Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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After my previous post, it seems entirely apt to post a review, today.

Writers rely upon reviews to sell books. To spread the word. And I am conscious how bad I am at leaving reviews – mainly because I’m not very good at writing them. But I Shall Try To Do Better!

To start with, this is the review I left on Goodreads some time ago for a book that is already very well-known.

This book begins, then, full of rich, playful language as it sets the scene and gradually introduces the players.

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 mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.

I have heard poems by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton – the actor, not the nineteenth century explorer – and his warm, mesmeric, lilting tone suits the poetry like no other voice I could imagine. Now, I cannot read any Dylan Thomas without hearing it read in his voice.

(I want my work read like that. There is a man I know with a wonderful voice; mellifluous and rich and deep, like Burgundy and dark chocolate. Not Welsh, but very English, who I shall attempt to trick into reading one of my poems or short stories out loud, one day.)

So, to the poem, or play, if you will, for it is a play, first and foremost, told as a prose poem. The play is full of wonderful voices, the voices of a plethora of small-town characters; all of them realistically drawn with their dreams and vices and foibles, and depicted with great humour, but also with sadness. Sadness, for there is resolution for most of the characters, and for some their dreams come true, but others are disappointed.

All of these characters love and hate and desire each other, they reminisce, they have ambitions. In this play, they all have their day. In this place, each one gets to tell their story, or have it told for them.

From the very beginning, the language is rich like double cream and brandy butter; too rich, perhaps, for certainly by the time I had begun to near the end it had become too much. I found myself yearning for more plain, simple language. I wanted a few bread and water phrases.

But the words invite you to savour them slowly – in fact, they demand it. Perhaps the secret, then, is to read this little and often; to dip into it and immerse yourself in the language.

I really wanted to give this masterpiece four and half stars out of five, but without that option, I give it five, although with the caveat above.

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38 thoughts on “Starless and Bible-Black – Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

  1. I have never read Under Milk Wood. I probably should, I feel oddly connected to it as it was one of my Mum’s favourites.
    She had an audiobook of it on tape read by Richard Burton. I know nothing more than this but it still feels really familiar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would certainly recommend it, Sam. Some of his poetry can be rather difficult – some of it I find utterly inaccessible – but Under Milk Wood is very readable, and I always hear Richard Burton’s wonderful voice as I read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems like a well-written, reasoned, concise review. The butter cream analogy seems very apt. The only Dylan Thomas I know is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which has been incorporated into the Xmas “traditions” at my house.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I must confess that I have read more of Dylan Thomas than I have read Dylan Thomas, but as for the sound of Dylan Thomas, when I hear his name, I cannot help but the recall the annual reading of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review Mick. Have to agree that I found the play a little too wordy towards the end and would have preferred a bit more plain-speaking but like you I always imagine it being read by Richard Burton.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wonderfully said, especially the want for a few “bread and water” phrases. I can understand…that was exactly what I felt while reading some classics. I’m adding this to my list, which is eventually becoming longer with each passing day.

    However, your delectable review made me hungry at this odd hour, it’s 4.30 a.m here, Saturday…

    Liked by 1 person

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