DYLAN THOMAS by Paul Ferris
Kirkus Star

DYLAN THOMAS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

If we can't get inside Dylan Thomas--and the odds are we can't--the best a biographer can do is to debunk the myth without deflating the man, and this the poet's fellow Welshman has brought off with tremendous grace, economy, and savvy. Applying a tender, witty skepticism to the contradictions between much-told (by Dylan and others) anecdotes and the evidence of letters and interviews, Ferris watches the Swansea schoolmaster's son grow from chronic liar, petty thief, and teen-age plagiarist into the ""naughty boy from the provinces"" who made a wunderkind splash and (out of funds whatever his fluctuations of income) ""made begging into a cottage industry."" The childish need to please and be taken care of--playing dog-on-all-fours to amuse a crowd, surrendering to the comforts of ""Comrade Bottle""--is counterpointed with the uncompromising poet (and poser) at his boathouse desk: anything but lazy or random, unceasingly self-critical (a ""freak user of words, not a poet""), producing barely a poem a year--along with wartime filmscripts, stories, and Under Milk Wood--after the initial youthful outpour. A figure of pathos, but Ferris never wallows or sensationalizes--not even on the American poetry-reading tours (wife Caitlin saw them as orgies of ""flattery, idleness and infidelity"") that helped speed Thomas to his death at 39 in 1953 on a crest of notoriety. And Dylan's own voice--in letter and conversation--dominates throughout, a voice of ""obsessive serf-awareness"" but one of such constant surprise and spirit that even when it bemoans this ""creature whose sad-sack body encircles me and whose fat head wakes up on my pillow every morning,"" the vigor of expression annihilates serf-pity. This biography does not do everything. Ferris, blessed by his non-academicism everywhere else, seems a trifle tentative when facing the knotty poems themselves. And the relationships with Pamela Hansford Johnson and with Caitlin (""birdlike--a bird of prey or paradise, depending on her mood"") slide by rather limply--the only serious victims of the detachment that sacrifices an occasional heart-clutch for the consistent satisfactions of scrupulous scholarship, descriptive brilliance (the Wales locales especially), and a sneaking affection for a life of ""guile and beer."" (Book-of-the-Month Club Selection for December.)

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 1977
Publisher: Dial