Rodney Dangerfield was, in my view, rather intellectually underrated. His movie characters tended to be crass and nouveau rich, but rather than showing that money can’t buy you class, they showed up the posh snobs with inherited money, who might have more refined accents and manners, but who were far more ruthless and grasping.
That is never more so than in his 1986 film, Back To School, about a self-made tycoon who decides to enrol at University so as to encourage his son not to drop out. He was able to attract some pretty smart screenwriters, as well as persuading Kurt Vonnegut to make a cameo as himself (that is always a plus with me).
It was my first exposure to the writings of James Joyce, some four or five years before I read Ulysses (assuming that anyone can claim to have read the unreadable), and about three years before Kate Bush covered some of the same prose from that passage in her song The Sensual World.
It also was my first exposure to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, where the final act of the film starts with Dangerfield reciting Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night to inspire himself to pass the rigorous oral exam.
I did not get around around to actually reading Dylan Thomas until a few years later, when I was about 25 and first opened his unique and lyrical voice play, Under Milk Wood, left completed but unperformed amongst his papers when he died in 1953, at age 39.
Dylan Thomas could perhaps be described as so typically Welsh as to be untypical, hard living, hard drinking, and melodically lyrical. He drank himself to an untimely death, and perhaps the daemons that drove his writing drove much more than that.
A few years later, a young American, Robert Zimmerman, was to adopt the surname Dylan after reading some of his poems, and to become, many years later, Nobel Literature Prize Laureate, despite writing songs, which are best to listen to, not read.
Perhaps that is not grounds for objection, given that the foundation of our Western literary tradition lies with the mythical Homer, the blind poet, and the centuries of oral recitation of complex poetry by illiterate Illyrian bards, between the dark ages after the fall of Troy and when the Greeks learned to read and write again.
Nor, when I write here about Dylan Thomas, and I dive back into my copy of Under Milk Wood, can I ignore the fact that he did primarily intend for much of his work to be recited out loud, rather than to be read in silence.
Dylan Thomas displaced T.S. Eliot as my favourite poet about nine years ago, and when I dive back into his rich lush lyricism, I remember exactly why I made that choice, and why I feel that for all that modern Western culture owes Bob Dylan, the wrong man bearing that name holds a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dylan Thomas’ prose and poetry are beautifully interwoven, like an ornate spider’s web, such that to quote an extract from one of his works is like holding up to the light one piece of a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, far insufficient to do him justice.
To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobble streets silent and the
hunched, courters’-and rabbits’ wood limping
invisible down to the sloeblack, slow black,
crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are
blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the
snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there
in the muffled middle by the pump and the town
clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in
widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and
dumbfound town are sleeping now.
So opens Under Milk Wood, with the First Voice so ably performed originally by his fellow hard living Welshman, Richard Burton.
Come closer now.
I am so enraptured by the poetry of Dylan Thomas that, a bit like those eager evangelical gentlemen of the Gideon Society who hand out free Gospels to passerbys and ensure your motel room has a Bible in it (Hunter S Thompson owes them a lot), I was so keen for others to come to appreciate Dylan Thomas that I lent my copy of his collected poems to a friend about five years ago. I am still waiting for it to be returned.
So this week, being starved of his work for so long, I ordered another copy of his poems from the local bookshop. It arrived on Friday, and it is open in front of me as I write.
Do not go gentle into that good night is one of his greatest and most accessible poems. Aside from Rodney Dangerfield’s recitation of it in a movie, Michelle Pfeiffer a few short years later (and yet already a quarter century before today), in Dangerous Minds, introduces it to her English class, alongside the lyrics of the other Dylan. Nineteen lines, in six short bittersweet stanzas, grieving the decline into old age of his father:
And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The controversial prize winning novelist briefly known twenty five years ago as Helen Demidenko named her novel after Dylan Thomas’ short poem The hand that signed the paper, and quoted the first and third stanzas at the front of the book (I have more than one first edition of this novel):
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Men by a scribbled name.
I thought after re-reading these prescient words that perhaps he had written it after Munich, but no, it was published in 1935, when he was barely 21.
But what really cements Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, and as truly great, are the one hundred and eleven lines in the two verses which make up In Country Sleep. This is truly a work of genius, which runs and rolls and rhymes in uncounted ways.
Here are just the last few stanzas of it, to give you an idea of just how beautiful and ingenious it is, and how his death was such a true loss to the world of letters:
Illumination of music! the lulled black-backed
Gull, on the wave with sand in its eyes! And the foal moves
Through the shaken greensward lake, silent, on moonshod hooves,
In the winds’ wakes.
Music of elements, that a miracle makes!
Earth, air, water, fire, singing into the white act,
The haygold haired, my love asleep, and the rift blue
Eyed, in the haloed house, in her rareness and hilly
High riding, held and blessed and true, and so stilly
Lying the sky
Might cross its planets, the bell weep, night gather her eyes,
The Thief fall on the dead like the willy nilly dew,
Only for the turning of the earth in her holy
Heart! Slyly, slowly, hearing the wound in her side go
Round the sun, he comes to my love like the designed snow,
And truly he
Flows to the strand of flowers like the dew’s ruly sea,
And surely he sails like the ship shape clouds. Oh he
Comes designed to my love to steal not her tide raking
Wound, nor her riding high, nor her eyes, nor kindled hair,
But her faith that each vast night and the saga of prayer
He comes to take
Her faith that this last night for his unsacred sake
He comes to leave her in the lawless sun awaking
Naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come.
Ever and ever by all your vows believe and fear
My dear this night he comes and night without end my dear
Since you were born:
And you shall wake, from country sleep, this dawn and each first dawn,
Your faith as deathless as the outcry of the ruled sun.