Dylan Thomas: Poems

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was Welsh poet. In his brash, swaggering, and intensely variant poetry, he exercises “a kind of technical delayment, or withholding, which is at the heart” of his “formal method.” He also puns so that “one meaning of a word intervenes before another.” Thomas bashes words together, using them in unfamiliar ways to unveil not their literal sense, but some other sensibility (compare to Gertrude Stein?). He expresses mystical ideas, but they are often formally bound by the rules of Nature and art. He died of pneumonia while on tour in New York.

“A PROCESS IN THE WEATHER OF THE HEART”

A process in the weather of the heart
Turns damp to dry; the golden shot
Storms in the freezing tomb.
A weather in the quarter of the veins
Turns night to day; blood in their suns
Lights up the living worm.

A process in the eye forwarns
The bones of blindness; and the womb
Drives in a death as life leaks out.

A darkness in the weather of the eye
Is half its light; the fathomed sea
Breaks on unangled land.
The seed that makes a forest of the loin
Forks half its fruit; and half drops down,
Slow in a sleeping wind.

A weather in the flesh and bone
Is damp and dry; the quick and dead
Move like two ghosts before the eye.

A process in the weather of the world
Turns ghost to ghost; each mothered child
Sits in their double shade.
A process blows the moon into the sun,
Pulls down the shabby curtains of the skin;
And the heart gives up its dead.

Reminds me of so many other meditations on death and age, including Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

“THE FORCE THAT THROUGH THE GREEN FUSE DRIVES THE FLOWER”

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
This poem works in and through the same contradictions and paradoxes typical of his style. I especially like how the ones in this poem resemble the “mere anarchy” type lines from Yeats.

“AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION”

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

The heartbreaking refrain of the denial of death at the start and end of each stanza. I love the dual meaning of “windings” here – both movement and the stasis of death, which embodies the poem as a whole.

“A REFUSAL TO MOURN THE DEATH, BY FIRE, OF A CHILD IN LONDON”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

The poem itself ironically draws more attention to the death of the child. The richness and ripeness of death here reminds me of the blackberries hanging in “Poem on His Birthday” – a shady Elysium. She is part of a cycle, a continuing, as illustrated by the gerunds throughout. The poem is an injunction to stop using death as a sentimental catharsis for the culture at large, and only the first person to die was unique, he jokes – after that we are all involved, repeating.

“DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A rallying cry reminiscent of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” here it is just one solitary man, one speaker. Thomas mixes the subjunctive, imperative and prescriptive here in expressing loss and memory.

“VISION & PRAYER”

This poem’s shapes demonstrate phases of birth (diamonds) and death (hourglasses), making me wonder if the shapes are influenced by Yeats’ gyres of history. The two shapes would fit together if placed in a line. My favorite lines from the yonic diamond stanzas of life are: “Behind the wall thin as a wren’s bone,” “To dumfounding haven,” and “spiral of ascension.” In the death stanzas, like the hourglass columns of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,”  I like “I pray though I belong/ Not wholly to that lamenting,” “For the country of death is the heart’s size,” and “I am found.” These lines are forced to the shape – content stretched and squashed to fit form.

“FERN HILL”

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and
cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was
air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the
nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

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.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking
warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
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.

Typical of Dylan’s more mature style, it shows a pattern of syllabics, like “the highly modified way a sea might be expected to be contained by its chains.” Some have read this as rich in allusions to Yeats, from apple-boughs to the further twisting of Yeats’ twists on formal stanzas and devices. Something like “Portrait of the Artist” in that it traces a development over time, it focuses on a child’s Godlike creation of the imaginary world around him. Something in it also reminds me of Frost’s “Birches,” with the boy swinging between branches that ignore his desire to bend them. The wonderful contradictions of sun and moon, green and dying, and the chained sea express the brevity and ineffability of the affective landscape Thomas paints. The sea is both totally bounded (it strives against the land, limited by the pull of the moon) and totally unbounded (dangerous, liquid, and wild).

“POEM ON HIS BIRTHDAY”

“And, in that brambled void,/ Plenty as blackberries in the woods/ The dead grow for his joy.”

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