Dylan Thomas

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Derek Stanford (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: “Prose and Drama,” in Dylan Thomas, Neville Spearman, 1954, pp. 155–88.

[In the excerpt below, Stanford describes Thomas's provocative use of language in the stories of Map of Love and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.]


The seven stories in The Map of Love exhibit a typical young man's prose: not the prose of a young poet writing about poetry, but that of a poet using prose to convey what he has generally expressed in verse. (Remove the formal device of narrative and the tales in The Map of Love might all have been poems from that or previous volumes.) The value of these first stories, I should say, is that of Yeats' early stories. We read them, in retrospect, because they are the work of a fine poet, rather than because they succeed in themselves. But taken as a part of the poet's imaginary world, and read for the clues they offer to Thomas' literary temperament, and the confirmation of his mode of thought in verse, these tales are interesting enough. A second element in our just concern with them is that of their prophetic property—the way in which odd passages and phrases look forward to the objective consummation of the author's later prose.

The common quality in these seven stories is in the abnormal world they present. Some of them are fantasies; and others, while observing certain obligations to the claims of “reality”, make good their escape from such ties by employing themes of dementia and madness. The setting, in each case, is in Wales, within range of “the Jarvis Hills” (a fictional topographical reference). Most of the stories have pastoral backgrounds; though in one of them an industrial town is featured. But, unlike the later tales in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the genius loci or spirit of the place is only evoked in the most general terms. Place in these early stories is not a matter of particular locality but of vague associative ideas.

A word as to their themes and plots. In “The Visitor” a dying poet is visited each night by his friend Callaghan. One evening, Callaghan comes to him, takes him naked from his bed, and—carrying him in his arms—flies through the darkened countryside with him. In their flight the poet sees the processes of nature working. The terms of his vision are grand and amplified:

The moon, doubling and redoubling the strength of her beams, lit up the barks and the roots and the branches of the Jarvis trees, the busy lice in the wood, the shapes of the stones and the black ants travelling under them, the pebbles in the streams, the secret grass, the untiring death-worms under the blades.

Callaghan brings the poet back to his bed before the full breaking of the dawn. Rhianon the poet's wife “with a sweet, naked throat, stepped into the room.

Rhianon, he said, hold my hand, Rhianon.

She did not hear him, but stood over his bed and fixed him with an unbreakable sorrow.

Hold my hand, he said. And then: Why are you putting the sheet over my face?

The figure of Callaghan (is he Death?) looks forward to “the Thief” in Thomas' poem “In country sleep.”

“The Enemies” tells the story of an old clergyman who loses his way in the hills. He comes to the house of a young couple, where he stays for a meal and a rest. The wife spends much time staring in the crystal, and the husband is engaged in a lasting war with the endless weeds of...

(This entire section contains 3987 words.)

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his fecund garden. Between them, they symbolise the powers of darkness—of occult “pantheistic” forces. The man looks at the old clergyman and thinks, “He is afraid of the worm in the earth, of the copulation in the tree, of the living grease in the soil.” The rector senses their pagan aura, and, feeling afraid, drops on his knees. “He stared and he prayed, like an old god beset by his enemies.”

Anti-Christian, in another manner, is the parody of the Crucifixion in “The Tree.”1 A pious elderly gardener tells a little lonely boy about the tree on which Christ was crucified. In the boy's mind the story grows confused; and at night he creeps out of his bed to kneel and pray at the tree's foot. On Christmas Day, an idiot, who has been roaming the countryside, is found by the boy sitting under the tree. The boy gets him to stand up and raise his arms, then secures him to the tree with wire from the potting-shed. After which, he returns with a handful of “silver nails”.

“The Map of Love” relates how a boy and girl are initiated into the mystery of sex by the ghost of “mad Jarvis” and his many sweethearts. His voice cries out to them from all the fields in which he has prosecuted his many amours.

“The Mouse and the Woman” recounts the dreams of an inmate of a lunatic asylum; while in “The Dress”2 an escaped lunatic (who has cut off his wife's lips because she smiled at other men) goes to sleep with his head in the lap of a terrified woman, into whose cottage he has broken.

“The Orchards” describes the dreams of the poet Marlais, in which he falls in love with a female scarecrow and her beautiful sister. One day, walking in the country, he meets the girl out of his dream, and sees that the scare-crow is also there. I do not know whether this story owes anything to Walter de la Mare's tale of the scare-crow, in some meadows beyond a lonely house, that approaches a little nearer each day.

In the main, literary influence in these stories seems small. It is possible, but unlikely, that the adventures of Michael Robertes, in the tales of Yeats, may have impressed Thomas; and the tales from The Mabinogion may have contributed a touch here and there.

In his book English Prose Style, Sir Herbert Read has some remarks which help us to “place” these seven stories. “Fantasy,” he observes, “is a product of thought, Imagination of sensibility. If the thinking discursive mind turns to speculation, the result is Fantasy; if, however, the sensible, intuitive mind turns to speculation, the result is Imagination. Fantasy may be visionary, but it is cold and logical; Imagination is sensuous and instinctive.” This, I think, serves to distinguish the processes by which Thomas produced his verse and early prose. In both cases, his subject-matter is the same. The “pantheistic” “vegetable world”, which “roared” under Mr. Owen's feet in “The Enemies,” is of the same universe as we encounter in Thomas' first two books of poems; but whereas the latter is the product of “the sensible, intuitive mind”, the former has resulted from a lower-pressured “thinking”. This may account for the “cold” unsubstantial quality of these tales which no show of rhetoric can hope to conceal.

But if the “Fantasy” of the seven tales does not succeed in creating the illusion of poetry, which it seems to wish to do, it fails also in achieving the element proper to its own genre—that “objectivity” which Sir Herbert Read posits as being its true distinguishing quality.

Disparate passages of “poetical” musing or of too self-conscious prose, drift like mists through the stories, depriving them of narrative economy and shape.

Lacking a grasp of particulars as being part of a general body, these tales do, however, occasionally evince that celebration of individual traits, that closeness to things, which the later prose reveals. “Upon town pavements,” Thomas writes in “The Orchards,” “he saw the woman step loose, her breasts firm under a coat on which the single hairs from old men's heads lay white on black.” His perception here is as shrewd as that of Maupassant or the de Goncourts.

Anticipative, too, is the vivid use of the “character” verb in the following sentence from “The Enemies”: “In her draughty kitchen Mrs. Owen grieved over the soup.”

It is small points such as these that look forward to the pincer-like perception which we get in, say, “A Story” (1953): “The charabanc pulled up outside the Mountain Sheep, a small, unhappy public house with a thatched roof like a wig with ringworm.”


Among other stories by Thomas which appeared about this time was one he contributed to The New Apocalypse (1939), a symposium of young writers. As this tale “The Burning Baby” was one which a number of people noticed, and as the group behind the anthology largely used the name and work of Thomas as sponsor and touchstone of their own movement, a few remarks may be devoted to it.

Revealing a greater flair for prose than any of the other tales in the volume, it has all the turgid morbidity—the pangs, and fits, and starts of a histrionic vision—which the work of the group as a whole displayed:

They said that Rhys was burning his baby when a gorse bush broke into fire on the summit of the hill.

Spasmodically, though, the story manifests the inception of fresh prose qualities. There is the beginning of that humour which plays so large a part in Thomas' later stories. As yet, it shows itself concerned with obscene features or symptoms of decay—a kind of joyless Rabelaisianism:

He took his daughter's hand as she lay in the garden hammock, and told her that he loved her. He told her that she was more beautiful than her dead mother. Her hair smelt of mice, her teeth came over her lip, and the lids of her eyes were red and wet.


Rhys Rhys sat in his study, the stem of his pipe stuck between his fly-buttons, the bible unopened on his knees.

or consider the sadism of the tale's last paragraph:

And the baby caught fire. The flames curled round its mouth and blew upon the shrinking gums. Flame round its red cord lapped its little belly till the raw flesh fell upon the heather. A flame touched its tongue. Eeeeeh, cried the burning baby, and the illuminated hill replied.

Judged as a Gothic extravaganza in the manner of Matthew Lewis' The Monk, “The Burning Baby” must be said to succeed; but success in so specious a category as this is no solid proof of literary distinction. …

The three chapters of Thomas' uncompleted novel Adventures in the Skin Trade3 belongs to 1941, and later; and so represent more recent work than the stories in his book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog which was first published in 1940. I prefer, however, to take the former first, since, genuinely entertaining as these chapters are, they do not display the ‘vintage’ qualities present in the earlier volume.

Adventures in the Skin Trade is an amusing fragment—a prologue to a sort of picaresque novel, in which the hero is a young provincial who entrains for London to seek for fame and women. Reading it, I was reminded of how Henry Miller said he went to Paris “to study vice”. The twenty-year-old Samuel Bennet of the Adventures resorts to the metropolis for much the same purpose; but in the author's account of his quest there is none of that “dead-pan” earnestness of Miller, for whom the affairs of sex, one feels, are a Germanic substitute for philosophy. His adolescent aspirations of a somewhat disreputable nature are described with buoyancy, with a sympathetic spiritedness which does not exclude fun at the hero's expense. In fact, the wishes of the young poet (Samuel Bennet is clearly an alias for Thomas) to be thought a practised whoremonger, when he is as virgin as makes no difference, are mercilessly made the most of. Leering at a woman in the buffet at Paddington whom he assumes to be a prostitute (she smells, he decides, “of eau de cologne and powder and bed”), he succeeds only in being cold-shouldered, and in getting his little finger stuck in the neck of a Bass bottle. Befriended by an odd furniture-dealer, he is taken to a near-by café, where a plain nymphomaniac with glasses escorts him upstairs to the bathroom to ease the bottle from his finger with soap. She finally gets him naked in the bath, makes him drink a glassful of Cologne, and then climbs in on top of him4. When he regains his mental composure, he sees the furniture-dealer and a friend standing by the bath considering him: the bottle is still on his little finger.

Shivering in the unwarmed water of the bath, as he waits in the darkened room for the girl to step in with him, the young man's thoughts are taken up, half with the natural fears of his situation and half with revenging himself on the far suburb that bore him:

Come and have a look at impotent Samuel Bennet from Mortimer Street off Stanley's Grove trembling to death in a cold bath in the dark near Paddington Station.

The earlier part of this fragmentary novel describes the young man leaving home and his journey up in the train. During the night before his departure he creeps downstairs and does a lot of damage so that he can “never come back”. He draws rude shapes on his father's papers, tears up the family photos, and breaks his mother's best china:

A tureen cover dropped from his hand and smashed.

He waited for the sound of his mother waking. No one stirred upstairs. ‘Tinker did it’, he said aloud [Tinker is the family pom], but the harsh noise of his voice drove him back into silence.

The gestures, the poses, the unconscious humour, and the grief of late adolescence are all here:

He burnt the edge of his mother's sunshade at the gas mantle, and felt the tears running down his cheeks and dropping on to his pyjama collar. Even in the moment of his guilt and shame, he remembered to put out his tongue and taste the track of his tears. Still crying, he said, “It's salt. It's very salt. Just like in my poems.”

Sitting in the lavatory in the London train, he completes the process of burning his boats which he began earlier at home. From his note-book he tears out and destroys the names and addresses of people he can use as introductions to publishers and editors, leaving only the name and phone-number of a street-girl he has never met.

One sees that Samuel Bennet is quite set on “doing the Rimbaud” (as Thomas so well expresses it elsewhere); but unlike the French poet or his fictional counter-parts (Lafcadio, say, in André Gide's novel Les Caves du Vatican), there is no innocent belief behind this young man in a ‘pure’ cult of evil. Samuel Bennet would, no doubt, like to be wicked, and tries very hard to be so; but his youth and experience keep changing his audacities into bathos. It is this maturity of mind in Thomas, at back of his hatred of convention, which preserves a sense of proportion in its most corrective form: self-critical humour.

Since I have spoken in this high fashion of Adventures in the Skin Trade, and yet suggested that we shall not find the ‘vintage’ prose of Thomas here, it behoves me to give my reasons. The lack resides, I think, in his character-drawing. Samuel Bennet, his parents, and sister are well shown; but the off-setting group of bohemian figures, which the young man encounters in London, are rather too much to type. The character known as Mr. Allingham is something of an exception. A furniture-dealer who lives in a flat so fantastically crammed with his purchases that he has no room to turn round, and yet is furiously annoyed at the suggestion that the world is not sane, he has some of the Dickensian colour which Thomas gives to his later characters. On the other hand, the characters of George Ring (a poetry-loving pansy), Mrs. Dacey, and Polly have but small fetching likeness about them.


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, a “touched-up” and thinly-veiled autobiography, consisting of ten stories, is a gem of humorous juvenile frankness. Allowing for its more disruptive plan, the book possesses a vivid truth similar to that of Huckleberry Finn. It has poetry, humour, psychological shrewdness, and an excellent swiftness in character-depiction.

In the description of farm-life and the country (see “The Peaches” and “A Visit to Grandpa's”) there are passages that prompt us to compare this aspect of Thomas with Alain-Fournier. Both have a like prose lyricism, and a kind of youthful nostalgia; but the Frenchman is more naively idealistic and sentimental than Thomas, and has not got his anodyne of humour.

Another comparison, or contrast perhaps, is to be found in the “William Brown” stories by Richmal Crompton. But the “I”, the narrator in the Portrait (which commences with his adventures as a small child to the time when he becomes a junior reporter) begins where the popular figure leaves off. For the conventional “naughtiness” of William (smashing a pane of “old Jones'” green-house with his catapult or ball), Thomas substitutes a quite unbowdlerised catalogue of delinquencies:

I let Edgar Reynolds be whipped because I had taken his homework; I stole from my mother's bag; I stole from Gwyneth's bag; I stole twelve books in three visits from the library, and threw them away in the park; I drank a cup of my water to see what it tasted like; I beat a dog with a stick so that it would roll over and lick my hand afterwards; I looked with Dan Jones through the keyhole while his maid had a bath; I cut my knee with a penknife, and put the blood on my handkerchief and said it had come out of my ears so that I could pretend I was ill and frighten my mother; I pulled my trousers down and showed Jack Williams; I saw Billy Jones beat a pigeon to death with a fire-shovel, and laughed and got sick; Cedric Williams and I broke into Mrs. Samuel's house and poured ink over the bedclothes.

In place of the young “doctored” protagonist—the prig disguised as a ragamuffin—which Richmal Crompton offers us, we have a real enfant terrible, a quite irrepressible junior Titan thirsting for the blood of all experience.

We see him, in “Patricia, Edith and Arnold,” playing-up the house-maid and listening to her talk; scrapping with a school-boy who becomes his best friend, and with whom he exchanges fantasies of future artistic greatness (in “The Fight”); pursuing, unsuccessfully, the caresses of school-girls (in “Extraordinary Little Cough”); getting drunk in the sailors' pubs as a “cub” reporter (in “Old Garbo”); and just missing a love-experience with a beautiful young street-walker (in “One Warm Saturday”).

But the various phases of growth through which the youthful hero passes are counter-parted, as it were, by the diversity of the book's other characters: foxy “Uncle Jim”, in the course of trading his live-stock over the counter for liquor; cousin Gwilym, training for the ministry, who writes poems to actresses, practises his sermons from a cart in the barn, and masturbates himself in the farm privy while reading pornographic books; “Grandpa” who lights his pipe beneath the blankets, and sits up in bed driving imaginary horses; the drunk man who lost most of his posterior in a pit-accident (for which mischance he was awarded “Four and three! Two and three ha'pence a cheek”); the old begger who removes his cap and sets his hair on fire for a penny (“only a trick to amuse the boys”, scornfully observes the young narrator)—these, and many others, vivify the Portrait.

And, in this book, we have proceeded from the half-mythical landscapes of The Map of Love to a real particularised Welsh world; not so compact and concentrated as that of Thomas' dramatic literature, yet still singularly present before the eyes. The optic nerve, on the watch for those individual splashes in the palette of local colour, vibrates finely in these stories:

The rain had stopped and High Street shone. Walking on the tram-lines, a neat man held his banner high and prominently feared the Lord.

(“Old Garbo”)

In all, this book evinces a closer direction of language over and above that of the first short stories. The elimination of marginal terms—of words that do not hit the bull's-eye of their object—is apparent if we take a passage from both books. Here is a specimen from The Map of Love:

But there had been no woman in his dream. Not even a thread of a woman's hair had dangled from the sky. God had come down in a cloud and the cloud had changed to a snake's nest. Foul hissing of snakes had suggested the sound of water, and he had been drowned. Down and down he had fallen, under green shiftings and the bubbles that fishes blew from their mouths, down and down on to the bony floors of the sea.

(“The Mouse and The Woman”)

and here a passage from the Portrait:

Night was properly down on us now. The wind changed. Thin rain began. The sands themselves went out. We stood in the scooped, windy room of the arch, listening to the noises from the muffled town, a goods train shunting, a siren in the docks, the hoarse trams in the streets far behind, one bark of a dog, unplaceable sounds, iron being beaten, the distant creaking of wood, doors slamming from where there were no houses, an engine coughing like a sheep on a hill.

(“Just like little dogs”)

How subtly, and truly, the words “unplaceable sounds” have been inserted in this exact catalogue of auditory impressions! Without them, the precision would have been unreal.

But the whittling accuracy of Thomas' thought behind his choice of terms is best demonstrated in the placing of one word:

Uncle Jim [seated in his trap], in his black market suit with a stiff white shirt and no collar, loud new boots, and a plaid cap, creaked and climbed down.

Another author might well have written, “… climbed down, creaking”, thus losing the exact connotation. The creaking preceded the climbing down, and was not simultaneous with it—the sound being caused by “Uncle Jim's” preliminary movements as he raised himself from a sitting position. With the one particular verb, in its particular place, Thomas conveys this straightaway.

Since the Portrait Thomas wrote a number of other stories and sketches in which the evocative use of language and the condensing of impressions were further developed. …


  1. Because the poet felt both attraction and repulsion for the teaching of the Church, it is hard to say how far such a story as this is “anti-Christian” in intention. Indeed, the sympathy of the poet is clearly with the Christ-idiot figure, who is made to greet the boy as “Brother” as the wire cuts into his wrists. But the tale affects me as a travesty—a grim pathetic travesty, which replaces the story of the Crucifixion with a myth in which both parties are imbecilic.

  2. Because of my low estimation of the tales in The Map of Love, I think it only fair to remark that the fine short-storyist Glyn Jones considers “The Dress” to be “one of the most beautiful of modern short stories.”

  3. Chapter one first appeared in Folios of New Writing no. 5 (Autumn, 1941); Chapters one and two (with the first section of Chapter one missing) in Adam no. 238 (1953); and Chapters one and two complete in New World Writing no. 2 (U.S.A.).

  4. It is hard to say what, if anything, takes place. Indeed, from the story it is by no means certain that the girl does climb in. Perhaps this was part of Thomas' joke (on the basis of one type of risqué story which follows suspense with an anticlimax.)


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Dylan Thomas 1914–-1953

(Full name Dylan Marlais Thomas) Welsh poet, dramatist, short story writer, and essayist. See also Dylan Thomas Poetry Criticism and Dylan Thomas Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.

Remembered primarily as a poet who both created innovative poetry and lived a dissolute life, Thomas was also the author of such prose works as short stories, radio screenplays, novels, and a drama. Thomas's works, both prose and poetry, are intensely personal, a form of self-discovery. He often dealt with the same themes in varied genres, including the negative aspects of Welsh Christianity, Welsh folklore, fear of death, and sexuality. In his early prose, Thomas frequently relied on imagery rather than plot devices to advance the narrative. While Thomas's talent as a poet was recognized early in his career, his aptness as a writer of short fiction grew only when scholars attempted to assess his prose works in relationship to his entire oeuvre.

Biographical Information

Born in Swansea, Wales, Thomas was the son of an English master at the Swansea Grammar School. English was his favorite academic subject, and he was the editor of the school literary magazine, in which his first short stories appeared. Otherwise, Thomas rebelled against the strictures of a formal education. When he failed his examinations in 1931, he left school at age sixteen. While working for the South Wales Daily Post, an evening newspaper, he acquired reporting skills that later proved useful in writing fiction. In 1934 he moved to London, where he lived a bohemian lifestyle and composed poems and short fiction, which were first published in magazines. In a pub in 1936 he met dancer Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married a year later, beginning a twelve-year relationship that eventually soured under the strain of poverty and Thomas's alcoholism. Alternating between London, where he indulged in excesses, and rural communities, where he wrote his works, Thomas turned to writing stories and radio screenplays to stave off indigency. During World War II, he wrote propaganda scripts for the British government. After the war, Thomas gave popular poetry readings, which turned into a more lucrative enterprise than prose writing. Nevertheless, he was continually on the verge of destitution and was often in an alcoholic stupor which interfered with his writing. While on an American poetry-reading tour in 1953, Thomas died from excessive alcohol consumption.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Known principally as a talented poet, Thomas devoted considerable time to writing short stories, the final versions of which he copied into his “Red Notebook,” a personal journal from which he read aloud. In such stories as “Map of Love” and “A Prospect of the Sea” Thomas dealt with sexual initiation, while in “The Holy Six,” “The Burning Baby,” “The Enemies,” and “The Tree,” he portrayed Christianity run amok. These stories, from what commentators consider Thomas's early period, demonstrate a style that relies heavily on the fantastic, the poetic, and the shocking. They also have little use for plot in the traditional sense and rely instead on images and dreams to connect the action. Although Thomas attempted during the late 1930s to interest a publisher in a collection of short stories, he was unsuccessful because editors objected to what they considered vulgar language and offensive material. Consequently, while the collection The Map of Love appeared in 1939 and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940, it was not until after Thomas's death that a number of his more controversial stories appeared in book form. Portrait of the Artist, a collection of ten stories written while the couple lived in the Welsh coastal village of Laugharne in 1938 and 1939, marks the beginning of Thomas's more mature style. It reflects Thomas's experiences of marriage and family, as well as the outbreak of continental war. The stories focus on a single protagonist, Thomas, who recounts adventures in a more naturalistic style than his previously figurative prose style in which imagery dominated plot. In “The Peaches” the narrator learns of social class divisions, in “A Visit to Grandpa's” of old age and loneliness, in “Extraordinary Little Cough” of masculinity, and in “Old Garbo” of the tragic consequences of excessive drunkenness. During the 1940s Thomas wrote scripts for the BBC Wales Children's Hour, including “A Child's Memories of Christmas in Wales,” which was later published in book form and became a children's classic. After writing the radio drama Under Milk Wood (1954), Thomas attempted to write an autobiographical novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, but it was left unfinished at his death. Published posthumously in 1955 in a collection with several stories, Adventures is treated by some scholars as a series of short stories and by others as a novel.

Critical Reception

Thomas's short stories remain secondary to his poetry in critical acclaim. Derek Stanford judged Thomas's prose works valuable not on their own merits but because of the “clues they offer to Thomas's literary temperament, and the confirmation of his mode of thought in verse.” Critics such as Jacob Korg have noted the progression of Thomas's style from the early stories to those published in Portrait of the Artist and later. Several critics, among them Stanford, John Ackerman, and Linden Peach, have focused on Thomas's use of imagery in his poetry and prose. According to Ackerman, in the stories written between 1934 and 1939, Thomas employed themes and techniques common to his early poetry: nostalgic childhood images and fantasies combined with biblical thought and imagery to make “a poet's prose—eloquent, sensuous, strongly rhythmic, and rich in metaphor.” Both Rys Davies and Peter Levi, writing at opposite ends of a forty-year span, determined that Thomas never arrived at a mature prose style.

John Ackerman (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: “A Prose Interlude: The Early Stories,” in Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work, Oxford University Press, 1964, pp. 90–103.

[In the following excerpt, Ackerman compares the themes and use of language in Thomas's early short stories, written between 1934 and 1939, to those of his early poetry.]

Thomas's prose is essentially a poet's prose—eloquent, sensuous, strongly rhythmic, and rich in metaphor. It shares the usual Anglo-Welsh attitudes: it is nostalgic, impassioned, personal, and apocalyptic. The writing draws much upon Biblical thought and imagery, and childhood is a dominant theme. Its style owes much to Welsh pulpit oratory and, for its full subtlety, must be read aloud. Sometimes, it must be admitted, the magic of the word and the emotions of the author get the better of the sense.

This chapter considers the early stories written between 1934 and 1939, which differ significantly from the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. In both theme and technique these early stories are closely related to the early poetry. It seem that Thomas had, at this stage, yet to discover the dividing line between prose and poetry. The stories are introspective and subjective to an unusual degree, and only occasionally do they possess a dramatic form. “After the Fair,” probably the first story that Thomas wrote, has an unusually clear narrative outline. It begins:

The fair was over, the lights in the coco-nut stalls were put out, and the wooden horses stood still in the darkness, waiting for the music and the hum of the machines that would set them trotting forward. One by one, in every booth, the naphtha jets were turned down and the canvases pulled over the little gaming tables. The crowd went home, and there were lights in the windows of the caravans.

The story opens poignantly, with the closing of the fair, and the central character is a young girl who has left home:

Nobody had noticed the girl. In her black clothes she stood against the side of the roundabouts, hearing the last feet tread upon the sawdust and the last voices die in the distance. Then, all alone on the deserted ground, surrounded by the shapes of wooden horses and cheap fairy boats, she looked for a place to sleep. Now here and now there, she raised the canvas that shrouded the coco-nut stalls and peered into the warm darkness. … Once she stepped on the boards; the bells round a horse's throat jingled and were still; she did not dare breathe again until all was quiet and the darkness had forgotten the noise of the bells. … But there was nowhere, nowhere in all the fair for her to sleep.

The prose is lucid and musical. At the close of the story the girl, together with the Fat Man she has made friends with and a baby she tries to comfort, are described fantastically and irrationally riding, in the night, the speeding roundabout:

As the roundabout started, slowly at first and slowly gaining speed, the child at the girl's breast stopped crying and clapped its hands. The night wind tore through its hair, the music jangled in its ears. Round and round the wooden horses sped, drowning the cries of the wind with the beating of their hooves.

And so the men from the caravans found them, the Fat Man and the girl in black with a baby in her arms, racing round and round on their mechanical steeds to the ever-increasing music of the organ.

In his early stories Thomas often tends to move from realism to fantasy, from a disciplined handling of experience to a freer registering of emotions. “A Prospect of the Sea” is a further illustration of this. It opens in a style characteristic of Anglo-Welsh prose at its best:

It was high summer, and the boy was lying in the corn. He was happy because he had no work to do and the weather was hot. He heard the corn sway from side to side above him, and the noise of the birds who whistled from the branches of the trees that hid the house. Lying flat on his back, he stared up into the unbrokenly blue sky falling over the edge of the corn. The wind, after the warm rain before noon, smelt of rabbits and cattle. He stretched himself like a cat, and put his arms behind his head. Now he was riding on the sea, swimming through the golden corn waves, gliding along the heavens like a bird; in sevenleague boots he was springing over the fields; he was building a nest in the sixth of the seven trees that waved their hands from a bright, green hill.

The imagery is poetic (‘the unbrokenly blue sky falling over the edge of the corn’), and the forms of natural life are blurred by a derangement of the senses (‘swimming through the golden corn waves’, ‘trees that waved their hands’).

Now he was a boy with tousled hair, rising lazily to his feet, wandering out of the corn to the strip of river by the hillside. He put his fingers in the water, making a mock sea-wave to roll the stones over and shake the weeds; his fingers stood up like ten tower pillars in the magnifying water, and a fish with a wise head and a lashing tail swam in and out of the tower gates. He made up a story as the fish swam through gates into the pebbles and the moving bed.

This is a communication of sensory experience, remarkable for its originality of perception. A little later in the story there is a typically Anglo-Welsh celebration of natural life:

The boy sent a stone skidding over the green water. He saw a rabbit scuttle, and threw a stone at its tail. A fish leaped at the gnats, and a lark darted out of the green earth. This was the best summer since the first seasons of the world. He did not believe in God, but God had made this summer full of blue winds and heat and pigeons in the house wood. There were no chimneys on the hills with no name in the distance, only the trees which stood like women and men enjoying the sun; there were no cranes or coal-tips, only the nameless distance and the hill with seven trees. He could think of no words to say how wonderful the summer was, or the noise of the wood-pigeons, or the lazy corn blowing in the half wind from the sea at the river's end. There were no words for the sky and the sun and the summer country.

Clearly Thomas has in mind the first splendour of creation. His description moves to an ecstatic idealization of the countryside of youth in which the chimneys, cranes, and coal-tips of industrial Swansea have no place. The landscape is witnessed in a vision: it is a summer country.

Towards the close of the story, as the poet describes the dying of the afternoon, again there is a tendency to blur the outlines of experience:

The afternoon was dying; lazily, namelessly drifting westward through the insects in the shade; over hill and tree and river and corn and grass to the evening shaping in the sea; blowing away; being blown from Wales in a wind, in the slow, blue grains, like a wind full of dreams and medicines; down the tide of the sun on to the grey and chanting shore where the birds from Noah's ark glide by with bushes in their mouths, and to-morrow and to-morrow tower over the cracked sand-castles.

The reference to Noah's ark is important, for the story ends on an apocalyptic, religious note, recalling Vernon Watkins's observation that Thomas's ‘early stories explored the relation between immediate reality and archetypal symbols’:

A raven flew by him, out of a window in the Flood to the blind, wind tower shaking in to-morrow's anger like a scarecrow made out of weathers.

‘Once upon a time,’ said the water voice.

‘Do not adventure any more,’ said the echo.

‘She is ringing a bell for you in the sea.’

‘I am the owl and the echo: you shall never go back.’

On a hill to the horizon stood an old man building a boat, and the light that slanted from the sea cast the holy mountain of a shadow over the three-storied decks and the Eastern timber. And through the sky, out of the beds and gardens, down the white precipice built of feathers, the loud combs and mounds, from the caves in the hill, the cloudy shapes of birds and beasts and insects drifted into the hewn door. A dove with a green petal followed in the raven's flight. Cool rain began to fall.

Such prose is very close to the style of Thomas's poems. There is little narrative outline and much of its meaning is implicit in the associations of the words, the strong rhythmic compulsion, and the sensory power of the language. The passage suggests the sacramental unity of all life, a unity that is outside time. This is the same creation, the same hope of regeneration as in the original story of the Flood. Contemporary life is interpreted in the light of traditional Christian mythology, and the dove and the raven are symbols, respectively, of redemption and regeneration (‘with a green petal’), death and sin.

Another story which closely follows Old Testament mythology is “The Tree,” and here again the narrative outline is blurred at times. Its three characters—gardener, child, and idiot—possess a larger-than-life, primeval quality that recalls the work of Caradoc Evans. They inhabit a strange, impassioned world:

The gardener loved the Bible. When the sun sank and the garden was full of people, he would sit with a candle in his shed, reading of the first love and the legend of apples and serpents. But the death of Christ on the tree he loved most. … He would sit in his shed and read of the crucifixion, looking over the jars on his window-shelf into the winter nights. He would think that love fails on such nights, and that many of its children are cut down.

The gardener tells the child the Bible stories:

‘Where is Bethlehem?’

‘Far away,’ said the gardener, ‘in the East.’

To the east stood the Jarvis hills, hiding the sun, their trees drawing up the moon out of the grass.

The idiot is introduced in a manner reminiscent of Caradoc Evans's narrative style:

There was an idiot to the east of the country who walked the land like a beggar. Now at a farmhouse and now at a widow's cottage he begged for his bread.

Thomas suggests the idiot's innocence and holiness and the Welsh scene is identified with that of Christ's childhood:

‘Bethlehem,’ said the idiot to the valley, turning over the sounds of the word and giving it all the glory of the Welsh morning. He brothered the world around him, sipped at the air, as a child newly born sips and brothers the light. The life of the Jarvis valley, steaming up from the body of the grass and the trees and the long hand of the stream, lent him a new blood. Night had emptied the idiot's veins, and dawn in the valley filled them again.

‘Bethlehem,’ said the idiot to the valley.

There is a poet's delight in the sound of the word. It is significant that Thomas identifies the life of the idiot with the natural life around him (‘He brothered the world around him’). On Christmas morning the idiot walked into the garden:

‘Let me be,’ said the idiot, and made a little gesture against the sky. There is rain on my face, there is wind on my cheeks. He brothered the rain.

So the child found him under the shelter of the tree, bearing the torture of the weather with a divine patience, letting his long hair blow where it would, with his mouth set in a sad smile. …

‘Where do you come from?’ asked the child.

‘From the east,’ answered the idiot.

The story moves to an apocalyptic, dramatic finish in which the biblical past superimposes its image on the present:

‘Stand up against the tree.’

The idiot, still smiling, stood up with his back to the elder.

‘Put out your arms like this.’

The idiot put out his arms.

The child ran as fast he could to the gardener's shed, and, returning over the sodden lawns, saw that the idiot had not moved but stood, straight and smiling, with his back to the tree and his arms stretched out.

‘Let me tie your hands.’

The idiot felt the wire that had not mended the rake close round his wrists. It cut into the flesh, and the blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.

‘Brother,’ he said. He saw that the child held silver nails in the palm of his hands.

In this story biblical narrative has been interpreted in modern and personal terms, as in Thomas's early poetry. His idiot is in the romantic tradition of Wordsworth's idiot boy.

Some of the stories draw upon the magical, mystical, and primitive elements in Welsh folk-lore, and Thomas works out his violent themes of sin and death, revenge and redemption against a heavily coloured, almost Old Testament background. In his story “The Enemies” Mr. and Mrs. Owen emerge as vital, life-giving forces in a valley that is seen as primeval and barren:

Up came the roots, and a crooked worm, disturbed by the probing fingers, wriggled blind in the sun. Of a sudden the valley filled all its hollows with the wind, with the voice of the roots, with the breathing of the nether sky. Not only a mandrake screams; torn roots have their cries; each weed Mr. Owen pulled out of the ground screamed like a baby. In the village behind the hill the wind would be raging, the clothes on the garden lines would be set to strange dances. And women with shapes in their wombs would feel a new knocking as they bent over the steamy tubs. Life would go on in the veins, in the bones, the binding flesh, that had their seasons and their weathers even as the valley binding the house about with the flesh of the green grass.

There is a similar perception of the germination of natural life, and of empathy with natural life, in the writing of Margiad Evans:

Sifting the golden hazel and dark copper willow leaves, I saw and touched the earth. … It smelt of fermenting juices. Touching it I felt its clinging, living coldness mounting the veins of my arm, drawing me down into it. Under the dead bracken, the ivy, the celandine, and fox-glove it lay, lapping minute birth, minute decay. I saw the berry's kernel, the emptied broken nutshell, the flex of the shrivelled grass root like a nerve exposed.

The visitor to the valley in Thomas's story is old, afraid of death, and unable to accept the life-process in the way that Mr. and Mrs. Owen, more primitive characters, have accepted it:

‘He is frightened of the dark,’ thought Mrs. Owen, ‘the lovely dark.’ With a smile, Mr. Owen thought: ‘He is frightened of the worm in the earth, of the copulation in the tree, of the living grease in the soil.’ They looked at the old man, and saw that he was more ghostly than ever. … Suddenly Mr. Davies knelt down to pray. … He stared and he prayed, like an old god beset by his enemies.

Both Thomas's poetry and prose attempt to define similar modes of thought and feeling, and such sentences and phrases from these stories as ‘felt desolation in his veins’, ‘desireless familiars’, occur later in the poetry as ‘Make desolation in the vein’, ‘A desireless familiar’.

These stories, to a greater extent than the poetry, owe something to surrealist techniques. Many of the unpublished stories are about lust, insanity, cruelty, and fear. They involve their author in a release of emotion, but whereas the surrealist creed encouraged merely the release of subconscious emotions, Thomas's interpretation of these emotions is essentially religious in character. T. S. Eliot has said that

Yeats's ‘supernatural world’ was the wrong supernatural world. It was not a world of spiritual significance, not a world of real Good and Evil, of holiness or sin, but a highly sophisticated lower mythology summoned, like a physician, to supply the fading pulse of poetry with some transient stimulant.

Unlike Yeats's supernatural world, the strange world of Thomas's stories is composed of Good and Evil—though, admittedly, the sense of evil tends to dominate.

Perhaps the most successful of these stories is “The Burning Baby.” It is more dramatic in its emotions, more complex in its themes than the others, and it has a firmer narrative outline. I am indebted to Mr. Glyn Jones for information concerning the source of this story. On a visit to Aberystwyth to meet Caradoc Evans he told Dylan Thomas the story of Dr. Price of Llantrisant. The doctor, who died in 1893 at the age of ninety-three, defied in a most exhibitionist fashion the legal, religious, and moral conventions of his time. He called himself a druid and, on his public appearances, dressed in weird and highly-coloured costumes. He chanted pagan addresses to the moon and boasted of supernatural powers. His much-loved illegitimate son, whom he named Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ) and believed destined to recover the lost secrets of the druids, died at the age of five months. Price carried him to the top of a hill in Caerlan fields and, chanting wild laments over the body, burned it.

Thomas listened to this story lounging on his bed at their Aberystwyth hotel and by the end, Glyn Jones recalls, the bed-sheet was riddled with cigarette burns. Thomas's mind seized upon the incident of the child's cremation for “The Burning Baby,” which opens:

They said that Rhys was burning his baby when a gorse bush broke into fire on the summit of the hill. The bush, burning merrily, assumed to them the sad white features and the rickety limbs of the vicar's burning baby. What the wind had not blown away of the baby's ashes, Rhys Rhys had sealed in a stone jar. With his own dust lay the baby's dust, and near him the dust of his daughter in a coffin of white wood.

In the second paragraph the vicar's elder son enters the story.

They heard his son howl in the wind. They saw him walking over the hill, holding a dead animal up to the light of the stars. They saw him in the valley shadows as he moved, with the motion of a man cutting wheat, over the brows of the fields. In a sanatorium he coughed his lung into a basin, stirring his fingers delightedly in the blood. What moved with invisible scythe through the valley was a shadow and a handful of shadows cast by the grave sun.

One is reminded of Thomas's own tubercular symptoms. After these vigorous and dramatic paragraphs which set the scene, the narrative begins: ‘It was, they said, on a fine sabbath morning in the middle of summer that Rhys Rhys fell in love with his daughter.’ Thomas is morbidly obsessed with the corruption of the flesh:

He moved his hand up and down her arm. Only the awkward and the ugly, only the barren bring forth fruit. The flesh of her arm was red with the smoothing of his hand. He touched her breast. From the touch of her breast he knew each inch of flesh upon her. Why do you touch me there? she said.

The vicar's son finds a dead rabbit and, as so often in these stories, a mutilated animal is used to release feelings of cruelty and horror.

The rabbit's head was riddled with pellets, the dogs had torn open its belly, and the marks of a ferret's teeth were upon its throat. He lifted it gently up, tickling it behind the ears. The blood from its head dropped on his hand. Through the rip in the belly, its intestines had dropped out and coiled on the stone.

The boy is a changeling, an idiot, with long green hair. He, too, has been subject to strange sexual adventures, for his sister ‘was to him as ugly as the sowfaced woman of Llareggub who had taught him the terrors of the flesh. He remembered the advances of that unlovely woman.’ It is interesting to see the name Llareggub, that was to reappear as Llaregyb in Under Milk Wood, first coined in these stories of the mid-thirties. The earlier version is more suggestive of the word's etymology, a device employed also in Samuel Butler's title, Erewhon.

Rhys Rhys's daughter conceives a child by him, and it is this child which Rhys Rhys burns alive:

Surrounded by shadows, he prayed before the flaming stack, and the sparks of the heather blew past his smile. Burn, child, poor flesh, mean flesh, flesh, flesh, sick sorry flesh, flesh of the foul womb, burn back to dust, he prayed.

Significantly, Thomas makes a minister of religion the central character in the story; as in such other tales of lechery, fear, and cruelty, as “The Horse's Ha,” “The School for Witches,” and “The Holy Six.” Hypocrisy is the chief target of his ferocious satire:

That night he preached of the sins of the flesh. O God in the image of our flesh, he prayed.

His daughter sat in the front pew, and stroked her arm. She would have touched her breast where he had touched it, but the eyes of the congregation were upon her.

Flesh, flesh, flesh, said the vicar.

The instinct to wound the Nonconformist clergy was as deeply rooted in Thomas as in Caradoc Evans. To attribute perverse desires to the religious and ‘respectable’ is a simple but effective method of attack, and Thomas is not slow to exploit its possibilities:

Rhys Rhys sat in his study, the stem of his pipe stuck between his flybuttons, the bible unopened on his knees. The day of God was over, and the sun, like another sabbath, went down behind the hills. … Merry with desire, Rhys Rhys cast the bible on the floor. He reached for another book, and read, in the lamplit darkness, of the old woman who had deceived the devil. The devil is poor flesh, said Rhys Rhys.

The use of the Welsh background in the story “The Holy Six” is again imaginative rather than realistic. Thomas seeks to convey an atmosphere of primitive, sensual claustrophobia:

The Holy Six of Wales sat in silence. The day was drawing to a close, and the heat of the first discussion grew cooler with the falling sun. All through the afternoon they had talked of nothing but the disappearance of the rector of Llareggub, and now, as the first lack of light moved in a visible shape and colour through the room, and their tongues were tired, and they heard the voices in their nerves, they waited only for the first darkness to set in. At the first signs of night they would step from the table, adjust their hats and smiles, and walk into the wicked streets. Where the women smiled under the lamps, and the promise of the old sickness stirred in the fingertips of the girls in the dark doorways, the Six would pass dreaming, to the scrape of their boots on the pavement, of the women throughout the town smiling and doctoring love. To Mr. Stul the women drifted in a maze of hair, and touched him in a raw place. The women drifted around Mr. Edger. He caught them close to him, holding their misty limbs to his with no love or fire. The women moved again, with the grace of cats, edging down the darker alleys where Mr. Vyne, envious of their slant-eyed beauty, would scrape and bow. To Mr. Rafe, their beauties, washed in blood, were enemies of the fluttering eyes, and moved, in what image they would, full-breasted, fur-footed, to a massacre of the flesh. He saw the red nails and trembled. There was no purpose in the shaping wombs but the death of the flesh they shaped, and he shrank from the contact of death, and the male nerve was pulled alone.

I have quoted at some length in order to indicate themes and technique that are typical of these stories. The Holy Six are at once clerical gentlemen and symbols of the same order as the mediaeval Seven Deadly Sins. The name Stul is an anagram of ‘lust’; Edger of ‘greed’; Vyne of ‘envy’; and Rafe of ‘fear’. In this paragraph Thomas suggests the various reactions of these characters towards sex: they are, respectively, reactions dominated by lust, greed, envy, and fear. Thus, to Mr. Rafe the women represent a ‘massacre of the flesh’: ‘he saw the red nails and trembled’. For him ‘the shaping wombs’ meant ‘the death of the flesh’ and ‘the male nerve was pulled alone’.

The link between these early stories and the early poetry is, very obviously, a fundamental one, both in theme and attitude. While “The Holy Six” deals with the subject of sexual man, “The Horse's Ha” is concerned with death in the form of a plague which enters a town. Again the language closely resembles that of the early poems, not least in its Biblical echoes:

What is death's music? One note or many? The chord of contagion? Thus questioned the undertaker, the cup three-quarters empty in his gloved hand. He who marks the sparrow's fall has no time for my birds, said ApLlewellyn. What music is death? …

So Mr. Montgomery was left alone, by the desolate church, under a disappearing moon. One by one the stars went out, leaving a hole in heaven. He looked upon the grave, and slowly removed his coat.

The emotional and moral attitudes behind such writing are conditioned by an essentially religious view of experience.

Thomas's early stories are essentially a by-product of his poetry. Their obsession with sexual themes, with cruelty, with death and decay has, in its total possession of the personality, something adolescent about it. The prose is distinguished more by its intense sensual power than by its subtlety. In the main tradition of Anglo-Welsh prose-writing Thomas aims at an imaginative—rather than a realistic—recreation of sensory experience, and packs his language with metaphor. He well understood what Rimbaud called ‘the Alchemy of the word’. The stories, however, remain obsessively personal. They are solipsistic: each story brings the reader back to Thomas's own emotional conflicts, fears, and desires. They are imaginative projections of his own intuitions and feelings, bearing little relationship with the everyday, external world. He is hardly concerned with human relationships at all, for his interest in human life is essentially personal and isolated. He writes of the facts of love, death, happiness, and sorrow as they confront individual man. His concern with experience is not social but personal, not psychological but religious. The tales have the intensity and strangeness, in their wildest moments, of nightmare: and that nightmare, that phantasmagoria of images and perceptions, is offered as reality.

I have already suggested that Thomas was quick to draw upon the more arcane fantasies that the Welsh background and Welsh folk-lore presented to him. It is interesting to see, too, that in his stories, he usually put Welsh names in the final draft: thus, in “The Visitor,” the name Millicent was changed to Rhiannon; and in “The Orchards” the name Peter becomes—significantly—Marlais. “The Orchards” is a very personal piece, revealing something of Thomas's attitude to himself as a poet and his tendency to be overcome by the welter and conflict of his experience:

The word is too much with us. He raised his pencil so that its shadow fell, a tower of wood and lead, on the clean paper. … The tower fell, down fell the city of words, the walls of a poem, the symmetrical letters. … ‘Image, all image,’ he cried to the fallen tower as the night came on. ‘Whose harp is the sea? Whose burning candle is the sun?’ An image of man, he rose to his feet and drew the curtains open. Peace, like a simile, lay over the roofs of the town. ‘Image, all image,’ cried Marlais, stepping through the window on to the level roofs. … He was a folk-man no longer but Marlais the poet walking, over the brink into ruin, up the side of doom, over hell in bed to the red left, till he reached the first of fields where the unhatched apples were soon to cry fire in a wind from a half-mountain falling westward to the sea.

The impact on the poet of the town which he can see below him, of the nearby country and the sea, is through word and image. The conflict, in his mind, between the reality of the world before him and the reality of the word, is an ever-present one. These early stories present a poetic vision of adolescence and early manhood, with all the beauty and intensity, doubts and fears of that age of self-discovery.

Principal Works

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The Map of Love 1939

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog 1940

Quite Early One Morning 1954

Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories 1955

Selected Writings of Dylan Thomas 1970

Collected Stories 1980

18 Poems (poetry) 1934

Twenty-Five Poems (poetry) 1936

New Poems (poetry) 1943

Collected Poems, 1934–1952 (poetry) 1952

Deaths and Entrances (poetry) 1952

In Country Sleep (poetry) 1952

Under Milk Wood (drama) 1954

Peter Levi (review date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Gruesome,” in Spectator, London, July 9, 1983, pp. 22–3.

[In the following review of Thomas's Collected Stories, Levi decides that Thomas never matured as a prose writer.]

Dylan Thomas might have been alive today. He never lived to be 40; he died 30 years ago—of playing a role it is impossible to sustain through middle age, and perhaps hard to sustain at all in the modern world. Indeed the very idea of Dylan Thomas shows how our world has altered. The seedily respectable, prewar, provincial territory of Cwmdonkin Drive is more utterly lost now than the old moods of Soho or the purity of rural Wales.

You might flick through the leaves of his Collected Stories in search of a certain meaty Welsh realism, or the prose version of a rural poem. But Dylan Thomas spent many years refining and defining his subject matter, and if it were not for half a dozen, or at most a dozen poems, the climax of his life-work would really be Under Milk Wood, with humour and sentiment at last more or less under control, Freud and the Bible at last evaporating, and clarity beginning to be dominant over resonance. If it were not for the poems, Dylan Thomas would offer a quite common and simple graph of literary development, from sixth form genius, top heavy with adolescence, through journalism, precocious success and the school of life, to a capable, attractive writer becoming less mannered with age. He would be a healthy example of the good influence of the BBC. These stories would never have been reissued if he were not so famous, and so appealing to the bad taste most of us share.

We have already been given the complete Early Prose Writings, edited by Walford Davies in 1971. The edition that presents itself now has reprinted even the earliest stories rescued from juvenile note-books and school magazines, and over 100 pages more of stories written before the age of 24. They are gruesomely pretentious. With perhaps two early exceptions in which the water was already running clear, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, a linked series of ten stories written on the eve of war and published in 1940, is the first and almost only success of this volume. Adventures in the Skin Trade, which followed, was three chapters of a curdled, unfinished book. They were written in the summer of 1941, and the joke of bohemian London had, no doubt, worn thin. Horizon, which had already begun in 1941 to print virtually the whole of his best poetry as soon as it was written, never chose to print a story by Dylan Thomas.

After Adventures in the Skin Trade, his stories gathered here were all written for broadcasting, the last one for television in 1953. They are terribly dated, only quite attractive. They are a clearing of the throat for Under Milk Wood, which took a long time getting written. I recollect that the begging letters (the one art form Dylan Thomas brought to near perfection) which were printed after his death by Principessa Caetani in Botteghe Oscure, referred to Under Milk Wood a long time before it was finished.

And yet one reads even these awful stories with a certain nostalgia. It is like coming upon old copies of Argosy in an attic, or like suddenly relishing again one of the horrible meals of boyhood, baked beans, for example, with H. P. sauce. Some of the stories contain clichés, once common, that I have not heard since 1948. Even Empson's review of the Early Prose Writings which was reprinted in the Listener anthology, looks pleasantly dated now. ‘Most of the stories are about Welsh characters in an exalted state of religious mania, and they are full of fun in their own way, but the author does not seem to share in their exultation … He is uneasily trying to come to terms with life—not with being Welsh, as he simply thought better of Wales for producing such deep, extravagant types.’

Empson, with his merciless gentleness, detects a note of hysteria which is present on most pages of this book. In the early stories young Thomas is desperate about sex, and full of alarming fantasies. Later on he becomes panic-stricken about cities and his self-image is a terrified young man; the stories are sad and full of self-pity. Those private friends who knew Dylan Thomas best have always suggested there was far more to him than went into his stories. That sounds right. The stories are only giggling signs to ward off the evil of some nursery demon. As a writer in prose, Dylan Thomas never developed. In writers, as in civilisations, the true, admirable age of prose is often later to mature than the intoxicating age of poetry. Dylan Thomas did not live to be 40.

Further Reading

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Gaston, Georg. Dylan Thomas: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 213 p.

A compilation of secondary sources.

Maud, Ralph. Dylan Thomas in Print: A Bibliographical History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, 261 p.

An extensive listing of primary and secondary sources.

Rolph, J. Alexander. Dylan Thomas: A Bibliography. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956, 108 p.

This early bibliography of works by and about Thomas includes illustrations.


Ackerman, John. Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work. London: Oxford University Press, 1964, 201 p.

In this critical biography, Ackerman stresses the importance of Thomas's Welsh heritage on his writings.

Davies, James A. A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, 365 p.

A biography and critical history covering Thomas's poetic and prose works.


Cushman, Keith. “Eight Stories by Dylan Thomas.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 265–67.

Compares the stories in this collection favorably with those of Dubliners by James Joyce.

Davies, James A. A Reference Companion to Dylan Thomas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, 365 p.

A combined biography and critical history covering Thomas's poetic and prose works. Includes critical histories focusing individually on Thomas's reputation in England, Wales, and North America.

Glick, Burton S. “A Brief Analysis of a Short Story by Dylan Thomas.” American Imago 14, No. 2 (Summer 1957): 149–54.

An analysis of “The Followers” from Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories.

Kelly, Richard. “The Lost Vision in Dylan Thomas' ‘One Warm Saturday.’” Studies in Short Fiction 6, No. 2 (Winter 1969): 205–09.

Compares and contrasts Thomas's “One Warm Saturday” from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and James Joyce's “Araby” from Dubliners.

Morris, Frances. “The Man Who Loved and Haunted Himself.” Times Literary Supplement (2 March 1984): 227.

Maintains that Thomas's self-absorption is reflected in his short stories.

Mosher, Harold F., Jr. “The Structure of Dylan Thomas's ‘The Peaches.’” Studies in Short Fiction 6, No. 5 (Fall 1969): 536–47.

A structural analysis of “The Peaches” from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

Phillip, Neil. Review of A Visit to Grandpa's and Other Stories.Times Educational Supplement, No. 3564 (19 October 1984): 25.

A short laudatory review of a new collection of stories, five of which originated in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

Additional coverage of Thomas's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945–1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 120; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 65; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 20, 139; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2; Poetry for Students, Vol. 8; Something about the Author, Vol. 60; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 45; and World Literature Criticism.

Brian Stonehill (review date 1985)

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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 6, 1985, p. 1, 5.

[In the following review of The Collected Stories, Stonehill provides a brief appreciation.]

What is the gift that some storytellers have of immediately enwrapping us? A walk through this collection by a storyteller better known as one of the great poets of our century offers a few clues to that question.

Dylan Thomas [in The Collected Stories] writes from the child in himself to the child in us, without disturbing the skeptical adult selves that stand sentry over precious childhood memories. He re-creates the intense colors, the distinctive odors, the absolutely human feel of everything we registered in our crustless youths. Yet the perspective is from here, today, looking back: We're not invited to escape so much as to measure our distance from how sensitive we once were, how much we once were able to perceive.

The evocation of youth is a kind of magic. What is gone, suddenly returns: presto! If Proust could pull vivid decades from a soggy cookie, Thomas suavely offers to perform a more robust, outdoor version of the trick. He'll pull his past out of a Welsh snowball:

“I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting as the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Protero and the firemen.”

The singing quality of Thomas' prose—that lilting rhythm and those fast-changing images—is one way he evades our defenses. “That's nice music,” note our critical guards, perhaps recognizing Homer's stamp on the passport. “Artfully done. You may pass.”

Then the child imprisoned in our imaginations grows restless and starts rattling its bars in time with Thomas' beat. “Hey, that's me! I recognize those sensations!” Then the meeting of our minds and the mind of the storyteller takes place, and “enchantment” best describes that feeling of being swept into—and away with—the story.

There's nothing naive here, aesthetically or morally. Dylan Thomas observed the surrealists closely and walks part of the way with them, taking what he needs and then branching off. The world of the imagination embodies itself as commandingly as any other claim on our attention. No elves or dragons, but the fantastic flickering of our pasts across the screen of the present, with a narrative inventiveness that must please even the sternest of modernists.

On the moral level, Christian sentiment informs many of these stories, from “The Tree,” with its Crucifixion barely disguised by the writer at 19, to “A Child's Christmas in Wales,” written and recorded in Thomas' memorably rich voice, a few years before his death at 39, in 1953. What strikes one most, finally, about these stories, is their generosity. With a little distance from their alluring world, we're aware of Dylan Thomas mining this material from inside his self, excavating, polishing, and setting it asparkle before us.

There's nothing saccharine here, either. “The Burning Baby” is about incest and infanticide. Human failure casts its constant shadow. Deliberate destruction scars the soul, even of one who passed World War II telling stories for the BBC.

But Thomas feels the miraculous gifts of existence and consciousness with crucial intensity. His prose, his images, his stories all pulsate with life, with a beat and a variety that captivate, invigorate and clarify.

“He brothered the world around him, sipped at the air, as a child newly born sips and brothers the light.” After the early stories, after Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Adventures in the Skin Trade, this collection presents a story Dylan Thomas wrote for and read on TV. As Leslie Norris recalls in a fine foreword, “I saw Thomas tell this story on the old black and white screen. He filled it with action and colour with his unaided words.”

Linden Peach (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Religion, Repression and Sexual Violence,” in The Prose Writing of Dylan Thomas, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 15–45.

[From a study of religion, repression, and sexual violence, Peach discusses in the essay below, Thomas's use of imagery and symbolism to express the darker side of sexuality.]

Late in the Spring, Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends.

(Saul Bellow, Herzog)

Shall we never get rid of this Past. … In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables)


Dylan Thomas's early stories present a number of problems for the reader. They are unconventional even by the standards of Joyce and Chekhov. They contain few clearly defined characters, shift confusingly between symbolism and realism, and, in sometimes bizarre ways, tend to sexual violence.

There are parallels between the difficulties presented by the early prose and those presented by the early poems. In both Thomas fostered obscurity, as Moynihan says, ‘as a structural device. … If newness or freshness could not be achieved by a statement of immediate force and compelling strength. … Then freshness might be achieved by a sense of verbal, thematic or imagistic struggle’. Hence, in the stories as in the early poems images jostle with each other in what Thomas described himself in a letter to Vernon Watkins as ‘a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions and contradictions’. But this is not the whole picture for there is an indigenous link between the seeming obscurity and compression. In the stories as Thomas once said of his poems ‘everything it tightly packed away in a mad doctor's bag’. Indeed, to quote Moynihan, ‘he reached a point where his language implied so much that it seemed to say nothing’.

The little critical attention that the early stories have received has regarded them as vehicles of expression for Thomas's innermost anxieties and obsessions. The lynchpin of this argument is that they do not delineate the exterior world in an empirical way but contain, as Walford Davies maintains, the ‘fusion of objective realities like people, places and events’ with ‘the distorted vision made out of them by the poet's deeper fears’. The mawkish violence and often bizarre sexuality in the early stories constitute an interface between these two.

Walford Davies finds behind the farrago of the early stories ‘the hysterical implosions of an imagination unable to accept order and control’. It is true that in Thomas's work there is a deep-rooted suspicion of order which borders on aversion and which even in the much later work, Adventures in the Skin Trade, belies Mr. Allingham's insistence ‘that there's sense in everything’. But Walford Davies's explanation is not entirely satisfactory. The conflation of order and control with the negation of desire, of self-fulfilment and self-hood was not simply an ‘hysterical implosion’, but the result of Thomas's thinking about the repressive religious life of the narrow, rural communities. The recurring concern with sexual violence and perverse, secret desire which has been regarded only as an externalising of Thomas's personal obsessions is also an important part of Thomas's attempt, inspired at least partly by Caradoc Evans, to expose the hypocrisy and the sham of a dying Welsh chapel culture which he saw as a strait-jacket upon the Welsh people.

There is undoubtedly some truth in the thesis that the candid concern with sex in Thomas's work is part of an attempt on his part to confront, and come to terms with, his own subconscious anxieties about sex, as there is also in John Ackerman's assertion that surrealism and Freudian Psychology had an impact upon his young mind. However, it must be remembered that Caradoc Evans achieved considerable notoriety for his candid treatment of sex, too. Moreover, his work often deals with the conflict between sexual desire and a solipsistic, repressive, local culture that threatened either to stifle it or transform it into something shameful. In such a culture moral lapses received short shrift. Evans never forgot the way his own father, accused of adultery, suffered the public humiliation of ‘Y Ceffyl Pren’—‘The Wooden Horse’—in which he was tied astride a wooden pole and carried ignominiously through the village. The whole scene would have been accompanied by the kind of riotous procession Thomas Hardy describes accompanying the ‘skimmington ride’—the West Country version in which effigies substituted for the real offenders—in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Evans's women are often portrayed as sexually active and, in traditional terms, morally loose. Usually, he does not pass judgement upon them in the narrative as, for example, in his description of Maggy in “To Keep a Rainbow White”:

Maggy was thirty. Her cheeks were pink, her lips not thick or thin, her bosom full. Years before she was in the service of a Carmarthen auctioneer and begot a chance child, a male child.

He does, however, contrast their intense sexuality with the repressive, local culture in which they lived. And their intense sexuality is concomitant with feelings of guilt induced by that culture. So, eventually Maggy refrains from sex earning the nickname ‘self-denial’ in the hope of marrying a ‘pure man’. Evans does not labour the irony, though it can hardly be missed, that while Maggy is looked down upon for her sexual freedom, she is also criticised by men for her abstinence. Evans is especially interested in the way men, ignoring their own complicity, shift the blame to the women as is clear from “An Offender in Siôn”:

He laid his hands on Rachel's shoulders, and he spoke flatteringly and made false promises. He said this also: ‘Tidy, look you here, you are in your blood. Softening I am. Come you into the lower end and talk matters will we’.

Rachel placed her trust carelessly in him; and it came to be that after Ianto had committed his sin he repented and rebuked Rachel: ‘awful, serpent, in this you have done’.

In Evans's stories, as in some of Thomas's stories, to be seen to be respectable seems more important than respectability and integrity themselves. Also in Evans's work, as in Thomas's “Old Garbo”, the hypocritical are condemned not only for their hypocrisy but the brutality with which they turn upon others they see as wrong-doers. When Rachel, after Ianto has made her pregnant, threatens to expose him for his complicity, his response is sharp and violent: ‘Jessabel’, he said slowly, ‘shut your chin, or kick your belly will I’. The Bible enables him to find convenient symbols of an evil which is really inside himself denouncing her as ‘serpent’ and ‘Jessabel’.

It is not uncommon in literature which is the product of a repressive culture for sexual desires that are repressed to find expression in various degrees of sexually-tinged violence. We see it clearly in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and, to a lesser extent, Sir Walter Scott. Repressed sexuality is concomitant with violence in several of Thomas's early stories. In “The Holy Six” (1937) the religious life of the Six distorted their sexuality as Thomas unsubtly suggests when he says that ‘the holy life was a constant erection to these gentlemen’. The repression colours their view of women, they are overconscious of, and alarmed by, ‘the wicked streets … where the women smiled under the lamps, and the promise of the old sickness stirred in the fingertips of the girls in the dark doorways’. Normal sexual energies are channelled into violence: ‘Mr Lucytyre conducted an imaginary attack upon the maidenheads. Now here and now there he ripped the women, and kissing them, he bit into their lips.’ None of the Holy Six is capable of enjoying a properly adjusted relationship with the opposite sex. Mr. Stul, an allegorical representation of lust as the anagram suggests, cannot read Mrs. Owen's letter without thinking that as she writes ‘she feels the weight of her breasts on her ink-black arm’. It is he who ‘thrusts his hand high up under Miss Myfanwy's skirt’. Lucytyre, again as the name suggests, can only relate to others through pain and violence, evident when he ‘smiling at destruction, drove his fingers into her [Miss Myfanwy's] back until the knuckles tingled and the invisible flesh reddened with pain’. While walking from the overturned cart, Miss Myfanwy ‘smelt the clover in the grass’ while, characteristically, ‘Mr. Lucytyre smelt only the dead birds.’ A clue as to what Thomas believed had gone wrong in these lives is contained in a letter he wrote to Pamela Hansford-Johnson in 1933:

During the period of adolescence, when the blood and seed of the growing flesh need, for the first time and more than ever again, communion and contact with the blood and seed of another flesh, sexual relationships are looked upon as being unnecessary and unclean. … So often the opportunity comes too late, the seed has soured, love has turned to lust, and lust to sadism.

This letter serves as a gloss on other stories, too, such as “The True Story” (1934) where, once again, sex denied a proper and natural outlet becomes as Thomas suggested in the letter, a sly and sinister force. Instead of eyes, the simple farm boy has ‘two crafty cuts in his head’ and is ‘forever spying on the first shadows of Helen's [sic] breast’. The combination of ‘crafty’ meaning underhand and cunning with the sinister word ‘cuts’ projects a sense of menace accentuated by the use of ‘spying’ itself suggesting an intrusion upon not only what is secret but forbidden. The connotation is carried surreptitiously over into the first mention of Helen's sexuality.

Not only the simple farm boy, but Helen herself is the epitome of repressed sexuality. We are reminded that Helen is ‘a woman under apron and pink frock’, the apron being a symbol of the life of domesticity and drudgery she has been forced to assume in looking after the old woman. The fact that her frock is pink, like the pink ribbons in the hair of Faith in Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown”, reminds us of her sexuality and pent-up passion. Helen's problem is again that which Thomas describes in the letter to Pamela Hansford-Johnson. Helen's transition from child to woman is described in virtually one sentence suggesting the speed with which time has passed and the way her sexuality has developed almost unnoticed even by herself.


The early stories are not simply delineations of sexual violence nor do they equate violence with sexual repression according to a simple formula. They betray a serious concern to try and understand the psychic origins of sexual violence. In “The True Story” the emphasis is as much upon the disturbed nature of Helen's mind as her repressed sexuality. In “The Vest” (1934), too, violence is a product of deep psychological problems. The killer, into whose mind the story takes us, tries to excuse his actions: ‘when he hurt her, it was to hide his pain. When he struck her cheek until the skin blushed, it was to break the agony of his own head’. In “The Dress” (1934), Jack's murder of his wife might seem to stem, at first sight, from sexual jealousy: ‘They said he had cut off her lips because she smiled at men.’ But very subtly the story suggests that there are deeper problems: ‘the mist was a mother to him, putting a coat around his shoulders where the shirt was torn and the blood dry on his blades’. At the very end of the story, the girl, rocking in her chair as an elderly mother in those days might, receives him as a mother would a frightened and hurt child: ‘she sat before him, covered in flowers. “Sleep”, said the madman. And, kneeling down, he put his bewildered head upon her lap’. The stories are strong on innuendo and short on theories, as they should be, for they deal with problems to which there are no easy solutions. The use of the word ‘madman’ is belied by the complexities to which the story as a whole points. In fact, there is a suggestion in the later Adventures in the Skin Trade, that Thomas remained throughout his life bewildered by sexual violence. The homosexual, George Ring,—Thomas's humour is often of this unsubtle kind—is told how one of the prostitutes was beaten by one of her clients who suddenly produced a clothes brush from a little bag. Allingham, the droll observer who has been ejected from a nightclub following a brawl, muses with a bewilderment that seems like the author's own: ‘There's some people can't enjoy themselves unless they're knocking women down and licking them on the floor.’

The early stories make some interesting points about violence which might appear commonplace today, but were not so at the time at which Thomas wrote and for which Thomas's acuity deserves recognition. In several stories a connection is made between sexual violence and a desire to dominate. It is most candidly stated in “The Vest” in which the husband, in a lurid fantasy based on the relationship with the wife he has killed, orders her ‘Take off your frock’, slapping her and repeating the order when at first she does not obey. She is frightened and crying, but in the darkness he strips her of the rest of her clothes, and having humiliated her in this way, leaves. The incident is similar to one in “The Burning Baby” (1934) but, without the physical violence, where Rhys Rhys orders his daughter, ‘step out of your shift’.

Thomas maintained in “Replies to an Enquiry” that his work ‘must drag further into the clean nakedness of light more even of the hidden causes than Freud could realise’. In these early stories there is no gainsaying that the causes of sexual violence are complicated to unravel, itself a reflection of Thomas's concern to understand. In “The Vest”, especially, the urge to dominate is a symptom of a larger misogynism. Hence, the husband who turns killer finds women repulsive because he cannot but see them as corrupt. In bed with his wife, ‘he lay quietly by her skeleton. But she arose next morning in the corrupted flesh’. The language here has religious connotations. The use of the word ‘skeleton’ and the metaphor of rising from the dead reminds us of the resurrection and the way Christ was thought to have assumed a corrupt body. These connotations suggest that the origins of the man's distaste of women may be in his religious upbringing. This suggestion is not developed explicitly, but it is underlined by the way in which the man sees the inside of a bar, exaggeratedly, as “Sodom and Gomorrah”:

The bar was crowded. Women were laughing and shouting. They spilt their drinks over their dresses and lifted their dresses up. Girls were dancing on the sawdust. A woman caught him by the arm. … He could hear nothing but the voices of the laughing women and the shouting of the girls as they danced. Then the ungainly women from the seats and corners rocked towards him. He saw that the room was full of women. Slowly, still laughing, they gathered close to him.

This paranoid view is in sharp contrast to that at the end of the story when he offers his wife's blood-stained vest for sale and ‘the meek and ordinary women in the bar’ stand ‘still, their glasses in their hands …’.

Rhys Rhys in “The Burning Baby” is similarly obsessed that flesh is corrupt, largely as a result of the guilt over his feelings for his daughter. Like the killer in “The Vest”, he is revolted by what always draws him magnetically. His daughter (at least in his eyes) is noticeably ugly: ‘her hair smelt of mice, her teeth came over her lip, and the lids of her eyes were red and wet’. The madman in “The Mouse and the Woman” has killed the woman he loved because the female form repulsed him:

They were … naked … Eve could not have been as beautiful. They ate with the devil, and saw that they were naked, and covered up their nakedness. In their good bodies they saw evil for the first time.

Then you saw evil in me, she said, when I was naked. I would as soon be naked as clothed.

The phrase ‘in their good bodies’ is interesting because it is an intrusion championing the natural healthiness of the body, sensuality and sexuality and it is juxtaposed with a religious inspired view of sex, the body, and sensuality as evil. The woman is not the femme fatale of some of the other stories. She is innocently at ease with her nakedness. The reference to Eve, too, is deliberate for Thomas follows Blake in seeing the Fall as the beginning of sexual repression.

A similar thesis underpins some of the poems. In ‘Unluckily For A Death’ Dylan describes the chapel-going culture's stress on restricting sexuality as ‘the choir and cloister / Of the wintry nunnery of the order of lust’. By contrast in physical love:

                  The ceremony of souls
Is celebrated there, and communion between suns.
Never shall my self chant
About the saint in shades while the endless breviary
Turns of your prayed flesh …


The sexual violence is part of a larger aspect of the early stories which can only be described by Herman Melville's term, ‘the power of blackness’ and which Melville observed ‘derived its force from its appeal to the Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin’. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The School for Witches” (1936) which combines sexual desire, adolescent fraternising with the occult and the superstition of a remote rural community that owes more to the seventeenth century than the twentieth century.

In this story, as in others, it is not the author-narrator but a character who expresses the sense of an overwhelming evil most convincingly. Mrs. Price, the midwife, with a baby in her arms, screams: ‘This is a wicked world.’ The fact that she is a midwife and that she has a baby in her arms when she says this underscores the horror of the proclamation. She, like the witch, Mrs. Owen, in “The Holy Six”, is a type of character Thomas uses to express a thesis he is tempted towards himself but is not yet fully prepared to accept. Mrs. Owen described as ‘wise to the impious systems’, is able to see ‘through the inner eye that the round but unbounded earth rotted as she ripened’. Thomas still hoped this was not the case.

Typically of the early stories, the doctor's daughter, Gladwys, in “The School for Witches” is a combination of overt passion and innocence: ‘short and fat thighed; her cheeks were red; she had red lips and innocent eyes’. But this story is not concerned with the poignancy of innocence bent on it own destruction. Thomas is interested in the evil which she, having whipped herself up into a frenzy, brings down upon herself:

She saw, as clearly as the tinkers saw the spire, the towering coming of a beast in stag's skin, the antlered animal whose name read backwards, and the black, black, black wanderer climbing a hill for the seven wise girls of Cader.

Traditionally, the devil is the black bogey man of the forest—irrational prejudice against black people reaches deep into the communal psyche of Western societies—and in this story it is the black, itinerant blade sharpener who becomes the ‘Evil One’ with whom Gladwys enters into a relationship.

Gladwys' offering of herself is an episode deeply rooted in folklore. The black scissorman, an outsider because of his colour and his work, is the lusty, powerful blackman of white mythology. What is enacted here is a racial fear incredible to intelligent people today but unfortunately not uncommon in white gothic literature, the rape of a white virgin by a blackman:

And, like a god, the scissorman bent over Gladwys he healed her wound, she stood his ointment and his fire, she burned at the tower altar, and the black sacrifice was done.

Once again violence and dominance, are essential elements of the encounter, shrouded in religious imagery. Her sexual organs are a wound, she offers herself like a sacrifice and burns at the altar.

The sinister connotation of the scissors image is one which Thomas uses in his poetry. In “From Love's First Fever to her Plague” Thomas writes of ‘the scissored caul’. In “When like a Running Grave”, scissors are linked with time which ‘comes, like a scissors stalking, tailor age’. Paul Ferris in his biography of Dylan Thomas claims the source of this image is Struwwelpeter, the illustrated book of children's stories which includes the tale, “Little Suck-a-Thumb”, in which a child is punished by having his thumbs cut off by a grisly tailor with flying hair and an enormous scissors, ‘the great, long, red-legged scissorman’. Certainly Thomas has Struwwelpeter in mind in “The Mouse and the Woman” (1936) where in one room of the asylum ‘sat a child who had cut off his double thumb with a scissors’. In the passage from “The School for Witches” quoted above, the imagery is complicated, combining the idea of injury with the notion of healing, the concepts of healing and of baptism, and the concepts of baptism and of sacrifice. In “A Prospect of the Sea” (1937), where the scissors image is again used sexually, the context is not as ambivalent as in “The School for Witches”; the image is used with reference to the female and not the male and expresses the male's subconscious, sexual fears. In this story, a gypsy girl terrorises a young boy:

The stain on her lips was blood, not berries; and her nails were not broken but sharpened sideways, ten black scissor-blades ready to snip off his tongue.

The origin of the image for Thomas probably lay partly in the impact of Struwwelpeter upon his young imagination, partly in the innate appeal of the image as an expression of his own subconscious fear and partly in other sources. The image is afterall a universal one, associated as an attribute of the Fate, Atropos, with death—severing the thread of life—and whose adaptors include surrealist painters such as Robert Desnos in Death of Max Morise. The woman who dances alone in “The Lemon” is redolent of Atropos, she has a ‘scissors dangling from the rope of her skirt’ and the cutting of the lemon with the scissors signifies ‘the coming of death of the interior world’. The closed scissors resembles a knife, traditionally associated with sacrifice, but the open scissors has quite potent sexual connotations. It admits into its depth what it then closes upon and severs. Moreover, as two blades acting as one, it has become an image of the union of two opposites. Part of its appeal as a sexual image may lie in its ability to arouse subconscious fears of castration, even impotence, fears which Paul Ferris believes may have indeed haunted Thomas.

The sense of innate depravity in Thomas's work stems from a fear that even though there is no gainsaying that suppressed desires find expression in dark and frequently violent ways, the emotions held in check may themselves be evil. As an older man writing Under Milk Wood (1954), Thomas, as we shall see, had become more confident about the unfettering of desire. However, at the time of writing his early short stories in the 1930s he was not convinced as Blake was, that the emotions released when the gates of repression were unlocked would prove inevitably healthy and unsinister. Consequently the early stories are peopled, like those of Poe, with dark and forbidding spectres of evil. However, the effect of the belief that possibly the evil arising from suppressed emotions was itself the manifestation of a much darker and innate evil is evident not only in character portrayal, but even the type of landscapes in which the stories are set. His obsession with what kind of reality lay beneath the ‘perceived reality’ gave him a jaundiced view not only of people, but nature, and, in stories such as “The Holy Six” and “The School for Witches”, almost of the universe itself. Dylan knew enough not to trust his eyes, but he was not able to refocus his vision. He wrote in July, 1935:

My own eyes, I know, squint inwards when, and if, I looked at the exterior world, I see nothing or me … all I see is darkness, naked and not very nice.

This is especially close to the view of the world that pervades “The Holy Six”:

There was a madman in each tree. This they did not know, seeing only the sanity of the trees on the broad back of the upper grasses.

As the Six clamber upward Thomas describes how ‘the roots beneath their feet cried in the voices of the upspringing trees’. In “The School for Witches”, the doctor ‘heard his daughter cry to the power swarming under the west roots’. Mr. Owen in Jarvis's valley in “The Enemies” (1934), hears how ‘the vegetable world roared under his feet’ and the word ‘roaring’ is both ambivalent and typical of Thomas. His pantheism is not the soothing kind of Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey”; it almost assaults the senses. ‘Roaring’ suggests violence, anger, pain. Thomas observes later in “The Enemies”: ‘Not only a mandrake screams; torn roots have their cries; each weed Mr. Owen pulled out of the ground screamed like a baby.’ Nature always bleak in the early stories, is at best alien to man and usually hostile as in R. S. Thomas's poems. “The School for Witches” is focussed upon ‘Cader Peak, half ruined in an enemy of weather’ while in “The Holy Six” Thomas describes how ‘shifting along the properties of the soil, man's chemic blood, pulled from him by the warring wind, mixed with the dust that the holy gentlemen, like six old horses, stamped into a cloud’.

Nothing summarises Thomas's sense of an innate evil more than the decision of the boy in “The Tree” to crucify the idiot. “The Tree” is indeed a dark and depressing story. The action takes place on the day before Christmas but before the end of the story, Christmas Day becomes Good Friday.


The sinister world-view that threatens at times to overwhelm the early stories seems to be one aspect of Thomas's world-view which he was trying to keep at bay. There is little doubt that it was fuelled by a desire on his part to shock and by his reading in Gothic literature and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Although he read Poe avidly, the American writer's work seems far more tongue-in-cheek than Thomas's and once again, Thomas's work is closer to that of Caradoc Evans. Both share the satirical linking of violence with cynicism about a narrow-minded Welsh culture. Yet Thomas's work is different from Evans's in at least one important aspect. In Thomas's work there is an exploratory dimension the other lacks. While Evans delineates the deceit of which man is capable and portrays the violence which always seems to be beneath the surface and on the point of eruption, Thomas as we have said earlier, wanted to try and understand this violence.

Also, symbolism and innuendo are more fully developed as dramatic devices in Thomas's work than in Evans's work. What Evans demonstrates to us, sometimes in a rather heavy-handed fashion, Thomas dwells upon as only half-understood areas of experience. Thus, in the case of Coed's attempt to seduce Ianto, which we discussed earlier in this [essay …], no sooner are we aware of Coed's intentions than we are plunged into the violence of Ianto's reaction. Even though Thomas's early work lacks maturity and experience, it does display greater interest in characters who find themselves harbouring secret desires and in what this is doing to them than Evans achieves. Thus, however rough the edges of Helen's portraiture in “The True Story”, there is evidence of a more subtle involvement with character than in Evans's portrayal of Coed, even though at the end of the story it is the bizarre inexplicability of what she does that jolts the reader.

It must be admitted that the extent of Thomas's involvement with character, the complexities and perplexities of human motivation, is limited. It is held in check by the tendency to allegory. Of course, allegory although it leads to schematic portraits, is not entirely incompatible with conveying what it is that impels human behaviour. Hester in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for example, is both symbolic and a convincing portrayal of a mother deserted by her lover. But the failure to produce more convincing characters and to depart from allegory is evidence of the way in which Thomas's early prose was impelled by the ambition to explore through symbolism the relationship between individuality, on the one hand, and the influence of a repressive culture on the other.

The way in which Thomas achieved a subtler use of imagery and symbolism than Evans is evident from “The Burning Baby” where Thomas suggests how Rhys Rhys's desire for his daughter has consumed his entire being:

In the church that morning he spoke of the beauty of the harvest, of the promise of standing corn and the promise in the sharp edge of the scythe as it brings the corn low and whistles through the air before it cuts into the ripeness.

His concern with developing symbolism so that it could express the darker nuances of sexuality is evident from the way in which the images used here are adapted three years later to provide a backdrop for adolescent sexual yearnings in “A Prospect of the Sea” (1937):

It was high summer, and the boy was lying in the corn. He was happy because he had no work to do and the weather was hot. He heard the corn sway from side to side above him, and the noise of the birds who whistled from the branches of the trees that hid the house. Lying flat on his back, he stared up into the unbrokenly blue sky falling over the edge of the corn.

The wind, after the warm rain before noon, smelt of rabbits and cattle. He stretched himself like a cat, and put his arms behind his head. Now he was riding on the sea, swimming through the golden cornwaves, gliding along the heavens like a bird …

In this story the corn image is expanded within a fuller account of nature coming to fruition. There is almost mystical enjoyment of summer but there are also darker undertones in the picture which prepare us for the gypsy girl to whom we referred in the discussion of the scissors image. The sky may be unbrokenly blue but it falls—the word has sexual-biblical connotations and a comparison with Eden is explicitly developed later—over the edge of the corn. We have hints, albeit traditional ones, of the sexuality within nature through the reference to the birds whistling in the branches and the smell of rabbits. Slowly the passage evolves into a greater sexual awareness on the part of the boy. But the total image is still underpinned by an almost platonic innocence despite the physical verbs—riding, swimming—which surfaces in the last line where the boy glides ‘along the heavens like a bird’. The reader is duped for soon the fears and pain of sexual knowledge which Thomas encapsulated in the earlier passage in the image of the sharp edge of the scythe ‘which brings the corn low and whistles through the air before it cuts into the ripeness’ undermine all this mystical innocence.

The process begins with the boy's next day dream. The fantasy is introduced by a transitional movement on the young lad's part: ‘Now he was a boy with tousled hair, rising slowly to his feet, wandering out of the corn to the strip of river by the hillside’. ‘Now he was a boy’ refers to the return to reality—after the dream of gliding in the heavens—but also reminds us that he returns to the consciousness of an adolescent. It is a consciousness pervaded by half-understood sensations, and his sexual yearnings are expressed in images which are of violence as well as sexuality:

He made up a story as the fish swam through the gates into the pebbles and the moving bed. There was a drowned princess from a Christmas book, with her shoulders broken and her two red pigtails stretched like strings of a fiddle over her broken throat; she was caught in a fisherman's net, and the fish plucked her hair.

The imagery is that of male adolescent fantasy. There is the echo of a girl, for example, helpless, vulnerable and dominated and the sexual dimension of the imagery really needs no elucidation. The boy is frustrated, confused, and Thomas, as elsewhere in the early stories, pursues the aspect of violence:

The boy sent a stone skidding over the green water. He saw a rabbit scuttle, and threw a stone at its tail. A fish leaped at the gnats, and a lark darted out of the green earth.

Already what could have been a very traditional story is beginning to develop in original ways. The concept of innocence represented in a young boy meeting sexual knowledge in the form of an experienced and older girl is hardly new. But few stories have dwelt as Thomas does here on the violent, pent-up frustration. When the girl enters the story she does so with a candidness that undermines the traditional models and smacks of the young Thomas's desire to shock:

The girl in the torn cotton frock sat down on the grass and crossed her legs; a real wind from nowhere lifted her frock, and up to her waist she was brown as an acorn.

This is tradition coloured by the kind of wish fulfilment of which adolescent tall stories are born. At the height of a boy's sexual frustration appears a girl who is not only experienced but seems to lack reservations. The key word here is ‘real’ and the candidness of the description is part of the contrast between the boy's fantasies and how he behaves in reality. Thus, the emphasis is not upon her brazen sexuality but his total lack of self-confidence:

The boy, still standing timidly in the first shade, saw the broken, holiday princess die for the second time, and a country girl take her place on the live hill. Who had been frightened of a few birds flying out of the trees, and a sudden daze of the sun that made river and field and distance look so little under the hill? Who had told him the girl was as tall as a tree? She was no taller or stranger than the flowery girls on Sundays who picnicked in Whippet valley.

Critics who have written about Thomas's concern with sexuality and adolescence have tended not to notice the exploratory dimension of these early stories and that in passages such as this there is a third strong presence: the culture of the Welsh rural communities. Thus the interest is not so much in the sexuality as in what the culture has done to the sexuality. In the case of this boy, the primary influence is that of his uncle and here we must remember that Dylan's own uncle though never so influential was a minister. Thus when the girl eventually leans towards him her thick, red hair—which signifies her unfettered sexuality—pertinently blots out the golden cornfields (innocence and fruition) and his uncle's house.

Another dimension that distinguishes a story like this from those of Caradoc Evans is Thomas's ability, anticipating the stories of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, to express the perceptions of an adolescent. Thus the way everything seems magnified by the senses captures the excitement of an adolescent in his/her first sexual experience heightened by fear. He also captures in wry comic terms the kind of new-found self-esteem that often accompanies attracting a girl for the first time:

The boy awoke cautiously into a more curious dream, a summer vision broader than the one black cloud poised in the unbroken centre on a tower shaft of light; he came out of love through a wind full of turning knives and a cave full of flesh-white birds on to a new summit, standing like a stone that faces the stars blowing and stands no ceremony from the sea wind, a hard boy angry on a mound in the middle of a country evening; he put out his chest and said hard words to the world.


The general sense of evil pervading the early stories, and shrouding the repressive religiosity which enters directly or indirectly into them, is also conveyed in the way that Thomas ransacks the Bible for symbols.

Blind conviction and strict adherence to the fundamentals of the Bible protected the most zealous chapel-goers from self-doubt. They were like the young boy in the story “In the Garden” (1934) who tries to convince himself that the world in which he lives is the ultimate reality: ‘that beyond the red curtains there lay nothing at all. … Only the bright room, his mother, and himself’. Thomas's stories challenge any such blind faith focussing upon what bothered most of those who admitted self-doubt: that maybe there was nothing beyond in a slightly different sense, i.e. nothingness, void. “In the Garden” is an allegorical portrayal of these fears. The boy is the believer who wants reassurance that there is something beyond death. Even when he opens the trunk and finds it empty he still refuses to believe that this is the ultimate reality:

Once he had prised up the rusty padlock with his pocket knife and very fearfully opened the lid, to find only emptiness and the smell of rot. He felt sure that it must have a secret drawer somewhere that held precious stones as bright as the sun …

The image of the trunk here and the use made of it is not, of course, unique to Thomas, the box is a traditional life symbol. Its enclosure and darkness suggest the womb, while simultaneously, in its evocation of the coffin, it is an image of death.

“The Tree” (1933) is a similar allegory, but more fully expresses the horror and sense of desperation at the possibility of nothingness:

Before it was dark, he and the child climbed the stairs to the tower, the key turned in the lock, and the door, like the lid of a secret box, opened and let them in. The room was empty. ‘Where are the secrets?’ Asked the child. … Over and over again he explored the empty room, kicking up the dust to look for a colourless trap-door, tapping the unpanelled walls for the hollow voice of a room beyond the tower.

Both stories conclude with mock adaptations of images and incidents from the Bible. “In the Garden” employs not only the image of the sacred garden but the burning bush in which God revealed Himself to mortals: ‘The door of the summer house swung back in the wind, and he saw that the trunk, lying upon its side, was full of fire’. At the end, the boy kneels like Paul on the road to Damascus before ‘a blinding light’, but this time of the moon instead of the sun. Thomas's own fears of death undoubtedly bear upon these stories but within the total context of the early writings they are also part of his all pervading quarrel with religion. The fact that a repressive religious code may after all be shielding not a divinely inspired universe but a void makes its repression sinister.

“The Tree” closes with a mock crucifixion, the epitome of evil, to which we referred earlier:

The child ran as fast as he could to the gardener's shed, and, returning over the sodden lawns, saw that the idiot had not moved but stood, straight and smiling, with his back to the tree and his arms stretched out.

‘Let me tie your hands’.

The idiot felt the wire that had not mended the rake close round his wrists. It cut into the flesh, and the blood from the cuts fell shining on to the tree.

‘Brother’, he said. He saw that the child held silver nails in the palm of his hand.

While this passage anticipates Thomas's later concern with dominance and violence, it also betrays a fascination with the crucifixion that occurs in other stories. In “The Visitor” (1934) for example it is evoked to give breadth to Rhianon's capacity for sympathy and compassion: ‘she had a strange name out of the Bible. Such a woman had washed the body after it had been taken off the tree, with cool and competent fingers that touched on the holes like ten blessings’.

Usually the fascination of the crucifixion for Thomas lay in its power as a symbol of death and evil. Thus the mock crucifixion with an idiot as the surrogate Christ belies traditional and sacred interpretations of the Messiah's death. In fact, it is typical of the way in which the surrealistic sequences of the early stories frequently overturn established associations and significances of Biblical myth and imagery. In “The Holy Six” (1937) Mr. Davies, the old, mad man, parodies Christ's washing of his disciples' feet:

He knelt down in the wilderness of the tiny parlour, and off came the holy socks and boots. I, Davies, bathed their feet, muttered the grey minister. So that he might remember, the old, mad man said to himself, I, Davies, the poor ghost, washed the six sins in mustard and water.

This particular story becomes more blasphemous and outrageous as the sexually-perverse evil lurking behind the façade of religious respectability becomes more explicit. Thus we become aware of just how depraved a character is Stul when in fantasy ‘he leapt out to marry Mary; all-sexed and nothing, intangible hermaphrodite riding the neuter dead, the minister of God in a grey image mounted dead Mary’. Outrage follows outrage until the final impact of a minister of God not only committing necrophilia but necrophilia with the Virgin Mary. But there is another level of blasphemy here, referred to throughout the story, in the way in which Stul represents natural instinct perverted by repression. He is a man whose ‘manhood withered like the sap in a stick under a scarecrow's tatters’ until he lost sexual identity and perspective as words like ‘mounted’ and descriptions of him as grey and as ‘all-sexed and nothing’ confirm.

Like Blake before him, Dylan Thomas tries to offer an alternative version of the Fall which in “The Holy Six” he refers to significantly as the ‘first bewilderment’. This is especially obvious in “The Mouse and the Woman” (1936):

A garden was planted eastward, and Adam lived in it. Eve was made for him, out of him, bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh. They were as naked as you upon the seashore, but Eve could not have been as beautiful. They ate with the devil, and saw that they were naked, and covered up their nakedness. In their good bodies they saw evil for the first time.

Thomas is beginning to develop here his conviction that the Welsh religious creed had prevented a healthy, sensuous enjoyment of life. The evil of this is underlined by the association of the young madman's fantasy with Good Friday and the crucifixion which we have already said attracted Thomas as a powerful symbol of darkness and death. The fantasy occurs ‘one winter morning, after the last crowing of the cock, in the walks of his garden’. We are reminded of the cock that crowed after Peter's denial of Christ and of the Garden of Gethsemene. By turning Eden into Gethsemene, as it were, Thomas underlines the key thesis: the mismatch between nature and a repressive religious culture.

The argument is developed further in “The Map of Love” (1937). Here Beth Rib and Reuben enjoy swimming naked. The name Rib takes us back to Eden, to prelapsarian innocence. But, gradually, as Thomas describes Beth and Reuben's sensuous enjoyments and their new-found freedom, it is suggested that the pair cannot throw off the deeply ingrained sense of impropriety and guilt: ‘Reuben, weed-bound, fought with the grey heads that fought his hands, and followed her back to the brink.’ On one level, the grey heads are the weeds. On another level, they are old wisdom which has come down to him from the elders. The dichotomy between head and hand suggests the traditional battle between the mind and emotions while the boy's struggle with grey weeds—grey signifying age—suggests the conflict between youth and age. We are left in no doubt as to which will be the victor. Nor are we left in any doubt as to the lasting repressive influence Thomas attaches to religious teaching based on the myth of the Fall. As soon as the pair come out of the water they find it difficult to remain naked: ‘First fear shot them back’. First here refers to time as ‘first of all, fear shot them back’ but also the so-called Original or first sin as in the ‘First Fear’. There is a sense in which both Beth and Reuben are doomed. Like the Prodigal Son, the parable which Thomas evokes to describe their return, they will not simply return to, but conform with, the rest of the fold.

A number of the early stories suggest that youth has been misled by the old. The gardener's emphasis in “The Tree” upon the key which will unlock the tower is misleading because it is empty. The boy loves the tree in the garden and is encouraged in his worship of the tree by the gardener, yet the gardener has in mind not the actual tree loved by the boy but the tree of Calvary.

As Moynihan has aptly pointed out, Thomas's reaction against religion took several forms. He denies and mocks Christianity but at the same time builds with Biblical and religious symbols his personal mythology.

Margaret Moan Rowe (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Living ‘under the shadow of the bowler’: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog,” in Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art, edited by Alan Bold, Vision Press, 1990, pp. 125–36.

[In the following excerpt, Rowe maintains that Thomas refashioned his own middle-class childhood in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog to make it more palatable.]

Dylan Thomas is pre-eminently a rememberer; in both his poetry and prose, as John Wain has noted, ‘his great theme is nostalgia’.1 Indeed his best fiction, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, is a celebration of his childhood, adolescence and young manhood in Swansea. The ten stories that make up the collection, published originally in 1940, have been described by Vernon Watkins as ‘stories about human beings living and behaving exactly as they used to live and behave when he was a child’.2 But the ‘he’ is Dylan Thomas of the flashing imagination, and the characters in his fiction are the creations of that imagination; the reader, therefore, must be wary of Watkins' ‘exactly’ when considering Thomas's most critically acclaimed fiction.


In Portrait Thomas does nothing less than shape and celebrate a past acceptable to him; he builds a world around the focusing of his sensibility. His raw material was his youth in Swansea spent in a middle-class family which Paul Ferris describes as ‘the result of a common enough process, people growing away from a rural background into the life of cities’.3 Thomas himself offers the most apt description of his status in one of the stories in Portrait, “Where Tawe Flows”. Therein Mr. Evans describes his fictional creation Mary Phillips who

… wasn't a suburbanite from birth, she didn't live under the shadow of the bowler, like you or me. Or like me, anyway. I was born in ‘The Poplars’ and now I'm in ‘Lavengro’. From bowler to bowler, though I must say, apropos of Mr. Humphries' diatribe, and I'm the first to admire his point of view, that the everyday man's just as interesting a character as the neurotic poets of Bloomsbury.4

Born and reared ‘under the shadow of the bowler’ Thomas may have been, but an everyday man he was not. In Portrait he creates a past worthy of the embryonic artist by selecting and heightening the eccentric even gothic elements in his background (perhaps best seen in his depiction of the child-grandparent relationship in “A Visit to Grandpa's”). More significantly, however, he celebrates his escape from those parts of his past not amenable to his artistic vocation, particularly the middle-class constrictions typified by the bowler.


Although a male image, the bowler's values are most effectively maintained in the domestic sphere dominated by women (with some help from evangelical clergy in “The Fight” and the judiciary in “Just Like Little Dogs”) in Thomas's stories. As a result, the domestic sphere is often presented as enemy terrain to be secured or avoided. Two stories, in particular, offer fascinating glimpses of male responses to the female sphere in Portrait.

“Just Like Little Dogs”, a first-person narration, presents the narrator, presumably Dylan Thomas, as the romantic watcher:

I was a lonely nightwalker and a steady stander-at-corners. I liked to walk through the wet town after midnight, when the streets were deserted and the window lights out, alone and alive on the glistening tramlines in dead and empty High Street under the moon, gigantically sad in the damp streets by ghostly Ebenezer Chapel.

(p. 177)

As Jacob Korg has observed, ‘Most of the stories [in Portrait] are about an observer or witness. …’5 Such a rôle gives Thomas a way to underscore his artistic potential as the outsider in the ordinary life in Swansea. That rôle, too, allows Thomas to tweak, ever so gently, his own sense of difference, of specialness which he does in “One Warm Saturday”.

During his watch in “Just Like Little Dogs”, the narrator meets two other standers-at-corners and watchers, brothers Tom and Walter, and listens to their strange story. With Walter's help, Tom tells their ‘love’ story involving picking up two sisters, Doris and Norma, switching partners in the sand, facing paternity suits and marrying the wrong women (at least Tom does; Walter does not care for either woman). Hence their nightly sojourns outdoors. As Walter describes it: ‘We had to do the right thing by them, didn't we? That's why Tom won't go home. He never goes home till the early morning. I've got to keep him company. He's my brother' (p. 179). ‘… had to do the right thing’ underscores the bowler's power, a power that turns the home into a place of confinement. Home here is no refuge for the brothers who prefer their own company to the company of wives or children.

The narrator, too, desires to escape the domestic sphere and keeps them company as he listens to the story; even more than that, he finds himself a voyeur in the story: ‘I lay like a pimp in a bush by Tom's side and squinted through to see him round his hands on Norma's breast’ (p. 179). All the sympathy in the story is extended to the men who have done ‘the right thing’ and to the male narrator who is constantly celebrating his curiosity: ‘Fancy listening, I thought, to a long, unsatisfactory story in the frost-bite night in a polar arch’ (p. 179). But listen he does as he gathers material for his own stories.

Inhospitable weather threatens neither listener nor speaker in “Where Tawe Flows”. Indeed home and hearth seem to beckon Mr. Humphries, Mr. Roberts, and the much younger Mr. Thomas who journey to the suburban villa of Mr. Evans for their weekly Friday meeting. The four are involved in writing a novel about provincial life hence the need for an indoor setting. But significantly none of the real work can begin until Mrs. Evans retires:

Mr. Humphries and Mr. Thomas arranged the chairs around the fire, and all four sat down, close and confidential and with full glasses in their hands. None of them spoke for a time. They gave one another sly looks, sipped and sighed, lit the cigarettes that Mr. Evans produced from a draughts box, and once Mr. Humphries glanced at the grandfather clock and winked and put his finger to his lips. Then, as the visitors grew warm and the wine worked and they forgot the bitter night outside, Mr. Evans said with a little shudder of forbidden delight [italics mine]: ‘The wife will be going to bed in half an hour. Then we can start the good work. Have you all got yours with you?’

(p. 182)

After Mrs. Evans' departure, ‘the good work’ can begin:

Mr. Humphries and Mr. Thomas put notebooks on their knees, took a pencil each, and watched Mr. Evans open the door of the grandfather clock. Beneath the swinging weights was a heap of papers tied in a blue bow. These Mr. Evans placed on the desk.'

(p. 185)

What follows is a wonderful piece of meta-fiction in which the four men elaborate their views on life and fiction. Indeed, Thomas is at such ease in this story that he is willing to joke about his own passion for the fantastic, a passion that led to many excesses and confusions in the stories in The Map of Love (1939). When the young Mr. Thomas in “Where Tawe Flows” wants to include a smattering of the fantastic in the common effort, Mr. Humphries cries' … let's get our realism straight. Mr. Thomas will be making all the characters Blue Birds before we know where we are' (p. 187).

But meta-fictional or no, “Where Tawe Flows” can also be read as an example of what Thomas in “Old Garbo” calls ‘a great male moment’ (p. 207), as male creators talk about the problems of characterization involving mostly female characters. (Throughout Portrait writing is a male activity whether presented as Gwilym's religious/erotic poetry in “The Peaches”, Arnold's prodigious letter writing in “Patricia, Edith and Arnold”, Dan's novels in “The Fight”, or Mr. Farr's editing in “Old Garbo”.) Even the ordinary domestic setting is converted into a male sanctuary with the departure of Mrs. Evans and the liberation of the manuscript from the grandfather clock. But the transformation of setting is temporary as his memory that ‘I promised Maud not after midnight’ prompts Mr. Evans to close the evening—with a little help from Mrs. Evans above stairs calling ‘Emlyn! Emlyn!’ (pp. 194, 195).

Except in four stories—“The Peaches”, “Patricia, Edith and Arnold”, “Old Garbo”, and “One Warm Saturday”—the domestic setting, associated with women and the social order of the bowler, is a confining place in Portrait. The male sphere—whether the sanctuary secured from Mrs. Evans in “Where Tawe Flows”, the polar night in “Just Like Little Dogs”, the pub in “Old Garbo”, or Rhossilli beach in “Extraordinary Little Cough” and “Who Do You Wish Was With Us?”—is the preferred setting in the collection. Male bonding—the ‘great male moment’—is also the central positive emotional experience in Thomas's stories. Women characters are often marginalized by Thomas and generally associated with ‘the choking houses’ (p. 196) fled by the day hikers in “Who Do You Wish Was With Us?” Women dust the bowler just as they dust their sitting rooms.


Let me turn to the four stories which I cite as exceptions, but let me make that turn by way of “Where Tawe Flows”. Questioned by Mr. Humphries about his wife's whereabouts, Mr. Evans replies, ‘In the kitchen’; to which Humphries responds, ‘A woman's only place … with one exception’ (p. 182)—a fair summation of the status of women in “The Peaches”, “Patricia, Edith and Arnold”, “Old Garbo”, and “One Warm Saturday”. Thomas's vocation may have made him different but his fantasies about women were very ordinary. Locked in a conventional male fantasy, Thomas assigns central places to women characters who serve his younger self.

The first story in Portrait, “The Peaches”, presents Dylan Thomas as a young boy visiting his aunt and uncle—Jim and Annie. Only his uncle's name is accompanied by a family title; Annie is always Annie. She plays two rôles in the story: goddess of the kitchen and keeper of the bowler. But first to a rôle Thomas authorizes for women. After a nightmarish, but imaginative foray with his ‘Uncle Jim’ through town (with the frightened boy waiting outside a pub) and over a sparsely inhabited landscape, Dylan is greeted by Annie:

… I ran into the kitchen and into Annie's arms. There was a welcome, then. The clock struck twelve as she kissed me, and I stood among the shining and striking like a prince taking off his disguise. One minute I was small and cold, skulking … ; the next I was a royal nephew in smart town clothes, embraced and welcomed, standing in the snug centre of my stories and listening to the clock announcing me.

(p. 125)

Annie—who ‘fussed and clucked and nodded’ (p. 125)—is the instrument of transformation providing as she does the emotional warmth and physical support that the boy needs. His imaginative needs are fed by males in the story: Uncle Jim, his cousin Gwilym, his friend Jack and Dylan, ever given to crafting demon stories and shaping aristocratic identities for himself.6

Annie's other rôle, as bowler-keeper, is less favorably presented in “The Peaches”; it is also a rôle that she plays with considerable unease. Interestingly enough, she plays that rôle for her nephew as she greets a more formidable bowler-keeper, the rich and insensitive Mrs. Williams, mother of Dylan's friend Jack. Banished from the warmth of the kitchen, Annie as bowler-keeper presides over ‘the best room’, that sanctuary of family pieties:

The best room smelt of moth balls and fur and damp and dead plants and stale, sour air. Two glass cases on wooden coffin-boxes lined the window-wall. … A case of china and pewter, trinkets, teeth, family brooches, stood beyond the brandy table; there was a large oil lamp on the patchwork table-cloth, a Bible with a clasp, a tall vase with a draped woman about to bathe on it, and a framed photograph of Annie, Uncle Jim, and Gwilym smiling in front of the fern-pot.

(p. 129)

Saved for high days and holy days, ‘the best room’ transforms Annie, who ‘dusted and brushed and polished there once a week’ (p. 130), into a hostess greeting the snobbish Mrs. Williams. The transformation is a disaster as Mrs. Williams, a former mayoress, refuses peaches, a long preserved delicacy in the straitened Jones's household.

Thomas handles the encounter skillfully to suggest at once the deathlike hold of middle-class values caught in the description of ‘the best room’, the formidable bulk of the awful Mrs. Williams, and the social pressure that momentarily transforms Annie into a liar who explains the absence of cake with ‘we forgot to order it from the shop’ (p. 131). I want to stress the momentary change in Annie because her central rôle in the story is as nurturer to ‘a royal nephew’—she is visibly ill at ease as she dusts the bowler. Indeed, in the penultimate scene in the novel, Annie is back in the kitchen ministering to young Dylan: ‘She forgave me when I drank tea from the saucer’ (p. 136).

“Patricia, Edith and Arnold” also presents a woman as ministering angel to a young boy, presumably Dylan. In this class-conscious third-person narration, Thomas presents a younger self as something of a spy in the life of Patricia, the family servant. ‘… listening carefully all the time’ (p. 144), the boy observes the doings of Patricia and Edith, the servant next door, as they deal with the complexity of a shared beau. The young boy is both watcher and participant in the action; more than that, he is something of a competitor for Patricia's affection. He courts her with forbidden language; seeking her attention, he claims ‘I'm dirty as Christ knows what’ (p. 145). Responding to his taunt, Patricia ‘made him change his suit in front of her’, but the boy turns the apparent punishment into a sexual exhibition as ‘He took off his trousers and danced around her, crying: Look at me, Patricia!’ (p. 145).

The entire story is suffused with suggestions of a clammy closeness between the boy and the servant who frequently interchange rôles as comforter and comforted. Here any rules set by the servant (far from the bowler's power) are quickly ignored by the young boy, who invokes forbidden words like ‘bottom’ to secure Patricia's attention. Even more effectively, he invokes the truth—‘… Arnold Matthews told lies. He said he loved you better than Edith, and he whispered behind your back to her’ (p. 151)—and overthrows his rival. In the end, the boy Dylan triumphs as Patricia ‘in the warm living-room’ forgets her own sadness to minister to the princeling: ‘There, that's better. The hurting's gone. You won't call the king your uncle in a minute’ (p. 152).

Women in the domestic setting, then, are valued insofar as they conform to a male fantasy of woman as nurturer. Both Annie and Patricia serve so have a central rôle in Dylan Thomas's return to his past and his shaping of a personal myth.7 But that myth takes Thomas from childhood to young manhood in Swansea, so women outside the domestic sphere also appear. Women outside the pale, outside ‘the shadow of the bowler’, find their places as nurturers of a different kind in Portrait's final stories, “Old Garbo” and “One Warm Saturday”.

“Old Garbo” offers a particularly effective depiction of separate male and female spheres. The narrator is not the ‘royal nephew’ of “The Peaches” nor the curious boy of “Patricia Edith, and Arnold” but an older and world-hungry Dylan, junior reporter/reviewer for the Tawe News. The story is a celebration of ‘a great male moment’ when Dylan visits the town's underbelly, the Fishguard pub at the docks, with Mr. Farr ‘the senior reporter’ (206). (Portrait abounds with male mentors; the father's power is everywhere.) The world of respectability is typified by the Thomas household, his mother, and her bowler expectations: ‘Going for a nice walk?’ she asks as Dylan takes off for his pre-Christmas pub crawl with Mr. Farr.

The underside of that respectability is caught in the scene at the Fishguard where Dylan and Farr watch Mrs. Prothero—‘We call her Old Garbo because she isn't like her, see’ (p. 214)—deal with news of her daughter's death in childbirth. No tip of the bowler to respectability in this scene, as mortician, Mrs. Prothero, and ‘under a damp royal family, a row of black-dressed women on a hard bench sat laughing and crying, short glasses lined by their Guinnesses’ (p. 214). Soon enough the party atmosphere which compels Dylan to leave his rôle as watcher and to participate in the drinking and singing gives way to recriminations as the women discover that Mrs. Prothero's daughter is alive—unknown to the grieving mother who has left with their remaining shillings to share her grief at other pubs. Ever ladies—of sorts, ‘In low voices the women reviled Mrs. Prothero, liar, adultress, mother of bastards, thief’ (p. 216). Eventually Old Garbo kills herself.

What I want to underscore though is not Mrs. Prothero's sad end, but the comic and celebratory energy in the story. In “Old Garbo” Thomas praises freedom from respectability, what he records is at least a temporary getting out from ‘under the shadow of the bowler’. In the Fishguard's snuggery, surely a parodic ‘best room’, women of a lower class and suspect sexual mores have a place in Thomas's memories of his youth; indeed, they and liquor act as stimulants to his imagination:

The rum burned and kicked in the hot room, but my head felt tough as a hill and I could write twelve books before morning and roll the ‘Carlton’ barmaid, like a barrel, the length of Tawe sands.

(p. 214)

Even after the liquor wears off, Thomas the narrator is left with the memory of the free-wheeling people at the Fishguard and his certainty expressed to Mr. Farr, his mentor: ‘I'll put them all in a story by and by, I said’ (p. 218).

No male guide eases the way for the protagonist in “One Warm Saturday”; such an absence is fitting for the collection's final story, since Thomas clearly wants to depict a younger self on the verge, ready to break the fetters of the middle class. As the story opens the ‘young man in a sailor's jersey’ (p. 219) watches and waits. More of an outsider than ever, he draws a figure of a woman in the sand and foregoes participation in the holiday crowds around him. Having rejected his friends' invitations to join their pleasures—‘rocking with the girls on the Giant Racer or tearing on the Ghost Train down the skeletons' tunnel’ (p. 221)—he momentarily contents himself with his sense of difference.

He thought: Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with vision needs no other company; Saturday is a crude day; I must go home and sit in my bedroom by the boiler.

(p. 221)

But that sense of difference is quickly dispelled by the sense in which he is very like, especially sexually, all the other young men living ‘under the shadow of the bowler’: ‘And what shall a prig do now?’ he asks himself (p. 221). Indeed, the ‘bedroom by the boiler’ which houses the beginning poet is also ‘a bedroom that was full of his shames’ (p. 226). Thomas brilliantly connects the young man's imaginative power with his masturbatory fantasies, and shows how both sensitivity and shame distance him from sexual experience.

That distance, however, is soon narrowed by Lou, the young prostitute who beckons him in the park and later, more successfully, in a saloon. As in “Old Garbo”, the chief setting in “One Warm Saturday” is the town's demi-monde—the saloon and Lou's room, a combination of the kitchen-bedroom settings authorized by male fantasy:

She turned on the lights, and he walked with her proudly into her own room, into the room that he would come to know, and saw a wide bed, a gramophone on a chair, a wash-basin half-hidden in a corner, a gas fire and a cooking ring, a closed cupboard, and her photograph in a cardboard frame on the chest of drawers with no handles. Here she slept and ate.

(p. 232)

What more perfect world for the young man seeking escape from the ‘best room’ and all it represents.

That escape, however, is not to be in “One Warm Saturday”—or in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog which, after all is Dylan Thomas's record of a younger self poised for, rather than accomplishing, escape. Lou's work in the person of Mr. O'Brien, ‘her sugar daddy from old Ireland’ (p. 230), and several other friends accompany Lou and the shy young man to the bower of bliss. As in “Old Garbo”, the drinking and singing lure the young man, but in “One Warm Saturday” those activities also keep him from Lou. In a marvellously comic turn, too much drink sends him on a grotesque search for a lavatory which he never finds; nor does he find the way back to the magic room.

The action moves toward failure with the young man's sexual quest never completed, as much because of the abstracting power of his imagination as anything else. Early in the story, Thomas captures the seductiveness of his own imaginative process:

He saw her as a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil, for her soft self, bare to the heart, broke through every defence of her sensual falsifiers. As he thought this, phrasing her gentleness, faithlessly running to words away from the real room and his love in the middle, he woke with a start and saw her lively body six steps from him, no calm heart dressed in a sentence, but a pretty girl, to be got and kept.

(p. 229)

At the same time, the third-person point of view in the story privileges the power of imagination. Indeed, the incantatory power of Thomas's sentences in the internal views of the young man are nothing less than a celebration of his difference, his poetic potential. In general, John Fuller is right when he observes that

Thomas's prose is always sharp, observant and funny when he is writing about Wales and his childhood, and it is the richness and excitement of life which he communicates, rather than its holy rapture.8

Such is true of the details in “One Warm Saturday” when the narrative does not privilege the young man; I cite only two wildly comic scenes: the sexual banter in the Victoria saloon and the debate about whether or not Tenneyson had a hump. Alongside all the sharp observation, however, is precisely the ‘holy rapture’ which Fuller sees as missing. That rapture is there in the internal views of the young man as befits the portrait of a romantic poet's younger self.

That rapture is there, too, even at the end of “One Warm Saturday”, an ending that Richard Kelly reads as the young man's fall from ‘his timeless, exotic dream of love to a decaying world’.9 Lou is certainly lost, but women are expendable—even interchangeable—in Thomas's world; what is not expendable is the exercise of imagination, an exercise that the young man is involved in the story's final paragraph:

For a long time he waited on the stairs, though there was no love now to wait for and no bed but his own too many miles away to lie in, and only the approaching day to remember his discovery. All around him the disturbed inhabitants of the house were falling back into sleep. Then he walked out of the house on to the waste space and under the leaning cranes and ladders. The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across the brick-heaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once, where the small and hardly known and never-to-be-forgotten people of the dirty town had lived and loved and died and, always, lost.

(p. 238)

Love may be lost, at least temporarily, but language is not as the solitary young man is once again the watcher, the rememberer ‘faithlessly running to words’.


  1. John Wain, “Druid of her Broken Body”, Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays, ed. Walford Davies (London: Dent, 1972), p. 17.

  2. Vernon Watkins (ed.), Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins, (New York: New Directions, 1957), p. 20.

  3. Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977), p. 24.

  4. Dylan Thomas, “Where Tawe Flows”, The Collected Stories (New York: New Directions, 1984), p. 188. Subsequent quotations from this edition will be cited by page number in the text.

  5. Jacob Korg, Dylan Thomas (Boston: Twayne, 1965), p. 169.

  6. For an interesting discussion of the workings of the imagination in “The Peaches” see Harold F. Mosher, “The Structure of Dylan Thomas's ‘The Peaches’”, Studies in Short Fiction, VI (Fall 1969), 536–47.

  7. Walford Davies convincingly argues that Thomas is ‘… better at mythologizing the actual than at actualizing myth’: “The Wanton Starer”, Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays, p. 139.

  8. John Fuller, “The Cancered Aunt on Her Insanitary Farm”, Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays, p. 208.

  9. Richard Kelly, “The Lost Vision in Dylan Thomas's ‘One Warm Saturday’”, Studies in Short Fiction, VI (Winter 1969), 209.

Jacob Korg (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Stories and Dramas,” in Dylan Thomas, Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Korg analyzes the poetic and straightforward narrative styles that characterize Thomas's stories.]


Thomas was as prolific a writer of prose as he was of verse. He published the first of his short stories, “After the Fair,” in March 1934, less than a year after his earliest poems had appeared, and he continued to write prose until his death. In addition to his numerous short stories, the uncompleted novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, three prose dramas, the radio play, Under Milk Wood, and several film scripts, he wrote book reviews, radio talks, and descriptive essays, many of them collected in the posthumously published volume, Quite Early One Morning.1

Thomas's fiction may be divided sharply into two classifications: vigorous fantasies in poetic style, a genre he discontinued after 1939, and straightforward, objective narratives. Until 1939 he seems to have thought of the short prose narrative as an alternate poetic form—as a vehicle for recording the action of the imagination in reshaping objective reality according to private desire. Almost every story of this period (the exceptions being “After the Fair” and “The Tree”) perceives actuality through the screen of an irrational mind. The main characters are madmen, simpletons, fanatics, lechers, and poets in love: people enslaved by the dictates of feeling. Their stories are narrated in a heavily poetic prose reflecting the confusion of actual and imaginary experiences that constitute their reality, so that the material and the psychological intersect without a joint, forming a strange new area of being. For example, as Mr. Davies, the deluded rector of “The Holy Six,” is washing the feet of his six colleagues, believing that he is performing a holy deed, we are told that “light brought the inner world to pass,” that his misconception was transformed into actuality. Some of the stories seem transitional in style, enabling the reader to witness these transformations as an outsider. In “The Dress,” the fleeing madman who yearns for a chance to sleep thinks of sleep as personified by another object of desire—a girl. When he breaks into the cottage where the young housewife is sitting, he follows the logic of his delusion, mistakes her for sleep, and puts his head in her lap.

The setting of most of these stories is the seaside Welsh town wickedly called Llareggub (to be read backwards), which is also the scene of Under Milk Wood, with its neighboring countryside, including a valley named after Jarvis, a lecherous nineteenth-century landlord, some farms, and a mountain called Cader Peak. Among the inhabitants of this region are young men obsessed by unfulfilled love, as in “The Mouse and the Woman” and “The Orchards”; clergymen crazed by lust, as in “The Holy Six” and “The Burning Baby”; wise men or women who teach some cabalistic magic art, as in “The Tree,” “The Map of Love,” “The School for Witches,” and “The Lemon”; and enigmatic girls who rise from the sea or the soil as in “The Mouse and the Woman” and “A Prospect of the Sea.” The fancies of these people, narrated in a manner rendering them indistinguishable from objective reality, fill the town and the countryside with visions, supernatural forces, and fantastic episodes recalling the world of fairy tale and of folklore. People and objects are whisked into new shapes, small and intimate experiences are magnified until they embody fundamental realities—“creation screaming in the steam of the kettle”—and the order of nature is constantly subjected to disruption. In this milieu the anomalous is the ordinary; at the end of “Prologue to an Adventure,” for example, the barroom where the two friends are standing runs down the drains of the town into the sea.

In one of his letters to Vernon Watkins, Thomas observes that the reader of verse needs an occasional rest but that the poet ought not to give it to him. In applying this principle to his stories, Thomas produced complex, involuted narratives with rich surfaces of language and imagery. At first impression they have no depths; but analysis reveals that the order of imagination operating in them is the one that produced Thomas's poetry. His stories, unlike his earliest poems, deal with recognizable people and places; but they are invested with the same mythic atmosphere found in the poems. As we have already observed, there are numerous and detailed affinities between the poems and these early, fantastic stories. Common themes—the burning of a child, the “falling” of time, the unity of life, and the verbal capacities of nature—provide subjects for both, and are also reflected in rhetorical details. But the most general resemblance is an awareness of the cosmic import of small events, a tendency to develop the significance of experiences by referring them to the absolute limits of the continuum of which they are a part. The lust of Rhys Rhys in “The Burning Baby” culminates in incest and in the murder of his child; the desire of the poet in “The Mouse and the Woman” raises a beautiful woman for him on the seashore; the vision of heaven the boy sees from the top of his ladder in “A Prospect of the Sea” is an endless Eden stretching to meet itself above and below.


In “The Tree,” which first appeared in Adelphi in December, 1934, within a week of the publication of 18 Poems, the style typical of Thomas's fantastic stories is still at an early stage of its development, so it is possible to distinguish actual events from the delusions going on in the minds of the characters. The story also provides a convenient dramatization of the creative process at work in these stories. The gardener transmits his obsession to the boy; the boy, at the end of the story, tries to transform it into actuality. In writing his fantastic stories, Thomas, the narrator, acted the part of the boy. Borrowing delusions from his characters, Thomas produced in the narrative itself a version of reality corresponding to the delusions.

The gardener in the story is a naive religious man who, by one of those primitive metaphoric associations familiar to us from Thomas's poems, takes all trees as counterparts of the “tree” of the cross. As he tells the boy the story of Jesus, the child fixes on the elder tree in the garden as the scene of the crucifixion. When he is let into the locked tower as a Christmas gift, the boy is bitterly disappointed to find it empty; but he associates the Jarvis hills, which are visible through the window, with Bethlehem, for they, like Bethlehem, are toward the east. The idiot standing under the tree in the garden, exposed to the wind and rain, has already had Christlike intimations of his destiny when the boy finds him in the morning. And when the boy learns that he has come from the eastern hills that he has mistaken for Bethlehem, he fits the tree, the hills, and the idiot into the pattern described by the gardener, and sets about making the story of Jesus a reality. As the story closes, he has put the idiot against the tree and is crucifying him on it. The ultimate point of the story is the idiot's acceptance of his suffering; in the final scene the ignorant piety of the gardener is being transformed, through the imagination of the child and the love and humility of the idiot, into a reality.

The narrative style that blends actual and imagined worlds appears for the first time in “The Visitor,” whose main character, as he approaches death, perceives the continuity between the living and dead aspects of the cosmos. Because we know the actual world that is the background of his delusion, we can see that the first part of the narrative has a double structure, and we can easily separate Peter's delusions from external reality. His idea that the sheets are shrouds, that his heart is a clock ticking, and that he lacks feelings because he is dead are simply misinterpretations of sensory clues. Only occasionally does his mind drift into clear hallucination, as when he thinks he is looking down at his own dead face in the coffin. Otherwise his thoughts are perfectly intelligible; he recalls that his first wife died seven years earlier in childbirth, and the guilt he experiences is expressed in a remarkable metaphor: “He felt his body turn to vapour, and men who had been light as air walked, metal-hooved, through and beyond him.”

In the second part of the story, however, we enter fully into Peter's dying delirium and the basis of fact offered by the external world fades away. In a region of pure fantasy, we are unable, like Peter himself, to distinguish the imaginary from the real or even to detect the moment of division between life and death. In his delirium, Callaghan, the visitor Peter has been expecting, comes and carries him away into a realm of essential being where the pulsations of alternate growth and destruction are perfectly visible in a stripped, transparent landscape. Here a new prose style, the one Thomas adopts as a means of objectifying mystical perception, presents itself. More descriptive than narrative, it is full of grotesque, clearly realized images. Sometimes rhapsodic, sometimes strangely matter of fact, it seeks to capture the disruption imposed upon nature by hallucinatory vision. As in the poems, metaphor becomes active, so that “the flowers shot out of the dead,” and “the light of the moon … pulled the moles and badgers out of their winter.”

The journey ends when Peter, suddenly returned to his sickbed again, feels restored to his body and speaks to his wife. But she does not hear him, and he does not realize he is dead until she pulls the sheet over his face. Just as he had the delusion, when he was living, that he was dead, he now has the delusion, when he is dead, that he is alive. The division between the two states is slight, and disembodied vitality persists so powerfully that moving from the aspect of being we call life to the one we call death hardly matters to it. As one of Thomas's poems concludes, “The heart is sensual, though five eyes break.”

In “The Visitor,” Peter experiences actual and imaginary realms at different times; the two meet only at the boundary between them, where their edges are not clear. But in the further development of his narrative style, Thomas presented situations where imagined and actual events are super-imposed upon each other as single experiences. Two closely related short stories published in 1936, “The Orchards” and “The Mouse and the Woman,” illustrate this. Both have the same theme as “The Hunchback in the Park”: the creation of an imaginary woman by a mind obsessed by the need for love. And both are tragedies of delusion, for they show that the dreamer is pitifully exposed to the demands of the actual world.

The woman loved by Marlais, the poet of “The Orchards,” comes to him in a dream in the form of a scarecrow who stands, with her sister in a landscape of burning orchards. When he wakes up, the memory of this dream persists and distracts him from his writing. Oppressed by the disparity between the passion of his dream thoughts and the dullness of the town outside his window, Marlais makes an effort of the imagination that leads him to mystic perception. What follows is perhaps Thomas's most complete description of mystic vision. The distinction between objective and subjective is canceled: “There was dust in his eyes; there were eyes in the grains of dust. …” Individual things seem parts of greater wholes, saturated with absolute significance: “His hand before him was five-fingered life.” Opposites are reconciled: “It is all one, the loud voice and the still voice striking a common silence. …” Intoxicated with the feeling that he commands both spiritual and actual realms, so that he is “man among ghosts, and ghost in clover,” Marlais now “moved for the last answer.”

A second sleep shows him that the landscape of his dream and the woman he loves are still there; and when he wakes he goes out of the town to find it. The second half of the story, like that of “The Visitor,” is the journey of a mental traveler; but Marlais travels on the ground, not in the air, as Peter does. And his imagined world is spread over the real countryside, whose objective features emerge, like peaks rising out of the clouds of his thoughts. The Whippet valley, a part of the real countryside that has been destroyed by mining, is succeeded by a wood whose trees are said to spring from the legend of the Fall. As his walk continues, Marlais enters the realm of myth and becomes a myth himself; when he has penetrated into this imaginary world, he finds the orchards of his dream and the girl in it. An objective observer would probably say that Marlais had been invited to have a picnic tea with an ordinary girl; for the tablecloth, cups, and bread she produces are real enough. But as Marlais views the scene, the conditions of his dream impose themselves upon this objective reality, and the scene is transformed to correspond with it. The orchards break into fire; the girl is changed into a scarecrow and calls up her sister, as in the dream: and Marlais has his desire. But we have been warned at the beginning that Marlais's passion was “a story more terrible than the stories of the reverend madmen in the Black Book of Llareggub,” and the conclusion tells us why. The fires of Marlais's dream are put out by “the real world's wind,” and it becomes a fact, not a dream. The imaginative tide of his obsession recedes, leaving him stranded in actuality, kissing a scarecrow, and exposing his madness.

“The Mouse and the Woman” is a more elaborate treatment of the same theme: the betrayal of a poet by his obsession with love. In this story, as in “The Orchards,” the hero creates a dream woman, and he shuttles back and forth between a dream world and a waking world that seem equally real. But Thomas has added to the situation a moral aspect represented by the mouse. The story opens with a remarkable description of the madman in the lunatic asylum, and it then moves back in his memory to trace the steps of his alienation. As in “The Orchards,” the woman comes to him in a dream, and her memory persists when he is awake until he is caught between reality and delusion; he does not know whether to believe in her existence or not. He creates her by writing about her, “it was upon the block of paper that she was made absolute,” thus surrendering to imagination; he then goes out on the beach to find her and bring her to his cottage. This begins the part of the story where hallucination is perfectly superimposed upon actuality. The girl is, of course, pure imagination, but the mouse, which is associated with evil, and the mousehole the hero nails up to keep it away seem representative of objective actuality. Oddly, within this waking dream the hero has nocturnal dreams containing frightening enigmatic symbols. When he strips the girl and becomes her lover, two related events follow: the mouse emerges from its hole, and the notion of original sin enters the consciousness of the lovers as the man tells the girl the story of the Fall. She realizes that he has felt evil in their relationship.

The mouse and what it represents are the seed of destruction in his euphoric delusion, for the woman leaves him. Though he pursues her, she will not have him back. Her rejection of him is marvelously conveyed in the fairy tale episode in which he lights upon her hand, like an insect, pleads with her, and is crushed as she closes her hand over him. Since he has created her by thought, he can kill her by thought. He writes “The woman died” on his writing pad, and we are told that “There was dignity in such a murder.” He sees her dead body lying on the beach. But the knowledge that “he had failed … to hold his miracle” is too much for him, and he becomes the madman who appeared at the beginning of the story.

“The Mouse and the Woman” goes a step further than “The Orchards,” for it explains why the certainty offered by delusion should disappear. The poet's sense of guilt, emerging from within his mind as the mouse emerges from the walls of the house, poisons his dream. His derangements are no longer orderly and joyful, but confused: “The secret of that alchemy that had turned a little revolution of the unsteady senses into a golden moment was lost as a key is lost in the undergrowth.” He has regained some contact with the objective world, but he wants to kill the woman. To do this, he must return to the world of imagination, where she exists. In killing her, he also kills the dream she dominates, on which his happiness depends. The mouse, now fully in possession of the kitchen, silently presides over the grief the poet feels at this self-destruction. Trapped between two systems and unable to commit himself to either, the poet can only howl at life from behind the bars of the asylum.

In four stories published in 1937 and 1938, the hallucinatory technique advances so far that it is no longer possible—or desirable—to disentangle imagined from actual episodes. External reality responds flexibly to the thoughts and feelings of the characters, so that the narrative amounts to a psychological allegory. This genre, it will be recalled, is the one to which “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” belongs, and two of the four stories now under discussion are so closely related to that poem that they seem to be prose sketches for it. The member of this group closest to the earlier stories is “A Prospect of the Sea.” It has the same elements as “The Orchards” and “The Mouse and the Woman”: a girl who is encountered at the seashore and who disappears, and a delirious shuttling back and forth between different orders of reality.

In “A Prospect of the Sea,” the boy begins by enjoying the summer day and then makes up a story about a drowned princess, but this level of thought is intersected by another—the appearance of a country girl who confronts him in the actual landscape. This siren figure both tempts and terrifies him, for she has the power to make the world swell and shrink. His fantasies of death and disfigurement alternate with the actual events of her erotic advances. As evening comes, he yields himself to another daydream, a mystic's vision of power, piercing sight, and multiplied Edens. But the girl calls him into an actual world that is now strangely insubstantial: “she could make a long crystal of each tree, and turn the house wood into gauze.” She leads him on a race through a mystically disrupted realm, and then, in the morning, in spite of his agonized protests, she walks into the sea and disappears. As he turns to walk inland, he confronts the elements of the Noah story: an old man building a boat, the beginning of rainfall, and a stream of animals entering the door. Apparently, then, the episodes of the story belong to the corrupt time God had determined to end by means of the Flood.

But “A Prospect of the Sea” is an innocent pastoral in comparison with “Prologue to an Adventure,” a chronicle of town sin, which is a subject that offers far richer opportunity for Thomas's grotesque metaphoric energies than the country scenes of the earlier stories. There is little action. The speaker wanders through the streets and, with an acquaintance named Daniel Dom—a variant of the name “Domdaniel” appearing in one of Thomas's unpublished poems “Fifty” (Notebook Poems, 176)—visits two bars; then, as in “A Prospect of the Sea,” destructive water comes in, as the scene is immersed by waves.

The interest of this story lies in the remarkable play of scenes and imagery conveying the feverish atmosphere of a night on the town. “Now in the shape of a bald girl smiling, a wailing wanton with handcuffs for earrings, or the lean girls that live on pickings, now in ragged women with a muckrake curtseying in the slime, the tempter of angels whispered over my shoulder.”

As the speaker says, there is “more than man's meaning” in this torrent of fearsome Hieronymus Bosch-like visions, for holiness is caught up and debased in it. “I have the God of Israel in the image of a painted boy, and Lucifer, in a woman's shirt, pisses from a window in Damaroid Alley.”

The two scenes in the bars are incoherent jumbles of fleeting images, glimpses of transcendental visions, and striking expressionistic effects. They look backward in technique and subject to the Circe scene of Joyce's Ulysses and forward to Thomas's Doctor and the Devils for their atmosphere of pinched debauchery. The speaker and his friend aspire for a moment to reach out of this welter of temptresses, oppressed children, and indifferent city streets to some heavenly goal, but they come instead to a new bar where, after joining the corrupt festivities, they turn to the window and witness the coming of the deluge. There are no alternate realms of reality in this story. It is all an inescapable mental reality, consisting entirely of representations of the desires, fears, suspicions, and other emotions of the narrator; for, as his visions tell him, “We are all metaphors of the sound of shape, of the shape of sound, break us we take another shape.”

“In the Direction of the Beginning” and “An Adventure from a Work in Progress” are mythlike tales written in a hallucinatory style. The first, a short account of the creation, tells of the appearance of figures resembling Adam and Eve. Its enchanted, visionary prose presents a dizzying succession of images referring fleetingly to various seasons, ages, and episodes of history and legend. There is almost no physical action; the Fall is suggested as the man becomes entrapped by the woman's siren spell and as his obsession with her is projected through imagery showing that he feels her to be personified in every detail of the universe. The same obsession appears in “An Adventure from a Work in Progress,” an account of a man pursuing a shadowy woman through a strangely active archipelago where awesome cataclysms endanger him. At the climax of the story the woman merges with the mountain, just as the Eve in “In the Direction of the Beginning” merges with the soil. When the hero ultimately catches her, she undergoes a series of startling metamorphoses and shrinks to a tiny monster in the palm of his hand. After being thus betrayed by his obsession, like the lovers in “The Orchards” and “The Mouse and the Woman,” the hero returns from the imaginary world to the actual one, and sails away on “the common sea.”

The “revolving islands and elastic hills” of this story show that it takes place in the realm that is more fully described in “The Map of Love.” In the latter, the stages of sexual initiation are represented by a bewitched landscape; a curious animated map or model of this region exhibits its vital sexual properties, so that the children to whom it is being displayed blush at “the copulation in the second mud.” The libido-charged landscape represented by the map is the world as it presents itself to the heroes of the last two stories, who find the women they love embodied in cliffs, seas, and mountains. The children in “The Map of Love” are guided by Sam Rib, who is named for the origin of love, and are encouraged by the spirit of their lecherous Great-Uncle Jarvis, who speaks to them from the fields where he has lain with ten different mistresses. But they never succeed in swimming up the river to the island of the first beasts of love. Apparently they are too shy, too lacking in lust; mere “synthetic prodigals” of Sam Rib's laboratory, they are unable to share the dangerous vitality of nature.

Four of the stories of this period form a separate subgroup: “The Enemies,” “The Holy Six,” “The Burning Baby,” and “The School for Witches” are all about the fictional town of Llareggub, and all are told in a narrative style that presents much objective material. Thomas has created a distinctive comic world in these stories, a world of lecherous, hypocritical clergymen and submissive girls, tumbling over an enchanted Welsh landscape into situations appropriate to myths and fairy tales. In “The Enemies,” Mr. Davies, the doddering rector of Llareggub, wanders onto the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Owen. The farmer and his wife are a strong pagan pair in tune with the fertility of the soil, and they feel pity for the poor rector who comes to them tired and bleeding, having been betrayed by the countryside where he has been lost. As they eat dinner in the pantheistic atmosphere of the Owen farm, Mr. Davies is suddenly struck by the inadequacy of his own faith, and he falls to his knees to pray in fear. The story ends: “He stared and he prayed, like an old god beset by his enemies.” Thomas is distinguishing between the religion he saw represented in the churches of Wales and the one he saw embodied in “the copulation in the tree … the living grease in the soil.”

In “The Holy Six,” a sequel to “The Enemies,” Mr. Davies's adventure is turned into channels that are both comic and more deeply religious. Six of his colleagues receive a letter from Mrs. Owen informing them of Mr. Davies's plight. These six are confirmed lechers. “The holy life was a constant erection to these six gentlemen.” Much of the story consists of unproarious descriptions of the visions their evil minds project upon actuality. (An allusion to Peter, the poet of “The Visitor,” who lives in the Jarvis valley where the Owen farm is, suggests that Thomas thought of all the Llareggub stories as interrelated, though he makes little effort to establish links among them.) When the Six arrive at the Jarvis valley, they find the countryside alien to them, just as Mr. Davies did, and the opposition between their hypocritical faith and that of the Owen couple is developed as Mrs. Owen sees the truth of things in her crystal ball.

Mr. Davies is brought forward, strangely transformed. He has apparently learned the lesson of the fertile soil, but his newly discovered passions have merged with his religious habits of mind to form a grotesque compound of lust and devotion: “his ghost who laboured … leapt out to marry Mary; all-sexed and nothing, intangible hermaphrodite riding the neuter dead, the minister of God in a grey image mounted dead Mary.” He performs the service of washing the feet of his colleagues, while the thoughts of each are described, forming a series of remarkable surrealist fantasies. When he has finished this task, Mr. Davies cryptically claims the paternity of the child in Mrs. Owen's womb. Though Mr. Owen smiles at this, it is clear that Mr. Davies is right, for their “ghosts” have consummated a spiritual love in a realm different from that of the love of husband and wife.

Religious hypocrisy and repression are condemned in “The Holy Six” and “The Enemies” mainly by comic means. But “The Burning Baby” treats this theme with a tragic force approaching grandeur. The spectacle of a child consumed by fire, as we know from his poems, impressed Thomas as the formulation of an ultimate question, for it involved the greatest imaginable suffering inflicted on the greatest imaginable innocence. Rhys Rhys, the vicar, who has been driven to seduce his daughter by an obsessive lust, burns the baby resulting from this union in an expurgatory ritual. The baby, like the devil, he considers “poor flesh,” and he burns it to rid the earth of the fruit of the “foul womb” and of the evidence of his own sin. But Thomas, speaking in his own voice, corrects Rhys Rhys's view and insists on the spiritual symmetry of nature: “The fruit of the flesh falls with the worm from the tree. Conceiving the worm, the bark crumbles. There lay the poor star of flesh that had dropped, like the bead of a woman's milk, through the nipples of a wormy tree.” Though the child is dead, the flames awaken him to a shriek of protest that is significantly taken up by the landscape that witnesses his immolation.

“The Burning Baby” is probably the best-sustained and most carefully constructed of Thomas's early stories. Though it is about derangement, its style, with a few exceptions, is disciplined and objective. The moments when the emotions of the characters take over the story and shape the narration are clearly marked. For example, when Rhys Rhys is delivering his usual sermon, but thinking of his desire for his daughter, he thinks: “the good flesh, the mean flesh, flesh of his daughter, flesh, flesh, the flesh of the voice of thunder howling before the death of man.” At the moment of the incestuous union, the disruption of the normal order of feelings is reflected by a disruption of the normal conditions of external reality: “The lashes of her fingers lifted. He saw the ball under the nail.” Minor events predict what is to come. Rhys Rhys's son, whom he thinks is a changeling, brings in a dead rabbit, cradling it like a baby. The scene arouses Rhys Rhys's terrors, and he takes the dead rabbit away, thus appropriating death. But the changeling witnesses the seduction and the sacrifice of the baby, and he insanely reenacts them after the others are dead.

“The School for Witches” is another story having a baby as the victim of worship, but this worship is witchcraft, not Christianity. The cut accidentally inflicted on the black woman's baby at the moment of its birth is a warning that it is entering the “wicked world” of the school for witches where the black arts are taught. Most of the story is devoted to descriptions of the rituals, dances, and covens of the witches, the formalized evil that has risen from the cursed and bedeviled countryside. The doctor, the only lucid character, has bleak meditations as he and the midwife carry the baby back to his house: “What purpose there was in the shape of Cader Peak, in the bouldered breast of the hill and the craters poxing the green-black flesh, was no more than the wind's purpose that willy nilly blew from all corners the odd turfs and stones of an unmoulded world. The grassy rags and bones of the steep hill were … whirled together out of the bins of chaos by a winter wind.” The baby's cry confirms this sadness, and rouses Mr. Griffiths, who thinks the sound is the scream of a mandrake being uprooted and goes out to investigate. When he finds the baby it is dead, lying neglected at the door of the house where all the other characters in the story are whirling in the mad dance of the witches' coven.

The regional folklore exploited in “The School for Witches” appears in subtler forms in the other fantastic tales. The fairy lady, the changeling, the devil rolling in a ball on the ground (as the lecherous clergymen do in “The Holy Six”), and the spontaneous metamorphoses of scenes and people all belong to the atmosphere of Welsh mythology. The plot of “The Orchards” and of “The Mouse and the Woman,” involving a man who meets and loses a fairy woman, is common in these myths. “The Burning Baby” begins in the manner of a folktale, for the story is offered as a heuristic explanation of the sudden bursting into flame of dry bushes. The presence of these borrowings in the stories suggests that there is a similar element in the poems Thomas was writing at this period. The poems contain a few references to folklore, such as the beliefs concerning the vampire and the mandrake. Thomas's interest in this subject raises the possibility that the mythic awareness we have observed in the poems has its ultimate roots in the legends of Wales.

The poems, it will be recalled, encompass two conceptions of time: the unmoving time of mysticism and the conventional notion of time as a power that changes and destroys. Time is also an important theme in at least four of the imaginative stories, for mystic insights or disruptions of the natural order, psychological or otherwise, are sometimes announced as disruptions of time. The derangement of the poet in “The Mouse and the Woman” takes the form of a decision that winter must be prevented from spoiling the beauty of the woman who has left him and maddened him with jealousy. He attacks “the old effigy” of time, flinging himself into a chaos of irrational images. There is a similar effect in “The Horse's Ha.” When the undertaker drinks the magic brew intended to resurrect the dead, the movements of the sun and moon are disturbed, and the days pass with mysterious rapidity. One of the dreams of the boy in “A Prospect of the Sea” is a sweeping mystic vision in which he sees through time, relating remote things in a single historic unity. Finally, in “An Adventure from a Work in Progress,” the man's capture of the first woman he sees on the islands is accompanied by a phenomenon Thomas calls the falling of time. This event is echoed in “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait.” It involves a reversal of the development of living things, intense disturbances, including a windstorm, fires, and earthquakes, and, in fact, all the elements of chaos. Clearly, the timelessness of the poems is inappropriate to the world of the stories. The reason may be that the stories, unlike the early poems, are about human beings living their earthly lives and that the standard of conventional time is indispensable to them. When mortals seek to evade time in order to make love endure or to avoid death, as the boys do in “I see the boys of summer,” chaos results.


Thomas was still working on the last of his fantastic narratives in 1938 when he began to write the realistic stories collected in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. In March 1938 he wrote to Watkins that the first of “a series of short, straightforward stories about Swansea” had already been published. This statement must refer to “A Visit to Grandpa's,” which appeared in the New English Weekly on 10 March, 1938. The change in narrative style between these two groups of stories is, of course, a radical one; moreover, it paralleled the much more subtle change in Thomas's poetic style that was going on at about the same time. Many of the casual details of these stories are drawn without change from Thomas's Swansea days, and some of the characters are based on actual people: the aunt in “The Peaches” is Ann Jones, and Dan Jenkyns in “The Fight” is Daniel Jones. In his “Poetic Manifesto,” Thomas declared that the title he assigned to the collection was a variant, not of Joyce's title, but of one often given by painters to self-portraits. He admitted that the general influence of Dubliners might be felt in his stories, but he added that this was an influence no good writer of short stories could avoid (“Manifesto,” 4–5).

The protagonist in all the stories is clearly Thomas himself, though the stories are narrated indifferently in first and third persons and though each presents him at a different age. They are about ordinary experiences: visits with relatives, excursions to the country, adventures with gangs of children, explorations of the town. In some of them the plot is so slight that the story approaches a reminiscence or cluster of impressions. Obviously written with only a loose unity in mind, they have no common theme, but taken as a group they seem to trace the child's emergence from his domain of imagination and secret pleasures into an adult world where he observes suffering, pathos, and dignity.

Most of the stories are about an observer or witness whose experience consists of awakening to the experiences of others. The events are presented in sharp, well-selected impressions. When he is observing a general scene, such as a boy's room or a crowded street, Thomas proceeds by piling up a lively list of the quintessential details or characteristic people. Sometimes the narrator's attitude toward people, places, and episodes is affectionate or amused; sometimes he finds grotesque nightmare evocations in them. But he encounters his strongest emotions in moments of solitude when he can hug his general impressions of the external world to himself as personal possessions—while walking down a street late at night, wandering in moody isolation on a noisy beach, or enjoying the atmosphere of an expensive bar.

The first three stories—“The Peaches,” “A Visit to Grandpa's” and “Patricia, Edith and Arnold”—set the idyllic existence of a child side by side with the trials of adults. As the grownups suffer, the child remains indifferent or cruel; yet it appears at the end that he has understood and sympathized more than he knew, thus anticipating the ultimate union of the childish and adult points of view. “The Peaches” may be said to have “separateness” as an identifiable theme. Mrs. William, who brings her son for a holiday at the farm, is too superior to stay a moment longer than necessary, and refuses the precious canned peaches that have been saved for her visit. Jim curses her snobbery, but he cannot keep himself from drinking up the profits of the farm and distressing his wife. Gwilym, the son, who closely resembles the religious gardener in “The Tree,” is occupied with a vision of himself as a preacher and makes the barn into a church for his pretend sermons. To these mutually uncommunicating attitudes toward life is added that of the boys who are busy with their games of wild Indian and indifferent to the concerns of the adults. But even here a division occurs when Jack Williams betrays his playmate by telling his mother an incriminating mixture of truth and falsehood about his treatment at the farm, and is taken away. At the end of “The Peaches,” the boy waves his handkerchief at his departing betrayer, innocent that any wrong has been done to him, or to his aunt and uncle.

In “Patricia, Edith and Arnold,” the child, at first cruelly indifferent to the pain felt by the two maidservants who have learned that the same young man has been walking out with both of them, gains some insight into adult sorrows. The story begins with a chaos of irreconcilable interests: the absorption of the girls in their love triangle and the rambunctious joy of the child who is all-conquering in his imaginary play world. But as the painful comedy of Arnold's entrapment is played out, the boy, uncomfortably cold and wet, feels his own distress and unconsciously comes to sympathize with Patricia. Returning to the shelter to retrieve his cap, he sees Arnold reading the letters he has written to the other girl, but he mercifully spares Patricia this knowledge. And his own experience of pain, a minor counterpart of the adult pain Patricia has suffered, comes when he thaws his cold hands at the fire. Patricia's final remark, “Now we've all had a good cry today,” formulates both the similarity of their trials and their capacity to endure them.

Cruel jokes of the sort that life has played on Arnold occur in some of the other stories. In “Just Like Little Dogs,” the brothers exchange partners with each other in the middle of an evening of casual love. As a result, when the women become pregnant, it is not clear which brother is the father of their respective children. Two forced and loveless marriages take place, and now the two fathers spend their evenings in the street, standing hopelessly in the cold night air. In “Old Garbo,” the neighbors take up a collection for Mrs. Prothero, whose daughter is supposed to have died in childbirth; after Mrs. Prothero has drunk up the money, it is learned that the daughter has survived. The mother, ashamed at having taken the money under false pretenses, jumps into the river.

It is significant that in each of these stories the anecdotal nucleus is subordinated to the vehicle that conveys it. The impressive element of “Just Like Little Dogs” is the spectacle of the young men sheltering aimlessly from the night under the railway arch; they have no place more interesting to go and nothing more interesting to do. “Old Garbo” is, in reality, a story of initiation; the young reporter, eager to share the knowledge and maturity of the older one, follows him into the haunts where Mrs. Prothero's comic tragedy occurs. In this way he exchanges the boyish pastimes of the cinema and the novelty shop of the first part of the story for the more serious experience in the slum pub. He is not a qualified observer, for he becomes drunk, sick, and helpless, and the older reporter tells him, in an odd conclusion, that the story that has just been narrated has certain confused details. But he is still naively determined to put all the things the older reporter has shown him into a story.

Some of the stories have a note of personal futility and inadequacy that conspires with their prevailing comic tone to produce penetrating irony. The inferior boy who is the hero of “Extraordinary Little Cough” is bullied and mocked. But he turns his shy habit of running away when girls appear into a feat, for while the other boys are idling with the girls and yielding to romantic illusions, he runs the five miles of beach. As he falls to the ground exhausted at the end of the story, it is clear that he has risen nobly to a challenge, while the others have ended in frustration and petty animosity. The two boys who go for a country hike in “Who Do You Wish Was With Us?” feel they are escaping their town lives in the freedom of the country and the beach. But Ray, whose life has been full of terrible family misfortunes, is overtaken in the middle of his holiday by sorrow for his dead brother. The sea turns cold and threatening, and both boys feel that they cannot really escape the life they have fled.

The most powerful story about escape, and the most impressive one in the volume, is the last, “One Warm Saturday.” Having rejected invitations to join his friends, the young man wanders despondently among the crowds on the beach, finding solace only in the face of a girl whom he flees shyly at first. Finally he again meets the girl, Lou, and as the two become involved in an oddly mixed group of drinkers, she promises him that his love for her will be fulfilled when they are alone. The party moves from the pub where it began to Lou's room in a huge ramshackle tenement. The young man's anxiety and Lou's demonstrations of affection are intensified, but the others show no signs of leaving. A grotesque frustration occurs when the young man goes out to the lavatory. He is unable to find his way back to Lou's room to claim the night of love she has promised him. Instead, he loses himself in the squalid maze of the tenement and stumbles into the rooms of other lodgers. Finally he gives up and wanders out into the street, having made the “discovery” during his search that all the obscure people of the town share his experience of loss.

Thomas's uncompleted novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, may be considered a continuation of the quasi-autobiography loosely sketched in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, though it is more broadly comic in style than any of the stories. It takes up the narrative of a life much like Thomas's at the point where the last of the stories ends, and its protagonist, Samuel Bennet, is not inconsistent with the wandering, imaginative youths found in the earlier book, though Bennet is much better defined. Thomas seems to have begun Adventures in 1940; although the first section was published in Folios of New Writing in 1941 under the title “A Fine Beginning,” and he was encouraged to continue with it, it remained a fragment at the time of his death in 1953.

The novel may be described as a farce based on the fact that Samuel Bennet and his world are excruciatingly uncomfortable with each other. On the night before he leaves his hometown for London, Samuel prepares a number of surprises for his family by breaking his mother's china, tearing up his sister's crochet work, and scribbling on the lessons that his father, a teacher, is correcting. But he does all this in tears, as if it were a painful necessity; and he says an affectionate farewell the next morning. On the other hand, he is not eager to see London; unwilling to make any decisions or to take any action, he lingers in the station cafe until a friend forces him to leave.

The London in which Samuel finds himself is a damp, angular, crowded, eccentric world, and it is both surprising and significant that he likes it as well as he does. The chaos he encounters is well represented by his first stop, a warehouse full of furniture piled up in unlikely heaps that nevertheless serves as living quarters for a number of people. The general technique of Adventures is suggested by the locked bathroom with its bird cages, where a strange girl makes an attempt on Samuel's virtue in a tub full of used bathwater, after drugging him with a drink of cologne. In the book, as in this scene, violent imaginative force explodes in a narrow enclosure filled with ordinary objects and people, toppling them into ludicrous attitudes and combinations. A mundane paraphernalia of Bass bottles, umbrellas, rubber ducks, boot polish, Worcestershire sauce, and Coca-Cola is juggled into patterns of unproarious private meaning, sometimes by Samuel's imagination, sometimes by the author's. Realism swims in a whirlpool of uninhibited fancy.

If the atmosphere of Adventure is found anywhere else, it is in Brinnin's accounts of the social events Thomas attended, where the poet, guided by some motivation of wit or self-dramatization, cunningly introduced chaos. In the novel, Mr. Allingham observes that the Bass bottle that has become wedged on Samuel's little finger is an enigma. Samuel, noticing that a barmaid looks like a duchess riding a horse, makes the irrelevant reply of “Tantivy” to some remark. But the curious thing is that Samuel, in spite of the hostility and defiance with which he confronts the world, is completely unready for the world's retaliation. As he is pushed and prodded from one place to another, drugged, undressed, bullied, and thrown out of a bar, he experiences terror and confusion. Samuel is too innocent to absorb what he sees. A stumbling, swooning, dreaming source of confusion, he is himself confused, and he seems destined to remain a timid and withdrawn picaro among the sharp and knowing characters who take possession of him. According to Robert Pocock, who discussed Adventures with Thomas, the novel was to end with Samuel stripped naked (except, no doubt, for the Bass bottle clinging enigmatically to his little finger) and arrested in Paddington Station.2


  1. Thomas's book reviews and miscellaneous journalism are listed in J. Alexander Rolph, Dylan Thomas: A Bibliography (London: J. M. Dent, 1956), and much of this material has been reprinted in Walford Davies, ed., Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings (New York: New Directions and London: J. M. Dent, 1971). For a list of unpublished prose, film scripts, and pieces written for radio broadcast, see Maud, Entrances, 121–48.

  2. Robert Pocock, Adam International Review no. 238 (1953): 30–31.


Thomas, Dylan (Poetry Criticism)


Thomas, Dylan (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)