Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Stealing Dylan

The manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist began with a piece of literary appropriation. The terrorist quoted the famous villanelle that Dylan Thomas wrote, perhaps for his ailing father, in 1947. In the early '90s, the same lines were popular with NZ politicians.
When he gave his poem the refrain 'Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light' Thomas was arguing that death was natural, but that it should nevertheless be resisted. The heroes of Thomas' oeuvre are Promethean figures, destined to fight the gods & lose.

Dylan Thomas was too in love with the sound of words & the taste of whiskey to take a sustained interest in politics. He sometimes claimed to be a communist, out of a desire to shock his interlocutors, but never took part in the left activism that thrived during his lifetime. And although Thomas is often associated nowadays with Welsh nationalism, he was prone to denigrate rather than praise his homeland. 'Wales, country of my ancestors, & they can keep it' he once said. The poet craved success & fame in metropolitan London & New York.
After its publication in Thomas' Collected Poems in 1952, 'Do not go gentle...' became his most famous work. In the early '90s, it suddenly began to emerge from the mouths of conservative NZ politicians.
In 1990 Jim Bolger's National Party won a landslide election victory, after promising to reverse the radical free market policies of Labour. When Bolger reneged on this promise, a group of his own MPs, led by Rob Muldoon & Muldoon's protege Winston Peters, began to oppose him.
In 1991 & '92, Winston Peters addressed a series of huge meetings of angry elderly people. One meeting filled Auckland's Town Hall. As he urged resistance to the benefit cuts & other neo-liberal policies of Bolger, Peters quoted the refrain from Dylan Thomas' villanelle to the packed hall.
Late in the winter of 1992, in the midst of a recession & mass unemployment he had blamed on Bolger's policies, Rob Muldoon died. The former PM's funeral at Auckland's Town Hall was a curious mixture of anti-Bolger protest & formal remembrance.
I was at Muldoon's funeral - I was a high school journalist, & was motivated by the chance of a trip into town, as much as by the event. I remember the tension in the town hall, as Bolger & Peters, who were fighting over the future of the National Party, sat on stage together.
Peters turned his eulogy for Muldoon into an attack on the Bolger government. When Bolger rose to speak, a squad of Black Power members jumped up at the back of the hall, performed a haka for their friend Muldoon, & aimed derogatory noises at the PM. The crowd laughed.
Bolger was never an exciting orator, but he found a way to strike back at his enemy. As he paid tribute to Muldoon, he quoted the refrain from Dylan Thomas' villanelle. Muldoon, he said, had raged against the dying of the light. Peters looked aggrieved.
In '92 I was a young poetry fanatic. I had a copy of Thomas' Collected Poems, which I read & reread obsessively on buses & in cafes. I thought of Thomas as the ultimate Bohemian, a man beyond tawdry matters like politics. It was strange to hear him claimed by Peters & Bolger.
The Christchurch terrorist seems to have been attracted to the melancholy of Thomas' villanelle. Like Oswald Spengler & many other far right thinkers, the terrorist seems to have considered 'Western civilisation' was doomed to decline. He wanted to 'rage' against this 'fact'.


Blogger Richard said...

Scott, interesting. Peters is ambiguous. I didn't know the killer had used that. It has become almost a cliche that poem.

Thomas was not political as such but a great poet of his kind.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

THis man is an internet troll. He is one of those disgusting people knonwn as assholes. So entitled and full of toxic venom from the fake alt left. Its always all about him. He is abludger off others. His family and his friennds pay for him. He earns nothing. lazy layabout

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