POETICS IN THE FICTION OF DYLAN THOMAS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote this collection of ten short stories in 1940.  The characters from A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) are here but more fleshed out: Dan Jenkins (“The Fight”), Jack Williams (“Peaches”), the Protheros (“Old Garbo”). And Thomas’ poetic style is revealed in the prose as well: vivid imagery, alliteration, purposeful run-on lines, many adjectives, humor, strong emotions from joy to sadness. In most of these stories Dylan is his own narrator; we even observe him growing from his pre-teens into a young man in his twenties. How much is made up we don’t really know and will leave to the critics, yet the stories are intriguing.

Thomas writes impressionistic stories about his life (or at least about a boy named Dylan) in Wales. “Peaches” is about Dylan staying on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm with his rich friend Jack for two weeks in the summer.

“He sang all the way to Gorsehill in an affectionate bass voice, and conducted the wind with his whip. He did not need to touch the reins. Once on the rough road, between hedges twisting out to twig the mare by the bridle and poke our caps, we stopped at a whispered ‘Whoa,’ for uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-bushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

“Uncle looked twice as tall as Annie. He could have carried her about under his coat and brought her out suddenly, a little, brown-skinned, toothless, hunchbacked woman with a cracked sing-song voice.”

Jack’s mother pays the Aunt and Uncle money to board Jack, but she is a snob. When they offer her what they think a treat of canned peaches, she abruptly turns them down. After she leaves, Uncle, who has been drinking heavily, curses her out. Jack hears and phones his mother to take him home.

Despite all this, Dylan loves the farm: “There was nowhere like that farm-yard in all the slapdash country, nowhere so poor and grand and dirty as that square of mud and rubbish and bad wood and falling stone, where a bucketful of old and bedraggled hens scratched and laid small eggs.”

“I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart, the long heat and depth between the legs, 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.”

In “A Visit to Grandpa’s” Dylan’s grandfather is becoming senile. In bed he imagines he’s driving a carriage: “He was sitting straight up in bed and rocking from side to side as though the bed were on a rough road; the knotted edge of the counterpane were his reins; his invisible horse stood in a shadow beyond the bedside candle. Over a white flannel nightshirt he was wearing a red waistcoat with walnut-sized brass buttons.”

When he does drive a cart, it is as if the pony is a powerful team of steeds: “On the last day but one of my visit I was taken to Llanstephan in a governess cart pulled by a short, weak pony. Grandpa might have been driving a bison, so tightly he held the reins, so ferociously cracked the long whip, so blasphemously shouted warning to boys who played in the road, so stoutly stood with his gaitered legs apart and cursed the demon strength and willfulness of his tottering pony.”

After he is found missing, the townsfolk discover him on a bridge on the way–he claims–to be buried, although he is still hale. “Grandpa did not answer, but inclined his face to the river wind, so that his beard was set dancing and wagging as though he talked, and watched the coracle men move, like turtles, on the shore . . . 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.’”

Dylan dominated in the first story and Grandpa in the second. However, in “Patricia, Edith, and Arnold” a new child is introduced. The story told in the third person involves adults: two maids who are friends are supposedly loved by one young man. When together they question him; he chooses Patricia. But she declares that he has lied to her friend Edith and spurns him. Meanwhile, the young boy Patricia takes care of has no idea what is going on with these adults, as he plays:

“He backed the Flying Welshman from the washhouse to the open door of the coal-hole and pulled hard on the brake that was a hammer in his pocket: assistants in uniform ran out with fuel; he spoke to a saluting fireman, and the engine shuffled off, round the barbed walls of China that kept the cats away, by the frozen rivers in the sink, in and out of the coal-hole tunnel.”

Yet he senses that something is going on: “He knew that this was an afternoon on which anything might happen; it might snow enough for sliding on a tray; uncles from America, where he had no uncles, might arrive with revolvers and St. Bernards; Ferguson’s shop might catch on fire and all the piece-packets fall on the pavements.”

Yet he does not understand the actions, let alone feelings, of adults: “When who comes? He threw the snowball high into the silently driving fall. Edith’s crying in the deadened park was clear and thin as a whistle, and, disowning the soft girls and standing away from them in case a stranger passed, a man with boots to his thighs, or a sneering, bigger boy from the Uplands, he piled snow against the wire of the tennis court and thrust his hands into the snow like a baker making bread. As he delved and moulded the snow into loaves, saying under his breath, ‘This is the way it is done, ladies and gentleman.’”

“The Fight” is, in my opinion, the funniest story because Dylan gets inside a boy’s imaginative head. He fights with an unknown boy named Dan. “I threw a stone at his face. He took off his spectacles, put them in his coat pocket, took off his coat, hung it neatly on the railings, and attacked . . . I was down in the dust, hot and scratched and biting, then up and dancing, and I butted the boy in the belly and we tumbled in a heap. I saw through a closing eye that his nose was bleeding. I hit his nose. He tore at my collar and spun me round by the hair.”

Dylan earns the badge of a black eye. “He said I had the best black eye in Wales, perhaps it was the best black eye in Europe; he bet Tunney never had a black eye like that . . . That afternoon I went to school with an eye-shade on. If I had a black silk sling I would have been as gay and desperate as the wounded captain in the book that my sister used to read, and that I read under the bedclothes at night, secretly with a flash-lamp.”

They immediately become friends and Dylan goes to Dan’s house for the day. “He was a composer and a poet too; he had written seven historical novels before he was twelve, and he played the piano and the violin; his mother made wool pictures, his brother was a clerk at the docks and syncopated; his aunt kept a preparatory school on the first floor, and his father wrote music for the organ.”

In Dan’s home they meet several eccentrics at dinner. “Mrs. Bevan smiled at her, assured, and began to eat. She was grey-haired and grey-faced. Perhaps she was grey all over. 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.”

By the fifth story “Just like Little Dogs” Dylan is now a lonely young man during the Depression. “The night before, quick little scarecrows had bent and picked at the track-line and a solitary dignified scavenger wandered three miles by the edge with a crumpled coal sack and a park-keeper’s steel-tipped stick. Now they were tucked up in sacks, asleep in a siding, their heads in bins, their beards in straw, in coal-trucks thinking of fires, or lying beyond pickings on Jack Stiff’s slab near the pub in the Fishguard Alley, where the methylated-spirit drinkers danced into the policemen’s arms and women like lumps of clothes in a pool waited, in doorways and holes in the soaking wall, for vampires or firemen.”

He meets two sad men who had to marry their wives. The judge in their paternity suits states that they acted “just like little dogs.” They stand in the dark doing nothing like Dylan as a train passes. “It tore over us, the arch bellowed, the wheels screamed through our heads, we were deafened and spark-blinded and crushed under the fiery weight and we rose again, like battered black men, in the grave of the arch. No noise at all from the swallowed town. The trams had rattled themselves dumb. A pressure of the hidden sea rubbed away the smudge of the docks. Only three young men alive.”

He suddenly realizes that his life could become theirs. However, he feels a perverse pleasure. “I was a lonely nightwalker and a steady stander-at-corners. I liked to walk through the wet town after midnight, when the streets were deserted and the window lights out, alone and alive on the glistening tramlines in dead and empty High Street under the moon, gigantically sad in the damp streets by ghostly Ebenezer Chapel. 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.”

The elements of loneliness and the sea begin to play larger roles in Thomas’ remaining stories.  In “Who Do You Wish Was with Us” Dylan and his friend Raymond have the feeling of hiking free in nature. “We went on up Sketty Road at a very great speed, our haversacks jumping on our backs. We rapped on every gate to give a terrific walker’s 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. Tossing the sounds and smells of the town from us with the swing of shoulders and loose-limbed strides, half-way up the road we heard women on an outing call.”

They get to the shore. “Laughing on the cliff above the very long golden beach, we pointed out to each other, as though the other were blind, the great rock of the Worm’s Head. The sea was out. We crossed over on slipping stones and stood, at last, triumphantly on the windy top. There was monstrous, thick grass there that made us spring-heeled, and we laughed and bounced on it, scaring the sheep who ran up and down the battered sides like goats.”

Amid this exhilaration Raymond cannot keep down his inner turmoil. He says: “’I used to hold my father down on the bed when he had fits. I had to change the sheets twice a day for my brother, there was blood on everything. I watched him getting thinner and thinner; in the end you could lift him up with one hand. And his wife wouldn’t go to see him because he coughed in her face, Mother couldn’t move, and I had to cook as well, cook and nurse and change the sheets and hold father down when he got mad. It’s embittered my outlook.’”

Dylan, of course, has heard all of this before. All they can do for relief is imagine what friends they would like to have at the beach with them. “”I wish Gwilym was here, too,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you about him. He could give a sermon to the sea’ . . .’I wish my brother was with us,’ Ray said. He climbed on to the flat of the rock and dried his feet. ‘I wish Harry was here. I wish he was here now, at this moment, on this rock’ . . . A wind, cornering the Head, chilled through our summer shirts, and the sea began to cover our rock quickly, our rock already covered with friends, with living and dead, racing against the darkness.”

Drunkenness also plays a part in the next two stories of an adult Dylan Thomas. In “Old Garbo,” he is a cub reporter who admires Mr. Farr, an ace journalist. “He was the senior reporter, a great shorthand writer, a chain-smoker, a bitter drinker, very humorous, round-faced and round-bellied, with dart holes in his nose . . . He might have been a mincing-mannered man, with a strut and a cane to balance it, a watch-chain cross the waistcoat, a gold tooth, even perhaps a flower from his own garden in his buttonhole.”

They go drinking together. “I leant against the bar, between an alderman and a solicitor, drinking bitter, wishing that my father could see me now and glad, at the same time, that he was visiting Uncle A. in Aberavon. He could not fail to see that I was a boy no longer, nor fail to be angry at the angle of my fag and my hat and the threat of the clutched tankard. I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.”

In the bar a Mrs. Prothero (called Old Garbo because she is the antithesis of the actress in every way) buys drinks for everyone. “ [I] thought of the long legs and startling faces of the chorus girls I had seen walking arm in arm, earlier that week, up and down the streets in the winter sunshine . . . their hair raven-black or silver; their scent and paint reminded me of the hot and chocolate-coloured East, their eyes were pools.”

Since her daughter supposedly died in childbirth, her cronies had raised some money for her. When Old Garbo learned her daughter had lived but the grandchild died, out of embarrassment she jumped off a bridge. However, neither Dylan nor Mr. Farr was sober enough to cover the suicide for the newspaper.  “Two small men, Mr. Farr and his twin brother, led me on an ice-rink to the door, and the night air slapped me down. The evening happened suddenly. A wall slumped over and knocked off my trilby; Mr. Farr’s brother disappeared under the cobbles. Here came a wall like a buffalo; dodge him, son.”

“One Warm Saturday” an overly romantic young man on vacation sits on the beach in a depressed state. “The young man sat alone with the shadows of his failure at his side . . . The young man, in his wilderness, saw the holiday Saturday set down before him, false and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun . . . He thought dramatically in his isolation, to an old shame and pity; outside all holiday, like a young man doomed for ever 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.”

Soon after, he falls in love with a woman beside the beach who seems to return his love. “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 . . . Like a confident girl before a camera, she sat smiling, her hands folded, her head slightly to one side so that the rose brushed her neck. She accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love.”

A group of them, heavily drinking, go to the woman’s room. “He saw her as a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil, for her soft self, bare to the heart, broke through every defence of her sensual falsifiers. As he thought this, phrasing her gentleness, faithlessly running to words away from the real room and his love in the middle, he woke with a start saw her lively body six steps from him, no calm heart dressed in a sentence, but a pretty girl, to be got and kept. He must catch hold of her fast.” However, when Dylan goes to find a toilet, in his drunkenness he gets totally lost and cannot find his way back to her.

We observe the same theme of a man trying to prove himself but failing in “Extraordinary Little Cough.” Dylan and three other boys go camping by the sea.  “Four boys on a roof—one tall, dark, regular-featured, precise of speech, in a good suit, a boy of the world; one squat, ungainly, red-haired, his red wrists fighting out of  short, frayed sleeves; one heavily spectacled, small-paunched, with indoor shoulders and feet in always unlaced boots wanting to go different ways; one small, thin, indecisively active, quick to get dirty, curly—saw their field in front of them, a fortnight’s  new home that had thick, pricking hedges for walls, the sea for a front garden, a green gutter for a lavatory, and a wind-struck tree in the middle.”

There they meet two other school chums and three girls. The story is mostly about how young people interact. “I could have swept the ground with my cap, kissed my hand gaily, called them senoritas, and made them smile without tolerance. Or I could have stayed at a distance, and this would have been better still, my hair blown in the wind, though there was no wind at all that evening, wrapped in mystery and staring at the sun, too aloof to speak to girls.”

And yet, Dylan is not the major character since so many people abound in this story. It is mostly about George Hooping, one of the four boys, nicknamed “Little Cough” for his surname. He is the odd man out trying to prove himself but is always the butt of a joke. I feel that Dylan Thomas is starting to change direction again with his stories.

After exploring pre-teenage boys then young men, he is now interested in groups.  Also, the number of poetic descriptions lessens and dialogue grows. The last story “Where Tawe Flows” will illustrate the point. Four men (again Dylan is one of them) meet regularly to write a book, titled “Where Tawe Flows,” in which each of them tells a story in very bare language.:

“’It wasn’t the doctor’s death, but where and how he died,’ said Mr. Evans. ‘He died in a bed-sitting-room in the arms of a certain lady. A woman of the town.’

‘Kiss me!’ Mr. Roberts said. ‘Seventy-five years old. I’m glad you asked us to remember his age, Mr. Evans.’

‘But how did Mary Phillips come to live in Bellevue? You haven’t told us that,’ Mr. Thomas said.

‘The William Hugheses wouldn’t have the niece of a man who died in those circumstances—‘

‘However complimentary to his manhood,’ Mr. Humphries said, stammering. ‘“

The use of dialogue Thomas had perfected in his numerous radio broadcasts and movie scripts. Perhaps these elements in the later stories hint toward Dylan Thomas wanting to write a full-length novel, something he never had the time to do.

Dylan Thomas died so young, but in his short life he excelled in poetry and short fiction. One hears echoes of James Joyce in Thomas’ emotional display of young characters’ feelings of love.  Thomas would undoubtedly have read this Celtic forerunner whose work began to dominate the world in 1916 with his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yet, Thomas’ prose in turn influenced American writers who came after him. J.D. Salinger, in Europe during World War Two, could have read Thomas. Salinger employed American colloquialisms used by the young as Thomas did the British. And another echo is heard in the writing of John Updike who attended Oxford in 1954, just after Thomas’ death. Updike often describes the woodlands and the sea in his work against which young people interact. We can only conjecture what further influences Dylan Thomas might have disseminated to the literary world had he lived longer.

You can find books by Dylan Thomas at New Directions http://www.ndbooks.com/author/dylan-thomas-d/

 

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

 

 

 

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