Monday, 14 October 2013

The Humbert in the Park: More Palimpsestic Wordplay? (Part 2.)

I have no doubt they’ll be many who’ll regard a niggling footnote to that schoolroom classic, The Hunchback in the Park (1941), as the depths of bad taste in Dylan Thomas’s centennial year.

Sorry. Profoundly sorry. But it’s that very centenary that’s prompted my rereading of Kensington Gardens in War-Time (1939-1940) by Humbert Wolfe to be again struck (after more than thirty years) by the significant concordances one can draw between the earlier poem sequence and Thomas’s published poem revised in the year that followed (1941) from a tentative outline first sketched in 1932. 

The English, who as a rule disdain ungovernable emotion stirred when the red mist is behind the eyes, are wary of the hwyl of portentous sonorities. (For instance, ‘the heydays of his eyes’ in Fern Hill is more soggy journalese than fresh coinage, in my view, and has a slackness that diminishes tauter lines.) On balance, we English cleave towards Miltonic cut glass in diction.

That same native wariness I confess must have bothered me three decades ago for I find in my copy of Kensington Gardens in War-Time certain pencilled underlinings that point to eerie correlations in Thomas’s later text with the power to disturb me even today. 

Lest we forget, it should be remarked that both poems were completed in the foreshadowing of Britain’s Darkest Hour, so a mood of national crisis – quickened by martial energy – unsurprisingly pervades (in varying degrees) the texture of both works, with neither shrinking from the light cast by the ‘perverted science’ of Nazism.

Unthinkable traducement? Not so! Because it is my belief that these sorrowing war-time poems by Wolfe (his last, for he died in January 1940) and the Hunchback by Thomas share a common thread and, more than that, an affinity with the victims of Hitler’s genocidal policies ... Juden, Kommunisten, Behinderte ... the Handicapped.

Examination of the post-1940 additions and enhancements to Thomas’s Hunchback draft from his 1932 Notebook (first composed when he was aged eighteen) demonstrate uncanny similarities of figurations, which derive it is my belief from harrowing Press reports of the oppressed Untermenschen when refracted through the lens of imagist poets who had come to regard the urban Park as a sinister microcosm of Europe at war.

Dylan Thomas’s Significant Afterthoughts.

Note : the lines by Thomas quoted below are post-1940 additions (i.e. added after the publication of Kensington Gardens in War-Time).

Page 4 (Kensington Gardens 1940) : ‘The ships that sail/the Round Pond are ..
Line 10 (Hunchback 1941) :  In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship

Page 10 (Kensington Gardens 1940) : … and Sealyhams/tugging their leads/until they nearly/strangle.
Lines 11/12 (Hunchback 1941) : Slept at night in a dog kennel/But nobody chained him up.

Pages 19 and 24 (Kensington Gardens 1940) : Between the oak-tree and the elm … the power/to make the ash/a single flower,
Lines 32/33 (Hunchback 1941) : Made … a woman figure without fault/Straight as a young elm

There are other figurations of a similar concordance too numerous to cite here in this modest conspectus.

Yet, to me, the most ominous affinities between these two works, separated by a year in composition (re. Thomas’s amendments) are to be found on page 14 of Kensington Gardens in War-Time where Wolfe, a Jew by birth, points to an émigré, a woman seated in the park, to make explicit the transformation of gardens from pleasure grounds into a place of torment for the Untermenschen ...
Nobody thought the
worse of her …
although she sat
all day and read
a German paper,
where it said …
how they killed her
children in the dark
corner of a Berlin
Compare, then, lines 21 and 22 of Hunchback in the Park 1941 …
[Boys] Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
In my opinion, in any scholarly consideration of Dylan Thomas’s beefed up adjustments to a poem drafted a decade earlier, the Zeitgeist swirling above London in 1941 is not fully reckoned with.  Thomas’s introduction of martial elements (‘the groves were blue with sailors’) and images of captivity (‘After the locks and chains’) were never present in his original draft, although Wolfe makes plain, in countless examples of new ways of seeing, that the familiar urban landscape of the park is to be regarded as a potential prison, or martial compound threatened by enemy occupation or evacuation (‘All along the Broad Walk/listen how the soldiers talk’).   

Palimpsestic precursor?

I darkly suspect there is an unconscious absorption of many of Wolfe’s themes into the rejigged Hunchback of 1941. For Thomas, these emanate from a prescient cycle of poems composed by a dying Jew (albeit a naturalised Englishman and convert to the Church of England). In Wolfe’s foresight so early in WW2, sensible to the shock waves of the Holocaust when many were deaf to the warnings, he resembles a fellow assimilated Jew, Brian Howard, a precocious poet, who foresaw, long before most of his contemporaries, the dangers of fascism and was one of the first to denounce Hitler’s Nazism as organised barbarism of the vilest kind.

As Wolfe writes on the final page of his Kensington Gardens in War-Time, his beloved park in the blackout closes its gates on a requiem for lost innocence …

Here, for example, is a Park
clearly intended for the dark.
This foreboding mood with its inevitable rhyme-scheme is irresistible … and one that Thomas was to discover only AFTER Wolfe’s Kensington Gardens in War-Time had been published.   

Footnote 16 October 2014

I forgot to mention that, according to a recent correspondent of mine, Thomas wrote a pastiche of a Humbert Wolfe poem in his comic novel The Death of the King’s Canary (written circa 1940), which certainly is additional evidence that Thomas was intimately acquainted with Wolfe’s work. Further examination of Thomas’s correspondence also reveals that in 1933, in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson, he wrote, ‘. . . I have the collected poems of Manley Hopkins, Stephen Crane, Yeats, de la Mare, Osbert Sitwell, Wilfred Owen, W. H. Auden, & T. S. Eliot; volumes of poetry by Aldous Huxley, Sacheverell & Edith Sitwell,  Edna St. Vincent Millay, D. H. Lawrence, Humbert Wolfe . . .

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