Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Hand That Signed the Paper” was written during an amazingly fertile creative period when Thomas was only nineteen. It is one of his relatively few political poems and was dedicated in the August, 1933, notebook in which it was originally written to a Labour Party friend in Thomas’s home city, Swansea. For a time Thomas moved in local Welsh socialist circles, but he rejected socialism in favor of individualism. He was suspicious of all ideologies and sought instead to understand the world in terms of a personal mythology that highlighted the dynamic unity of all life. He and W. H. Auden represent two poles of mid-twentieth century poetry in English: Thomas stands for the personal and the visionary, while Auden is identified with political realism.

Thomas inspired the New Apocalypse, a group of poets in the 1940’s who revolted against cerebral “classical” verse (which they associated with Auden), and who admired Thomas’s romantic, life-affirming poetry. “The Hand That Signed the Paper” lacks the “green” faith in country goodness of his later “country heaven” poems, such as “Author’s Prologue” and “In Country Sleep.” Its theme is purely apocalyptic without any promise of personal or collective redemption. The supercilious arrogance of leaders who endorse mass destruction is the subject of the poem. Thomas grew up between the world wars and was acutely aware of the havoc caused by modern mechanized armed conflicts. The poem is absolutely cynical about nationalistic power but is not misanthropic.

The last stanza evokes the pity of war in the spirit of hard-won humanism of one of his favorite poets, the war poet Wilfred Owen. Regarding God’s role in all this, Thomas declares that “A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven.” The word “rules” would seem to have negative connotations, with God being alluded to as a projection of the rulers who sanction war on earth, but the meaning, like much in Thomas’s poetry, is ambiguous.