Under The Milk Wood With Bob Dylan


By Larry Fyffe

Much of the style of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics is marked by assonance (alike vowel sounds), and consonance (alike consonant sounds) that includes alliteration. ‘Under Milk Wood’, a Romantic surrealistic and satirical play-poem by Dylan Thomas, filled as it is with assonance and consonance, is a poetic well from which Bob Dylan draws:

The meadows still as Sunday
The shut-eye tasselled bulls
The goat-and-daisy dingles
Nap happy and lazy
(Thomas: Under Milk Wood)

Typical of the songwriter, Bob Dylan pays tribute to his Blake and Shelley-influenced mentor by the reformulation of ‘The goat-and-daisy dingles’ into
‘The cloak and dagger dangles’ in the following song:

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
(Bob Dylan: Love Minus Zero)

‘Under Milk Wood’ is a springtime narrative, featuring characters that include Blind Captain Cat, Reverend Eli, Rosie the whore, Mae Rose the Virgin, lonely Bessie, and Willy Nilly the postman. Shakespeare’s plays, the books of the Bible, and the conceit-bearing Metaphysical Poets that TS Eliot admires are drawn upon by Thomas in his play-poem.

Unbound by time, underlying the visions of the blind sea captain, is the search for light in the surrounding darkness of a town called Llareggub (Bugger All spelled backwards to look Welsh).

Dylan Thomas’ ambiguous prose-poem mixes in nursery rhymes a la the style of TS Eliot:

Every morning when I wake
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make
O please do keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die
(Thomas: Under Milk Wood)

Likewise, so does Bob Dylan:

You burned so bright
Roll on, John
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
In the forests of the night
(Bob Dylan: Roll On John)

Both poet and singer allude to a prayer from innocent childhood:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

The content of many of Bob Dylan’s songs is also influenced by ‘Under Milk Wood’. The main theme in Thomas’ play being that for each individual there are memories of the past, an awareness of the now and the possibility of a future on part of the living, but after death, there is only darkness:

It is all at once night now
The windy town is a hill of windows
And from the larrupped waves
The light of the lamps in the windows
Call back the day and the dead
That have run away to sea
(Thomas: Under Milk Wood)

A theme that runs through many of Bob Dylan’s songs as well:

Down every street there’s a window
And every window made of glass
We’ll keep on loving pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothing
But the mountains of the past
(Bob Dylan: Beyond Here Lies Nothing)

Thomas has his vision of the sorrowful country-girl Delores:

Call me Delores like they do in the stories
Alone until she dies, Bessie Bighead, hired help
Born in a workhouse, smelling of the cowshed
(Thomas: Under Milk Wood)

Bob Dylan, the sad-eyed city-girl to dream about:

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
(Bob Dylan: Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands)

Thomas presents us with a non-Transcendentalist Romantic Eden on Earth:

Pigs grunt in a wet wallow-bath ….
They mud-bask and snout in the pig-loving sun
Their tails curl; they rollick and slobber and snore
To deep, smug, after-swell sleep
(Thomas: Milk Wood)

Of such a paradise, Bob Dylan envisions:

I got a house on the hill
I got hogs all out in the mud
I got hogs out lying in the mud
I got a long-haired woman
She got royal Indian blood
(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

‘Under Milk Wood’, mentions an island so important in the history of whaling:

I lost my step in Nantucket
(Thomas: Under Milk Wood)

Bob Dylan likewise has some fun with Melville’s novel. Obsessed with revenge, Captain Ahab has only one leg because of the whale in ‘Mobey Dick’:

I yelled to Captain Ahab
I have you understand
Who came running to the deck
Said, ‘Boys, forget the whale
Look over yonder
Cut the engines
Change the sail’
(Bob Dylan: 115th Dream)

Style-wise, it’s all about assonance and consonance.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.  Also a list of the most read articles on this site.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


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