“Vesuvius clocks all black bells and lava, Niagara clocks that cataract their ticks…”
This brief description of two kinds of clocks from Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, Under Milk Wood, is part of a longer passage in which one of the voices describes a room filled with a great variety of clocks.
Whether or not these clocks are truly extraordinary, Thomas’ descriptions imbue them with character, pushing them past the borders of metaphor. They are not simple timekeepers––they are volcanoes erupting, waterfalls surging over cliffs. The metaphor is reinforced by volcanoes’ and waterfalls’ roles as natural, geological timekeepers. The sudden eruption of a volcano may indicate a more prolonged measure of time, not unlike a clock tower’s hourly toll; a waterfall illustrates the constant flow of time, ceaselessly eroding and shaping the riverbed, similar to the persistent tick of the secondhand.
This passage is remarkable not only for its metaphor, but also for its music. While Under Milk Wood is not a verse play, these two clauses both read with a strong tetrameter beat. Within those beats, Thomas deftly plays with auditory effects. He verbs the sonically imitative noun “cataract” to emphasize the waterfall’s persistent, erosive tick. And the line’s rich string of consonance and assonance––particularly the repetition of long and short A’s, liquid L’s, and hard C’s and T’s––enhances the imitative effect. In one second, the reader hears hot lava enveloping a village. In the next second, she hears water sharply hitting rocks. And always she hears the ticks and chimes of the clocks, marking the passage of time.