“The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” is a carefully sculptured poem of four stanzas and a coda, its twenty-two lines scrupulously crafted for maximum power and, to some extent, maximum puzzlement.
The poem, as the title echoing the first line suggests, is about a mysterious force, which the poet proceeds to define, qualify, and examine in a variety of ways. This force, presumably the force behind all nature and reality—maybe even a divine force—paradoxically combines life and death and links the poet—the “I” of the poem—to the universe.
Each stanza identifies the force in a slightly different way, defining a different aspect of its operation. The effect of the stanzas is cumulative and progressive; each definition qualifies and amplifies the last. Each stanza ends by establishing the poet’s relation to the force.
In the first stanza, the force is the “life” force or growth force that drives flowers through the soil into bloom. Death, however, is also a part of natural growth, and this same force destroys the roots of trees. After all, photosynthesis (one natural process) enables flowers to increase in size and bloom; worms, wind, or disease (other natural processes) can dramatically eat away at the roots of trees and cause them to topple suddenly. Simultaneously, the poet has linked the force of life/death to himself, for it both drives his youth and will eventually lead to his death. Nevertheless, the poet is unable to communicate with nature (“the crooked rose”) and express or articulate his kinship with growing things in life and death.
The second stanza sees the same generative/destructive power in the force but now extends it to an inanimate, though powerful, natural element: water. Again, the poet states that the force both produces flow and activity and dries up streams. Gravity “pulls” water down from mountains, creating rivers; when all the water (for the time being) has been “pulled,” the streams disappear. As before, the poet sees the same force at work in himself, for the blood in the human body is itself a form of sustaining water—and biohistorically was once sea water. As a stream may dry up, so may a human being die and the blood cease to flow. Yet Dylan Thomas cannot mouth this truth to his own veins, to his own body.
The third stanza defines the force in the anthropomorphic metaphor of an unseen hand, suggesting a quasi-divine or at least a mystical being. Such a force sets life-giving water in motion but also creates quicksand, usually associated with death. Similarly, like a human hand that pulls in a line on a sailboat to control the wind and make the boat go faster, the trimmed sail simply pushes the boat farther toward its ultimate destination—which is the “shroud sail” associated with death and often seen as an allusion to the lover’s death in Tristan and Isolde (twelfth century). The intertwining of all life and death is imaginatively startling but incommunicable because the poet cannot explain this universal kinship of all human beings to one another. Though the decaying flesh of the poet may turn into quicklime, used by a hangman to speed the decomposition of a hanged man, Thomas cannot articulate this spiritual-chemical unity to the person hanging from the rope.
The fourth stanza suggests a countermovement to the ultimate destructive power of the force with images of time, love, and heaven. Here the destructive process, seen as fallen blood and time itself, appears to lead to healing, resolution, renewal, and hope. In the final coda, the poet, echoing the recently announced theme of love, reminds the reader that although he cannot communicate with dead lovers, his living body shares the full panoply of love’s experiences.
Just as the poetry of Dylan Thomas is difficult to characterize as springing from any particular poetic movement, it is also problematic to pin down his poetic roots, his literary heritage. Although he is Welsh, his poetry seldom...
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