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Under Milk Wood -- Dylan Thomas

A rather longish excerpt from
(Poem #270) Under Milk Wood
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the
cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courter's-and-rabbits' wood limping
invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing
sea. The houses are are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the
snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by
the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows'
weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and
pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the
fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen
and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with
rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the
organplaying wood.   The boys are dreaming wicked of the bucking ranches of the
night and the jollyrodgered sea.  And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep
in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yard;
and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on
the one cloud of the roofs.

You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.

Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow,

And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely
dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and
the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales
tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and
bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats,
sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a
domino; in Ocky Milkman's lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread's bakery
flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with
seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text
and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and
rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.

Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees;
going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew
doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and
silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the
combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth,
Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the
dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements
and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and
wished and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

 From where you are, you can hear their dreams...
-- Dylan Thomas
'Under Milk Wood' is subtitled 'A Play for Voices'; originally written for the
BBC, it has been performed countless times since Dylan Thomas' death in 1953,
and is quite possibly his best-loved work. Today's poem is an excerpt from it;
in fact, it's merey the first 20 or so lines of the play. I had to exercise the
strictest discipline to stop myself from running more - the entire work is every
bit as good as this prologue.

As usual with Thomas, the words are utterly magical, a torrent of sound and
colour. Note especially the use of transferred epithets (in phrases such as 'the
dogs in the wet-nosed yard') - more pronounced than in most of Thomas' work.


In response to comments/requests from several of our readers, Martin and I have
decided to add a new feature to the Minstrels - an occasional column titled
Poetry 101. This column is aimed at readers without much formal knowledge of
poetry - we'll be discussing things like the basics of rhyme and metre, the
histories of various poetic movements, the art of criticism, construction,
deconstruction and reconstruction... well, you get the idea.

Disclaimer: I am not a poet. Nor am I a critic, commentator, essayist, or Writer
(with a capital W) of any sort. Neither, for that matter, is Martin. Our only
claim to superior knowledge is that we both like poetry, and read a lot of it.
So please don't take our writings for gospel truth - in this (as with everything
else) we could be (and often are) wrong. And please do write in if you spot any
mistakes on our part - we're just beginners at this game!

If there's any particular topic you'd like us to talk about, you have only to
let us know.

[Poetry 101]

Today I'd like to talk about a dichotomy that's basic to the understanding of
poetry (and, for that matter, of all literature) - the difference between
'connotation' and 'denotation'.

Let's start with the meanings of the two words:
Connotation: the suggesting of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it
explicitly names or describes.
Denotation: meaning; especially a direct, specific meaning as distinct from an
implied or associated idea.

Thus you can think of the denotation of a word as being its 'dictionary
definiton', while the connotation as being all the baggage of facts and feelings
a word carries with it.

Consider, for instance, the word 'clipper'. It denotes 'a fast sailing ship,
especially one with long slender lines, an overhanging bow, tall masts, and a
large sail area'. But its connotations include the tea trade, the East India
Company, the Cutty Sark and the War of Jenkins' Ear; these in turn evoke
thoughts of Washington and the Revolution of 1776, Clive of India, Scottish
border ballads, the rise of Napoleon and Nelson...

As you can see, the connotations of a particular word can be endless;
furthermore, they depend critically on the person reading the word - someone
other than myself would associate a completely different set of images with the
word 'clipper'.

Poetry works by connotation [1]. The task of the poet is to choose, out of a
plethora of 'possible' words, the one word that fits both the
superficial/structural demands of the composition and the themes underlying the
work as a whole. It's not easy, but when it works it can be glorious.

To illustrate using the absurd, consider the following line:
    'My love is like a red red fruit'.
Although 'fruit' fits the poem structurally and semantically, it makes a mockery
of the line. Why? Simply because it has none of the associations (springtime,
purity, beauty... ) of the word 'rose'.

As the above example makes clear, the use of metaphor in poetry depends to a
large extent on the connotative power of words. And that's why connotation
offers immense scope for compression of meaning and emotion - a single
well-chosen syllable can replace reams of drab descriptive prose [2], as today's
poem vividly demonstrates. Dylan Thomas uses 'words as much for their
connotations and rhythmic/melodic properties as for their meanings' -  phrases
like 'the snouting, velvet dingles' convey a lot more than just the words that
make them up. And (as I've mentioned several times before) Thomas was the master
of the compressed metaphor; he 'juxtaposes disparate words into combinations
which seem utterly right.... [his] phrases, with their wealth of connotation and
descriptive detail, seem so natural that you don't even notice them on a first

I think that's enough for the day. More later.


[1] This is, of course, a shameless over-generalization. But bear with me,
[2] The key phrase is 'well-chosen'.

[Minstrels Links]

Dylan Thomas is one of my favourite poets (and Martin's, too), so there's a lot
of his stuff on the Minstrels website.

There's a brief biography of Dylan Thomas accompanying one of the very first
poems to be run on the Wondering Minstrels, Thomas' Prologue to his Collected
Poems, at poem #14

Prologue is in many ways similar to today's poem; a less dense work than either
is Poem In October, which (surprise!) I ran in October; you can read it at
poem #225

And similar to Poem In October in form and spirit is the beautiful Fern Hill,
poem #138

The commentary accompanying Fern Hill has more material on compressed metaphors
and Thomas' use of language; it also talks about Thomas' poetic philosophy. You
can learn more about the latter by reading everybody's favourite Dylan Thomas
poem, the utterly magnificent Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, poem #38


'Starless and Bible Black' is the title of a classic album by King Crimson.

48 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Scosyl said...

Absolutely love your web-site! I've just seen a Welsh Theatre production of
UMW, superbly professional, very modern, no props at all!! Wonderful! do you
know it?

My main reason for writing is that as you have everything written in white on
colour, I can't print out anything!!!!! Is there a way round this, please?


Celine said...

I have just read this play in class (the whole thing rather than this snippet) and immensely enjoyed. It influenced me to start writing a novel in the same style of writing. Dylan Thomas's use of language I find fabulous and entrancing.

Love All

Gwilym Williams said...

The village name of Llareggub (read it backwards) first appeared in an early short story by Dylan Thomas entitled 'The Orchards' which he wrote in tiny writing and all in one piece on the inside of a cardboard box. Llareggub subsequently became the working title for Under Milk Wood. Dylan was influenced by the short stories of James Joyce his most admired prose writer.
The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood. The Wood, whose every treefoot's cloven in the black glad sight of the hunters of lovers, that is a God-built garden to Mary Ann the Sailors who knows there is Heaven on earth and the chosen people of His kind fire in Llareggub's land, that is the fairday farmhands' wantoning ignorant chapel of bridebeds, and, to the Reverend Eli Jenkins, a greenleaved sermon on the innocence of men...this one Spring day.

Doug Smith said...

Under Milk Wood is just magical.

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Anonymous said...

Well said. (not the 'plots for sale btw -how weird)
I learned this bit a couple of years ago & recite it to myself probably twice a week. (OK, I confess, sometimes several times in one evening).
There is always one part in particular when I have to put in an extra pause because I STILL marvel at the idea of a pub being "quiet as a... domino".

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