Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2721
Dylan Thomas’s ten stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog are charming reminiscences of his relatives, school friends, and neighbors in the town where he grew up. Their wit and accessibility made them immediately popular, in contrast to the dark, subjective stories he had written prior to 1938, for which he had difficulty finding a publisher. In March, 1938, he wrote to Vernon Watkins that “A Visit to Grandpa’s” was “the first of a series of short, straightforward stories about Swansea.” Published on March 10, 1939, in the New English Weekly, it told of a boy’s waking up on a mild summer night to the sounds of “gee-up and whoa” in the next room where his grandfather, wearing his red waistcoat with its brass buttons, is reining invisible horses. On their morning walks, the grandfather has expressed his wish not to be buried in the nearby churchyard. When he is missing a few days later, the entire village is summoned to go in search of him, and they find him on Carmarthen Bridge in his Sunday trousers and dusty tall hat on his way to Llangadock to be buried. They try to persuade him to come home to tea instead.
In “The Peaches,” first published in the October, 1938, issue of Life and Letters Today, the naïve narrator tells of his spring holiday on a farm in Gorsehill. His uncle Jim drives him there in a green cart late one April evening, stopping for a drink at a public house. The squeal coming from the wicker basket he takes inside with him prepares the reader for the fact that cousin Gwilym will note that one of the pigs is missing the next day. The terror of being abandoned in a dark alley is assuaged by Aunt Annie’s warm welcome of him later that night at the farmhouse. He enters, small, cold, and scared, as the clock strikes midnight, and is made to feel “among the shining and striking like a prince taking off his disguise.” Next morning, Gwilym takes him to see the sow, who has only four pigs left. “He sold it to go on the drink,” whispers Gwilym rebukingly. The boy imagines Jim transformed into a hungry fox: “I could see uncle, tall and sly and red, holding the writhing pig in his two hairy hands, sinking his teeth in its thigh, crunching its trotters up; I could see him leaning over the wall of the sty with the pig’s legs sticking out of his mouth.” Gwilym, who is studying to be a minister, takes him to the barn which he pretends is his chapel and preaches a thunderous sermon at him, after which he takes up a collection.
Next, the complication begins. Gwilym and Jim are told to dress up for Jack Williams, whose rich mother will bring him in an automobile from Swansea for a fortnight’s visit. A tin of peaches has been saved from Christmas; “Mother’s been keeping it for a day like this.” Mrs. Williams, “with a jutting bosom and thick legs, her ankles swollen over her pointed shoes,” sways into the parlor like a ship. Annie precedes her, anxiously tidying her hair, “clucking, fidgeting, excusing.” (The string of participles is typical of Thomas’s prose style; one sentence [in “Return Journey”] contains fifteen.) The rich guest declines refreshments. “I don’t mind pears or chunks, but I can’t bear peaches.” The boys run out to frolic, climb trees, and play Indians in the bushes. After supper, in the barn, Gwilym demands confessions from them, and Jack begins to cry that he wants to go home. That night in bed, they hear Uncle Jim come in drunk and Annie quietly relating the events of the day, at which he explodes into thunderous anger: “Aren’t peaches good enough for her!” At this, Jack sobs into his pillow. The next day Mrs. Williams arrives, sends the chauffeur for Jack’s luggage, and drives off with him, as the departing car scatters the hens and the narrator waves good-bye.
Two aspects of the point of view are significant. The first, its tone, is what made all the stories so immediately beloved. The genial Chaucerian stance, which perceives and accepts eccentricities, which notes and blesses all the peculiarities of humanity, is endearing without being sentimental, because the acuteness of the observations stays in significant tension with the nonjudgmental way in which they are recorded. This combination of acuity and benevolence, of sharpness and radiance, is the special quality of Thomas’s humor. The second aspect of the author’s style is its expansion and contraction, which indicates the view of a visionary poet. The narrator is both a homesick, cold, tired little boy, and “a royal nephew in smart town clothes, embraced and welcomed.” The uncle is both a predatory fox and an impoverished farmer, as he sits in “the broken throne of a bankrupt bard.” The splendid paradise where the narrator romps is simultaneously a poor, dirty “square of mud and rubbish and bad wood and falling stone, where a bucketful of old and bedraggled hens scratched and laid small eggs.” The “pulpit” where Gwilym’s inspired sermon is “cried to the heavens” in his deepest voice is a dusty, broken cart in an abandoned barn overrun with mice; but this decrepit building on a mucky hill becomes “a chapel shafted with sunlight,” awesome with reverence as the “preacher’s” voice becomes “Welsh and singing.” The alternate aggrandizement and diminution of the perceptions energize the style as the lyric impulse wars with the satiric impulse in the narrator’s voice.
“Patricia, Edith and Arnold”
The naïve narrator of the third of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog stories, entitled “Patricia, Edith and Arnold,” is totally engrossed in his imaginary engine, whose brake is “a hammer in his pocket” and whose fuel is replenished by invisible engineers. As he drives it about the garden, however, he is aware of his maid, Patricia, plotting with the neighbor’s servant, Edith, to confront Arnold with the identical letters he wrote to both of them. The girls take the child to the park as it begins to snow; Arnold has been meeting Edith there on Fridays, and Patricia on Wednesdays. As the girls wait for Arnold in the shelter, the boy, disowning them, pretends he is a baker, molding loaves of bread out of snow.
Arnold Matthews, his hands blue with cold, wearing a checked cap but no overcoat, appears and tries to bluff it out. Loudly he says, “Fancy you two knowing each other.” The boy rolls a snowman “with a lop-sided dirty head” smoking a pencil, as the situation grows more tense. When Arnold claims that he loves them both, Edith shakes her purse at him, the letters fall out all over the snow, and the snowman collapses. As the boy searches for his pencil, the girls insist that Arnold choose between them. Patricia turns her back, indignantly. Arnold gestures and whispers to Edith behind Patricia’s back and then, out loud, chooses Patricia. The boy, bending over his snowman, finds his pencil driven through its head.
Later, during a discussion of lying, the boy tells Patricia that he saw Arnold lying to both of them, and the momentary truce, during which Patricia and Arnold have been walking arm in arm, is over. She smacks and pummels him as he staggers backward and falls. The boy says he has to retrieve the cap that he left near his snowman. He finds Arnold there, rereading the letters that Edith dropped, but does not tell Patricia this. Later, as his frozen hands tingle and his face feels on fire, she comforts him until “the hurting is gone.” She acknowledges his pain and her own by saying, “Now we’ve all had a good cry today.” The story achieves its effects through the child’s detachment. Totally absorbed in his play, he registers the behavior of the adults, participating in their sorrows without fully comprehending them. In spite of his age-appropriate egocentricity and his critical remarks about her girth (her footprints as large as a horse’s), he expresses deep affection for her and such concern as he is capable of, given the puzzling circumstances.
The narrator of “The Fight” is an exuberant adolescent. Although he is fourteen, he deliberately adds a year to his age, lying for the thrill of having to be on guard to avoid detection. The self-conscious teenager is continually inventing scenarios in which he assumes various heroic postures. The story tells of his finding an alter ego, as gifted as he, through whom he can confirm his existence, with whom he can share his anxieties, collaborate imaginatively, and play duets. The opening incident illustrates Dylan’s testing himself against the adults about him. He is engaged in a staring contest with a cranky old man who lives beside the schoolyard when a strange boy pushes him down. They fight. Dylan gives Dan a bloody nose and gets a black eye in return. Admiring each other’s injuries as evidence of their own manliness, they become fast friends.
Dylan postures, first as a prizefighter, then as a pirate. When a boy ridicules him at school the next day, he has a revenge fantasy of breaking his leg, then of being a famous surgeon who sets it with “a rapid manipulation, the click of a bone,” while the grateful mother, on her knees, tearfully thanks him. Assigned a vase to draw in art class, the boys sketch inaccurate versions of naked girls instead. “I drew a wild guess below the waist.” This boyish sexual curiosity leads him mentally to undress even Mrs. Bevan, the minister’s wife, whom he meets later at supper at Dan’s house, but he gets frightened when he gets as far as the petticoats.
Dan shows Dylan the seven historical novels he wrote before he was twelve, plays the piano for him, and lets him make a cat’s noise on his violin; Dylan reads Dan his poems out of his exercise book. They share feelings, such as their ambivalences toward their mothers, a love tinged with embarrassment. They decide to edit a paper. Back upstairs, after supper, they imitate the self-important Mr. Bevan and discuss the time Mrs. Bevan tried to fling herself out the window. When she joins them later, they try to induce her to repeat this by pointedly opening the window and inviting her to admire the view. When he has to leave at 9:30, Dan announces that he “must finish a string trio tonight,” and Dylan counters that he is “working on a long poem about the princes of Wales.” On these bravura promises, the story closes.
“A Prospect of the Sea”
Thomas called these luminous remembrances of his youth “portions of a provincial autobiography.” The stories he wrote earlier, drafts of which exist in “The Red Notebook” which he kept from December, 1933, to October, 1934, were not published until later. Considered obscure, violent, and surrealistic, the stories are difficult because of the use of narrative devices borrowed from lyric poetry. In “A Prospect of the Sea,” for example, the scenery seems to contract and expand. A boy lying in a cornfield on a summer day sees a country girl with berry-stained mouth, scratched legs, and dirty fingernails jump down from a tree, startling the birds. The landscape shrinks, the trees dwindle, the river is compressed into a drop, and the yellow field diminishes into a square “he could cover with his hand.” As he masters his fear and sees she is only “a girl in a torn cotton frock” sitting cross-legged on the grass, things assume their proper size. As she makes erotic advances, his terror rises again, and everything becomes magnified. Each leaf becomes as large as a man, every trough in the bark of the tree seems as vast as a channel, every blade of grass looks as high as a house. This apparent contraction and expansion of the external world is dependent upon the protagonist’s internal state.
Thomas uses another device commonly employed in lyric poetry, the literalized metaphor. Because a thing seems like another, it is depicted as having been transformed into that other thing. For example, the “sunburned country girl” frightens the lonely boy as if she were a witch; thus, in his eyes, she becomes one. “The stain on her lips was blood, not berries; and her nails were not broken but sharpened sideways, ten black scissorblades ready to snip off his tongue.” Finally, not only space and character are subject to transformations but also time. As the narrator fantasizes union with this girl, he attains a mystical vision of history unrolling back to Eden. The story ends as it began; she disappears into the sea. He had imagined, at the beginning, as he dabbled his fingers in the water, that a drowned storybook princess would emerge from the waves. The apparent obscurities are resolved by seeing the plot of this story as simply the daydreams of a lonely boy on a summer’s day.
“The Orchards” is another prose-poem about a man’s attempt to record a vision in words. Marlais has a repetitive dream about blazing apple trees guarded by two female figures who change from scarecrows to women. He tries and fails to shape this into a story, and finally sets out on a quest. Striding through eleven valleys, he reaches the scene he has dreamed of, where he reenacts the kissing of the maiden as the orchard catches fire, the fruit falls as cinders, and she and her sister change to scarecrows. These smoldering trees may be related to the sacrificial fires of the Welsh druids on Midsummer Day. The woman figure might be connected with Olwedd, the Welsh Venus, associated with the wild apple. Marlais’s adventure, however, is a mental journey undertaken by the creative writer through the landscape of his mind, and the temporal and spatial fluctuations are the projections of that mind, mythicized.
“The Tree” illustrates this same process. A gardener tells a boy the story of Jesus, reading the Bible in his shed by candlelight. While he is mending a rake with wire, he relates the twelve stages of the cross. The boy wants to know the secrets inside the locked tower to which the bearded gardener has the key. On Christmas Eve, the gardener unlocks the room through whose windows the boy can see the Jarvis Hills to the east. The gardener says of this “Christmas present” in a tone which seems prophetic: “It is enough that I have given you the key.”
On Christmas morning, an idiot with ragged shoes wanders into the garden, “bearing the torture of the weather with a divine patience.” Enduring the rain and the wind, he sits down under the elder tree. The boy, concluding that the gardener had not lied and that the secret of the tower was true, runs to get the wire to reenact the crucifixion. The old man’s obsessive religiosity has been transmitted to the boy, who takes it literally: “A tree” has become “The Tree,” “a key” has become “The Key,” and a passive beggar stumbling from the east has become Christ inviting his martyrdom.
“The Visitor” is the story of a dying poet, Peter, tended lovingly by Rhiannon, who brings him warm milk, reads to him from William Blake, and at the end pulls the sheet over his face. Death is personified as Callaghan, whose visit he anticipates as his limbs grow numb and his heart slows. Callaghan blows out the candles with his gray mouth, and, lifting Peter in his arms, flies with him to the Jarvis Valley where they watch worms and death-beetles undoing “brightly and minutely” the animal tissues on the shining bones through whose sockets flowers sprout, the blood seeping through the earth to fountain forth in springs of water. “Peter, in his ghost, cried with joy.” This is the same assurance found in Thomas’s great elegies: Death is but the reentry of the body into the processes of nature. Matter is not extinguished, but transformed into other shapes whose joyous energies flourish forever.
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