Water symbolizes nostalgia and the freedom of nature. In the beginning of Under Milk Wood, First Voice invites the audience to “hear and see” the “big seas of [the townspeople’s] dreams.” Because the townspeople’s dreams often convey their nostalgic longing for the past—ghosts and childhood are recurrent themes—First Voice’s decision to describe the townspeople’s dreams as “big seas” establishes a link between water and nostalgia. Captain Cat’s dreams expand on this link, as they explicitly involve water. The elderly, blind sea-captain’s dreams transport him to the bottom of the ocean, where the ghosts of former shipmates who drowned at sea overwhelm him with questions about life among the living, and where he also sees the ghost of his former lover, Rosie Probert. Cat’s watery dreams reflect the guilt and responsibility he feels for the deaths of the men who drowned under his leadership, but they also symbolize the broader nostalgia Cat feels for his former life and the people who populated it. Cat’s unconscious journey into the “big seas of [his] dreams” is also a journey into the sea of nostalgia, and the same is true for other townspeople, for whom the “big seas of their dreams” also offer the opportunity to reminisce about the past.
Water also symbolizes the freedom of nature. When townspeople venture into the sea that borders Llareggub, their thoughts and actions are no longer constrained by social norms. For example, the play suggests a literal connection between water and promiscuity: Nogood Boyo has dirty thoughts about Mrs. Dai Bread Two wearing a wet corset while he’s fishing on his boat, and Second Voice describes Captain Cat’s former “sea-life” as “sardined with women.”
Water Quotes in Under Milk Wood
FIRST VOICE (Very softly)
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 dumbfound town are sleeping now.
Come closer now. Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the combs and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird–watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.
SECOND VOICE. Fishermen grumble to their nets. Nogood Boyo goes out in the dinghy Zanzibar, ships the oars, drifts slowly in the dab–filled bay, and, lying on his back in the unbaled water, among crabs’ legs and tangled lines, looks up at the spring sky.
NOGOOD BOYO. (Softly, lazily) I don’t know who’s up there and I don’t care.
Captain Cat, at his window thrown wide to the sun and the clippered seas he sailed long ago when his eyes were blue and bright, slumbers and voyages; ear–ringed and rolling, I Love You Rosie Probert tattooed on his belly, he brawls with broken bottles in the fug and babel of the dark dock bars, roves with a herd of short and good time cows in every naughty port and twines and souses with the drowned and blowzy–breasted dead. He weeps as he sleeps and sails.
She is forgetting.
The earth which filled her mouth
Is vanishing from her.
I have forgotten you.
I am going into the darkness of the
darkness for ever.
I have forgotten that I was ever born.
I want to be a good Boyo, but nobody’ll let me.
Blind Captain Cat climbs into his bunk. Like a cat, he sees in the dark. Through the voyages of his tears, he sails to see the dead.