I was fourteen, I think, when I first read Under Milk Wood, and I’m still reading it. In some sense I never stop. It showed me that the English language could be a musical instrument, and that English printed on a page could be considered as a kind of notation. That’s not quite a this-is-the-book-that-changed-my-life revelation (don’t you hate the question ‘Which book changed your life’ by the way?), but it certainly changed the way I read. It was the book that changed all other books.
It’s very hard to give a synopsis of Under Milk Wood. Is it the story of a community full to bursting with people who are themselves to blame for their frustrated lives?
No. It can’t be: that would be too simplistic. This, I think, is better: Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices, is a dream designed to remind you how painful waking up can be.
I own two copies of Milk Wood: the Adeline edition is the one I grew up with (and I still think it’s the best version of the text), and I have a fetching purple hardback printed by The Folio Society. The Folio edition is a joy to behold, but there are a few very strange editorial decisions that distort one or two passages. I’ve owned three Adeline editions in the past decade or so. My first fell to bits, and they’ll never find the body of the prick who stole the second. I’m a bit funny about this book. There was a time, too, when I was devoted to the BBC recording of it (Richard Burton reading the parts of the two anonymous narrators) but while I still have a lot of time for it, I know Milk Wood so well by now that it sounds better in my head.
Under Milk Wood is the story of one Spring day in a Welsh village by the sea. Nothing special happens; we learn that it is a day just exactly like any other. Outward life is not important to Thomas in the play – if it were, he would never have written it strictly for radio. But the inner lives of the characters are brought to gorgeous life, ‘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.’
Thomas can keep up a sentence like that just about endlessly, and he was unusually good at steering the rhythms of speech: when you try reading it out everything moves with a sprightly inevitability, the bright, frisky nouns bouncing back and forth over the conjunctions until you get to ‘big seas’. And there you have to regroup from the ‘g’ before you can pronounce the sibilant ‘seas’. Genius. It’s in just the right place to give us time to settle before learning that it’s a dream life we’re talking about.
Under Milk Wood is not without fairly serious flaws: it has no plot, for starters, and Thomas’ word music is sometimes bereft of all meaning. Thomas worked on the play for a decade and it is possible, had he lived, that he would have gone on working on it for another ten years. The end is rather abrupt – particularly when you compare it to the lavish beginning – but I don’t care. I just don’t care.
One of the things I love most about literature is the gossip that accumulates around its major figures. Not that I think their lives necessarily alter the impact or my appreciation of their art. It’s a constant frustration to me, if I may digress, that nothing whatsoever is known about Shakespeare. He was the best playwright of his day, and one of the most successful actors, directors and producers as well. You’d think he would have been bonking half the barmaids in the greater London area, to say nothing of the boys in his troupe. But we know not a sausage other than that he left his second-best bed to his wife.
Not so with Dylan Thomas. Thomas was in many ways the clichéd hell-raising Celt. The rather nice Dent edition of The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas reveals a man who spent almost as much time apologising for bad behaviour as he did swearing undying love. To put it bluntly, he was a booze-hound. A piss-artist. A lush.
There’s a charming anecdote in John Mortimer’s autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage: Mortimer recalls meeting a sozzled Dylan Thomas, who said ‘that he was looking for a girl with an aperture as small as a mouse’s ear-hole’.
So he was either a sadist or singularly poorly hung.
Once I was talking to a friend about how much I love Thomas and he told me that his grandfather wouldn’t allow Thomas’ name to be spoken under his roof. I was fascinated. Why such resentment? Because the poet agreed to do a reading for a literature group the grandfather was a member of, but passed out in a local bar before the event could begin.
The line ‘An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do’ is attributed to Thomas more than to anyone else, and he is rumoured to have staggered into a hotel and announced to anyone who cared to know ‘I’ve just had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.’
I like knowing this sort of thing about writers because it makes me feel closer to them. They stop being merely authors of texts and become human. You feel they’re almost friends. And in the case of Thomas, it has the added advantage that you can look on him as a pal without running the risk that he’ll reel into your hallway and relieve himself on the carpet.
Under Milk Wood isn’t full of the kind of snippets that you can quote in the way that it’s possible to rattle off Shakespeare to match a situation. But if you know Thomas’ writing well, it often forms an internal monologue, gentle ebbing phrases that resonate in your head. Thomas saved his most astonishing writing, though, for his poems. Once read, it’s impossible to forget the opening stanza of ‘In Country Sleep’:
Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep,
Fear or believe that the wolf in a sheepwhite hood
Loping and bleating roughly and blithely shall leap,
My dear, my dear
Out of a lair in the flocked leaves in the dew dipped year
To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood.
Or opening of another, named after the first line:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Under Milk Wood doesn’t look like much. It’s only eighty-six pages long including the preface: you can read it in under two hours and the first two hours I spent with it changed my entire conception of literature and language.