By Guy Masterson

22 October 2014 - 16:44

'Where Dylan Thomas felt he could improve the English language, he did so.' Photo (c) Reena Mahtani. licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Where Dylan Thomas felt he could improve the English language, he did so.' Photo ©

Reena Mahtani. licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original (link unavailable).

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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