Dylan Thomas Poetry: British Analysis
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.
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...
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