Under Milk Wood

by

Dylan Thomas

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Water  Symbol Icon

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

The Under Milk Wood quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the New Directions edition of Under Milk Wood published in 2019.
Under Milk Wood Quotes

[Silence]

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.

Related Characters: First Voice (speaker), Captain Cat, Second Voice
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: First Voice (speaker), Second Voice
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Second Voice (speaker), Nogood Boyo (speaker), First Voice
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: First Voice (speaker), Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Second Voice
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Remember her.
She is forgetting.
The earth which filled her mouth
Is vanishing from her.
Remember me.
I have forgotten you.
I am going into the darkness of the
darkness for ever.
I have forgotten that I was ever born.

Related Characters: Rosie Probert (speaker), Captain Cat
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

I want to be a good Boyo, but nobody’ll let me.

Related Characters: Nogood Boyo (speaker), Mrs. Dai Bread Two
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: First Voice (speaker), Captain Cat, Rosie Probert, Second Voice
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Under Milk Wood LitChart as a printable PDF.
Under Milk Wood PDF

Water Symbol Timeline in Under Milk Wood

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water appears in Under Milk Wood. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Under Milk Wood
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Resilience and Redemption   Theme Icon
...that only they are awake to see the ships bobbing up and down in the sea, and to experience the townspeople’s dreams. The stillness of night pervades everything in town from... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
Gossip and Community Theme Icon
...Voice urges the listener to listen as “time passes.” He describes Captain Cat, the blind sea-captain, asleep in his bunk on his ship, the S. S. Kidwelly. Second Voice interjects to... (full context)
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Intimacy Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...skin” and stands waiting “in a furnace in a tower in a cave in a waterfall in a wood,” for “Mister Right” to arrive. She asks him to call her “Dolores,... (full context)
Resilience and Redemption   Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...nets. One of these fishermen, Nogood Boyo takes his dinghy, the Zanzibar, out on the bay. He looks up at the sky and wonders “who’s up there,” though he doesn’t much... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
...Voice redirects the listener’s attention to the sun beating down on Llareggub and the adjacent sea. Second Voice interjects to describe Evans the Death “press[ing] hard with black gloves on the... (full context)
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Intimacy Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...unlike Cherry Owen, who tells Edwards he should have tossed the mermaid-Myfanwy back into the sea. Edwards closes his letter by voicing his anxieties about his failing business. The letter ends... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
...sees herring gulls in the sky and fishermen at work. The fishermen look in the water and see all the goods their catch will allow them to buy, however, they quickly... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
As the afternoon draws on, and “the sea lolls, laps and idles.” Clouds float over Llareggub Hill, and donkeys and pigs dream. Mr.... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...the listener’s attention to Captain Cat, who is sleeping beside his window, which faces the sea he traversed long ago, before he was blind. Cat dreams about rowdy times at dock... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Intimacy Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...name is tattooed on his stomach, and who was the only woman the formerly promiscuous seafarer had ever loved. Rosie was seeing many other men while she was with Cat, but... (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...of windows,” which “call back the day and the dead that have run away to sea.” Women sing babies and old men to sleep. (full context)
Nostalgia  Theme Icon
Storytelling and Ordinary Life  Theme Icon
Intimacy Theme Icon
Resilience and Redemption   Theme Icon
Nature vs. Society   Theme Icon
...implores the listener to observe the darkening night and the breeze that blows over the sea. First Voice describes what Milk Wood is to different people. To “the hunters of lovers,”... (full context)