The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

“The Airy Tomb” begins with the phrase “Twm was a dunce at school” and describes in the first stanza what Twm cared for instead of school: the noise and motion of birds and the land around him. Though the first stanza contains the word “I,” thus establishing the presence of a speaker who is narrating the poem, the speaker remains largely absent from the poem, occasionally asking the reader for a judgment but for the most part describing what Twm did and what his world was like. The language is simple, consisting of phrases with nouns and strong verbs rather than extensive descriptive adjectives or metaphor.

The poem’s second stanza describes Twm’s work on a farm among the hills once he leaves school; he is more comfortable among the animals and the harsh working conditions than he was in the classroom. The third stanza tells of his father’s death, and the fourth of his mother’s. In the fifth stanza the poem shifts slightly from the narrative of what has happened and asks the reader to participate; the first lines are, “Can you picture Tomos now, in the house alone,/ The room silent, and the last mourner gone/ Down the hill pathway?” This question is followed by two others asking what Twm did, a device that allows the reader to imagine Twm’s feelings and options rather than being told by the speaker what they are. The stanza then moves back into a narrative of Twm’s life, alone on the farm.

The sixth stanza continues the description of his life, but it emphasizes how alone he is after his parents’ death; one of the stanza’s final images links the “Hearts and arrows” that symbolize love to his “school fractions”; Twm remains separated from other people. The poem’s tone becomes somewhat fiercer and grimmer. In the last two and a half lines, “the one language he knew/ Was the shrill scream in the dark, the shadow within the shadow,/ The glimmer of flesh, deadly as mistletoe,” the sense conveyed is one of the harshness of life and Twm’s closeness to the tough lives of animals.

The final stanza states that Twm was desired by some of the girls around him but that he did not respond. His separation from other people leads to his becoming almost a local legend. The narrator again speaks to the reader, saying, “you, hypocrite reader,are you not also weary/ Of this odd tale, preferring the usual climax?” The speaker goes on to suggest that surely there was someone whom Twm loved, but then steps back to say that there was not. The title’s meaning is revealed in the final lines, with a description of Twm’s body decomposing in the open air before he is finally found.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

R. S. Thomas’s use of rhyme and rhythm is not consistent throughout the poem, but he does use both. In the first stanza, for example, the first line does not rhyme with anything, but the second line rhymes with the third, the fourth with the fifth, and the sixth with the eleventh. While the lines tend to be about the same length, they are not always. Most of Thomas’s words are one or two syllables, with the stresses falling rather unevenly, giving the poem the rhythm of someone speaking instead of an obviously metrical beat. Thomas makes use of iambic rhythms, as in the lines, “And then at fourteen term ended and the lad was free,” and “And coax the mare that dragged the discordant plough,” but the lines do not contain an equal number of feet and do contain additional syllables that break up the rhythm. Thomas also uses the device of enjambment; his sentences and clauses are as likely to end in the middle of the line as at the end.

In terms of imagery, Thomas relies largely on nouns and verbs; even his metaphors are free of adjectives. When he describes a dead hawk whose “weedy entrails” are “Laced with bright water,” his language achieves its power through the unusual juxtaposition of two ordinary things: weeds and entrails, lace and water. The images are startling because unexpected, but the words themselves are quite ordinary. This adds a conversational tone to the poem; it also provides very specific and vivid descriptions for the reader, thus focusing the reader’s attention on the scene.

Thomas’s addresses to the reader are perhaps the most interesting formal aspects of the poem. By asking the reader to imagine Twm’s circumstances, and later by accusing the reader of being complicit with those of Twm’s neighbors who mock him, Thomas compels the reader to think about his or her expectations for both a poem and a person. He summons the socially comfortable ideas of romance and conformity, only to replace them with the image of a man who is very much alone and who wants to be so. He pushes readers to make a judgment and then to reconsider that judgment, a device that asks readers both to see the poem without the assumptions they might have brought to it and to reexamine their own attitudes toward other people. “Hypocrite reader” is a phrase used by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in his 1857 book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 1931), and one taken up in the French by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922); it therefore resounds with literary associations in the midst of a poem that is otherwise simple and grounded in unliterary language. By using it, Thomas calls further attention to the readers’ position as readers and to their difference from Twm, the dunce at school.

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