When he was twenty years old Dylan Thomas spent two or three weeks in Donegal just after publishing “Eighteen Poems”. Among the poems he wrote in Donegal were “Altarwise by Owl Light”, a sonnet sequence the first six lines of which are as follows:
Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in a hangnail cracked from Adam,
And from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream.
There have been many Ph. D. Theses written about this sonnet sequence, often said to be surrealistic, or a dream sequence. To my mind it has meaning, although the young Thomas strives too hard for effect, making the poem needlessly dense and difficult. He himself insisted that his poetry was never surrealistic. The first two lines describe purgatory, the furies are Graeco Roman goddesses of vengeance, Abaddon is the Hebrew biblical word for place of destruction, and Adam has tasted the apple. A hangnail is a piece of loose skin from a fingernail, which might mean hanging on to life in purgatory, or might mean nothing at all, the poet carried away with words. The fairies are the magic people of European mythology and his fork might mean again purgatory, half in half out, downwards or upwards, you never know. The gentleman is a dog in the shady world and bites out the mandrake, the hallucinatory plant, to hear tomorrow’s scream, to know where he is going and what he is going to find. Around about this time Thomas was a reporter on the “Evening Post” in Swansea, so had a jaw for news. I think he got scared living in the Donegal wilderness and abruptly left without paying his bills on a bus to Belfast and no doubt by ferry home. This is not a very good piece of work compared with “Over Sir John’s Hill”, written in 1948, fourteen years later, and a work of maturity. Thomas was able to hypnotise audiences with his readings, and able to hypnotise them with words, even though they had no idea at all of his meaning. The vast majority of people in Wales have never read a world of Dylan Thomas, including Swansea Council. I am not sure that that is a good thing. Nonetheless the power and originality is obvious. There is nothing very profound in these six lines, they edge dangerously close to a child playing with words. The much simpler minimalist style of the granitic R. S. Thomas has more profundity. The best poetry by Dylan Thomas is that to which people can react, like “Ferndale”, or “Do not Go Gentle”, “In My Craft or Sullen Art”, or the great poem, “Over Sir John’s Hill”. I would certainly not analyse this sonnet sequence in a thesis. Dylan Thomas was very rude to the people of Donegal for some reason, I think that he was not cut out for solitude, and it got on his nerves.