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Over a thousand letters, covering just over 20 of his brief 39 years, by Thomas (1914-1953), that are a poet's progress through beggary, beggary and more beggary, from darkness to brief flarings of fame and finance, some wonderful kisses of approbation from T.S. Eliot, and then back to darkness, alcoholism, and that last toot in Greenwich Village--and medically administered morphine overdose--which did him in forever. Thomas, the son of a Welsh teacher of English and devotee of romantic poetry, began writing verse early, based his life-scenario on ""weak lungs"" and determinedly dark bohemianism. He would be the very image of a poet. But when, at the height of his renown, Signet paperbacks paid him $397.50 for his novel Adventures in the Skin Trade, it's no wonder that begging had become an addiction as strong as alcohol. The present edition of letters collects all the varied volumes of Thomas letters that have seen print so far, and adds to them about 400 previously unpublished letters, and revises or restores letters formerly tampered with or bowdlerized. As edited by Thomas biographer Ferris, ""All now stand together for the first time, a portrait of the artist as a fallen angel. ""The newly published ""love letters"" to his wife Caitlin become both deeply unhappy and unpleasant to read, and during his last American period find him simply faking his hard times. As for his begging letters--to Eliot, Graham Greene, various editors, the BBC, the Royal Literary Fund, Princess Caetani (wealthy publisher of the prestigious, fabulously well-paying quarterly Botteghe Oseure), and to others--they show attentive revision, elaborate polishing, great cunning. As Ferris says, ""When he cringed, it was premeditated. . .Drafts of a later letter to Princess Caetani give a gloomy insight into Thomas' painful toying with words and phrases, as though the composition of a begging letter had become a literary end in itself. ""Poets will not be disappointed in Thomas' several exegeses of his more difficult poems, but his many answers to requests for explanations are pretty muddy affairs in themselves, as Thomas knew: ""I wrote it down hurriedly for you: not so much to try to elucidate things but to move them about, turn them different ways, stir them up."" Few fellow poets, however, escape his malice, or quick knifings, in passing. At nearly a thousand pages, Collected Letters may be more Thomas than many wish to becloud themselves with. This is not a happy or uplifting book. Yet all these letters together, arranged chronologically, testify that Thomas seems never to have been reborn nor ever to have lost the chains he willingly settled into during adolescence. He aged, yes, but only as an addict ages; we will never know what poems a mature Thomas might have written--though the best of what he did write has its own splendor.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1986
Publisher: Macmillan