Nerval & Baudelaire, Rilke and Verlaine. Be a Thompson in prose. You complain that you haven’t his genius. Of course you haven’t, but you have your own red sparks of genius. And you must not allow the old stagnant waters to put them out. You say you have the honey. You say you have nothing but honey and greyness. You have honey and senna. Mix them together, dip your pen into them, and write.
Don’t forget: To hell with all the preconceived notions of short story writing, to the world of dyspeptic editors and rejection slips, to the cardboard men & women. Into the sea of yourself like a young dog, and bring out a pearl.
Remember: you are not another Aumonier, another Manhood, another Bullett. You are one of the white-faced company whose tears wash the world.
To hell with everything except the inner necessity for expression, & the medium of expression, [with] everything except the great need of forever striving after this mystery and meaning I moan about.
There is only one object: the removing of veils from your soul & scabs from your body. Reaching a self freedom is the only object. You will get nearer to it by writing as I have suggested—make your own variations—than by all the writing of clever and eminently saleable short stories. And, lastly, it doesn’t matter a damn whether your stuff is printed or not. Better a bundle of pages on which you have honestly strived after something worth striving after, than a story in every magazine & an international reputation.
Come back to Wales in the Neath of adversity. Leave London & come to Neath. That is particularly bad advice, I’m sure, but it is written from purely selfish motives—from a desire to see you and talk to you again, to hear you speak, to read your mad prose, & to read you my mad pomes. 3 months are all too long.
Hannah Ellis – 18th September 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk