Hear Dylan Thomas Read Three Poems by W.H. Auden, Including “September 1, 1939”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dylan Thomas Recites ‘Do Not Go Gen­tle into That Good Night’ and Oth­er Poems

“Sep­tem­ber 1, 1939″ by W.H. Auden

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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