Altarwise by Owl-Light

by Dylan Thomas

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The Poem

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“Altarwise by Owl-Light” is a sequence of ten sonnets. The title is taken from the opening of the first sonnet, which describes the birth of Christ as producing an era of owl-like wisdom through the light of His altar. The last sonnet returns to vary the image of “altarwise” as a celebration of the effects Christianity has had on the history of the world: It has followed “the tale’s sailor from a Christian voyage/ Atlaswise.”

In the first sonnet, Dylan Thomas says that Jesus descended from Adam into the grave of life, the house of the flesh, which he made wise as the owl in the twilight of history. He is a gentle man who is the sun (Son) moving between the Tropic of Capricorn (the goat/life) in the Southern Hemisphere, on December 22, and the Tropic of Cancer (the crab/death) in the Northern Hemisphere, on June 22. He does battle with Abaddon as Satan/death by hanging on the cross by a nail. He is also the cock who announces a new day, hanging on his cross on one leg like a weather-vane rooster.

The second sonnet continues to present the complexities of the Christian Nativity, when death was made into a metaphor of spiritual rebirth. The child at a mother’s breast is Christ whose mother is self-sacrificing, like the pelican who feeds her young with her own blood; Christ is the pelican itself, shedding his blood for others. As the sun/Son, Christ is a child of the Milky Way, and he moves through circles of the heavens, as up a ladder (Jacob’s ladder, made from the crossed bones of death) from the cave of mortality.

Sonnet 3 shows the birth of the sacrificial lamb, the one who pays the debt of death incurred by the old bellwether, the old Adam. The new lamb butts down death when Christ is sacrificed on Golgotha, the place of skulls. At the crucifixion, Christ speaks out like Rip Van Winkle, who wakes from a long sleep to become a new person. The next sonnet voices eight questions asked by the young child (Christ?), ranging from how the Word can be measured to whether God is a man or a woman. The energy of “genesis” charges a spark of light to show love projected through history, shot across the great flood of time itself.

The Annunciation of Christ’s coming occurs when the angel Gabriel comes like a sheriff with two guns in sonnet 5. He plays a trick on death, and he plays cards with time. He pulls three cards from his sleeve: God, the “king of spots,” king over death; Jesus, the jack (of all trades), and Mary, with the great heart. Gabriel is drunk on his message of salvation, and he tells a strange story of his travels: from Adam out of Eden, across the ocean as Ahab-Noah-Jonah, to the place of the frozen angel (Satan in Dante’s hell of ice), where death as a “black medusa” dwells and the sirens lure sailors into the Sargasso Sea.

The sixth sonnet is a cartoon of what God did in creating the universe, as described in Genesis, the book of life. It all began with the “word,” as do all poems. The word is also Christ, the Word, who as the great rooster-cock of love pecks out the eye of the medusa—death. Still, the sirens sing to seduce the Adam of the flesh into their Sargasso Sea of sin. The genesis of sonnet 6 yields to the gospel of sonnet 7, where the Lord’s Prayer is stamped “on a grain of rice,” because rice...

(This entire section contains 861 words.)

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must be planted in water to grow, like birth in the womb and rebirth in baptism. The leaves of the Bible grow from the tree of Calvary until spiritual wind turns death into life, words into poetry.

Sonnet 8 contemplates the crucifixion and passion of the suffering Christ, as viewed by his mother, Mary, and by himself. Jesus is the wound of Mary’s womb, who is herself bent by the wound of the world. The rainbow of God’s promise to Noah is repeated as the colors of the Trinity arching over the breasts of Mother Nature and Mary. In the last four lines, Jesus speaks as the thief of time and the physician who heals death. The next sonnet (9) is a contrast to sonnet 8. Whereas Christian burial is a way to eternal life, Egyptian burial is a futile effort to preserve the flesh in mummies and arks of parchment. The only resurrection for Egyptian mummies is the work of scholars who break into their tombs to study their dusty remains.

The final sonnet, sonnet 10, shows that the wise altar of sonnet 1 is the cross of the crucifixion (“the rude, red tree”). Here the Christian voyager has crossed the atlas to become wise enough not to be wrecked in the “dummy bay” of a false harbor. He is guided by Peter into a safe harbor, to which he holds the key (“quay”). Peter asks questions about the “tall fish” and the “rhubarb man,” symbolic images of Jesus, who has restored the garden of Eden for all.

Forms and Devices

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The sonnets of “Altarwise by Owl-Light” are lyrics of fourteen lines, divided into two logical parts: a sestet of six lines, followed by an octave of eight (a reversal of the conventional Italian sonnet). The rhyme scheme is abcbac, dedefgfg, but the rhymes are rarely exact; instead, they are slant rhymes or sight rhymes, as in the opening sonnet: “house” rhymes with “news,” “furies” with “fairies,” and “Adam” with “scream.”

The sonnets are held together by the repetition of certain images, such as “altar,” “cock,” “bones,” “cradle,” and voyaging by water. Some of these images, such as Capricorn and Cancer, are drawn from astrology; others, such as mandrakes and pelicans, are from folklore. The sequence is dense; it rings with puns and obscure allusions. There are puns such as “genesis” and “gender” for biblical and sexual beginnings; sun for Son; and “rude, red” for “rood, read.” Besides using frequent biblical allusions, the sequence employs numerous other literary allusions, such as Rip Van Winkle, and Herman Melville’s Ishmael and the whale from Moby Dick (1851). Biblical anecdotes are mixed with contemporary events to create surrealistic effects. Sonnet 4 describes the Nativity of Christ with imagery of modern photography; sonnet 5 describes the Annunciation as an episode from a Western film made in Hollywood.

Determined by a biblical chronology that passes from Genesis to Revelation, the sequence is a series of figurative snapshots which interpret Christian images as creative (sexual and literary) symbols.