Literary daybook, March 5

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published March 5, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 5, at the ruins of Isengard, Merry and Pippin describe their adventure with the Orcs.
-- "The Two Towers" (1954)
By J.R.R. Tolkien

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1954, Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" was published in England; coming out just four months after his death in New York, it was an immediate bestseller. Though conceived a decade earlier, most of this "Play for Voices" was done during Thomas' last years, after he had returned to Wales to live at the Boat House in Laugharne. His lifelong ambivalence toward Wales -- "Land of my fathers. My fathers can keep it" -- is maintained in the play, Laugharne becoming the imaginary village of Llareggub, or "bugger-all" backward. (Having an enthusiasm for word games, Thomas once expressed regret that T.S. Eliot was not quite "toilets" backward.)

Though commissioned and already paid for by the BBC, and though the centerpiece of his American tour in the spring of 1953, "Under Milk Wood" was still not done when Thomas embarked, nor done a month later on the evening of the first scheduled reading. Just before curtain, a nervous promoter and two typists managed to turn Thomas' last-minute scribbles into a readable final draft and present it to the rest of the cast -- accompanied by Thomas' performance instructions to "Love the words, love the words":

"... Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nanny goats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Dai Bread's bakery flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolors done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies. Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.
Time passes. Listen. Time passes ..."

In the fall of '53, before leaving England on his last, fatal, American tour -- for money, he said; for "flattery, idleness and infidelity," said his wife -- Thomas turned the finally finished manuscript of "Under Milk Wood" in for typing. He got it back just a day or two before embarkation, and promptly lost it, telling his BBC producer he could have it if he found it. This the producer quickly did, in a Soho pub, creating a legal wrangle over ownership when Thomas died.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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