THERE was a time -- around 1950 to 1953 -- when Dylan Thomas seemed to be the most notorious poet in the civilized world and undoubtedly was the most widely read and heard poet in the English language.
He had a voice like cut glass, and his readings were historic events of declamation. He made them so, drunk or sober. His poems were celebrations, blackly romantic orchestrations of words. Our Big War was over, and we wanted to hear about glorious sadness, especially if it burst forth from a cherubic Welshman dressed as a ragpicker and self-advertised as a lecher.
Indeed, so wide was Dylan Thomas' fame and so deep its effect that after his death at the age of 39 (on November 9, 1953, in New York of alcohol, drugs, and questionable medicine) a young troubadour in Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Zimmerman, dropped his own last name on the way to stardom and took the poet's first name instead.
Some said, with Louis Untermeyer, that Dylan Thomas was the 20th century's personification of the Dionysian or wine-women-and- revelry cult among poets. Others said, with Donald Hall, that Dylan Thomas carried a devilish sack of guilt; he gave himself to poetry, which his under-educated, middle-class, provincial Wales background forbade. He paid with his life before he could get to the revolutionary role of the poet: trying to change the world. Of course, Thomas the actor played to all the balconies, whether at bars or universities, and even his intimates occasionally wondered which Dylan was the real one.
Looking back after the biographies by Paul Ferris and Constantine Fitzgibbon and after reading The Collected Stories, it seems that all the many Dylan Thomases -- the devil-fearing, the ribald, the reverent, the lustful, the magician of words -- were true and authentic. Perhaps the 44 stories in The Collected Stories are the best evidence of all. They cover his entire literary life -- from April, 1931, until three months before his death. They are drawn consistently along autobiographical lines. Thomas' poetry writing was virtually finished by the time he was 30 -- alchohol ended it -- and is of little help in reaching inside Dylan Thomas.
He wrote three kinds of stories. The first kind -- he was unable to publish them as a young man because they shocked publishers and printers thought them obscene -- recall Poe, Kafka, and lots of bad dreams.
Exercises in juxtaposition, sexual codes, and imaginative surprise, they reek with violence, evil, wantonness and decay.
"This Tree" revises the story of the Crucifixion with an idiot as Jesus and a child as Pilate in rural Wales.
"The Lemon" begins, "Early one morning, under the arc of a lamp, carefully, silently, in a smock and rubber glove, the doctor grafted a cat's head on to a chicken's trunk." It's all downhill thereafter.
A maid attempts to seduce a gardener into committing murder in "The True Story." She fails and herself wrings the neck of her invalid employer until "the head burst like an egg." She then opens a window, steps out, and says, "I am flying."
In "The Orchards" a poet named Marlais hallucinates about the sources of his work as he walks "over the brink into ruin, up the side of doom, over hell in bed to the red left, till he reached the first of the fields where the unhatched apples were soon to cry fire . . . " His various imagined loves become his poems.
A spectral husband kills his wife in "The Vest" after seeing a dog run over. As a dead man continued to die in "The Visitor" and he waited for "the inch tape and acid," his lover/wife Rhianon "had cut open his chest with a book knife, torn out the heart, put in the clock."
Murder, flaming heads, and stumbling toward the sea figure in many of these stories. The light is usually poor. Plots get shelved. Most take place in lost time and the Jarvis hills of Wales. They are surface stories crenulated with words and, except perhaps for "The Vest" and "The True Story," interesting principally for their source. Dylan Thomas was a disturbed personality early in life. Raised a Christian, he saw devils instead.
THE SECOND KIND of stories are almost wholly autobiographical, were intended to become a novel, and offer some of the most delightful prose Dylan Thomas ever wrote. Some recall the innocent discoveries of childhood. Others uncover the hurt and premature despair of adolescence and early adulthood. A few make mystic connections to events otherwise inexplicable.
These are most of the stories previously published in the U.S. as collections under the titles Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Adventures in the Skin Trade. While Dylan Thomas' Gothic stories take place in a nightmare land with anagrammatically named characters like Rafe (fear), Stul (lust), or Llareggub (bugger all) and in extra-social conditions, these stories are evocations of Thomas' native Swansea with families and friends, and of down-and-out London with boozers and social dropouts. Heroes are usually a child or young adult named Dylan, his relatives, Mr. Thomas, an unnamed narrator, or a young journalist called Samuel Bennet with the exact physiognomy, speech habits and longings as the Dylan Thomas and "I" of the other stories.
They're written in the flowing language, waves of metaphors and similes of Thomas' poetry and most have no particular target except the unfolding of a life touched by the poignant and slammed by the comic as a young writer attempts to find his own way in the world. They are romances, farces, glimpses of Wales as if seen by Pieter Bruegel.
A boy visiting his grandfather discovers the old fellow pretending to be Buffalo Bill riding an imaginary horse in bed at night.
Another boy tags along on a beery journey through the countryside as neighborhood males make a holiday of pubs.
An older boy and his best friend hike to the sea to prove their endurance but only test their loneliness scanning the waters.
Two young men windowpeep on a girl and her mother and think they hear a ghost.
A young reporter goes searching for stories with his paper's senior journalist, drifts into crawling pubs, and misses the village's most pathetic suicide.
In an exquisite story called "One Warm Sunday," Thomas fuses realism with the surreal to show us a young man meeting the perfect young woman, entertaining the magical love affair, and losing her in a tale that seems like an almost perfect reverie of youth.
A set of stories placed in London mimics James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as Dylan Thomas/Samuel Bennet gets his finger stuck in a Bass' ale bottle and finds continuous sexual possiblities, a city of pubs, and a zoo of human beings instead of the job his innocently proud parents sent him to -- editor of The Times.
THE THIRD KIND of story Dylan Thomas wrote, often for BBC broadcast, is the Welsh idyll raised to the level of incantation. These stories include some already appropriated for festive observance: "Quite Early One Morning" and "A Child's Christmas in Wales." Their language shimmers. They surrender to sentiment, perhaps unearned. Still they promise to outlive all but a few of Dylan Thomas' poems because they return us to our earlier selves. They are his runes.
The limits of Dylan Thomas' short stories are the limits of his poems. Perhaps his character, too. The early pieces are words, black rages. Spun more than written, the mature stories give us Wales bursting but no human beings revealed in the fullness of love and sorrow, conflict and endurance. Because his eye was wired to a lexicon of pictures, he sees his people unraveling. But he has no place to take them. His fragile plots continually circle sex and alcohol. His heroes collapse with drink. They think passion. Only children feel affection. His women are targets; they barely move.
The triumph of Dylan Thomas' stories comes in their looking back. They commemorate a thinness of experience and emotion with mountains of stunning language. He was big but did not grow up.