Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dylan Thomas, His Father and My Father

Dylan Thomas!--I remember you as a child growing up with your
 books kept in the shelves of my father--relatives and friends and colleagues
 of him always goading him to finish his Ph.D Thesis on you with my father
smiling away the suggestions in his characteristic manner utilising his sense of humour perfectly to deflect attention on himself. They will enquire my father about you in familiar tones: 'How is Dylan Thomas doing?' 'How much Dylan Thomas has progressed?' My father's visits to Delhi University Library, National Library, Calcutta and other places in the late 1960s and the early 1970s to do his research on you were part of the folklore of our family and his friends. Your incomplete life had its shadow on the incompleteness
of my father's work--that way you have been a complete family member......Kumar Vikram

There is this famous poem 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' by the Welsh-English poet Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914-9 November 1953) written on his father's (David Johan Thomas) death. Strangely, Dylan Thomas for me is synonymous with my father, now no longer with us since the last four months, now resting under that "Good Night".

My father did his Ph.D on Dylan Thomas under Prof. K N Sinha--researched and wrote over five years, completed it but did not submit, did not earn his doctorate--finding it more correct to only teach sincerely and contribute intellectually as well as on the ground to the Socialist and Sarvodaya and Teachers' movements in Bihar. Much later, he would say Dylan Thomas was not the poet for a Ph.D thesis...I do not know...but any mention of the name of Dylan Thomas reminds me of my father...here I reproduce what Dylan Thomas wrote on the death of his father-- a very moving verse indeed.Once my father told me that Dylan had a very good voice and he recited his poems so well that his recitations got turned into a commercial, consumerist item--the people made money out of that, but the poet's personal life suffered. And hooked on drinks and indisciplined life, he made his final exit rather too early.

My father's notes on Dylan Thomas and his comments on his verses on the margins of Thomas' books have been like some permanent features of our households with which we all grew up--the images lingering in our minds. See below. In fact the entire book is full with comments written on the margins, at the top, bottom with references made like a student, like a researcher, like a teacher, like an explorer.

Here I reproduce first two paras of a poem by Hindi poet Nagarjun translated by me sometime back to pay a tribute. The poem is titled 'Unko Pranam' and can be translated as 'Obeisance to Them':

The work that remained incomplete
I pay my obeisance to them.

Those whose dedicated arrows
Proved either blunted or went astray;
The brave who emptied their quiver
Much before the battle came to the end
-- Obeisance to them!

The ones who tried to cross the oceans
In their little boats;
And themselves got submerged therein
Their wishes remaining unarticulated for ever
-- Obeisance to them!

My Father
My father, Prof. Arun Kumar Sinha (born 27th August 1940 at Saramohanpur, Darbhanga), taught English at Langat Singh College, Bihar University, Muzaffarpur. He joined in 1961 M S College, Motihari, Champaran as a Lecturer in English and in 1975 sought transfer to Langat Singh College, his alma mater, which was established in 1899 and from where he had done his MA in English in 1957-59 batch, and retired as University Professor and its Principal in 2000. L. S. College also celebrated its centenary year (1999-2000) during his stint as the Principal. It may be relevant to mention that Prof. Sinha was the elected President of L S College Teachers' Association for four times in the 1980s and 1990s and was twice elected General secretary of the Combined Teachers' Association of L.S. College and Bihar University PG Departments' College and University Teachers in the early 1980s. While in the 1980s and 1990s he served as the Chief Editor of the L S College Magazine 'Vaishali', in the 1990s, he was the Head of the Department of English of the College till his retirement. He passed away on 27th-28th November 2011 at Patna. (please see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-11-30/patna/30458045_1_sinha-condolence-meeting-social-activist).

The present magnificent building of my father’s college, Langat Singh College, Muzaffarpur, was designed on Balliol College of Oxford (see below) and was constructed between 1915 & 1919. The present site of the college was selected by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, then Professor in the English Department in this College, and later the first President of India The English post-graduate and undergraduate teachings were jointly conducted at this College till 1984 before bifurcation of P.G. departments and L S College. The architecture, however, also seems to have used Islamic style domes and its red sandstone colour artifice gave it an identity of its own as different from the Balliol College.
Balliol College on Broad Street, Oxford, London. Its Catholic features were not used at the top end in the Langat Singh College building, the architecture of which was 'Indianised'.
Later in his career, Prof. Sinha wrote a fine longish nearly 100 page introduction to 'Huckleberry Finn' and did an Intensive Study of T S Eliot--both published as books by Spectrum Books, New Delhi, the first one with the text of the novel. I co-authored the Eliot book with him. He wrote on long poems like The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday and also 'Ariel Poems' and I wrote on Prufrock volume and POEMS 1920 volume, The Hollow Men. The 85 page Introduction was largely by him, with myself chipping with 10 pages. It is nearly 500+ pages one of its kind study with intensive annotations and critical essays on individual poems written over a period of 6-7 years published so elegantly by Madam Kalpana Rajaram, Editor and Publisher of Spectrum. I also collaborated with him to translate the monograph of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar from Hindi to English with many long passages in verse from Dinkar for Sahitya Akademi. He was the main translator. He translated 6 chapters, while I contributed 1 --published by the Akademi to commemmorate the birth centenary year of Dinkar in 2007.

His unpublished works include a full-length intensive study of 'Four Quartets', a novel in English, many critical essays, socio-political writings etc. He also wrote a long critical introduction to E.M Foster's A Passage to India for the Course material of the English (H) conducted by the Distance Education Directorate of B R A Bihar University, Muzaffarpur. He also guided a Ph.D dissertation titled  'Charaterisation as Skill in the Plays of G. B Shaw.' For nearly 15 years, he gave several serious academic lectures on Literary and General topics to the college and university teachers participating in Orientation and Refresher Courses conducted by the Bihar University branch of UGC's Academic Staff College since its inception in 1987.

I think he had imbibed that true and complex spirit of the 60s--idealist, rebellious, down-to-earth and carrying that streak of detachment....That made him decide not to finish his doctorate on Dylan Thomas, the same streak that made him decide not to join Indian Foreign Service (Allied) on selection in 1964, among many other things that we would generally be tempted to cling on to...

It is worthwhile to reproduce what Prof. Arun Kumar Sinha wrote about Dylan Thomas in the introduction to the Eliot book under the sub-heading, “Eliot’s Contemporaries and ‘Successors’”:

When Dylan Thomas (1941-53) died at the age of 39, there were more people who claimed that they knew him than those who said that they had read his poetry. But Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who had initially brought his poetry to the notice of the reading public, said in a telegram: “To the greatest poet of the younger generation lying in his grave I send devotion undying as his poetry is deathless. ” Ironically, death and sex are the two leading obsessions of Thomas’s poetry. His first book, 18 Poems, was published in 1934 when Auden, Spender and C. Day Lewis, all poets of social relevance, were the best representative young poets. Thomas immediately made his mark because his poems had an unusual verbal compulsion, and dealt with the fears and desires of the youth. In the poem ‘Before I knocked’ from his first collection, the speaker is a child in the womb who traces his genesis to the beginning of the Creation and, in the last few lines, is seen as identified with Christ himself :
You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.

The tone and the vocabulary in the above lines are very close to those of Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday which appeared a few years before Thomas started writing poetry. The death-in-life syndrome that hangs over The Waste Land was almost adopted by Thomas as one of the leading themes of his poetry. In one of the most celebrated early poems of Thomas, we find him drawing comfort from the fact that the powers that control the life and death of human beings are the same that control those of the natural objects. So fear and security run parallel to each other in Thomas’s view of life. The opening stanza of the poem referred above runs thus:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

But for Thomas there was no journey to paradise through hell; there was no tunnel of boredom through which he had to pass. His journey to the gates of paradise was faster than that of Dante or Eliot. It was so because this Bard from Wales remained an Animula in the worldly sense and that’s why when he died young in America, where he had gone for lectures and broadcasts so that he could get money to live on, his passing away evoked profound sorrow.
(‘An Introduction to T. S Eliot and His Work’, T S Eliot: an intensive study of selected poems, Spectrum Books Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2005, p. 58-59)
Here is the poem by Dylan Thomas in this backdrop.


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

My father's notings on this poem in his own handwriting (below) says: 'To his dying father- the silence of the father is being objected to by the son--the silence of the father perhaps indicates the incapacity of man ever to know what is death.' (the last word is not clear, it may be even 'lost')

For the line 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light', the comments are: 'The value of rebellion is praised."

How should I respond to these notings written above...I do not know.
My father's notings on this poem taken from Dylan Thomas: Collected Poems 1934-1952 published by J M Dent & Sons Ltd, London (first pub. in 1952, 15th reprint in 1964), p. 116--these comments were perhaps written sometime in 1968-1969 while he was doing research on the poet and was a Lecturer in English at M S College, Motihari, Bihar.

The title page of the copy of my father's book

My father's signature on the bottom of the half-title page of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems

I have noticed a strange coincidence as I write this. Dylan Thomas’ poem was published when he was 38, when he lost his father. And as I write these lines, I find that I am also 38. You can listen to Dylan Thomas reading this poem in his mellifluous voice so characteristic of him at the link http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377. However, as a good measure, I have myself recorded the poem in my own voice which I am unable to upload due to some technical error. I do not seek any resemblance of the tone and style of Thomas’ own recitation. The only resemblance that can be drawn is that while Thomas learned how to recite poetry during his young days from his father, who was an English teacher, I myself grew with the images of my father reading poems aloud in his loud, clear and ringing voice just as a way to draw joy from the verses. He would always tell us that poetry needed to be read aloud in order to understand and appreciate it better—a practice that he followed till the very end.