A note on the works of a man that goes hand in hand with the land that he walked.
For those who have not discovered this man and his writing, a centenary year is passing. It has been a celebration year in Wales and around the world and surprisingly for me, I learn that his work “Under Milk Wood” is especially well-regarded in Germany.
Dylan, pronounced to rhyme with can or fan in Welsh tradition (i.e., dill-an or anything you can manage) will take you to works that only the personal makeup of such a person can produce… don’t forget it was the USA that took his work into their souls. For what it’s worth, I think this has much to do with the land he inhabited, a sometimes grey, hard landscape for him especially after the bombing of his hometown, Swansea. He had walked the parks, the bay, the streets and sat in bars and pubs alongside people who will speak the words they wish to…; his voice speaks a language that Americans and Germans and many around the world will know; it is their own, somewhere in heredity and for me the opening line “Do not go gentle into that Good Night” from a poem of the same title, is the gentle anger of youth, a child that never leaves people of this kind.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales on 27th October 1914. By the age of sixteen he had compiled a collection of poetry into his “notebooks”. He left school and worked as a Newspaper reporter. In 1930 he had a work published in the New English Weekly – the work known as ‘And death shall have no dominion.’ By 1934 he’d had eighteen poems published and a further twenty-five by 1936. His first poetry and prose volume was published at around this time. He worked in broadcasting and lived in London and Wales during the late 1930’s. He had left his home town and was situated amid the rugged coastline of South West Wales at New Quay and within traveling distance of the market trading towns of Cardiganshire. Often penniless and sometimes homeless he and his wife Caitlin moved to the estuary town of Laugharne, Carmarthenshire where he wrote in the ‘Boathouse’, often locked in by his wife Caitlin (not a bad idea) and where he otherwise engaged with the townsfolk in the pubs and bars, hence Caitlin’s strategy to establish a productive routine. Dylan Thomas travelled to Prague and had lived in Oxfordshire, London and Hampshire before settling in Laugharne. He travelled to Iran and later undertook tours to America but it was at New Quay and Laugharne, where he walked the empty streets at night and on silent Sunday’s that the peculiarity of small town life caused him to smile toward “Llareggub”. His return tours of the USA brought further appreciation for his writing and it was in New York that he finished and recorded his work for voices: “Under Milk Wood”.
“Under Milk Wood” should be heard, listened to, read (he intended that it should speak through the printed page as well) and heard again. The Germans who comment, say it represents village, small town life found in every corner of their country… and there is similarity in the language of the Welsh and the Germans. It could be a Soap Opera but whatever it is described as, the work is no-less than Genius. I have selected the opening lines as an illustration, and it requires a reading, out loud. Speak the following words as narrator with the direction to speak the words from ‘silence and very softly:’
“It is spring, moonless night, starless and bible black… limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea…”
Listen to your voice as you speak the words, imagine “The houses, blind as moles” and Chapel organ music and the small town pious; listen to the narrator of an early or centenary performance recording, watch and listen as the narrator invites you to hear the footfalls on deserted cobbled streets and those words…; he might well have heard similar words uttered but he chose them and inserted them in an order, punctuated and personally micro managed direction to the cast in order to convey his expression of his surroundings and characters. He played with this work; it amused him as in the name he chose for his town. Most know that Dylan Thomas’s fictional town, Llareggub is Buggerall spelt backwards but can you… hear time passing? Can you “hear the houses sleeping“; do you see the “coms and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth” and the “Thou Shalt Not on the walls“? It’s like a piece of chamber music; listen to your own voice reciting, relaying the comfortless, the uncomfortable and joyful interludes which Dylan Thomas invites you and you alone to do.
To appreciate the inspiration and perhaps motive or even need, Dylan Thomas had for writing as he did, consider that when the street lights go out (in small towns, villages and the countryside) and as in Dylan Thomas’s day, the candle and lamp glow in the windows of dwellings are extinguished one by one you may stand in utter dark: ‘bible black’ silence. Dylan Thomas knew that the Cities in the world, where night is not utter in either sense he perceived and communicated that of his countryside town life to be… ‘Bible…’ and necessarily these hives are active, dynamic through night-time. He lauded the life and energy he found in the City, the anon. and of course he saw human endeavour in all its smutty foible, illuminated and this is what Dylan Thomas lived.
Dylan Thomas died on the 9th November 1953 in St Vincent Hospital, New York City.