Dylan Thomas’s centenary this year provides an ideal opportunity to reconsider an early masterpiece that has matched critical admiration – ‘surely among the greatest poems of the century’ – with general indifference. ‘Al- tarwise by owl-light’, a sequence of ten sonnets published by the twenty- one-year-old poet in his second collection, Twenty-Five Poems, is the literary equivalent of the professional singer’s inspirational song, loved by the few, ignored by the many. In a way, this is strange, considering that the poem has some stunning imagery – ‘two-gunned Gabriel,’ ‘the frozen angel,’ ‘the gallow grave’ – and provides an intriguing link to writers including Edward Thomas, William Blake, and even Bob Dylan. In doing so, the sonnets are also profoundly illuminating of Dylan Thomas’s life and work.
The key is in the symbolism. This is unmistakeably mystical, which doesn’t mean that it’s all airy-fairy mysteriousness, which is probably how some people interpret that word; rather the opposite: that it’s firmly grounded in the absolute precision of the perennial philosophy. And the essential element of this philosophy is that truth is an active spirit providing inspiration to those prepared to receive it as the guide to reality. Truth is a muse, the muse of the artist, as it is that of the scientist or, indeed, of any truth-seeker. Truth, in short, is experienced, not believed.
Dylan Thomas, as with both Edward Thomas and Bob Dylan, symbolises this spirit of truth in terms of a wind, an image that comes from the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Edward Thomas’s reference comes in his poem ‘Wind and Mist’:
You would not understand about the wind.
It is my subject…
There were whole days and nights when the wind and I
Between us shared the world, and the wind ruled
And I obeyed it…
As for Bob Dylan, the image is introduced in his very first masterpiece, Blowin’ in the Wind.
In ‘Altarwise’, Dylan Thomas’s homage occurs in sonnet VII: Doom on deniers at the wind-turned statement.
The line represents one theme of the sonnet-sequence: a rejection of all truths, seen as ‘deniers’ or small change, that don’t come directly from the spirit of truth itself.
Thomas later tried to deflect attention from the ‘Altarwise’ sonnets which he, an essentially private person where his poetry was concerned, probably felt were too revealing, dismissing them as ‘the writings of a boily boy in love with shapes and shadows on his pillow.’ This would suggest that they are the stuff of juvenile dreams when, in fact, they are the exact opposite. The proof is in the fact that Thomas’s last completed poem, the ‘Author’s Prologue’ to his Collected Poems 1934-1952, introduces the wind of truth almost at the outset in a theme – truth’s giving the lie to man’s skyscraping megalomania – that echoes the ‘doom on deniers’ theme of ‘Altarwise’:
Eternal waters away
From the cities of nine
Days’ night whose towers will catch
In the religious wind
Like stalks of tall, dry straw…
The ‘wind’ symbolism in ‘Altarwise’ also explains another of the po- em’s central images, that of the ‘gentleman’ introduced in the second line of the poem, because the essential condition for the human mind to receive truth, the essential condition of inspiration, is a childlike humil- ity, in scientific terms: an open mind. Dylan Thomas sees this humility in terms of gentleness so that he characterises the artist, who in the poem shepherds the reader towards truth while doing the same to a new- born child, as ‘the gentleman.’
The adoption of humility is necessary for the reception of truth because man’s natural mindset is one of pride. And just as humility prompts a response from the spirit of truth, so does pride prompt a response from its opposite, which is the desire for power. Like the spirit of truth, this is an outside force that works on the mind of man, symbolised in the poem’s third line by ‘Abaddon’. Abaddon, ‘the angel of the bottomless pit,’ comes from chapter nine of The Revelation of St John the Divine or The Apocalypse in the New Testament. There it is characterised as a force tormenting mankind, although Dylan Thomas being ‘a bit of a lad’, even when at his most serious, probably chose the image for its similarity to ‘a bad’un.’
The desire for power is the source of man’s ambition, his aims and goals, his hunger for success, hunger destined to lead in the opposite direction to that signposted by the spirit of truth and, hence, away from reality towards illusion, characterised by Edward Thomas as ‘mist’ in ‘Wind and Mist’ and by Dylan Thomas in ‘Altarwise’ as any number of ‘nowheres.’
The human mind subject to this force is known as the self or ego, ‘old cock’ in ‘Altarwise’, in contrast to the ‘heaven’s egg’ of the mind turned towards the spirit of truth, which is the soul. And the purpose of the artistic or mysti- cal life is to free or permanently detach the mind from the force of desire – to ‘kill’ the self, hence the manifold images of death in the poem: note, for instance, the poem’s second line where ‘the gentleman lay graveward’ – in order that it might follow the spirit of truth towards reality.
This is no easy matter: witness the fact that ‘the gentleman lay graveward with his furies.’ These ‘furies’ relate to the human mind’s attachments to its desires and its blind fear of being separated from them. For the desire for power appears to each mind in terms of particular desires, desires it was conditioned to accept in childhood and the fulfilment of which together make up its idea of happiness. To put this another way, any attempt to detach the mind from the self, from its attachment to the desire for power, amounts to self-extinction, which triggers the instinct for self-preservation, hence the ‘furies’ of Thomas’s poem. The upshot of this is that any human mind that attempts to follow the spirit of truth finds itself poised between truth and desire in what Thomas characterises as a ‘half-way house’ in the first line of the poem.
By this time, some readers might well be thinking that the poem’s relative neglect is hardly surprising, considering that its symbolism is so esoteric that only a select few could ever hope to understand it. Yet the sonnets also precociously reference a wealth of imagery from world literature, starting with the Bible, which open up exciting new avenues of under- standing that are worth pursuing for their own sake as well as for the light they shed on ‘Altarwise.’
Thus, for instance, the ‘cavern’ in sonnet II could reference Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic, which relates how mankind is blinded to reality by the false light of illusion, or, more likely, William Blake’s own allegory of human delusion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear
to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow
chinks of his cavern.
This explains Thomas’s own elucidation of his craft at this time as: ‘Poetry is the rhythmic, inevitably narrative, movement from an overclothed blind- ness to a naked vision that depends on its intensity on the labour put into the creation of the poetry.’
Again, in sonnet VIII, Thomas references a highly significant section in Genesis (9:13) after the Flood, when God’s covenant with mankind is established through Noah in the shape of a ‘bow in the cloud’. This is ‘No- ah’s great rainbow’ in Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row on the Highway 61 Revisited album. Dylan clearly sees this rainbow as representative of the spirit of truth on earth, which is the only divine covenant that actually means anything, echoing Dylan Thomas’s ‘three-coloured rainbow’ in ‘Altarwise’, which combines the idea of the spirit of truth with that of the divine trinity of which it is a part. Thomas then takes this even further, relating it to Adam and Eve and Christ’s crucifixion.
The Christian imagery in ‘Altarwise’ is arguably the most potent of the poem; it’s certainly the most prominent, raising the question of whether or how much Thomas was a Christian at the time. Thomas himself answers the question in sonnet V, which discounts all the claims of institutionalised Christianity by means of cheeky irony. Echoing Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees, Thomas sees established religion, whether Church or Chapel, as a ‘fake gentleman in a suit of spades, black-tongued and tipsy from salvation’s bottle.’ Thomas is pointing to the fact that religion is related to the desire for power in its concern with personal salvation, the exact opposite of the self-annihilation of mysticism, while ‘spades’ relates to the ‘graveward’ of the true gentleman but only in the sense that they are a pretence or ‘suit’ of selflessness.
This idea of established religion being a show or dress code in contrast to the naked reality of the perennial philosophy is taken up in sonnet IX, where ‘suit of spades’ is echoed in ‘the linen spirit,’ where it is the envelope and not the letter that’s the issue. This sonnet is all about the irrelevance of theology, the dismissal of different interpretations of holy texts because the essential point is that Christ’s death was not vicarious; he didn’t die for us, but to set an example of how to achieve freedom from the desire for power, from the self. As a result, belief sys- tems, all belief systems, are totally irrelevant, the ‘rants … of scholars,’ according to Thomas.
The point is forcibly made in a highly irreverent and amusing way in the previous sonnet, where Jesus is characterised as ‘Jack Christ’. Here, Jesus Christ is not some mythical figure, Jesus Christ Superstar, the founding member of a worldwide religion, but the boy next door, an ordinary chap who fulfilled an extraordinary destiny through his rejection of the desire for power and his commitment to the spirit of truth – something that you and I can do just as well if we really want to. And it’s precisely this process with which ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ is concerned. The poem is, in short, a blue- print for the mystical life, one which Dylan Thomas, dead at just thirty-nine years old from alcoholic poisoning, may reasonably be said not to have followed, or, at least, to have followed poorly. But this doesn’t discount the poem’s integrity, nor its relevance, rather the reverse.
Poet and literary critic Elder Olson, quoted in the introduction to this essay, pointed out in his study The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (1954) that, after the ‘Altarwise’ sonnets, Thomas discarded nearly all the particular body of symbols he used in them and gradually adopted new ones to correspond with his changing view of life.
The fact that Thomas returned to the ‘wind’ symbol to reference the spirit of truth in his last completed poem, however, even underlining its signifi- cance by adding ‘religious’, shows that the position he espoused in ‘Al- tarwise by owl-light’ remained with him throughout his life, effectively bookending it in the process. As such, the sonnets provide an interesting starting-point for a re-interpretation of the entire Dylan Thomas oeuvre on the occasion of his centenary.