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.
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.
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.