Actor and artistic director Guy Masterson says the famous Welsh poet didn’t so much defy the rules of grammar as stretch them.
It is a joy for me as an actor to speak great words, be it a play, prose or poetry. More to the point, it is an intellectual and emotional challenge to get one’s interpretative jaws around great words and then bring them to life in an meaningful and memorable way.
One has to believe, with great writers such as Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), that they intended their words to be spoken out loud and not merely read. And certainly, when you listen to their words lifting off the page, the true richness of their intention is evident. The words are there to interact, reverberate and collude with an audience, deliberately creating an emotional through-line to affect them.
But what makes Dylan Thomas so wonderful, a poet of some of the greatest wordplay in the English language and among the finest of the twentieth century?
I should state here that I am not an expert in grammar. I hold a degree in biochemistry, not literature, so I should perhaps not attempt to explain exactly how Thomas ‘breaks the rules’ for I myself will probably not use the correct terminology. My qualifications come from speaking his words a thousand or more times and from my emotional experience of performing them.
But let’s start with the first paragraph from the opening monologue of his epic masterpiece Under Milk Wood, as this is his most famous and enduring work:
To Begin At The Beginning
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and Bible black.
The cobbled streets silent, and the hushed, courters and rabbit’s wood, limping invisibly down to the slow, black, sloe-black, crow-black fishing-boat-bobbing sea…
Immediately, one is struck by how quickly he sets the scene: moonless, starless and black. Simply by adding the word ‘Bible’ to adjectivise (forgive my own Dylanesque word) ‘black’, he concisely marries a perfect description of colour with a telling religious aspect of the town. Then ‘hushed’ gives us the perfect one-word description of the alive silence of a wood that belongs to naughty-hiding-lovers and rabbits! Finally, the famous painting of the lulled black sea. We are left under no illusion of how dark the sea is, on which are gently bobbing the locals’ little fishing boats.
I will, of course, not attempt to go through the entire work, suffice it that Thomas’s gift is neatly encapsulated right there in that opening paragraph. He actually uses as few words as possible to create the scene, and in doing so, blends ideas and images as he feels necessary, fusing image, onomatopoeia and facts perfectly. This is a common thread throughout the piece and his other work:
Mrs Rose Cottage’s eldest, Mae, peels off her pink and white skin, in a furnace, in a cave, in a waterfall in a wood and waits there, raw as an onion, for Mr Right to leap up the burning, tall, hollow, splashes of leaves…
This paragraph, also from Under Milk Wood does not so much defy the laws of grammar as stretch them, but I am ashamed to say that I did not understand the meaning of this paragraph for over a decade after I started performing the piece. Not because I couldn’t, but because I was simply speaking the words as written down, never questioning their deeper meaning. It was only when I got the order wrong that I realised the language did not make sense. The order of the first half of the sentence marries the meaning perfectly with the second part and must be spoken that way… furnace-burning, cave-hollow, waterfall-splashes, wood-leaves…
Here are a few more simple examples which show the poet’s semantic word play:
‘What seas did you see, Tom Cat, Tom Cat, in your sailoring days
What sea-beasts were in the wavery green when you were my master?’
‘snouting, velvet dingles…’
‘bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying wood‘
‘neddying among the snuggeries of babies’
‘the sea-shelled, ship-in-bottled, shipshape best cabin of Schooner House’
And how about his description of Myfanwy Price’s dream lover, turning common nouns into verbs:
‘tall as the town clock tower, Samson-syrup-gold maned, whacking thighed and piping hot, thunderbolt-bass’d and barnacle breasted, flailing up the cockles with eyes like blowlamps and scooping low over her lonely loving hotwaterbottled body.’
Under Milk Wood is chock-full of such inventiveness.
In his short-story prose, such as Holiday Memory, his list-making is not only informative and specific, but paints beautiful pictures through the use of single, lyrically perfect sentences. Try reading this single sentence out loud, (observing his punctuation of course) and you will know what I mean:
I remember the smell of sea and seaweed, wet flesh, wet hair, wet bathing-dresses, the warm smell as of a rabbity field after rain, the smell of pop and splashed sunshades and toffee, the stable-and-straw smell of hot, tossed, tumbled, dug, and trodden sand, the swill-and-gas-lamp smell of Saturday night, though the sun shone strong; from the bellying beer-tents, the smell of the vinegar on shelled cockles, winkle smell, shrimp smell, the dripping-oily-back-street-winter smell of chips in newspapers, the smell of ships from the sun-dazed docks round the corner of the sand-hills, the smell of the known and paddled-in sea moving, full of the drowned and herrings, out and away and beyond and further still towards the Antipodes that hung their koala-bears and Maoris, kangaroos, and boomerangs, upside down off the backs of the stars.
The same lyrical inventiveness comes through in his poetry:
Poem In October: ‘The Mussel pooled and the Heron priested shore…’ ‘A springful of larks in a rolling cloud…’ ‘under the larkful cloud…”
Fern Hill: ‘the spellbound horses walking warm, out of the whinnying green stable, on to the fields of praise.’
To summarise, there are enough examples here in poetry and prose to illustrate exactly what Dylan Thomas was about. Many have tried to imitate him. Some have got closer than others, but in my experience, Dylan’s talent lay not only in perfect apposite creation but also in its frugal use. He rarely ‘goes over the top’. His work is the epitome of balance, while being cleverly inventive – but only when necessary. For where Dylan Thomas felt he could improve the English language, he did so… and our beautiful language is the richer for it.
Get hold of Dylan Thomas lesson plans on our Teaching English website, or watch Guy's seminar on Dylan Thomas as part of the centenary celebrations.
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Janet:Dylan Thomas has become a part of the establishment nowadays-he’s even in the AQA Anthology. Ironically he has become respectable! I was just wondering if you can remember when you first read Dylan Thomas and how he affected you Martin?
Martin: I think I heard Dylan Thomas before I read him. It may have been a typically sonorous reading of “Do Not Go Gentle“ or, if not, it will certainly have been the classic BBC recording of Under Milk Wood. I can picture my uncle, standing blowing cigarette smoke out of his window, as we listened to the mesmerising tones of Richard Burton and the cast. I’m not sure, being quite young at the time, that I really understood it, but it was as if I were suddenly being invited into a technicolour, three-dimensional garden of language, so ripe and tactile.
JanetThat’s a memorable tableau of your Uncle and very evocative for the mood of Thomas as accompanied by Richard Burton!
We do hear so very differently as children perhaps?
Do you still find his language technicolor, ripe and tactile and if so, what is it about his writing that anchors your imagination in such a sensory way?
Martin: It’s interesting that some of the finest writers in English come from the bardic and musical traditions of the previously Celtic and Gaelic cultures of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Thomas, the Welshman, sings our language back to us with the same relish in words, the music of words, the feel of words in the mouth and the eddying vibration of words in the world of things that is often to be found in Irish writers (like Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, even George Bernard Shaw) or Scots like Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy (well, Carol Ann was born in Glasgow). It’s as if they are always approaching language as a newly discovered, endlessly versatile and wonderful tool. Hmmm… that must be a ‘yes’, then, eh?
Janet:It definitely sounds like a ‘Yes’ and a lovely way of saying yes too!
If it is the ‘song’ of Thomas’s poetry that resonates with us, and perhaps returns us to another way of expressing ourselves- even to ourselves, then perhaps such a rediscovering accounts for the healing possibilities of the writers you mentioned? Sometimes it could be as if we are hearing something for the first time in public that has been hoarded up privately for years!
What part of Under Milk Woodresonates for you Martin and why?
Martin: Thomas creates such vibrant characters in just a few lines. They are not naturalistic but archetypal (as opposed to stereotypical). What’s more, he plays on our transgressive instincts by inviting us, “secretly”, into their homes, their thoughts and even their dreams. I can’t stop myself feeling the urge to visit this small town by the sea; to walk among these people, watch their daily antics, listen in to their banter (Captain Cat, in particular, I’ve always wanted to meet).
We are presented with a group of flawed and diverse men, women and children who nevertheless make up a plausible community – these people belong together. There are dark things hidden (and not so hidden) in Llareggub, but there is, for me, a sense that Dylan Thomas knows, loves and understands the inhabitants of this town. What keeps drawing me back to Under Milk Wood is not just the sumptuous banquet of language but the love the author has lavished on the world he has created.
Janet: I love the idea of the ‘secret’ invitation Martin and I do wonder ‘where’ we meet such characters? Without being sentimental, where do we meet them? In our hearts, minds, dreams? And if things remain incomplete do you feel we complete the characters and the events within our own imagination, perhaps exercising a control we lack in life?
On another tack, what did you enjoy about writing the ebook on Dylan Thomas and how do you feel it will help readers and students? I do hope you are going to write more too?
Martin: I think, especially as radio is such an ‘interactive’ medium (requiring more of the listener’s imagination than stage or screen), we do participate in the construction of the play. I see a particular actor whenever I hear Captain Cat – I don’t know his name and I’ve no idea if he’s ever played the part, but I match his face and gestures with the voice. I like the face, as well as the voice, so in that sense, there is certainly a collaboration of mind and heart.
Perhaps dreams are playing a part also, in the sense that I’ve now heard UMW so many times, the town feels almost like I have dreamt it up on The Sims or 2nd Life. Of course, the space radio leaves for the listener’s imagination also presents an opportunity to exercise a certain level of control. One of the more interesting things for me is the way in which my response to the Reverend Eli Jenkins words ‘And never, never leave the town’ has varied according to my own state of mind. There are times when those words have carried an element of menace, almost presenting the small community as a kind of prison, a life sentence; at other times, there is something comforting and protective about them – as if he is saying, ‘this is your home and you need never leave it.’
I found it interesting and enjoyable to delve deeper into the text and consider it, not just from the perspective of listener or student, but of a playwright consider its construction from a practitioner’s point of view, to think how it works as a piece of radio drama. I hope that students will use it, in conjunction with other notes and guides, to provide them with valuable insights into this fine piece of work.
I have already written a “25 Step Guide to Analysing Poetry” (which is available from Tusitala) and am currently putting together a companion guide on how to read a play.