Dylan Thomas' “If I were tickled by the rub of love.” (excerpt)

“If I were tickled by the rub of love”, by Dylan Thomas is as difficult to interpret like Picasso’s “Femme a la Fleur”. In fact, many of Thomas’s poems have incited both “praise and condemnation” from critics" (Cox 2). However, the aforementioned poem is not the ramblings of a babbling trickster attempting to dupe his audience by breaking the established rules of language. For Thomas would interpolate:

I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved, and devious craftsman in words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears, and to whatever wrong uses I may apply my technical paraphernalia. I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, [and] sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will (qtd.in McKay 376).

This particular poem has been described as “deal[ing] with love and life as seen at birth, infancy, adolescence, and young maturity (Halperen 25). John Yow also believes that “In the opening stanza the images apparently focus upon the moment of birth, both in general terms and in reference to the speaker’s own birth" (30). However, this is not a correct analysis, at least not in the sense that Thomas is speaking of his own birth. William Tindall, who Halperen agrees, implies, “the speaker, [Thomas], a ghost or a pre-natal virus, knows neither the delights nor the troubles of love,” going on to say that Thomas is writing as if he is “Not altogether alive” (46). After closer examination of stanzas 1, 2, and 3, it is obvious that Thomas has not taken us back into the womb, but begins the poem as a young man frightened by the thought of war, having his heart broken, and most of all, he is sorely afraid of dying.

“If I were tickled by the rub of love”, was published in December 1934, in a compilation titled, 18 Poems, apropos of “creation, both physical and poetic, and the temporal process of birth, death, and rebirth” (Tindall 27). The poems in this publication were written during the early 30s around the same time that Hitler became both president and chancellor of Germany, wherewith the military was obligated to swear allegiance to the self-proclaimed der Führer. Thomas also began corresponding with Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1933. Johnson first wrote to Thomas wanting advice concerning her own poetry after reading “That sanity be kept,” and there “became a love affair after they met in February 1934” (Ferris 20). Thomas was also aware of his inadequacies as a writer:

I’m an odd little person. Don’t imagine the great jawed writer brooding over his latest masterpiece in the oak study, but a thin, curly little person, smoking too [many] cigarettes, with a crocked lung, and writing his vague verses in the back room of my provincial villa (qtd. in Ferris 27).

Thus, between the ages of nineteen and twenty, Thomas clearly is affected by the “fear of impending war, sexual experience, and literary failure” (Tindall 27).

Throughout the poem, Thomas is “using fixed stanzas with intricate rhyme and metrical schemes” (McKay 375). It is written in syllabic form, with seven stanzas, consisting of seven lines in each. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7, have the following numbers: 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, and 6. The poem resembles blank verse, popularized by Shakespeare and Milton, because most lines are pentameters, or five metrical feet, and the verses do not end in rhymes. However, stanzas 3 and 6 are written with the following syllables: 11, 10, 10, 11, 10, 10, and 6. Stanzas 3 and 6 separate stanzas 1 and 2, from stanzas 4 and 5, seemingly used by Thomas as a refrain, and stanza 7 being a conclusion or summary. It does appear that Thomas makes use of consonance in stanzas 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The final words in lines 3 and 7 of the corresponding stanzas, Thomas uses the words: string/spring, hair/war, love/grave, jaws/toes, and eye/away. In the poem, “A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London, Thomas writes:

Tells with silence the last light breaking (4). Thomas uses the word “Tells” as a transitive verb, to describe “darkness told in some divine sense of spoke into being, ‘the last light breaking’” (Carson 241). In “If I were tickled by the rub of love,” transitive verbs used in lines five of stanzas 1, 2, 3, and 4, are mirrored purposely by the poet. For example, in line 5 of stanza 1, Thomas writes, “Still set to scratch a laughter from my lung,” and in the second stanza, line 5, Thomas writes, “The itch of man upon the baby’s thigh.”

Each stanza tells of Thomas’s life, not from his own birth, as Halperen, Tindall, or Yow suggests. Instead, the poem begins with the poet as a young mature man. In the first lines of the poem, Thomas is saying, “If I were tickled,” or if I were easily excited or amused, “by the rub of love,” rub in this verse taking on the meaning of spark. Restricted by the strict form of ten syllables, if one were to add the word “by” in front of the second verse, “A rooking girl”, or manipulative girl, “who stole me for her side,” it is evident that Thomas is not drawing upon his own birth, but he explaining why it is difficult to fall in love. Reading the next line tells more of Thomas’s reservations: “Broke through her straws,” the girl from the previous line, breaks through her straws; straws meaning shyness perhaps, and thereby breaking his bandaged string; the broken string invoking the image of being previously broken-hearted either by “lover, mother, lovers,” (41) and he has since forbade himself from falling in love by forging a barrier (string), that keeps him from being hurt again. Thomas does speak of birth, similar to the proposition by both Halperen and Tindall, but not exactly the same. Thomas writes, “If the red tickle as the cattle calve” (line 4). Red seemingly makes little sense in this verse until one knows that Thomas once explained to an editor that he: Once looked up an old dictionary and found [ram] meant red, but now [Thomas] can’t find it in any dictionary at all. [Thomas] wanted ram in the poem to mean red and male and horny and driving and all its usual meanings, (qtd. in McKay xiv).

If one were to postulate that in this verse red means ram, and ram is synonymous with a driving force; in this instance, the driving force is the feeling of being born again. In other words, Thomas is saying: if only love was like a driving force (ram), and stimulating (tickled), as the cattle calve (being born again).

The act of being born is described in the second stanza. Again, Thomas is not explaining his own birth, but instead he has moved forward till after he has settled down with the “rooking girl” and contemplates having a child. Thomas writes in the second stanza:

Shall it be male or female say the cells, And drop the plum like fire from the flesh (8-9).

The first line is explaining the act of copulation or perhaps insemination. The second line is the actual birth of the child. In the third stanza, line 18, he says “If I were tickled by the urchin hungers” urchin representing a poor or hungry child, perhaps in this way because of the negative consequences of war, Thomas moves into the stage of adolescence, but not his own, but that of his child, and he expressing grief of watching his child grow up, same as in his poem “In Country Sleep.” This poem “is striking for its frank portrayal of a caring though conflicted state of fatherhood,” and:

is a far more arresting and complex treatment involving a loving fathers deep, oedipally colored attachment to his daughter and his concern that she retain her natural innocence and faith in life (Balakier 21).

In the final verses of stanzas 1, 2 and 3, Thomas divulges in stanza 1:

I would not fear the apple nor the flood Nor the bad blood of spring (6-7). The apple and the flood, a direct reference to the Garden of Eden and the flood in which God destroyed the earth, altogether can be interpreted as meaning, he would not fear life as a whole, nor the beginning or the end. The “bad blood,” in this verse, is the exact opposite of spring, which would be autumn. These seasons represent life and death as well. Thomas makes known his fear of war in the final lines of stanza two:

I would not fear the gallows nor the axe Nor the crossed sticks of war (13-14).

Fearing the gallows or the axe, could be interpreted as suggesting that during war, if one speaks out against it, he or she is subject to being executed. This is explained by one of his letters to Pamela Johnson:

If you read the news, you’ll see that Swansea is the center of all revolutionary activities this week. It is the week of the trail of Tom Mann and Harry Pollitt, whose trial has been framed-up by the police and the local authorities (qtd. in McKay 146).

Pollitt, and Mann had been charged with making “seditious speeches (McKay 146).

In stanza 3, again Thomas sums up his fears: I would not fear the devil in the loin Nor the outspoken grave (20-21).

“The devil in the loin”, could be the same as when Paul writes of a “thorn his side” (2 Cor 12:7-9). In Thomas’s case, the thorn is the “outspoken grave”

Plato writes, “Because the poet traffics in mimesis, ungoverned by reason, appealing to the irrational part of the soul, this makes it right for us to proceed to lay hold of him and set him down as the counterpart of the painter.” Dylan Thomas is an artist, and like Plato, clarifies the nature of his craft in a letter to Pamela Johnson:

There is no necessity for the artist to do anything. There is no necessity. He is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. He has only one limitation, and that is the widest of all: the limitation of form (qtd. in Ferris 25).

There is, or in Thomas’s case, was, a method to his madness, if one wishes to call Thomas mad (and of course many people did and still do). “I write at the speed of two lines an hour,” explained Thomas (qtd. in Ferris 51).” In “If I were tickled by the rub of love”, his message is simple: love is never perfect because it cures nothing, life equals death, the thought of death equals depression, so therefore one should give into temptation and lust after women and wine; because, as Oscar Wilde once proclaimed, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself” (21). And in true fashion, after supposedly declaring “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think this is a record,” Thomas lapsed into a comma and died in 1953.

Works Cited

Balakier, James J. “The Ambiguous Reversal Of Dylan Thomas’s “In Country Sleep”. Papers on Language & Literature 32 (1996): 1-13.

Carson, Rick. “Thomas’s “A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London.” Explicator 54 (1996): 240-241.

Cox, C. B., eds. Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966.

Ferris, Paul, eds. The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas. New York City: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.

Halperen, Max. “Thomas: “If I were tickled by the rub of love”. Explicator 25 (1962): 21-23.

Kaufman, Ellie. "BookRags Book Notes on The Picture of Dorian Gray." 10 May 2005.

The Bible. King James Version.

Thomas, Dylan. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1953.

Tindell, William York. A Readers Guide to Dylan Thomas. New York: H. Wolff, 1962.

Yow, John. “An analysis: “If I were tickled by the rub of love.” Studies in Poetry 1 (1977): 30-45.

Copyright © 2005, Chad M. Ard, All Rights Reserved.