Essay: "Full as a lovebird's egg"

Date posted: 12 May 2012Author: STC


At the outset of Dylan Thomas's writing life, provincial Wales had been everything socially smug and sexually repressive to a young poet who believed "the body was given to live[,] as much as the stars were given to live up to" (Letters, p. 90). When the war came, however, his birthplace Swansea suffered a number of devastating air raids and from the bombing of Swansea we may for convenience date the resurrection of provincial Wales in Thomas's writing as the matter of an utterly transformed art.

It was as if his imagination had been invaded by a wider, more inclusive pathos. When other characters entered his writing, his vivid memory and detailed observation were enlivened by a rich blend of gothic fantasy, gloved scorn, comic gusto, and the genuine tenderness of a "lover of the human race", as he self-mockingly styled himself - before adding: "especially its women" (Cox, p. 25).

And enlivened, of course, by poetry: "Love the words" was the one piece of directorial advice he had to offer the cast at the first performance of Under Milk Woodin New York in May 1953 and it is this, before anything else, which establishes a continuity between this late, popular work and the strikingly idiosyncratic forms he had been cultivating in notebooks since early adolescence, with their resonant vowels and urgent rhythms, their bold compounds and coinages. When Thomas attended to the many lives and voices of his Welsh neighbours, what he captured and created was a chorus as raucous, ebullient, and lyrical as the cries of the birds by the grinding, protean sea he loved.

With a cast of over seventy characters, many of them with a Dickensian distinctiveness and memorability, Under Milk Woodis busy with idiosyncratic life - a busyness and vitality symbolised and generated by Thomas's restlessly inventive orchestration and imagery.

Thomas was no feminist, but the women in Under Milk Wood, all strongly individuated, are especially various. Much has been written of "the hatred and fear of women underlying his work" (Holbrook, p. 236), but if Thomas was inclined to sentimentalise women and in the early "womb and tomb" poems to turn both women and men into biological automatons, it was men he tended to infantilise, most often himself. Llareggub's women are spirited directors and performers in the ongoing comic opera of village life.

If they bitch, emasculate, and gossip, they also laugh, seduce, and sing, sometimes to celebrate, sometimes to mourn. For it is the women (Polly Garter, Rosie Probert) who sing the sadness - a sadness at once historical and local, and at the same time existential, the sadness of our conscious mortality. Manic vitality in Under Milk Woodis frequently exposed as the defensive, even hysterical distraction of "creatures born to die", as the Rev. Eli Jenkins quietly reminds the audience as congregation (Under Milk Wood, p. 57).

Before anything else, Under Milk Woodis a comedy of sex. Although Kenneth Tynan's classifying the play as a "comedy of humours" is arguably more accurate, every incident, every relationship, every aside in this pastoral fantasy is shaped by eros, and never more so than when a character abstains or abominates. Indeed, you could argue that the sexual instinct is most lively in Llarregub this Chaucerian springtime in its repression, for the town offers a gallery of portraits in which sex is most remarkable in its frustration, displacement, or flat denial: "JACK BLACK  There is no leg belonging to the foot that belongs to this shoe" (Under Milk Wood, p. 37).

Mr Pugh's comic-book Gothic obsession with poisoning his wife; Mog Edwards' obsession with money; Organ Morgan's with sacred music; Myfanwy Price's virginal neatness; the obsession of the 'respectable' generally with other peoples' promiscuity; "Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's terrible death-waiting loneliness", in Thomas's arresting manuscript note to himself (Under Milk Wood, p. xxxviii), her refusal to have boarders breathing all over her furniture - obsession (Tynan's "humour"), more often than not, only thinly disguises the fateful sexual yearning that informs it, as the play ritualistically reenacts the ancient, intimate dance of sex and death towards silence and night:

But I always think, as I tumble into bed,
Of little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead.
(Under Milk Wood, p. 62)

As the sheer number of characters and my comparison with Dickens suggests, we are not talking here about complex characterisation, rather about effective caricature (especially effective on air and in the theatre), about "eccentrics whose eccentricities", in Thomas's own words, "are but briefly & impressionistically noted" (Letters, p. 814). Character in Under Milk Woodis co-extensive with these obsessions by which the individual villagers react and are immediately recognisable. The significance of character lies not in the parts, but in the patterns, as the play works its contrasts and variations on the theme of human singularity and relationship, as together and alone the villagers, like Milton's Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, "through Eden [take] their solitary way" (XII, 649).

At one extreme of this pattern of relationships, we have a playful, often ironic polygamy - Polly Garter and Rosie Probert and their many lovers (though in Polly's case only one love, and that love strangely pre-pubescent); Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, Dai Bread, and Mrs Cherry Owens, each with two spouses (dead, surreal, and "semi-real", respectively). At the other extreme, the inconsummate Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price and a host of onanistic dreamers entering into unattainable relationship through fantasy: Gossamer Beynon, Lily Smalls, Bessie Bighead, Nogood Boyo.

In the elaboration and contrast of the many and various characters, we are reminded once again that Thomas was a poet and, like his self-mocking persona, the Rev Eli Jenkins, "intricately rhyming" (Under Milk Wood, p. 17), creating what John Goodby has called "an almost mathematical web of relationships and fixed natures" (Goodby, p. 210). But the form in the end is not mathematical, but musical - the patterned repetitions of lyric poetry, recognising that the shape of our lives is not logical but musical, symphonic - or, as Goodby himself later acknowledges, "polyphonic" (Goodby, p. 213).

Music, Thomas well knew, is central to poetic, indeed to all language, and Under Milk Wood should be thought of as divided not into acts but into movements (suggesting music, emotion). There is no genuinely dramatic interaction between the characters of Under Milk Wood- Sinbad Sailor does not persuade Gossamer Beynon to share his bed; Willy Nilly makes no impression on Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's resolution not to have her home violated; Mr Pugh does not murder his wife; Mr Waldo does not renounce Polly Garter.

When Thomas abandoned his original idea of having the town of Llareggub put on trial by the Home Office for being collectively insane ("The Town That Was Mad" was the title he first considered), he abandoned the idea of any plot beyond the simple, structuring narratives created by the passage of time: the movement of the day itself and the pattern this in turn offers for a human life, from the cruel and carefree children of the village to the octogenarian Mary Ann the Sailors.

What is true of the characters, moreover, is also true of the dialogue in which they engage, which is antiphonal rather than effective, expressive rather than enactive (speech doesn't change anything, it describes and evokes and conjures). "Thomas is writing for speaking rather than writing speech", as Raymond Williams has said (Williams, p. 95) - speaking as oratorio, that is, speaking as poetry.

There is ample evidence in the play and elsewhere in Thomas's writings (not least in his letters) that Thomas's ear for human speech was acute, but the overall effect in Under Milk Woodis not of realistic dialogue but of conversational pieces recreated as clever and self-conscious artifice. The rollicking, stichomythic alternations of the village women's voices hark back to operatic interchange and the primitive choric exchanges of Greek tragedy:

Mother: Oh, what'll the neighbours say, what'll the neighbours . . .
Third Neighbour: Black as a chimbley
Fourth Neighbour: Ringing doorbells
Third Neighbour: Breaking windows
Fourth Neighbour: Making mudpies
Third Neighbour: Stealing currants
Fourth Neighbour: Chalking words
Third Neighbour: Saw him in the bushes
Fourth Neighbour: Playing moochins
Third Neighbour: Send him to bed without any supper
Fourth Neighbour: Give him sennapods and lock him in the dark
Third Neighbour: Off to the reformatory
Fourth Neighbour: Off to the reformatory
Together: Learn him with a slipper on his b.t.m.
(Under Milk Wood, pp. 11-12)

"The mind is its own place", writes Milton, and "of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven" (Paradise Lost, I, 254-5). Thomas in his lifetime would make both out of Wales - both a hell and a heaven - before re-making it at last in Under Milk Woodas a richer, more lyrical and suggestive version of the mortal world than it had always been. He never ceased his satirical campaign against the smug righteousness and sexual hypocrisy of provincial Wales. Llareggub may be Edenic for the Rev. Eli Jenkins and Mary Ann the Sailors, but there is no illusion of social harmony here in this not-so-golden world, where the unlikely earth-mother, Polly Garter, will never share in the dance at the ironically named Welfare Hall. However, rather than resort to a Bohemian indignation that fought self-righteousness with a self-righteousness of its own, Thomas sought in the end to bring out the potential in the imagination of all of us for what in the poem "This Side of Truth" he calls "unjudging love". 

William Christie

Cox, C. B. (ed.), Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Critical Essays, Twentieth-Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966)
Goodby, John, "'Very profound and very box-office': the Later Poems and Under Milk Wood", in Dylan Thomas: New Casebooks, ed. John Goodby and Chris Wigginton (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001)
Holbrook, David, Dylan Thomas and the Code of Night (London: Athlone Press, 1972)
Thomas, Dylan, The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (London: J. M. Dent 1985)
Thomas, Dylan, Under Milk Wood: The Definitive Edition, edited by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud (London: J. M. Dent, 1995)