This tedious attempt to legitimize the relationship between King Charles II of England and Lucy Walter, one of his numerous mistresses, is painfully contrived. The dialogue is stilted, the characters unlikeable, the romantic scenes unbearably sappy, and the whole thing suffers from a pervasive moral ambiguity that causes painful cognitive dissonance. For example, Lucy and one of the king’s good friends have a one-night fling that results in pregnancy, but according to the author “both had the gift of a dedicated loyalty” and “were faithful to the core” (473). I guess I’m just one of those who “would not have understood, if they could have seen it made visible, the quality of the integrity that despite their failures gave such distinction to Lucy and her lover” (473). Integrity?! Is this backwards day?
Despite constant attempts to make Lucy appear the victim of malicious gossip, the political climate of the times, and her own big-hearted, “Welsh” emotionalism, I felt that even the author no longer liked the main character by the end of the book. And that was the romanticized, fictional version of her…
[Why I read it: my friend, Alison, passed it along to me, [rightly] thinking that I would enjoy the Welsh references.]
There is a good reason why this massive book of almost 700 pages is not a very enjoyable read–it was originally written in Welsh for Welsh people and this English translation is merely a concession to popular demand. Davies is very thorough and efficient, providing one or two solid facts in every single sentence, but he doesn’t really make the topic interesting. I felt completely lost just a few hundred years in and failed to get a good overall grasp of Wales’ basic history. And, since I am not knowledgeable about Britain’s political parties, the last couple chapters were almost completely incomprehensible to me. Overall, the book is impressive in scope and makes a good reference, but contains too many details to foster a basic understanding of the topic and does not make the history come alive.
Davies’ portrayal of Welsh history is rather grim–full of poverty, oppression, strikes, and unemployment. While he is not critical of Socialism (which has historically been very popular in Wales), its application did not paint an appealing picture. Perhaps it is just the American in me, but I think I would rather be oppressed by a wealthy coterie of selfish capitalists than earn a government-mandated wage, working in a government-run industry and living in government housing.
Near the end of the book, I became curious about the relative size of Wales, both in area and population. I guessed it would have about as many people as California and cover as much land as Washington State. Shockingly, it turns out that Wales is about 1/9 the size of Washington and has less than 1/12 the population of California (that’s less than half the population of Washington)!
[Why I read it: it was a birthday gift in anticipation of a trip to Wales.]
Dylan Thomas has opened my eyes to the subtleties inherent to the act of reading. For example, I used to think that I enjoyed reading. I now know better–what I actually enjoy is understanding what I read. Things I would enjoy reading more than the poems of Dylan Thomas include bathroom graffiti, YouTube comments, Wikipedia citations, heck, even dictionaries (complete ones–not any that Thomas has already mangled with scissors and glue, in search of inspiration).
I would have saved myself a lot of boredom and frustration had I only read the end notes first, where Jones excretes this particularly repellent drivel on the topic of Thomas’ notoriously indecipherable poem “Altarwise by owl-light”:
…the poem, in spite of its length, sustains a single metaphor, and it would be vain to seek in it logic, narration or message in the usual sense of these words, though they are all present metaphorically. Comprehension here is irrelevant, and to ‘translate’ the poetry into other words, to ‘interpret’ it in other thoughts, would be like straightening out the contours of a drawing and demonstrating its significance by measuring the result in inches (263).
I’ll tell you what else is present (and not metaphorically either)–bullshit. Now, I don’t go around art galleries with a tape measure, but after reading straight through 191 of Thomas’ poems, I’d be more than willing to demonstrate the significance of his drinking problem by calculating the number of beers he must have drunk in order to compose such intoxicated, nonsensical ramblings.
Don’t believe me? Please review Exhibit A–two 10-line excerpts from the book:
Because the pleasure-bird whistles after the hot wires,
Shall the blind horse sing sweeter?
Convenient bird and beast lie lodged to suffer
The supper and knives of a mood.
In the sniffed and poured snow on the tip of the tongue of the year
That clouts the spittle like bubbles with broken rooms,
An enamoured man alone by the twigs of his eyes, two fires,
Camped in the drug-white shower of nerves and food,
Savours the lick of the times through a deadly wood of hair
In a wind that plucked a goose…
His striped and noon maned tribe striding to holocaust,
Always good luck, praised the finned in the feather,
Grave men, near death who see with blinding sight
And the hewn coils of his trade perceives
Too proud to die, broken and blind he died.
And the gestures of unageing love
Flower, flower the people’s fusion,
And tells the page the empty ill.
There can be few tears left: Electra wept
Believe, believe and be saved, we cry, who have no faith…
One of these excerpts is from a single poem, the other is comprised of ten lines, drawn at random from ten different poems (with the ending punctuation changed on a few of the lines for “flow”). I’ll tell you which is which at the end of this post, just in case you wish to go back and give all that lovely metaphorical logic, narration and message another read-through before making your guess.
After two weeks of slogging, word by painful word, through the morass that is Thomas’ oeuvre, I feel entitled to rage, rage against the dying of my brain cells. However, I do realise that I am constitutionally unsuited to enjoy modern poetry. It took ten years for me to learn to appreciate unrhymed poetry and five more years to learn to enjoy some of it. Small wonder that I found little to like in this collection. The reason I did not give this book my lowest rating is because of my own aforementioned shortcomings with regard to modern poetry, the fact that I didn’t understand most of the book (so it’s difficult to give a reasoned opinion of it) and most importantly, that I did come across a few genuinely beautiful poems and ideas, glittering like gems amongst the ravings.
[Why I read it: since I am teaching myself Welsh and hope to visit Wales next year, I kept coming across references in my reading to Thomas, Wales’ most famous and celebrated poet.]
By the way, the first excerpt is unaltered, the second excerpt is random. Did you figure it out on your own? Leave a comment!