Untoward Stories: Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas wrote his first poetry as a lad in grammar school in Wales.

He greatly loved, he said later, `the words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance . . . I fell in love with . . . and am at the mercy of words.’ Poet and man of letters, Robert Lowell, called Thomas ‘A dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding.’ (Wikipedia) It’s a remark that illustrates DT’s comment about his love of words, and, in truth, goes to the very heart of his style as a poet and short story writer. As DT’s remark implies, his poetry and prose are sometimes as much concerned with the image carried by the word, and the sound and rhythm of words as with the clarity of their meaning when strung together.

Consider ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’, a poem whose title recites a challenge: a refusal (a charged, counterintuitive word in context) to mourn the death of an innocent. To do so would compel the poet `to enter again the round Zion of the water bead and the synagogue of the ear of corn . . . and sew my salt seed (i)n the least valley of sackcloth to mourn (t)he majesty and burning of the child’s death? He vows not to ‘murder(t)he mankind of her going with a grave truth (n)or blaspheme down the stations of the breath (w)ith any further (e)legy of innocence and youth.’ The abiding thought is left for last. ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ The poem’s underlying `meaning’ is seemingly forged from these images. That he refuses ‘(t)o enter again’ these arenas of mourning, each carrying natural and `religious’ connotation, —elegy, blaspheme, sackcloth, synagogue, Zion, the stations of the breath (cross) —suggests that his secular understanding compels him to refuse this customary grieving after the fact, suggesting perhaps that each of us is called when it’s our time, and no religious experience, no exultation or grief after the fact that can change the finality of that truth. Some have seen the ‘abiding thought’ as an affirmation of immortality.

DT’s most famous poetic thoughts present interesting contrasts: Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light uses images created with strong terse verbs like rave, burn and rage, letting the poet express a more or less straight forward sentiment. Still, consider another-oft anthologized poem:  The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / drives my green age: that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer / And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever. `Bent, crooked, and dumb’ set off against `drives, blasts and wintry fever’. Great word choices, great contrasts. As DT himself has said, he loves the words themselves and lets them do the work.

As the lives of the writers go, Dylan Thomas’s bio, like those of Keats, Shelly, Lord Byron and others, reads much shorter than it might have. “It is considered that Thomas was indulged by his mother and enjoyed being coddled, a trait he carried into adulthood, and he was skillful at gaining attention and sympathy/” (Wikipedia quoting biographer Ferris.) When he died in 1953 at age 39, of complications brought on by chronic alcoholism, he was at the height of his popularity, doing a reading tour of America. His body of work includes a play for radio (Under Milkwood), a number of oft-anthologized poems, a famous essay, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’, an unfinished novel called ‘Adventures in the Skin Trade’ and a collection of short works, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog’, whose cover pairs Dylan with what looks to be a Labrador Retriever, both with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. (DT’s the one with the bow tie.) (New Directions Paperbook edition, 1940).

The ‘Young Dog’ collection takes young Dylan himself from unfazed lad caught in the midst of various adult foibles, to a dazed and confused young man undone by lost love while on holiday by the sea, where things happen too fast and love is jarringly replaced by surreal world of empty tenement halls, hostile people and dusty, lightless stairways.

In ‘The Peaches’, young Dylan is left outside a saloon in his Uncle Jim’s cart while Uncle Jim is inside, trading one of his sow’s new piglets for whiskey. ‘I could see into half of a smoky, secret room, where four men were playing cards. . .(t)hey all drank out of brown pint tankards and never spoke, laying their cards down with a smack, scraping at their matchboxes, puffing at their pipes, swallowing unhappily, ringing the brass bell, ordering more, by a sign of the fingers, from a sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man’s cap.’ The other stories in the collection bristle with bizarre touches and untoward characters. The cover copy, noting that the stories have “an elation” that is ‘natural and contagious’, reflects on these Welsh folk: “There is the grandfather who marches off in his best clothes to be buried in the next town, the sardonic ‘senior reporter’ on a provincial newspaper, servant girls who know how to deal triumphantly with a fast talking dandy, a twenty year old farmer preaching wildly to boys in a deserted barn, a group of respectable worthies who play at literature behind closed blinds, and always the observant and unfazed young Thomas.” (Cover copy: New Directions Paperback)

The first nine stories of the ‘Young Dog’ collection are made prelude to the tenth, One Warm Saturday. The Dylan of these first stories is the unruffled young lad watching the eccentricities and foolishness of his elders. In One Warm Saturday, the lad comes of age. (He is called ‘Jack’ somewhat flippantly by the girl of his dreams, Lou, although it’s not clear that’s his real name in the story). The first paragraphs bombard the reader with a torrent of images, laying the scene for the young man’s seaside holiday, where he sits ‘near the summer huts to see the brown and white women coming out and the groups of pretty-faced girls with pale vees and scorched backs who picked their way delicately on ugly, red-toes feet over the sharp stones to the sea. . .”

Lou, the object of his puerile love and growing lust, is not some innocent young provincial. She “drinks like a deep sea diver”, and is being kept by an older man, Mr. McCarthy, who’s hanging around drinking with them at the party, her “sugar daddy from old Ireland”. All the same, the lad ‘Jack’ sees Lou `as a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil for her soft self, bare to the heart.’ (Is there a sweeter, more innocent line in all of literature?) They’ve gone to her place in the company of others, and `Jack’ and Lou can’t wait for everyone to leave so they can make love. Meanwhile, a contentious discussion goes through the drinking party like a fever, about whether or not Alfred, Lord Tennyson ‘was a little man with a hump.’

When ‘Jack’ leaves Lou’s flat and the party for a visit to the ‘House of Commons’ (a commode down on another floor), the reader’s concern is justified. The surreal funk that `Jack’ suffers afterward, alone in the dark tenement house halls, climbing `the rotten, bruising, mountainous stairs’, tapping on doors, waking up babies, ‘whispering her name,’ leaves him, like the ‘never-to-be-forgotten people of the dirty town’, lost and alone.