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The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, edited by Paul Ferris (Macmillan: $39.95; 1,024 pp.)

May 25, 1986| Charles Champlin

During a certain span of literary time, the foolish popular image of the poet was the chap in long hair and velvet cape, strolling through dew and buttercups, desperately appreciative of all about him.

The later image, hardly less pervasive, is of the poet as a chain-smoking, alcoholic womanizer lurching down the road to hell with a song on his lips and a rip in his tweeds. By any name, the poet is always Dylan Thomas, most recently fictionalized by Peter De Vries and portrayed by Tom Conti in the film "Reuben Reuben."

No serious poet since Robert Frost has had so wide a public--in large part for the life style, no doubt, yet also for the passionate intensity and relative accessibility of the poetry itself. (His recording of his prose poem, "A Child's Christmas in Wales," may at that command audiences as long as anything he did.)

Paul Ferris already has written a very good biography of Thomas. Now this mountainous and mesmerizing volume of "The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas" (more than 1,000 of them, spanning 20 of the poet's 39 years) becomes a sort of parallel biography, perhaps a shadow biography, confirming the best and worst of what we've been told of the man, now revealed in his own torrential flow of words.

And what words they are: wheedling, lying, seducing, whining, boasting, flattering, celebrating, apologizing, evoking, recounting his tumultuous and chaotic life and, finally and most appealingly, talking about the making of poetry.

Thomas was word-intoxicated, drunk on the power of language before he came upon more corrosive beverages. Richard Burton used to speak of the gift of spoken language as having a bell in every tooth. Thomas had that gift, and bells on his fingers as well.

'Dylan Thomas'

Continued from First Page Just why the gift of language should have been visited upon Thomas so early and so strongly is no clearer with him than with any great writer, though his father taught English in the good local school, and Thomas grew up immersed in literature.

In his introduction, carefully balanced between unquestioned sympathy and unblinking detachment, Ferris says Thomas was a precocious and self-centered child, thought to be weakly, and over-protected by a doting mother. In seaport Swansea, Thomas perceived his destiny early.

"Thomas made everything subservient to his need to be, and to live as, a Poet with a capital P," Ferris writes. The trouble was, "Thomas laid it on thick. . . . Dylan Marlais Thomas, born into provincialdom, mad with words, beating on the gates of fame, and doing it all in public ."

This is exactly the portrait that emerges from the letters, of the artist as a man to whom the world owes a few quid till payday. "The majority of literature is the outcome of ill man," he writes to a Welsh friend, Trevor Hughes, in 1933; "I am always very ill."

The most revealing block of letters within the volume also begins in 1933. They are the poet's pages-long and analytical letters to another young poet, Pamela Hansford Johnson, later a novelist and the wife of C. P. Snow.

She wrote Thomas in praise of one of his earliest published poems. It led to a kind of postal flirtation that evidently became a more serious relationship when Thomas finally made his way to London. You detect, as the late Lady Snow must have, Thomas as the long-distance courtier working his wiles. Yet the real passion of the young poet, who might compromise everything else but never his work, also is inescapably present.

"There must be no compromise," he cries in one of the first letters to her; "There is always only the one right word: Use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations." The poet, Thomas told her, "is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. . . . 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."

When an editor called his work facile, Thomas indignantly told Johnson, "I write at the speed of two lines an hour. I have written hundreds of poems, and each one has taken me a great many painful, brain-racking and sweaty hours."

He was occasionally sharply critical of Johnson's work, though he said, "You have nearly everything that contributes to the makeup of an individual, original and satisfying poet." The nearly may have given her momentary pause, but he absolved her of "the jimjackery and jugglebuggery of the bad and pretentious versifier."

The (few) years go by; Thomas is increasingly published and recognized. Stephen Spender writes a fan letter and Thomas a fawning reply. He dismisses Edith Sitwell's poems in a letter to someone else but later shamelessly solicits her support and receives it. The friendship was broken off and, in 1946, he wrote her in hope of restoring it (she had praised his work again).

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