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Dylan Thomas 1914-1953
(Full name Dylan Marlais Thomas) Welsh poet, short story writer, dramatist, screenplay writer, critic, and novelist.
The following entry presents criticism of Thomas's prose works. See also Dylan Thomas Short Story Criticism and Dylan Thomas Poetry Criticism.
Remembered as a poet who pursued a bohemian lifestyle that included heavy alcohol drinking and womanizing, Thomas also created several respected works of short fiction. In the 1930s, when such poets as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender established a trend of socially and politically conscious poetry, Thomas pursued more personal themes whose source was his own memory and imagination. The worlds of childhood, dream, and nature are pervasive throughout his poetry and prose, and are celebrated in a rich and often abstruse literary style.
Thomas was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales. His father was a grammar school English teacher. Thomas's first poems were printed in small literary journals and he published his first volume of poetry, 18 Poems (1934), when he was nineteen. In 1939 Thomas moved to London to work for the BBC, writing and performing radio broadcasts. After World War II, financial need prompted him to devote more energy to his lucrative short stories and screenplays rather than to his poetry. Later Thomas gained public attention as a captivating reader of his own poetry and prose. At the height of his popularity in the early 1950s, Thomas agreed to a series of public poetry readings in America, bringing about a revival of the oral reading of poetry. Though Thomas was well-received on tour, his biographers report, he drank prodigiously and behaved outrageously. In late 1953, Thomas died of a brain hemorrhage.
Thomas's early work, 18 Poems, belongs to his Swansea period of 1930-1934, when he drew upon his childhood and adolescent experiences for his poetry. Often described as incantatory, these poems record Thomas's experimentation with vibrant imagery and with sound as “verbal music.” A slightly later work, The Map of Love (1939), a collection of poetry and short stories, displays signs of his dabbling in surrealistic technique.
The physical and psychic havoc of World War II deeply affected Thomas, a conscientious objector, and shaped the major work of his middle period, which began with Deaths and Entrances (1946). In this volume Thomas's language and imagery became simpler, calmer, and more intelligible as he directs his vision and poetry toward the events and individuals around him. In his final volume of poems, In Country Sleep (1952), Thomas comes to terms with life while confronting the reality of his own death.
Thomas wrote mostly prose and screenplays during the last years of his life. Previous to this period, his most important prose pieces were his semiautobiographical short stories, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), which stylistically and thematically bear comparison to James Joyce's Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both Joyce's and Thomas's works offer negative views of their respective backgrounds—Ireland and Wales—each depicting what “for artists,” as Kenneth Seib observed, “is a world of death, sterility, and spiritual debasement.” The most popular prose piece to issue from Thomas's later period is his play for voices, Under Milk Wood (1954). Again critics noted the similarities between Thomas and James Joyce. In Under Milk Wood and Joyce's Ulysses, each author captures the life of a whole society as it is reflected in a single day; for Joyce it is the urban life in Dublin, while for Thomas it is the Welsh village of Llaregyub.
From the outset of Thomas's career there has been much critical disagreement as to his stature as a poet and short story writer. Many commentators cite Thomas's work as being too narrow and unvarying; he essentially confines himself to the lyric expression of what Stephen Spender labeled “certain primary, dithyrambic occasions,” chiefly birth, love, and death. Edith Sitwell spoke for many critics as she puzzled over the poet's distorted syntax and religious symbolism. The influence of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets is often cited in connection with Thomas's unorthodox religious imagery; while the influence of the Romantic poets is seen in his recurrent vision of a pristine beauty in childhood and nature. Thomas's vivid imagery, involved word play, fractured syntax, and personal symbology did, however, change the course of modern poetry. Though a poet of undetermined rank, he set a new standard for many mid-twentieth-century poets. His prose work is often viewed by critics as financial enterprises, although it shares much thematically with his more respected poetry.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127
18 Poems (poetry) 1934
Twenty-Five Poems (poetry) 1936
The Map of Love (poetry and short stories) 1939
The World I Breathe (poetry and sketches) 1939
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (short stories) 1940
New Poems (poetry) 1943
Deaths and Entrances (poetry) 1946
Twenty-six Poems (poetry) 1950
Collected Poems, 1934-1952 (poetry) 1952
In Country Sleep (poetry) 1952
The Doctor and the Devils (drama) 1953
A Prospect of the Sea, and Other Stories and Prose (short stories and sketches) 1954
Quite Early One Morning (sketches and essays) 1954
Under Milk Wood (verse drama) 1954
Adventures in the Skin Trade, and Other Stories (unfinished novel and short stories) 1955
The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (notebooks) 1967
Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (poetry, short stories, and sketches) 1968
The Death of the King's Canary [with John Davenport] (novel) 1976
Collected Stories (short stories) 1980
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11563
SOURCE: “Stories and Plays,” in Dylan Thomas, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965, pp. 154-82.
[In the following essay, Korg divides Thomas's nonpoetic works into two areas: fantasies and straightforward narratives.]
Thomas was as prolific a writer of prose as 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 the two film scripts, The Doctor and the Devils and The Beach at Falesá, he wrote a number of book reviews, radio talks, and descriptive essays, many of them collected in the posthumous volume, Quite Early One Morning.1
Thomas' 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 which constitutes their reality, so that the material and 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), 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 subject 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; this sustained intensity is more natural to poetry than to prose. 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 shows that the order of imagination operating in them is the one which produced Thomas' poetry. His stories, unlike his earliest poems, deal with recognizable people and places; but they invest them 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 the Adelphi in December, 1934, within a week of the publication of 18 Poems, the style typical of Thomas' fantastic stories is still at an early stage of its development, so that 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 naïve religious who, by one of those primitive metaphorical associations familiar to us from Thomas' 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 blending 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 which 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 ceases to compare, and equates instead, 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, so at the end Peter 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 the 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 superimposed upon one another 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 which leads him to mystic perception. What follows is perhaps Thomas' 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 part 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 which 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' 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' 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 where 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 appears at the beginning of the story.
The story 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. And, in order 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 he feels at this self-destruction. Trapped between two systems of reality 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 this 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, a subject that offers a far richer opportunity for Thomas' 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' unpublished poems),2 visits two bars; then, as in “A Prospect of the Sea,” destructive water comes 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 Boschlike 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 fleeing 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' 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 land-scape 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 of 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' 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' plight. These six are confirmed lechers. “The holy life was a constant erection to these six gentlemen.” Much of the story consists of uproarious 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 in “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' view and insists upon 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 which 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' 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' son, who he thinks is a changeling, brings in a dead rabbit, cradling it like a baby. The scene arouses Rhys Rhys' 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 re-enacts 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 not Christianity, but witchcraft. 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' 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, 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, as do the boys in “I see the boys of summer,” in order to make love endure or to avoid death, chaos results.
Thomas was still working on the last of his fantastic narratives in 1938 when he began to write the realistic stories which were 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 March 10, 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' 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' 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.3
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, one 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 his 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. Williams, 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 a church for his pretended 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.
But 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 Paticia 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. The two forced but 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 which 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 in 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 which has just been narrated has certain confused details; but he is still naïvely 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 which 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 animosities. 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 by sorrow for his dead brother in the middle of his holiday. 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. Ultimately, 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. Ultimately, 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' uncompleted novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade, may be considered a continuation of the quasi-autobiography loosely sketched in A 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' 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 he is much better defined. Thomas seems to have begun Adventures in 1940; and, though the first section was published in Folios of New Writing in 1941 under the title “A Fine Beginning” and though he was encouraged to continue with it, it remained a fragment at the time of his death.
It 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 home town for London, Samuel prepares a number of surprises for his family by breaking his mother's china, tearing up his sister's crochetwork, 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 actions, he lingers in the station café 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 which 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, bootpolish, Worcestershire sauce, and CocaCola is juggled into patterns of uproarious 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. Mr. Allingham observes that the Bass bottle which 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.4
The two film scripts Thomas completed during the period he was writing for the media of popular entertainment—The Doctor and the Devils and The Beach at Falesá—are entirely unlike his other work. Both were based on données, and they were translations of a given story from one medium to another. They made few demands on Thomas' original gifts, but they did demonstrate that he had unexpected capacities for adapting himself to new forms and for controlling an extended work.
Of the two, The Doctor and the Devils is by far the more interesting and successful. The idea for filming the story of the murderers, Burke and Hare, who supplied the early anatomist, Robert Knox, with corpses for dissection, was that of Donald Taylor. Taylor, after some research, wrote a narrative of these episodes; and he commissioned Thomas, then an employee of his Strand Film Company, to write the script. This was the beginning of an odd history. Thomas' script, completed and put into proof by 1947, was not published until 1953. In 1961 Callum Mill rewrote it as a stage play, produced it in this form at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow in 1961, and played the role of Dr. Rock. The play was performed a second time at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1962, where Mill staged it for performance “in the round” at the Assembly Hall. The film itself has never been produced.
The effectiveness of Thomas' script is due largely to its accounts of the low haunts of Edinburgh (which is, however, never identified by name), the curious characters found there, and their deeds of violence. The stage directions are cast in a considered prose of far greater finish and vigor than is strictly necessary. Some of them seem to call for inappropriate emphasis, but others display a creative and original approach to photographic possibilities. It is clear that Thomas found the cinematic idiom of concrete imagery entirely congenial. He is both resourceful and subtle in devising visual counterparts for ideas of his own and for the thoughts of his characters. The murder of Jennie Bailey is predicted by a shot showing Fallon, her murderer, unconsciously letting the drink from his bottle pour over her skirt during a carouse. While a student is drawing her corpse, her hand, opening in a death twitch, drops two pennies to the floor. The scenes in the pubs and the parties in the lodging house kept by Fallon and Broom, where they trap and murder old derelicts for Dr. Rock's dissecting table, present a great deal of this specific and telling detail.
The chief character, Dr. Rock, is a figure who resembles Faust or Paracelsus: he is an intellectual devoted to his discipline who is indifferent to ordinary human values. The actual Dr. Knox gave Thomas some of the rudiments of Dr. Rock's character; he was an effective orator and a dandy, and the figure in Thomas' script retains these qualities. Rock defends his practice of accepting bodies obtained by “Resurrectionists” on the ground that the legal limitation of using only bodies from the gallows for dissection is too restrictive. One of his weaknesses as a character is his universal and unfailing contempt; he despises his colleagues, the poor, the government that ignores their needs, and nearly everyone to whom he speaks. Yet he proclaims that he is in the service of mankind; and, when the murders are discovered, the other doctors, whom he has bitterly criticized, unite to defend him.
Rock is the center of the script's moral conflict. Believing not only that any means are justified in the pursuit of his science but that the lives of the poor and immoral people upon whom Fallon and Broom prey are not worth living, he accepts the bodies silently, even though he knows they have been murdered. When the truth becomes known, he is ostracized; and for a few sequences Rock has the odd aspect of an inverted Dr. Stockmann of An Enemy of the People: he stands alone against society in defense of his moral indifference. But he is brought to a realization of his crime at the end, when a child is frightened at hearing his name; he then learns that he has become a figure of horror.
In his review, James Agee called The Doctor and the Devils the hack work of a man of genius; but the fact that he found much to praise in it showed that he intended to characterize and not to condemn it with this description. He thought that Thomas had made good use of some of the movie devices, that the dialogue was “playable,” and that the script showed that Thomas “could not work for money without also working with love.”
This observation is not, unfortunately, supported by The Beach at Falesá, a script far inferior to The Doctor and the Devils. The Beach was written in 1948 for Gainsborough Pictures; like the earlier one it was never produced, and it was not published until 1959, when it appeared in Harper's Bazaar. A filming of a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, it has to do with an island in the South Seas dominated by a merchant who exploits the superstition of the natives to interfere with the business of a rival trader. It offers some interesting local color and some humor drawn from the life of white men in the tropics. There is a good scene in which the English hero sets up housekeeping with his native wife and tries to explain how his new household differs from his own home; but he finally surrenders to her naïveté, gives up the attempt, and contents himself with amusing her. In general, however, the script aims at melodrama, violent physical action in the form of fist fights, and spookiness. There are few signs that Thomas tried to make anything serious or original of the assignment.
Thomas' last completed work, Under Milk Wood, had a long gestation, for he first thought of writing something like it in 1945, as an expansion of the subject of “Quite Early One Morning,” a description of a Welsh village he had read on the radio during one of his programs. The original plan, according to Daniel Jones, was to have the town full of queer individualists defend its sanity at a trial; but, upon hearing a description of a sane town from the prosecutor, the inhabitants decide instead to shut themselves off from the outside world. After writing about half of the play, calling it The Town Was Mad, Thomas changed his mind about this structure. In the summer of 1951 he read some parts of the play—then called Llareggub Hill—to Brinnin; and in 1952 he published a selection closely resembling the first half of the final version in Botteghe Oscure as Llareggub: A Piece for Radio Perhaps.
When Brinnin suggested in September of 1952 that the play might serve as a program for the series of American readings they were planning, Thomas was encouraged to complete it. It was listed in the program of the Poetry Center for performance in May, 1953; Thomas wrote in March that he would not be able to complete it before leaving for America but that he would bring the manuscript with him. He continued work on it up to the very day he first read it as a solo performance at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge Massachusetts, on May 3, 1953. The reaction to this premiere was enthusiastic; according to Brinnin, it gave Thomas confidence in his ability to write drama. A first group reading was given at the Poetry Center on May 14; its effect was extraordinary, and there were fifteen curtain calls. Thomas continued to revise the play and to add to it through the ensuing performances, until the weeks just before his death. The play opened the Poetry Center's program in September, 1953, and was first performed in Britain as a broadcast on January 25, 1954.
In spite of its effectiveness, Under Milk Wood, like most of Thomas' writing about Wales, is essentially slight; its main assets are charm, exuberance, and mischievousness. Thomas took advantage of the radio-play form to give his work a reality that was as disembodied as possible; apart from the town itself and the well-marked progress of the day from morning to nightfall, there are few suggestions of time or place. There is no plot. The microphone simply makes a number of tours of the various inhabitants of the town at different hours of the day, guided on one occasion by the postman, to hear of their dreams, memories, and daily lives. There are no distinctions between the voices of characters and narrators, the speeches of the living and the dead; or among dreams, thought, and viva voce dialogue. In form—or, rather, in formlessness—its closest analogue is the Night-Town chapter of Joyce's Ulysses; but the nightmare violence and the horror of Joyce's chapter are supplanted by domestic comedy, cheerful lechery, and wistful memories of episodes of affection that are only incidentally sinful.
The comic vitality of Under Milk Wood suggests that Thomas, with his sense of humor, his eye for detail, and his love of humble people, might have done work reminiscent of Dickens. But the humor of Under Milk Wood is not an end in itself, but a means of emphasizing the theme, the sacredness of human attachments. Thomas advances a persuasive claim to respect for the sinful, eccentric, and even ludicrous loves that spring up in ordinary lives by investing them with comedy and pathos. This effect begins with the speeches of Captain Cat's drowned shipmates rehearsing the pleasures of their lives: “… we shared the same girl once. … come to a bad end, very enjoyable.” This irresistible style of defense for whatever human beings may come to care for is continued with the dreams of Miss Price, the dressmaker, and Mog Edwards, the draper, whose love for each other never progresses beyond correspondence; with the love between the rowdy Cherry Owen and his wife; with Captain Cat's memories of Rosie Probert; with the Reverend Eli Jenkins' paean to the town and Wales generally; and with Polly Garter's memory of Willy Wee, the one man among all her lovers for whom she cared the most. The more delusive and insubstantial these affections are, the more tenderly does Thomas treat them.
Under Milk Wood turns sharply away from anything resembling mysticism. It reflects the conclusion Thomas had reached in 1951 that “The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.”5 Thus, it can be seen as the last of Thomas' hymns of praise for the world of man's experience and its Creator. His early mystic poems had mingled the material world and its divine source in a dark, chaotic unity. In his later poems, the landscapes, animals, and people are treated as if they were taking part in a grave and radiant ceremonial; the sense of relation with divine energy has retreated, but its immanence is felt everywhere. In Under Milk Wood, with its loving depiction of people who would ordinarily be considered weak or foolish, Thomas continues to pursue this obscure joy.
Alfred Kazin has attributed the great popularity Thomas enjoyed in his lifetime to the fact that his resonant, passionate verse offered an alternative to the cool ironies of his contemporaries. Certainly the poets dominating the early 1930's, when 18 Poems and Twenty-Five Poems were published—W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender—differed from Thomas in two important respects. They were men who responded sensitively to social and historical conditions, and they were—with the exception of Spender—primarily poets of wit and intellect. They frequently dealt with themes related to the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the threat of World War II, and even their lyrics of personal disquiet are touched with an awareness of general conditions. As Auden wrote in his poem about the outbreak of the war, “September 1, 1939”:
Waves of anger and fear Circulate over the bright And darkened lands of earth, Obsessing our private lives. …
Even in their pessimism, these poets usually maintained a tone of civilized urbanity and a sense of decorum. Although they often took up the cause of the outsider or the proletarian, they expressed themselves in verse of an aristocratic, intellectual, and ironic temper.
However, there were dissidents among the young writers of the time who, like Thomas, favored a return to some of the values of Romanticism. By the mid-1930's, Auden, whose first book of verse had been published in 1930, was regarded by some as cold, brittle, and superficial; new sources of feeling for poetry were being sought in myth, religion, and the subconscious. Tendencies resembling those of Thomas' poetry and early stories were found in Surrealism, which began to attract the attention of English writers and artists at this period. David Gascoyne, the only English poet fully committed to Surrealism, wrote A Short Survey of Surrealism in 1935, and in 1936 his book of Surrealist verse, Man's Life Is This Meat, was published by the Parton Bookshop, which had supported the publication of 18 Poems two years earlier. Thomas attended the International Surrealist Exhibition held at the Burlington Gallery in 1936, and entered far enough into the spirit of it to carry a cup of tea made of boiled string which he offered to passers-by. Although he was critical of Surrealist theory in the “Manifesto” of 1951, the fantastic stories collected in The World I Breathe (which were written in the 1930's) certainly share the Surrealist spirit. Thomas' mythic qualities and Romantic egoism also harmonize with the aims of a later literary movement of the 1930's, the New Apocalypse.
Thomas' poetry may legitimately be considered a manifestation of the Neo-romantic stirrings of his time, but it has older and more illuminating affinities as well. Critics writing on Thomas have had much to say about influences and parallels, and it has been shown that he has something in common with nearly every good poet, even those as different from him as Shakespeare and Pope. Thomas' own casual statement on the subject was that he was open to the influence of any writers he might be reading, and his purposely indiscriminate list reads: “Sir Thomas Browne, de Quincey, Henry Newbolt, the Ballads, Blake, Baroness Orczy, Marlowe, Chums, the Imagists, the Bible, Poe, Keats, Lawrence, Anon, and Shakespeare.”6 The most significant name on this list, as Thomas implicitly acknowledges, and as his critics have often pointed out, is that of Blake. Thomas shared with Blake a hallucinatory commitment to the concreteness of what he imagined, and the sort of cosmic awareness that generates myth. Though Thomas' cosmos is far more fragmentary than the one found in Blake's Prophetic Books, it has some of the same energies, gigantic deities, and above all, the same “fearful symmetry” of balanced patterns formed by opposing forces.
Much has been said, also, about the religious or visionary aspect of Thomas' poetry, the quality he shares with Vaughan, Hopkins, and Yeats, as well as with Blake. In general, the critics have adopted one of two opposing points of view. One group thinks of Thomas as a religious poet who wrote, as he said in his introductory note to the Collected Poems, “for the love of man and in praise of God.” T. H. Jones believes that the main poems of Deaths and Entrances clearly exhibit a Christianity that is disguised, but still detectable in the rhetoric of the earlier poems. G. S. Fraser finds in the “Altarwise …” sequence a “current of orthodox Christian feeling—feeling rather than thought” which became increasingly noticeable in Thomas' later work. W. S. Merwin's essay, “The Religious Poet” is probably the most cogent statement of this view. Merwin considers Thomas' work a “poetry of celebration,” whose universe originates in love and remains suffused with it. It is natural, adds Merwin, that Thomas should have proceeded from lyric to dramatic modes, for the faith developed in the introspections of the earlier poems is revealed, in the later ones, in the form of an increasingly inclusive sense of the orderliness of the external world.7
If Thomas said that he wrote “in praise of God,” he also said, at another time, that he meant to write “poems in praise of God's world by a man who doesn't believe in God.”8 This statement, which seems more careful than the one in the introduction to Collected Poems, also seems intended to strike a note of qualified faith. Many, perhaps most of Thomas' critics, feel that his poetry, in spite of its Biblical allusions, its use of Christian myth and symbolism, and its ardent declarations of faith is not, in the final analysis, expressive of religious belief. “It would be ridiculous,” wrote Francis Scarfe in one of the earliest analyses of the “Altarwise …” sequence, “to claim Thomas for any church.”9 And a recent critic, Ralph Maud, commenting on Thomas' allusions to God in “Over Sir John's hill” and the projected, but uncompleted “In Country Heaven,” observes: “Thomas' God does nothing to alleviate the absurdity of the position of rational man in an irrational universe; Thomas' God does nothing to explain death in terms of higher values. As the eternal sympathetic spectator, He simply weeps, offering none of the usual consolations.”10
The differences of opinion on this point among the critics are at least partly due to different notions of what is meant by “religion.” Thomas is certainly concerned with such religious problems as the nature of the creator, the relation of man to his universe, and, particularly, the enigma of death. Also, his verse depends upon mystic perception, intuitions about the cosmos, and even upon such specifically Christian doctrines as atonement, immortality, and salvation. But his ideas about these things are personal, naïve, and, as we have said earlier, primitive. In spite of his use of conventional religious terms and symbols, Thomas' subject is really the primordial world view of the savage. It includes miracle, anthropomorphism, and pantheism, but offers no morality, no doctrine, no communal feeling. Thomas' religious symbolism, says Giorgio Melchiori, “is only a metaphorical means of expression of the poet's personal thought; it contributes to the creation of that personal myth which seems to be the real aim of his poetry.”11
Thomas is a craftsman of language as well as a visionary. Though he explicitly denied that Joyce had influenced him, he is properly seen as one of the line of verbal experimenters of which Joyce is the most prominent member. We have already examined Thomas' imaginative use of words, and it is interesting to recall that he enjoyed reading old copies of the magazine transition, that museum of exploration in language. What Thomas has in common with Lewis Carroll, Hopkins, Joyce, and Cummings is the urge to probe the disparity between conventional language and the fruits of perception. Thomas, like the others, devised more or less systematic means of entering the virgin ground between language and experience. He followed Hopkins' example in discovering new reserves of expression in the sound of language, and in coining neologisms to convey the truths of private anguish and joy in nature. And, like Joyce, he practiced the art of doubling or trebling thicknesses of meaning, so that language becomes startlingly germane to its subject.
Thomas is a striking figure, however, not because of the debt he owed to other poets, but because of his undeniable originality. As we have seen, his ideas were not exceptional. He took his intuitions as they came to him, without trying to refine or reshape them, but he spent great effort on the elaboration of rhetorical resources. There are styles of primitive art that display this combination of the simple and the intricate. They offer no defenses against tribal fears and passions, but instead express them in the tangled pattern of a woven shield or the carved involutions of a witch doctor's mask. Thomas' verse strangely resembles objects of this kind. It embodies elemental, unformed feelings that usually lie below the threshold of consciousness in a technique so practiced and accomplished that it gives the illusion of issuing from long, secure traditions foreign to impatient modern craftsmanship. The result is a unique impression of double remoteness, a union of barbaric subject with an arcane, sophisticated style that is perhaps the distinctive quality of Thomas' art.
Thomas' book reviews and miscellaneous journalism are listed in Dylan Thomas: A Bibliography by J. Alexander Rolph (London and New York, 1956). His unpublished prose work, scripts written for film documentaries, and unpublished pieces read on broadcasts are listed in Maud, Entrances to Dylan Thomas' Poetry, Appendix I, “Chronology of Composition,” pp. 121-48.
“Fifty,” (July, 1933), in February, 1933, Notebook.
“Poetic Manifesto: A Manuscript,” pp. 4-5.
Robert Pocock, Adam International Review, No. 238, 1953, pp. 30-31.
“Poetic Manifesto,” p. 9.
“Poetic Manifesto,” p. 3.
The passages referred to in this paragraph are: T. H. Jones, Dylan Thomas (Edinburgh and London, 1963), pp. 66-67; Fraser, Vision and Rhetoric, p. 224; and Merwin's essay in Casebook, p. 60 and p. 64.
Quoted by Brinnin in Dylan Thomas in America, p. 128.
Scarfe, Auden and After, 1942. Reprinted in Casebook, p. 29.
Maud, Entrances to Dylan Thomas' Poetry, p. 112.
Giorgio Melchiori, The Tightrope Walkers (London, 1956), p. 231.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7812
SOURCE: “Imitation and Invention: The Use of Borrowed Material in Dylan Thomas's Prose,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, July, 1968, p. 275-95.
[In the following essay, Davies examines the influences of Thomas Hardy, the Mabinogion, Charles Dickens, Ambrose Bierce, and others on Thomas's stories and film scripts.]
Brander Matthews once proposed a grading of the short story in terms of its compliance with a catalogue of qualities—something like a working list of litmus tests, of which the most notable were unity, compression, originality, ingenuity and fantasy (Saturday Review, July 1884). These features, or aspects of them, are certainly valid yardsticks, but Matthews's third requirement, ‘originality’, has to be defined and re-defined if it is to be a yardstick of any critical use. Influences which are assimilated into tone or theme in the ordinary run of prose fiction need not be closely defined; but when, on the other hand, whole plots, or segments of plot or descriptive narrative, are borrowed by an author from elsewhere, the test is to see in what way imitation becomes invention. Shakespeare survives because he is so much more resourceful than the plots he adopted, because poetry re-defines material radically. Even with prose, however, and even in the case of its less ambitious forms, the process is interesting and informative. With the short story, a genre which over the last half-century has moved further and further away from the formal requirements of plot in the strictest sense, increasing emphasis has been placed on the power to reveal rather than state. The insistence of E. M. Forster on aesthetic rather than structural compactness in Aspects of the Novel and of a commentator like I, Hendry on ‘revealed’ rather than stated meaning (‘Joyce's Epiphanies’, Critiques and Essays on Modern Fiction, 1952) has drawn attention more to vertical depth and less to horizontal plot in fiction. And so, where the horizontal apparatus of plot is in fact borrowed from elsewhere, the reader is now critically prepared to see the material function in new hands.
Dylan Thomas's prose works vary enormously and range from the intense and often moving early stories to the adept radio broadcasts; from the comic elegy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog to the lyrical impressionism of Under Milk Wood and the melodramatic facility of the film scenarios. Nevertheless, a feature common to all his prose is the tendency to borrow material from his reading of other authors. The tendency ranges in quantity from the borrowing of a few words to the employment of total plots. As the range varies, so does the measure of success or failure, and often the habit is a good indication of the nature of Thomas's imagination. In the poetry the device sometimes provides successful drama by verbal allusion. In the late poem, ‘In Country Sleep’, for example, the young girl's growth to sexual self-determination is marked by an allusion to a striking clause in Hardy's ‘A Broken Appointment’. The ominous arrival of Time and Maturity—‘he comes designed … He comes to take … He comes to leave her … Naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come’ catches the dramatic lament of Hardy's ‘You did not come … Grieved I, when, as the hope hour stroked its sum, You did not come’. The reference here (incidentally, it is a poem Thomas was once recorded reading) is part of the drama and is all the more fruitful for being recognised.
Similarly, the tendency in the prose works, where it functions more consistently, can be Eliotian in its ability to juxtapose old contexts with new. In this way it can point to the quality of satire in a work like the play for voices. When, for example, the narrator says, ‘The music of the spheres is heard distinctly over Milk Wood. It is “The Rustle of Spring”’, the response required, one invited by Thomas's own inverted commas, is to realise that the reference is to a salon piece called ‘The Rustle of Spring’ written by Sinding, a minor Danish imitator of Grieg, who was popular at the turn of the century. Immediately we are in touch with something like mock-heroics, comic because the nearest approximation to the music of the spheres can only be a piano cliché, redolent of suburbia with its aspidistra atmosphere. Or, again, when Eli Jenkins speaks of ‘Llaregyb Hill, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of peoples that dwelt in the region of Llaregyb before the Celts left the Land of Summer and where the old wizards made themselves a wife out of flowers' (p. 82), the mock-romantic element is best savoured when we notice the direct source of the passage. Eli Jenkins's words are almost a verbatim rendering of some lines in Arthur Machen's Autobiography (1922), where the author recalls that ‘as soon as I saw anything I saw Twyn Barlwm, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of the peoples that dwelt in that region before the Celts left the Land of Summer’. Thomas probably took the reference from Gwyn Jones's A Prospect of Wales (1948) where this exact section is quoted (p. 17). Mock-heroics at third hand seem particularly appropriate, and are further helped by the lifting of the idea of making ‘a wife out of flowers' from Gwyn Jones's translation (with T. Jones) of The Mabinogion (1949, p. 65). The Eliotian idea of embarrassing present company by means of retrospective borrowings is here successful, and it deserves to be recognised.
A discussion of Thomas's borrowings in prose would, therefore, seem to be a suitable means of examining the nature of his work in this medium. But before looking at two examples of how Thomas's short stories are modelled on total plots from other sources, it may be profitable to point out further examples of this widespread tendency to borrow, thus establishing it as conscious effort rather than isolated accident. It is quite clear that in a work like Under Milk Wood the composition of something like paper-clippings from other authors is suitable to the pointilliste nature of the play for voices. The whole tone and manner of the narrating voices especially seems to benefit from the pattern of swift allusion. One example that is particularly successful is the description of Lord Cut Glass. This probably had Dickens's description of Mr. Sapsea in Edwin Drood as its direct original. The First Voice depicts Lord Cut Glass ‘in his kitchen full of time’, surrounded by untidy detail and especially by a fantastic collection of clocks. He is described as a man seeking to overcome Time by living in ‘a house and a life at siege’ afraid of that final time when ‘the tribes and navies of the Last Black Day’ will ‘sear and pillage down Armageddon Hill’ (p. 66). The same comic fortification had been attempted by Dickens's Mr. Sapsea who
sits in his dull ground-floor sitting-room, giving first on his paved back yard; and then on his railed-off garden. Mr. Sapsea has a bottle of port wine on a table before the fire … and is characteristically attended by his portrait, his eight-day clock, and his weather-glass. Characteristically, because he would uphold himself against mankind, his weather-glass against weather, and his clock against time (ch. IV).
The idea of a ‘house and life at siege’ had, then, a clear source in Dickens, for whom Mr. Sapsea's posture for combat was no doubt a more positive extension of that other house at siege, Wemmick's in Great Expectations (ch. XXV).
Dickens had been a source-author for Thomas from a very early period. No doubt the poet felt an affinity of comic attitude with the novelist: but the connection could also be made with the material of ordinary melodrama. In 1933, a short story called ‘Jarley's’ was published by Thomas in his school magazine. The nominal acknowledgement made in that title to the wax-works of the same name in Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop is not the only connection; but a more interesting debt was contracted in a story which Thomas was to publish immediately afterwards. This was ‘After the Fair’ which describes the flight of a young girl from the police to the safety of a fairground. The story suggests the sanctuary which Nell finds in Mrs. Jarley's wax-works in Dickens's novel and the parallel also centralises the specifically Dickensian pathos of Thomas's story, relieved as it is by the Dickensian figure of the Fat Man. Sporadic borrowings from Dickens are essentially of this nature, such as would consolidate convenient atmosphere and convenient comic touches. The debt can be traced through David Copperfield's initial fear of his own home (ch. II) to the small boy's fear of the house in the Portrait (p. 13); from Pip's fight with Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (ch. XI) to the schoolboy fight of the Portrait's ‘The Fight’; and from Pip's Christmas meal with Wopsle, Hubble and Pumblechook (ch. IV) to Thomas's family evening meal in the Portrait (p. 90). The world of children as it is controlled and inhibited by grown-ups is a significant legacy from Dickens and to it Thomas brings his own considerable ear for dialogue, following Dickens in theme to the exclusion only of the novelist's insistence on human viciousness.
But even clearer is the presence of Dickens in Thomas's unfinished autobiographical novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade. Describing the novel at an early stage, Thomas wrote to Vernon Watkins that it was ‘a mixture of Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Kafka, Beachcomber …’ and the speed with which the novel was written was no doubt facilitated by this element of parody. Thus, when Samuel Bennet is ruining his teacher-father's exercise books, tearing up his mother's photographs, and breaking the family china the night before he leaves for London, his fear of detection is given imaginatively in terms of a Dickensian situation. He is afraid ‘that the strangers upstairs he had known since he could remember would wake and come down with pokers and candles’ (p. 19). Touched upon here is what Thomas must have considered an archetypal Dickensian situation—as, for example, described in Sikes's attempted burglary in Oliver Twist (ch. XXII) and illustrated in Cruikshank's drawing. The element of surface allusion may also function in the description of Bennet's sensations on regaining consciousness in Mrs. Dacey's house after drinking the daughter's eau-de-cologne. Shades of the bewildered Oliver Twist regaining consciousness in Mr. Brownlow's house (ch. XII) and again later in Mrs. Maylie's house (ch. XXVIII) seem to stand behind the description. The result is that some form of connotative irony comes into play, since the ‘innocence’ of Samuel Bennet is a ludicrous analogy to the real innocence of Oliver. Where the allusions come to the surface we have the direct confession of parody. For instance, when Bennet sees Mr. Allingham stealing the waitress's tip in the station restaurant in London, he thinks of the waitress with exaggerated sympathy as someone who would suffer unbearably through losing the money and who had a husband and two children to support. He first conceives the children's names to be Tristram and Eve, but changes the names quickly to Tom and Marge, as if correcting the nominal consistency of the Dickensian atmosphere. Immediately afterwards, he thinks of London's corrupting influence in a way which pushes the sources to the surface of the episode:
I am not so innocent as I make out, he thought. I do not expect any old cobwebbed Fagin, reeking of character and stories, to shuffle out of a corner and lead me away into his grand, loud, filthy house; there will not be any Nancy to tickle my fancy in a kitchen full of handkerchiefs and beckoning, unmade beds … as I walked into London for the first time, rattling my fortune, fresh as Copperfield (pp. 44-5).
For the hero to recognise his experience as a literary permutation is, of course, part of the comedy.
But such suggestions are strengthened by more decisive borrowings. The best example occurs when Mr. Allingham takes Bennet back to his house immediately after his arrival in London. The first room they enter is seen to be full of furniture:
Every inch of the room was covered with furniture. Chairs stood on couches that lay on tables; mirrors nearly the height of the door were propped, back to back, against the walls, reflecting and making endless the hills of desks and chairs with their legs in the air, sideboards, dressing tables, chests-of-drawers, more mirrors, empty bookcases, washbasins, clothes cupboards. There was a double bed, carefully made, with the ends of the sheets turned back, lying on top of a dining table on top of another table; there were electric lamps and lampshades, trays and vases, lavatory bowls and basins, heaped in the armchairs that stood on cupboards and tables and beds, touching the ceiling. The one window, looking out on the road, could just be seen through the curved legs of sideboards on their backs. The walls behind the standing mirrors were thick with pictures and picture frames (p. 53).
Grotesque emphasis is placed on the description of the overcrowded room and the second chapter is in fact called ‘Plenty of Furniture’. Thomas clearly copied the comic potential of such a description from Dickens's Dombey and Son. In that novel, Brogley the Broker's collection of secondhand furniture is described, and the source of Thomas's description becomes obvious, in detail as well as in comic intent:
Dozens of chairs hooked on to washing stands, which with difficulty poised themselves on the shoulders of sideboards, which in their turn stood upon the wrong sides of dining-tables, gymnastic with their legs upward on the tops of other dining-tables, were among its most reasonable arrangements. A bouquet array of dish-covers, wine glasses, and decanters was generally to be seen, spread forth upon the bosom of a four-post bedstead, for the entertainment of such genial company as half-a-dozen pokers, and a hall lamp. A set of window curtains with no windows belonging to them, would be seen gracefully draping a barricade of chests of drawers, loaded with little jars from chemists' shops (ch. IX).
Such material had interested Dickens since his ‘Brokers’ and Marine-store Shops' in Sketches By Boz: for Thomas, the example was ready-made. But it is also clear that Thomas has here learnt something from Dickens's manner as well as from his material. There is in both cases a fidelity to the fact that shape dictates action or poise: chairs stand on couches which in turn lie on tables in Thomas's description, just as in Dickens washing-stands poise themselves on the shoulders of sideboards. The picture has the quiet animation of suggestions of human posture. Similarly, both pieces pinpoint chaos by referring to normality: the idea of a ‘reasonable arrangement’ and a ‘bouquet array’ of dish-covers suggest comically some method in madness, while in Thomas's attempt the mirrors seem somehow designed to duplicate the chaos and we get the perfect touch of the bed being ‘Carefully made, with the ends of the sheets turned back’ despite the fact that it stands on top of two tables. It is probably significant that Phillip Lindsay recalls seeing Thomas reading Dombey and Son with obvious enjoyment (Adam International Review XXI, 1953): it would appear that the source did not come without its accompanying lesson in comic description.
Yet, on the whole, this kind of borrowing remains fragmentary and is not ultimately justified by total transformation in new hands. Except where the borrowings function satirically, they remain for the most part surface, second-hand material and do not move satisfactorily from imitation to invention, being merely short-cuts to the kind of effects Thomas admired in other writers. In this connection it is, therefore, significant that some of Thomas's finest short stories still make use of borrowed material. The difference lies in the degree to which Thomas in his best work in prose is committed to the consistency of the work in progress over and above the skeleton of what is borrowed. In the two examples I shall examine in detail here it appears that the unifying factors are a convincing psychological interest, a penetrating human sympathy and something approaching obsession with poetic symbols. That the examples are some of the poet's most sombre stories may be significant: perhaps what allowed the dissipation of creative energy in mere surface borrowings was the comic mode itself—the comic mode in Thomas's prose works being too often and too conveniently second-hand Dickens.
It can be shown in the first instance that the poet took as his source-pattern for the early short story ‘The Dress’ (1934), the American writer Ambrose Bierce's classic tale of the execution of a soldier in the American Civil War, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, which first appeared in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and was reprinted in the English edition, In the Midst of Life, soon afterwards. It was conveniently reprinted in The Eyes of the Panther later, in 1928. Bierce's story describes the split-second fantasy which flashes through the soldier's mind at the point of death: he imagines that he thwarts the execution, falling into the river beneath the bridge from which he was to be hanged, and escaping to return home to his wife. After a difficult journey home, described in detail, he is about to embrace his wife when he feels a stunning blow on the back of his neck—and the reader is given a description of the soldier (Farquhar) hanging dead from the bridge. Bierce sought to give the human mind at the exact point of death the appearance and sensation of continuing life which to some degree turns the fact of death into elegy. No doubt Bierce employed the device largely for the sake of bizarre surprise, since the reader is not made aware until the end of the story that Farquhar is in fact dead. Narrative shock, or what A. J. A. Symons once called Bierce's ‘dramatic elision’ (Ten Tales, 1925, p. vii), is characteristic of the author, as a reading of ‘Chickamauga’ or ‘One of the Missing’ will show. Thomas, however, was interested in the life-death phenomenon more for the purpose of enlarging imaginative material than for surprise. His connection with Bierce's tale is two-fold: it was a classic use of a psychological phenomenon and also the source of the plot for his own story, ‘The Dress’, which Richard Hughes has described as one of the most beautiful short stories in the language.
In suggesting that Thomas was interested in the actual psychological process on which Bierce's story is based, it can be said first of all that what we are dealing with here has very close affinities with the folk notion that a man's whole range of memorable experience comes before him in the event of death. Whatever its validity as psychological fact, it has certainly had wide use in literature. One thinks of Richard III (Clarence's dream, I, iv); Mrs. Gaskell's North and South (Mr. Hale compared to the Eastern king, ch. 3); Dickens's Hard Times (Stephen Blackpool's rescue from the Old Hell Shaft, ch. VI); and William Golding's Pincher Martin where it forms the total narrative metaphor of the work. Its function in the Russian film, Ljetat Zhuravly (‘The Cranes Are Flying’) is similar; and William Empson records a biographical fact in his poem ‘Success’: ‘All losses haunt us. It was a reprieve made Dostoevsky talk out queer and clear’. The idea at its crudest and most naïve was used in one of Thomas's later film-scripts, The Beach of Falesá, where the Captain, waiting with Wiltshire for the arrival of Mr. Case's boat, recalls that a sailor ‘fell out of that boat one night and was drowned when he was drunk! That's a horrible death, drowned when you're drunk. Up comes all your past life in front of you and you're too boozed to see it’ (p. 12). It has been touched upon in exactly this form in the Portrait story, ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’: Ray stumbles down the cliff—‘I thought I was done for … I could see all my past life in a flash’. But what I am concerned with here is the kind of use made of the idea in the early prose, where its imaginative potential is harnessed to the author's poetic view of experience; where it had not yet become a surface joke.
We first encounter the theme as early as 1931, when Thomas published a short story based on the phenomenon in his school magazine, called ‘Brember’. Here an old man enters a house in which he had lived many years before and walks through the room remembering. He discovers a dusty book which relates the history of his family. He ‘turned over the pages, until he came to the last: George Henry Brember, last of the line, dies. … He looked down on his name, and then closed the book’ (April 1931, p. 140). A few years later, another early uncollected story made use of similar material. In ‘The End of the River’, Thomas described the last member of an aristocratic family seeking to bring the family line to a close. Though the material is dealt with here in a comic vein which contrasts markedly with the immature ‘Gothic’ atmosphere attempted in the earlier story, the narrative nevertheless makes sensitive use of extended sensation, seeing death in terms of a metaphor of continuing life. The last of the Quincey family reads the chronicles of his lineage. His own death is given in the metaphor of a journey to find a river's end. He meets a girl at the end of his quest: ‘he saw her through his tears and heard her voice singing’ (New English Weekly, Nov. 1934, p. 134). A later short story, significantly titled ‘The True Story’, was to close on exactly the same phenomenon: an old woman lies dying and is nursed by a young girl; Helen kills the old woman and then ‘She opened the window … and stepped out. “I am flying”, she said. But she was not flying’ (Yellowjacket, May 1939, p. 63).
This last example is doubly significant since ‘The True Story’ sought to reproduce the main ingredients of a story which was, to date, Thomas's most comprehensive attempt to turn the phenomenon into total narrative metaphor. This was ‘The Visitor’ in which a dying poet is being nursed by a girl called Rhianon. The ‘visitor’ is Callaghan who in the night takes the poet on a symbolic journey through the continuous mythical geography of the early prose works, the Jarvis valley and the Jarvis hills. The similarity of basic situation is added to in a similar fantasy of escape through flight, bridging sensibly the worlds of life and death. Peter, the poet in the earlier story, continues to ‘live’ in a world which, after his journey with Callaghan, no longer seems to be the world of literal life; when Rhianon enters his room in the morning, he asks why she is ‘putting the sheet over [his] face’ (A Prospect of the Sea, p. 34).
Both the plot and the central psychological feature of ‘The Visitor’ have sources and parallels in other Anglo-Welsh literature, which may help to explain why Bierce's story should have had such an attraction for Thomas. There is, for example, a close parallel in the story called ‘Gone Fishing’ by John Wright, where we find a night's stealthy expedition to the river to fish from the coracles to be an enactment of the death of Dad Elias. The situation is familiar: a man lies dying and is tended by his daughter; in the night he hears the voices of the fishermen calling him; he dresses and carries his coracle to the stream; the following morning, when the woman goes to call her father, she sees a smile on his face but cannot wake him: ‘Dad Elias had gone fishing’ (Welsh Short Stories, ed. G. E. Evans, 1959). The parallel is complete except that Thomas does not, like Wright and Bierce, seek to conceal the process of death for the sake of surprise—‘Rhianon was attendant on a dead man’ (p. 25). Yet the bridge from life to death through the excitement of metaphor is as clear in Wright's story—‘The days meant little to him now and they passed with the light by the window. Tonight he would go with them he thought, if they called again’ (p. 242)—as it is in Thomas's, where Callaghan ‘left alone, leant over the bed and spread the soft ends of his fingers on Peter's eyes. “Now it is night”, he said. “Where shall we go tonight?”’ (p. 30).
Another exercise of the device, as well as of the attendant circumstances, could have been found by Thomas in the work of a Welshman he greatly admired. At the end of Caradoc Evans's Nothing to Pay (1930), Amos is dying and is tended by his wife, Sara. He follows her actions idly, and notices with the same heightened intensity as Peter's ordinary objects about the room. Amos, like Peter, is assured he will survive, and in the process of his death he experiences an intensification of consciousness. Similarly, in an earlier short story by Caradoc Evans, ‘The Glory That Was Zion's’, the main character is dying and is tended by his wife, Madlen. When he does die, Madlen prepares water to shave him—and the dead man is conscious of her actions. He hears the kettle hissing and gets up to sit by the fire, thinking that his wife is merely preparing tea. Immediately afterwards the situation is clarified by the author's ‘From first to last Twm's years were five-and-forty’ (My People, 1915, p. 65). The extraordinary happening complicates what would otherwise have been a stock situation of Anglo-Welsh fiction, death against a background of domestic ordinariness.
Such examples would no doubt have attracted Thomas and confirmed for him the imaginative potential of blurring life into death or imagination into fact. Such possibilities would perhaps account for his detailed interest in Bierce's story, to which we must now turn. There is no evidence that he had read ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ before he wrote ‘The Visitor,’ though there is evidence that he had read it before he published ‘The Dress’. Later in the year in which he published ‘The Visitor,’ Thomas reviewed (in November, 1935) an anthology of horror stories edited by Denis Wheatley called A Century of Horror. Along with stories by, for example, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Maupassant and Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce is here represented by his ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’. Thomas published his review in the Morning Post some two months before the publication of ‘The Dress,’ but his knowledge of the American story could easily have been gained long before this period.
‘The Dress’ concerns the escape of a man from an asylum. Closely pursued, he makes his way home to a woman who becomes for him the symbol of safety and welcome. ‘He thought of the coals that might be hissing in the grate and of the young mother standing alone. He thought of her hair. Such a nest it would make for his hands’ (A Prospect of the Sea, p. 78). The plan of the story and its narrative progress are immediately recognisable as those of Bierce's tale, and a number of direct parallels link the two. Both fugitives concentrate upon and try to interpret what their pursuers are doing—Farquhar being followed by soldiers and Thomas's fugitive by the asylum warders:
Behind a tree on the ridge of the hills he had peeped down on to the fields where they hurried about like dogs, where they poked the hedges with their sticks and set up a faint howling as a mist came suddenly from the spring sky and hid them from his eyes (p. 78).
The man in Thomas's story uses the mist to quench his thirst (p. 78), just as Farquhar uses the cool air for the same purpose (Eyes of the Panther, p. 40); great emphasis is placed in both cases on the fugitive's flight through a dense forest—after which, in each case, the man unexpectedly finds a road leading in the right direction (Bierce, p. 39; Thomas, p. 78). The impetus which gives both men the power to outdistance their pursuers is the thought of the warmth and safety awaiting them in their respective homes where a beautiful woman waits patiently (Bierce, p. 39; Thomas, p. 79). Both writers emphasise the ominous appearance of the stars—Bierce describing the glimpse through the wood of stars set in strange constellations (p. 40), and Thomas, the appearance through the mist of the ‘angles of the stars’ (p. 78). The fugitives are both described making progress over distinctly spongy ground: Farquhar feels how ‘softly the turf had carpeted the untravelled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet’ (p. 40); Thomas's fugitive walks towards the stars mumbling a tuneless song, ‘hearing his feet suck in and out of the spongy earth’ (p. 78). When they reach their destination, both men are described as standing at the gate to the house (Bierce, p. 40; Thomas, p. 80). Then the comfort of seeing the woman centres closely on a description of her dress. Farquhar sees ‘a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him’ (p. 40). At this stage in Thomas's story, the title becomes symbolic, evoking the clean sanctuary that has awaited the fugitive's return:
But the moving of her arm drew the neck of her dress apart, and he stared in wonder at her wide, white forehead, her frightened eyes and mouth, and down to the flowers on her dress. With the moving of her arm, her dress danced in the light. She sat before him, covered in flowers. ‘Sleep’, said the madman. And, kneeling down, he put his bewildered head upon her lap (p. 81).
It would seem likely, therefore, that ‘The Dress’ is a reworking of Bierce's plot, a fact which highlights the two authors' similar preoccupation with the sensibility-in-death idea. But, having exercised its possibilities in earlier stories, Thomas may have considered it superfluous to make the phenomenon itself too overt in ‘The Dress’. For one thing, it would evoke the source-story too completely. Yet vestiges of this feature may still reside in ‘The Dress’. The story certainly depends on an atmosphere of lyrical unreality, a hint of merely imagined happenings. Perhaps, in assuming that the reader would recognise the direct narrative source, Thomas was able to assume that the story's function as a brief examination of logic-in-sanity, innocence-in-guilt and freedom-in-captivity would be at least emotively apparent as an analogy to Bierce's treatment of the more obvious life-in-death. As a result, the explanation of the story as dream or projected desire lies outside the role of direct narrative statement. Certainly, after ‘The Visitor,’ there was no need to be again so specific about the phenomenon.
Yet what makes the story essentially Thomas's own is the fact that in title and in theme it was a poetic consummation in prose of a hauntingly consistent image in his work. The author-story relationship cannot be fully appreciated in this instance until the image is ‘placed’. The image is that of a girl's dress, confirmed as metaphor by its very consistency. The way in which it occurs again and again before and after the story which carries it in its title is symptomatic of the romantic oneness of the prose works, especially the early stories. A revealing example occurs in an early unpublished poem in the February, 1933 Notebook MS., where the poet imagines that he sees a boy and girl meeting outside a cemetery. By contrast with death, he sees their love as a transforming quality, turning empty kisses into meaning and the small island of their affection into a costly country. The radiant transience of the two is caught in the image of the girl's summer dress (Poem ‘Thirteen’). In ‘After the Fair’ the baby found in the Astrologer's tent—later to be a child-Christ figure in a grotesque pantomime of the flight into Egypt, on the roundabout horses—is comforted on the bosom of the girl's dress (p. 23). In ‘The Visitor’ the image was permanently fixed as a metaphor for freshness and comfort—‘Rhianon passed in and out, her dress, he smelt as she bent over him, smelling of clover and milk’ (p. 28). In his dejection, Peter,
thinking of the island set somewhere in the south caverns, … thought of water and longed for water. Rhianon's dress, rustling about her, made the soft noise of water. He called her over to him and touched the bosom of her dress, feeling the water on his hands (p. 29).
In ‘The Mouse and the Woman’, the story opens in a lunatic asylum: the patients sit looking at the sun or the flowers and the quietness and comfort of the scene are extended into the narrator's suggestion that ‘children in print dresses might be expected to play, not noisily, upon the lawns’ (A Prospect of the Sea, p. 58). Later, the madman in the asylum remembers the inflections of his lover's voice and ‘heard, again, her frock rustling’. When, as a man in the outside world, he had gone to seek her out in the cottage, he found that ‘she was not sitting by the fire, as he had expected her to be, smiling upon the folds of her dress’ (p. 70), a picture obviously re-worked from the end of ‘The Dress’ itself. The image continued to function throughout Thomas's career. Hence, in The Beach of Falesá, Uma the native girl is described with her ‘long black hair and her bright dress. … Shining wet from the sea or the streams’ (p. 20). Similarly, there walks in the prim precincts of Milk Wood a girl like Gossamer Beynon, hardly aware of her visual suggestion of visionary purity—‘The sun hums down through the cotton flowers of her dress’ (p. 60). The image had long been trained for automatic suggestion, from its repeated use in ‘A Prospect of the Sea’ (pp. 4, 5, 10) to the ‘blossoming dresses’ of ‘Holiday Memory’ and the ‘summery flowered dresses’ of ‘The English Festival of Spoken Poetry’ (Quite Early One Morning, pp. 30, 128). In writing ‘The Dress’, Thomas had at an early stage clarified the image, giving it something like an extended emotive gloss as a key image in his examination of the theme of tension and relief. Taking Bierce's basic plot, he contracted its narrative, isolating its main ingredients and enacting a fevered journey towards an ideal.
The second example of a borrowed scheme is one of the most successful parts of the Portrait autobiography. ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ was the final story completed for the collection, finished in December, 1939. It was based fairly closely on James Joyce's ‘An Encounter’ in Dubliners. Thomas's general debt to Joyce was similar to that he owed to Dickens and just as fragmentary. Here he had almost as good a storehouse of childhood material as he found in Dickens and the debt was ostensibly acknowledged in his borrowing of Joyce's title, only partly changed as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Joyce's Portrait, like Thomas's, had sought to relate the growth of the artist's sensibility to the specific society which formed its background, though it showed a more mature grasp of the relevant religious, social and political factors involved. A major difference lay in the fact that Thomas's aim was more clearly to close the gap between experience and recollection by constantly remaining faithful to two psychologies at once: his Portrait is less obviously an objective document, the sounds and smells of young dog life remaining clearer than the adult perspective which brings them into focus. Yet much of the minor detail is common to both writers, suggesting that here again we have the copy and the copied. For example, the young Stephen Dedalus is frightened when the school messenger comes to announce that confessions are to be taken in chapel in a way which is converted to comedy when Thomas's hero is asked by his cousin to confess in the improvised barn-chapel of ‘The Peaches’. The moral prohibition of the Nonconformist pulpit suddenly fuses with the institution of the Catholic Church. Stephen would rather ‘murmur out his shame’ in seclusion, ‘in some dark place’ (p. 145), just as Thomas's school companions confess later in the privacy of their bedroom. Again, Stephen is accused (p. 240) of having eaten dried cowdung and Thomas's young dog recalls that he had once drunk a cup of his own water ‘to see what it tasted like’ (p. 33). The parallels continue: Stephen imagines that, if he sent some verses to the girl he met near Cork Hill, the ‘suave priest, her uncle, seated in his armchair, would hold the page at arm's length, read it smiling and approve of the literary form’ (p. 261); in Thomas's ‘The Fight’ the young boy is asked by the Reverend Bevan to recite his latest poem and, after the recitation, is pompously told that ‘The influence is obvious, of course. “Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O sea”’ (pp. 91-2). Youth laid embarrassingly bare in adult company is a mutual legacy from Dickens. Joyce was obviously fruitful copy: Stephen turns to the fly-leaf of his geography book and reads what he has written there—‘himself, his name and where he was. Stephen Dedalus/Class of Elements/Clongowes Wood College/Sallins/County Kildare/Ireland/Europe/The World/The Universe’ (pp. 11-12); in ‘Old Garbo’ Thomas's young dog writes down his name and then, ‘Reporters' Room, Tawe News, Tawe, South Wales, England, Europe, The Earth’ (p. 192). But the cosmic address in both cases is merely the incidental comic cipher of a wider theme, part of the adult perspective, which places both heroes in touch with the paradox of romantic loneliness expanding into universal sympathy. Thus, for Joyce, Stephen
was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gay clad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air. … So timeless seemed the grey warm air, so fluid and impersonal his own mood, that all ages were as one to him (pp. 198-9).
and Thomas's autobiography, less characteristically, evokes the same process:
I was a lonely nightwalker and a steady stander-at-corners. … And I never felt more a part of the remote and overpressing world, or more full of love and arrogance and pity and humility, not for myself alone, but for the living earth I suffered on and for the unfeeling systems in the upper air (p. 122).
A final detail. On the wall of Stephen's room at Clongowes hangs an illuminated scroll, a ‘certificate of his prefecture in the college of sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, while Thomas's Sunday school certificate hangs on the young hero's bedroom wall, an embarrassing trophy.
The list is endless and could be augmented with details from Dubliners as well. But the plan of the latter, with its break-up into short stories, offered a more total example. Thomas described it as ‘a pioneering work in the world of the short story’,1 and in his ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ sought to reproduce something very near to the childhood adventure of Joyce's ‘An Encounter’. Here Joyce had described a truant excursion into the countryside by two young schoolboys. An approximation to the idea of an excursion had already been attempted by Thomas in ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, but the closer example of Joyce's story allowed him another and better attempt at its possibilities. In ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’, the young hero is accompanied by a friend as in Joyce's story, and the journey of the adventurers out of town is similar in both instances with a mutual elegiac savouring of factual place-names. Similarly the destination in each case is part of the factual childhood scene; in Joyce, the ‘Pigeon House’ (Dublin's electric power station) and in Thomas, the ‘Worm's Head’ a well-known landmark on the Gower coast. Joyce's adventurers antagonise a crowd of ragged girls on their way, and a crowd of day-trippers is harassed by Thomas's young dogs in much the same way. Abuse is shouted after both pairs—‘Swaddlers! Swaddlers!’ in Joyce because the boys are taken to be Protestants, and ‘Mutt and Jeff!’ in Thomas's story because of the boys' comic difference in size. Out in the countryside, the young dogs are freed from the urban claustrophobia but in a way which heightens the example of hard reality they encounter. Joyce's pederast and Ray's inevitable submission to a morbid near-monologue on how his family had been wasted by tuberculosis complicate the freedom of the excursion: escape and no escape seems to be the pattern. This is particularly significant in Thomas since it was indeed the nearest approximation to tragic material in his autobiography, paralleled only by the theme of loneliness in the final story of the volume which shows distinct legacies from Joyce's ‘The Dead’.
Both stories are a good example of how an ordinary event like a schoolboy adventure into the countryside is established as the semi-myth of heroic expedition in a manner similar to that noted in Proust by Maud Bodkin in Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934). As a remnant of myth it also has elementary suggestions of what E. B. Greenwood has recently described as a romantic concern with journey as quest for a neo-Adamic state (Essays in Criticism XVII 1 (1967)). The degree to which it was consciously intended by either Joyce or Thomas is a matter of conjecture. What is true, however, is that, in both, the journey undertaken has natural imaginative extensions. In Joyce it is largely the attraction of emigration, of visiting the places mentioned in school geography lessons but in Thomas it is given in several permutations. In ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’ the suggestions is varied from the comic fusion of starting-point and destination in ‘Thousands of miles. It’s Rhossilli, U.S.A.’ to the deeper, poignant description of the boys sitting in a circle, ‘knowing always that the sea dashed on the rocks not far below us and rolled out into the world’. The theme is equally insistent in the later excursion story, where it ranges from the boys' imagining that the Worm's Head was moving out to sea (‘Guide it to Ireland, Ray’) to the description of the promontory, ‘already covered with friends, with living and dead, racing against the darkness’. The liquid movement from the comic to the heroic suggestion narrows the gap between the child-hero and the adult-author's imagination.
It is the insistence on this theme which separates the artistic purpose of Thomas's story from that of Joyce's and justifies the borrowed plot. Thomas's story consolidates the image of separation from home and land as a statement of widening, though merely imagined, horizons. Ray's description of his family, ravaged by disease is given while he sits on the edge of the sea and so involves a tremendous juxtaposition. Waters at their priestlike task! The journey has ended in heroic gesture:
This is a rock at the world's end. We're all alone. It all belongs to us, Ray. We can have anybody we like here and keep everybody else away. Who do you wish was with us?
And the story itself ends with a subtle suggestion of the separation become fact. On their journey, the boys passed some cyclists, and now:
The sea was in. The slipping stepping-stones were gone. On the mainland in the dusk, some little figures beckoned to us. Seven clear figures, jumping and calling. I thought they were the cyclists.
As in the case of ‘The Dress’, the story suggests a concern with something like a poetic image, and the degree to which that image is consistent with other works is again remarkable here. The basic childhood concept of romantic voyages abounds in the unpublished poetry. One poem2 uses as a narrative base the idea of children playing at sailing boats on a garden path, seeking to actualise the voyage by blurring their awareness of the garden setting. Another poem3 of the same year includes the idea of imagined voyages in a discussion of religious faith and leadership. The collected poem, ‘Grief thief of time’, still retains part of a picture which, in the unpublished early version,4 had been more elaborate:
The old forget the cries, Lean time on tide and times the wind stood rough, Call back the castaways Riding the sea light on a sunken path.
The same picture is given in the short story ‘The Tree’ where the child's vision re-enacts the voyage fantasy:
The house changed to his moods, and a lawn was the sea or the shore or the sky or whatever he wished it. When a lawn was a sad mile of water, and he was sailing on a broken flower down the waves, the gardener would come out of his shed near the island of bushes. He too would take a stalk and sail (A Prospect of the Sea, p. 42).
Travelling on the lorry, the boys in ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’ imagine that the vehicle is a raft and the green fields the open ocean. In this sense the young hero's shout to Ray in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ to guide the Worm's Head to Ireland is a repetition of the same image, and the comic surface of the imaginative motif which is the story's ultimate significance. A deeper extension of the image itself would be the voyage of life in the later poems, ‘Ballad of the Long-legged Bait’ and ‘Poem on his birthday’; and the visionary flood of the late ‘Author's Prologue’. Praise to our faring hearts!
Thomas, quite rightly, regarded his prose writings as essentially secondary to his poetry and no doubt the presence of much of the borrowed material discussed here is explained by that attitude. In his prose there was no literary reputation at stake. Yet it is clear that the nature of the borrowing varies and that, where governed by the poet's own imagination, it is transformed and justified. Casually lifted material smacks unmistakably of the copied article and remains valid only when it functions as parody. ‘The Dress’ and ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’, on the other hand, are valuable short stories over and above their inherited plots, and have the quality of fresh imagining which must be the touchstone of any critical attention the poet's prose may warrant. The last word can be left with the poet himself since he has conveniently stated the problem in the poem ‘On no work of words’. ‘To take to give is all’, but ‘To lift to leave from the treasures of man is pleasing death’.
‘Poetic Manifesto’, Texas Quarterly IV (1961) 49.
Notebook 1930-1932, Poem ‘VII’, dated 2nd January, 1931.
Ibid, Poem ‘XXIII’, dated 10th June, 1931.
Notebook August 1933, Poem ‘Five’, dated 26th August, 1933.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1904
SOURCE: “The Lost Vision in Dylan Thomas' ‘One Warm Saturday’”, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 2, Winter, 1969, pp.
[In the following essay, Kelly believes that the themes and structure of Thomas's short story “One Warm Saturday” are derived from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.]
“One Warm Saturday,” the last story in Dylan Thomas: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, shares with Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the theme of a quest for perfection of the profane world. Thomas' flippant title, however, provides a significant clue to the outcome of his version of a youth's search for what Joyce calls “the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.”1 Although Thomas' story may be read and enjoyed without any reference to Joyce, a critical reading of “One Warm Saturday” that takes Joyce into account will be illuminating. The purpose of this essay is to show that Thomas' autobiographical protagonist, like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, undergoes a strikingly similar process of maturing with one important difference—whereas Joyce's wading girl provides Stephen with aesthetic and emotional autonomy, the girl in the anti-romantic “One Warm Saturday” fills the young man with anguish and frustration and returns him to an ugly, hostile world. Thomas' story, then, which the author constructed to a point like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, takes a sudden turn that makes the tale thematically similar to “Araby.”
Although Thomas denies that he got the title for his collection of tales from Joyce, he admits that Joyce had an influence upon his writing: “I cannot deny that the shaping of some of my Portrait stories might owe something to Joyce's stories in the volume, Dubliners.”2 One cannot, of course, prove that Joyce's Portrait had a similar shaping influence upon “One Warm Saturday,” but the suggestive parallels between the two stories warrant critical comment for the insights they provide into the attempts of two very different artists to shape the mutability of their youthful experiences into enduring visions.
Like Stephen Dedalus, the youth in “One Warm Saturday” is estranged in a crowded, hostile world. In his wilderness he saw “the holiday Saturday set down before him, fake and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun …” (p. 136).3 His two-dimensional world is without meaning, and the crowded beach, a parched microcosm of humanity, is a mere collection of unrelated people and things: “outside all holiday, like a young man doomed forever to the company of his maggots, beyond the high and ordinary, sweating, sun-awakened power and stupidity of the summer flesh on a day and a world out …” (ibid.). The only other character who stands with him outside the absurd world is the hell-fire preacher Mr. Matthews, who talks to a “congregation of expressionless women” and casts down the scarlet town. Unlike Dedalus, Thomas' hero avoids the hell-fire sermon and strolls through Victoria Gardens, where he gains the vision that later damns him to a perpetual sense of loss.
Thomas describes his young dreamer: “He thought: Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with visions needs no other company” (p. 138). His reasoning, ironically, is flawed by his innocence, for as the narrator warns, “he was not a poet living and walking, he was a young man in a sea-town on a warm bank holiday.” (ibid.)
The narrator objectively describes the youth's dream goddess: “She had chestnut hair arranged high on her head in an old-fashioned way, in loose coils and a bun, and a Woolworth's white rose grew out of it and dropped to touch her ear. She wore a white frock with a red paper flower pinned on the breast, and rings and bracelets that came from a fun-fair stall. Her eyes were small and quite green” (p. 139). The intensity of the romantic youth's vision, however, allows him to transform even the artificial flowers and cheap jewelry of the vulgar world of dime stores and fun fairs into symbols of love and purity. Instead of seeing the prostitute, he sees “her body bare and spotless … and she waited without guilt.” (ibid.)
Like young Stephen, who chooses not to play with his schoolmates at Clongowes, Thomas' hero refuses the invitation of his friends to spend a night on the town. He, like Stephen, was “different from others” (Joyce, p. 64). So, too, his experience in Victoria Gardens parallels Stephen's encounter with “one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird,” a girl also in white—“the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down” (Joyce, p. 171). Both girls, apparently passive, innocent, and pure, appear to accept the worship of their young men: “and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness” (Joyce, p. 171); “She accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love” (Thomas, p. 140). Stephen can only exclaim “Heavenly God!” in an outburst of profane joy. His counterpart later describes his vision to the barman as “a piece of God helps us!” (p. 141). But whereas Stephen in fact discovers the incarnation of a joyous, liberating Heavenly God, the other youth faces the painful loss of his “piece of God helps us.” In Carlyle's terms, the former is a transcendental, the latter a descendental experience.
The theme of mutability in “One Warm Saturday” establishes the counter-force to the youth's dream. In the bar scene he laments that “the holiday is drawing to an end … By-bye blackbird, the moment is lost …” (p. 142). In the midst of the boy's meditation, a drunk who has lost his bottom in an underground cave-in, stumbles towards him and asks the young dreamer to feel his vacant seat, thereby reinforcing the presence of decay and death. But the arrival of Lou, the dream-girl from Victoria Gardens, and two of her friends quickly displaces all thoughts of mortality in the young man. Despite the presence of Mr. O'Brien, Lou's “sugar daddy from old Ireland,” the youth remains undaunted in his quest. Had Lou not appeared, the young man might have been able to sustain his dream, for in the Gardens he thought: “she does not know she is waiting and I can never tell her” (p. 139). Like the lover on Keats's Grecian urn, he then enjoyed the sweetness of timeless expectation; but now, with Lou's physical presence, he commits the great folly of attempting to realize his dream in the mutable world where the holiday is drawing to an irrevocable end.
Like the drunk, the barman also strengthens the theme of mutability with his announcement: “Time, gentlemen and others!” (p. 151). The three girls, Mr. O'Brien, the barman, the drunk, and the young man, in an attempt to prolong their evening fun, go to Lou's apartment. Lou expresses her wish that “this night could go on forever,” and the young man exclaims, “Lou, don't you lose me” (ibid.), as the lights in the bar go out.
As a promise of ultimate union, Lou kisses the youth; but because they have brought the mutable world with them in the persons of O'Brien, the barman, and the three others, their moment alone together can never be enjoyed. The young man's final and unwitting transformation of Lou from a whore into a love goddess comes when he reads aloud from Tennyson's “Maud”:
‘I said to the lily, “There is but one With whom she has heart to be gay. When will the dancers leave her alone? She is weary of dance and play.” .....‘I said to the rose, “The brief night goes In babble and revel and wine. O young lord-lover, what sighs are those, For one that will never be thine? But mine, but mine,” so I sware to the rose, For ever and ever, mine.” (p. 156)
The two main themes of the story combine at this point. The Woolworth's white rose and the red paper flower reappear as romantic symbols of purity and passion. Here is the perfection of the profane world, but now the relentless passing of time threatens the dream with renewed intensity. The line “‘The brief night goes / In babble and revel and wine’” reflects the futile attempts of Lou and her crowd to prolong the waning hours of the bank holiday by drinking and senseless banter. Nauseated from drinking, the young man leaves the room in search of the toilet on the lower floor of the apartment building. As he gropes blindly down halls and stairways, he imagines a voice calling to him: “Hurry! hurry! Every moment is being killed. Love, adored, dear, run back and whistle to me, open the door, shout my name, lay me down. Mr. O'Brien has his hands on my side” (p. 158). But in his drunken stupor the youth becomes lost and cannot relocate Lou's apartment to save her from defilement by O'Brien, who represents an infidel in the temple of romantic love. He knocks on wrong doors and the crude inmates of the apartment building drive him away. Lou's anguished voice continues in his head: “Hurry! hurry! I can't, I won't wait, the bridal night is being killed.” (ibid.)
The victory of time over his dream of innocence, love, and purity leaves him with a sense of irreparable loss in a hellish world. Unlike the hero of “Maud,” he has no Crimean War in which to bury his loss, and unlike Stephen Dedalus he has no symbolic wings to sustain his flight from a desecrated world of fact to one of sacred unity. His fate more closely resembles that of the boy in “Araby,” who, after bearing his chalice through a throng of foes, discovers the crude, dark reality that lies under and corrupts the bright romantic façade of Araby. The hero of “One Warm Saturday” falls from his timeless, exotic dream of love to a decaying world of “the brickheaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once” (p. 160). The loss of his goddess returns him to “the small and hardly known and never-to-be-forgotten people of the dirty town” who “had lived and loved and died and, always, lost.” (ibid.)
“One Warm Saturday,” then, uniquely explores the timeless theme of the loss of innocence and displays a hero whose fate is the tragedy of youth and the comedy of experience.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York, 1962), p. 65. Subsequent references to this work will be indicated in the text.
Quoted in Constantine Gibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas (London, 1965), p. 370. There is some ambiguity surrounding the purpose and selection of the title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. Gibbon states that Richard Hughes suggested the title to Thomas (p. 246). But Thomas claims that he chose it to poke fun at the painting title. And when Vernon Watkins suggested that Thomas drop the title and name the book after one of the stories, Thomas refused on the grounds that his publisher advised keeping it as a money-making device (Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, Vernon Watkins, ed. (New York, 1957), p. 79. It is hard to believe that Thomas was innocent of a Joycean allusion.
Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (New York, 1940). Subsequent references to this work will be indicated in the text.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5738
SOURCE: “The Structure of Early Prose,” in Dylan Thomas’ Early Prose: A Study in Creative Mythology, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 30-51.
[In the following essay, Pratt focuses on Thomas's early fiction, and applies Jungian psychology to determine the author's mental state when the stories were written.]
Dylan Thomas never typed his own stories for submission to periodicals, but he would copy the finished version in careful handwriting into the Red Notebook, from which he would dictate to a friend. Reading aloud was as important for the prose as for the poetry, and many stories were tried out before a group of friends during the Wednesday lunch hour in Swansea. In the same manner “The Enemies,” “The Visitor,” “The Orchards,” “The Mouse and the Woman,” and “The Burning Baby” were read aloud, mainly during 1934, to Pamela Hansford Johnson.1
Although from 1934 on many of the tales were published in Welsh and English periodicals, Thomas was as concerned with bringing them together into one volume as he was with publishing collections of his poems. By 1937 he had assembled the major early tales in The Burning Baby and had contracted with the Europa Press for publication. It was already advertised and the first edition subscribed when the printers balked on grounds of obscenity. A depressing back and forth of compromise and argument ensued, and, as the efforts of George Reavey of the Europa Press proved unavailing, Thomas began to toy with the idea of publishing the tales through Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller in Paris (several stories, including “A Prospect of the Sea,” were eventually translated in l'Arche by Francis Dufeu-L'Abeyrie). When the situation became hopeless Reavey turned the contract over to the Pearn, Pollinger, and Higham literary agency. Their good offices also proved useless, and although “In the Direction of the Beginning” found its way into a New Directions collection and several other stories were printed in The Map of Love and The World I Breathe (England and America, 1939), The Burning Baby never went to press.
The suppression of the early tales and the poor reception of the volumes that combined poetry and prose may have accounted in part for the abrupt change in prose style that occurred throughout 1938 and 1939. This was also, of course, a time of impending war when the outer world was pressing in upon Thomas as upon everyone else. The early prose tales were part of an inward universe that he constructed in his late teens and early twenties: the war not only disrupted this universe but afforded Thomas the opportunity of trying his hand at the more public genres of broadcasting and “straight” narrative fiction. The early prose tales are much more a unity with the poetry than the later, more simplistic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) and “Adventures in the Skin Trade” (1941), which Thomas himself tended to deprecate. Although the late Vernon Watkins disagreed with me entirely, thinking that “Dylan always did what he wanted to do, in spite of the success or failure of his work,”2 I think that with his pressing financial needs at that time he could not afford to write in a prose genre that had been poorly received by both printers and public.
The early prose was not collected until after Thomas' death: the two posthumous volumes, A Prospect of the Sea (England) and Adventures in the Skin Trade (America), did not appear until 1955.3 At that time they were often invidously compared to the later prose (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Under Milk Wood) which had become popular and even beloved. American critics reserved judgement on the “poetic” and “difficult” pieces following Adventures in the Skin Trade.4 But Davies Aberpennar in Wales and Kingsley Amis in England had already found them irresponsibly irrational, full of “factitious surrealist artifice,” and built upon “characters and situations … which people in full possession of their faculties would not find interesting or important.”5 Many admirers of the early poetry consigned the early prose to oblivion as juvenilia, or dismissed it as part of a macabre or dark phase which was as well forgotten. To G. S. Fraser they were the “pièces noires” of Thomas' later “celebration of innocence.” Fraser insists that “in writing these pieces, Thomas was grappling with, and apparently succeeded in absorbing and overcoming, what Jungians call the shadow.”6
Such an opinion overlooks Thomas' lifelong bout with a “shadow” which he never overcame. The life of the poet, wrote Jung in the June 1930 transition, “is, of necessity, full of conflicts, since two forces fight in him: the ordinary man with his justified claim for happiness …, and the ruthless creative passion on the other which under certain conditions crushes all personal desires into the dust.”7 Throughout the forties Thomas was caught in the toils of just such a conflict, and he devoted neither his later poetry nor his later prose to gay reminiscence. Perhaps the critics of the fifties were looking for their own prewar innocence in suggesting that the stories of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, the short novel Adventures in the Skin Trade, or the drama Under Milk Wood were visions of an unsullied, dirty-little-boy Eden. Like Blake's, Thomas' vision of innocence was through the eyes of experience.
Dylan Thomas was certainly not alone among twentieth-century writers in regarding madness, dream, and myth as a fertile source of imagery and narrative material. His tales are concerned with how the storyteller breaks from the bounds of consciousness into the unconscious world, what he experiences there, how he manages to return, and what happens if he does not return (Marlais takes something resembling a psychedelic “trip” in “The Orchards,” as does Peter in “The Visitor” and Nant in “The Lemon”). The inward journey of the poetic imagination, which is usually implicit in the poetry, is more explicit in the prose, where it is the adventure by which Thomas self-consciously defines his narrative mode.
Even though the symbolic forms of the unconscious provide both the goal of his heroes and the structure of his tales, he is careful that the unconscious world never usurps control of the narrative. As we shall see in Chapter 5, the only passages of “automatic writing” in the tales occur when Thomas wants to describe the abrogation of consciousness: he seems to have felt that the further inward the narrative penetrates, the stronger must be the role played by the intellect. “The more subjective a poem,” he wrote, “the clearer the narrative line.”8 The intense and often hallucinatory subjectivity of the early tales required an unusual amount of conscious control, and it is probably for this reason that Thomas intruded so often as omniscient narrator. As Jacob Korg has noted, he shapes paranoia and hallucination into “an atmosphere where the mind rules the material world, exercising its powers of creation and distortion over it.”9
The “progressive line, or theme, or movement” which Thomas insisted upon for every poem is also present in every tale, where it is defined by the progress of the hero from desire through quest to release and renewal. The plots are divided into three or four sections which succeed each other with the rhythm of ritual movements. The tales usually culminate in a sacrament or rite, an act of sexual release, or an archetypal vision. The release may take the form of the loosing of a flood (as in “A Prospect of the Sea” and “The Map of Love”) or of an apocalyptic event (“The Holy Six,” “An Adventure from a Work in Progress,” “The Visitor”). Often the beginning of a new epoch of search and birth is implicit in the cataclysmic denouement, giving a cyclical shape to the narrative.
William York Tindall includes “landscape and sea, enclosures such as garden, island, and cave, and in addition city and tower” under the category of archetype. He goes on to explain that “uniting the personal and the general and commonly ambivalent, these images, not necessarily symbolic in themselves, become symbolic by context, first in our sleeping minds and then in poems.”10 Thomas' landscapes embody the personal or sexual, the impersonal or mythical, and the poetic aspirations of his heroes. Images of the poetic quest seem to rise up as autonomous entities out of the countryside: words become incarnate in trees, in blood, and in the transforming sea. Often, at the denouement of a tale, they find their final expression in a “voice of thunder” which announces the hero's achievement.
Since Thomas' landscape is not only geographical but anatomical, personal or sexual imagery is latent in the countryside as well as in the bodies of hero and heroine. The hills and valleys of “A Prospect of the Sea,” “The Map of Love,” the two fragments (“In the Direction of the Beginning” and “An Adventure from a Work in Progress”), and “The Holy Six” are metaphors of the feminine anatomy, the breasts, belly, and so forth, of the earth-mother herself. In “The Map of Love” the map which Sam Rib explicates is of sexual intercourse: the island “went in like the skin of lupus to his touch. … Here seed, up the tide, broke on the boiling coasts; the sand grains multiplied” (AST, p. 146). In the tales where the cyclical pattern is most pronounced the feminine landscape is itself circular, dominated by a woman who draws the hero into the “mothering middle of the earth.” In “In the Direction of the Beginning,” “An Adventure from a Work in Progress,” “The Enemies,” and “The Holy Six,” the heroes walk from the rim of an island or valley through ancestral fields into intercourse. Each consummation is analogous to a mythological event, during which the island or circular valley participates in an orgy of division and regeneration. As Dr. Maud has aptly pointed out, Thomas' mingling of geographic and sexual imagery is a successful method of “distancing the intimate,” a means of describing the act of love so that both its intimate and mythical qualities are dramatically embodied.11
Neither the aesthetic imagery, which expresses the poetic quest of the hero, nor the sexual imagery of a given tale predominates. In each case poetic and anatomical metaphors describe a narrative line which is essentially mythological, both in the inward sense (“the union of ritual and dream in the form of verbal communication”) and in the outward or historical sense (the use of Welsh, Egyptian, and other folklore for background). The final synthesis is always personal: images describing the heroes' thrust towards sexual and poetic maturity are overlaid by thematic antitheses of unity and division, love and death. “Poetry in its social or archetypal aspect,” notes Frye, “not only tries to illustrate the fulfillment of desire, but to define the obstacles to it. Ritual is not only a recurrent act, but an act expressive of a dialectic of desire and repugnance: desire for fertility or victory, repugnance to draught or to enemies.”12 We shall see how demonic vitality and senile repression form the poles of “The Enemies” and “The Holy Six”; in “The Mouse and the Woman” and “The Map of Love” we shall find heroes suspended between fear of the flesh and sensual desire.
“If ritual is the cradle of language,” declares Suzanne Langer, “metaphor is the law of its life.”13 Thomas' narratives depend upon the conflict, mergence, and progression of specific metaphors. Given the analogy of geography and anatomy which underlies most of the early tales, even his descriptive images bear a metaphorical burden. In “The Burning Baby,” for example, the relationship between images of gorse, flesh, and fire marks the progression of the plot towards its grim crescendo. At the outset, Thomas describes Rhys Rhys preaching a sermon on “The beauty of the harvest” and explains that in the preacher's mind “it was not the ripeness of God that glistened from the hill. It was the promise and the ripeness of the flesh, 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” (AST, p. 91). The biblical metaphor of flesh to grass is the raw material of Rhys' perversion. It embodies both the sensual level (“the flesh of his daughter”) and the poetic level (“the flesh of the voice of thunder”) of the plot.
Further on in the tale a third element is added to the metaphor: the little brother “saw the high grass at [his sister's] thighs. And the blades of the upgrowing wind, out of the four windsmells of the manuring dead, might drive through the soles of her feet, up the veins of the legs and stomach, into her womb and her pulsing heart” (AST, p. 93). The grass has become an even more explicitly sexual metaphor, each blade being analogous to the father's phallus. The “upgrowing wind” surging through the grass is in turn analogous to the spirit, both as the biblical wind which “bloweth where it listeth” and as the impregnator of Mary. Coming into conjunction with flesh the fiery biblical wind ignites as the elements of gorse, flesh, wind, and fire merge in the burning baby. The denouement is organic, in the sense of propounding a natural, season-oriented or cyclical worldview. Rhys Rhys sets fire to the gorse to burn the incestuously begotten son as the tale concludes, its final scene a variation on Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, God's sacrifice of Christ, and man's perennial sacrifice of himself.
“The Burning Baby” is a fairly early and straightforward tale from the Red Notebook in September, 1934. We shall see in Chapter 5 how, in “The Mouse and the Woman,” “The Lemon,” and “The Orchards,” Thomas uses images from a series of related dreams to underline the narrative. In the tales where there is no dreaming he makes use of a similar mode of metaphorical progression. For each of the three key characters of “The Enemies” and “The Holy Six,” the world shapes itself into images appropriate to his perception of it. Mr. Owen is a kind of Great-Uncle Jarvis, a lover of the “vegetable world” that “roared under his feet.” Endowing his garden with his own virility, he works upon the “brown body of the earth, the green skin of the grass, and the breasts of the Jarvis hills.” Mrs. Owen's feminine powers are embodied in her crystal ball, which contains the extremities of hot and cold, clarity and obscurity and is analogous both to her womb and to the round earth whirling outside of the house. Davies, withered with age and insubstantial with sterility, perceives the Jarvis valley as a place of demonic vitality, death, and nausea. Throughout the narrative, it remains a “great grey green earth” that “moved unsteadily beneath him.”
Ghostliness, virility, and demonic lust are embodied in Davies' nausea, Owen's garden, and Mrs. Owen's crystal ball. As the narrative moves towards its consummation the action moves entirely indoors to concentrate upon the ball and Mrs. Owen's pregnant womb. The six clergymen are made to share in Davies' nausea, vomiting up their desires under the influence of “mustard and water.” At the denouement the conflict centers upon a question of paternity: whose child is in Mrs. Owen's womb? Ghostliness triumphs as Davies is assured that he has not loved Amabel in vain. As Owen, like Callaghan, laughs that there should “be life in the ancient loins,” Davies sees “the buried grass shoot through the new night and move on the hill wind.” Mr. Owen is revealed as the midwife-gardener to Mrs. Owen and Davies, laboring to bring new life out of a woman who conceives only in the arms of death. The antithetical metaphors of virility and ghostliness are woven into a new synthesis by Mrs. Owen's paradoxical desires. The narrative as a whole is a symbolic representation of an apocalyptic union of spirit and flesh, the dead and the living.
So intensely does Thomas concentrate upon a metaphor to make it render its utmost significance that his figures nearly burst their usual function, no longer representing a similarity but a metamorphosis. It is as if he, like his heroes, could change real objects into their subjective equivalents, and elements of the outer world into his lyric image of them. Thus in “A Prospect of the Sea” the boy sees a tree turn into the countryside: “every leaf of the tree that shaded them grew to man-size then, the ribs of the bark were channels and rivers wide as a great ship; and the moss on the tree, and the sharp grass ring round the base, were all the velvet covering of a green country's meadows blown hedge to hedge” (AST, p. 127). By a process similar to hallucination the objects of the landscape become elements of a subjective vision, the tree on the hill becoming a symbolic expression of the boy's own transformation.
“The chief source of obscurity in these stories,” remarks Jacob Korg, “is the fact that imagined things are expressed in the language of factual statement instead of the language of metaphor.”14 Thus when Thomas writes of the girl in “A Prospect of the Sea” that “the heart in her breast was a small red bell that rang in a wave,” one cannot comprehend the metaphor until one accepts the previous statement that the waves not only resemble but are a “white-faced sea of people, the terrible mortal number of the waves, all the centuries' sea drenched in the hail before Christ” (AST, p. 131). The girl herself is a wave, her heart a meeting place of men and mermen, land and sea. If the sea is a metaphor of the human race, it is what Tindall has termed a “metaphysical metaphor,” symbolic in itself and an “element of a symbolic structure.”15
Thomas' “metaphysical metaphors” are thematic symbols embodying the progression and antitheses upon which such a narrative depends. They are not literary tokens heightening realistic situations in the classic sense, nor are they incorporated into the tales from an external system. Within each story, they are distinguished from minor metaphors by the way that they juxtapose, blend, and contain the several dominant themes. The tree in “The Tree,” “A Prospect of the Sea,” and “The Orchards”; the house in “The Enemies,” “The Holy Six” and “The Dress”; and the tower in “The Lemon” and “The School for Witches” are such inclusive symbols. None of them is the only major symbol in its context, however. Tree, tower, and house form a symbolic triad in “The Tree”; orchard, scarecrow, and maiden are one among several such triads in “The Orchards,” while house, hill, and sea contain the thematic meaning of “The Mouse and the Woman” and “A Prospect of the Sea.”
In each tale, objects contract and expand, merge and reshape themselves according to the pressure of the hero's mind. Like a magician, the poet-hero forces the image of a thing to become the thing itself. Although he draws upon the worlds of magic, folk belief, and madness for his material, Thomas exercises careful control over it, subordinating it to the expression of the hero's quest for meaning. Discontented with images and metaphors that are merely literary and decorative, the hero condemns the “dead word,” story-princesses, and conventional metaphors, forcing himself into the dangerous world of the unconscious where symbols are live things which devour as they illuminate. Since the stories are about the search for a source of all story the symbolic visions which mark each denouement are ends in themselves.
It is a pity that there are no recordings of the early tales, which Thomas read aloud during the Wednesday lunch hours to his Swansea friends and, in London, to Pamela Hansford Johnson and her mother at 53 Battersea Rise. For all of its wordiness Thomas' prose style is extremely symmetrical, with orderly paragraphs progressing according to the dictates of balance and emphasis.
The texts alternate between lengthy descriptive passages, briefer paragraphs which sum up the descriptions or outline further action, and brief dialogues. Even in the longer descriptive sections there is a great deal of activity, the prose bristling with verbs of action and reaction describing the thematic conflict. Thomas often relies upon a series of clauses or phrases which he builds into a crescendo at the climax of a passage. In “A Prospect of the Sea” one paragraph begins with a brief and realistic statement: “It was hot that morning in the unexpected sunshine. A girl dressed in cotton put her mouth to his ear,” and continues
Along the bright wrackline, from the horizon where the vast birds sailed like boats, from the four compass corners, bellying up through the weed-beds, melting from orient and tropic, surging through the ice hills and the whale grounds, through sunset and sunrise corridors, the salt gardens and the herring fields, whirlpool and rock pool, out of the trickle in the mountain, down the waterfalls, a white-faced sea of people. … (AST, pp. 130-31)
The participial series, “bellying,” “melting,” “surging,” gives way to a series of adverbial phrases which finally find their subject at the middle of the paragraph. The prose catalogue suggests a sweeping up and down of the earth, a gathering of the “white-faced sea of people” from the north and south, the east and west.
Passages so rich and lengthy generally occur only near the climax of the tales. Thomas leads up to them with shorter paragraphs, composed of a simple sentence at the beginning and end and one or two more complex sentences in between. Brief statement, mounting descriptive rhythms, and brevity of concluding statement are the basic units not only of individual paragraphs but of each story as a whole. Each tale begins and ends with a simplicity which must take its significance from the complex material in between. In nearly every case the plot is rounded out with some such simple statement as
Hold my hand, he said. And then: Why are you putting the sheet over my face? (“The Visitor”)
Brother, he said. He saw that the child held silver nails in the palm of his hand. (“The Tree”)
Cool rain began to fall. (“A Prospect of the Sea”)
Thomas' dialogues are constructed along similar lines, occurring not as conventional conversations but as catechetical interchanges which usually precede or follow a complex and lengthy description. In “The Visitor” the paragraphs describing the arrival of Peter and Callaghan in the land of death are followed by this interchange:
What is this valley? said Peter's voice.
The Jarvis valley, said Callaghan. Callaghan, too, was dead. Not a bone or a hair stood up under the steadily falling frost.
This is no Jarvis valley.
This is the naked valley. (AST, p. 82-83)
From this dialogue, resembling that of God and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, the reader is flung on into the powerful description of the deluge of blood which causes even the “monstrous nostrils of the moon” to widen in horror. In “The Tree,” similarly, the description of the boy's view of the Jarvis valley is followed by his question and the gardener's answer:
Who are they, who are they?
They are the Jarvis hills, said the gardener, which have been from the beginning. (AST, p. 75)
A variation of the catechetical dialogue appears in the riddling interchanges that summarize the paradoxical themes of “The Horse's Ha” and “In the Direction of the Beginning.” These bring the reader to a stop and make him, like the hero, puzzle over the significance of the adventure, giving him a pause for reflection before he is plunged into ever more complex prose. Thomas possibly derived this technique from the rhetoric of Welsh preachers.
No study of the metaphorical or rhetorical structure of Thomas' prose can explain its weirdly compelling lilt, indescribable except by reading the tales aloud. This lilt is more pronounced in the shorter paragraphs and depends upon delicate balance of sentence elements. It is not original to Thomas, who may have modeled his prose after the style of Caradoc Evans.16 Take Thomas' description of Amabel Owen: “She was a tidy little body, with plump hands and feet, and a love-curl glistened on her forehead; dressed, like a Sunday, in cold and shining black, with a brooch of mother's ivory and a bone-white bangle, she saw the Holy Six reflected as six solid stumps …” (AST, p. 136), and compare it with a passage from Evans: “Silah Schoolen was a tidy bundle and she was dressed as if every day was a Sunday. She was not tall or short, fat or thin; her cheekbones were high and her lips were wide and her top teeth swelled from her mouth in a snowy white arch.”17 In Evans the lilt derives from the adaptation into English of the rhythms of spoken Welsh. Modified slightly by Thomas, it is present in combination with a terse descriptive economy in most of his early tales.
Although Evans' use of dialogue is more conventional and extensive than that of Thomas, Evans relies upon a similar combination of catechism and proverb:
“And who is the husband shall I say?”
“He was Shacki. O you heard of Shacki—Shacki stallion?”
“I have been in ships,” said the man. “I have been with black heathens and whites Holy Sherusalem [sic].”
“The Sea is a stormy place. Have you rabbits to sell?”
Amos made this pronouncement: “There are no rabbits on tidy farms.”18
Where Evans' prose is full of folk proverb, Thomas is more likely to invent proverbial statements from a combination of Welsh mythology, Christianity, and the sexual metaphors of a given story. Thus where one of Evans' heroes asserts that “Death is a great stiffener,” Thomas asserts that “No drug of man works on the dead. The parson, at his pipe, sucked down a dead smoke.” Evans' tales are terse and economical descriptions of the realistic tragedies of the country, Hardyesque in their reliance upon local dialogue and superstition. Usually curling into a bitter twist at the denouement, they are far more like Joyce's Dubliners than Thomas' early prose.
Although Evans is likely to start a story with a statement like “A tree of wisdom grew inside a certain farmer and sayings fell from it,” he usually goes on to more realistic statements. Thomas is more likely to start out realistically and to become more and more fantastic. In this he certainly owes something to the influence of T. F. Powys. In Mockery Gap, for example, Powys endows the sea with much the same powers of love and regeneration as Thomas does in such tales as “The Map of Love” and “A Prospect of the Sea”: “Mr. Pattimore sat up. He heard the midnight sea, the wicked one, the beautiful, the inspirer of huge wickedness; he heard the sea. However much he had shut out from him all the gentle longings of his loving lady, the sound would come in. It came from the dark places of love, out of the bottom of the sea.”19 In The Innocent Birds the landscape suggests that of “The Map of Love”: the hero, “old Solly,” overhearing two lovers on the “green summit” of the focal Madder Hill, associates them with the creative and destructive potentialities of the sea beneath them.
In Powys' The Two Thieves we find a macabre turn of events expressed in a style similar to that of Thomas' darker tales: “Grace crept into a corner of the room. She already felt the serpent growing in her womb. She tried to tear open her body with her nails: in three weeks she was measured for her coffin. The undertaker had expected her to be a little taller than she was. ‘A beautiful corpse,’ he said smilingly.”20 Powys' tales are structured upon the organic cyclical pattern beloved to Thomas: “Every Autumn God dies,” he writes in God, “and in the spring He is given a new place in the lives of men, and is born again. It is the same with us; we die and go down to the pit, but until the worlds vanish, new life from our dust will arise and worship the sun.”21
“The quality and organization of the language here,” writes one commentator, “is poetic in its deep rhythms and its surface music.”22 Thomas once described his early prose as “this bastard thing, a prose-poetry.”23 Although his tales do not belong in the French genre of the poème en prose favored by Max Jacob and André Breton, in style and form they somewhat resemble such “prose-poems” as Rimbaud's Illuminations (compare “Après le Deluge” to “The Map of Love,” “Villes” to “Prologue to an Adventure” and Lautrémont's “Les Chants de Maldoror”). In England as in France the two separate genres of prose and poetry merged in the experimental novel of the twenties and thirties. While Anna Balakian notes in surrealist France “a fusion of poetry with prose,”24 Professor Tindall has aptly pointed out that in England, at the same time, “the better novel became a poem” with its “narrative and subordinate details centered in image.”25
Thomas' early tales, as we have seen, are “poetic” in their dependence upon a balance, progression, and contrast of thematic images and symbols. They differ from the work of Woolf, Lawrence, and Joyce, however, not only in their brevity but in their intense subjectivism. Where the other novelists create a number of distinct characters upon whose minds the outer world registers its impressions, Thomas' tales more often center upon one protagonist. Even when a consort, father-figure or antagonist is present he or she is absorbed, in the end, into an inward or personal vision. (The triad of Mrs. Owen, Mr. Owen, and Davies in “The Enemies” is a notable exception to this practice.) When a number of persons are involved, as in “The Horse's Ha” and “The School for Witches,” they all are absorbed into a demonic or ritual unity at the denouement. Thomas thus pays little heed to Stephen Daedalus' plea for dramatic distancing over lyric subjectivism, for the conflict within each tale is less between separate persons than between the hero's Blakean faculties of imagination, reason, and desire.
Thomas' tales are not as dependent upon conflicting and merging images as are his poems. Narrative is fundamental to their structures in which action and images are knit together with careful attention to plot coherence and rhetorical style. The result is a genre unique in contemporary fiction, which in its pattern of quest for a fabulous center is more like folktale or mythological legend than realistic fiction. In each story, the protagonist sways between moods of approach and withdrawal which shape the narrative into a strophic and antistrophic “dancing of an attitude.”26 In such stories as “The Enemies,” “The Holy Six,” “The Orchards,” “The Map of Love,” “A Prospect of the Sea,” “The Lemon,” and “The School for Witches,” the protagonists move through a ritual series of trials and adventures towards the paradoxical goal of vision and destruction. In others, such as “The Horse's Ha,” “The Tree,” and “The Burning Baby,” a similar ritual movement, sometimes circling, sometimes progressing, embodies a dance of death and renewal.
Each of Thomas' early tales contains elements of myth (pseudo-primitive folklore or inward ritual), theology (in the sense of a system of cosmic symbology, containing—but transcending—myth), the occult (heretical materials combining the primitive and organic with the transcendent) and, finally, surrealism (the contemporary practice of mingling unconscious, mythological and everyday images into a new, hallucinatory or super-real world view). In each story these elements are knit carefully into an artistic whole, and it might seem a violation of the artistic integrity of each piece to separate its various components, in the following chapters. Only the casual reader should be thrown off by this deliberate unravelling, however. The intent is to elucidate the various strands of Thomas' early prose style so that the reader, winding these strands back together in his perusal of the individual tales, will more fully grasp their richness.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, letter of July 4, 1963 to the author.
Vernon Watkins, letter of February 27, 1963 to the author.
A Prospect of the Sea was published by J. M. Dent & Sons in London (1955). The collection Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories was published by New Directions in New York (1955). Quotations in this study are taken from the New American Library Signet reprint of Adventures (New York, 1961), which will be referred to in the text as AST. (The tales discussed in this chapter can be found in both editions.)
See Reviews of AST in Commonweal, Vol. 62 (January 10, 1955), 262; the New Yorker, Vol. 31 (June 11, 1955), 158; the Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 38 (July 2, 1955), 18.
Davies Aberpennar, review of “The Visitor” in Wales, Vol. II, No. 2 (1939-1940), 308; and Kingsley Amis, review of A Prospect of the Sea in Spectator (August 12, 1955), p. 227. See also the London Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 796 (September 30, 1955), 569.
G. S. Fraser, “Dylan Thomas,” Chapter 15 in Vision and Rhetoric (London, 1959), pp. 224-25. See also Henry Treece, Dylan Thomas, “Dog among the Fairies” (London, 1949), p. 128.
C. G. Jung, “Psychology and Poetry,” transition no. 19-20, (June 1930), p. 42. See Appendix C.
Dylan Thomas, “Replies to an Enquiry” in John Malcolm Brinnin, A Casebook on Dylan Thomas (New York: Thomas E. Crowell Co., 1960), p. 102.
Jacob Korg, “The Short Stories of Dylan Thomas,” Perspective, Vol. 1 (Spring 1948), 184.
William York Tindall, The Literary Symbol (Bloomington, Ind., 1955), p. 130.
Ralph Maud, Entrances to Dylan Thomas' Poetry (Pittsburgh, 1963), pp. 81-103 (hereafter cited as Entrances).
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 106.
Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 141.
Korg, “Short Stories,” p. 184.
Tindall, The Literary Symbol, pp. 60-62.
T. H. Jones describes Evans' style as “based on the rhythms and idioms of Welsh nonconformity, a virile, exuberant, non-conforming prose that has influenced almost every Anglo-Welsh writer, and not least Dylan Thomas.” T. H. Jones, Dylan Thomas (New York, 1963), p. 44. In a letter to the author of August 13, 1963, Glyn Jones affirms Evans' influence on Thomas.
Caradoc Evans, The Earth Gives All and Takes All (London, 1947), p. 1.
Caradoc Evans, Nothing to Pay (London, 1930), p. 27.
T. F. Powys, Mockery Gap (New York, 1925), p. 37.
T. F. Powys, The Two Thieves (New York, 1932), quoted in H. Coombes, T. F. Powys (London, 1960), p. 34.
T. F. Powys, God (New York, 1932), p. 41.
Coombes, T. F. Powys, p. 28.
Interview with Harvey Breit in the New York Times Book Review (February 17, 1952), p. 17.
Anna Balakian, The Literary Origins of Surrealism (New York, 1947), p. 1.
Tindall, The Literary Symbol, pp. 64, 91.
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1957), p. 9.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10423
SOURCE: “The Stories in Dylan Thomas' Red Notebook,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 2, No. 1, September, 1971, pp. 33-56.
[In the following essay, Tritshler examines Thomas's juvenilia, which is contained in his Red Notebook.]
Dylan Thomas filled at least four copybooks with poetry and one, the Red Notebook,1 with short stories by the time he was twenty. Though he had also written juvenilia that his mother carefully preserved,2 these five notebooks contain early and late versions of most of his published poems and nine of his published short stories. Ralph Maud's publication of the four poetry copybooks,3 which were nearly finished when Thomas began the Red Notebook, shows that he had already explored most of his major themes.
The ten Notebook stories likewise contain comparisons of divine, human and artistic creation and Thomas' obsessive paradox of creation as a destruction. They focus his sense of mankind's loss of innocence and love and the attendant ubiquity of evil and death in the world, and they present his criticism of the weak Christian religious practice that is unable to resolve the struggles of spirit and flesh. At least one of the stories was part of Thomas' first attempt to write a full-length novel. All of them seem to lie midway between the early poems and the later, more elaborate ones, perhaps because the time of composition was usually slightly later than most of the early poems, or because the short story form is roomier than the brief lyric and it obviously approaches the ideal of narrative that Thomas sought in his later poetry.
The Notebook itself is most interesting as a workbook. Several illuminating jottings, tables of contents and lists on the inside cover and on some of the final pages throw light on Thomas' publishing plans.4 And because only one of the stories transcribed into it is unpublished, the differences between the Notebook and the published versions reveal much about Thomas' working methods and about the significance of the stories.
The first story, “The Tree” (“Finished December 28. ’33”), is included in each of the five tables of contents that are listed on the inside cover and the seven end pages of the Red Notebook. Its garden setting recalls the Creation—the gardener “knew every story from the beginning of the world”5—and the child's insistence on the specifics of the biblical stories leads him to recreate the Crucifixion. The boy's nature is imaginative and destructive, and his point of view, which can transform the lawn into a sea, the bushes into islands, birds into satanic omens, and the gardener into either a sinister figure or an “apostle,” controls the structure of the story. The gardener himself views the biblical stories he tells the boy as examples of life and love in the earth. He is attuned to nature, a kind of minor deity of the microcosmic life in the garden, which is surrounded by the macrocosm of the Jarvis hills and the world they imply. He is aware of the fallen state of this world (“his god grew up like a tree from the apple-shaped earth”6), and he tells the boy, “God grows in strange trees” (p. 103). As a pantheist, he says, “Pray to a tree, thinking of Calvary and Eden” (p. 102—italics mine).
In this exchange, however, the boy insists the tree in their garden, that he sees as the one tree free of snow, is “the first tree,” but the gardener politely overlooks his presumption by saying, “The elder is as good as another” (p. 103). The Red Notebook presented this as prudence: a star burned above the tree and the gardener would not confide in the stars of his god-infested world (p. 6a). In both versions the gardener attempts to repair the tines of the rake with a wire, and the boy suddenly sees him as sinister. Then he notices the gardener's pure white beard and sees him as an apostle telling of the stages of the cross. While the boy listens, he sees the noon shadows as blood staining the bark of the elder in their garden. The tree stands as the Tree of Life at the beginning of the story and becomes the Cross of Calvary at the end.
The transformations of this tree trace the growth of metaphor in the boy's mind. When the gardener compares the tree to the Tree in the Garden, the boy extends the analogy to include Satan's entrance into Eden by interpreting a blackbird in the tree as “a monstrous hawk perched on a bough or an eagle swinging in the wind.”7 After hearing of Bethlehem and confusing it with the Jarvis hills to the east, the boy falls into a cavernous sleep, in which he dreams of descending among the “shadows” of the house (corrected from the more explicit “shades,” (p. 4a). After this descent into an underworld, he dreams of stepping into his own deceptive garden and of seeing his tree illuminated by a star burning brightly over it. The tree resembles a woman with frozen “arms” that bend “as to his touch,” and now he kneels on its “blackened twigs” to pray (p. 100); “then, trembling with love and cold” (101—italics mine), he returns to the house. The other aspect of “the illuminated tree” is evident when it appears leafless and black—deathly.
Into this ambiguous setting the idiot enters on Christmas day, after the boy sees the star above the tree. When the idiot begs for water, his goodness is so evident that the people give him milk. When he simply says he is from the east, they trust him (p. 101). The next montage shot of the idiot shows him looking into the “immaculate” Jarvis valley. He hungers for light, which he tastes in the green life of the grass (p. 103). He is a brother to all things of the world, and he restores light to it; he believes he is entering Bethlehem as he answers the call of the world's voices in the Jarvis valley. The final episode of Christmas morning compares the idiot to Christ in His passion, which was included in the garderner's stories. He prays in the garden. Then its shapes seem hostile. The wind threatens, “raising a Jewish voice out of the elder boughs,” and a voice within the idiot asks why he was brought here, somewhat as Christ momentarily seemed to question God. When the boy finds him, he shows “divine patience” (p. 106), even as the boy wires his arms to the limbs of the tree and prepares to nail him to it. The use of the wire shows what the naïve boy has learned from his own sinister vision of the gardener repairing the rake; the child's insistence on the specifics of the gardener's stories has finally led him to the crucifixion of innocence and love. Though the parallels to the life of Christ are sketchy—the “birth” and crucifixion both occur on Christmas day—they provide a context in which the latent evil of an “apple-shaped earth” can work through a naïve boy to murder innocence. The justaposition of the “birth” and crucifixion points one more ironic comment at the excesses of man's religious zeal.
The revisions of the Red Notebook version for publication are mainly routine retouches. There is almost no rearrangement, but many incidental changes reduce wordiness, and especially remove irrelevance and vagueness. Verbs are often strengthened by modifiers or by substitution of more vivid words (“he bent” for “he went”). Thomas is usually more specific in the final version—“apples and serpents” (p. 98) replaces “the first sin” (p. 2b)—and he is thereby more expressive, as in the replacement of “a darkness” by the more womby “spinning cavern” (p. 99). Another type of revision is the temperance of extravagant words (“rushing” of the sap instead of “roaring”—p. 98) and the removal of many examples of pathetic fallacy. Nevertheless, though the tower no longer “gave a benediction” (p. 8a), nature is animated in order to stress the force of life in the world that creates and cuts down its innocent children of love (p. 98).
While “The Tree” contains oblique references to Christ, the next story in the Red Notebook, “The True Story” (January 22.’34), mentions various earthly visits to show its protagonist's naïveté: Martha is proud of her reading, and she vaguely recalls the stories of Zeus and Danaë, Satan's temptation of Eve, and Moses receiving God's commands from “a thing of fire” (p. 259). She thinks immediately of the dog she killed and buried under the manure at the end of the garden. That she wrote the epitaph and date backwards suggests “dog” is an inversion of god.8 Surely her service to the old woman is mistaken. Like the biblical Martha, she selfishly makes it unthinking busywork, rather than service to her patient's being.9 At the end of her reveries, in which she has plotted the old woman's death, she characteristically parodies the burial service with “in the midst of death. …” (p. 260).
During the exposition of the dull routine of service that Martha inherited from her mother, Martha associates the picking of currants with the money under the old woman's mattress. The next association is with the blood on her hands from chickens she has freshly killed. The first paragraph to focus on the present shows Martha's obsession with the fortune during this spring (which like Martha is “the undoer of winter,”—11a) of her twentieth year. In the manuscript Thomas emphasized “blood money,” which stained in the same way the currants did (p. 10b). He may have removed this emphasis from the final version to avoid divulging the conclusion too quickly. Martha was surely more cold-blooded in the manuscript because her decision to murder was stated flatly and repeatedly. The published version startles the reader with her wish to fly in the window and suck the old woman's blood, her life's substance. The surprises that follow not only intensify the dreadful action, but the structure conveys the lack of values or feeling Martha's isolation fostered. The unfeeling combination of “One o'clock now, she said, and knocked the old woman's head against the wall”10 renders her fatal naïveté exactly.
The plot of “After the Fair” (November 19. '33) is simpler than those of the first two Red Notebook stories, and while their motivation is amoral, this plot develops from human kindness. The prospective tables of contents and Thomas' collections of his works he jotted in the Notebook show he did not think this one of his most important stories. Nor does he seem to have labored over it as much as he did some of the other stories because the manuscript version contains only a few, superficial, textual changes. The Fat Man's idea that the baby in the Astrologer's tent comes from looking at the stars is both humorous and significant; the girl's selection of the Fat Man to help her care for the baby, the policeman looking for her, and their soothing of the baby by riding a merry-go-round may suggest a flight into Egypt, but little is done with the parallel. “The Enemies” (Feb. 11. '34), on the other hand, takes the reader to the strange heart of Thomas' mysterious Welsh valley.
The setting for Mr. and Mrs. Owen's cottage in the center of the Jarvis hills gives them a kind of proprietary interest—they came from their village to this isolated valley and fenced out the domestic cattle that grazed in it. Their valley has its special, hyperbolic identity: as Mr. Owen weeds, the descriptions of his garden and the surrounding hills suggest wars and oracles that are more human than vegetable. The grasses have heads and mouths (p. 90), and the green grass is flesh (p. 91). Mrs. Annis Pratt finds this valley in the heart of the fabulous Jarvis hills comparable to the immortal island of Welsh folklore, which she in turn relates to the personal mythology of initiation in “The Map of Love” and other stories.11 In “The Enemies,” Reverend Davies is about to undergo an infernal initiation as he loses his way in this “wide world rocking from horizon to horizon” and comes upon a cottage that might have “been carried out of a village by a large bird and placed in the very middle of the tumultuous universe” (p. 92).
Such tumult fills the beginning of the story with images of separation—the bird from his mate and the valley by its stream (p. 89)—and it culminates in the dichotomy of flesh and spirit represented by Mr. and Mrs. Owen. Mr. Owen presides over the rise and fall of life in the garden (p. 90). He is a young, bearded Pan, lord of the concrete things of life, “of the worm in the earth, of the copulation in the tree, of the living grease in the soil” (p. 96). He cannot quite take Mrs. Owen's powers seriously, for they are intangible, dark powers from the other world. Her crystal ball gives up its dead like a grave; it is one of the abstractions, such as the sound of the wind and the shadow on the tablecloth, that indirectly reveal the nature of the world to her (p. 95). She resembles Mr. Owen only in that they both have superhuman powers and her strange, green eyes recall the green grass of his garden.
This dynamic, pagan world opposes Reverend Davies' pallid, Christian world. Mrs. Owen loves the dark that so frightens Mr. Davies. The old man loses his way in his own, dead world and enters their domain, where he senses both their conflicting forces as the hills seem to “storm” the sky and darkness gives him no comfort from the wind (p. 91). His black, clerical hat is replaced by a cloud as he moves out of Mrs. Owen's ball and into the fleshly valley of Mr. Owen, and while the rocks of the valley draw human blood from him, he becomes a shape among the stars in Mrs. Owen's crystal. In contrast to his powerful enemies, Mr. Davies is a white-haired phantom whose light is absorbed by Mrs. Owen's darkness—the world “had given under his feet” (p. 95).
Though the action is relatively static, the tense confrontation of enemies is a lyric poet's tableau of a world suffering the timeless clash of opposites. The clash of flesh and spirit in Mr. and Mrs. Owen, with all its related imagery mentioned briefly above, is complemented in another dimension: the clash of the Owens' pagan concentration on life and Mr. Davies' Christian preparation for death, as represented by dark and light imagery and other details. Mr. Davies reaches toward a blessed state in this clockless, roaring world, but his saintliness ambiguously emerges as a “ragged circle of light round his head” (p. 96). He is finally an insubstantial, ineffective “old god beset by his enemies” in the house of the proud flesh and the evil spirit.
Mrs. Owen's evil shows much more explicitly in “The Holy Six,” the sequel to “The Enemies.” There she merges with Miss Myfanwy, as “Amabel Mary” (p. 203), and is pregnant with the fleshly child of Mr. Owen, though about to give virgin birth to the spiritual child of Mr. Davies. Apparently the child is the seventh and greatest sin, which is surrounded by the six sins that arrived at the Jarvis valley when Love's (Mr. Vole's) cart wrecked; their names are given as anagrams of lust, greed, envy, fear, cruelty and spite. In both stories the vitality of the world is too much for the ghostly Mr. Davies, and in the second one he takes his place among them. A weak god fails in this world, the house of sins.
Though “The Holy Six” unites the characters of “The Enemies” in a circle of sin, it is probably a different story from “The Enemies United” because both titles appear in two of the lists in the Red Notebook. (See note 4.) If “The Enemies United” was a third story about these characters, Thomas had written more of his short novel, “A Doom on the Sun,” than has been discovered. The phrase for this title first appeared in “Find meat on bones,” for which the Lockwood library has a manuscript including corrections, dated July 15'33 and January 1936. The earliest record of the projected novel was in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson on 2 May 1934: “My novel—I've done the first chapter—will be, when and if I finish it, no more than the hotch-potch of a strayed poet, or the linking together of several short story sequences. I shall scrap it in a few days.” He had just received a telegram from New Stories accepting “The Enemies” for publication, but the news was a mixed pleasure because they paid nothing for it. He had also transcribed into the Red Notebook two other stories, “The Tree” and “The Visitors,” which are explicitly set in the Jarvis hills.
Nine days later he wrote to Miss Johnson, “My novel of the Jarvis valley is slower than ever. I have already scrapped two chapters of it. It is as ambitious as the Divine Comedy, with a chorus of deadly sins, anagrammatized as old gentlemen, with the incarnated figures of Love & Death, an Ulyssean page of thought from the minds of two anagrammatical spinsters, Miss P. & Miss R. Sion-Rees, an Immaculate Conception, a baldheaded girl, a celestial tramp, a mock Christ, & the Holy Ghost.” The two chapters would seem to be “The Tree” and “The Visitors [April '34],” for the old gentlemen appear in “The Holy Six.” Two days later Thomas was still struggling: “My novel, tentatively, very tentatively, titled A Doom on the Sun is progressing, three chapters of it already completed [“The Enemies,” “The Holy Six” and, perhaps, “The Enemies United”?]. So far, it is rather terrible, a kind of warped fable in which lust, greed, cruelty, spite etc., appear all the time as old gentlemen in the background of the story. I wrote a little bit of it early this morning—a charming incident in which Mr. Stripe, Mr. Edger, Mr. Stull, Mr. Thade and Mr. Strich watch a dog dying of poison. I'm a nice little soul, and my book is going to be as nice as me.” Apparently the novel was approaching the “lived happily ever after” stage when he scrapped it.12
The few revisions of “The Enemies” give it a story-teller's polish, but the infrequent revisions of “The Dress” (March,'34), the next story in the Red Notebook, are often to its key passages. The madman's pursuers sound like hounds baying after him, and he flees their bestial, adult world to recover an innocent relationship. The Red Notebook stressed a relationship with the mother: “As the moon rose, milkily it put a coat around his shoulders …” (p. 22b), and after the wish for shelter and food, “The mist was a mother, but he needed more than a mother's care. … He thought of the young woman bening [sic] over the pot. He thought of her hair.” The relationship the madman desires with the world is larger than a mother's comfort, and the ending shows it is also more general than lust.
The innocence of the madman's wish is not certain at first, and this uncertainty is artfully controlled to develop the reader's anticipation. Though several references to blood on the madman were deleted from the published version, the kinship he feels with the deadly owl is ominous. At the same time, he pities the hare killed by the weasel. Next his isolation is stressed in the encounter with the old man, who flees when the madman says it no night for the son of woman. His violence with the butcher's knife is mentioned, but he has flung it into a tree (a “male” object), discarded it with his anger over his wife, who smiled at other men.
The farm wife he comes upon knows he has cut off his wife's lips. In the Red Notebook he felt guilt, for he cut his own throat after he did it (p. 24b), but the omission of this detail in the final version leaves the frightful possibility that he may do violence without any apparent motivation or qualms. The affinity of the madman for the young wife emerges when he thinks of sleep as a girl who will give him her dress to lie on with her; the earth itself is the place of love, for the twigs rustle like her dress as he flees. Shortly after this fantasy, the first glimpse of the farm wife shows her trying on the new flowered dress she has sewn (p. 249). The descriptions of her and her dress, which has a low-cut bodice and which she leaves unbuttoned at the neck, heighten her sexuality. In the Red Notebook this was emphasized by her holding the dress up and saying, “Naughty frock” (p. 24a), but the omission of this comment makes her more innocent in the final version.
Instead of the guns the madman expects as he enters the farm house, he sees a fearful girl, but then he is dazzled by the flowers of her dress. The Red Notebook was unnecessarily explicit in this lovely ending: “With the moving of her arm, her dress, like a summer field, danced in the light” (italics mine). The need for sleep was also over-stressed, and the Notebook stated “tired head,” instead of the more significant “bewildered head.” This story, which could be the banal account of a flight to innocence or simply the madman's search for sleep, becomes a delicate resolution of mad anger in gentle beauty.
“The Visitor” (April, '34) is more complex than “The Dress,” for its opposing images of life and death interpenetrate. The description of awakening day at the beginning is pervaded by images of death, a condition that reverses at the end. The movement of time displaces life: the heart of Peter the poet is replaced by a clock and his hands move as mechanically as those of a clock. All the places and events of his life converge in this dry day, and he imagines his only release from this dwindled life could be in the ghost of the boy he was when he walked the Jarvis hills (p. 109). Later he makes from words an olive tree, a symbol of long life, that grows under the lake, somewhat as he wishes to lurk beneath the water, but it is only “a tree of words.” Then Peter thinks of Christ, whose body was taken from a tree and prepared for burial and resurrection, somewhat as his being is cared for by Rhianon.13
Peter's companions help him reach his destination. He watches Rhianon tidying the room around him and thinks the dead are surprised by the bloom under the skin of the living. He supposes this while she sweeps dust from the picture of Mary, the “lying likeness” (cf. “Our Eunuch Dreams”) of his dead wife (p. 110), but the facts that his hands feel like stones on the sea of shrouds covering him and that he has had a vision of his own corpse in a coffin show that he, in his near-dead state, is the one surprised by life. His travelling companion, Callaghan, brings an enemy into his room that threatens to destroy his world. But while death can destroy the webs of life, the poet still retains the walls of memory around Mary (p. 111).
The death Peter anticipates is exotic—he is an “island of rich and miraculous plants” (p. 112). He thinks of submersion in the watery sounds of Rhianon's dress. When he says, “Water,” he has Rhianon hold a glass of water before his eyes, for he wishes to become “a green place under [the water], staring around a dizzy cavern” (p. 113). Though his self is more passive than the wild self in “How shall my animal,” a poem about creativity, the image shows him descending to the deepest level of his being. When Callaghan carries him into the valley, the frost is falling. He sees apocalyptic horrors before all life on the earth dissipates and fresh life springs up (p. 117). This dwindling and renewing of life in the valley anticipates the structure of the spiritual journey in “A Winter's Tale.” Peter cries out in joy at this renewal of life before it again recedes and he and Callaghan must race away, as all spirits must, before the cocks crow.
As the story of a writer for whom words are as tangible as things, it shows the loss of poetic powers.14 At the beginning, Peter tastes the blood of Rhianon's and Callaghan's battling words, but toward the end the words he makes are no longer flesh—they seem empty of life. In another sense, the story is about the microcosm within the macrocosm it implies. Peter's room itself is a world within a world, and within even that lies his inner microcosm (p. 110). Peter perceives this world when he hears the blinded birds singing songs of the world within their eyes. (p. 115; cf. “Because the pleasure-bird whistles.”) Though Peter in death is losing his senses as a poet—he can't hear Rhianon's singing any longer (p. 112)—and though he is surprised when she finds him dead, he has experienced a blissful world he created on his journey over the naked hills within him, which are represented by the Jarvis hills.
The double movements of “The Visitor”—into and out of both life and death, and out of the world and into the universe of the self—are conveyed symmetrically. The predicament at the beginning, in which Peter is haunted by thoughts of his death, reverses at the end, in which he is filled with life and surprised by the sheet being drawn over his face. Again, an image of day at the beginning—“A man with a brush had drawn a rib of colour under the sun and painted many circles around the circle of the sun. Death was a man with a scythe, but that summer day no living stalk was to be cut down” (p. 110)—is balanced by one of night at the end—“A man with a brush had drawn a red rib down the east. The ghost of a circle around the circle of the moon spun through a cloud. … The cock cried again, and a bird whistled like a scythe through wheat” (pp. 118-119). By juxtaposing such organic and cosmic images as have been used elsewhere in the story, these passages emphasize the concentricity of the microcosm and the macrocosm. There are almost no significant revisions of the Red Notebook version for that in Skin Trade, but the Criterion deleted three passages, perhaps because an editor thought them too explicit, that were almost entirely restored when the story was collected by Thomas.15
Of those stories in the Red Notebook touching on derangement, “The Vest” (July 20. '34.) is most concerned with probing the sickness itself. The association of experiences that are logically unconnected, such as the boy in “The Tree” imposes and the madman in “The Dress” blissfully achieves, and amoral violence, such as Martha uses to escape her servitude, both occur in “The Vest,” but this story also investigates the immediate causes of sickness. The sight of a dog crushed by a car has bewildered the protagonist. The violence arouses pity in him, but also a glee upon touching the brain and blood, the inner being, of the animal. His mind then flickers between this violence and the violence he has done to his wife when he felt pain himself (p. 253). The confusion of the accident causes a fear in him that is represented by darkness, particularly by the large shadow in his house (p. 252). This shadow is a projection of the terrible self that he must release, and he does it blindly, insensitively, when he tears his wife's underclothes off. As he walks out of the house, he notices the shadow is broken into many pieces, in keeping with his character, which is represented by the many faces he sees in the mirror, each of which has “a section of his features” (p. 255).
He fears the mortality of the flesh, Women, particularly his wife, have betrayed him with their “blind, corrupted flesh” (p. 34a). When he learned of his mother-in-law's cancer, he felt it was his own face that was eaten by locusts. To avoid such corruption of the flesh, he imagined he lay by his wife's skeleton, but in the morning her flesh bloomed proudly with his love; he also made her skin blush when he beat her. The fantastic orgy of violence he imagines in the bar full of women confirms his perverted horror of the flesh. He seeks rational control of experience, as is suggested in the manuscript by his counting of steps and streetlamps and his measured ringing of the bell at the beginning of the story.
The published version deletes some of these opening details, which were presented in a more personal point of view than Thomas finally adopted. The final version is more consistent with the protagonist's cold formality: instead of “he smacked her face” (p. 34a), Thomas makes it “he struck her cheek.” In the manuscript her name was Helen; in the final version, which is presented from his impersonal point of view, no name is mentioned. When he remembers her putting on her frock that morning, she is coldly described as an object, “thin in her nakedness, as a bag of skin and henna drifting out of the light” (p. 253). She has brought light into his life, and normally she would disperse the shadow in the house, she would comfort him, but any comforts he felt, such as heat from the dying fire, were removed from the manuscript.
The manuscript is more explicit about his feelings: thoughts of “poor dog” and his judgments of his own cruelty were removed, as were the graphic images of the slaughtered dog.16 His reaction to the dog's accident there was “in the first darkness” (p. 34a). The manuscript also interpreted more explicitly the source of violence as his horror of human corruption. When the protagonist noticed the darkening room and tasted his sickness, he thought of man's fallen state, “all the pain of life, the pain of the damned, the pain of man …” (p. 34b).
In addition to removing many explicit statements, Thomas deleted unnecessary details. The removal of the names of bars, which began with the Duke of Wellington, went through the Rose, the Mason, the Men of Devon, and the Rising Sun, and ended significantly at the Waterloo, increases the anonymity of his lonely surroundings, as does the deletion of crowds seen near his destination. Large sections of the final orgy were transferred to that grotesquely humorous account of the fall of man as poet, “Prologue to an Adventure” (Summer, 1937). The man selling an almanac (a record of the temporal world), the girls dancing in sawdust (glass, in the Red Notebook) in that story's bar, the Seven Sins, and the Negress selling a pound of flesh (p. 212) are close to the passages in the Red Notebook (pp. 36b-37b).
The only unpublished story in the Red Notebook, “Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar” (August 8. '34), is another story of nightmarish violence, but on the grander scale of an island setting, such as England, in a classconscious world. Since air raids and street fighting were dreadful possibilities in the economic struggles of the Thirties, “Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar” is a reductio ad absurdum of the very real spiritual carnage in a sick society. The class war is a leveler of inequities—all die in the same gutters, all are hungry (p. 38b).
The conditions of this world seem the reverse of what they are supposed to be. The people starve “in the heart of plenty” (p. 38b—deletion by Thomas) because they lack love, the staff of life. The galvanic wheat, which death drove back into the bone, is bullets, “crow's food [that] sliced about them,” and their sustenance, such as God gave to the chosen people, is the bombs they desire, “cupping their hands for the exploding manna. Two lovers, struck by the same shell, fell into bliss” in death, not in their love. The power elite, who slip gas masks onto faces that are used to wearing masks daily, who must even purchase sleep in this commercialized society, are surprised from their sybaritic preoccupations and their seedy occupations.17 In their society life is denied (babies are starved), and money, leisure, and love are stolen. (These details were deleted.) In return, the workers to whom they give guns turn them greedily against their former “slave masters,” and “the keys of hate [are found in the blood of] the opened pulses” (p. 39a—all deleted by Thomas.). The new life born out of this strife is the ability to hate.
The story then shifts to the first person when two ghosts appear to search for something among the dead. All usual activity, such as commerce, travel, communication and ceremony, has halted in this barren world: “The ships were unloaded at the wharves, the engines cold in the stations, the printing presses silent, and the sentries before the island palace stiff, split like cabbages, in their boxes” (p. 39a—deletion by Thomas). The speaker feels out of place in this land that has only the appearance of life; he is “a ghost in a springing world, a solid man in a world that was all a ghost” (pp. 39a-b—deletion by Thomas.). Furthermore, this new world is only “the last of the first revolution” dying away as he enters “the first stages of the night” (p. 39b). The speaker draws nearer to the ghosts as they hunt the ruins and examine the corpses; he begins to take on the garb of a wise man—“I held my scarf to my face for the smell of the flowering dead” (p. 39b). Though these dead “flower,” they are black plants, the ominous signs that “the hemlock & the upas sprouted for me from the gutter beds” (p. 39b).
Melodramatically, a minute before midnight, he sees a kind of “star of Bethlehem” at the end of the street. It is a lantern that first “was a red rose among the flowers that stank at my side”; this ironically Dantean image was changed to “It was bright & sweet among the flowers …” (p. 40a). The ghosts pass him and he follows them toward the lantern, “calling them by name,” but revolutionists, “dark-eyed behind their lantern,” stop him to ask, “Who are you, comrade?” When he says to let him pass because he is “of the wise men,” they want to know where he is going. He knocks the lantern from their hands and runs past, pursued through a maze of alleys by shots from their revolvers.
When he reaches the ghosts in a moonlit square, “at their feet lay a dead woman, naked but for her shawl, with a bayonet wound in her breasts” (p. 40a). While he watches, “a miraculous life stirred in her belly, and the arms of the child in her womb broke, lifted, through the flesh” (p. 40b). The two ghosts bow down and offer gold and frankincense, and as the speaker kneels, his pursuers shoot him. Originally the ghosts were named Gaspar and Melchior and the speaker learned from them that his name was Balthasar when his ghost rose from him. But the names were deleted, “bitter as myrrh” was changed to “my blood streamed bitterly,” and instead of anointing the mother's feet, his blood anoints “the emerging head.” Such changes make the story less obvious but more maudlin. This quality and the over-intellectualized symbolism may have been among Thomas' reasons for abandoning the story, but still it is significant as one of many attempts to consider the Christian myth within a world such as ours, that reverses Christian values. Hate is born into this dark world. Though this bitter allegorical sketch of class warfare was clumsy, Thomas used some of the same imagery years later, in his brilliant elegies for man in World War II. The bitterness is still there, but it becomes more powerful when barely controlled by such understatement as is used in “A Refusal to Mourn.”
The child born in “The Burning Baby” (September. '34) is imagined by Rhys Rhys to be a Second Coming, but it is a child of the flesh, Vicar Rhy's supposed enemy. Like many Thomas characters in the Red Notebook and elsewhere, Rhys struggles with the flesh because of its mortal weaknesses, but he does not realize he has made it his god, somewhat as man has made God in his own fleshly image. Thomas treats this inverted relationship between God and man literally by suggesting sexuality is the “Word” of an anthropomorphic god when he has Rhys Rhys put the stem of his pipe in a “mouth” between his flybuttons (p. 130). He then casts down the Bible and reads in another book “of the old woman who had deceived the devil. [Since he thinks] the devil is poor flesh” (p. 131), he hopes to deceive it by producing a god from it, and he thereby deceives himself.
The woman who bore his daughter saw “the woman witch in his male eyes” and loved him passionately, but she died in child-birth. Then she stole the child of his second love and left a changeling in its place (p. 131), but this child is a shadow “cast by the grave sun,” a pun that expresses an idea akin to what Thomas summarized in “Twenty-four years” as the meat-eating sun.” When the story opens, only the changeling survives to wander over the fields like a personification of death, “with the motion of a man cutting wheat” (p. 128). Rhys Rhys has been obsessed with this cutting of ripeness. He said in his sermons that the world was “ripe for the second coming of the son of man” (p. 129), but the ripeness was of the flesh, his daughter's flesh. On the moming that the gorse burst into flames, almost as miraculously as when God spoke from the burning bush, and Rhys desired his daughter, the Red Notebook had him thinking, “She was the failure of the flesh, & the skinny field. Poor flesh, he said, and touched her arm. She trembled at the heat in his fingers. Only the poor are beautiful. The poor soil shudders under the sun, he said” (p. 41b). The purpose of the incest, Rhys seems to rationalize, is to achieve the second coming and redeem the poor flesh that is burned daily by the “grave sun.”
But the changeling, that resulted from a death, haunts Rhys with his symbols of death, the skins and skulls that he covets. On the day of the incestuous conception, Rhys takes a rabbit carcass from him and keeps it in his pocket while he seduces his daughter. The section ends with the changeling's words, “I want the little skull,” and though it recalls the carcass, it may also refer to the child of the union. During her pregnancy the changeling watches his sister in her daily dying and imagines her skull nailed above his bed. In both cases Rhys attempts to trick death of its due: by burying the dust of his daughter near him, in a “virginal” white coffin, and by burning the body of the baby. The Red Notebook emphasized the paganized import of the ritual by stating, “He stacked the torn heathers in the midst of the druid Bard's Circle where the stones still howled on the witches' sabbaths” (p. 46b). Though Rhys Rhys has enacted a ritual of man's triumph over death, the self-deception is clear when the flesh of the baby screams from the flames.
The final story is more obviously autobiographical than any other in the Red Notebook, and it is also one of the more complicated ones. Originally called “Mr Tritas on the Roofs” (October. '34), it became “Anagram,” a phantasy about the artist and thereby an anagram of what he does. The name Tritas is itself an anagram, but in the Criterion version he was renamed Peter—the name Thomas used for the poet in “The Visitor”—and for the Map of Love collection he became the more obviously autobiographical Marlais.18 Another change was the setting of the story, which in the short “Anagram” version (five pages) was London, and in the expanded “Orchards” version was Swansea, Wales, and the world beyond. Thomas may have written “Anagram” in London, where as a free-lance artist he began concentrating on fiction because of its greater commercial value; by publication time he had discovered how deep were his Welsh roots and turned to the notion of the artist as folk-hero adventuring through the land of his being. The additions to the beginning and end of the story (pp. 137-40 and 143-9) were the dream of the burning orchards and the artist's terrible journey through the dying world. Despite these changes, the story remains an anagram of the artist's struggle to unify his “three-cornered life” (pp. 49ab), the worlds of life, death and his own vision.
The burning apple orchards in his dream are his anagram of this life. The two scarecrows, “two fruit-trees out of a coal-hill” (p. 140), the sister trees in the vegetable garden, are the tree of knowledge, that is associated with light, and the tree of life (and death), that stands in a circular shadow with crows on her shoulders (p. 137). Marlais tries to write of his vision in which, “under the eyelids, where the inward night drove backwards, through the skull's base, into the wide, first world on the far-away eye, two love-trees smouldered like sisters” (p. 140). The artist looks inward at archetypal experience, from which comes “Marlais's death in life in the circular going down of the day” (p. 140; cf. “Author's Prologue.”). When he steps onto the roofs (in a setting sometimes resembling Cwmdonkin Drive), he observes “below him, in a world of words, men on their errands moved to no purpose but the escape of time” (p. 141). As an artist standing halfway between the stars and the toy of the town below the roofs, on the one hand, and building images that touch both death and life,19 on the other, he must involve himself by attempting to achieve a unity of awareness.
The unity is possible when, as a folk-hero or, in another part of this dream of man's fallen state, as an apple farmer, he adventures through eleven valleys. The first valley implies a unity of heaven and earth in its hills that are “unbroken walls, taller than the beanstalks that married a story on the roof of the world” (p. 146). Beyond these eleven valleys he realizes his own artistic vision when the orchards of time burst into flame at the edge of the sea. The three levels of the artist's awareness are represented, for example, in the three images of the moon: the shadow of the “mock moon” in the north, the real round moon shining on the earth, and “the half-moon of his thumb-nail rising and setting behind the leaden spire” (pp. 140-41). The struggle for unity of this awareness is stated directly in the final version—“It is all one, …” (p. 142)—and it was the revelation in the concluding lines of the manuscript:
… he moved for the last answer (p. 142). And all was image and was image, but Mr Tritas on the roofs sought a cohesing image of the dead and the quick. So he came at last to a skylight by a chimney side, and leant over the leaded rim. There, in the attic, sitting upright in a dark coffin, a joyful gentleman smiled at the crowds of heaven and played on a violin.
Death & life was one image & one anagram. Odd thief in the folds, cried Mr Tritas on the roofs.
Thomas removed this ending and added a much more elaborate anagram for “The Orchards.”
The artist's predicament is that he makes life—he has “five-fingered life” before him (p. 142), but he also kills with words, which are lifeless abstractions. They are words, not flesh, and life intrudes on the death he would put into his story of a woman wailing beside Russian seas in a cold wind from Antarctica (p. 139). What Thomas would later call “the meat-eating sun” defeats his struggles with words (p. 140). The artist's imagination can make people and angels of the chimneys on the roofs, but somewhat like Lot's wife, they turn to stone as he attempts to fix their reality with words (p. 138). Though the artist may scramble over the lives in the rooms below, while he watches the images of life and death in the stars (p. 48b), “the word is too much with us.” This half humorous parody of Wordsworth keynotes a story that summarizes the predicament of the artist, who lives with insubstantial words, on the rooftops of the world.
The anagram that concludes the story shows the artist, “our virgin Marlais,” as his rooftop creations call him, entering life, experiencing first-hand the vision of the burning orchards that he dreamed before. Until now he has been a coward, hesitant to embrace the “unholy” women of Llanasia, romantically willing to settle for his dream of “a life too beautiful to break” (p. 143), but he steps from the rooftops into the falling world. He sees the barren coal-tables that embrace Llanasia like a grave. All life is dominated by the sun that has shown since man fell from innocence, as Marlais is now falling. When he begins his rôle as a folk-hero, he passes through myths that summarize man's nature: the revolt in Heaven, the Fall from Paradise, the Homeric vision of the “wine-coloured sea,” the notion of a single source of the sea, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, even Jack and the beanstalk. When he journeys to the last hour on the last hill down to the sea, he actually witnesses his dream image of burning life and finds the fair girl who possesses the being he has committed to life. At the end of the artist's life, which is all lives, Thomas says the story is more terrible than all those stories of the fictional Jarvis hills. The artist finally loves the world, but he is left with dead objects, in the embrace of a scarecrow, somewhat as the fisherman succumbs in “The furious ox-killing house of love” (“Ballad of the Long-legged Bait,” 1. 200). Art and life must both be insufficient at last to survive the dry twig of death. Thomas' obsession with death is as prominent in the Red Notebook as in most of his poetry: processes of time dominate the worlds of “Martha,” “The Visitor,” “The Vest,” “The Burning Baby” and “The Orchards.” Because the artist attempts to stop time in art21 he must struggle against life's inevitable self-consummation, and he therefore feels the effects of process acutely. Peter in “The Visitor” and Marlais in “The Orchards” both attempt to preserve their worlds in the artifice of words, but they, like (or as) the dead, are continually surprised by the encroachments of actual life; whether it gives the lie to the abstractions of their medium or it pushes them relentlessly toward death, the process is the odd thief in the fold. (Cf. The Thief of “In Country Sleep.”) Others, such as the protagonist of “The Vest,” attempt to escape time and decay in violence or, obversely, flee violence in an attempt to recover past innocence, as does the madman of “The Dress.”
Death is often shown in the other stories as one of the results of man's fallen state. Thomas rarely depicts innocence, as represented by the idiot in “The Tree”; rather, those such as the boy in that story or Martha in “A True Story” commit outrageous acts in their amorality. In other words, they share in the fallen state of man by acting as naïve agents of evil when the free-flowing evil in the world fortuitously infests them. Others commit evil acts more pointedly. More knowing than the boy in “The Tree,” the vicar Rhys in “The Burning Baby” has perverted Christian values with the narrow nonconformism so traditional in Wales. Another foolish cleric is the Reverend Davies, who wanders into the Jarvis valley, the heart of life forces that the Owens control. Their pagan power is too much for the weak Christian values of Davies. An early theme of Thomas, this weakness is represented in the poetry as the Christian God's indifference—especially in “Incarnate Devil”—or man's perversion of Christian values. He treats the distortion lightly in “Shall gods be said to thump the clouds,” seriously in “The spire cranes,” and bitterly in the manuscript of “After the funeral,”22 where the insincere mourners stand in contrast to the natural goodness of dead Ann.
The treatment in fiction of themes that Thomas used in his poetry is not surprising, nor are the occasional verbal echoes in his works. He quite naturally used motifs in one work that he planned for another. Mr. Tritas stood on the roof with the dust of the streets filling his eyes, and (p. 48a) Thomas finally deleted this passage showing supersensitivity, that had been used in a much different context of the preceding story, “The Burning Baby”: “It was not her eyes that saw him proud before her, nor the eyes in her thumbs. Her blood was fluttering as he moved. The lashes of her fingers lifted. He saw the ball under the nail.”23 Another passage of the “Orchards” manuscript may have been used for phrases and images of “A grief ago”:
The sky is a strange land at night, where the seasons pass over in a drift of star & snow, and the dark, scythe-sided grasses in the lunar country drop at the dawn. (p. 48b)
The Red Notebook reveals much about Thomas' working habits and about his understanding of the artist's work. Though his first idea for a novel about the Jarvis hills and valley, A Doom on the Sun, was soon abandoned, it is not surprising that several of his stories, as well as his poems, use the Carmarthenshire setting around Fern Hill, the farm where he spent so much of his youth. “The Dress,” “The Burning Baby” and “Prospect of the Sea” invoke a comparable setting. “The Enemies,” “The Tree,” “The Visitor” and “The Holy Six” name the Jarvis setting, and “The Map of Love” shows two children the love that remains of Jarvis himself and his baldheaded wife. His ambitious story “The Orchards” started from a sketch using an urban setting, but it was expanded to show the artist as folk-hero going out to a place even more dreadful than the magical Jarvis hills to encounter reality. Either of these strange places possesses life in its fullest sense and provides a counterpart to the conventionality of Llareggub, which is mentioned in some of these stories.
The heroism of the artist in “The Orchards” is his stepping out of a romanticized artistic world, one such as Thomas suspected in “After the Funeral,” into the tumult of life among the women of the street to seek the deepest resources of life and death in the last valley. The struggle to enter reality is a sustained theme in Thomas' works about the artist's creativity. The name of the artist in the Criterion version of “The Orchards” and in “The Visitor” evokes slang associations consistent with his advice to Charles Fisher (February, 1935): “Poetry … should be as orgiastic and organic as copulation, dividing and unifying … Men should be two tooled, and a poet's middle leg is his pencil. If his phallic pencil turns into an electric drill, breaking up the tar and the concrete of language worn thin by the tricycles tyres of nature poets and the heavy six wheels of the academic sirs, so much the better.”24 Thomas almost identifies creation and procreation, and as the letter implies, violence, or at least violent wrenching of symbols, such as many of the dream-like Red Notebook stories use, is necessary to reach “the first beasts' island” in his map of Love.
“The Red Notebook” is so catalogued by its owner, the Poetry Collection of the Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York at Buffalo. The previously unpublished material quoted here is Copyright © by the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas, 1971. Both the Trustees and the library have kindly granted me permission to quote from it.
The Note book is a 7 [frac34] × 6-inch copybook with a soft, deep-red cover that declares it “The ZENITH Exercise Book,” and it advertises “Ruled Feint Lines” (twenty-two) and provides spaces for the student's name and school and the date (all unfilled). The back cover lists six “Danger Dont's & Safety First!” about playing near vehicles. If the schoolboy survived this first spelling lesson, he found on the inside back cover “Arithmetical Tables,” tables of measures, and multiplication tables.
The sheets of the Notebook, which are stapled at the center fold of the book, are numbered 2 through 53 (1 and 54 having been removed or lost) in the center of the headspace on the right-hand pages only. Most of the pages are numbered by Thomas in pencil, though almost all the writing in the book is in ink on both sides of the sheets. The first sheet apparently has been tom out by Thomas, for the second begins with “the clouds;” inked out, “in” overwritten with “In” as the beginning of the sentence, and “The Tree (Adelphi).” penciled beneath the page number.
The juvenilia and copious worksheets of some later works went to the University of Texas Humanities Research Center with the T. E. Hanley collection. The British Museum holds additional worksheets and typescripts of early poems; the Houghton Memorial Library at Harvard University holds the fourth major collection of manuscripts-copious worksheets of a few late poems. All four possess letters.
Ralph N. Maud, ed., The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas (New Directions, 1967).
The inside of the front cover provides a map of England. Its most striking entry is the words “The Birth,” that Thomas penciled and framed with a rectangle between the Isle of Man and Northumberland. This may be a trial title, perhaps an altemative to “After the Fair,” “The Visitor,” or the unpublished “Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar,” where births of one sort or another occur. The stories in the Notebook and additional titles are listed in the North Sea. “The Witch,” “Arecom [scratched] Genesis,” “The Manor” and “The Knife” are inked in a column. These titles are probably the first jottings, because an additional title, “The Diarists,” is penciled below that list. Thomas mentioned this last story, in a Christmas (1932?) letter to Trevor Hughes, as one The London Mercury accepted but did not publish (Selected letters of Dylan Thomas, ed. Constantine FigzGibbon [London: Dent, 1966] p. 8).
A table of contents directly west of this one is entirely in pencil and is almost the same as the order of stories in the Red Notebook:
+ The Tree
+ After The Fair
+ The Enemies
+ The Dress
The Burning Baby
Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar
The two differences are that in the Notebook “The Burning Baby” follows “Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar” and that the unlisted story, “Anagram,” appears last in the Notebook and eventually constitutes the central section of “The Orchards.”
The overleaf of sheet 53 also contains lists: three trials of a table of stories and a list headed by “Eighteen Poems.” The next entry in this prospective list of “works” was originally “Ten Stories,” the number in the Red Notebook, but the title of Thomas' next published book, “25 Poems” (Dent, 1936), has been inserted between these two. The insertion may date the lists in the Notebook. The rest of the list tries various titles: “Three Essays” (deleted), “Two Plays” (deleted), “Twenty Poems,” “Six Stories” (deleted?), “Three Essays” (deleted), and “One Story” (deleted). The three versions of a table of contents for a collection of short stories on this overleaf not only show Thomas' uncertainty over what to include, but they indicate many other prose manuscripts were extant by this time.
The title of another elusive story, “An Uncommon Genesis,” appears in most of these jotted tables. It was to be a short novel that Thomas began writing as early as 1932. He told Pamela Hansford Johnson it concerned “a man & a woman. And the woman, of course, is not human” (Selected Letters, p. 38; see also pp. 42 and 49). Mrs. Annis Vilas Pratt thinks the novelette probably became “The Mouse and the Woman,” which does not appear in any of the lists of titles—“The Early Prose of Dylan Thomas,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1964, p. 16.)
Other titles that appear somewhere in the Red Notebook but are not among its stories are:
The End of the River
The Horse's Ha
The Map of Love
The Holy Six
The Enemies United.
Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade (New Directions 1953), p. 98. Most future references to this volume will be noted parenthetically by page numbers in my text. References to the Red Notebook will likewise be noted, with the side of the leaf indicated by a or b.
Skin Trade, p. 98. His religious feeling was emphasized over the idea of the fall in the Red Notebook, where the phrase was “nave of the earth” (2b).
Skin Trade, p. 98. Cf. the “polar eagle” of “The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait.”
Four months later (11 May 1934) he despaired to Pamela Hasford Johnson, “All sentences fall when the weight of the mind is distributed unevenly along the holy consonants and vowels. In the beginning was a word I can't spell, not a reversed Dog, or a physical light, …” (Selected Letters, p. 127.)
The Red Notebook shows Thomas considered dropping the name Martha, which was also the original title of the story. For some reason he scratched most appearances of “Martha” in the Notebook and penciled “Helen.” In a letter to John Davenport (31 August 1938, according to Selected Letters, pp. 206-7). Thomas mentioned “‘All Paul's Altar’, the actual description of a murder committed by a naked woman (especially the phrase ‘her head broke like an egg on the wall’),” as one of the objectionable items for which puritannical standards had delayed publication of “The Burning Baby” volume. Eventually most of the selections proposed for that book were included in The Map of Love.
p. 261. The power of this understatement increased when Thomas removed “with a sudden movement” (p. 13a).
Annis Pratt, Dylan Thomas' Early Prose: a Study in Creative Mythology (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970). Chapter II. She treats the Owens under her discussion of Thomas and the occult (Chapter IV).
Selected Letters, pp. 118, 126 and 130-31.
The name of the girl troubled Thomas. To Peter the poet it “meant nothing. It was a cool sound” (p. 113). In the fair copy of the Red Notebook it was to be “Millicent,” but in two places he copied “Heather” and then changed it in pencil to “Hesther,” apparently to support her characterization as like “a maiden out of the Old Testament.” These were then corrected in ink to “Millicent,” the name used in the version published by Criterion, XV (January 1935), 251-9, and not entirely removed from Skin Trade (p. 111). The final name, “Rhianon,” Mrs. Pratt relates to the muse of poetry and learning by that name in Y Barddas, ed. William Ab Ithel (London, 1862)—Dylan Thomas' Early Prose, p. 93.
Thomas also used “Peter” as the name of the poet in the Criterion version of “The Orchards,” and it became “Marlais” for publication in The Map of Love. Thomas might have drawn “Peter” from his part in H. F. Rubinstein's “Peter and Paul,” that Miss Ethel Ross says he acted with the Swansea Little Theater in Mumbles during March, 1933—“Dylan Thomas and the Amateur Theater,” The Swan, II (March 1958), 15-21. In the play Peter lost his poetic powers as he grew older and became involved in his happy family life. Such is the plight of the fisher-hero in “Ballad of the Long-legged Bait.”
The passages deleted were:
He was dead. Now he knew he was dead. (p. 116)
He heard Callaghan's laughter like a rattle of thunder that the wind took up and doubled. [p. 118] Dead Peter, cried Callaghan, “I showed you death in the valley. And, Lord, you laughed (p. 32a—punctuation and corrections by Thomas.)
There was the old rumour of Callaghan down his brain. From dawn to dark he had talked of death, had seen a moth caught in the candle, had heard the laughter that could not have been his ring in his ears (p. 199).
In the manuscript Thomas explicated the protagonist's sympathetic reaction to his mother-in-law's cancer: “He felt the locust of the cancer on his own face, in the mouth and the fluttering eyelid. He had knocked Helen over the mouth.” (p. 34b—deletion by Thomas).
The Red Notebook reads, “… as they climbed out of a purchased sleep, puffed out of tenement offices, cupping their hands …” (p. 38b—deletion by Thomas.). It is difficult to ignore some of the many deletions in the manuscript. The description of the sky as a hangar was removed, apparently because it was confusing, and the explanatory “hangar of the shadow of death” may have been struck because it was stated too heavily. The trend of corrections on the first two pages removes much obvious sarcasm, but a guess about the corrections is risky because they are sometimes incomplete. The many inks and pencil used indicate Thomas tinkered with the story several times, even considered sending it to Adelphi, before he rejected it.
Criterion, XV (July 1936), 614-22. The Skin Trade version did not excise “Peter” entirely. (V. p. 147.)
A passage in the Red Notebook stated, “The housetops are a strange land where man might scramble over the easel and the typewriter. the mortal rooms, love and the winding-bed, (P. 48b—corrections by Thomas)
P. 50a. The last two lines and the change from “some” to “a,” as well as the date, are in later pencil.
See my “The Metamorphic Stop of Time in ‘A Winter's Tale,’” PMLA, LXXVIII (September 1963), 422-30.
Held by the Lockwood Library and dated “Feb 10.’33.” See The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas, pp. 168 and 302.
P. 45b) The second sentence, which was not consistent with the changeling's point of view, was removed from the published version.
Selected Letters, p. 151. This association of the phallus with the poet's pen is very likely a reason for his early selection of the name “Peter” for his fictional poets. See also note 14.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4771
SOURCE: “Daedalus, Orpheus, and Dylan Thomas's Portrait of the Artist,” in Renascence, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Spring, 1973, pp. 147-56.
[In the following essay, Bruns attempts to find the sources of inspiration for the stories contained in Thomas's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.]
One of the most fascinating themes in literary history concerns the poet's inquiry into the conditions which make his art possible. The origins of this theme are in Homer and, more explicitly, in Hesiod. It is the theme of Wordsworth's Prelude and Coleridge's “Dejection” ode. It was the inquiry into the possibility of poetry that moved Matthew Arnold to give up poetry in favor of prose discourses upon man's unpoetic cultural life, and which, by contrast, induced Paul Valéry to begin writing poetry again after twenty years of silence. It is the theme of Yeats's “Ego Dominus Tuus,” Pound's “Mauberly, 1920,” Auden's The Sea and the Mirror, and countless poems by Wallace Stevens. And it is the theme of two works of autobiographical fiction, Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Dylan Thomas's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
These last two works are of special interest, because they appear to be portraits of the artist grounded upon two radically different models: Daedalus and Orpheus. For Stephen Dedalus, the possibility of poetry is predicated upon a flight of the poet into transcendence. His imagination is dominated by the figure of “the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings,” and in imitation of this mythic creature Stephen progressively dissociates himself from all that is tied to earth. But Dylan Thomas's young man is dominated by the earth and its people:
In the safe centre of his own identity, the familiar world about him like another flesh, he sat sad and content in the plain room of the undistinguished hotel at the sea-end of the shabby, spreading town where everything was happening. He had no need of the dark interior world when Tawe pressed in upon him and the eccentric ordinary people came bursting and crawling, with noise and colours, out of their houses, out of the graceless buildings, the factories and avenues, the shining shops and blaspheming chapels, the terminuses and the meeting halls, the falling alleys and the brick lanes, from the arches and shelters and holes behind the hoardings, out of the common, wild intelligences of the town.1
The artist here is incarnated in his world: it is “like another flesh,” against which he feels nothing of Stephen's lust for transcendence. Withdrawal into a “dark interior world” defines exactly Stephen's typical mode of response to the shabbiness of Dublin. Thus we are told of Stephen's anger toward “the change of fortune which was reshaping the world about him into a vision of squalor and insincerity. Yet his anger lent nothing to the vision. He chronicled with patience what he saw, detaching himself from it and tasting its mortifying flavour in secret” (p. 67). But the shabbiness of Tawe induces no such need for detachment. The world of Thomas's artist is not a world of private experiences, the tasting of flavors in secret; on the contrary, it is a world of persons and objects that flood a broad and open field of experience, thus to induce a lyrical inventory: “the eccentric ordinary people came bursting and crawling … out of their houses, out of the graceless buildings”—out of factories, avenues, shops, chapels, terminuses, meeting halls, alleys, lanes, arches, shelters, “and holes behind the hoardings.”
Such an inventory is typical of the way Thomas's prose seeks to gather to itself the furniture of his world. “I never felt more a part of the remote and over-pressing world,” the speaker says in “Just like Little Dogs,” “or more full of love and arrogance and pity and humility, not for myself alone”—and at this point his language spins off into encyclopedic exuberance—
but for the living earth I suffered on and for the unfeeling systems in the upper air, Mars and Venus and Brazell and Skully, men in China and St. Thomas, scorning girls and ready girls, soldiers and bullies and policemen and sharp, suspicious buyers of secondhand books, bad, ragged women who'd pretend against the museum wall for a cup of tea, and perfect, unapproachable women out of fashion magazines, seven feet high, sailing slowly in their flat, glazed creations through steel and glass and velvet (pp. 81-82).
This encyclopedic impulse to transpose a world of particulars into language contrasts sharply with Stephen's impulse to purge from his art those “elements which he deemed common and insignificant” (p. 70). This contrast corresponds roughly to the more extreme opposition between Mallarmé, whose work proceeded by climination and whose Beatrice was Destruction, and Whitman, whose “Song of Myself” breaks repeatedly into great inventories of the universe. it is an opposition between the Daedalian love for the purity of art and an Orphic love for the intensity of life.
“I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me,” says the speaker in “Peaches,” “the torn knees bent, the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between the toes, the eyes in the sockets, the tucked-up voice, the blood racing, the memory around and within flying, jumping, swimming and waiting to pounce” (p. 23). This intensity—the intensity of Whitman or Orpheus—exults in names, for by naming, as Heidegger says, the world is brought into being: “The poet names the gods and names all things in that which they are … when the poet speaks the essential word, the existent is by this naming nominated as what it is. So it becomes known as existent. Poetry is the establishing of being by means of the word.”2 The intensity of Stephen Dedalus, however, is of a different order and imposes upon the world a different fate: “His thinking was a dusk of doubt and self-mistrust, lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fire consumed: and thereafter his tongue grew heavy and he met the eyes of others with unanswering eyes for he felt that the spirit of beauty had folded him round like a mantle and that in reverie at least he had been acquainted with nobility” (p. 225). Here the poet's experience exceeds the power of speech, because it is an experience not of the world but of the transcendent spirit of beauty, whose light transfigures the poet and leaves the world in ashes about his feet.
The effect of the recurring inventories in Thomas's stories is to subordinate the poet to the world, for the inventories testify to the richness, not of the “dark interior world” of imagination, but of that “overpressing world” which breaks in upon imagination and illuminates it. This priority of reality over imagination is a theme especially to be marked in connection with “One Warm Saturday,” whose hero in the midst of his loneliness dreams the Daedalian dream of the transcendent poet: “Poets live and walk with their poems; a man with visions needs no other company; Saturday is a crude day; I must go home and sit in my bedroom by the boiler.” At once, however, the narrator intervenes to subvert this myth by deflating the young man: “But he was not a poet living and walking, he was a young man in a sea-town on a warm bank holiday, with two pounds to spend; he had no visions, only two pounds and a small body with its feet on the littered sand …” (pp. 138-139).
Recall that in Part IV of Joyce's Portrait, when Stephen feels most deeply the mythic significance of his name, and so for the first time establishes his identity as an artist, he encounters the innocent young girl standing “in mid-stream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange seabird” (p. 171). By contrast, in “One Warm Saturday,” at precisely the moment when his identity as a poet is called into question by the narrator, the young man encounters Lou: “He marked, carefully and coldly in one glance, all the unusual details of her appearance; it was the calm, unstartled certainty of her bearing before his glance from head to foot, the innocent knowledge, in her smile and the set of her head, that she was defended by her gentleness and accessible strangeness against all rude encounters and picking looks, that made his fingers tremble” (p. 139). The coldness of the young man's glance is one point to mark here, and another is Lou's curious innocence, which is not innocence merely but, paradoxically, “innocent knowledge”—innocence joined with “calm, unstartled certainty of her bearing” and, most curious of all, her “accessible strangeness.” The young man's coldness and Lou's innocence seem to be terms that measure an aesthetic rather than human distance. “How beautiful she is, he thought, with his mind on words and his eyes on her hair and red and white skin, how beautifully she waits for me, though she does not know she is waiting and I can never tell her.” The role of words here is critical: the young man's eyes are on the girl, but his mind is on words that cohere to form an interior rhapsody—words, moreover, that evidently hold the magic by which Lou is transformed into a vision of innocence. For when the rhapsody ceases, the character of Lou unmistakably changes: “He had stopped and was staring. Like a confident girl before a camera, she … accepted his admiration” (pp. 139-140). Innocence splits off from knowledge, and the vision is dissipated, so that we can hardly fail to notice the radical difference between Lou and that birdlike creature who turned to Stephen Dedalus “in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness … then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream” (p. 171). Lou, of course, is without shame, but not precisely without wantonness, as the young man at last perceives: “Midges [gnats] flew into his mouth. He hurried on shamefully. At the gates of the Gardens he turned to see her for the last time on earth. She had lost her calm with his abrupt and awkward going, and stared in confusion after him. One hand was raised as though to beckon him back. If he waited, she would call him”—and, just so, she evidently does call him, but with gnats in his mouth the young man flees to the security of the Victoria Saloon.
It is difficult not to regard this scene as a parody of Stephen's famous epiphany, particularly as it becomes clear that what the young man suffers is not so much the disillusionment of a failed visionary as it is a fate more typically human in character. For in the Victoria Saloon the young man encounters his image in a mirror, and the dialogue between self and image that follows renders explicitly the opposition between the visionary and the human:
And what shall the terrified prig of a love-mad young man do next? he asked his reflection silently in the distoting mirror of the empty ‘Victoria’ saloon. His apelike, hanging face, with Bass across the forehead, gave back a cracked sneer.
If Venus came in on a plate, said the two red, melonsliced lips, I would ask for vinegar to put on her.
She could drive my guilt out; she could smooth away my shame; why didn't I stop to talk to her? he asked.
You saw a queer tart in a park, his reflection answered, she was a child of Nature, oh my! oh my! Did you see the dew-drops in her hair? Stop talking to the mirror like a man in a magazine, I know you too well (p. 140).
The “apelike, hanging face” with “a cracked sneer” speaks with the voice of disillusionment—speaks, indeed, in the manner of Stephen Dedalus, who congenitally regarded with contempt and bitterness the reality that broke in upon imagination. Were Venus now to appear before him, so disabused is he, he would cover her with vinegar. But the young man's response to his experience is finally quite different from that of his distoted image: it is a complex response, one that moves him gradually to a sense of himself as a creature fitted into the world as a spirit into a body.
His first impulse is to think of himself as a ruined lover (a role, incidentally, which Stephen Dedalus, his imagination alive with the romances of Dumas, delighted to play): “he had found his own true happiness and lost her all in one bewildering half a minute … Older and wiser and no better, he would have looked in the mirror to see if his discovery and loss had marked themselves upon his face in the shadows under the eyes or lines about the mouth, were it not for the answer he knew he would receive from the distorted reflection” (p. 141). The key words in the young man's meditation are “discovery and loss.” He will, we shall see, play out this drama of discovery and loss once more, but under different circumstances and with slightly different meaning. For the pose of the ruined lover is soon cast off: “he shook off the truthless, secret tragedy with a sneer and a blush, straightened his melancholy hat into a hard-brimmed trilby, dismissed the affected stranger” (p. 143). We come at this point to the passage quoted earlier: the young man settles into “the safe centre of his own identity, the familiar world about him like another flesh,” and there discovers that “He had no need of the dark interior world.” He is not the Daedalian poet, nor does he need to be: he need only open himself up to “the common, wild intelligence of the town”—open himself up, that is to say, to such a creature as Lou.
This, as it happens, is precisely what he does, for Lou enters the saloon, and, seeing her, the young man realizes that “only a sick boy with tossed blood would run from his proper love into a dream, lie down in a bedroom that was full of his shames, and sob against the feathery, fat breast and face of the damp pillow. He remembered his age and his poems, and would not move” (p. 144). The result is that, as he basks in the enchanting gaze of Lou, his next rhapsody is of an entirely different character from before: “Nothing can hurt me. Let the barman jeer. Giggle in your glass, our Em. I'm telling the world, I'm walking in clover, I'm staring at Lou like a fool, she's my girl, she's my lily. O love! O love! She's no lady, with her sing-song Tontine voice, she drinks like a deep-sea diver; but Lou, I'm yours and Lou, you're mine. He refused to meditate on her calmness now and twist her beauty into words” (p. 147). Whereas before the young man had disjoined mind and eye, word and thing, and so displaced the reality of Lou with words that made her something other than she is, here he allows Lou to be herself (“She's no lady, with her sing-song Tontine voice”), and, what is more, he allows himself to be himself as well—not a poet with visions but a young man with two pounds to spend. For reality, whatever its squalor and however fallen its humanity, has a value peculiarly its own, which dreams of innocence and unearthly beauty can only destroy.
The difficulty is that the young man's imagination will not allow reality to be what it is. The Daedalian dreams which Stephen actively pursues appear in “One Warm Saturday” as forces over which the young man has yet to gain control. As he sits with Lou and her friends in the saloon, he begins to see “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. 148). We can see here the essential conflict of the story playing itself out—the war of words and world within whose ebb and flow Lou appears, disappears, and appears again, now an ideal figure of innocence “dressed in a sentence” by a young poet “faithlessly running to words,” now “a pretty girl to be got and kept.”
It is the young man's inability to keep faith with reality that drives the story to its melancholy conclusion. He is compelled to lift Lou out of the situation in which he finds her—compelled, that is, to abstract her from reality, thus to encounter her in the void of fantasy. It is in this context that we may read the following remarkable passage:
I want Lou in my arms, the young man said to himself, watching Mr. O'Brien tap and smile and the barman draw Marjorie down deep. Mrs. Franklin's voice sang sweetly in the small bedroom where he and Lou should be lying in the white bed without any smiling company to see them drown. He and Lou could go down together, one cool body weighted with a boiling stone, on to the falling, blank white, entirely empty sea, and never rise. Sitting on their bridal bed, near enough to hear his breath, she was farther from him than before they met …
He wished that the light would fail. In the darkness he and Lou could creep beneath the clothes and imitate the dead. Who would look for them there, if they were dead still and soundless? (pp. 154-155).
The company of revellers has adjourned to Lou's rooms, and it is against this company and their world that the young man directs the full energy of his imagination. He imagines that he and Lou have been cast together into the sea—“the falling, blank white, entirely empty sea,” which is to say a universe whose undifferentiated character implies a kind of absolute freedom from reality. No wonder, as the young man sits with Lou on the bed—and not on the bed merely, but upon the “bridal bed” in full flush of the fantasy of innocence—he feels that “she was farther from him than before they met.” Indeed she is, for the Lou that he carries with him into the darkness, the darkness of his interior world where they can “imitate the dead,” is a Lou utterly without substance, a creature impossible to get or keep.
Just so, the fantasy descends into painful irony. The young man imagines the revellers rummaging “in the silence about the narrow obstacled corridors” in search of the two lovers. In “the made-up dark” he hears the voice of Mr. O'Brien, his apparent rival, calling after the vanished Lou. Moments later, however, it is the young man who is rummaging in the corridors. Having left Lou in order to relieve himself, he finds his dream of darkness horribly realized: “He ran into a cavern. A draught blew out his matches … He made water at the dead end of the passage and hurried back towards Lou's room, finding himself at last on a silent porch of stairway at the top of the house; he put out his hand, but the rail was broken and nothing there prevented a long drop to the ground down a twisted shaft that would echo and double his cry …” (p. 158). This is an encounter with a real void, and in its real darkness it is the young man, not Mr. O'Brien, who calls out, “‘Lou, where are you? … Answer! Answer!’” (p. 159). But Lou is not a creature of the void; it is not she but the young man who has vanished—quite as though Eurydice were not in the Underworld at all but on earth, and that Orpheus has lost her because of his inability to free himself from his “dark interior world.” For the distortion which renders hopeless the young man's quest for Lou is but an extension of the more fundamental disorientation by which his imagination sought to displace reality.
The young man thus becomes a twice-damned hero, for Lou has twice been discovered and twice lost. This repetition or duplication of experience gives “One Warm Saturday” the character of a fable, one whose moral is twice invoked, so that it becomes the story of an unlearned lesson—or, perhaps, of a lesson not yet learned. But this duplication of the experience of loss suggests a further, perhaps more important point: it gives “One Warm Saturday” a circular structure—a structure of departures and returns. This is a point worth remarking, because the last sentence in the story both invokes an image of a circle and invites us to consider the story as part of a larger structure that is itself circular: “The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across the brickheaps 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. 160). Within the “rusty circle” illuminated by the street-lamp lies the debris of a collective or communal experience, of which the young man's loss of his Eurydice forms a part, but an important part, because his experience closes the circle which the whole of Thomas's Portrait sought to describe.
For each of the stories in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog plays a variation upon the theme of loss within a counterpoint formed by the opposition between an ideal or imagined existence and the claims of life in the world. In “Peaches,” for example, Gwilym's fantasy-life as a preacher shadowed by a sinister, feline divinity is one of the forces in a world of adult imagination that undercuts the earthly life of the young protagonist, whose imagination generates not fantasies but a growing self-consciousness: “There, playing Indians in the evening, I was aware of me myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventure and my name” (p. 23). In “Who Do You Wish Was with Us,” the young man struggles against his friend's compulsion to reenact the trauma of a brother's lingering and melancholy death: “If he lost the world around him for a moment, if I left him alone, if he cast his eyes down, if his hand lost its grip on the hard, real fence or the hot bowl of his pipe, he would be back in ghastly bedrooms, carrying cloths and basins and listening for handbells” (p. 113). Or, again, in “Where Tawe Flows,” the opposition between the imagined and the real becomes the topic for a comic debate, in which Mr. Humphries proposes that “‘The life of that mythical common denominator, the man-in-the-street, is dull as ditch-water,’” to which Mr. Evans triumphantly replies: “‘… the everyday man's just as interesting a character study as the neurotic poets of Bloomsbury’” (p. 95). Just so, the stories in Thomas's Portrait are character studies, not of the poet, but of everyday men and women—quite as though they were the fulfillment of the vow taken by the young writer in “Old Garbo”: “‘I'll put them all in a story by and by’” (p. 134).
The effect of these stories is to call into being an artist distinguished by his humanity—by his openness to man and his immersion in the trivial yet devastating experiences of man's earthly life—and not by any god-like or transcendent powers that he may be supposed to possess. Indeed, if a god of poetry hovers at all above the young Künstler in these stories, it is Orpheus, the poet of the earth, whose creativity derives not from the isolated, transcendent Word but from the unity of word and being—the word incarnate in the world, whose power it is to bring into being a universe in which the natural and the human are inextricably one. For the portrait of this artist, we need only look to Thomas's poetry:
Especially when the October wind With frosty fingers punishes my hair, Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire And cast a shadow crab upon the land, By the sea's side, hearing the noise of birds, Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks, My busy heart who shudders as she talks Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.
Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark On the horizon walking likes the trees The wordy shapes of women, and the rows Of the star-gestured children in the park. Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches, Some of the oaken voices, from the roots Of many a thorny shire tell you notes, Some let me make you of the water's speeches.
Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock Tells me the hour's word, the neural meaning Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning And tells the windy weather in the cock. Some let me make you of the meadows signs; The signal grass that tells me all I know Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye. Some let me tell you of the raven's sins.
Especially when the October wind (Some let me make you of autumal spells, The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales) With fists of turnips punishes the land, Some let me make you of the heartless words. The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury. By the sea's side hear the dark-vowelled birds.(3)
Here is Thomas's version of the transcendent poet, but notice that it confounds the gnostic vision of the Daedalus. The poet is, by turns, abroad in the world, casting “a shadow crab upon the land, / By the sea's side,” and aloft in his “tower of words.” But from his tower he commands a view of a landscape of “wordy shapes of women,” “vowelled beeches,” “oaken voices.” “If we go to a spring or through the forest,” writes Heidegger, “we are already passing through the word ‘spring’ and through the word ‘forest,’ even though we do not speak these words or think of anything linguistic.”4 For words are incarnate in the world, and it is upon the ground of this incarnation that the poet, in Thomas's view as well as Heidegger's, finds the possibility of his creation:
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches, Some of the oaken voices, from the roots Of many a thorny shire tell you notes, Some let me make you of the water's speeches.
For Thomas, the poet's creativity is not to be explained by recourse to a doctrine of imagination, but by recourse to the Logos—to the identity of language and the world of things. “Words are proximally present-at-hand,” Heidegger writes in Being and Time, “that is to say, we come across them just as we come across Things; and this holds for any sequence of words, as that in which the Logos expresses itself.”5 Just so, in Thomas's view it is given to the poet to discover words present in the world, and by this discovery to become in his own right the medium by which the Logos expresses itself.
The quotation is from “One Warm Saturday,” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (New York, 1940), p. 23. For the Joyce quotation, see A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York, 1964), p. 225. It should be noticed that in context Stephen's attitude toward the god, Daedalus, is not unambiguous, nor, of course, is Joyce's.
I am grateful to Warren French for calling to my attention his fine essay, “Two Portraits of the Artist: James Joyce's Young Man; Dylan Thomas's Young Dog,” which appeared in University Review, 33 (1967), 261-266. The reader will find in this essay an excellent discussion of how the relationship between these two works is to be understood.
“Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” tr. Douglas Scott, in Existence and Being (Chicago: Gateway Edition, 1949), p. 281.
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York, 1957), pp. 19-20.
Holzwege (Frankfurt, 1950), p. 286.
(New York and Evanston, Ill., 1962), p. 201.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2115
SOURCE: “Dylan Thomas's Image of the ‘Young Dog’ in the Portrait,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Vol. 26, No. 58, Spring, 1977, pp. 68-72.
[In the following essay, Davies examines canine allusions in Thomas's short stories, which he feels reveals the author's youthful bravado as well as his resolution that he is destined to lose his vitality.]
The stance Dylan Thomas chose to emphasise in his Portrait stories, that of a “young dog”, evokes an image of bravado, defiance and aggression in the face of life, a devil-may-care approach to existence that would seem to be well suited to Thomas's fertile comic fancy. I use the word “seem” because a reader would be insensitive to Thomas's vision of life if he failed to see the irony of the “young dog” pose. There is a pattern in Thomas's parade of youthful versions of himself but it is not the one that is generally emphasised.1 The pattern is one of a gradual loss of courage and boldness, a consequent increase in fears and terrors, until the young dog is fully metamorphosed into a “terrified prig of a love-mad young man” (p. 104).2
The pattern starts to unfold itself in ‘Patricia, Edith and Arnold’ and ‘The Fight’ where we see Thomas as a bumptious young boy yet alarmed by his chance encounters with the human flesh and lovers. The surface impression of Thomas's emotional fright at seeing Patricia's leg close-up is one of comedy:
The boy stood bewildered between them. Why was Patricia so angry and serious? Her face was flushed and her eyes shone. Her chest moved up and down. He saw the long black hairs on her leg through a tear in her stocking. Her leg is as big as my middle he thought. I'm cold; I want tea; I've got snow in my fly (p. 30-31).
The passage also registers the boy's emotional confusion at the sight of the hairy female leg. There is an uneasiness which doesn't go away. In ‘The Fight’ which opens with the “young dog” at his exuberant best, Thomas writes of Mrs. Bevan:
I tried to undress her, but my mind grew frightened when it came to her short flannel petticoat and navy bloomers to the knees. I couldn't even dare unbutton her tall boots to see how grey her legs were. She looked up from her plate and gave me a wicked smile. (p. 41)
If the fear wasn't recurrent we might pass by with a smile ourselves. Earlier in ‘The Fight’ Thomas had walked past a young couple arm in arm commenting, “They would be tittering together now, with their horrid bodies close” (p. 37).
The strange thing is that what seems like an awkward stage in a young boy's growth in later stories germinates into a burden that Thomas finds very hard to carry. Indeed, as we shall see, in the later stories the “young dog” spirit masks a deep-seated anxiety that the world of sexual experience and female flesh is as Swift perceived is in scatalogical poems like ‘The Lady's Dressing Room’ (1731). We are not yet at the point where it is destroying him. The next story, ‘Extraordinary Little Cough,’ is a subtle portrait of Thomas's own sexual development during adolescence. The story might seem unrelated to what I have just said because it dramatises Thomas's healthy yearnings for girls rather than revulsion from them. But this would be wrong. In ‘Extraordinary Little Cough,’ the forces that are at war inside the young dog can be pin-pointed. First, Thomas prefigures in his imagination a day out at Rhossilli, meeting three girls and whisking them off their feet (pp. 47-48). However, when the encounter takes places, the girls prefer Brazell and Skully, two bullies, before Thomas, Dan, Sidney and George Hooping (extraordinary little cough). George Hooping, a boy who has no interest in the opposite sex, symbolises a world of innocence from which Thomas is trying to escape, but to which he is comically restricted:
As I bent down, three lumps of sugar fell from my blazer pocket. “I've been feeding a horse”, I said, and began to blush guiltily when all the girls laughed. (p. 51)
We walked into Button's field, and I showed her inside the tents and gave her one of George Hooping's apples. “I'd like a cigarette”, she said. (p. 52)
The gesture with the apple confines Thomas to the world of sexless but heroic exploit that Hooping inhabits by taking a dare made by the bullies seriously (to run across Rhossilli sands). Brazell and Skully, in contrast, represent a suavity with the opposite sex which Thomas recurrently wishes were his in later stories.3 In dog terms, Brazell and Skully are mastiffs compared to the spaniel Thomas and the poodle Hooping. Brazell and Skully are part of the “remote and overpressing world”, a central image in Thomas's repressed reveries in the next story, ‘Just Like Little Dogs’ (p. 57). The phrase Thomas uses there to describe Brazell and Skully suggests both their distance from him and their burden upon him as a young man. They are as advanced toward manhood as George Hooping is set-back in his development.
‘Extraordinary Little Cough’ records the agonising stage between two states of development,
… they [Brazell and Skully] looked like a boy with two heads. And when I stared at George again he was lying on his back fast asleep in the deep grass and his hair was touching the flames. (p. 53)
Brazell and Skully are unreal and monster-like, George Hooping on the verge of immolation. This puts Thomas's own predicament and fears neatly. The very emphasis of the story which celebrates Hooping rather than Thomas deserves notice. Where is the “young dog” spirit? Where is the innocent heroic aggression that he showed against Dan in ‘The Fight’? The next story, ‘Just Like Little Dogs,’ insists that a reader develop his inclination to see the “young dog” image as an ironic pose, carefully chosen to reveal its disappearance in the course of growing up. Jocular connotations of the “young dog” become replaced by more sinister ones.
‘Just Like Little Dogs’ portrays Thomas listening under a railway arch in pitch darkness to the story of Tom and Walter's sexual escapades with Doris and Norma. Thomas listens “… like a pimp in a bush at Tom's side …,” (p. 59) to an account of how Tom and Walter loved Doris and Norma and then changed partners, how paternity cases are brought against the young men and how Tom marries the girl he does not love. Thomas responds in a more serious manner than the 80 year old deaf magistrate Mr. Lewis who hears the paternity cases. Mr. Lewis chuckles philosophically to himself and mutters “Just like little dogs”! (p. 59). Thomas responds as he responded to Patricia's leg: “All at once I remembered how cold it was. I rubbed my numb hands together” (p. 59). The darkness of the arch adds to the sense of desolation consequent upon the encounter on the beach. The story is essentially a farcical account of how sex (without love)4 is frightening. Thomas's reaction to what he hears is to pelt up the steep streets (presumably) for the warmth and comfort of home. Where is the “young dog” spirit now? As we shall see, he tries to use it to defend himself against the forces that press in towards him from the adult world. This can be seen in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’.
There is a resurgence of the “young dog” spirit in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’. Its opening is as juvenile as the opening of the first Rhossilli story, ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, though Thomas is some years older. With his fellow gallant Ray, Thomas exudes typical bravado at the beginning of their day of escape from the town:
We went up Sketty Road at a great speed, our haversacks jumping on our backs. We rapped on every gate to give a terrific walkers' benediction to the people in the choking houses. Like a breath of fresh air we passed a man in office pin-stripes standing, with a dog-lead in his hand, whistling at a corner (p. 76).
Thomas tries to keep the exuberant mood going but fails in relation to Ray's depressive spirit which totally eclipses the fantasy of escape: “He [Ray] was stretched out like a dead man, his feet motionless in the sea, his mouth on the ruin of a rock pool, his hand clutched round my foot”. (p. 84) The “young dog” spirit is powerless to resist such a depressive force. Thomas ironically evokes the memory of “mad Gwilym” of the very first story in the volume, ‘The Peaches’ (p. 85). In ‘The Peaches’ the boy Thomas was happy in his innocence unaware in emotional terms of the desolation of his landscape: “… the quiet untidy farm-yard, with its tumble-down, dirty-white cow-house and empty stables open” (p. 5). But as ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’ symbolically concludes, the way back to such a state of mind is blocked: “The sea was in. The slipping stepping-stones were gone” (p. 86).
Instead, the “young dog” boldness becomes a mask of bravado, which characterises Thomas as he is led into the pub world of temptation by Mr. Farr in ‘Old Garbo,’ the chain-smoking bitter-drinking, “round-faced and round-bellied” senior reporter in ‘The Tawe News’. In the world of “The Three Lamps”, after the initiations, comes “the threat of the clutched tankard” (p. 93) and a world of bewilderment and confusion.
Darkness and confusion engulf the young dog in ‘One Warm Saturday’ and put him at one with the world around him. Hitherto, he has looked on the world wishing it to be purer, simpler and more congenial. Embodied as the “young dog” spirit, Thomas carries hope and vitality as far as he can to the point where they are destroyed and where the spirit aids in the destruction. Moving forward from his George Hooping world towards the complexity of adult experience, Thomas comes up against the rub of love in ‘One Warm Saturday.’ The early sensations of a small boy and young adolescent in relation to the female body were the seeds of a failure and disillusionment more deep-seated. In ‘One Warm Saturday’ Thomas is desperate (though drunk) to be left alone on the bridal bed of his fantasy with Lou, the girl he sees in Victoria Gardens and picks up at the pub. But Lou is not alone, in her entourage are Mrs. Franklin, Harold the barman, Marjorie, the drunk man with one buttock (a hint of Candide here), and the rival for Lou's hand, Mr. O'Brien.
The young man's desires are pure but sepulchral: “In the darkness he and Lou could creep beneath the clothes and imitate the dead” (p. 115). In the crowded tenement room Lou beckons to the young man from the bed, but the young dog has to obey the call of nature and search out the “House of Commons”. As he exits looking for it, the blackness and confusion of the world descend upon him. Blindly he gropes his way about the house trying to get back to Lou. He goes in and out of rooms but Lou has vanished. His romantic ideals come crashing down: “Love had grown up in an evening” (p. 117). We are left uncertain as to whether it has all been a dream or not, with “… only the approaching day to remember his discovery” (p. 119). The young man who walks out onto a waste space at the end of the Portrait does so with the knowledge that the life and vitality of the “young dog” has departed for ever. He becomes one with rubble of some houses “… 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. 120). The disappearance of the spirited “young dog” and the emergence of another troubled animal is the point of the stories and the irony implicit in the “young dog” image from the very start.
Vernon Watkins has written: “… he [Thomas] released the spring of bubbling life and comic invention which his friends had always known, though he had, until then, kept it out of his work”. (“Afterword”, Adventures In The Skin Trade, Signet Classics, New York, 1960, p. 187).
All page references are to Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog (A New Directions Paperbacks, New York, Fourteenth Printing, 1968).
In ‘Old Garbo’: “… or to be called ‘saucy’ and ‘a one’ as I joked and ogled at the counter, making innocent, dirty love that could come to nothing among the spilt beer and piling glasses” (p. 94); in ‘One Warm Saturday’: “Oh boy! to be … telling the latest one to the girls. …” (p. 102).
Thomas goes in pursuit of that in ‘One Warm Saturday’.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5993
SOURCE: “Dylan Thomas as Poet and Story-Teller,” in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1981, pp. 222-37.
[In the following essay, Tinkler examines the differences between Thomas's poetry and prose.]
The manuscript of Adventures in the Skin Trade, Dylan Thomas's first sustained piece of prose fiction, was returned to the author by the publishers with a note saying that it was not “the great and serious autobiographical work to which they had been looking forward”. Vernon Watkins remembers that Thomas “was indignant and yet amused by the note. Why did publishers always want a writer to impress people, rather than entertain them? His serious work, he knew, was his poetry.”1 One wonders whether the last sentence really expresses what Thomas thought, in view of the fact that his later writing consists less and less of poetry, and more and more of a variety of forms in which entertainment plays a central part. Are we to take it that the broadcasts, the play for voices, the detective novel written with John Davenport, the operetta Me and My Bike, produced again by the BBC in the Christmas season 1978, and the opera planned with Igor Stravinsky were not, for Thomas, serious work? Since the gift for storytelling and entertainment, which are central in Thomas's later work, emerges and develops principally in the prose, it is more interesting, I believe, to try to assess the differences between what he achieves in his poetry and his prose than to attempt to read the one in terms of the other.
The early poetry and early prose are very close in the themes they explore and in the manner of their treatment, and consequently the early stories have been called poetic fantasies. Poetry, however, to Thomas seems to have always been a sign, a visible, audible, concrete form embodying and communicating a search of extreme significance. The poet is always an intermediator between man and God, or Christ, the victim redeeming the world, as in the “Alterwise by Owl-light” sonnet sequence, or later in the “Ballad of the Long-legged Bait”. The prose, on the contrary, is less synthesized and lyrical, more verbal and descriptive. Accordingly, in the prose it is easy to identify, on the very surface, specific experience and ideas which had not yet been fully internalized and integrated and could not yet, therefore, be expressed in poetry. And, although the general themes are shared, still in the prose such themes are described and explored, while in the poetry they are lived through and there is no obvious, conscious struggle to express a theme within a symbolic tale. For example, in many of the stories Thomas is obviously trying to describe the struggles of adolescent frustrations, but in a poem like “I See the Boys of Summer” such a theme is perfectly integrated within the enacted experience. Again, the impact of surrealism or the search for verbal effectiveness are very obvious in the prose, which is often experimental. All this possibly explains why stories often seem roughdrafts of poems. Consider, for instance, the following from “The Mouse and the Woman” (first published in Transition, 25, Fall 1936):
One winter morning, after the last crowing of the cock, in the walks of his garden, had died to nothing, she who for so long had dwelt with him appeared in all the wonder of her youth. She had cried to be set free, and to walk in his dreams no longer.2
She moulded his images that evening. She lent light, and the lamp was dim beside her who had the oil of life glistening in every pore of her hand (67).
The woman had shown him that it was wonderful to live. And how, when at last he knew how wonderful, and how pleasant the blood in the trees, and how deep the well of the clouds, he must close his eyes and die. He opened his eyes, and looked up at the stars. There were a million stars spelling the same word. And the word of the stars was written clearly upon the sky (76).
In the eaves of the lunatic asylum the birds still whistled, and the madman, pressed close to the bars of the window near their nests, bayed up at the sun.
Upon a bench some distance from the main path, the girl was beckoning to the birds … (77).
The theme of the story—woman as revelation, as both the inspiration of the poet and his poem, his creation—is the same as the theme of “Love in the Asylum” (New Poems, Norfolk, Connecticut, 1943):
She has come possessed Who admits the delusive light through the bouncing wall, Possessed by the skies She sleeps in the narrow trough yet she walks the dust Yet raves at her will On the madhouse boards worn thin by my walking tears. And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last I may without fail Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.(3)
A fairly long story structured around the alternation of past and present, madness and sanity, dream and reality is very different, both in the reading and actual resolution of the theme, from a short, very compressed poem. Interestingly, the poet who obviously succeeded in writing a poem has been able to “suffer” the vision; the protagonist of the story seems to have gone mad and he can only write prose.
Beyond this fundamental difference between the two mediums, however, the actual presentation of a theme is similar in the prose and in the poetry. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”: this first line of the first poem published by Thomas has been quoted over and over as an example of what has been called “process poetry”. Indeed, beyond the violent, explosive language, the words live and move; we actually see this force moving upwards through the stalk, pushing the flower open. It is a visual effect familiar to viewers of nature documentaries, where pictures of a blooming flower, taken at long intervals, are pieced together. In the same way both in the prose and in the poetry time quickens, a long process is packed, concentrated and shown in a flash:
From their holes in the flanks of the hills came the rats and weasels, hairs white in the moon, breeding and struggling as they rushed downwards to set their teeth in the cattle's throat. … It was to Peter but a little time before the dead, picked to the bone, were huddled in under the soil by the wind … Now the worm and the death-beetle undid the fibres of the animal bones, worked at them brightly and minutely, and the weeds through the sockets and the flowers on the vanished breasts sprouted up with the colours of the dead life on their leaves. …
Peter, in his ghost, cried out with joy. There was life in the naked valley, life in its nakedness (“The Visitor”, A Prospect, 32-3).
This reflects Thomas's concern, which was not with the moral choice as a result of a struggle, nor with learning from experience, but a re-enactment, a dramatic presentation of the struggle itself.
The short stories published after 1939 have been defined as straightforward, clear narratives as opposed to the poetic pieces of the past.4 Certainly there could be nothing more startling than the difference between stories such as those quoted from above, and the later autobiographical narrative of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.5 A parallel, if dissimilar, change is evident in the poetry, where narrative becomes more important, and there is an identifiable pattern of human experience, or a character. Instead of the very general themes of birth, copulation and death, or the opposition of dream and reality, now specific examples are presented. The struggle is embodied in a particular case, and a personal theme is attributed to a particular individual. Titles such as “Among those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred”, or “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” show that the narrative seems necessary even in the title. These poems make it evident that the impact of war must have been a determining factor in opening the poet and prose-writer to human suffering and the question of the value of life. Nevertheless, some stories continue to anticipate, and be a first attempt at clarification of, a poem—for example the story “The Burning Babe” written in 1938, has close links with the second of the poems mentioned above—and the treatment of some themes, such as childhood, remains parallel.
In the early stories, the child was a figure of the poet. Both were potentially capable, through imagination, of creating a myth. In the stories of the Portrait, the vision of childhood changes. In the story “The Peaches” the protagonist, little Dylan, creates stories about himself when he is frightened, or wants to counteract reality; but he is unable to create for himself an alternative world. His imagination can transform a benevolent world into happiness and beauty, but when the world around him is malevolent, the child is helpless. This failure of the child corresponds to his ignorance of human suffering and his inability to understand and share experiences of grief and loss. The insult which his aunt Annie suffers when a rich lady refuses the peaches kept specially for her is not understood by the child. In “The Peaches” the child cannot be a figure of the poet, because he is lacking something. A similar separation between the innocence of childhood and the knowledge of human suffering by the poet is central to the poem “The Hunchback in the Park”. The world of this poem is very close to that of the stories of Portrait, and we know Thomas himself felt this from his inclusion of the poem in his broadcast entitled “Reminiscences of Childhood”. In the poem, the hunchback's experience is one of loss, of deprivation as he is shut out of the park every night. However, through deprivation he has learnt to create “a woman figure without fault” who remains in the park the whole night. The hunchback finds happiness and reward in a dream of his own creation; the cruel boys mock and torment him, and, “innocent as strawberries”, they are like the park, the trees, the lake: part of the artist's inspiration and vision of beauty. Yet they cannot be the artist, because something is missing from their humanity.
Whether it is a man aged a hundred in a poem, or a child called Dylan in a story, Thomas the poet and storyteller is present in both mediums, and at this stage uses both as masks. He is not now recording a struggle in process, but recording a stage of understanding. In Portrait, each story is a stage of initiation into the universal human experience of loss; in the poetry, as in “Ceremony after a Fire Raid”, the poet says
Myselves The grievers Grieve.
It is the lament of an individual and of plurality at the same time; and the forced syntax stresses the ambiguity of “grievers” as possible subject, or object of “grieve”. It is not a struggle, but an analysis of a state, of the human condition. From now on, the poetry becomes a formal celebration of life as it is. It involves an acceptance of and reconciliation with the reality of the human condition, but in the universe of the late poetry concrete reality is completely absent, and in this respect the difference between prose and poetry becomes remarkable.
The early stories, as poetic fantasies, are very close to the poems both in their themes and in their handling of the themes, as we have seen. One critic has remarked that “until 1939 [Dylan Thomas] seems to have thought of the short prose narrative as an alternative poet form—as a vehicle for recording the action of the imagination in reshaping objective reality according to private desire”.6 And indeed the interaction between objective reality and private desire are crucial to an understanding of both the prose and the poetry. In his early work reality seems non-existent, while Nature is fantastic and undergoes innumerable metamorphoses under the eyes of the protagonist:
He saw the many coloured county shrink like a coat in the wash. Then a new wind sprang from the pennyworth of water at the river-drop's end, blowing the hill field to its full size … (A Prospect, 5).
Reality and fantasy alternate until the boundaries between them are untraceable:
“Come back! Come back!” the boy cried to the girl. She ran on unheeding over the sand and was lost among the sea. Now her face was a white drop of water in the horizontal rainfall, and her limbs were white as snow and lost in the white, walking tide. … He cried again, but she had mingled with the people moving in and out. Their tides were drawn by a grave moon that never lost an arc. Their long, sea gestures were deliberate, the flat hands beckoning, the heads uplifted, the eyes in the mask faces set in one direction (A Prospect, 11).
The boy does not answer the beckoning, but stays on the hard land—the landscape, therefore, hardly realistic even in its general description, is a visible form of an inner reality. The contrast between life and death, freedom and the limitations of conventional society, vital choice and paralysis presents itself in the opposing realities of land and water, and the discovery of the boundary between them. Here the boy refuses to join the “people moving in and out”, yet what he should have done is left open to doubt. Who can blame him for keeping well clear of such “mask faces”? A proper choice seems impossible. In “A Map of Love” a boy and a girl are shown a map of fields and rivers and islands and the sea, and as they look the sea starts moving and the cherub-winds actually blow. They are urged to travel through this country, through the numbered fields and hills. Each feature of the landscape is a stage of sexual initiation. Their fear of this is presented as fear of the mixing of land and water:
Beth Rib and Reuben marked the green sea around the island. It ran through the landcracks like a boy through his first caves. Under the sea they marked the channels, painted in skeleton, that linked the first beasts' island with the boggy lands. For shame of their half liquid plants sprouting from the bog, … the children blushed (A Prospect, 51).
A summary of the plot of this story would be extremely short: after a few attempts two children succeed in swimming up a river. Again here there are no real events, neither physical, nor mental. All events are purely symbolic: the discovery of the boundary between childhood innocence and knowledge, between life and death, or the acceptance or rejection of limits imposed from outside by fear or mental paralysis. In all the stories the action and the landscape are parallel manifestations of an attempt to control the process of life and death and to make an inner pattern out of the given physical reality. The protagonists of these universal human events—birth, copulation and death—are universalized characters: “the boy”, “the madman”, “the child”, “the idiot”. If a name is given, it is a symbolic name, such as Sam Rib. The early poems create a very similar kind of world in which universalized protagonists, such as “the boys of summer” or “I”—who is in turn baby being born, mother, young man—try to impose a poetic, verbal pattern on a given human reality such as birth or death.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is a complete reversal of the balance: it is not objective reality shaped by private desire, but objective reality is predominant while private desire here and there attempts, unsuccesfully, to bring a change or make sense of the world around. In this book the setting is a Welsh town, and the protagonist goes on an outing to such well known places as Worm's Head and Rhossilli sands. This protagonist is a child called Dylan, who grows in the course of the book into a young man and a poet. Events are trivial occurrences familiar to anyone, a visit to a grandfather, a holiday with an aunt, an outing with a friend, a child playing in the park. The seemingly different technique has, however, points of contact with the previous one, for now the growing child is a mask through which the writer can observe others. And beyond that, Dylan is a child whom both reader and writer can observe.
In a letter Thomas confided to a friend:
I find I can't see a landscape, scenery is just scenery to me. … My own eyes, I know, squint inwards. When, and if, I look at the exterior world I see nothing, or me.7
The autobiographical mode serves Thomas perfectly because it identifies the two opposing worlds: external reality, and the self. Moreover, talking about himself Thomas is turning “the child” of the early stories into Dylan exposed to the common experiences of every child and young man, in a setting and in a world the writer knew and loved so well that he could let his skill and charm as a storyteller come into play. As he wrote in the second version of “Reminiscencies of Childhood”, “I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they'll have to be quick or else I'll be telling them about mine”.
But if reality takes over in the manner of the telling, and inner life appears subject to the external pattern of life as it is, the beauty of dream and the urge to try and control this outer pattern with an inner vision is even more central now. In “A Visit to Grandpa” the story is already told in the title, and it could be further summarized as the humorous and affectionate description of an old man whose mind is weakening. The climax of the story occurs on the last day of the boy's visit, when Grandpa disappears. He has left the town he lives in and is walking towards Llangadock, because it is there he wants to be buried:
“But you aren't dead yet, Dai Thomas.” For a moment grandpa reflected, then: “There's no sense in lying dead in Llanstephan,” he said. “The ground is comfy in Llangadock, you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea” (Portrait, 28).
Beyond the amusement of the character presentation the dignity and beauty of his attitude come through:
But grandpa stood firm on the bridge, and clutched his bag to his side, and stared at the flowing river and the sky, like a prophet who has no doubt.
The thematic similarity with the early stories is obvious: the old man resists the given pattern of his death. He accepts the fact of death, but imposes on it his own imaginative idea which transforms the external reality into an eternal unity of man with earth and life. One cannot help noticing how well this figure of the old man, lost in a vision, standing on a bridge over the flowing Towy river fits in with the already observed pattern of the oscillating boundary between land and water. This old man is literally bridging the two realities, the inner and the external.
The inevitability of man's fate—whether his birth or death or frustration, or social set-backs—does not mean reject of life or disgust with it; neither does it mean resignation to it. Like grandpa in the story, the value that emerges throughout is the need and the ability to apply an imaginative creation to one's fate, to one's everyday life. It is the same approach that Thomas urges in his villanelle dedicated to his father: “Do not go gently into that good night; / Old rage should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of light”. The night, however, is “good”. The death to avoid is not the human fate, mortality, but a death to life, to friendship or love. Dylan grows into a young man who learns this lesson, and seems therefore to be moving in the right direction to fulfill his ambition of becoming a poet.
The unfinished novel Adventures in the Skin Trade seems to pick up and follow the thread of the story of Portrait. In the opening scenes—and scenes is the word to use to describe the visualized setting and dramatic presentation of character—we see Samuel, a young man with literary hopes who lives with his family in a small provincial town in Wales, systematically destroying and turning upside down his father, mother and sister's favourite or valuable objects, the evening before going to London. Samuel's literal attempt to destroy a suffocating pattern of life seems to invert the balance between inner and external reality as it was in the early stories. Here the inner life is silent, and the physical, literal destruction of things is a gesture of rebellion, not of creation, and in fact Samuel, in London, is extraordinarily passive. He simply rejects the old pattern, and waits for a new one to be imposed on him by people and events. Samuel deliberately avoids making plans: “I'm not going to choose anything” he says, and just sits and waits at the London station buffet. To Mr Allingham, a stranger who goes up and talks to him, and who irritably asks what on earth he expected would happen, and why he didn't do anything, Samuel answers: “Perhaps people would come and talk to me at the beginning. Women” (AST, 48).
If Samuel's arcadian expectations of his future life—no need to work, no contacts with home and the old world, love without complications—do not prove true, yet he finds that people do go up to him, and that the very trivial experiences and common people he meets lead him to a fantastic, Alice-in-Wonderland world where everyday reality proves to be beyond poetic vision. Samuel, half drunk on eau-de cologne, Mr Allingham and two friends enter a pub:
“Here we are,” Mr Allingham said, “four lost souls. What a place to put a man in.”
“The Antelope's charming,” said George Ring. “There's some real hunting prints in the private bar (…)” “I mean the world. This is only a tiny bit of it. This is all right, it's got regular hours; you can draw the curtains, you know what to expect here. But look at the world. … What a place to drop a man in. In the middle of streets and houses and traffic and people” (93).
The world does prove to be a peculiar place—even the very house of such an apparently sane, normal man as Mr Allingham, who had previously said, “My name is Allingham, I live in Sewell street off Praed street, and I'm a furniture dealer. That's simple, isn't it?” When Samuel actually enters the house in Sewell street he finds it far from simple:
“Hop in, boy.” His voice came up from behind a high kitchen dresser hung with carpets; and, climbing over, Samuel looked down to see him seated on a chair on a couch, leaning back comfortably, his elbow on the shoulder of a statue (55).
Two people came in, and climbed up the mattresses without a word. The first, a fat, short woman with black hair and a Spanish comb, who had painted her face as though it were a wall, took a sudden dive toward the corner behind Samuel and disappeared between two columns of chairs. She must have landed on cushions or a bed for she made no sound (57).
As these characters move through London, Samuel with his fingers stuck in the neck of a bottle, the story turns into a fairy tale. We ourselves are slowly led into this fantastic world which we accept as true and real. We have been buttonholed from the very beginning: Samuel's childish rebellion has carried the reader along a common plane of humanity and the straightforward humour, neither ironic nor sarcastic, has made us respond fully to its appeal to our involvement. More than any stylistic of technical trick, for example, many a teacher must have responded with embarassed anticipation of the father's horror the next morning on discovering obscene drawings all over his marked essays. We respond emotionally and relate the story to our own real world. Samuel's fear of discovery makes everything all the more true to experience:
At first he peered uneasily into the known, flickering corners of the room, as though he feared that the family might have been sitting there in silence in the dark (26).
That the protagonist is not just a vandal, but is trying to break through a barrier and loves what he destroys, also captures the reader's sympathy and avoids cold or ironic detachment:
“I should break the windows and stuff the cushions with the glass.” He saw his round soft face in the mirror under the Mona Lisa. “But you won't,” he said, turning away; “you're afraid of the noise.” He turned back to his reflection. “It isn't that. You're afraid she'll cut her hands” (26).
The same pattern recurs in all the later stories: an amusing narrative, vividly told, of a trivial event leads the protagonist and the reader on to more than they had bargained for. In “The Followers” the two protagonists follow girls and peer at windows. They know that “it's kind of daft, it never takes you anywhere”. For reality is so safe, repetitive, monotonous, and they are so passive. They end up by looking into a house where the mother of the girl they had followed, a “round, friendly, owlish woman in a pinafore”, is cooking chips in a kitchen where everything is “good, dull and sufficient”. After supper the two women sit and look at a photograph album—but some peculiar tension begins to build up:
Then Hermione turned another page. And we knew, by their secret smiles, that this was what they had been waiting for.
“My sister Katinka”, Hetty said.
“Auntie Katinka,” Hermione said. They bent over the photograph. “Remember that day in Aberystwyth, Katinka?” Hetty said softly.(…)
“I wore my new white dress,” a new voice said.
Leslie clutched at my hand.
“And a straw hat with birds,” said the new, clear voice …
“Twenty-three come October, Katinka,” Hetty said.
“That's right, love,” the voice said. “Scorpio I was. And we met Douglas Pugh on the Prom, and he said: ‘You look like a queen to day, Katinka,’ he said. (…) Why are those two boys looking in at the window?” (83).
The prose is clearly moving towards Under Milk Wood: this passage quoted, and in fact the whole story, could be a section of a play, and particularly a play for voices.
The later stories, like the play, are poetic fantasies, but their poetry lies in external reality itself, and can be seen and discovered there. There is no need to impose an inner vision on a bare, monotonous routine: everyday reality and common people are mysterious and fantastic. The protagonists of the stories do not know this initially. They are usually observers, or, as in “The Followers”, voyeurs who hope to find some kind of romantic adventure by living at one remove, and peering at life through a window, but reality proves to be beyond their wildest dreams.8 The later prose—whether the stories, broadcasts, the detective story Death of the King's Canary, or Under Milk Wood—is full of all that is human, is full of the body, play, self-delusion, fallacy and meanness, stupidity and the foibles of men and women. The writings are not based on an inner struggle, but on an acceptance of the given in human life, and a discovery of the wonder and marvel of humanity. They offer a sympathetic, gay exposure of man as he is, revealing dignity and saintliness in his very weaknesses.
The poetry had also, as we have seen, moved to a celebration of life. But this celebration corresponds to the creation of a different dimension, a visionary universe detached from human reality, freed of any human presence. The landscape of “Poem on His Birthday”, or “The Prologue” is a natural world where no man appears. Man's youth and innocence become a fleeting recollection, assuming flesh and blood only as horses flashing by out of “whynnying green stables” in “Fern Hill”, or out of the foam of the sea in “Poem on His Birthday”. Men are helpless, unknowing sparrows and God, the judge, is a hawk, as in “Over Sir John's Hill”. The reader is sunk in a visionary universe where human presence and life must be read in the natural movements and colours, sounds and shades of light. The only human presence is the recollecting thought of the poet always accompanied by his symbolic bird, the heron, as in “Poem on His Birthday”. Then, the poet becomes one with the bird, and only the heron remains as spirit in the natural world of “Poem in October”.
Thomas's later achievement moves more and more in a direction where his gifts of storytelling, his delight in handling the existence of an audience can come into their own, and where the actual voice is heard shaping a narrative pattern, as in operas, broadcasts, and the play for voices. Even in his poetry Thomas intended to write a long composition, to be entitled “In Country Heaven”. It was to contain the only recollections the dead, in heaven, have of their life on earth, after this has destroyed itself:
It is black, petrified, wizened, poisoned, burnt … And, one by one, those heavenly hedgerow-men who once were of the earth call to one another, through the long night, Light and His tears falling, what they remember, what they sense in the submerged wilderness and on the exposed hair's breadth of the mind, what they feel trembling on the nerves of a nerve, what they know in their Edenic hearts, of that self-called place. They remember places, fears, loves, exultations, misery, animal joy, ignorance, and mysteries, all we know and do not know.9
This is the world and these are the voices of Under Milk Wood, where Polly Garter's words “Isn't life a terrible thing, thank God” express the vision that “In Country Heaven” would portray. But only three fragments of this poem were actually completed.
Maybe the earnestness and gravity that were part of Thomas's ideal of poetry turned into an obstacle to what he felt the urge to express, and the vision of life he was evolving in the prose was revealing itself more true. In the poetry, the poet is a druid. In the prose, the poet is one with the rest of humanity, someone who can be laughed at—not the laughter at the absurd irony of man's desires in contrast to the reality around him, but a smpathetic exposure of man as he is. In the verse, on very rare occasions, a touch of bitter sarcasm emerges, as in the poem “Lament”. But in the prose writings humour is ever present, and even self-parody.
The protagonist of poems and stories had generally been a poet, trying to bridge the gap between the inner and external worlds, or growing to an understanding and sharing of suffering. But in a talk, published in 1950 with the title “How to be a Poet”, the poet appears in a different role. After an amusing sketch of many possible poets—which has a possible connection with the first chapter of Death of the King's Canary—Thomas goes on:
But let us look, very quickly, at some other methods of making poetry a going concern.
The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-'Em approach. This is not wholeheartedly to be recommanded as certain qualifications are essential. Before you swoop and burst upon the centre of literary activity—which means, when you are very young, the right pubs, and later the right flats, and later still, the right club—you must have behind you a body (it need have no head) of ferocious and un-understandable verse. … And again, this poet must possess a thirst and a constitution like that of a salt-eating pony … and (…) a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down (A Prospect, 114-115).
Coming from the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive” this is even more hilarious, but the last words strike a more serious and true note.
In Adventures in the Skin Trade, Samuel has almost completed his demolition job:
Even in the first moment of his guilt and shame, he remembered to put out his tongue and taste the track of tears. Still crying, he said, “It's salt. It's very salt. Just like in my poems” (26).
In the interest of entertainment one wishes an example was given of Samuel's poetry, based on this peculiar relationship between lived experience and literary cliches. Samuel's reliance on his poetic ideas—so far removed from the thing itself—is parodied and exposed throughout the novel. He comes to see that what he took to be a poet's vision is simple compared to the most plain events of everyday life. Life as it is is itself the richest and most complex imaginative creation. The general line of the story parodies pseudo-literary, artificial artistic approaches. The clearest parody is the whole bathroom scene, where Samuel's expectations of having an adventure with a girl are again foiled. He ends up stunned by eau de cologne, floating in a green bath in the pitch dark. Thomas was often accused of not growing up, and re-enacting a return to the womb. This scene is as much a parody of such a return as of the freudian labels at the disposal of some critics—the rubber duck really giving the finishing touch. The poet himself is here Samuel, a “lost soul”, stunned by an unlikely drug, roaming through London with his finger stuck in the neck of a bottle, for everyone to see; not the druid intermediator between God and man, but an exposed, often ignored, patient man. The Reverend Eli Jenkins who “finds a rhyme and dips his pen in his cocoa” and goes “to visit the sick with jellies and poems” is another, and later, Samuel. This ability to show a fantastic, smiling exposure would seem to contradict the accusation that Thomas never grew up. More specifically, this detachment from one's own work, which by undercutting any gravity harmonizes the artistic creation with the life and story being narrated reveals a healthy avoidance of the pretentiousness which any poet or critic should hope to obtain. David Holbrook says of Under Milk Wood that “there is, as in the poetry, no controlling purpose to explore human reality”.10 In fact, all of Thomas's writing, particularly his prose fiction, is a continuous, controlled exploration of human reality, and his achievement flows directly into his play for voices. Now he is able to include, at last, his own reality as man and poet in the human reality he explores and narrates.
Vernon Watkins, “Foreword” to Dylan Thomas's Adventures in the Skin Trade, London, 1955; paperback edn, 1965, p. 99.
Dylan Thomas, A Prospect of the Sea, London, 1955; paperback edn, 1968, p. 61: all further page references in the text.
Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, London 1967, p. 108. All further references in the text are to this edition.
T.H. Jones, Dylan Thomas, London, 1963; rpt. 1966, pp. 41-42.
Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, London, 1940; paperback edn, 1965.
Jacob Korg, Dylan Thomas, New York, 1965, p. 154.
Dylan Thomas, Selected Letters, ed. Constantine Fitzgerald, London, 1965; paperback edn, 1968, p. 157.
Dylan Thomas, “The Followers” in Miscellany One, London, Aldine paperback, 1965, p. 79.
Dylan Thomas, “Three Poems” in Quite Early One Morning, London, 1954; paperback edn, 1967, p. 157.
David Holbrook, “‘A Place of Love’: Under Milk Wood in Dylan Thomas, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. C.B. Cox, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1966, p. 109.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4028
SOURCE: “La Recherche du Temps Gallois: Dylan Thomas's Development as a Prose Writer,” in The Anglo-Welsh Review, No. 83, 1986, pp. 86-95.
[In the following essay, Ackerman defends Thomas's prose as equal in importance to his poetry.]
Dylan Thomas's recognition as a major twentieth century writer, both in popularity and achievement, is now established, and the publication of his Collected Stories reminds us that his prose writing was in important ways as original and striking as his poetry. From the beginning Thomas wrote his prose alongside his poetry, initially more or less in the form of short stories that were strong in style and atmospheric and sensuous power but weak on narrative. These early stories are close to the universe of the early poems, being richly charged in their language, almost surreal in the worlds they create, and owing much to a fertile imagination and an adolescent's obsessional, introspective concerns with religion, sex, and death. Apart from four experimental prose pieces, including three stories-in-progress published in the Swansea Grammar School Magazine, Thomas's first actual story was the bizarre but compelling ‘After The Fair’, written soon after his nineteenth birthday, a strange fair-ground fiction that shows already his gift for dialogue. It also has an element of realism that was to take a lesser role in the early stories but anticipates his later comic, sharply focused prose style. Such stories as ‘The Tree’ are rich in Biblical rhythms, while the satiric tone of ‘The Burning Baby’, a notable tale based on the episode of Dr. William Price's cremation of his son, in its grotesque portraiture of lecherous and hypocritical ministers, clearly shows the influence of Caradoc Evans, whom Dylan Thomas greatly admired. It is in this story, written in December 1934, that the anagram Llareggub first appears. Regrettably publishers were too squeamish to publish a collection of these stories in the thirties, and apart from the six included in The Map of Love, I recall that when I first researched on Dylan Thomas in the fifties the others were available only in periodicals in such places as the British Library. Even as late as 1955 when Dents posthumously published A Prospect of the Sea, the phrase “the death from playing with yourself’ was excluded from the title story of that name. Nowadays it would take a scholar to determine wherein these stories might have offended! Writing to his publishers in 1953 Dylan Thomas, contrasting these stories with his later broadcast reminiscences, aptly described them as “very young and violent and romantic … the death and blood group typified by ‘The Burning Baby’” a characteristically succinct and balanced judgement.
Perhaps the most charming and pleasing of these tales are the lyrical effusions such as ‘A Prospect of the Sea’, a beautiful evocation of high summer in Carmarthenshire countryside as experienced by a boy already a precocious pantheist. Is not this a picture of those green and golden summers of ‘Fern Hill’, albeit in prose but a powerfully sensuous and rhapsodic one?
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 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. … Now he was riding on the sea, swimming through the golden corn waves, gliding along the heavens like a bird. … 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.
A dream-like country girl, half princess, half temptress, appears and kisses him, exciting his desires and fears, but “if he cried aloud to his uncle in the hidden house, she would make new animals, beckon Carmarthen tigers out of the mile-away wood”. And the afternoon moves to evening in a richly poetic prose, both precise and evocative in its effect, that demonstrates Thomas's early mastery of image and rhythm, particularly in the creation of an impressionist, yet holistic pastoralism:
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 away from Wales in 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 tomorrow and tomorrow tower over the cracked sand castles.
Such writing anticipates the visionary and healing pantheism of the last poems. But now, racing the boy to the sea, Venus-like the girl disappears in the “flesh and bone water” and waves, “Come back! Come back!” cries the boy, his words chiming the theme that was to shape Thomas's development as a prose writer, an even more poignant search for ‘temps perdu’, and a quest later enriched by humorous and exact recollection. The story ends on a note of bucolic romanticism and mystery that is sustained by Biblical myth and language.
On a hill to the horizon stood an old man building a boat. … And through the sky, out of the beds and gardens, down the white precipice built of feathers, the loud combes and mounds, from the caves in the hill, the cloudy shapes of birds and beasts and insects drifted into the hewn door. Cool rain began to fall.
Other stories like ‘The Tree’, the second Thomas wrote, are more darkly, even savagely lyrical. Set in the Jarvis hills, even the natural world is more threatening than benign, and Bible-reading, as in Caradoc Evans, can be a rather sinister pastime. Even the child, a constant figure in Thomas's stories, is more malevolent than innocent as he listens to the gardener's story:
‘In the beginning’, he would say, ‘there was a tree’.
‘What kind of tree?’
‘The tree where the blackbird's whistling’.
‘A hawk, a hawk’, cried the child …
The gardener would look up at the tree, seeing a monstrous hawk perched on a bough or an eagle swinging in the wind.
We learn that “the gardener loved the Bible … reading of the first love and the legend of apples and serpents. But the death of Christ on the tree he loved most”. While moving in primitive, Old Testament landscapes the inner lives of these figures follow pagan nature-worship and beliefs:
His world moved and changed as spring moved along the branches, changing their nakedness; his God grew up like a tree from the apple-shaped earth, giving bud to His children and letting His children be blown from their places by the breezes of winter; winter and death moved in one wind.
Such lines recall the creative-destructive unity of man and nature perceived in such poems as ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, also written towards the end of 1933.
In the strange countryside of the Jarvis hills, with its primitive intensities and simplicities, a rural Carmarthenshire transformed by Biblical atmospherics clearly neighbours the stark world of Caradoc Evans's Cardiganshire, as in the idiot's entry to the tale:
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. A person gave him a suit, and it lopped round his hungry ribs and shoulders and waved in the wind as he shambled over the fields.
But unlike Caradoc's suffering troglodytes, Dylan Thomas's idiot is nourished by his mysterious and lyrical bond with the natural world, an empathy Keatsian in its sensitivity and sensuousness but more metaphysical in its implications:
He had known of the Jarvis Hills; their shapes rose over the slopes of the county to be seen for miles around, but no one had told him of the valley lying under the hills. 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.
On Christmas morning the child discovers the idiot, observes the Christ-like patience:
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.
As in his early poetry Dylan Thomas seems to be exploring the relationship between Biblical story and contemporary reality as the crucifixion in the garden proceeds swiftly, dramatically, yet with an ironically casual, almost homely touch:
‘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 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 onto the tree.
‘Brother’, he said. He saw that the child held silver nails in the palm of his hand.
Wittily, in this snowy Christmas setting, and thereby relating Biblical and present time, the reference to Bethlehem clearly echoes the Carmarthenshire village of that name, a hamlet near Llangadog. Evidently poet and prose writer run together in these early stories, and it is entirely harmoniously that ‘The Map of Love’ contains prose and verse, so shared are themes and language, albeit a rare form of publication in a major poet.
Thus in ‘The Enemies’ a clergyman lost in the Jarvis hills “is frightened of the worm in the earth, of the copulation in the tree, of the living grease in the soil”. Threatened by dark, pantheistic forces he “felt desolation in his vein”, a phrase used in the poem ‘This bread I break’ written six weeks earlier; and pagan and Christian conflicts are imaged and the story's end when he “stared and prayed, like an old god beset by his enemies”. Likewise in ‘The Visitor’ in dying Peter's vision where “the dead, picked to the symmetrical bones, were huddled under the soil of the wind … the worm and the death beetle undid the fibres of the animal bones … and the weeds through the sockets and the flowers on the vanished breasts sprouted up with the colours of the dead life fresh on their leaves” we are moving in the world of the poetry of this period. Such poems as ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ and ‘And death shall have no dominion’ are echoed in the imaging of death, a visitor like the thief in the later verse of ‘In Country Sleep’ though at this stage more violent than benign:
And the blood that had flowed flowed over the ground, strengthening the blades of the grass, fulfilling the wind-planted seeds in its course, into the mouth of the spring. Suddenly all the springs were red with blood, a score of winding veins. … He saw the streams and the beating water, how the flowers shot out of the dead. …
Notably, the somewhat morbid poetic fancy reaches an unusually arresting narrative climax to close the tale:
Rhiannon, he said, hold my hand, Rhiannon.
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?
Here Dylan Thomas's notion of the mysterious and inarticulate unity of man and nature in death is disturbingly and dramatically conveyed.
But of course it was The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog stories, written in Laugharne in the years immediately preceding the war, that mark Dylan Thomas's real emergence as a master of prose. Not only do they distinguish that humorous and passionate depiction of Welsh life that soon became a major feature of the Anglo-Welsh writing, both in their warm humanity and richness of observation, they also mark Dylan's discovery that his vein of comedy, already present in his letters and school magazine parodies and comic portraiture, could prove a new and significant means of expression. The composition early in 1938 of the first of these stories, ‘A Visit to Grandpa's’, a lively tale with its already sure and distinctive blend of pathos and comedy and its vivid Carmarthenshire settings seen through the innocent but acute observations of the child, was decisive in Thomas's growth as a prose writer. From this point the jester and entertainer in the poet's personality, largely absent in the high seriousness of his best verse, had discovered a role in literature, a role where the poet's gift for comedy was enriched by a piercing nostalgia and that haunted perception of mutability and death that characterised his poetry. Elements of personal recollection heightened by Thomas's flair for dramatic presentation and precision of style no doubt directed the poet's newly acquired control of narrative:
Mr. Griff raised his stunted barber's pole. ‘And where do you think you are going’, he said, ‘with your old black bag?’
Grandpa said: ‘I am going to Llangadock to be buried’. And he watched the coracle shells slip into the water as bitterly as Mr. Price complained:
‘But you aren’t dead yet, Dai Thomas.’
For a moment Grandpa reflected, then: ‘There’s no sense in lying dead in Llanstephan’, he said. ‘The ground is comfy in Llangadock; you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea.’
His neighbours moved close to him. They said: ‘You aren’t dead, Mr. Thomas.’
‘How can you be buried, then? Nobody is going to bury you in Llanstephan.’
‘Come on home, Mr. Thomas.’
‘There’s strong beer for tea!’
But Grandpa stood firmly on the bridge, and clutched his bag to his side, and stared at the flowing river and the sky, like a prophet who has no doubt.
This story was soon followed by ‘The Peaches’ and ‘One Warm Saturday’ in that same year, while 1939 saw the composition of the others in ‘The Portrait’, as Thomas extended his impassioned and exact remembrance of childhood and adolescence to his Swansea days ‘as a young dog’ as well as the vignettes of visits to rural Carmarthenshire. Undoubtedly his experience working as a journalist on the South Wales Evening Post, albeit for little more than a year, had helped to turn his eye outward to the world around him, that of the distinctive and varied life of Swansea and its neighbouring communities. It was a more profitable gaze for his development as a prose writer than the introspective stasis of his earlier, almost surreal fantasies, however rich and compelling the language. We may aptly recall the old reporter's comments in Thomas's carefully observed, though fictionally presented, comedy of his drinking tours of the Swansea pubs, and the poet's confident reply:
When I showed this story a long time later to Mr. Farr, he said: ‘You got it all wrong. You got the people mixed. The boy with a handkerchief danced in a ‘Jersey’. Fred Jones was singing in the ‘Fishguard’. Never mind. Come and have one tonight in the ‘Nelson’. There’s a girl down there who’ll show you where the sailor bit her …’
‘I'll put them all in a story by and by’, I said.
During the thirties Dylan Thomas was of course becoming a connoisseur of pub life, both in Swansea, Laugharne, and the London bohemia of the Chelsea and Soho pubs, and no doubt collecting those anecdotes and snippets of heard and overheard conversation that were always to salt his prose comedy. In this loose-tongued, beery atmosphere it was his habit to jot down and phrase any vivid incident on cigarette packets or any handy and easily pocketed fragment of paper he might quickly scribble on—useful to his in any case retentive and exact memory of human behaviour and comment. By the early forties and the war years he was of course often the fount of entertainment with his talk and comic stories, famous now among the bars as Richard Burton recalled later. Such talk of course is as ephemeral as his beery conviviality that fostered it, though I think we may find echoes and instances of these arias of comedy not only in his later stories and dramatic narratives but also in such occasional prose pieces as his letters. Here, excuses for failures to turn up, whether at Vernon Watkin's wedding, or for a B.M.A. dinner in Swansea, or indeed to produce work on time—such as his letter to Madam Caetani on the composition of Under Milk Wood, incidentally the best critical introduction to the play, are, each in their way, entertaining, vivid, and wholly original apologies.
During the war, too, two other important factors determined his later development as a prose writer. The first was Dylan Thomas's employment to write film scripts, both documentaries for the Ministry of Information and also features such as The Doctor And The Devils. Clearly this work extended his control of narrative, dialogue and his sustaining of atmosphere and character in areas other than the short story. Perhaps more important was his work for radio, not only as a writer and broadcaster but as an actor and poetry reader. It made him even more sensitive and attuned to the possibilities of the spoken word; so that such broadcast talks as his ‘Reminiscences of Childhood’, ‘Memories of Christmas’ and ‘Holiday Memory’ and later works like ‘A Visit to America’ and the now celebrated ‘A Story’, which he first read in 1953 on television, belong to his most original, personal contribution to English prose style. They represented the creating of a medium of expression that used the full potential of language to evoke aurally and visually place, person, time, and atmosphere. It was the alchemy of the word and spell of the speaking voice that were returned to the dramatic pre-eminence they held on Shakespeare's bare and open stage, when the poet's language prompted “our imaginary forces”. It was Thomas's genius in writing for radio that he realised and was able to exploit the possibilities of sound broadcasting. And his genius in this literary medium achieved of course its full expression in the ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood, undoubtedly one of the most popular and often performed plays of this century. While it seems likely that Dylan Thomas was the most accomplished actor and reader among the major English poets, it is well to remember that his favourite prose writer was Dickens, whom he delighted to read aloud, and who was also of course, a popular performer of his own work, both men achieving particular fame and success on their American tours. Likewise both fashioned a prose style that was especially compelling when read aloud, and theatrically entertaining, even in its darker perceptions of the human condition. In saying this I particularly recall that Under Milk Wood opens with the voices of the drowned dead remembering the sweetness of life, the chains of mortality sounding like the seas' sounds through the play. Likewise the sad comedy and pathos of human life is encapsulated in such haunting episodes as Captain Cat and the dead Rosie Probert recalling their long gone sexual and prose life. It is the ‘recherche du temps perdu that gives Thomas's prose the profound, darkling seriousness that underlies and underpins the joyous and genial comedy. Relatedly, Thomas's finest celebration of Swansea life is in ‘Return Journey’, the broadcast talk whose moving lamentation for loss and mutability, masked though it is by the hilarious comedy of the pub conversation and schoolboy and adolescent bravura and braggadocio, had its inspiration in the poet's heart-broken walk through that town on the morning after it was devastated by bombing, Dylan Thomas in tears as he surveyed the wounds of war. It is interesting that Dylan Thomas was in his poetry as uncompromisingly difficult and as full of stylistic hauteur as the other two great poets of the first half of the twentieth century, Yeats and Eliot. Yet in his prose he had the common touch and an easily turned key to the joy and comedy and never-far-off sadness of everyday life. This accounts, I think, for the fact that his recollections of Christmas, childhood, holidays, and whole sections of Under Milk Wood, are already part of our popular consciousness and commonly shared literary currency, so succinctly memorable was his expression and so richly and idiosyncratically human was his response to the world he breathed. Perhaps another reason for his popularity was his enduring perception of the first innocence of man. Discussing publication of his broadcast reminiscences Thomas, again his own best critic, epitomized them as “all fairly riotously innocent”.
There has been some speculation on why Thomas never finished his projected novel Adventures In The Skin Trade, for we are left with only the first three sections of these comic and picaresque exploits of a young man who leaves his provincial home for a London paved with pleasure and adventure, if not gold. Entertaining though they are, I think the adventures remained incomplete because, like his own contributions to The Death of the King's Canary, they represented an amusing but light craft unanchored to that piercing nostalgia and perception of the death-touched transcience of man's joy and sadness which inspired his finest prose style. Cartoon-like in their comedy the zany encounters of Samuel Bennett among rooms full of furniture and in louche clubs tell of lost souls in a style that, after the gripping opening episode of Swansea home-leaving in ‘A Fine Beginning’ lacks the passion and verbal spell-binding so characteristic of the poet. ‘Come back, Come back!’ was the cry that gave resonance and that grail-like quest to his best writing.
Of course from the beginning Dylan Thomas wrote prose fluently, though never loosely, prodigally and with amazing imagination. And not only did he quickly note and structure fantasies of human behaviour, he also had in his person the gift of comedy as abundantly as the gift of imagination. We see this in the way in which in his letters, which often begin to moods of everyday despair or self-denigrating apology, his feelings take wing on language of comic narration and fantasy, so that he himself is as revived as the reader.
Bearing in mind his last completed work, Under Milk Wood, his proposed collaboration with Stravinski for a libretto recalling the beauty and mystery of Earth following atomic misadventure (could there have been a more apt commission for Dylan Thomas?), clearly his death at thirty-nine was as tragic a loss of now notable prose writer as poet. Certainly, too, Under Milk Wood marked as much a new threshold as culmination of his powers. Importantly, despite the very apparent despairs and difficulties of his own life, and his openness to the world around—including war-time destruction and the new atomic threat, Dylan Thomas never succumbed to the nihilism and negative stridency of some twentieth century writers in English. Protected by the common touch, Thomas was still celebrating in poetry and prose the worth of man and the beauty of what he called “his apparently hell-bent earth”. It was a vision which both faced and encompassed their shared vulnerability and mutability.
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SOURCE: A review of Dylan Thomas: The Collected Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 206-8.
[In the following review of Thomas's Collected Stories, Peterson believes Thomas could not sustain longer works of fiction.]
In “Where Tawe Flows,” one of twenty early stories in the first group in The Collected Stories of Dylan Thomas, a young Mr. Thomas and three friends are collaborating on a novel of provincial life. While the others concentrate on getting the “realism straight” for their characters, Mr. Thomas pleads for the fantastic. Rather than working on his contribution to the novel, he has spent the week writing the story of a cat that turned a children's governess into a vampire by jumping over the governess at the moment of her death.
The first twenty stories in Collected Stories are also a plea for the fantastic or at least the poetic in short-story writing. While Dylan Thomas went through several phases as a storyteller, he initially approached the short story with the same extravagant attitude that produced his dense and provocative verse. Haunted by themes of loneliness, perversity, madness, and death, his early stories are often plagued by an expressionistic riot of shifting perspective and imagery. Even the most successful of these stories, those collected for Map of Love (1939), are interesting mostly because of their insight into the nature of the poetic imagination. Both published in The Criterion, “The Visitor” and “The Orchards” are contrasting reflections of the mad hallucinations of a dying poet and the artist's final triumph in his vision of reality. Perhaps the best story from his early fiction, “The Mouse and the Woman,” which first appeared in transition, is a stunning parable, enclosed within the images of the lunatic asylum, of the birth of the creative fires and the artist's failure to live up to the forged image of his imagination. With these few exceptions, however, Thomas's early stories read like the dark side of his poetic vision of womb and tomb in which innocence is seduced by its own imagination into a fantastical narrative encounter with madness and the grave.
In the ten stories from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), which make up the second major group in Collected Stories, Dylan Thomas apparently abandoned the fantastic for a more realistic and ironic narrative and format similar to James Joyce's in Dubliners. Thomas's autobiographical hero first appears as a wildly imaginative young boy in “The Peaches,” gradually turns into the awkward adolescent of the fifth story, “Extraordinary Little Cough,” and finally emerges as the young artist encountering a series of misadventures that finally end in “One Warm Saturday” with the poet drunkenly and hopelessly pursuing his muse through a maze of alleys in a disreputable part of town. While Joyce exposes the paralysis of his Dubliners in the mirror of scrupulous meanness, Thomas selects a theme and technique for his portrait of the artist, more reflective of his own poetic vision and more in recognition of, if not in keeping with, the narratives of his earlier fiction. His young poet sees the world through an exaggerated prose style, appropriate to the poetic sensibility but inadequate in the face of experiences too painful for the innocent eye. This tension between youthful imagination and real emotions makes the narratives in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog generally more interesting and comprehensive than those of Thomas's early fiction, but no one story has the beauty and energy of “The Mouse and the Woman.” While Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, as a collection, achieves a clarity and air of realism lacking in the early stories, it also fails to yield stories that have the richness and symbolic power of Thomas's earlier portraits of the artist.
The rest of Collected Stories is a potpourri of three long stories that were first published together posthumously in 1953 under the title, Adventures in the Skin Trade; seven pieces from his later period, six of which were prepared for BBC broadcasts; and an appendix of four apprenticeship stories dating back to Thomas's Swansea Grammar School Magazine days. The apprenticeship fiction is an innocuous precursor of the first twenty stories, though its placement in an appendix rather than at the beginning of Collected Stories is never explained in the otherwise informative foreword written by Leslie Norris. Adventures in the Skin Trade, its stories published separately from 1941 to 1953, actually represents Thomas's failed effort to write a picaresque novel rather than signifying another phase or development in his career as a short-story writer. The broadcast narratives, on the other hand, are Thomas's most popular short prose pieces and include the memorable “A Child's Christmas in Wales.”
Taken together, Thomas's early fantasies, his autobiographical stories, his abortive novel, his nostalgic tales of childhood are the testaments of a poet who could write short bursts of imaginative prose at times visionary in the revelation of the nature of poetic inspiration or the poet's life, especially his lost youth. While the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog represent Thomas's most sustained effort to write a modern short story, his success as a fiction writer comes early or late, either in the story of the young poet quivering in the face of his own creation or the older poet, weary of the struggle of womb and tomb, creating in prose the magical world of childhood seen through the eyes of the child.
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, in The Anglo-Welsh Review, No. 83, 1986, pp. 96-105.
[In the following review of The Collected Letters of Dylan Thomas, Davies praises editor (and Thomas biographer) Paul Ferris for correcting errors in previous publications of Thomas's correspondence.]
The publication of Dylan Thomas's Collected Letters is a major literary event. It makes a substantial addition to the works of a twentieth-century poet of central importance who is also a superb writer of prose. In 1977, when he published what has become the standard biography of Thomas, Paul Ferris had access to between 500 and 600 letters, of which about 300 had already been published (mainly in Letters to Vernon Watkins (1957) and Selected Letters, ed. Constantine Fitzgibbon (1966). This new volume adds over 400, to bring the total into four figures. Almost certainly others remain extant and it is to be hoped that this edition, like most such important and well-publicized ventures, will bring them to light.
This is not a full, scholarly edition to be compared with, say, the Pilgrim's edition of Dickens's letters, or Cecil Price's letters of Sheridan, in which the social and intellectual content and context of each letter are meticulously recreated. Rather, this is an edition, it seems, as much for the general reader as for the literary scholar: Paul Ferris, in providing lightly-annotated texts, provides as clean a page as possible. The notes usually do no more than identify people and works; occasionally they supply brief background material. Paul Ferris has a shrewd sense of the minimum necessary for intelligible reading but there is no doubt that the decision to forgo a full scholarly apparatus reduces any reader's understanding of Thomas's milieu and so of Thomas himself. Three examples make the point. In an early letter to Bert Trick Thomas recalls ‘“something attempted obscenely, something dung”’ (p. 184); his inverted commas are not explained, though it is surely useful to know that he is parodying, of all things, a line from Longfellow's ‘The Village Blacksmith’. Again, to Desmond Hawkins he writes of his constant need for money: ‘night and day in my little room high above the traffic's boom I think of it’ (p. 236) and many will not now recognise the allusions to Cole Porter's ‘Night and Day’. Thirdly in a letter to Ted Kavanah Thomas refers to ‘the haggisy stone-snaffling Scotch’ (p. 790), a joke about a long-forgotten incident, the theft by Scottish Nationalists, two months before this letter, of the Stone of Scone from the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. The letters are full of such buried life; Thomas was not only a rapt, book-soaked bard but also a young man alive to popular culture. The lack of extensive annotation is to be regretted but, of course, had it been provided the price of this volume would have escalated and publication much delayed. As it is, we have the letters and, in these times of ours, 982 pages in hard-back for £20 is good value.
Two further criticisms: it is a pity that Paul Ferris considers his readers to have boredom thresholds no higher than limbo-sticks and so relegates 70 short notes to an Appendix because they are ‘of no great importance’ (p. 919). ‘Importance’ is too often in the mind of the beholder and these notes seem to me to add to our sense of Thomas: no. 27, for example, shows his kindness to an unknown writer; no. 35 is a crucial document for understanding his relationship with Margaret Taylor; there is much general information about Thomas's earnings. All 70 should have been part of the main chronological sequence. Secondly, the index is very accurate and thoughtfully arranged but lacks comprehensiveness. For instance, its treatment of place-names is incomplete and inconsistent: ‘Majorca’ gets an entry but not ‘Cardiff’ (p. 145). ‘Ischia’ (p. 894), ‘Porthcawl’ (p. 902), or others.
That said, Paul Ferris has carried out triumphantly the editor's most important task: for the first time here are accurate texts, superbly proof-read and attractively presented. He exposes the general inaccuracy of Selected Letters and Fitzgibbon's many silent omissions, as well as Vernon Watkin's occasional ones. In particular, he convincingly reorganizes the crucial letters to Pamela Hansford Johnson that (we now see) Fitzgibbon jumbled hopelessly. One important by-product of this is the establishing of a full and accurate text of the early satirical poem, ‘A Letter to My Aunt’, which Fitzgibbon had confused and Daniel Jones printed only in part.
Very occasionally we are reminded that this edition is a few years too early for all texts to be complete. One or two names, one or two comments, have had to be omitted—we can only speculate on what Thomas said about Daniel Jones (pp. 192, 426)—but these rare omissions are scrupulously indicated. Indeed, there can be only one reservation about Paul Ferris's treatment of texts and this can be illustrated by an example: the letter to Vernon Watkin of 19 March 1940 (p. 445) has a footnote explaining a reference to Thomas's poem, ‘The Countryman's Return’, a copy of which he had sent with his letter. But on the reverse of this letter itself is an earlier, much-altered draft of part of the poem. Paul Ferris's note refers to the accompanying copy but not to the draft. Nor does he print the latter, even though it is part of the document. Thus, as far as Thomas's letters to Vernon Watkins are concerned, the reader can never be sure that there is no additional material. Put another way, The Collected Letters has not wholly superseded the long-out-of-print Letters to Vernon Watkins.
The new material includes much that is important, revealing and often entertaining. For the first time we have Thomas's letters to Caitlin, fascinating sets to John Davenport and Desmond Hawkins, numerous new letters to eminent literary figures, including T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Edith Sitwell, fresh letters to his parents, to Princess Caetani, and to many others. These can now be read in proper sequence with the previously-published but only now fully-restored material. To Daniel Jones he is the brilliant punster: ‘“just a song at twilight”’, he wrote, ‘“when the lights Marlowe and the Flecker Beddoes Bailey Donne and Poe”’ (p. 196). In a letter to Desmond Hawkins he makes comedy out of desperation: ‘I'm trying hard to think of respected gentry to get testimonials from’, he wrote as he sought to avoid military service, ‘I know one defrocked bard’ (p. 421). To Clement Davenport his language is alive, sharp, but never quite humorous as it suggests the genuineness of his pacifism:
… I think that unless I'm careful and lucky the boys of the Government will get me making munitions. I wish I could get a real job and avoid that. Clocking in, turning a screw, winding a wheel, doing something to a cog, lunching in the canteen, every cartridge case means one less Jerry, bless all the sergeants the short and the tall bless em all blast em all, evenings in the factory rest centre, snooker and cocoa, then bugs in digs and then clocking in and turning and winding and hammering to help to kill another stranger, deary me I'd rather be a poet anyday and live on guile and beer.
‘I hear John Arlott's voice every weekend, describing cricket matches’, he wrote nostalgically from Italy, ‘He sounds like Uncle Tom Cobleigh reading Neville Cardus to the Indians’ (p. 651).
Any review of such a volume risks being no more than a long list of beguiling quotations. But the letters are also full of new insights into Thomas's work. An intriguing draft letter to Hamish Miles claims some knowledge of ‘Welsh rhythms’ (p. 117), despite the much later and much-quoted disclaimer to Stephen Spender (p. 855): writing to A.J. Hoppé, then a director of Dent's, returning proofs of Deaths and Entrances, Thomas's insistence on the late inclusion of ‘Fern Hill’ because of its effect on the collection ‘as a whole’ (p. 569), has rewarding critical implications; and even when engaged on lesser work, such as the film-script of The Beach of Falesá, he is never less than the conscientious craftsman (p. 687).
As for the life, there are many interesting insights, such as his love of serious music—including Monteverdi (p. 153) and Samuel Barber (p. 745)—but two main impressions of Thomas dominate. The first is Thomas-the-sponger, the writer of begging letters. He is not, of course, a hitherto unknown figure: Paul Ferris's biography has seen to that and quoted Alec Waugh's remark that Thomas should be advised ‘to write more stories and fewer letters’ (Dylan Thomas, Penguin edn. (1978), p. 182), here quoted by an irritated Thomas in a letter to John Davenport (p. 476). But until The Collected Letters few could have realised the extent to which he was forced—or chose—to devote himself to the activity of financing his life or, which, for Thomas, was not quite the same thing, to the activity of writing begging letters. Few could have realised the expense of energy and the pains he took.
In 1951, with his finance in chaos and his life in its usual mess, he wrote to Princess Caetani, the generous owner of Botteghe Oscure, a letter that opens:
I have been ill with almost everything from gastric influenza to ingrowing misery. And only now my wife Caitlin has given me a letter that Davenport had forwarded from you nearly six weeks ago: She didn't know who the letter came from, and had half-mislaid and half-forgotten it in the general hell of sickness, children, excrutiating worry, the eternal yellow-grey drizzle outside and her own slowly accumulated loathing for the place in which we live.
The first sentence opens directly and forcefully before modulating into a play on words that suggests brave humour amidst despair. It is followed by an excuse: Caitlin is to blame. But Caitlin herself must be excused because of the dreadful physical psychological pressures of her life. That life is also Dylan's, as the sentence insists through the quiet change of person from third singular to the collusive ‘we’. The pressures, now on Dylan, are impressed vividly upon the reader through the general energy of the language and through considered rhetorical effects that include a stress on ‘excrutiating worry’ and the extended emphasis of ‘her own slowly accumulated loathing’. The ‘worry’ in the second sentence, which includes worry about his writing—he was then completing ‘Lament’—becomes the ‘nervous hag that rides me, biting and scratching into insomnia, nightmare and the long anxious daylight’, and then domestic handwork, a tangible object, as it were, at which he is compelled to work ‘day & night with a hundred crochet hooks’. But Thomas, typically and slyly, shifts from worrying about himself to seemingly selfless apologies for worrying his patron: and the crochet-work of ‘worry’ becomes, in a play on words, ‘his crotchety poem’ on which he is, nonetheless, working ‘very hard’.
‘I wish I knew what to do’, he begins the final paragraph. ‘I wish I cd get a job. I wish I wish I wish. And I wish you a happy Easter, with all my heart. The sun came out this morning, took one look at wet Wales, and shot back.’ Emphasised concern for himself shifts, again, to what he wishes for the Princess, so that the letter ends by once again suggesting a selfless Thomas and with a defiant humour that makes him attractive to his patron—and so worth supporting—but which also ensures that a rich woman in sunny Italy will not forget a sad life in rainy Laugharne.
Thomas's letters cannot be like his poems; that is, they cannot be formally perfect structures but must seem to be spontaneous responses to specific situations and correspondents. His great achievement, in so many of these fund-raising performances—they were usually successful—is to seem artless whilst manipulating reader-response. Even to his agent, David Higham, to whom he writes brisk and competent business letters, he is anything but unconsidered. Thus, in 1953:
I don't know how my account stands with you, but you should have received, from the BBC over £100 for four Personal Anthologies I recorded … on the Welsh Region, week by week. Also, I recorded a Childhood Reminiscences sketch for the Welsh Region, from Swansea, last week, for £20 (twenty pounds) and this coming Friday … I need £50 for various small bills here which simply must be paid this week. I have no money at all.
The hint of financial innocence is followed by precise and detailed awareness of how things were. The lapidary finality of the last sentence, with its sequence of heavy stresses, seems far from accidental.
About the same time Thomas drafted a letter to Margaret Howard-Stepney, the wealthy Welsh eccentric who, briefly, became one of his benefactors. This begins with a rhythmic prose that is then rearranged as the opening of a poem:
You told me, once, to call on you
When I was beaten down …
This, in turn, is abandoned for three stanzas of vigorous light-verse appealing for money. Some months later he drafted a further letter to Princess Caetani that opened:
What can I say?
Why do I bind myself always into these imbecile grief-knots, blindfold my eyes with lies, wind my brass music around me, sew myself in a sack, weight it with guilt and pig-iron, then pitch me squealing to sea, so that time and time again I must wrestle out and unravel in a panic, like a seaslugged windy Houdini, and ooze and eel up wheezily, babbling and blowing black bubbles, from all the claws and bars and breats of the mantrapping seabed?
The ‘Houdini’ motif, linked to the notion of drowning, is then developed fantastically and forcibly through the letter.
Almost certainly neither letter was sent but this fact, in itself, suggests that the ostensible purpose of these drafts, like that of the posted cries for material help, had become secondary to the composing of their prose, the vigour and fresh experimentation of which contrast sharply with the apparent desolation of the life out of which they were written.
The second Thomas, revealed in detail for the first time, is Caitlin's husband and lover. With the publication of his letters to his wife and—an inspired insertion—a harrowing one from Caitlin to close friends, we can begin to understand their passionate and tormented relationship. One key to such understanding is in a letter written before 1943 from Dylan in London to Caitlin in Cardiganshire:
God, Catly, if only I could see you now. I want to touch you, to see you, you are beautiful, I love you … tell me if you want me to come down … I want to see you terribly terribly soon … Please … tell me that you want me to come down … tell me when I can … I want to come as soon, as soon as I can … I could come to you now …
Repetition dramatises not only desperation but also fear and a sense of dependence that, as Paul Ferris notes in his short, stimulating introduction, can be ‘slightly chilling’ (p. xi). Where he seems mistaken, however, is in suggesting that the care Thomas took over his letters—to Caitlin as well as to potential benefactors—is evidence of insincerity.
Certainly the letters to Caitlin demonstrate his towering gifts as a writer, as we see in one written shortly after his first arrival in the U.S.A.. It opens frantically:
Caitlin my own own own dearest love whom God and my love and your love for me protect, my sweet wife, my dear one, my Irish heart, my wonderful wonderful girl who is with me invisibly every second of these dreadful days, awake or sleepless, who is forever and forever with me and is my own true beloved amen—I love you, I need you, I want, want you, we have never been apart as long as this, never, never, and we will never be again.
Yet what can—and doubtless did, to the waiting wife—seem a passionate, uncontrolled outpouring is carefully constructed for maximum effect. The long and complex sentence is beautifully taut and balanced. The use of repetition, the accumulation of compliments and responses, the balancing of phrases (‘my love and your love’; the inspired ‘awake or sleepless”), the selective removal of punctuation to hurry the lines along, the ripples of alliteration, the conscious stress on key words (‘I love you, I need you, I want, want you’; ‘never, never, and we will never be again’), all contribute to the sentence's driving rhythm, to the fierce energy of the language.
The whole letter is too long to quote in full. As it proceeds it shifts abruptly from the language of love to the chatty and the newsy and so emphasises, for the later objective reader, the carefully ‘composed’ nature of the former, in which rhetorical effects continue to abound. They do so, also, in other letters from America: the very next one, written by Dylan from Brinnin's home in Connecticut, opens with a sentence (‘You're mine for always as for always I am yours' (p. 753)) that immediately involves the reader in its rhythmic poignancy. A letter from San Francisco ends less successfully: ‘I will come back alive & as deep in love with you as a cormorant dives, as an anemone grows, as Neptune breathes, as the sea is deep’ (p. 755). Thomas, too obviously poetic, lapses into cliché.
He wrote differently to other women, even to his last mistress, Elizabeth Reitell:
I miss you terribly much.
The plane rode high and rocky, and over Newfoundland it swung into lightning and billiard-ball hail, and the old deaf woman next to me, on her way to Algiers via Manchester, got sick in a bag of biscuits, and the bar—a real, tiny bar—stayed open all the bourbon way. London was still glassy from Coronation Day, and for all the custom-men cared I could have packed my bags with cocaine and bits of chopped women.
This is hardly a love-letter: Thomas is pre-occupied with recreating in prose his own separate experiences. To Caitlin he tries desperately—often with brilliant success—to capture and convey in prose his deep feelings for her. ‘Sincerity’ is always a slippery concept; the letters to Caitlin move us precisely because Thomas deploys literary skills. That he did so with such care and intensity in the midst of a crowded and hectic life in which, of course, he was often unfaithful, should make us believe that he took trouble because he loved her and desperately needed the relationship to continue.
We might also wish to say with equal certainty, what can be said of the begging-letters: despite all that has been said and written of Thomas's death-wish consequent upon his recognition that his creative powers were failing, in these letters we see a continuing obsession with words, with prose experiments, with capturing experience in patterns of language.
To adapt Charles Lamb's words: Thomas's life was a catastrophe that was not without a kind of tragic interest. Though his own fecklessness, or dishonesty, or naivity, or hopeless but admirable poetic integrity, may have begun his slide to disaster, once the slipping began the circumstances of his life—the financial chaos, the stormy relationship with Caitlin, the difficulties of writing, his affairs, his suicidal drinking—forced him into uncontrolled careering. As he fell he remained cruelly self-aware: ‘After all sorts of upheavals, evasions, promises, procrastinations, I write, very fondly, and fawning slightly, a short inaccurate summary of those events which caused my never writing a word before this’ (p. 878), he wrote to Brinnin, with careful honesty, in 1953.
Caitlin Thomas put matters at their bleakest in her letter to Oscar Williams and wife in February 1953: ‘The trouble is our lives are permanently in need of being saved, and I doubt, very forcibly, that they are worth it’ (p. 865). But all who read these letters have, for Dylan at least, evidence to the contrary. Three extracts from later letters begin to make the point. The first is to Margaret Taylor, thanking her for money: ‘I'm writing this in the heaven of my hut. Wild day, big seas for Laugharne & the boats of the Williamses lurching exactly like Williamses' (p. 716). ‘Things are appalling here’, he wrote from Laugharne to John Davenport,
… temporary insolvency goes the glad rounds as swift as a miscarriage. … Yesterday I broke a tooth on a minto. … There are rats in the lavatory, tittering while you shit … the biggest prig in Wales, is coming to see me Saturday … looking about him, prigbrows lifted, in my fuggy room like an unloved woman sniffing at the maid's linen on the maid's day out. … If you see anyone likely, pinch his boots for me. … I'm sorry to write you such mournings. See you at the barracudas'
Third is from another letter to Margaret Taylor, sent from the Boathouse in late 1951:
Lizzie came into the Pelican yesterday afternoon, raving drunk, and gave my father a heart attack. Today, he is still shaking. Caitlin's black eye has just faded; a boy fell from a tree where he was picking conkers, quite near your Grist house, and his shoulderblade broke & pierced his lung, and at the postmortem in Carmarthen Infirmary they found he had been eating stamps; a white owl breathes on a branch right outside Phil the Cross's bedroom window, like a hundred people making love, and inflamed Phil so much he ran, for the first time in years, to his wife's bed and set about her so fiercely he nearly died of a fit of silicotic coughing and couldn't go to work next day; a printed form has just come that tells me that I shall be prosecuted herewith unless I send in my National Insurance book fully stamped for 1950; Ivy's teeth fell out one evening while she was playing skittles, and yesterday she told me she had been blind in one eye for twenty years; Colm's scalded chest is better, but he still has nightmares; there is little other news.
Common to all three, and to numerous similar passages, is an ever-fresh delight in the sound and movement of words and in the minutiae—comic moments, miniature dramas—of day-to-day living in small houses in small places by a Welsh sea. Such delight persisted to the end: ‘My arm's fine now’, he told Stravinsky, ‘and quite as weak as the other one’ (p. 917); in the very last item in this volume, a telegram from New York to Ellen Stevenson in Chicago, he agreed to perform Under Milk Wood ‘With Or Without Cast But Not Without Cash’ (p. 918).
The simple fact that Thomas, to quote Berowne, was always able ‘to move wild laughter in the throat of death’ makes him a figure who is never less than attractive and ensures that tragic interest. The reference to Under Milk Wood returns us to this articles's concern with Thomas's use of prose. For the comic play draws on the same kind of material as the letters; its small town is that celebrated in this volume's many moments of wild epistolary laughter; its prose-effects are those of these letters, those, indeed, of a poet working his desperate way from poetry to new areas of literature. The late letter-draft to Princess Caetani, already quoted in part, remains a key document:
Deep dark down there, where I chuck the sad sack of myself … time and time again I cry to myself as I kick clear of the cling of my stuntman's sacking, ‘Oh, one time the last time will come and I'll never struggle, I'll sway down here forever handcuffed and blindfold, sliding my woundaround music, my sack trailed in the slime, with all the rest of the self-destroyed escaplogists in their cages, drowned in the sorrows they drown and in my piercing own, alone and one with the coarse and cosy damned seahorsey dead, weeping my tons.’
Here are deeper notes, darker tones, more strangely compelling psychological explorations, than are dreamt of in Captain Cat's Llaregyb. It is useless to speculate where such writing might have led; all that can be done is to register and cherish the quality and potential of such prose. Though Thomas's life may well have been a ‘wilderness’, to the end it was redeemed by being a ‘wordy’ (p. 82) one. This marvellous volume insists that his death in New York, whether from ‘winking needle’ (p. 892) or whiskyed suicide, was hardly that of a written-out bard.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Gaston, George. Dylan Thomas: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 213 p.
Comprehensive listing of secondary sources.
Maud, Ralph. Dylan Thomas in Print: A Bibliographical History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, 261 p.
Presents a thorough listing of primary and secondary sources.
Rolf, J. Alexander. Dylan Thomas: A Bibliography. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956, 108 p.
First full-length bibliography of works by and about Thomas; includes a foreword by Edith Sitwell.
Ackerman, John. Dylan Thomas: His Life and Work. London: Oxford University Press, 1964, 201 p.
Critical biography highlighting the influence of Thomas's Welsh background on his works.
Brinnin, John Malcolm. Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal. 1955. Reprint. London: Arlington Books, 1988, 313 p.
Chronicles Thomas's four reading tours in America from 1950 to 1953.
Davies, Walford. Dylan Thomas. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990, 68 p.
Biographical study emphasizing the importance of Welsh landscape and culture in Thomas's works.
Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977, 309 p.
Comprehensive biography incorporating previously unused or unpublished archive material as well as interviews with numerous friends and acquaintances of Thomas.
FitzGibbon, Constantine. The Life of Dylan Thomas. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965, 370 p.
Authorized critical biography.
Bold, Alan, ed. Dylan Thomas: Craft or Sullen Art. London: Vision Press, 1990, 181 p.
Contains essay by Margaret Moan Rowe on Thomas's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.
Brinnin, John Malcolm, ed. A Casebook on Dylan Thomas. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1960, 322 p.
Collects reviews, essays, and appreciations by such noted critics and contemporaries of Thomas as Elder Olson, Henry Treece, and Geoffrey Grigson, as well as a selection of Thomas's most noted poems.
Cox, C. B., ed. Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966, 186 p.
Includes essays written in the decade following Thomas's death by David Daiches, Ralph Maud, Elder Olsen, and others.
Davies, Walford. Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1972, 282 p.
Includes contributions by such critics as John Wain.
Gaston, Georg. Critical Essays on Dylan Thomas. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989, 197 p.
Contains essays written since Thomas's death that focus on Thomas's craft, religion, and his influential reputation.
Peach, Linden. The Prose Writing of Dylan Thomas. London: MacMillan Press, 1988, 144 p.
Concludes by announcing Welsh poet R. S. Thomas as Thomas's poetic successor.
Additional coverage of Thomas's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 120; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 65; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 20, 139;DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors, and Poets; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3;Something About the Author, Vol. 60; and World Literature Criticism.
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