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WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S POETICS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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In this twenty-first century Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most famous authors in the world. Her many works have been analyzed; movies based on her life and writings have drawn enthusiastic audiences. Woolf wrote novels and short stories. Her non-fiction included letters, diaries, biographies and book reviews. However, I am interested in what we might call her “fantastical prose,” a form very close to the prose-poem. I have discovered these random pieces in two of her collections, MONDAY OR TUESDAY and THE DEATH OF THE MOTH.

I – MONDAY OR TUESDAY and Other Short Stories (1921)

By definition a short story must have a character or characters, or at least some personified thing, in which we see various human qualities. Also, this personage must go through a series of actions in order for some changes in character to take place. It would be even more enriching to the story to observe a vivid background against  which these movements occur.

We can open our discussion of Woolf’s poetic writing with BLUE & GREEN, a prose piece that comes closest to a poem. It can be quoted in its entirety:

Green

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the luster drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken.  Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

Blue

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide.  Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes.  Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach.  Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.”

Green: where are we? It might be beside a tropic ocean: parakeets, palms, sand, rushes. But marble and mantelpiece disturb our focus. Is the viewer in her living room, perhaps imagining a seaside scene. “The green’s out” is an awkward sentence, for what purpose?

Blue: we are more sure now of the ocean location: beach, water, boat, wave. This connects with the “green” stanza. However, the striking final line is no longer connected with home: “But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.” What could this shift mean? This is indeed an imagistic prose-poem with little overt meaning.  Are the sea and fish sacred? Is the home as well?

The sentences could be readily arranged into poetic lines of two stanzas.

The prose piece of writing MONDAY OR TUESDAY is even more stream-of-conscious. This time it is about real life, but without characters or plot. A heron in flight frames the writing by appearing at the opening and closing:

“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring –(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for sale’—and truth?”

This prose-poem captures the busy—if not dizzying—daily life of an Edwardian city. Today’s poetry uses simpler words; Woolf employs weighty wording such as: asseverate, conglomerate, laboriously, divergently. “For ever desiring” becomes a refrain to discover the motivation for all this urban turmoil. Parentheses and dashes connect series of words, phrases, even sentences to replicate this activity.  As in the last mentioned poem, semi-colons could rope off individual poetic lines.

Rather than the sea or city, THE STRING QUARTET explores what emotions music can stir in a person:

“’But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hah! hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite . . .But suppose—suppose–hush!’”

“The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.”

“The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars . . . Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth.”  The alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are powerful.

The audience member—we can suspect Woolf—has mentally floated far away on the music, because a string quartet does not consist of horns, trumpets nor clarions.  Her soul and her thoughts are truly stirred. We can only wonder if with discreet flashlight she jotted down these lines. Or did Virginia Woolf have a compendious memory that would hold all these feelings until she arrived home.

In A HAUNTED HOUSE you might detect two ghosts, but they live up to their wispy personas, not developing, only remaining ghostly observers.  If a plot exists it is nebulous: the ghosts return to see if their past home is intact:

“’Here we slept,’ she says. And he adds, ‘Kisses without number.’ ‘Waking in the morning—‘ ‘Silver between the trees—‘ ‘Upstairs—‘ ‘In the garden—‘ ‘When summer came—‘ ‘In winter snowtime—‘ The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.” “Heart” becomes a key word for Woolf because it leads to love.

“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering, the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.” Certain words stress the ghostly couple’s quest–stooping , long, faces.

“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—‘ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’  ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—‘ Stooping , their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe! ‘ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart?’” Can you detect  subtle rhymes at work in that passage?

Life, a pulse, the heart, and love. The ghost couple recall their love and search for it in the present living tenants of their house. This theme of the search for love will become a central one for Virginia Woolf in most of her future writing.

II –  THE DEATH OF THE MOTH and Other Essays (1942)

One year after Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 and twenty-one years after her first collection of short fiction, her husband Leonard published a book that included some pieces which did not fit the definition of essay. Again, they resembled poetry parading as prose, i.e. prose-poetry. An essay is a discussion of a central topic proceeding logically from point to point. Woolf has a topic, but rather she flows with feelings that shadow logic. Many of her writing qualities are still embedded in these later pieces, but her theme of living life and loving fully becomes clearer.

In EVENING OVER SUSSEX Woolf seems to hover like a spirit over the countryside. As a poet often does, using personification she compares Sussex to a woman: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.” Now the human comparison shifts to: “The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps and too early for stars.”

Woolf is not attempting to analyze Sussex as an essayist would do step-by-step. This prose writing is like a lyric poem, which attempts to catch and hold a single impression. Here beauty of a landscape, or even a person, is momentary: “The fields are mottled, marbled—one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” Notice poetic word repetition.

At most she predicts the future for Sussex, and the world in general, in her conclusion: “’ I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick, effective beams.’”  Fanciful, positive and poetic ideas! Especially with a world war looming.

We could theorize that the piece THE DEATH OF THE MOTH is an intellectual analysis of the natural functions of life and death. However, any structure is minimized by effective use of poetics. As this prose-poem opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.”

For Woolf the moth held a spirit like any living thing: “That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.” Yet, the life force in a moth is as powerful as the same life force in a human being.  Notice her poetic usage of a connector and the verbs: “One is apt to forge all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

In the conclusion, Woolf wants us to even witness the moth’s death, as we must all experience our own and loved ones’ deaths: “It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.; nothing, I knew had any chance against death.”

STREET HAUNTING is sixteen pages long but still not an essay nor even a short story. Not one character is developed nor is there a plot. The structure is composed of wandering observations, which Woolf makes poetically and beautifully. She employed this technique long ago in the 1921 collection when she became a ghost in A HAUNTED HOUSE or concertgoer in THE STRING QUARTET.

STREET HAUNTING has a sub-title: “A London Adventure” but that adventure becomes various forms of lifestyles she collects as she strolls:

“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.”

“The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.”

“Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them.”

“How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings  and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.”

Then the shops: “The carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

“They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of  old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars’ heads; and carpets so softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale green sea.”

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Woolf is skillful at combining nature and human imagery. She concludes this poetic piece by saying that to know all types of people and their vitality is the keenest kind of pleasure: ”One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”

I mostly allowed Virginia Woolf to speak for herself because it is nearly time to conclude the review; and vividly, originally, elegantly does she write poetic prose.

In her prose-poetry Virginia Woolf has explored the love of house, music, city, nature, love of life itself. However, most of her life she was pursued by a figurative “water wraith,” which drove her to an early death. In contrast to the other written pieces we have explored, I offer the prose-poem OLD MRS. GREY which deals directly with death:

“There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold—it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing; no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying; hills whose smooth uprise continue that flight.” Is Woolf hinting at heaven?

“The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly tying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.” A striking poetic image.

An old woman has come to the end of her life and can go no farther now nearly blind: “And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand.”

All that the woman could see out her front door: “The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.”

The image of the wire used in washing is continued. She only wants eternal rest but life forces will not allow it: “So we—humanity—insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.”

By definition poetry capitalizes on rhythm, imagery, intensity. Prose does not: fiction spins out a tale, while an essay analyzes a topic. No writer of short stories or essays would have time or use space as Virginia Woolf did in her poetic musings. Yes, when she wanted, her stories and novels, her biographies and reviews were clearly shaped and developed. Yet she was also a poet who—oddly to us perhaps—chose never to publish even one chapbook of poetry.

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To learn more visit: http://www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/index.html

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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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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