Themes and Meanings

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The “I” of the poem begins in innocence, the young Adam of the new world. As he experiences it, his correlative is as innocent as he, whether that be the farm or the princess, who is “maiden” rather than “Eve” because (as Genesis 3:20 states) the latter name means “giver of life” or “mother of all the living.” Saint Augustine of Hippo said that history began only after the Original Sin, so the child’s world seems timeless, a new world freshly created at each dawn.

As in many Renaissance poems (William Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18, 55, 65, and 116, for example), time is the enemy, but for the Renaissance reader, Father Time was Cronos (Saturn), who in Greek myth devoured all of his own children. In Thomas’s poem, time is a temporarily benevolent despot, “allowing” and “permitting” the child a time of perfect happiness before he sacrifices his own progeny to the demands of his cannibalistic nature.

At the beginning of the final stanza, Thomas uses a very private and obscure symbol: The lamblike child ascends to the loft of the barn at moonrise and sleeps to awaken no longer innocent, no longer childlike, alienated from the farm and from nature—expelled from Eden. Thus far, the reader may choose to understand this as a symbol of sexual experience of some sort. The episode involves bird symbols as well, however, and these the reader may well interpret as symbols of poetry—swallows, the implied owls and nightjars from the earlier episode of literal sleep (lines 23-27), and the moon herself as mistress of the creative imagination (like the fairy queen, Titania, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, c. 1595-1596). A child does not compose the songs of childhood. Only an adult can do so, for only the adult is thematically possessed of his own past history. Under the influence of the moon of imagination, the sea rises and falls; although a repressive king-figure (Father Time, the god Cronos, the Persian despot Xerxes, or the Danish King Canute of Britain) can attempt to chain the sea, he will not succeed. Hence, the perennial human symbol of expulsion from the limited Eden of newly created innocence also symbolizes the initiation into the more fully human and creative world of mature experience.

When the sea “sing[s] in its chains,” therefore, it does not sing only the green, white, and golden world of Fern Hill, it also sings the green and dying world of the mortal adult. Like a ritual incantation, the poem “Fern Hill” re-creates for the reader the Eden of boyhood, its loss, and its retrieval. Whenever the poem is read and for as long as it takes to read it, the paradise of Fern Hill exists again, is lost again, and is regained.

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