Under Milk Wood: how did Dylan make us 'love the words'?

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1. Bizarre, bawdy and uniquely brilliant

Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, is one of Dylan Thomas's best known works. Set in the fictional fishing village of Llareggub ('bugger-all' spelt backwards), it is populated by an outrageous cast of drunkards, prostitutes, unrequited lovers, bigamists and ghosts.

It is, however, more than a bizarre soap opera. Behind the bawdy humour are fine examples of Thomas’s unique literary style. He famously gave only one direction to the cast before the play’s opening night, "Love the words, love the words", emphasising his own obsession with the sound of words above all else.

With a little exploration we can uncover the wide range of literary methods Thomas uses, and discover the craftsmanship that underpins this masterpiece.

2. Gobble quack and cackle

Once the residents have awoken and risen in Llareggub, the village is a bustling, noisy place.

Dylan Thomas brings the hubbub of the village to life using words which imitate the sound or action they represent. For example: boo, hiss, squelch.

This technique is known as onomatopoeia. The passage opposite shows how it gives the prose both texture and meaning: you can almost hear the sounds in the village.

Another way Thomas makes the passage sound so lyrical is by using alliteration, a literary technique where the same sound is repeated at the beginning of a number of words in a phrase. For example, bouncing baby boy.

A superb example of alliteration can be found at the start of the play: "It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow".

3. Prose with blood pressure

Dylan Thomas cleverly uses both rhyme and rhythm, as well as a range of other literary methods, to create a beautifully evocative picture of the village and its inhabitants.

Owen Sheers explores some of the styles and techniques used by Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood

4. Snouting, velvet dingles

The phrase "snouting, velvet dingles" is an example of a transferred epithet in Under Milk Wood.

"A transferred what?" you may ask. In fact, Dylan Thomas is famous for using this literary technique, which changes the order of words in a phrase or sentence, typifying his love of wordplay.

A transferred epithet often involves placing an adjective with what seems to be an incorrect noun, one that it cannot literally or logically describe.

In an example from Under Milk Wood, “though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles”, snouting and velvet are adjectives that could be used to describe a mole, rather than a dingle – which is a dell or a wooded valley.

Another good example is the phrase “the long and weary road” – the adjective long can logically describe a road, whereas a road cannot feel weary, so weary is the transferred epithet in this case.

5. 'Their words had forked no lightning'

As you've seen, Dylan Thomas uses many clever literary devices to enhance the language of Under Milk Wood. Which of these is your favourite?

Onomatopoeia

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Onomatopoeia

"crow caw, pigeon coo, clock strike, bull bellow, and the ragged gabble of the beargarden school"

Alliteration

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Alliteration

"titbits and topsyturvies, bobs and buttontops, bags and bones"

Transferred epithet

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Transferred epithet

"the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards"

Assonance

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Assonance

"Seas barking like seals, Blue seas and green"