Thomas, Dylan (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
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.
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
Jacob Korg (essay date 1965)
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...
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Walford Davies (essay date 1968)
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...
(The entire section is 7812 words.)
Richard Kelly (essay date 1969)
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...
(The entire section is 1904 words.)
Annis Pratt (essay date 1970)
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...
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Donald Tritschler (essay date 1971)
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...
(The entire section is 10423 words.)
Gerald L. Bruns (essay date 1973)
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...
(The entire section is 4771 words.)
Richard A. Davies (essay date 1977)
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...
(The entire section is 2115 words.)
Valeria Tinkler (essay date 1981)
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...
(The entire section is 5993 words.)
John Ackerman (essay date 1986)
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...
(The entire section is 4028 words.)
Richard F. Peterson (essay date 1986)
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...
(The entire section is 909 words.)
James A. Davies (essay date 1986)
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,...
(The entire section is 4066 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 451 words.)