The Hand That Signed the Paper

by Dylan Thomas
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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Dylan Thomas’s “The Hand That Signed the Paper” consists of four quatrains that deride the cruel impersonality and wholesale destructiveness of modern politics and warfare. It is a universal war protest poem that expresses profound contempt for political leaders as a whole. They exhibit an absence of true feeling for their fellow human beings in their self-interested and pitiless handling of international conflicts and disputes. The poem scorns these irresponsible and coolly malevolent figures who have arrogantly set themselves up as the ultimate authorities over life and death.

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The first stanza catalogs how the simple signing of a document sets off a chain of disastrous and irreversible effects. They include the utter annihilation of a city, the taxing to death of a conquered people, the doubling of the worldwide death toll, the splitting up or demarcation of a country, and even the execution of a seemingly invulnerable king. The perpetrator of these calamitous measures is not some mythical monster or demon, but an ordinary human.

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The second stanza mocks the “mighty hand” that is responsible for these prodigious outcomes. It leads to a shoulder like any other hand, the poet nonchalantly notes. Also, it is subject to arthritis, like anybody else’s, with its joints becoming “cramped” by chalklike calcium. Furthermore, the instrument of this devastation is not some awesome weapon but, as the poet glibly remarks, a mere “goose’s quill” that is used to sign a treaty. Though this document may be an armistice or peace treaty to end all the “murder,” the poet cannot help but resentfully remember that the potentially productive negotiations that preceded the armed conflict were broken off in favor of widespread acts of violence.

In the third quatrain, the poet stresses that a peace treaty has not really solved anything at all. Indeed, rather than resolving the suffering brought about by war, it has actually caused more havoc, for the hard terms of the compact have created the conditions for hunger, disease, and pestilence in the capitulating nation. All this biblical-scale desolation leads the poet to ridicule the power and dominion of the “almighty” hand that scrawled a name across a page.

The concluding stanza compassionately foregrounds the terrible miseries of the war casualties, while bitterly observing that these five arrogant “kings,” who tally the deaths, are powerless or unwilling to console the wounded or heal their injuries. The poet, horrified by this high-handed, pitiless treatment of fellow creatures, reminds the reader that these inhumane, faceless politicians set themselves up as gods, maintaining absolute control over who is to be pitied and who is destroyed. Hands, the poet tragically comments in the final line, cannot cry for others.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

“The Hand That Signed the Paper” is in the form of a ballad, but a nonlyrical Augustan ballad containing four quatrains with alternately rhyming lines. The first and third lines of each stanza are in fairly regular iambic pentameter, but with an eleventh, unstressed syllable. The use of so-called feminine rhyme (rhyming words that end with an unstressed syllable) is a key stylistic feature of the poem. Insofar as the rhythm seems to trail off rather than end strongly because of them, the feminine rhyme endings give the poem a passive quality not unrelated to the theme of official apathy to humanity’s sufferings.

Also of metrical interest is the fact that Thomas adheres rather strictly to an unusual accentual syllabic pattern for a ballad: Except for the opening stanza, in which the syllable count is eleven in the first and third lines and eight in the second and fourth lines, the poem maintains a pattern of syllables in which the first and third lines have eleven, the second has eight, and the fourth has six. Thus, the fourth lines of the second through fourth quatrains are trimetrical, in contrast to the tetrameter second lines. This shortening of the fourth lines in these three stanzas creates a truncated effect. Once again, the meter reflects the content of the poem in that these shorter-than-expected lines seem to suffer from a lack of fullness and completeness; the reader, so to speak, hears a silence, colored by the poet’s disillusionment, instead of a fourth metrical foot.

Thomas’s key image, the disembodied hand—whether it is signing a declaration of war or a peace treaty—is a synecdoche for an indifferent, ruthless government: The part (the hand that signs the document) is taken to represent the whole (the brutal government perpetrating outrages on humankind). Although this classical rhetorical figure is a central device in Thomas’s poem, “The Hand That Signed the Paper” is modern and complex. It is the product not only of Thomas’s social consciousness as a concerned citizen between the wars but also of his intensely symbolic and personal vision of the world. The fingers of the offending hand, for example, assume a sinister, dreamlike character; twice they are metaphorically referred to as “five kings,” as if they have an independent conspiratorial reality above and beyond the existence of any individual ruler. They are like some diabolical finger puppets meting out arbitrary punishments. As a whole, the imagery in the poem is apocalyptic, combining biblical, medieval, and modern overtones. A “felled” city, a severed country, a globe piled up with the dead, a landscape devastated by locusts and crop failure, all give the poem a nightmarishly familiar quality.

Thomas is famous for his rich, resonant poetic sound. Although this poem is predominantly somber in tone, he effectively exploits the specific expressive value of words to dramatize his disregard for bureaucratic political authority. Dynamic verbs drive the opening stanza: “felled,” “taxed,” “doubled,” and “halved.” The latter, mirrorlike verb pair suggests cold, deadly mathematics. The counting of the dead can, in fact, be said to frame the poem, in the sense that it recurs in the last stanza. Furthermore, the d’s of “doubled,” “dead,” “ halved,” and “didto death” in the first stanza expressively convey the idea of death and destruction. Also of interest is the sheer contempt Thomas expresses by way of the harsh sounding “scribbled name,” a belittling reference to the lifeless signature that holds dominion over human beings.

The contiguity of “paper” and “felled” in line 1 also introduces an ironic undercurrent in the poem in that the signed paper—which is the product of a destructive act, namely the felling and processing of a tree—becomes, with a kind of bizarre circular logic, an accessory in further destruction. Similarly ironic is the cramping of finger joints with chalk in stanza 2. Chalk, a medium for communicating signs and symbols, ironically builds up as calcium in the signer’s joints, making writing a painful and counterproductive act. The monosyllabic almost matter-of-fact ending line is anything but a rant against authority; rather, it is an almost anticlimactic paradox producing genuine pathos: “Hands have no tears to flow.”

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