A FEATURE by Janet Strachan
A centenary tribute
Dylan’s hundredth birthday is a big deal in Wales. Also in America. At the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival, the visiting Welsh contingent expressed a mixture of pride and embarrassment at the legacy of this Thomas (the austere R.S. Thomas, arguably a better poet, is far less famous!). Dylan of course is a vulgar tourist attraction, the face that launched a thousand tea-towels, his house in Laugharne ‘at the edge of the world in the West of Wales’ a place of pilgrimage for those literary American tourists who stop briefly in Pembrokeshire before catching the ferry across the Irish Sea.
The fame behind Dylan Thomas’s posthumous celebrity was largely a result of his personality, his bad boy behaviour, confirming for many people the stereotype of the dissolute poet, ‘the Rimbeau of Cwmdonkin Drive’ who famously died a rock star death in the Chelsea Hotel. As Seamus Heaney has pointed out, he was what Patrick Kavanagh called in the Irish context ‘a bucklepper’, a Celtic challenge to Anglo propriety, a Lord of Misrule.(i) Moreover, such beautiful poems as ‘Fern Hill’ with their musical cadence and exuberant nostalgia made him a popular poet, ‘Hopkins with a skinful’ perhaps, but genuinely accessible at a time when the Modernists had deliberately made poetry difficult. And he did write a handful of genuinely great poems such as ‘The Ballad of the Long- Legged Bait’ and ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, the villanelle considered by Seamus Heaney as the exception to the Welsh poet’s fatal flaw, that he was anti-intellectual and ’emphasised unduly the romantic, positive side of the story’.
Thomas’s best-loved work is his play for voices, Under Milk Wood. A late work, it perhaps belongs in the category described by George Orwell as ‘a good bad book’ with its mixture of vulgarity and sentimentality. The prayer of Revered Eli Jenkins is an example of how the most famous of Anglo-Welsh poets inspires both love and embarrassment in Wales. It has been set to music, frequently performed and uncritically admired, its parody of the mawkishness of Welsh religiosity and bad verse apparently ignored by most. It is the list of Welsh place names that rescues it, the pleasure in the words characteristically transcending both the sentiment and the satire.
Dear Gwalia! I know there are
Towns lovelier than ours,
And fairer hills and loftier far,
And groves more full of flowers,
And boskier woods more blithe with spring
And bright with birds’ adorning,
And sweeter bards than I to sing
Their praise this beauteous morning.
By Cader Idris, tempest-torn,
Or Moel y Wyddfa’s glory,
Carnedd Llewelyn beauty born,
Plinlimmon old in story,
By mountains where King Arthur dreams,
By Penmaen Mawr defiant,
Llareggub Hill a molehill seems,
A pygmy to a giant.
By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towy broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall,
Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed.
By Carreg Cennen, King of time,
Our Heron Head is only
A bit of stone with seaweed spread
Where gulls come to be lonely.
A tiny dingle is Milk Wood
By golden Grove ‘neath Grongar,
But let me choose and oh! I should
Love all my life and longer
To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.
Ironically perhaps, the play begins with ‘silence’. Then the first voice whispers ‘very softly’ the comically obvious, ‘To begin at the beginning,’ a phrase whose biblical cadence suggests an ambivalent attitude towards the bible-black solemnity of the Welsh chapel culture. Under Milk Wood’s satire makes fun of narrow-minded and sexually repressed characters like Mrs. Pugh, Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard and Dai Black. There is, however, an underlying strain of melancholy in the play, many of the characters, even those who embrace life with bawdy energy, enthusiasm and generosity being sadly aware of its transience.
The scene is set in a long sentence establishing the time of year (Spring) and time of day (night), symbolic respectively of life and death. Time is important structurally and metaphorically in the play as it gives the listener a picture of twenty four hours in the life of the inhabitants of the small Welsh town of Llareggub, where ‘buggerall'(the town’s name spelled backwards) happens; buggerall and everything. The twenty four hours begin and end in darkness, a darkness metaphorically enclosing the whole of life between conception and death.
As well as being moonless, the night is ‘starless and bible-black.’ This is the dead of night as the long meandering sentence onomatopoeically follows the personified ‘hunched courters and rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’ The wood, associated with ‘courters and rabbits’ and named Milk Wood, symbolises life and fertility while the sea, black and mysterious, is associated with ‘the darkness of the darkness’ which has swallowed up Captain Cat’s ‘dead dears’ and provides poetic images, like ‘Seas green as a bean/ Seas gliding with swans/ In the seal-barking moon’ saturating his memories of life and love. The wood’s ‘limping’ progress down to the sea is symbolic of the descent of ‘all poor creatures born to die.’
Yet, Under Milk Wood is comedy: comedy and laughter at those who have lost sight of the importance of life, and at those who are too solemn and respectable to have fun. The play laughs in the face of death, just as the dark, dramatic swelling rhythm of ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack…sea’ is lightened by the brave ‘bobbing’ of the fishing boats. There is also an abundance of life in the sleeping town; even though the comparisons are funereal, the lively personification, ‘blind as moles,’ ‘the shops in mourning’ and ‘the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds’ subverts the association of night with death and mocks the morbid chapel culture. ‘The moles’ after all ‘see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingles’ (a lovely soft sensory image) and even though he is also blind, Captain Cat will often be our eyes and ears as we eavesdrop on the lives of the town’s inhabitants.
The First Voice’s invitation is friendly and inclusive, telling the audience to ‘hush’ and addressing us directly, ‘only you can hear…only your eyes can see’ and lyrically, seductively, ‘you alone can hear the invisible star fall.’ The long list of the town’s inhabitants, named by profession adds to the impression of abundant life. Names will be given later to ‘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.’ The words flow rich and generous as milk with a wryly comic anti-climax on ‘tidy wives’ and the listener is swept along into the sleepers’ dreams.
The young dream of love, appropriately enough for the springtime setting. The girls’ dreams are romantic, indulgently described in soft, hushed tones, ‘young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams’ contrasting with the more sexually charged dreams of ‘the boys…dreaming wicked’ of ‘bucking ranches and the jollyrodgered sea.’ This is typical of Thomas’ delight in sexual innuendo. Sexuality is the sacred life force whose suppression by a culture more focused on death than life results in the stunting of most of the characters’ lives. The only characters who sing, apart from the children are Polly Garter, Mr Waldo and Captain Cat, those who do not suppress their sexuality.
Mrs. Pugh, one of ‘the tidy wives’ prefers to criticise and carp, absurdly suggesting that ‘having babies’ is an offence for which Polly Garter should be arrested. Her husband, the schoolteacher, Mr Pugh, dreams of murdering her, muttering to himself as he submissively approaches her bedroom with her morning cup of tea, ‘Here’s your arsenic, dear./And your weedkiller biscuit’, but his courage fails him at the last minute and he only manages, ‘Here’s your…nice tea, dear.’ He is the stereotypical hen-pecked husband, comically and ineffectually dreaming up petty acts of rebellion such as spitting in the vases and putting cheese in the mouseholes, but pathetically trying to appease his bad-tempered wife with repeated ‘dears’. We fully sympathise with his murderous ambitions when the monstrous Mrs. Pugh snaps ‘too much sugar’ without even tasting her tea. Sourly she voices her disapproval of Lily Smalls for tucking her dress into her bloomers and Polly Garter is beyond the pale; ‘lovely’ Polly, so generous with her sexual favours, earns only envious disgust from the ‘tidy wives.’
The Pughs, like many characters in the play, are caricatures and comic stereotypes. Typically, Thomas takes a cliché or stereotype and exaggerates it so that it becomes original and amusing, not in spite of its clichéd nature but because of it. PC Attila Rees is another stereotype: the bumbling bobby. His name (Attila the Hun!), the name of his house, ‘Handcuff House’ as well as the lumbering alliteration of ‘b’s and plodding rhythm of ‘ox-broad, barge-booted’ creates a comic caricature straight out of a surreal comedy like the Goon Show. He is in ‘a heavy beef-red huff’ and ‘black-browed’ because, his prediction when he was caught short in the night and his helmet was conveniently under the bed, ‘You’ll be sorry in the morning’, has been proved right.
As the play approaches evening, the tone becomes elegiac as Captain Cat dreams of long-dead Rosie, though there are still comic and surreal touches as well as exuberant delight in the abundance of the language. Because Rosie Probert lived in Duck Lane, she says, ‘Quack twice (instead of “Knock twice”) and ask for Rosie.’ This is typical of the way ideas are associated in dreams, as is the stream of variations on seafaring images given in reply to Rosie’s questions by the dreaming sea-captain. ‘What seas did you see, Tom Cat, Tom Cat?’ Each of his romantic and fanciful answers begins with an assurance that he is telling the truth, ‘Seas barking like seals,/ Blue seas and green, / Seas covered with eels / And mermen and whales.’ The sequence is like a folk-song arranged for two voices, one asking, the other answering questions and the effect is rich and beautiful. Thomas famously said, ‘Enjoy the words’ before the play’s first performance and this is clearly an example of poetic playfulness and delight. Yet it is also deeply moving, especially at the end when Rosie fades away, ‘I am going into the darkness of the darkness for ever. / I have forgotten that I was ever born.’
In spite of all the jokes at the expense of the life-denying chapel-going spoilsports, and in spite of the pagan celebration of sexuality and fertility, Under Milk Wood is deeply imbued with the ‘bible-black’ melancholy of Welsh nonconformity. Life is short and surrounded by darkness. But although memories of the dead are ever-present, it is spring and the dark woods are again full of rustling life.
So not ‘buggerall’ then! But a guilty pleasure; sentimentality and vulgarity tinged with nostalgia. The experience of listening to Under Milk Wood for an ex-pat is rather like weeping with ‘hiraeth‘ as the Treorchy Male Voice Choir sings ‘Myfanwy’, while laughing at Donald McGill’s seaside postcards with their formidable women and meek little husbands. But you do have to ‘enjoy the words’.
Janet Strachan was born in Tre-Taliesin overlooking the Irish sea on the west coast of Wales, just north of Aberystwyth. Her family and community is Welsh-speaking so she naturally became an English teacher, escaping to London as soon as possible. On marrying Michael, an Australian of mixed Scottish (the Strachans) English and Irish (County Clare) background, she came to Australia in 1969 and has just retired from Haileybury College in Keysborough where she taught History, English and Literature for twenty seven years.
(i) Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas. Seamus Heaney. Salamagundi Skidmore College Journal No 100 pp 66-85 (NY Fall1993)