Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
The title “The Airy Tomb” is almost an oxymoron; one expects a tomb to be closed and stuffy, rather than airy. The poem continues to overturn expectations and surprise the reader. One can initially read it as idealizing the working man or the peasant, as much Romantic poetry did, but Thomas is careful to keep the poem from becoming a soft pastoral. He describes the harshness of the Welsh farmer’s life, using images such as rotting sheep or “Deadly as leprosy.” In the last stanza, he writes, “you must face the fact/ Of his long life alone in that crumbling house,” lines that do not allow the reader to see Twm’s life as anything but desolate without human company.
The poem is about place; Twm belongs on the farm, not in school or town. When people attempt to force him out of himself in his early years at school, the attempt does not work. The only poems he can read, the only language he can understand, is that of animals. “The Airy Tomb” is also about being alone. When Twm’s father dies, his mother does not live through the next winter. He is left therefore to keep the farm in much the way his father did, making a place for himself with the land. Other of Thomas’s poems speak of the relationship between the Welsh peasant and the land; the farmer is often portrayed as part of the landscape, but the landscape itself is bleak and unyielding. Thomas is aware of the poverty and the difficulty of farming on the rocky and cold mountains of Wales. One cannot make a living under those harsh conditions if one does not give oneself entirely to the work. Twm’s relationship with the land and the animals is what causes his solitude, but it is also necessary for his survival.
This is also a poem about mortality. Thomas represents humans as having moved away from the cycle of life and death in which the animals and the rest of the natural world participate. Animals die under the sky, but humans are buried in confining coffins that separate them from the earth. Twm, however, is able to become part of the rhythm to which the animals belong; his grief for his parents subsides into his work and into the coming of spring; life goes on. Unlike other people, he dies with the sheep under the sky. In his solitude and separation from other people, he is able to enter the natural cycle of life and death as other humans cannot. “The Airy Tomb” does not romanticize nature as something beautiful and sweetly pleasant, but it does suggest that a closer connection to the natural world and the solitude that such a connection entails can enable one to have a better death.