Monday, 22 April 2013

Dylan Thomas


As a young man, Dylan Thomas participated in sexual dalliance with other men, although his ardour seems invariably to have been fuelled by liquor.  Max Chapman describes one encounter, when Thomas was about twenty:

My own experience is really based on one boozy evening, the first, when affectionate expression went beyond accepted bounds and physical contacts of a kind were reciprocated.  All we ever did was feel under the table and do some kissing, french-kissing.  You wouldn’t say he was a queer, but he wasn’t averse to being affectionate to his own sex if he found them in some way interesting.

Oswell Blakeston, too, describes such an encounter, which took place when Thomas went to stay with him in Wimbledon:

He looked like a beautiful grubby angel in those days.  Maybe the whole thing was an act to please one.  That would have been much more likely.  But he was in bed with me.

During the same period, Thomas was fulminating against homosexual men in his voluminous letters to Pamela Hansford Johnson.  Like George Orwell, he tended to imaging them effeminising English culture, diverting critical praise from more deservingly manly artists.  In a letter of November 1933, he wrote:

Sodomhipped young men, with the inevitable sidewhiskers and cigarettes, the faulty livers and the stained teeth, reading [D.H.] Lawrence as an aphrodisiac and Marie Corelli in their infrequent baths, spew onto paper and canvas their ignorance and perversions, wetting the bed of their brains with discharges of fungoid verse.  This is the art of to-day: posturing, shamming, cribbing, and all the artifice of a damned generation.

He sounds like Thersites, railing against Achilles and Patroclus.  It is certainly odd to see the man who would soon become the most celebrated boozer of his generation worrying about the state of other people’s livers.  Oswell Blakeston was precisely the kind of literary youth he is referring to, here; but he is also likely to be voicing a beginner’s envy of the success of the previous generation, the Auden group, now coming into their own.  The following month, having seen a camp young man in a hotel, he fired off this diatribe to Johnson:

Have you remarked upon the terrible young men of this generation, the willing-buttocked, celluloid-trousered, degenerates who are gradually taking the place of the bright young things of even five years ago?  …  They always existed, but in recent months—it seems months to me—they are coming, unashamedly, out into the open.  I saw one with a drunken nigger last night.
            It is the only vice, I think, that revolts me and makes me misanthropic … But the sin of the boy with the nigger goes up like a rocketed scab to heaven.

Again, there is the disapproval of drunkenness in others; again, the sense of a general moral decline.  These homosexual men’s real sin is not their degenerate behaviour but its visibility.  (The ‘bright young things’ of the late 1920s were presumably, in Thomas’ view, all heterosexual; and, as for his shock at the interracial liaison, Thomas can never have heard of the time ‘when Harlem was in vogue’ or when Nancy Cunard was in Paris.)  Some of Thomas’ ‘posturing’ and ‘shamming’ on the issue of homosexuality gets into his poetry.  For instance, the well-known lyric ‘I See the Boys of Summer’ is a sustained and ambivalent invocation of sterile masculinity: of boys who, ‘in their ruin / Lay the golden tithings barren,/ Setting no store by harvest,’ and ‘freeze the soils’; they are ‘curdlers in their folly’ who ‘Sour the boiling honey’.  And yet, for all that, they are vibrant and attractive, even to the point of virtually personifying the summer itself.

Source: Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977)

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