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Dylan Thomas and the experiences of reading



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Cassels, Imogen 


This dissertation focuses on formulating new or revised critical languages for writing about the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Central to this is an understanding of Thomas’s ambiguity: his poems are fluid and unstable in their influences, semantics, voices, and sounds, and can offer us rich and varied experiences of reading when we give his ambiguities their due attention. Thomas has long been subject to biographising critical lenses that read his work through his life. Where biography does not intrude, however, it is often replaced with a hermeneutic anxiety which seeks to define and establish his perceived symbols, translating them out of ‘difficulty’ or ‘obscurity’. This impulse to decode does Thomas a disservice, since his poetics derive their liveliness, and longevity, from the continuous possibility of new readerly perception. William Empson’s formative work on ambiguity is critical across my thesis, for the ways in which he describes ambiguity being generated and perceived, but also for his suggestion that readers must ‘honestly consider what seems important’ in reading ambiguity, between fly-away coincidence and deep-rooted poetic implication.

 My first chapter takes flirtation as a method for considering Thomas’s early work. These flirtations are literal as well as metaphorical: Thomas’s poetic self-fashioning was also involved with early romantic correspondence. Reading these two kinds of flirtation together, we can examine allusion, influence, drafts and self-definition in a new light, as Thomas flirting with potential poetic futures. Chapters two considers Thomas in relation to British surrealism. Thomas’s surrealism has hovered as a perennial accusation or suspicion, a problem which few have been able to satisfyingly solve. I centre sociality as British surrealism’s defining principle, rather than artistic or political cohesion; thinking of surrealism socially, then, we can better understand Thomas’s association with the movement. Chapter three tracks Thomas’s transition into the war years, as he became an established voice in later modernism. Questions of imitation and parody are pertinent here, raising the question of poetic intention in relation to conscious (or unconscious) influence, and a rapidly-changing world. My fourth chapter thinks about Thomas’s forms as they shift throughout his writing life, navigating his evolving poetics through contemporary critical evaluations of obscurity, form, and allusion. Chapter five considers Thomas’s voice, both his literal style of reading, and his literary and memorial legacies. This consideration of voice leads me to consider Thomas’s radio work, culminating in Under Milk Wood. It is in Under Milk Wood’s vocal ambiguities that Thomas shores up so many lifelong preoccupations: of flirtation, correspondence, form, voice, and performance.





Bowman, Deborah
Mellor, Leo


Dylan Thomas, poetry, surrealism, modernism, William Empson, ambiguity, flirtation, radio, voice, form, memory


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge