Under Milk Wood


Dylan Thomas

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Under Milk Wood Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas was born on October 27, 1914 in Swansea, Wales. Thomas’ father was a professor of English Literature at the Swansea Gramma School who had a habit of reciting Shakespeare at home, which instilled in the young Thomas an early love of poetry. When Dylan Thomas was 16 years old, he dropped out of school and became a reporter for the South Wales Daily Post, where he worked for 18 months before deciding to move to London to focus on writing poetry. He wrote more than half of his collected poems during this time, and the 1934 publication of his poem “Light breaks where no sun shines” in The Listener received much critical acclaim. That same year, Thomas won the Sunday Referee’s Poet’s Corner Prize, which sponsored the publication of his first volume of poetry, 18 Poems, in December 1934. Shortly after the publication of 18 Poems, Thomas met his wife, dancer Caitlin Macnamara, at a London pub. They were married in 1937 and would have three children together. The couple settled in London in 1940, though they left in 1944 to avoid the air raids. Thomas worked as a professional broadcaster and scriptwriter for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) between 1943 and 1953 and was involved in the creation of over 100 radio broadcasts. One such broadcast, Quite Early One Morning, which first aired in August 1945, features characters and ideas that would resurface in Under Milk Wood. Thomas and his family split their time between London and Wales until 1949, when they moved to Thomas’ final home in Laugharne, Wales, where they lived at the Boat House, a house nestled in the cliffs overlooking the River Tâf. Thomas wrote many of his later works at the Boat House, including parts of Under Milk Wood. Thomas traveled to the United States for the first time in 1950, when he was 35 years old. In the last years of his life, he conducted a series of four reading tours across the country, and his engaging poetic delivery, dramatic demeanor, and raucous drinking delighted his American audiences During his last tour, which took place in 1953, Thomas collapsed at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City after a long evening of drinking. He died on November 9, 1953, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, and he was buried in Laugharne, Wales.
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Historical Context of Under Milk Wood

Though Dylan Thomas began to develop the style and ideas he would employ in Under Milk Wood as early as 1931, it has been suggested that the play’s final form was Thomas’ response to the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred near the end of World War II, on August 6, 1945, and—in combination with the bombing U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, which took place three days later—resulted in an estimated death toll of over 200,000 people. Supposedly, Under Milk Wood was Thomas’ attempt to show that there was still beauty in the world, despite the immense brutality and destruction of World War II. When Under Milk Wood was published in 1954, Great Britain was still recovering from the devastating economic and social consequences of war. In addition to nearly 400,000 British soldiers that died in combat, Great Britain experienced significant inflation and unemployment in the aftermath of World War II and, as a result, much of the literature that emerged over the following decade reflects a cynical perspective on British society. The “angry young men” were a group of working- and middle-class British playwrights and novelists that achieved prominence in the 1950s. These writers published works that expressed a disillusionment with postwar British society and cultural norms. John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956) influenced many of the works associated with this movement and explores how the class differences between a working-class man and his middle-class wife lead to troubles in their marriage. Though not associated with the “angry young men” movement, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), which was published the same year as Under Milk Wood, reflects a similar cynicism and explores the corruption, immorality, and groupthink that overcome a group of young boys stranded on an island. Published just five years before Under Milk Wood, George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a cautionary tale about the consequences of authoritarianism and extreme government surveillance. Under Milk Wood’s optimism and lightheartedness, therefore, are somewhat atypical of a literary period whose works were dominated by themes of cynicism, anger, and disillusionment. While the nostalgia and simplicity Thomas evokes in Under Milk Wood might cynically mourn the simple, good way of life that World War II destroyed, it also entertains the hopeful possibility that beauty and goodness can still exist in the world. 

Other Books Related to Under Milk Wood

Dylan Thomas is an important Welsh poet and 20th Century literary figure. Some of his most popular poems are “Do not go gentle into that good night,” which is included his poetry collection In Country Sleep, and Other Poems (1952), and “And death shall have no dominion,” which is included in the poetry collection Twenty-Five Poems (1936). His most well-known collection of poetry is Deaths and Entrances (1946), which contains many poems that have been anthologized. Thomas enjoyed a productive career as a professional broadcaster for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), presenting around 145 broadcasts between 1943 and 1953. Many of these broadcasts are reproduced in On the Air With Dylan Thomas: The Broadcasts (1991). Thomas’ notable prose publications include Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), a collection of autobiographical short fiction, and Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories (1953). Under Milk Wood belongs to the radio play genre, which was popular form of entertainment in the first half of the 20th Century, prior to the advent of television. Some notable radio dramas include Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938), which is based on the science fiction novel by H. G. Welles, Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall (1957), and Harold Pinter’s A Slight Ache (1959).
Key Facts about Under Milk Wood
  • Full Title: Under Milk Wood
  • When Written: Thomas began developing the styles and ideas he would employ in the final version of Under Milk Wood as early as the 1930s. 
  • Where Written: Wales  
  • When Published: 1954
  • Literary Period: 20th Century
  • Genre: Radio Drama
  • Setting: Llareggub, a fictitious seaside village in Wales
  • Climax: Under Milk Wood doesn’t follow the structure of a conventional narrative and has no climax
  • Point of View: Third-Person Omniscient 

Extra Credit for Under Milk Wood

At the Movies. The first film adaptation of Under Milk Wood was released in 1972 and featured performances by Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole. The filming occurred in Fishguard, Wales, and this choice was criticized by citizens of Laugharne, where Thomas had written some of the play, who felt that filming should have taken place there.

At a Loss for Words. Thomas lost his completed manuscript of Under Milk Wood in October 1953, right as he was about to travel to the U.S. to give readings of the play. Douglas Cleverdon, who produced the play for the BBC, possessed copies of the completed work, but Thomas’ blunder sent Cleverdon on a wild goose chase to track down the original manuscript, thought he eventually did find it—in a London pub.