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Obscurity and Dylan Thomas’s early poetry

Par Iris Yaron-Leconte : Assistant professor - Université Paris 8 Iris Yaron-Leconte - Université Paris 8
Publié par Marion Coste le 10/10/2010
This article outlines the concept of "obscure poems" and analyses Dylan Thomas's poem "When once the twilight locks no longer".

What is an obscure poem?

Obscure poems, inasmuch as they break the rules of (ordinary) communication, raise the question as to how the reader is to decode them.

Reading such a poem will show that the procedures that underlie understanding of clear texts will not suffice in the case of an obscure poem. The divide that hermeticism creates between the signifier and the signified drives the reader to seek "meaning", thereby restoring to language its communicative function.

If we are to speak of an  obscure poem then we must define this term. A definition of difficult poem is the subject of another study that I carried out (Yaron, 2008). The definition that follows is based principally on models of comprehension (van-Dijk and Kintsch, 1983, Kintsch and van-Dijk, 1978, Sanford and Garrod, 1981, Johnson-Laird, 1983) as well as on Miller and Kintsch's study on readability, (1980). I focused on the transgression of the various conditions favouring comprehension and on the disruption of the processes of representation construction that resulted from such transgression. I laid stress, in fact, on the notion of defective representation constructed by the reader.

The literary research provided me with elements on categories of difficulty. The studies of Steiner (1978) , Nowottny ((1962)1984) and Press (1963) do attempt to come to terms with poetic difficulty as such. The same holds true for Fois-Kaschel (2002) who offers a linguistic approach to the question of obscurity in three German poets: Hölderlin, Trakl and Celan.  She analyses their phonetic, lexical and syntactical peculiarities and describes these as the source of the obscurity. These scholars proposed, each in their own way, accounts of textual factors capable of producing difficulty: neologisms, allusions, figures etc.

Another approach to difficulty is provided by Riffaterre; his description of difficulty is founded on the notion of the matrix, a minimal unity which constitutes the essence of the poem and which is a generator of senses. The poem's significance is produced by the detour the text makes as it runs the gauntlet of mimesis (1984, 19). Difficulties are produced when the matrix is repressed (ibid). The more it is repressed (i.e., implicit) the greater will be the deviation from literal sense.

The combination of models of comprehension and literary criticism enabled us to propose a definition of the expression Difficult Poem.


A poem is considered difficult if the representation constructed by the reader is defective.  Such defective representation is produced when part or all of the potential obstacles in the text, intentional or unintentional, become effective obstacles in the domains of language and/or coherence and/or the world referred to. This means that they disrupt construction of the representation. 

The basis of the definition is the relationship between potential obstacles and effective obstacles. For certain readers some of the potential obstacles become effective and for others they present no difficulties (i.e. they remain potential). The defective representation may or may not be intended by the author (intentional or unintentional).

In the present paper I argue that the above proposition is applicable to the expression obscure poem; it does not refer merely to poems in which a part of the potential obstacles in the text becomes effective - the case of the difficult poem - but also to the possibility that almost or all of them become effective. In this respect, it corresponds to obscure poem.

Reading an obscure poem

An obscure poem departs from the dynamic that is established between the three components of the act of communication - originator, message and recipient. In a normal act of communication, the originator, aiming at rapid transmission of the message, constructs it in such a way that the recipient needs to make the minimum effort (Sperber and Wilson, 1995). The obscure poem will make radical changes to this relationship. In order to prevent immediate understanding, the originator will introduce into his or her message obstacles that deprive the recipient of rapid access to the message. The recipient's reaction acutely expresses the change that has taken place in the dynamics of communication. Despite the deliberate disruption of the process of understanding, which would not be tolerated in other forms of discourse, the recipient of the poetic text cooperates with the poet by trying to decode the message (as shown by empirical studies I carried out (Yaron, 2002, Yaron, 2003). Such collaboration may be explained by the conditions of acceptability that apply to poetic discourse (Adam, 1985); they are significantly more flexible than those that apply to other kinds of text. The reader combines his/her knowledge of the conventions of communication with those that relate to the conventions of poetry. 

In poetry, unlike in other forms of discourse, obscurity might be an aesthetic principle; indeed,poetic discourse enjoys a special privilege: it may run counter to the fundamental requirement of language, namely communicability, and may infringe some of the basic rules of language. It is free to disobey the rules of syntax, grammar or lexis. It is able to depart from the requirements of coherence, cohesion and consistency with ideas expressed in the text, or indeed with external knowledge. It does not establish any information known both to the originator and to the recipient that would ensure a grasp of the information that follows (see Clark and Clark, 1977). It will frequently depart from the literal sense of the words that it uses and endow them with new meanings. And despite all this, simply because it is a poem, it will be perceived as a significant text.

If it is true that the conditions of acceptability (Adam, 1985) of poetry are significantly more flexible than those of other forms of expression, this is the effect of literary convention. Indeed, this change in the dynamics is due to the Establishment. Directed by teachers, academics and media critics, the literary Establishment puts considerable pressure in order to instill into the system streams or poets whose poetic principles deviate, sometimes radically, from the communication norms. The defence of and the legitimating that the Establishment bestows upon the difficult corpus explain the constancy of the reading public. The basic difference between difficulty and poetic difficulty lies, therefore, in the legitimization and acceptance of poetic difficulty by the reader and consequently in the representation that the reader constructs. This acceptance indicates, however, a meeting point between semiotics and cognition; the cultural processes that determine the "canonization" (Even-Zohar, 1990) of certain streams exert an impact on cognitive processes. Readers are more motivated to invest effort and try to understand the texts also because they are subject to the pressures exerted by the literary system. I assume that the attempt to decipher a difficult text at the same time constitutes an interrogation of the reasons that led the institution to "canonize" it.

Obscurity is one of the factors determining the reader's aesthetic experience. It requires major intellectual effort and calls for successive examinations of the poem, which do not necessarily follow the same order as that of elements of the text.

Returning to words previously read and asking questions about the relationship between them amount to significant modification of the recipient's behaviour by comparison with that adopted in reading other types of text. Awareness of this opacity as one of the rules of the game also has an effect on the reader's experience. In addition to the acceptance of the obscure poem, this norm determines the manner in which one processes the text. The resulting interaction conforms to the codes for reading  obscure poetry. Thus, in order to decode the sense of certain components, one will have recourse to the symbolic significance that such components may have, to their connotations, to their new content as it emerges from the links that are formed with other words, and so on. Such devices are used in the deciphering of Thomas's poem "When once the twilight locks no longer", which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been analysed by scholars, probably because of its extreme obscurity. This neglect of the poem was further underlined when it emerged from scrutiny of the journal Welsh Writing in English, a journal that devotes considerable space to the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, that there is scarcely a mention of his early poetry. The same holds true for New Welsh Writings.

The difference between reading any difficult or obscure text and reading an opaque poem lies precisely in the attitude that one displays towards the difficulty or difficulties. Whereas the reception of a difficult notice or article is functional and directed at a particular purpose, which may be practical, scientific etc., the reception of a poem is aesthetic. For the person who reads a poem, obscurity is one of the elements that create 'magic'. Unlike in the case of non-poetic obscure texts, the fact that understanding is deferred is part of the aesthetics of obscurity and this in itself is thus linked to the experience that the poet seeks to create for the reader.

Analysis of an obscure poem: Thomas's "When once the twilight locks no longer"

The notion of an auteur difficile proposed by Paul Valéry has come a long way since Malarmé and this is so outside France too. In Britain, T. S. Eliot made clear that he was adopting an aesthetic of difficulty and approved the poetics of Malarmé and of Valéry. But it was rather Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) who went further along the road of obscurity and symbolism. In her article "Dylan Thomas and the French Symbolists", Nathalie Wourm explores the influence of French symbolist poets on Thomas; she shows that he was familiar with Nerval, Beaudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud in the early 1930s. Consequently, the French poets did not influence Thomas's early poetry, rather Blake, Donne, Yeats and Eliot.         

His first two collections, 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty-five Poems (1936) are characterized by exceptional opacity and have many similarities. 18 Poems was published when Dylan Thomas was still a teenager and, just as 25 Poems, emerged from the notebooks which he had been writing from the age of 15. Thomas, whose career was short and brilliant, held the belief that everything, especially in nature, is connected. This coloured his approach to religion. Certain poems combine biblical images such as the "dying Christ" with symbolic literary characters such as William Blake's Mnetha. Thomas questions conventional Christianity and dares to compare it with pagan ideas. (see Eardlay, 2008). The poem "When once the twilight locks no longer", from the first of these two collections provides an illustration of Thomas's poetics, and in particular of that reflected in these two works; it combines religious thematic to obscurity. I have attempted below to decipher this poem. 

When once the twilight locks no longer

When once the twilight locks no longer
Locked in the long worm of my finger
Nor dammed the sea that sped about my fist,
The mouth of time sucked, like a sponge,
The milky acid on each hinge,
And swallowed dry the waters of the breast.

When the galactic sea was sucked
And all the dry seabed unlocked,
I sent my creature scouting on the globe,
That globe itself of hair and bone
That, sewn to me by nerve and brain,
Had stringed my flask of matter to his rib.

My fuses timed to charge his heart,
He blew like powder to the light
And held a little Sabbath with the sun,
But when the stars, assuming shape,
Drew in his eyes the straws of sleep,
He drowned his father's magics in a dream.

All issue armoured, of his grave,
The redhaired cancer still alive,
The cataracted eyes that filmed their cloth;
Some dead undid their bushy jaws,
And bags of blood let out their flies;
He had by heart the Christ-cross-row of death.

Sleep navigates the tides of time;
The dry Sargasso of the tomb
Gives up its dead to such a working sea;
And sleep rolls mute above the beds
Where fishes' food is fed the shades
Who periscope through flowers to the sky.

When once the twilight screws were turned,
And mother milk was stiff as sand,
I sent my own ambassador to light;
By trick or chance he fell asleep
And conjured up a carcass shape
To rob me of my fluids in his heart.

Awake, my sleeper, to the sun,
A worker in the morning town,
And leave the poppied pickthank where he lies;
The fences of the light are down,
All but the briskest riders thrown,
And worlds hang on the trees.

18 Poems, 1934 (pp. 9-10)

The reading of this poem indicates that the procedures which underlie the comprehension of clear texts will not suffice in the case of Thomas's obscure poem. I assume that anyone reading these lines will have encountered problems in comprehending the poem. We would maintain that most of the potential obstacles in the text in the domain of the world referenced have had their effect and have disrupted those processes that underlie comprehension. With regard to the definition proposed above, it should be stressed that, in this instance, the obscurity, being an essential principle of Thomas's early poetry, is intentional. However, obscurity is not invariably intentional; a text written in the 18th century, for example, readable by contemporaries of the poet, could cause difficulties for modern readers who lack contextual references. Difficulties here are not the poet's intention.

Although Thomas infringes rules of communication, he had the support of the literary establishment and came to be regarded as canonical. This has an effect on readers' attitude to him and explains their readiness to come to terms with his poem. 

The obscurity of "When once the twilight locks no longer" generates a reading filled with gaps, i.e., with elements that are not assimilated by their addressee. Thus I suppose components such as "worm of my finger", "the milky acid on each hinge", "dry seabed unlocked", "that globe itself of hair and bone" etc. resulted in a failure to process them. I argue that in the reading of an obscure poem the factor of linearity loses importance. Deprived of access to such elements, the reader focuses on intelligible and culturally pregnant words such as "God", "baby", "sea", "cancer", "death", "Christ" etc. I assume these would be the point of departure for readers seeking to decipher the text. Reading other elements, they would refer to the words they had integrated and would try to connect them to the incomprehensible units. They would progress first to units forming part of the semantic field, themselves activated in virtue of the words matched in the beginning of the process. Thus, the matched word "death" would bring their delinearized reading to "grave" and "tomb". Once this liaison was established, I assume it would permit access to the line "Sleep navigates the tides of time" etc. The processes underlying the deciphering of the poem are thus laborious and require high motivation. The interpretation I propose below is a result of such processes. Once the mechanism of progression has been clarified, I can proceed to the analysis (skipping the various procedures that allowed me to overcome obstacles).

At a relatively early stage in deciphering, it would appear that elements of Genesis and of birth, and of those involved, God and the baby, are inseparably combined. But the text also - and almost simultaneously - deals with other culturally pregnant units such as death, tomb and resurrection. These points of departure allowed me to reconstruct meaning and led later to restore linear reading, the addressee's final goal. I may say then that Thomas embraces a set of distinct, perhaps even contradictory, phenomena in a single sequence of images. In the first stanza, it is the universe and the human body that merge. Thomas halts the twilight with his finger, the sea in his fist and dries up the water, thereby identifying - according to my hypothesis - himself with God who wields power over the components of the universe. But this water also introduces an ambiguity between the divine and the newborn child: the water seems to be also the liquid from the breast, swallowed by a mouth; it is the "milky acid on each hinge", perhaps on each breast. This feeding from the breast would therefore relate to a pause, a hiatus in the workings of the components of the world. In other words, the appearance of man, of the speaker, perhaps, has an impact on the way that they function.

The association made between birth and the universe continues in the play on words in "galactic sea", galaxia, lactic: the milky sea on which the baby feeds is, I assume, that of the galaxy: the Milky Way. The association of the two words that make up "galactic" refers to the perception of the new-born baby which, according to modern psychology, makes no distinction between the world that surrounds it (or the galaxy) and itself and considers them as one single phenomenon. The "galactic sea" is, indeed, everywhere present in Thomas's work and strongly linked with birth. According to Olsen (1954), in Dylan Thomas's poetry, birth takes the form of emerging from water. Olsen stresses the link between the sea and the womb. I suggest the "seabed" refers to the amniotic fluid in the womb which, once it has been "unlocked", dries up and allows the infant to enter the world. At this stage, the speaker sends his creature to explore the world, "I sent my creature scouting on the globe", a world made up of bone and hair ("That globe itself of hair and bone"). The twilight universe, of the skies and the sea is then reduced to the human body, the infant's own and that of its mother which the child gradually discovers. In these lines there are two individuals: the newborn child and "I": I is the speaker, who has already appeared and who is identified with God, as in other poems by Thomas. The line "I sent my creature scouting on the globe" reinforces the hypothesis that the speaker still regards himself as God. His creation, the body of the baby, is connected to him through its brain and its nerves: "That globe itself of hair and bone / That, sewn to me by nerve and brain". But these same links between the two indicate a separation between creature and creator that is no longer so clear cut. Indeed, the creator 'charges' the heart of the baby and fills it with electricity (another divine prerogative) and with life, "My fuses timed to charge his heart": but, at this point, the new-born child, which aspires to the light, "held a little Sabbath with the sun". And so it seizes for itself elements of the cosmos: light, the sun and the stars (which appear in the following line), and assumes the place of God. In a sense, these lines would be a reflection of the poem as a whole, for here the baby is analogous with the poet who, in his works, transcends human limitations and takes to himself the supreme powers of Providence. The poet "drowned his father's magics" (presumably, the sun, the stars and their effects) and vanquished the father so that he might produce his own kind of magic. Even so, he is aware that such a vision is only a dream that happened in his sleep, "He drowned his father's magics in a dream", a dream that is perhaps an image of poetic creation.

But the vision of the infant transformed into God nevertheless dominates the fourth and fifth stanzas. Taking on the roles of the "father", the one who knows the pathway to disappearance ("the Christ-cross-row of death"), he causes the dead to rise up from their tombs. Whether they have died of sickness ("cancer" or "cataracted eyes") or of wounds ("bags of blood"), they are restored to life, their flesh as strong as armour ("All issue armoured, of the grave"). Thomas, who aspires to resurrection, 'takes his reader back' into the tomb and, in a series of vignettes, builds on the horror: the bags of blood that let out the flies, the "bushy jaws", referring to their unshaven faces and the "cataracted eyes that filmed their cloth", presumably their winding-sheets. But this new creator who travels freely through time, through the past and the future ("tides of time") - is not content, according to my hypothesis, with mere resurrection: to the dry sea he opposes the "working sea". We see how "The dry Sargasso of the tomb / Gives up its dead to such a working sea". Thomas then puts the dead back into a working sea where there are "beds", just as in the second stanza, when the "milky" water is drunk and the "dry seabed" opens ("unlocked"). It would appear that the working sea is, as in the second stanza, the sea that is at work in the womb. The poet appears to be returning the dead to a woman's womb, thereby causing them to begin once more the cycle of life. Thus, the dead become fœtuses, "sleep rolls mute above the beds", or perhaps "shades", creatures not yet formed, fed on the nourishment found in the "sea". Thus, the working sea nourishes and ensures that the fœtuses survive. As they try to emerge, they seek the sky and vainly attempt to look at it through a periscope: but they would only manage to see it when they are born.

This overturning of human life has come about because the creature succeeded in taking God's place. But in the last two stanzas, order is re-established: God speaks to say that his "ambassador", "by trick or chance he fell asleep" and tried "to rob me of my fluids". In fact, there is a tension in the relationship between the two protagonists: each has a different conception of life and each attempts to prevail. When it is the creature that has the power it rejects death and tries to make the dead appear, "conjured up a carcass shape". But God, who conceives things differently, ensures that life is followed by death and wishes to remove his creature from his sick world. When twilight gives way to night, he sends his ambassador towards light. He urges his "sleeper" to give up his "poppied pickthank", an archaic expression that means a story from a dream (Tindall, 1984), to wake and to go towards the sun, towards the life of the early morning working town: for light is to be found below, "The fences of the light are down", and the real meaning of life is expressed in concrete objects such as trees and, perhaps, stones, streams, etc. Thus, God manifests his distance from his creation but, at the same time, calls it "my own ambassador", thereby introducing a note of ambiguity: an ambassador is one who represents the identity and opinions of another. Is Thomas suggesting that somewhere God shares in the feelings and desires of his "son"? It seems - and this will be my conclusion - as if the poet identifies at one and the same time with both his "characters": he is the Supreme Divinity who created the universe but, at the same time, he revolts against those laws that govern our lives. He rejects death and tries to overturn the established order, replacing it with another order that will satisfy Man's most powerful desire: to overcome death. The fact that the work concludes with the words of God rather than Man (and therefore with the order imposed by God) suggests that the poet admits that Man will be unable to make any change to the divine laws of the universe.

The analysis of Thomas's obscure poem has indicated that the communication between the sender and the receiver takes a particular shape. Opacity leads readers who cooperate with the poem and try to decode it to be very patient. The conditions of acceptability of poems in general and obscure poems in particular, lead recipients to try to overcome the absence of coherence. They change their mode of analysis and seek for weak implications (Sperber and Wilson, 1995). Thomas's poem illustrates the argument presented in the second section, namely the fact that the reader's behaviour of an obscure poem deviates from standard texts reading.

However, as a final note, I would like to draw attention to the fact that the statements made in the article about the Establishment defence on difficult corpus are actually called into question. Postmodernism defenders' criticism against modernism points particularly to difficulty as being supposedly elitist. In this respect, see for example, Diepeveen (2003) who criticizes the aesthetics of difficulty, arguing that it harmed modernism and the aims of high art.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Iris Yaron-Leconte Iris Yaron-Leconte, "Obscurity and Dylan Thomas’s early poetry", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2010. Consulté le 12/04/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/obscurity-and-dylan-thomas-s-early-poetry