Under Milk Wood is Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices” (i.e. intended for radio rather than the stage), a quite wild and sometimes soaring portrait of the inhabitants of a fishing village in Wales, the fictional Llareggub, depicting both their dreams and a day in their lives.
One of the quieter moments comes at sunset, when the town vicar, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, goes out and says a prayer. The remarkable Cerys Matthews, a woman of so many hats, has just put out a new album with musical treatments of sundry works of Dylan Thomas, titled A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs [full review at this link], and below via YouTube is her performance of “The Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer.”
(The album is available here.)
That, I think, is a balm for the soul in troubled times, or at any time.
In the play, Under Milk Wood, I think that the simplicity of these verses comes as something of a surprise. It is native neither to the play nor to the work of Dylan Thomas generally to be so very simple; Thomas would pile on the words and the images to stunning effect—this was surely a marked feature of his style and his talent.
What to make of so simple a prayer?
Although I am not a Dylan Thomas scholar, I think it would be uncontroversial to suggest that in his work there is at times a tension with what we lazily label “organized religion.” At the same time, however, there surely is a recurrent sense of God, and of eternity, more or less in the background depending on how sensitive the individual reader might be to it. One time that he put it more in the foreground was in his own introduction to his Collected Poems, which ends with this paragraph:
I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his
flocks, replied: ‘I’d be a damn’ fool if I didn’t!’ These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love
of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.
Although Under Milk Wood was not in that collection, the notion of it being written “for the love of Man and in praise of God” seems precisely on target. It is the love of men and women “with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions” that propels the play. The praise of God is inherent if you are wont to sense it, but the Reverend Eli Jenkins is there to put a word in for it in any case.
His simple prayer encompasses the core of so many other simple prayers (and I think that all true prayer is ultimately simple).
Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please to keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die
That first verse seems to me to be simply the essence of all prayer, the helpless voice of tiny wisps of transient flesh and bone, pleading to be noticed by their Creator. But I would zero in on that phrase, “Thy lovely eye,” which is a nod to a prerequisite of prayer, the praise of God, acknowledging Him not merely as an impersonal power but as someone good and worthy of praise.
The next verse goes:
And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I’m sure is always touch-and-go.
This evokes the classic children’s prayer at nighttime:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
Travel as far as you wish, and learn as much as you can, but there is not anything more honest and without artifice than that prayer, and that’s the same territory Dylan Thomas is occupying here.
The tune Cerys Matthews sings for these verses is an old one, but she gently varies it to make a kind of bridge with these lines:
We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.
And that verse in a way sums up any religion worth its salt: we who are so imperfect trying and hoping and praying that God may value and preserve the best of what we can come up with in our lives.
The final verse goes:
O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye—but just for now!
Again, it is a simplicity that just beggars analysis, but all the more striking for that in the rich and wordily-gushing work of Dylan Thomas. If one wants to descend to analysis, the sun/Son duality is very clear when the words are spoken rather than read: “to the Son we all will bow” echoes the “every knee shall bow” words of Scripture.
In any case, Cerys ends her performance of the song with a lovely and great “Amen,” and there are no last words better than that.
Check out the album: A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs