The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas, by Augustus John, 1938.

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.

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The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

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The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

(with particular focus on ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’)

In the years after Yeats there was a general change in the direction of Anglo-Irish poetry.  In his desire to establish an Irish poetic tradition, Yeats had confined himself, for the most part, to subjects of Irish interest, and poets who directly succeeded him were very influenced by his poetry and the underlying philosophy of cultural nationalism which he espoused.  Thus, an older poet like Austin Clarke is very obviously an imitator of Yeats both in his subject choice and in his treatment of it.  Indeed, Clarke’s subject matter is principally confined to three main areas and may be summarised as follows: his judgements on the old heroic Ireland of the past (‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’), his response to the general contemporary issue of Ireland itself (‘The Lost Heifer’), and his perceptive, lyrical treatment of the theme of love (‘The Planter’s Daughter’).

In the 1950’s, however, a new generation of Irish poets began to emerge.  Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to this generation of writers; unlike Clarke, his main concern as a poet was not to limit himself to Irish topics but to explore a wider range of ideas and themes.  In 1892 Yeats had called for the creation of a national literature which would be distinct from all other literatures written in the English language.  Consequently, poets who succeeded Yeats found a constant need to express themselves as being fundamentally Irish, and the nature of their relationship with Ireland was one of their dominant concerns.  By 1950, however, Anglo-Irish poetry had found a permanent place for itself in modern English literature.  The new generation of writers were therefore not restricted to the old stances.  They did not feel it necessary to constantly assert allegiance to subjects of Irish interest, nor were they emotionally involved with dead leaders and causes as Yeats and Clarke had been.  Indeed, their most vivid memories were not of Wolfe Tone or the Fenian, John O’Leary, but of the contemporary holocaust in Europe, and the futile hero-worship of the modern world.  With Thomas Kinsella, therefore, we have one of the first to move into this different area of awareness and exploration.

Kinsella’s considerable talent as a poet has been well documented in many recent studies (e.g. Andrew Fitzsimons, The Sea of Disappointment: Thomas Kinsella’s Pursuit of the Real. UCD Press, 2008). His early work shows his skill at exploring states of feeling, especially feelings that are painful or acute.  His early poems also contain some moment of illumination, or epiphany, as he increases his awareness of some thought, idea, or reality he has previously overlooked.  This emphasis on reflection gives his poems many of the qualities of meditations: they are often, as he called them himself, ‘detailed explorations of private miseries’.  In these poems he usually begins with some simple situation which he advances towards complexity and which he attempts to incorporate into a coherent personal philosophy.

In both ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’ the speaker is presented as a solitary, humble figure who is confronted with an overwhelming significance in some simple aspect of life.  Though many of Kinsella’s poems deal explicitly with members of his own family he is essentially a poet of abstract ideas and concepts.  Also, throughout his early works nature always figures prominently.  He is conscious of the passing of time and of the seasons, the birth, death and decay of all life, even his own.

In ‘Mirror in February’ he connects his realisation of the decay inherent in modern man with his personal understanding of nature, while in ‘Another September’ he expresses his work as a poet in simple rural terms, ‘this … consciousness that plants its grammar in her yielding weather’.  Both these poems reveal certain similarities; each shares a common effort to find meaning and direction, and both are portraits of a defeated personality.  In ‘Another September’ the speaker is plunged into the bizarre, disorientated and isolated world of his wife’s past.  He is concerned with her immediate rural background, with the ways and customs of the people who still live there, with the culture they have formed from which he is excluded.  But beyond these reflections lie considerations about truth and justice, especially in the idea of a spectral woman who haunts him throughout the poem.  In ‘Mirror in February’ the poet’s self-portrait is made up of naturalistic and personal details through which he contemplates his muted, tragic story.  He experiences a sudden crisis of identity; there is a sense of loss in the feeling that his hold on youth is frail and tenuous.  In the end there is a gallant expression of hope as a faint optimism hesitantly breaks through.  Both poems succeed through a close attention to detail and through the use of natural images to expose the unpleasant and pitiful details of the poet’s life.

The material of each poem is different but the method is the same.  A theme is projected through the narrator, who alternates between apprehension of his immediate surroundings and memories or ideas that impinge upon his mind.  His recurring theme is the gulf between appearance and reality.  In ‘Mirror in February’ he regrets the loss of his youth: but the loss he is even more painfully aware of involves what he appears to be and what he actually is, ‘For they are not made whole that reach the age of Christ’.  The poem moves towards the acceptance of his condition even though his relationship with the world is one of steady and unavoidable decay.  Similarly, ‘Another September’ attempts to find some meaning in chaos.  This poem is also a projection of a state of feeling: the chaos is trivial in a wider sense, but is endowed with significance within the context of the poem.  The theme has possibly a wider application than ‘Mirror in February’, which deals with the poet’s immediate awareness of time.  In ‘Another September’, on the other hand, the initial meditation on his wife’s past gives rise to a meditation on women in general, and then to a consideration of the serious moral concepts that are usually represented as women, ‘Down the lampless darkness they came, moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures’.  No firm conclusions are made in this poem: it is not ‘rounded off’ with a simple assertion as ‘Mirror in February’ is.  Indeed, the poem ends not with conclusions but with images, the meaning of which are not completely understood by the poet.  The theme of ‘Mirror in February’ is clear enough.  In ‘Another September’, however, the poet is presented with half-formed, shadowy ideas which trouble his consciousness and on which no firm judgements can be pronounced.

‘Another September’ describes an incident of particular importance in Kinsella’s life.  He has returned with his wife to the country house in which she grew up, and the opening stanza gives the poem a particular rural setting: ‘Dreams fled away, this country bedroom…’.  The time is early morning, just after dawn on a damp autumn day, and the poet wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings.  He first becomes conscious of the coldness (‘raw with the touch of dawn’), then of the silence (‘Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s’).  Nature, too, is still sleeping: the garden draws, ‘long pitch black breaths’, and the orchard exhales ‘rough sweetness’.  The poem is set in autumn, a time of ‘minor peace’; for the hard-working country people when the chores of summer are over and the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed.  The harvest is strongly suggested in this opening stanza, and the images provide a sense of simple rural abundance.  The trees are ripe with pears and apples, the rough soil is ‘windfall-sweetened’, the people are momentarily free from labour and secure from all intruders, ‘Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates’.  Being a Dubliner, it is as though Kinsella is experiencing these things for the first time.  This country scene is completely new to him, and he tends to see it in poetic terms.

The presence of autumn is strongly suggested in the images of the first stanza: in the second, it is personified as a domestic animal which, ‘rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’.  This sort of imagery is very common in modern poetry.  T.S. Eliot, in particular, specialised in far-fetched, arresting images, which have much of the impact of extended metaphysical conceits.  There is indeed a strong comparison between Kinsella’s description of autumn in this poem and Eliot’s description of the fog in the second section of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-pane’.  In Kinsella’s poem the image is meant to suggest friendliness and familiarity.  Country people live close to nature; they measure time not by the clock but by the seasons.  As such, autumn represents another aspect of their lives and is ‘long used to handling’ by them.  For Kinsella on the other hand – a city dweller for whom the seasons have no real significance – autumn is seen, prosaically, as ‘weather’.

The main topic of the poem is introduced here. The farm-house and the surrounding countryside are familiar features of his wife’s past; the life they represent belongs to his wife, not to him.  In the first stanza the farm is quiet and peaceful, safe from all intruders.  Here, however, Kinsella begins to realise that he himself is an intruder; he feels isolated and estranged in these new surroundings.  He is only ‘half-tolerated’ by the autumn morning, personified here as a friendly domestic animal which only ‘half-tolerates’ the caresses of a stranger.  The comparisons suggested here are difficult but comprehensible: it is as though a large domestic animal has entered the room sensing that an old forgotten friend has returned after many years’ absence.  Immediately, it is confronted by a stranger who tries to win favour by a vain display of friendship.  However, the poet’s overtures of friendship are ignored: it is not for his sake but for his wife’s, ‘this unspeaking daughter’ that the morning dawns so beautifully.  This use of personification in the poem is meant to suggest a sense of drama.  Indeed, what is difficult in the second stanza is not so much what the poet has to express, but the manner in which he expresses it.  He could just as easily have said that he felt out of place in the small rural community where his wife grew up, but this unremarkable statement would lack the strong sense of urgency that Kinsella wishes to suggest.  Also, by introducing characters in the second stanza Kinsella not only makes us see his personal situation in terms of drama – almost like a short scene from a play – but he also prepares for the important characterisations at the end of the poem.  He continues for the moment with simple poetic description:

                   Wakeful moth-wings blunder near a chair,

                   Toss their light shell at the glass, and go

                   To inhabit the living starlight.

At this point his attention is suddenly directed back to his wife who seems remote and unfamiliar in these strange surroundings.  Almost at once his image of her fades, ‘wanes’, and is replaced by other threatening images, ‘bearing daggers and balances’.

The ending to the poem presents some difficulty of interpretation but its meaning is usually explained as follows: Kinsella’s visit to the house where his wife grew up makes him conscious of those aspects of her life that had previously been ignored.  The poem represents, as it were, a moment of insight into her past which he had never before considered.  Following this epiphany he realises how women’s achievements in general, and their contribution to history, have also frequently been ignored.  Throughout the poem his wife is presented in quiet, placid descriptions: ‘a fragrant child’, ‘unspeaking daughter’, ‘stranded hair stirs on the still linen’.  The final feminine images, however, suggest vigour and movement, representing that part of womanhood which is characterised by energy and endurance.  Down through history, ‘down the lampless darkness’, the deeds of women have been unknown and unrecognised.  Kinsella therefore sees the images as threatening him with retribution, ‘bearing daggers and balances’, and seeking recognition for their personal deeds and achievements.

The situation described at the start of ‘Mirror in February’ is somewhat similar to that of ‘Another September’.  Indeed, both poems are composed of certain personal details and are in some sense autobiographical.  Again Kinsella relies on simple rural description in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere.  It is a damp spring morning; outside the upturned soil is ready for the seed; the trees are dark and still leafless.  The poet is going about the familiar morning chore of dressing and shaving, his mind occupied ‘by some compulsive fantasy’, when suddenly he notices his reflection in the mirror.  In the cold light of morning he is brought back to reality and he considers his advancing years.  His features reveal the relentless progress of time: his eyes are dark and exhausted; his mouth is dry and down-turned.

This moment of revelation, this epiphany, is extended into the second stanza.  The poem is set in springtime, the start of another year.  It is time to look to the future, to take stock, a time to ‘learn’.  In the second line of this stanza the cyclical nature of life is represented in an interesting paradox, ‘this untiring, crumbling place of growth’.  Life and death, he realises, are part of the great system of creation.  Things mature and die in an endless process of death and destruction.  Within the context of the poem, however, this realisation is the cause of some concern for the poet.  The slow, relentless progress of time has not brought him to perfection as it has in the case of Christ.  Instead he has achieved little, apart from a comfortable mediocrity.  The phrase ‘and little more’ is deliberately ambiguous.  The obvious meaning is that he is a ‘little more’ than the age of Christ, and the poem describes a moment of painful revelation for a person who suddenly realises that the best years of his life have slipped away and middle-age is approaching.  Another possible meaning to the phrase is suggested by Maurice Harmon.  What this critic suggests is not so much the idea of time passing, but of time lost: the poet laments that he has merely ‘looked’ his last on youth, almost like an observer, and done ‘little more’ to accomplish anything of importance.  This interpretation certainly fits in with the general tone of the second and third stanzas where the idea of worthwhile achievement is suggested in the extreme comparison with Christ’s life.  In contrast to Christ’s supreme achievements the poet has accomplished little, and he strays into the middle years of his life with little hope of attaining anything of note.  At this point he generalises about life: ‘they are not made whole / That reach the age of Christ’.  In the second stanza life is visualised in terms of sacrifice, and the idea implied is that it only becomes meaningful when seen in goal-directed terms.

In the third stanza this idea is repeated and is made more explicit in the striking references to nature.  Looking through the window the poet sees that the fruit trees have been severely pruned.  He uses this simple observation from nature as the occasion for an important comment on life.  The trees in the garden have withstood these brutal attacks upon them so that they may bear more and better fruit.  The basic idea expressed here is that nothing worthwhile is accomplished  without sacrifice, and that suffering contributes in a mysterious way to the perfection of a person’s character.  Just as Christ attained his destiny through suffering, and just as trees are pruned to make them more productive, so men too must suffer ‘mutilations’ if they wish their lives to be meaningful and enriched.  Unlike Christ, however, man does not submit to suffering willingly: he avoids hardships at each opportunity and cowers, ‘quails’, under every blow of fortune.

One aspect of the kind of suffering Kinsella imagines is described in this poem.  In his moment of anguish he tries to make light of the serious thoughts that weigh upon his mind.  He folds his towel with as much grace as he can manage.  He is no longer young, and unlike the trees he is not ‘renewable’, but he takes comfort in the fact that everybody shares in the same fate.  Life is continuous and irreversible: in the last line, therefore, he attempts to face up to his predicament with courage and conviction.

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