Dylan Thomas Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2421

In placing Dylan Thomas as a poet, critics have generally recognized that he wrote some poems of lasting value, although they do not highly rate his poetic output as a whole. However, even if Thomas’s poetry comes down to no more than that, a few lasting poems, still, to have caught the imagination and the spirit, if not fully the understanding, of the people who endured the Depression and World War II, to have embodied in his poetry a fearless, if bitter, search for reality and a limited hope in a world bereft of its traditional theological certainties, is no mean feat. This much, at least, Thomas achieved.

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Three poems will serve to illustrate, provisionally, the range in theme and technique of Dylan Thomas’s poetry: “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” and “Over Sir John’s Hill.” All three deal with the life-in-death theme that permeates Thomas’s work. The first is a very early poem, rather clear and personal in its statement; the second, consisting of ten sonnets treated as a single entity, involves a great deal of Christian material, though it is not incontrovertibly a Christian poem and presents many problems of analysis and interpretation; the third is a “Welsh” poem inasmuch as it is set in Wales and may well spring from Welsh folk material. While the middle poem is considered to be difficult, the last is sequentially clear in its narrative progression, panorama of images, and vivid descriptions.

“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”

“And Death Shall Have No Dominion” appears in the “Buffalo Notebooks” dated April, 1933, and was published in The New English Weekly on May 18, 1933, and in Collected Poems, 1934-1952. It consists of three stanzas, each beginning and ending with the phrase “And death shall have no dominion.” The rhythm is based on a four-stress count with enough variations to intrigue the serious prosodist. These may involve eccentric massing of stresses, as in the title line, or stressing or not stressing the same word in a single line, as in “When their boes are picked cleán and the cleán bones goe.” Aside from the title-refrain, the poem does not lend itself to simple syllable count, though lines two and six consistently have eight syllables and line five has nine. The other four lines are more or less irregular. For the most part, the lines tend to fall irregularly into the iambic and anapestic patterns common to English versification. Alliteration runs throughout the poem. End-rhyme, assonance, and consonance also play a part in the sound pattern. Lines two and three of the second stanza, for example, substitute alliteration for end rhyme with “windily” and “way,” while “way” is assonant with “break” in line five. Moreover, “windily” is assonant with the first word of the following line, “twisting,” which, in turn, is assonant with both words of the phrase “sinews give.” More alliteration is found in line three in “lying long,” and “lying” echoes “windings” in line two. Such intricacy of sound patterning is the rule in Thomas’s poetry.

This rhythmical music contributes much to the readability and understanding of the poem. Prosed, the first stanza says little more than that human beings will die in many ways and places and their bodies will return to the elements and be scattered. The elements, however, will live again because love will continue its purpose of regeneration, and death will not rule life. Of course, prosing cannot indicate the cosmic triumph of “They shall have stars at elbow and foot.” The second paragraph works with images of sea death and of torture, and plays on the paradox that the broken will remain whole. The third stanza picks up a minor theme of madness and couples it with a wasteland setting. In spite of madness, in spite of burial and dissolution, the poem insists that something will continue to hammer the elements into life until the sun itself breaks down. Again, the prosing gives little notion of the desolation evoked by “Where blew a flower may a flower no more/ Lift its head to the blows of the rain.”

In an essay in the Explicator (1956), Thomas E. Connolly professed to see both Christian and Platonic elements in the poem and suggested the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821) and John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1645) as well. The Christian note is at best vague, while the breaking down of the sun and the persistence with which the elements return to the flesh instead of to the godhead seems clearly enough to refute Platonism. Whatever the merits of the Adonais identification may be, Thomas’s resources would be poor indeed if he had to depend on “Lycidas” for sea-drowning imagery. On the other hand, other critics have agreed with Connolly’s identification of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as the source of the title-refrain and the language indicating that the dead in the sea will rise again. They reject the idea that the lines Christianize the poem and sees them, instead, as part of a “more generalized mysticism.”

“Altarwise by Owl-Light”

“Altarwise by Owl-Light” is a much more difficult and controversial poem. The first seven of its ten sonnets were published in Life and Letters Today (1935) and the last three were published at various times during 1936 in Contemporary Poetry and Prose. They were printed later as a sequence in Twenty-five Poems.

The poems composing “Altarwise by Owl-Light” are traditional sonnets mainly inasmuch as they have fourteen lines each; they do not follow the rhyme scheme of either the English or the Italian form. In fact, their rhyme is of the incidental and varied pattern characteristic of so much of Thomas’s poetry. Terminal sounds are patterned, but hardly enough so to be considered formalized. The rhythm is equally irregular. Most lines contain five stressed syllables, many of them iambic, but that the overall pattern is dominated by iambs is doubtful. Even so, the poems are recognizable as variants of the twentieth century sonnet.

Elder Olson, in The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (1954), developed what must be by far the most intricate analysis of the poems’ symbolism. He assembled charts to demonstrate that the poems are based on astrology, basically Herculean in identity. Olson’s interpretation has been rejected for the most part by other critics. On a different tack, Bernard Knieger, in an essay in the Explicator (1956), offered an interpretation to counter a rather muddled one by R. N. Maud earlier in the same periodical. Knieger defined the themes of “Altarwise by Owl-Light” as being simultaneously Christian and sexual. E. H. Essig, again in the Explicator (1958), built on Olson’s and Knieger’s interpretations to demonstrate a fully Christian poetry. In 1965, G. S. Fraser rejected Olson’s position out of hand and joined David Daiches in the opinion, expressed in College English (1954), that, although splendid in parts, the sonnets are, as wholes, “oppressive and congested.” At the same time, he declared that the sonnets “are important because they announce the current orthodox Christian feeling . . . which was henceforth increasingly to dominate Thomas’s work in poetry.” The opinion is interesting in the face of Thomas’s remark, reported by J. M. Brinnin in an article in The Atlantic Monthly (1955), that he now intended to write “poems in praise of God’s world by a man who doesn’t believe in God.” Daniel Jones, perhaps, deserves the last word. He argued that “Altarwise by Owl-Light” could be termed “absolute poetry,” held together, not by ordinary logic, but by a pattern of words and images joined by a common relationship with such things as “sex, birth, death, Christian and pagan religion and ritual.” He saw the poem as “sustained by a single metaphor” and as beyond translation into other words or thoughts. Like Fraser, he saw the poem marking a change in Thomas’s poetry, but unlike Fraser, he saw it as moving away from the extravagant expression of the earlier work and toward economy.

It is clear that “Altarwise by Owl-Light” demonstrates Thomas’s concern for the life-death paradox taken on the grandest scale and illuminated, at least in part, by the Christian mythos. Also helpful is the understanding that the persona of the poem is a universalized character who is at once himself and the Christ who dies, and who is also all the human beings who have ever died and who will ever die. With their insistence on the mysteries of life in death, mercy in destruction, God in man, the sonnets are quintessentially Thomas.

“Over Sir John’s Hill”

“Over Sir John’s Hill” first appeared in Botteghe Oscure in 1949 and was later included in the Collected Poems, 1934-1952. Daniel Jones pointed out that the poem was written during Thomas’s residence at Laugharne. The area of “Sir John’s Hill” borders an estuary east of the outlet of the River Towy, a semiwilderness area supporting many wildfowl and birds of prey. The poem, then, reflects a setting that was intimately familiar to Thomas; even so, except for the place-names, the setting could be nearly any waste area in the world where land and a large body of water meet.

Jones’s detailed study of the prosody of “Over Sir John’s Hill” is interesting. He has noted the varied but exact patterning of the long and short lines based on a syllabic count, the longest line containing fifteen syllables, the shortest containing only one; lines of either thirteen and fourteen syllables, or four to six syllables are the most common line lengths. Jones also observed that the poem’s four stanzas have a rhyme pattern of aabbccbxdadxx, a, b, c, and d being either full-rhymes or half-rhymes, and x indicating alliteration with first-syllable assonance. Jones considered the verse form to be representative of Thomas’s work at its best and most mature. Although he conceded that such intricacy is open to the charge of artificiality and that syllabic verse tends to be “easily overcome by the natural patterns of the English language, based upon combinations of weak and strong stresses,” he argued that all artists must work within “self-imposed discipline.”

While “Over Sir John’s Hill” exists on many levels, it can be approached quite usefully from the point of view of allegory. Allegory works by having each actor’s part function on several levels simultaneously in a linear story. The trick is to see that each actor functions differently, though interrelatedly, in several stories at once. Thus, an actor may be a bird, functioning as a bird, and a bird functioning as a mortal man, and a man functioning as an immortal soul, all at the same time. Put another way, one actor plays three parts in three stories, all fully coherent, in the telling of one tale. In “Over Sir John’s Hill,” there is a persona who narrates the action, observes it, and participates in it. The “young Aesop fabling” watches the drama of birdlife and bird death on the estuary shortly before sunset. On the literal level, the persona watches while a hawk, during last light, is destroying sparrows. A fishing heron watches and grieves, and the grief is echoed by the “tear” of the river. The birdlife then settles down, an owl hoots, and the persona hears the sound of the river in the willows just before the plunge of night.

On the ethical level, “Over Sir John’s Hill” is a grim sort of parody of the legal system and of institutionalized religion. The birds and the countryside echo human behavior. The hill itself represents a judge who has, on evidence which is never presented in the poem, reached a verdict of condemnation; thus, he is sitting with the symbol of the death sentence on his head, the “black cap of jackdaws.” That the cap is formed of jackdaws is instructive. The jackdaw’s habit of playing jokes on people is reflected in the term “gulled birds,” which Thomas may have picked up from his interest in Jacobean tragedy. “Gulled,” in that context, means “fooled” and here functions to undercut the quality of human justice. As jackdaws are also minor carrion birds, their use as a “black cap” heightens the grim note. The hawk represents the executioner, as is indicated by the adjective “tyburn,” an allusion to the Tyburn Tree or Tyburn Elms, a thirteenth century place of execution on the River Tybourne and later the slang name for the gallows built near the site of London’s Marble Arch. The identification is intensified by an immediate reference to “wrestle of elms” and the “noosed” hawk. The law, it would seem, chooses its victims at random, and the victims themselves are by nature young and silly, foredoomed and courting death. They sing “dilly dilly, come let us die,” and are described by the persona and the heron as “led-astray birds.” The saintly heron, at the ethical level, stands for the church, which observes the workings of human justice without protest, though it grieves for the victims. The heron, like the church, continues to carry on its own business in spite of the mundane horrors about it. On the ethical level, then, society is formal, filled with sorrow but not with mercy, and its conceptions of justice, death, and divinity are at once structured and casual.

The divine level is still more disquieting. The persona regards nature in an old-fashioned way, his words couched in fresh metaphor, as he describes nature as the Book in which divinity can be read. He opens “the leaves of water” and reads psalms there, and in a shell, he reads “death.” He and the heron-church ask for God’s mercy, the God who, in silence, observes the sparrow’s “hail,” a term implying not only the sparrows’ song of praise but also the numbers in which their dead bodies pelt the earth. If the God of the poem is more merciful than the indifferent hill-judge, the poem does not say so. Of salvation and an afterlife there is no affirmation; the “lunge of night” seems dreadfully final, not Thomas’s more usual affirmation of a circular process in which death is the entrance to life, in which life is repeated rather than translated to a divine realm. It may be that, after the war, Thomas was no longer able to see the cycle of nature as an endlessly repeating pattern. If “Over Sir John’s Hill” is in fact a celebration, it is an unusually dark one, even for Thomas.

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