My old but well-read copy of "Under Milk Wood". JM Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1976 ed.
My old but well-read copy of Under Milk Wood (JM Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1976 ed.)

Dylan Thomas would’ve been 99 today. Born 27 October 1914, he died 9 November 1953, only 39 years old, much too soon. What a quotable writer Thomas was. All my life my parents, brother and I went about quoting from Under Milk Wood to each other, in stead of talking normally. Using Thomas’ words was just so much more fun than ordinary English. My parents would call themselves  “two old kippers in a box”, and my Mum would say to me “Give me my glasses. No, not my reading glasses. I want to look OUT, I want to see”. And mortification was expressed by sighing “Oh, Mrs. Ogmore, oh, Mrs. Prichard”, agreement with “Yes, Mog, yes, Mog, yes, yes, yes.” Fans of the play would recognise these words instantly. Even now, I can quote entire passages from “Under Milk Wood”. When I was small I couldn’t understand much of it –  it was just a lovely torrent of words. With each re-listening over the years, I understood more, and appreciated it better.

I learned how wonderful English can be, how transcendent, from the never-to-be-improved on reading of  Under Milk Wood by the incomparable Sir Richard Burton (10 November 1925 – 5 August 1984), whose voice simply danced over the long, complicated word-poems of which the play consists, never once mumbling, stumbling, mispronouncing or losing an emphasis.

My precious double LP of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, the scarce original 1972 UK mono recoding, featuring Richard Burton in the 1954 BBC radio production. The cover shows Blind Captain Cat, who dreamed of his lost love Rosie Probert of 33 Duck Lane – “Come on up boys, I’m dead”.

Written as a “play for voices” for the BBC, the vinyl double LP featured Burton and an all-Welsh cast of the original BBC production from 1954. Richard Burton is the First Voice, which connects all the characters, played by twenty-eight men, women, and children, and while he was Welsh, on this recording, he sounds flawlessly British. His voice is the nearest thing to velvet made audible that I have ever heard.

The play is one day in the life of a little Welsh seaside village, Llareggub, (pronounced gla-re-geeb) and the opening lines are some of the most evocative ever written:

“It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night 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.”

The characters are unforgettable: Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Myfanwy Price and Mr. Mog Edwards, Mr.  and Mrs. Waldo, Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, Mr. Ogmore, Mr. Pritchard, Organ Morgan, Mr.  and Mrs. Willy Nilly, Rev. Eli Jenkins, Mrs. and Mr. Pugh and of course, Nogood Boyo – and many more.

From "Under Milk Wood" - Mrs. Pugh wanting her glasses to spy on the neighbours.
From “Under Milk Wood” – Mrs. Pugh wanting her glasses to spy on the neighbours.

Apart from Under Milk Wood, my other Dylan Thomas favourite is A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1947), which, people say, is just the perfect encapsulation of Wales in snowy December, at least the way people remember it fondly. It ends with these lovely words:

“Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

Finally, there is Thomas’ poem about death, which will always remind me not to get weak as I get old, not to lose the fight in me, not to give up.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Thomas is quoted as saying:

“I should say I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes and before I could read them for myself I had come to love the words of them. The words alone. What the words stood for was of a very secondary importance … I fell in love, that is the only expression I can think of, at once…” (Myers, Jack; Wukasch, Don (2003). Dictionary of Poetic Terms. University of North Texas Press, U.S.)

I can say the same for myself. I’ve fallen in love with words. That’s why I do what I do, and that’s why I try to write poetry.

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More about Dylan Thomas… (the official website)

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