Separated by only seven years, Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden had what might be called a friendly rivalry—at least, that is, from Thomas’ point of view. The hard-drinking Welsh poet once wished Auden a happy seventieth birthday—on his thirtieth. It’s a typical comment, writes biographer Walford Davies, expressed “with the attractive brio of a younger brother.” Thomas wrote of his admiration for “the mature, religious, and logical fighter,” but deprecated “the boy bushranger” in the older, more reserved Auden.
Whether we take these appraisals as gentle ribbing or—as another Thomas biographer Andrew Lycett writes—“disdain,” it does not seem that Thomas felt such antipathy for Auden’s poetry. One would think the contrary listening to him read Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” above. Thomas, Lycett tells us, “approved of Auden’s propensity for radical cultural change” but disapproved of the way his “political tub thumping got in the way of his poetry.”
Thomas uses his sonorous voice in a theatrical way that well-suits Auden’s stately verse. That voice became a regular feature for several years on the BBC for whom Thomas recorded broadcast after broadcast of readings and radio plays in the late 1940s. As we’ve detailed in a previous post, he made many recordings of his own work as well, including of his most well known poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” which he reads in somber, measured tones. Above, in a reading of Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” Thomas takes a strained, almost affected, tone, perhaps evincing some aversion to the “political tub-thumping” in Auden’s poem. His breathing is labored, and he was, in all likelihood, drunk. He usually was, and he did suffer from a breathing condition. Thomas sadly drank himself to death, while Auden, who didn’t quite see seventy, lived on twenty more years, and recorded his own readings of “As I Went Walking” and “September 1, 1939.”
Both the latter Auden poem and the one Thomas reads above, “Song of the Master and Boatswain,” begin in bars: the speaker in “September 1” sits “in one of the dives / on Fifty-Second Street.” “Song of the Master and the Boatswain” opens “At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s” where “we drank our liquor straight.” Aside from these settings neither has anything at all in common. “Master and Boatswain” is almost bawdy, but ends on a cynical note. Written days after the event and dense with philosophical and classical allusions, “September 1” laments Germany’s invasion of Poland, the effective beginning of what would become World War II. Thomas was a more anarchic, less restrained poet, and Auden, the more educated, and disciplined, of the two. But it can certainly be said that they shared a similar sensibility in a taste for the tragic.
You can immerse yourself in Auden and Thomas’ poetry by picking up copies of Collected Poems: Auden and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Original Edition.