Interpreting The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower
A legend. That's what Dylan Thomas remains for the thousands of people who heard him read during several U.S. lecture tours in the 1950s. Thomas's trance-inducing, powerful voice, which rolled rs and trilled Is, has been described by dozens of enthralled American writers and also chronicled by all kinds of ordinary folks who felt personally touched by a genius. In those electrifying readings, Thomas reportedly began by reading poems by greats like William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot and then moved on to his own work.
But the hypnotizing "genius effect" of Thomas the man had an equally well-chronicled downside. His trouble with alcohol and his often embarrassing tendency to pursue very young women has also been detailed by a variety of literary types. All this background information, however, pales next to the poems themselves. What matters is the words in front of us, the work the man left before he died at age thirty-nine in an emergency room in New York City, a casualty of alcoholism.
"The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives The Flower" is one of Thomas's most famous poems, and it is propelled by his trademark lush, gorgeous sound. The ear is king for Thomas, and the immediate first impression this poem gives is a rush of consonants, kneaded into a relatively strict yet graceful form that Thomas created for the occasion.
Thomas's early critics often berated his work as difficult and obscure. Here, it's possible to read the entire poem several times through, utterly in love with the sound of it, without understanding a word. This confusion requires a global look at the poem's structure, followed by slow first impressions and a grasp toward meaning. While Thomas may not be easy, he is certainly comprehensible.
First, a look at overall form. Thomas veered between strict and lovely villanelles like "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" and rifts into free verse. Here, he falls somewhere in between with a form that has a little flexibility. The first four stanzas each have five lines. Each of the first four stanzas has a second line which is split by a semicolon or comma, followed by a much shorter third line. The last stanza is a couplet, for a total of twenty-two lines.
Right from the title, which doubles as the first line, there is a palpable power here, an obvious comfort with the big subjects—another Thomas hallmark. Birth, death, and sex are his themes, and he frequently refers to all three in a single poem. Above all, poetry itself is his terrain, and the beauty of letters, consonants, vowels, and the life they depict is his great obsession.
Thus the title and the first line are about power—both poetic power and the power of the world's beauty. Force, fuse, drives, and blasts are all cyclical, whooshing words. Age, also appearing in the first stanza, establishes that this is a big poem, one that aims for the fences. Against this huge, complex backdrop of a sweeping look at the entire world is the rather small "I," who is "dumb to mouth"—a speechless speaker.
But also from the start there is a definite density to the poem, along with that sense of known destiny. The words are piled on thickly, as are their connotations. Thomas is a poet of double meanings, and this poem is a classic example:
The force that through the green fuse drives the
Drives my green age; That blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
The force that brings life to the flower and to the trees is the same force that "destroys"—or brings death. This idea repeats throughout the poem, as each stanza presents a variation on the theme of a huge force that both gives life and removes it. Despite all of the power of the poet to notice something as magnificent as "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower," or "the force that drives the water through the rocks," or "the hand that whirls the water," he still feels inadequate. He still feels "dumb to mouth" or "dumb to tell."
While this feeling of inadequacy is clearly expressed, readers cannot...
(The entire section is 5,304 words.)