Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Tuesday Poem: Dylan Thomas - Under Milkwood

Dylan and Caitlin Thomas - Photo, Dylan Thomas Society
It's the centenary this year of the birth of Dylan Thomas, who wrote some of the most memorable poetry in the English language.  I've loved his work ever since I first read Fern Hill as an impressionable teenager and then had to study Under Milkwood for A Level English.  I'd never listened to such singing prose poetry, particularly narrated by Richard Burton.  The chorale of voices perfectly portrays the small town Protestant fundamentalism that created almost as many psychological problems as extreme Catholicism. The night skies of Milkwood are 'Bible black' in more ways than one.

"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 loft 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 .......

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 coms 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 wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams."

Dylan Thomas was extraordinarily gifted, but also with a strong compulsion towards self-destruction. He drank excessively, and died at the age of 39.  His wife was a dancer - formerly a model for Augustus John (who was a family friend) and raped by John at a very young age.  Caitlin too had a problem with alcohol.  The stormy relationship between the Thomas's was beautifully explored in the BBC film A Poet in New York - the events of the last few months of his life taken directly from Caitlin's own autobiographies, Leftover Life to Kill and Caitlin:  Life with Dylan Thomas, also Not Quite Posthumous Letters to my Daughter, and a journal that she kept during her marriage.

After Dylan's death in 1953, Caitlin moved to Italy and lived with a film director much younger than herself, giving birth to a son called Francesco when she was 49. She died in Sicily in 1994 aged 80.  I find her life absolutely fascinating.

And yes, I do know all about Dylan Thomas's verbal excesses (much disapproved of in university circles!) but even now I get goosebumps when I read the last lines of Fern Hill

"Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

I didn't know what it meant when I was 16, but I do now.

If you want to listen to Richard Burton reading Under Milkwood, this is the YouTube link.





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4 comments:

  1. Under Milkwood, how that takes me back!
    My mum had a recording of it on LP when I was a child. I used to love putting it on and sitting in the dark listening to it. I loved it then and love it still!

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    1. I used to have a cassette tape of it and I played it until it wore out!

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  2. Thanks for the fabulous extracts, and story of Caitlin, which I didn't know x

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    1. I didn't know either, until I started digging a little bit and discovered she'd written so many books. I would love to know what happened to her Italian son.

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