The Notebook, a red Zenith Exercise Book, found in a Tesco bag by Louie King, a former servant of Dylan Thomas’s mother in law, contains fifteen and a half poems. The half poem being the first five sonnets of the ten comprising ‘Altarwise by owl-light’. The poems from Thomas’s first two collections, 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty-five Poems (1936) are mostly fair copies of ‘finished’ poems, written on the right hand side, or recto, pages. There are some missing pages and some occasional crossings out, less than one per cent of which were undecipherable. Written between May 1934 and August 1935, the notebook contains no unpublished work. However, it does reveal a break between the ‘process’ poetry he had begun in 1933 and the non-referential poems that came next. The Notebook allows more accurate dating of compositions, with poems, such as, ‘I dreamed my genesis’, ‘Seven’ and the sonnets of ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ being dated.
At the end of ‘Seven’, dated 26th October 1934 and underlined, there is a second longer horizontal line between two short vertical lines in the centre of the page, indicating an end or break. The date is significant, being the day before Thomas’s twentieth birthday, and the editors think that this marks a conscious decision to end a writing phase and embark on a new style. His birthday held special significance and was the focus of several of his October poems. He is also reading James Joyce closely at this time. There is, though, no conscious change of style marked within Twenty-five Poems, and so this is evidence of a conscious change in poetic style. Further evidence is available in the form of the increased number of deletions and there are some other discoveries in the form of an unknown original stanza two in ‘Fifteen’. The deleted stanza is more nebulous than the replacement. He changes genders and uses personal pronouns and in the sixth line ‘white’ becomes ‘black’ and the overuse of ‘half’ is removed.
The Notebook reveals the extent of Thomas’s use of traditional Welsh poetry, cynghanedd, the short patterning of vowels and consonants. He draws upon the wok of medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilm, who used the englyn form, sangiad, the parenthetical phrase, dyfalu, hyperbolic comparison and description, and torymadroddy, inverted construction. He is quite clearly using more than alliteration and assonance in his sound effects.
Thomas scholar, Ralph Maud, speculated on the existence of ten notebooks and the editors see a missing notebook between notebook two and three as well as the most likely continuation of ‘Alterwise by owl-light’ in another notebook. Given Thomas’s highly peripatetic lifestyle such notebooks could still be extant.
The Notebook and handwritten notes, including one where he describes himself as having ‘no respectable occupation, no permanent address’, are fully annotated so that all differences are accounted for and some debated points of punctuation are now conclusively resolved. The Fifth Notebook contains facsimiles and full transcripts of the originals, which are annotated and accompanied by editorial notes. The notes are comprehensive and come with an extensive bibliography divided into several sections. This is exemplary scholarship, easy to navigate and utterly illuminating.
David Caddy 29th October 2020