THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS
(with particular focus on ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’)
Dylan Thomas’s poetry has always attracted diverging views, attracting some readers and repelling others. In certain ways he is the last of the Romantic poets, and like most poets in that tradition he liked to experiment with words. He was perhaps the only modern poet to experiment persistently, hence the bewilderment of his audience when his early poems were published in the mid-1930’s.
The poetry of the twentieth century can be divided roughly into two main categories. There is, first of all, the tradition established by Yeats and Eliot which attempted to comment on and influence major social issues in an effort to bring about reforms. Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ and Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), are two good examples of this tradition. Both poets express similar attitudes, namely disgust at the degeneracy of modern life, and both poets advocate a return to past virtues as a means of displacing society’s unpleasant aspects. For Eliot and Yeats therefore, a significant aspect of a poet’s role was that of social commentator, and with them a tradition was established which continued to be a dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
The poetry of Dylan Thomas, however, diverges sharply from this tradition and to a large extent he remains outside it. His poems had so little of the realism of Eliot and Yeats that they took the contemporary literary scene by storm. Being at heart a Romantic poet, Dylan Thomas preferred to write poems that were completely devoid of social issues and unlike Yeats and Eliot he did not feel the urge to reform the world. Modern poets in general had come through the Great War with a new sense of function and responsibility. This sense of conviction, of important work to do in a political or social context, is completely lacking in the works of Dylan Thomas. Indeed, this lack of an urgent poetic content seemed naive to many early readers, particularly at a time when Europe had emerged tragically from one World War, and seemed likely to get entangled in another. In ‘Fern Hill’, for example, Dylan Thomas describes his memories of childhood in Wales in the years after the Great War. The picture he creates, however, is so beautiful and idyllic as to be almost unreal. The real Wales of the time, many early critics suggested, was in sharp contrast to that described in the poem.
Similarly in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, a poem which describes the death of a child killed in an air-raid, no reference is made to the terrible atrocities of war. ‘Fern Hill’ was also criticised in other respects. Besides its lack of serious content there was the more serious charge of a complete lack of meaning. Indeed, like much of his poetry, ‘Fern Hill’ was strongly criticised as being almost totally obscure. Thomas himself realised the problem his poetry in general, and ‘Fern Hill’ in particular, presented to readers. He remarked how his poems were always rigorously compressed, being ‘as tight packed as a mad doctor’s bag’. The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who published Thomas’s early work in his influential magazine, New Verse, (where he also published W.H. Auden and Louis McNeice), and who recognised Thomas’s promise was one of the first to comment on its obscurity. He attacked Thomas for his neglect of a continuous line of meaning, for his use of ‘towering phrases’ which imply so much but say very little, and for his tendency to be ‘over-fantastic’ and obscure.
To understand the poetry of Dylan Thomas one must consider him as a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition. Indeed, it is only in the context of this tradition that one can really characterise his particular method and identify his major themes. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Romantic poetry was steadily in decline. Eliot, in particular, had dismissed all poetry in the Romantic tradition as obsolete and unacceptable in a modern context. In its stead he substituted a new urban poetry which is so often full of depression, anger and despair (e.g. ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’). Dylan Thomas, however, completely rejected the modern mode of expression, and returned instead to the Romantic poets for his principal themes and his characteristic method. Whereas Eliot and Yeats describe a world which is often dark and depressing, Dylan Thomas reaffirms a personal faith in life. His poetry is subsequently filled with a sense of joy and optimism.
Dylan Thomas’s working life as a poet lasted a little over twenty years but the most extraordinary thing about it was how much of the foundations were laid down in a very short period towards the beginning. He was writing profusely in his early teens and when he was seventeen he began work on some of the poems for which he is still remembered. Between the years 1931 and 1935 he drafted, and in many cases actually completed, most of his best poems. In other words he had already created the most important parts of his work by the age of twenty-one. Despite his basic differences with T.S. Eliot, he adopted Eliot’s habit of rejecting nothing, and lines or sections that were unsustainable or unsuitable for one poem often found their way into another. Years later he still continued to draw on material from his adolescent notebooks. Indeed, out of these notebooks and casual jottings grew the most famous poems he published in his lifetime and those for which he is remembered after his untimely death. He composed by selecting the best expressions from his notebooks, reordering and perfecting them until he was satisfied with their sequence.
‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are typical examples of Dylan Thomas’s poetic method. Both poems depend on a common Romantic assumption that the natural world is self-explanatory: things die and are born again in a constant process of death and renewal. We notice, therefore, how nature is often strongly incorporated into his poems. In a letter dated March 1935 he speaks of how his, ‘pre-conceived symbolism derived from the cosmic significance of nature’. Thus, both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are overlaid with a strong natural imagery. He is particularly attracted to natural images, which suggest youth and vitality, but we also find him returning constantly to ideas of transience and death. Indeed, throughout his poetic career he remained haunted by the reality of death, and perhaps his chief contribution to English poetry was his sustained vision that life and death form part of a great process shared by all created things. Both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ begin with the assumption that we start to die from the moment we are born, even indeed from the moment we are conceived. This continuous process of dying extends to all living things. The entire thought of ‘Fern Hill’ is based on this idea, though it does not become explicit until the final stanza:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
In ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ the theme of death is seen in a slightly different context as the poet surmises on the probability of another existence. Here he suggests that the world into which we are born and in which we die is not the final world; that there is another existence on the other side of things. Again he expresses his ideas through use of comparisons with natural things. Nature ‘dies’ each year and renews itself with the return of every spring; but for man there is only one death, ‘After the first death there is no other’. Yet this realisation of the eternal presence of death does not allow the poet to grieve over the dead child, or to encourage false sentiments by a vain display of tears. This poem is not so much a discussion of the child’s death, as a presentation of Thomas’s attitude to the idea of death in general. He thinks of death as a slow, relentless process, rather than as a sudden pathetic end to life. This process of destruction extends to all living things and he sees no reason to mourn when the process is finally completed.
The poem begins with a great statement as befits some good, cosmic occasion. The first two stanzas, and the first line of the third, are one sentence with the skeleton grammar: ‘Till doomsday I will not mourn for the dead child’. Darkness is described as making mankind, ‘fathering’ birds etc.. and ‘humbling’ all. As such it is more than a personification of death: it is unknown, undeveloped nature from which all life comes and to which it will eventually return. One critic suggests that darkness might also refer to God the Father who is described in the Book of Genesis as making the world out of nothing. Water is always used in Thomas’s poetry as a fundamental life-giver. Here it is joined with the reference to corn and behind each is the idea of change and transformation. Corn was said by St. Paul to die in the ground before it receives the rain whereby it sprouts again. In this manner it is transformed into a more perfect element. The general theme of the poem is clear: all people, no less than this young girl, are transformed by death into more perfect states, and the whole process of dying is a natural precondition for this transformation. Throughout the poem ordinary words are used to suggest mystic processes: ‘The majesty and burning of the child’s death’; ‘The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother’. Behind this poem is the biblical idea of death as a change of life rather than as an end of it. In the final stanza, therefore, we are given a great image of the relentless continuance of life as the Thames, bearing the young girl’s spirit, flows away to the sea.
In ‘Fern Hill’ the emphasis is on life rather than on death, yet we see how the pervasive presence of nature is a dominant feature of this poem also. From the beginning of the poem the boy’s experiences are described in terms of natural images and his simple vitality is seen as a gift of nature soon to be withdrawn. Phrases like ‘all the sun long, all the moon long’, show how the child measured time by nature , not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience. As the poem progresses, however, the facts of time become more insistent and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored, ‘The children green and golden / Follow him out of grace’; ‘And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’. The lack of grammar in these stanzas makes them appear, as in Chapter 1 of James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist, as if part of a dream-like reflection. This nostalgic emphasis on childhood is yet another dominant feature of Romantic poetry. In one of his most famous poems Wordsworth wrote that, ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, an idea to which Dylan Thomas also subscribed.
Wonderfully rich in visual imagery, the words of ‘Fern Hill’ combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child. This can be the cause of some confusion for readers. Striking phrases like , ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘prince of the apple-towns’, or ‘at my sky-blue trades’, are surprising by their novelty and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended. These unusual images are evocative rather than precise: their purpose is to create a strong emotional atmosphere. Dylan Thomas deliberately uses all his poetic powers to combine in one image a wider range of associations. Being essentially a Romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience, which is almost beyond expression. In the repetitions, ‘it is lovely’, ‘it is air / And playing lovely, and watery…’, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be completely expressed in words. He is celebrating the divine innocence of childhood which, for him, is a mystery almost beyond analysis.
The second stanza reminds us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure. But much more than this is implied. The noise of water passing over the pebbles is like Church bells calling the boy to worship. Dylan Thomas is aware of the power of time but instead of becoming melancholy he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, being itself part of the wonder of creation. Instead of giving way to regrets he rejoices in what has been. Thus, the boy’s emotions transform every object he sees: ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘gay house’. He is, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’, an integral part of all natural things. But he also achieves an exalted state: he is a ‘prince’, ‘honoured’ and ‘lordly’. Lines such as ‘the big fields high as a house’ evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty, of which the boy’s youthful joy is but a part.
These expressions of mystery and wonder reach a climax in stanza four. When he awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the Garden of Eden, a revelation of earthly innocence. It is typical of Thomas that this awareness is expressed in religious terms:
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
From the beginning of the poem the boy’s simple vitality is seen as a gift of time to be withdrawn. The final image of the sea repeats the previous evocations of energy and abundance; but like the child it too is confined and restricted in its range by natural forces.
An important characteristic of ‘Fern Hill’ is the manner in which Dylan Thomas develops his ideas through imagery, verbal repetition, and other stylistic devices. The prose meaning of his poems – their paraphrasable content – is usually simple. What is difficult, however, is their verbal texture. In his prose writings he has stressed the importance of metaphor in his poetry, which often causes difficulties of interpretation to arise. In one of his few statements on his own poems he describes his peculiar method of composition with particular regard to his use of imagery:
‘A poem by itself needs a host of images. I make sure – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; I let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict within my imposed formal limits. The life of any poem of mine cannot move out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…’
This concept of the image determines the construction of ‘Fern Hill’. Sequences of images are linked together without the relationship imposed by ordinary syntax, so as to provide a uniquely original form of poetry. Words are arranged in terms of their musical effects, and individual stanzas abound with references to music. In ‘Fern Hill’ these references are numerous, ‘the lilting house’, ‘singing as the farm was home’, ‘the Sabbath rang slowly’, ‘the tunes from chimneys’, ‘it was air / and playing’, ‘all his tuneful turning’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’. The opening stanza expresses the poet’s experiences clearly. Music, as conceived by the Romantics, is identified with nature. Words are listed for their sound properties and are densely woven into poetic rhythms. To these, also, are added colours suggestive of youth and vitality, ‘green’, ‘golden’, ‘white’, ‘blue’.
One of the secrets of Dylan Thomas’s strongly personal style then was his discovery of unsuspected variables in English – again like James Joyce in Ulysses. Thus, he would write ‘all the sun long’ instead of ‘all day’, ‘once below a time’ instead of ‘once upon a time’, ‘all the moon long’ instead of ‘all night’. The change to ‘Adam and maiden’ instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ is particularly significant with the connotation of innocence and purity that the first phrase brings. This gift for revitalising common, general statement was to remain with Thomas all his life. Indeed, only the great Gerard Manley Hopkins shows a comparable talent for finding similar rich possibilities in worn-out words and phrases.