I was chatting to a friend recently who was thinking of visiting Swansea, and they asked what there was to see in the area. As well as the outstanding beauty of the Gower Peninsula, which is just to the west of Swansea, one thing to see in Swansea are things relating to one of one of city’s most famous sons, Dylan Thomas. There is his childhood home and school, as well as a museum with lots of information about him. About 45 further west is the small village of Laurghane (or Talacharn to give it its proper Welsh name), where Thomas lived and wrote for much of his adult life.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea in 1914, and is considered one of the finest English language poets of his generation. He is probably the best known anglo-Welsh poet, gaining considerable fame in the United States. He died an alcoholic in 1953, shortly after his 39th birthday, drinking himself to death in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, dying on the 9th of November.
In addition to poetry, Thomas wrote short stories, including “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, and his most famous short story, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”. But possibly his most famous piece of work is “Under Milk Wood”, a radio play which he completed shortly before his death. It was first broadcast in January 1954, with Richard Burton playing the role of the narrator. In 1972 a film version of the play was made, where Burton reprised his role as the narrator, the film also starred Elizabeth Taylor (Burton’s then wife) and Peter O’Toole.
The opening lines of “Under Milk Wood” illustrate beautifully Thomas’ genius with words, their rhythm and sound.
[First voice (very softly)]
To begin at the beginning:
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 the mourning, the Welfare Hall in
widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and
dumbfound town are sleeping now.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the
fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler,
school-teacher, postman and publican, the undertaker
and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker,
preacher, poliecman, the webfoot cocklewomen and
the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in
their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided
by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying
wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the
bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered
sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in
the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in
the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant
corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one
cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town
breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the
black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you
alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-
before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black,
dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the
Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the
Cormorant and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.
Listen. It is night in the streets, the
processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation
Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on
LLareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in
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 to-night 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 smuggeries or babies.
Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through
the Coronation cherry trees; going through the
graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded,
and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.
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
From where you are, you can hear their dreams.
Captain Cat, the retired blind sea-captain, asleep in
his bunk in the seashelled, ship-in-bottled, shipshape
best cabin of Schooner House dreams of…..
The rather blurry photograph above is me holding my own copy of “Under Milk Wood”. If you haven’t read it then I highly recommend it.
Which is your favourite work by Dylan Thomas?