The hand that signed the paper

 


Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper,

Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours,

Arthur James Balfour

One wonders if, in the long, dark night of his eternal soul, Arthur James Balfour regrets the short letter he penned to Lord Walter Rothschild, of the international Rothschild financial dynasty, MP and Britain’s first Jewish peer. He remains a hero to Zionists and a villain to Arabs and their respective supporters. The brief document hat bears his name is seen the beginning of what today is widely considered the world’s most intractable conflict. On that, if on little else, Israelis and Palestinians agree.

The Sykes Picot Agreement of  May 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the first, divvying up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, the second, ostensibly laying the foundation stone for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, were effectively redundant by war’s end, as other agendas interposed. Yet, their misbegotten shots ricocheted through the twentieth century and on into the twenty first.

After 100 years, the two sides in the most closely studied conflict on earth are still battling over the past. Truth and reconciliation, let alone closure, are remote fantasies. Unlike slavery, apartheid, the Irish famine, and western colonialism – all, at least formally, consigned to the dust heap of history – the Arab-Jewish conflict between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan shows no signs of abating. Indeed, it remains as bitter as ever, stuck in a cul de sac of continued occupation and political deadlock.

Here, in this beautiful, ancient, tortured land, the past is not another country. History is alive, exhilarating, toxic, intensely political, and bitterly divisive – and it will be revisited with passion and anger on this resonant anniversary.

In That Howling Infinite presents here three quite different commemorative analyses of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy.

The Guardian presents an historical overview in its “Long Read” essay, Britain’s Calamatous Promise. 

Ha’aretz discusses how Balfour’s legacy is toxic for both for Israelis and Palestinians,  how it nourishes the idea that somehow the conflict between the sides was caused by external powers and can be solved by them. Palestinians  maintain the myth that the Jews are somehow a foreign transplant that must be excised whilst Israelis persist in endeavouring to convince the world of the justice of our cause, as an alternative to actually making it in to a just one. “Lord Balfour did not give Palestine to anyone. Even if he had never written Lord Rothschild a letter, there would still be two nations with claims to this land. Their only hope of ever finding a way to share it is by letting go of these bankrupt historical myths”.

In The Original No – Why Arabs Rejected Zionism and Why it Matters, Natasha Gill examines the conflict from an original dispute resolution perspective. She argues that a viable peace process does not require either party to embrace or even recognize the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. It requires that both have an informed understanding of that narrative, and accept that it cannot be wished away, but must be recognized and acknowledged in the negotiation process.

Gill concludes: “Schoolyard choruses – “they started it” and “they are worse than us” – cannot serve as an interpretive framework for a 130-year-old conflict, or form the basis of national policy”.  She is referring here to Israel, but it applies equally to the Palestinians..

A common thread of the three articles referred to above that of reversing out of the dead-end of competing  and apparently irreconcilable perspectives and narratives  – my story versus yours, my feelings versus yours, my hurt versus yours – and finding common ground to move forward. This is indeed an important aspect of conflict resolution per se.  It is also about allaying assumptions and prejudices with regard to your competitor, opponent, or enemy, your mutual fears and suspicions.

Many would argue that the ‘peace process’ has been clinically dead for three years, and moribund for nearly three decades more. With Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition government contemplating the annexation of Area C, and ageing Mahmoud Abbas’ demise imminent, physically or polically, whichever happens first, time is running out for a just and equitable settlement that all sides can live with, no matter how begrudgingly.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper

The following are some brief thoughts on the destructive aftermath of the Balfour Declaration.

The irony of the present Middle East is that so many many of its problems – its intractable conflicts, its porous and indefensible borders, its mosaics of coexisting, and at times competing and conflicting faiths and ethnicities, its artificially created states with shallow political and institutional roots, its unreconciled and conflicting allegiances to family clan, tribe, sect and country, its atavistic attachment to the ‘ra-is’, the big man – can be traced back to two documents initiated in the midst of a European war, the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration .

Two documents that were driven and  shaped by the exigencies of that war and the planning for the peace that would follow it – and influenced by the diplomatic, strategic and imperial interests of European powers engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with hardly a thought for the millions of souls whose fate they were deciding, people who were in the most part, totally unaware and ignorant of the waves that were about to break over them. Hence the quotation from Dylan Thomas at the head of this post.

There is a school of thought that holds that the Balfour Declaration, like the Sykes Picot Agreement before it, was the cynical, opportunistic, duplicitous and predictably disastrous outcome of imperial skulduggery that set the Arab Middle East on a fateful course.  And yet, others hold that the die were already cast, and that HMG’s formal favour for a Jewish national home was aspirational rather than practicable, let alone realistic, designed to please the influential and wealthy Jewish diaspora – and particularly that in the USA, a late-entrant to the European war. Both, of course, has unintended consequences that led to a century of turbulence (see The Economist‘s article of the centenary of Sykes Picot).

Zionism was already on its determined way. It had grown out of the circumstances that prevailed in Europe at the time when Theodore Herzl was working on his project. Pogroms in the east, the Dreyfus case in France, and the conviction that antisemitism was indelible in the European psyche: Jews would never be fully accepted anywhere, no matter how well they assimilated. Hence the need for a Jewish national home. But he and his early Zionists were not initially exclusively focused on Palestine – there were vague visions of Jewish settlements in Kenya and Latin America. But the old, atavistic – secular Zionists would not have used the term “messianic” – yearning for Jerusalem got the better of them. It was the historical itch that couldn’t be scratched. And the Ottoman government was, as the time, quite amenable to the idea of enterprising, tax-paying settlers.

But, the notion of an actual Jewish state was quite clearly in the minds of the politically-aware and motivated Eastern Europeans, however, and this, augmented by a socialistic fervour common to  fin de siècle dissidents and refugees meant hat that there was little doubt about their intentions from the beginning. Regardless of the Balfour Declaration, the endgame was Eretz Israel – although those early pioneers hadn’t conceived a name for their ‘national home’, and indeed did not  do so until the very last minutes of the Mandate when David Ben Gurion made an executive decision.

Balfour did not actually commit to doing anything substantive. “Best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object” was as far as he went. It was the qualifier that followed that has forever branded “perfidious Albion”: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.

The Palestinians Arabs were wise to the Zionist settlers’ long game, raising their concerns with the Ottomans and, post-Balfour, the British Mandate authorities, and rising in revolt when those concerns were ignored – only to be subdued by British arms. During the tumultuous and violent Mandate years, they were out-played, outwitted, out-gunned, never really having a chance against the well organized and determined Yishuv with its shadow government, institutions, and, most critically, military forces. And they were badly let down by the quality of their own leadership, by the political infighting, disunity, and opportunism, and a patriarchal political system that stymied the development of a coherent national consciousness and institutional framework to match that of the Jews.

The British too were outplayed and our-maneuvered, both before the Second World War and during the years leading up to 1948. As with India through the thirties and forties, lacking a cogent policy and a clear vision, Britain hamfistedly endeavoured to please everyone and ultimately satisfied no one. “Best intentions”, and “muddling through” concluded with “cut and run”, resulting in duplicity, desperation, death and destruction. The vagueness of Balfour’s promise came back to haunt them with a vengeance.

As events in Germany gave added urgency to the Zionist project, Ben Gurion and his colleagues adopted a wise if opportunist strategy of siding with the British in the war against Hitler. Arabs, like the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, in Palestine, and the Iraqi military junta led by Rashid Ali al Gaylani and Egyptian military conspirators, threw their lot in with the Third Reich, and indeed conspired against Britain. A bad move, paralleling, as it did, the Shoah. World opinion, or more precisely, the opinion of those who in those days controllled the new-born United Nations – the USA and the Soviet Union – weighed in behind the Zionists.

The Palestinian people, as most commentators have agreed, were essentially abandoned. By the British, by their Arab neighbours, by their own leaders. When all attempts by Britain to resolve the matter of Palestine by partition failed, and the Atlee government decided to abandon its mandate (in much the same hurried and chaotic manner as it had departed India the year before : see my post, Freedom at Midnight), the Arab inhabitants of the towns and villages of the area destined to become a Jewish state were disunited, unarmed and unorganized, and easy prey for the well-trained and determined Jewish military forces tasked by the Jews’ political leadership with the mission of seizing, clearing, and claiming The Land.

By the time neighbouring Arab armies entered Palestine, in numbers too small to make any difference to the military situation, Arab suburbs of the coastal cities has beeen emptied, hundreds of villages erased from the map, and over half a million people had fled to Egyptian Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and what is today the West Bank. The Palestinian state envisaged by British and the UN was strangled in its crib by King Abdullah of Jordan who seized for himself those areas not claimed by the new state of Israel, including Jerusalem, his hearts desire.

Almost seventy years have passed, and the Palestinians are abandoned still, by the world, by their Arab neighbours, and by their own leaders. Meanwhile, Zionism has moved on and has morphed into something much more sinister. Who knows how it will all play out.

Paul Hemphill, October 2017

The Hand That Signed the Paper – Dylan Thomas

Never has as a poem been so precise in description of cause and consequence of great powers’ agreements, treaties, and declarations than that published by Dylan Thomas in 1936, a year replete with its own calamities:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

 

 

 

Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition

Seventy years ago India and Pakistan came into being, the first of the tumbling dice that were the longtime colonies of European nations. Over the next two decades, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium would retreat from their possessions in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. The importance August 15th 1947 cannot be understated, and its echoes reverberate still.

In an earlier post, Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan, I discussed the process by which this came about. Below are links to two articles published today which examine the legacy of partition, a legacy that, as these pieces demonstrate, it still subject to much debate.

Writing in the New York Times, Pankaj Mishra deconstructs Jawahawal Nehru’s famous declaration of independence on 15th August 1947: “…one can, of course, mourn this August 15 as marking the end of India’s tryst with destiny or, more accurately, the collapse of our exalted ideas about ourselves. But a sober reckoning with the deep malaise in India can be bracing, too. For it confirms that the world as we have known it, molded by the beneficiaries of both Western imperialism and anti-imperialist nationalism, is crumbling, and that in the East as well as the West, all of us are now called to fresh struggles for freedom, equality and dignity”.

Anil Dharker, writing in The Independent, paints a rosier picture. India emerged from the trauma of partition and proposed. prospered. “Seventy years on, that’s something to be proud of. Even more is the fact that the idea of India as one country has survived, in spite of the country’s huge diversity and population, which makes it akin to a continent. Numbers confirm this amazing story: India’s population is now over 1.2 billion, spread over 29 states and seven union territories. There are 22 official languages and very many more dialects. Each state has its own language, culture and cuisine”.

And yet, he concludes, India has not yet realized the ecumenical promise of Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny”: “Not even the most flag-waving Indian however, will claim that everything is perfect. The caste system refuses to die out; Dalits (the term used for untouchables) still face upper-caste persecution; they and minorities (especially Muslims) remain equal citizens only on paper; conservative and orthodox men still resist women’s fight for equality; the criminal justice system and the police still favour the affluent; reactionary religious elements still create tensions and face the future backwards”.

WH Auden composed a poem commemorating the events of 1947.

Specifically, he wrote of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer appointed by the British government to determine the borders of the new states. It was he who drew the fateful lines on the map of British India. An ironically objective narrative which recounts the story just as Collins and Lapierre tell it in Freedom at Midnight. It is, perhaps by design and intent, reminiscent of a celebrated poem by Dylan Thomas, and indeed, to paraphrase the Welsh Bard, “the hand that signed the paper” felled a city and bred a fever.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan

The partition of India, seventy years ago this month, is at the heart of the identity of two of the world’s most most populous nations, branded painfully and indelibly onto their consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.

The paradox of Indian (and Pakistani) independence is that the long and torturous struggle for freedom was built upon nonviolence and civil disobedience (led by, and indeed personified by Mahatma Ghandi), and concluded with the peaceful handover of authority from an impoverished Britain that was downsizing its Empire, and yet ended with the partition of the Indian subcontinent into a majority Hindu state and a Muslim one.

The British army departed India with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties, and yet partition brought violent death to between one and two million souls, and the largest enforced mass movement of people in modern history – an estimated fifteen million people were uprooted as communities that had lived together for millennia disintegrated in bloodshed as Muslims fled to the new Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled from that Muslim state to India. The Partition was one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th Century, a century that was replete with such.

Britain’s exit from India has been well-documented, and yet, is still subject to debate and disagreement. The recent film The Viceroys House, dramatizes the critical months leading up to August 14th 1947, and the countdown to “freedom at Midnight” the title of the celebrated book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1975). The film is centered around Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, and his wife Edwina. It one of history’s great ironies that this aristocratic socialite, sportsman, and decorated war-hero, scion of European royals and cousin to the King of England, should be appointed by a Labour prime minister to bring down the curtain on “the jewel in the imperial crown”, ending over three hundred years of British rule, and to usher in a socialist Indian government and a brand-new Muslim state.

It is a story replete with depressing ironies. The atavistic poisons released by partition resulted in the assassination of the Mahatma at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist. Mountbatten, who had his ship sink under him in the Mediterranean during WW2, and travelled unscathed through a dangerous and disintegrating India, died at sea at the hands of the IRA just over twenty years later. Chilling omens for the modern world – as Mark Twain reportedly observed, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Freedom at Midnight, a chronological narrative of that dramatic year, and cited as a source for the film, is an entertaining and informative account. It paints sympathetic yet critical portraits of the principal players – Mr and Mrs Mountbatten, the ascetic and quixotic Gandhi the aloof and shrewd Jawahawal Nehru, the subaritic, dying Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and other leading lights of the Congress Party and the Muslim League, the civil servants and lawyers who had to implement Mountbatten’s exit plan, and India ‘s five hundred and sixty five princes and maharajahs, often sordid, subaritic and picaresque, very occasionally, liberal and progressive, but by 1947, anachronistic and doomed.

Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah

A counterpoint to Freedom at Midnight, is another book also cited as a source for The Viceroy’s House: The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by former aide to Mountbatten and longtime India civil servant, Narendra Singh Sarila. Whereas Freedom at Midnight sees HMG as virtually handing Mountbatten a free hand in extricating impoverished Britain from unruly and potentially ungovernable India, Sarila, like many Indian historians, sees the Brits as more clever and subtle than in fact they actually were. Perfidious Albion redux. The film juxtaposes a Romeo and Juliet tale of love across the religious divide against Britain’s alleged strategy of creating a friendly Pakistan as a buffer between newly independent and potentially socialistic India and an aggressive Soviet Union, and also, as a prospective British outpost close to the oil fields of Iraq, Iran and Arabia.

It is as if ingenue  India, and Pakistan, the latter viewed by many some British policy makers as little more than an acronym, were set up to fail. And yet, they did not.

Bu the long arm of history reaches from the partition to the present, and from the present into an  uncertain future. It’s icy fingers probe deeply into the politics and psyches of the Raj’s successor states and the relationships, rarely harmonious, mostly acrimonious, and oftimes toxic, between them. The unrsolved armed truce that exists between India and Pakistan in the wake of two wars, with Kashmir, the one-time, much-beloved rose now a sharp and inextricable thorn. The bloody birth of Bangladesh as Muslim but culturally and racially different East and West Pakistan found that they could not share the same Muslim house. The long and brutal racial and religious civil war in Sri Lanka. The rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Hindu fundamentalism in India, which combined with political and military rivalry and atavistic hatreds, passed on from generation to generation, has exacerbated the already insoluble, seemingly permanent war-zone that is modern Afghanistan, another unfortunate piece on the confused battlefield of that old “Great Game”.

India for all its problems and paradoxes, remains the world’s largest democracy, and is today one of the world’s new economic and technological powerhouses (the so-called BRICs). Pakistan, which many predicted would not last its first decade, but would reunite with India, survived, and today, is regarded by many observers as a nuclear armed, potentially failed state, poised perpetually between rowdy democrats, “born to rule” dynasties, ambitious generals, and medieval mullahs.

Acclaimed historian and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple, concluded in a succinct review of Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies in The New Yorker:

“Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends. Nisid Hajari ends his book by pointing out that the rivalry between India and Pakistan “is getting more, rather than less, dangerous: the two countries’ nuclear arsenals are growing, militant groups are becoming more capable, and rabid media outlets on both sides are shrinking the scope for moderate voices.” Moreover, Pakistan, nuclear-armed and deeply unstable, is not a threat only to India; it is now the world’s problem, the epicenter of many of today’s most alarming security risks. It was out of madrassas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged. That regime, which was then the most retrograde in modern Islamic history, provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda’s leadership even after 9/11”.

The story of one-time Imperial South Asia still has a long way to run.

See also, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition. 

Postscript

In 1947, WH Auden composed a poem commemorating the partition.  Specifically, he wrote of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer appointed by the British government to determine the borders of the new states. It was he who drew the fateful lines on the map of British India. An ironically objective narrative which recounts the story just as Collins and Lapierre tell it in Freedom at Midnight. It is, perhaps by design and intent, reminiscent of a celebrated poem by Dylan Thomas, and indeed, to paraphrase the Welsh Bard, “the hand that signed the paper” felled a city and bred a fever.

Partition

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.”

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The Magic of Dylan Thomas

2013 was the sixtieth anniversary of the death peerless Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, one of the many famous artists who departed this planet in New York’s Chelsea Hotel.  The following piece by Peter Craven is a beautiful tribute, illustrating the magic of Dylan Thomas’ poetry. And listen, pray, to the man himself reciting his poems.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas did not go gentle into that good night
Peter Craven, Weekend Australian, 29 November, 2014

ACCORDING to legend, Bob Dylan took his name from him and he was a kind of rock star: Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet who gave to the people of Wales — and to that part of the world that reveres what they stand for — a poetry of such reverberating bardic magnificence that he became a popular poet long after the age of popular poetry was over.

Thomas, who died, reportedly of alcohol poisoning, in New York at 39 in 1953, has his centenary this year and for the Welsh there has been no ­tomorrow.

Michael Sheen (the Welsh actor who played Tony Blair and David Frost) has been doing Under Milk Wood, Thomas’s great dreamscape of a radio play, in New York with Kate Burton — daughter of Richard Burton, who first did it on the BBC and even made a film of it with Elizabeth Taylor as Rosie Probert and Peter O’Toole as Captain Cat.

And in Wales they’ve been reading every jot of verse that Thomas ever penned. Distinguished Welsh actors such as Jonathan Pryce have been part of the mass recital and even that northerner, Ian McKellen, old Gandalf himself, has been dragooned into the celebration as if that rhapsodic sense of wizardry could encompass an entire world.

And he was a wizard, Thomas. I remember a lifetime ago lying in the dark of my parents’ bungalow as a young teenager listening to the black graven voice of Burton as he recited:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms …

It was a poetry made out of mouthfuls of air, as poetry must be, and it was also full of a rich kaleidoscope of imagery, and that seemed to make perfect sense because the emotional thrust was clear from the power of the rhetoric that sustained it.

This was a poetry that was deeply traditional in its sound patterns. It had a romantic grandiloquence and an alliterative richness, a reckless audacity of effects that was a bit like that priestly poet who had anticipated modernism, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

And, of course, it’s that lassoing effect of poetry as a language of the gods that can encompass a universe of feeling and imagining. It can intoxicate itself with language but see the world with a radiant clarity as a consequence of the intoxication. That makes people surrender to Thomas, the way when they are young they surrender to the first stirring of ­desire, that strange sense of body and soul coming together at the prospect of love.

If that sounds a bit much for mere poetry to achieve, listen to the lilting lyricism of Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes …

It’s poetry of almost total sensuous suggestion and it is saturated with the feeling of sap and possibility. In one way, it’s a poetry that seems to embody the idea of youth even though it is constantly talking about shadows and spectres of mortality. Indeed, Fern Hill ends with a great splash of verbal colour, and an intimation of how the erotic glory of the world, the sense of it as a many-shaped thing of wonder, is inseparable from the pang of transience.

Thomas led an irregular life and before he died in New York’s Chelsea Hotel he told someone he had had 18 consecutive whiskies in a bar. It couldn’t have been quite true but it had a poetic truth because Thomas and his wife Caitlin hit the bottle like a destiny.

Part of Thomas’s fame came from the fact he had a tremendous histrionic gift as a reader of poetry. He read in a very posh-sounding voice with a kind of conscious grandeur that gives a less sinewy sense of his music than Burton does, but has a majestical quality that many people find mesmerising. His reading style tilts towards the preacherly with its Welsh undertone as part of the incantatory quality. But, then, some of his greatest poetry projects a religious vision, which is why Thomas’s poems have become hymns for a modern world that may not know what it believes but has a deep sense of the resonance and the ­afterglow of belief.

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.

The language is magical in the way it creates, with a fierce flaming elegiac power, the refusal to accept the fact of death. And the fact the perspective is not Christian — we know the darkness does overcome — makes the poem a tremendous affirmation of the heroism of life in the face of death. It’s a poem with a reckless bravery and that urging to “rage” — that impossible, nearly preposterous imperative — sits in such tension with “the dying of the light” that the effect is very poignant.

Some people sneer at Thomas, sometimes in reaction to their own earlier infatuation with him. His poetry enthrals the mind (and heart) long before you know ­exactly what is being said or meant. Is that a disqualification for greatness? Isn’t it a version of what TS Eliot meant when he said that poetry communicates before it’s understood?

If you want the organ notes of elegy, the sombre power that comes from the breath of death on the backs of our necks, and at the same time the sense of the resurrection as always now, try this:

You can, if you like, say the trick is all in the one great line, the line Thomas uses as his refrain, and that he creates a decorative web around it.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost
love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

But that’s not quite the effect of the poem when it is read aloud. If you listen to Burton recite it, for instance, you get a sense of rushing soliloquy, of confusion and conflict and spectacular profusion, resolving itself in the refrain, which becomes like a religious affirmation, a faith in what seems impossible, a refusal to be conquered by something that cannot fail to conquer.

This is compatible with a believer’s position or an atheist’s, because when it comes to poetry we all suspend disbelief. And Thomas’s poetry is such a headlong act of faith in the act of creating poetry that it presents this spectacle — it, in fact, dramatises it — with a sort of breathtaking self-confidence that goes a long way to explain why his poems seem so genuinely bardic, why the Welsh have taken to them like anthems. And also perhaps, commandeering the tragic fact of his early death, why it makes a kind of sense that Thomas died so young.

If your schtick is to give your audience another piece of your heart over and over, you will burn yourself out or you’ll have to change your art.

God knows what Thomas would have done if he had lived. “It was my 30th year to heaven,” he wrote in Poem in October, which with its wonderful sense of the self roaming like a god is one of the greatest lyrical poems of the 20th century.

My birthday began with the water
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days.

It was his 30th year to heaven and he already wrote like an angel and he was already talking as if he were in the presence of his own tombstone.

It’s the hugeness of the gift that makes people back away from Thomas and makes them deny his achievement, partly because the mesmerism of his ­manner can create fear of the highest claims.

It makes sense, of course, that there was reaction against the rhetoric of poetry associated with the “New Apocalyptics”, as Thomas’s admirers called themselves and that was partly a reaction against the battering ram of rhetoric the world had suffered with Hitler and Churchill and World War II.

People were sceptical of majesty in poetry. They remembered that the “terrible beauty” of Yeats had been a landing field for a fascist politics. But how unfair to mix Thomas up with this.

Under Milk Wood is the most successful piece of poetic drama of a postwar period haunted by the idea. It has extraordinary brio, and the way Thomas manages to create this surrealist brew of poetic hocus-pocus with choruses of schoolkids and scolding old women and blind, mad Captain Cat and dead lovers, all within a circumambient poetic idiom that is at once rich and grounded in earth, is pretty stunning when you remember that it is also a credible evocation of a village in Wales.

It’s no wonder the Welsh have taken Thomas as their red dragon and their prize dreamer. He was an incomparable poet. He did not go gentle into that good night; he lived hard.

But when it comes to the kingdom of poetry, death shall have no dominion.