The Hand That Signed the Paper Analysis

Dylan Thomas

The Poem

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.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Forms and Devices

“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...

(The entire section is 697 words.)