The Apocalyptics and Dylan Thomas

Part of the Macmillan Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature book series (STCL)


Looking ahead to the 1940s in her last novel, Virginia Woolf feared that the new decade would stifle imaginative activity with a chaos worse than any she had ever known. Looking back from the vantage point of the 1950s, however, the poets and critics of the Movement saw only an imagination gone wild. Woolf’s genuine uncertainty about the immediate future led her to pose searching questions in Between the Acts; yet retrospection only seemed to endow the fifties commentators with security. The labels and paradigms they applied to the decade behind them were convenient but incorrect. Their characterization of their precursors was, above all, an act of dissociation.1 Desiring to ‘restore’ a native poetry marked by restraint, logical argument and a realistic adherence to common life, the poets of the fifties insisted that the forties was a decade of punch-drunk apocalyptic writers, a time of irrational excess, a poetry solely of myth and dream. They dismissed the period as drowning in the illogical unconscious storms of such poets as Henry Treece, J. F. Hendry, and Dylan Thomas.


Movement Critic Intricate Image British Poetry Religious Revival Irrational Excess 
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  1. 1.
    By implication or explicitly, as individuals and as a group, the Movement criticized its immediate precursors. Howard Sergeant has suggested in ‘The Movement — An Agreed Fiction?’ in Dannie Abse (ed.), Best Poetry of the Year 6 (London: Robson Books, 1979), that the propagandists for the Movement made initial attacks on the 1940s, and promoted the idea that a Movement poet was by nature antagonistic to the preceding two decades. In J. D. Scott’s announcement of the Movement on the literary stage (The Spectator, 1 October 1954), he wrote: the movement is ‘bored by the despair of the forties, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility, especially poetic sensibility about “the writer and society” … the Movement, as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible in a wicked, commercial, threatened world.…’ According to a myth about the forties, it seemed that the only writers after the Auden generation were Surrealists and the New Apocalypse. The Movement’s special mission was to deliver poetry from decadence. In the introduction to New Lines, a major anthology of Movement poets, Robert Conquest is hazy about whom in the 1940s he is opposing: ‘Poets were encouraged to produce diffuse and sentimental verbiage, or hollow technical pirouettes’. He attacks the period, the public taste, and ‘poets’. The ‘dozen writers’ who wrote ‘fine verse’ through the decade are not named and are conveniently forgotten. In contrast to the 1940s poets, the poets of the 1950s, says Conquest, refuse ‘to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with emotional intent’.Google Scholar
  2. Other important documents include John Wain’s promotion of William Empson’s ‘passion, logic, and formal beauty’ in John Lehmann (ed.), Penguin New Writing, 40 (1950), p. 127. Empson would become an important influence on the Movement. Also see Wain’s early review of Dylan Thomas, published in Preliminary Essays, where praise is very strained. See also, Elizabeth Jennings’ An Anthology of Modern Verse 1940–60 and D. J. Enright’s Poets of the 1950s. Individual poems are also comments on the obscure or over-passionate poetry of the 1940s, such as Donald Davie’s ‘Poem As Abstract’: ‘A poem is less an orange than a grid;/It hoists a charge; it does not ooze a juice./It has no rind being entirely hard’ (Brides of Reason). Davie’s redefininition of the Movement is interesting for his remarks about publicity.Google Scholar
  3. See ‘Remembering the Movement’ in Barry Alpert (ed.), The Poet in the Imaginary Museum (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1977), p. 74. For further information on the Movement style and the group’s attitudes towards the 1940s,Google Scholar
  4. see Blake Morrison, The Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    Robert Hewison, Under Siege (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977) p. 113.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    See Paul C. Ray, The Surrealist Movement in England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971) p. 289.Google Scholar
  7. Also see G. S. Fraser, The Modern Writer and His World (London: Derek Verschoyle, 1953) p. 267.Google Scholar
  8. Also Francis Scarfe, Auden and After (London: George Routledge, 1942) pp. 145–68. Scarfe’s book is a particularly important historical document, for it charted trends and analyzed individuals of the 1930s and early 1940s in 1941–2. ‘Until then’, Howard Sergeant recalled in conversation, ‘No one had really put on paper the attitudes of different poets. He was speaking for us and defining for us’. Personal interview with Howard Sergeant, 7 July 1980.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas (New York: John de Graff, 1956) p. 23.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Robin Skelton (ed.), The Complete Poems of David Gascoyne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965) p. xi.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Herbert Read, ‘Surrealism and the Romantic Principle’, Introduction to Surrealism (1936), reprinted in Selected Writings (London: Faber & Faber, 1963) p. 282.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Herbert Read, ‘The New Romantic School’, The Listener, 23 April 1942, p. 533.Google Scholar
  13. 11.
    G. S. Fraser in J. F. Hendry and Henry Treece (eds), The White Horseman (London: Routledge, 1941) p. 3.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    John Goodland, letter to Henry Treece, 15 October 1938, unpublished and in private hands, quoted by Richard Helmstadter, ‘The Apocalyptic Movement in British Poetry’, dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1963, p. 18.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation (London: Bodley Head, 1976) pp. 94–5 and 163–4. Hynes notes the previous generation’s search for heroes. Lawrence was important to them too, but as a rebel and ideologist who diagnosed the disease of the times and criticized his society.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    Geoffrey Bullough, The Trend of Modern Poetry (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 2nd edition, 1941) p. 159.Google Scholar
  17. 22.
    George Barker, ‘The Miracle of Images’, in John Lehmann (ed.), Orpheus 2 (London: John Lehmann, 1949) p. 135.Google Scholar
  18. 23.
    The Oxford circle included Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. See Roger Sale’s essay ‘England’s Parnassus’, Hudson Review, XVII, no. 2 (Summer, 1964) pp. 203–25. The three were ‘not identified with each other before the war’. Williams moved to Oxford in 1939.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 25.
    Dylan Thomas, letter to Henry Treece, 23 March 1938, in Constantine FitzGibbon (ed.), The Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas (London: Dent, 1966) pp. 190–1.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Treece, Dylan Thomas, p. 49. The essay was also printed as ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas’, in Henry Treece, How I See Apocalypse (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1946) pp. 129–39.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    Derek Stanford, Inside the Forties (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1977) pp. 24–26; 136.Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    Stephen Spender, The Thirties and After (New York: Random House, 1978) p. 72.Google Scholar
  23. 30.
    Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (London: SCM Press, 1943) p. 214.Google Scholar
  24. 31.
    Norman Nicholson, An Anthology of Religious Verse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1942) p. IX.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    D. J. Enright, ‘Ruins and Warnings’, Scrutiny, Summer 1942, pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    John Singer, review, Poetry Quarterly, Summer 1945, pp. 37–8.Google Scholar
  27. 38.
    G. S. Fraser, ‘Toward Completeness’, Seven, no. 8, Spring 1940, pp. 27–37.Google Scholar
  28. 39.
    G. S. Fraser, Leaves Without a Tree (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1953) Preface.Google Scholar
  29. 40.
    Henry Treece and Stefan Schimanski (eds), Transformation (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943) pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    Henry Treece and Stefan Schimanski (eds), A New Romantic Anthology (London: Grey Walls Press, 1949) p. 17.Google Scholar
  31. 42.
    Dylan Thomas, letter to Richard Church, quoted by Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (Boston: Little Brown, 1965) pp. 173–4.Google Scholar
  32. 45.
    Lita Hornick, ‘The Intricate Image’, dissertation, Columbia University, 1958, as quoted by Ray, pp. 282–3.Google Scholar
  33. 48.
    Dylan Thomas, letter to Henry Treece, 31 December 1938, in FitzGibbon (ed.), Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas, pp. 290–1.Google Scholar
  34. 49.
    George Orwell, Life and Letters To-day, June 1940, p. 315.Google Scholar
  35. 50.
    George Orwell, letter to Rayner Heppenstall, 11 April 1940, Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968) p. 19.Google Scholar
  36. 51.
    Dylan Thomas, letter to Henry Treece, 19 May 1938, in FitzGibbon (ed.), Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas, p. 196.Google Scholar
  37. 52.
    See Vernon Watkins’ remarks on himselfand on Thomas in John Press, Rule and Energy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963) p. 68.Google Scholar
  38. 53.
    Stephen Spender, ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’, Horizon, XIII, 1946, pp. 234–5.Google Scholar
  39. Also see G. S. Fraser, ‘Dylan Thomas’, Essays on Twentieth Century Poets (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977) p. 193.Google Scholar

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© Linda M. Shires 1985

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