This is my final blog showcasing letters from Dylan Thomas’s Collected Letters, which are now available in two paperback volumes. This letter from October 1951 was written to Princess Marguerite Caetani explaining the enclosed manuscript ‘Llareggub. A Piece for Radio Perhaps’ that eventually became his play-for-voices, Under Milk Wood. Princess Caetani was a cultured and modern woman who ensured Under Milk Wood reached a stage of completion, with her patient guidance.
The Boat House Laugharne Carmarthenshire Wales
My Dear Madame Caetani,
Thank you for your telegram from Paris. And I hope my letter, addressed to Brown’s Hotel, was forwarded to you.
This is a difficult letter to write, because I am asking a great request of you.
But let me first explain. The enclosed manuscript is called, as you will see, ‘Llareggub. A Piece for Radio Perhaps’, though the title is most provisional. And it is the first half of something I am delighting in doing and which I shall complete very shortly. Only very special circumstances—and I’ll tell you of them in a moment, if I may—are preventing me from carrying on with it every minute of the working day.
I told you, as you may remember, that I was working on a play, mostly in verse. This, I have reluctantly, and, I hope, only temporarily, abandoned: the language was altogether swamping the subject: the comedy, for that was what it was originally intended to be, was lost in the complicated violence of the words: I found I was labouring at each line as though I were making some savage, and devious, metaphysical lyric and not a play at all. So I set the hotchpotch aside, and am prepared to wait.
But out of my working, however vainly, on it, came the idea of ‘Llareggub’. (Please ignore it as a final title.) Out of it came the idea that I write a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness, of the town I live in, and to write it simply and warmly & comically with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, through sight and speech, description & dialogue, evocation and parody, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it. That is an awkward & highfalutin way of speaking: I only wanted
to make the town alive through a raw medium: and that, again, is wrong: I seem hardly able to write today, or, at least, to write about Llareggub: all I want to do is to write the damned thing itself.
Reading (as I hope you will) the first half of this piece as it stands, you’ll see that I have established the town up to a certain moment of the morning. And the effect you will find, probably, rather jerky and confusing, with far too many characters and changes of pitch and temper. But the piece will develop from this, through all the activities of the morning town—seen from a number of eyes, heard from a number of voices—through the long lazy lyrical afternoon, through the multifariously busy little town evening of meals & drinks and loves & quarrels and dreams and wishes, into the night and the slowing-down lull again and the repetition of the first word: Silence. And by that time, I hope to make you utterly familiar with the places and the people; the pieces of the
town will fit together; the reasons for all these behaviours (so far but hinted at) will be made apparent; & there the town will be laid alive before you. And only you will know it.
Let me particularise, & at random. As the piece goes on, two voices will be predominant: that of the preacher, who talks only in verse, and that of the anonymous exhibitor and chronicler called, simply, 1st Voice. And the 1st Voice is really a kind of conscience, a guardian angel. Through him you will learn about Mr. Edwards, the draper, and Miss Price, the sempstress, & their odd and, once it is made clear, most natural love. Every day of the week they write love letters to each other, he from the top, she from the bottom, of the town: all their lives they have known of each other’s existence, and of their mutual love: they have seen each other a thousand times, & never spoken: easily they could have been together, married, had children: but that is not the life for them: their passionate love, at just this distance, is all they need. And Dai Bread the baker, who has two wives: one is loving & mothering, sacklike & jolly; the other is gypsy slatternly and, all in love, hating: all three enjoy it. And Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard who, although a boardinghouse keeper, will keep no boarders because they cannot live up to the scrupulous & godlike tidiness of her house and because death can be the only boarder good enough for her in the end. And Mr. Pugh, the schoolmaster, who is always nagged by his wife and who is always plotting her murder. This is wellknown to the town, & to Mrs. Pugh. She likes nagging; he likes plotting, in supposed secrecy, against her. He would always like plotting, whoever he lived with; she would always like nagging, whoever she lived with. How lucky they are to be married. And Polly Garter has many illegitimate babies because she loves babies but does not want only one man’s. And Cherry Owen the soak, who likes getting drunk every night; & his wife who likes living with two men, one sober in the day, one drunk at night. And the cobbler who thinks the town is the wickedest place to live in in the world, but who can never leave it while there is a hope of reforming it; and, oh, the savour his cries of Gomorrah add to the pleasures of the little town wicked. And the old woman who every morning shouts her age to the heavens; she believes the town is the chosen land, & the little river Dewi the River of Jordan; she is not at all mad: she merely believes in heaven on earth. And so with all of them, all the eccentrics whose eccentricities, in these first pages, are but briefly & impressionistically noted: all, by their own rights, are ordinary & good; & the 1st Voice, & the poet preacher, never judge nor condemn but explain and make strangely simple & simply strange.
I daren’t look back over what I have written: I wrote it v. quickly, & most probably it reads like nonsense. But I terribly want to finish the piece. And it will be good (of its own kind). And this is where my great request of you at last comes in.
Can you pay me—and, I am sorry, at once—for this half of ‘Llareggub’ just as though it were finished? For without being paid well and at once, I cannot finish it.
In the middle of next week, we finally leave Laugharne for London. I mean, we have to leave: the house is sold. But, still, I cannot leave without paying the whole of the debts I owe to this town. And they amount to about a £100. If I can pay this, we can leave for London, where I have borrowed a flat, and I can get on, at once, with the rest of ‘Llareggub’. Oh, I want to so much. I can finish it in two weeks. But only if I can settle all up here.
I know the amount I am sending you of Llareggub (and, of course, quite possibly the quality: you may loathe the thing) is not worth a £100. But what I want is to be paid now for the whole piece in advance. Is that possible? I am pinning every bit of faith on to that.
Can you cable me your answer?
Wouldn’t it be awful if you thought the whole thing bunk. My head is full of it, I must go on.
Please forgive this letter.
Featured image by Seimon Pugh Jones from his Under Milk Wood collection.
Hannah Ellis – 16th October 2017.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – www.lovethewords.co.uk