How does Dylan Thomas use imagery in his poems?

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In 1934, Dylan Thomas’s first book, 18 Poems (which brought him fame), was published. While other poets of the 30s were mainly focused on social issues, Thomas set about writing poetry dealing with the question of man’s nature, especially the subconscious. Thomas’s central theme is the circle of life and death, being and non-being.

Already in the first collection, a characteristic feature of his work transpires. It is a complex, musical, a-logical poetic language, wherein contradicting images flow into one another:

Before I knocked and flesh let enter,
With liquid hands tapped on the womb,
I who was shapeless as the water
That shaped the Jordan near my home
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter
And sister to the fathering worm. (1, p. 7)

In the next collection, Twenty-Five Poems (1936), his creative manner becomes more mature, and his syntax and imagery grow more complex. In his poems, despair and hope, life and death, and love and darkness are intertwined in most intricate metaphors which are weaved from simple concepts:

Was there a time when dancers with their fiddles
In children’s circuses could stay their troubles?
There was a time they could cry over books,
But time has set its maggot on their track. (1, p. 50)

His imagery reveals a pantheistic worldview, a desire to penetrate into an archetypal substance of the myth, and extraordinary richness of meaning.

In 1939, The Map of Love was published. It is a mixture of poetry and prose, and its protagonists are madmen, children, and poets, who go through fantastic, almost surrealistic experiences.

Thomas’s approach to crafting poetry is well summed up in one of his letters (Thomas, Collected Letters):

I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—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, within my imposed formal limits, conflict. (cited in 2, p. 63)

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Dylan Thomas attached great importance to imagery in his poems, and it provides an important key to understanding his work. In poems such as "Poem in October," Thomas draws upon the imagery of the natural world to present us with a picture of a man at one with his surroundings, in complete harmony with nature. The woods are the speaker's neighbor, the herons are priests, and the waves rise high as if in honor and worship of their creator. Thomas's vivid imagery conveys the sense of a holy creation deeply infused with divine spirit.

The theme of a cosmic force running through all things is further developed in "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," where Thomas draws upon imagery associated with death and decay to remind us that the cosmic force that pulses through nature is capable of destruction as well as creation. This powerful, penetrating force doesn't just destroy certain elements of the natural world; it also destroyed the speaker's childhood and will return once more to consume him when he is dead:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

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Much of the acclaim that is given to Dylan Thomas is attributable to his marvelous use of imagery that awakens the senses of the listener/reader of his poetry and lends a unique reality to his abstraction of thought. Clearly, there is a vitality and passion lent to his verse with his imagery. One critic writes of Thomas, "His rich rhetoric and imagery gave his poetry a magical touch."

Thomas is especially renowned for his use of nature imagery as in such poems as "A Winter's Tale" in which the image of the bird connotes the Holy Ghost or Pentescostal Dove that imparts powers to the individual.  In addition, there is a connection of the spiritual with the physical and the bird undergoes a metamorphosis in the bride's body that rises with him in spirituality.  Regarding such imagery that combines contradictions such as that of the bird and the bride, Thomas writes,

Out of the inevitable conflict of images--inevitable, because of the creative, destructive, and contradictory nature of the motivating centre, the womb of war--I try to make that momentary peace which is a poem.

Another nature poem replete with imagery is "Poem in October."  On his thirtieth birthday the speaker emerges from the limits of the town, he finds that nature greets him with herons as priests and the waves of the ocean standing to honor him.  In short, through the honor of nature and its imagery, the speaker transcends the mundane and rises to an ethereal joy. 

Thomas also employs images of death in many of his poems, the most famous of which is "Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night" in which death is portrayed as "the dying of the light" and "darkness." The anger and rage expressed toward these images denotes the poet's passion for life. In this poem and in all his works, certainly Thomas's artistic and original utilization of imagery is his greatest medium for meaning.

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