Begin At The Beginning - Thoughts On Under Milk Wood
Equinotical winds, snow in April, intense sunshine the week before; not a particularly auspicious omen for starting anew. What Shakespearean weather will shake May? Unto the breach regardless, to begin at the beginning,with a sighing exposition on Under Milk Wood, the work which developed Tolkienesque appetites to something bordering on refined mysticism.
Of course, it began with a voice, Richard Burton’s velvet conjuration: now I was animal, a fox, eye transfigured, all the better to see the innate magic of this little town, Llareggub. Merlin awoke from his tree, Chaucerian portraits unfolded, eccentric only if you have never dreamed or read the Mabinogion, where a woman’s face can be a composition of flowers.
Sea’s green as a bean,
Seas gliding with deer,
And foxes and swans.
Animalism, transfiguration, folklore, nestled by besom, cough medicine and false teeth. A collision of domesticity and fantasy. The lullaby pull of the eponymous wood was magic incarnate, where, ‘neath dew sprinkled boughs, anything might happen. That was the first spell. The second, and most powerful, is Polly Garter. Who is this woman that scrubs her doorstep and sings of lost youth and dead loves? Scrubbing and singing, not lamenting. Perhaps it’s a rare Cymric quirk.
Indeed, the play propounds the wonderful idea that eccentricities, fables and romanticism are touchingly normal. Fable rooted in flesh. What deadly comfort. As Thomas once wrote in a letter:
The only democratic conception of human equality is that all men are tragic and comic: we die; we have noses. We are not united by our drabness, but by our heroisms; the common things are wonderful; the drab things are those that are not common.
So Polly scrubs her step and sings to herself and in so doing becomes mightier than Culhwch.
Like the ancient Welsh tales Under Milk Wood is infinitely strange, possessing Celtic holiness, dark humour and innocent sensuality, to be savoured like warm, milky porridge as an antidote to bleak rationalism. Each May Day it happens, the hawthorn blooms drops of milk and then it’s time to revisit Captain Cat, Organ Morgan, fishermen, pensioners, webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives.