The Poem

R. S. Thomas’s “Ninetieth Birthday” is a poem of two stanzas of unequal length written in free verse. The second stanza is further divided for emphasis, the seventh line beginning immediately below the end of the sixth line rather than at the left margin as do the other lines. The poem is written in the second person; though the speaker seems to be addressing another person, it is possible to read the poem as the speaker’s own memories or thoughts about an event. The poem describes a person going to visit an old woman, perhaps a mother or grandmother, on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. The first stanza describes a walk up a steep hill on a midsummer day and does not indicate where the person is going or why the person is going up the hill. Instead, the stanza portrays the landscape: a road, probably dirt, on which it is better to walk than drive, a rocky hillside where trees give way to bracken, a distant view of the sea, and a small stream. The description is similar to those in other poems by Thomas set in the mountainous areas of Wales.

The second stanza moves from a description of the landscape to the description of an old woman waiting for her visitor at the top of the hill. The old woman “Waits for the news of the lost village/ She thinks she knows, a place that exists/ In her memory only,” which indicates that she rarely, if ever, leaves her farm and that the world has changed in ways of which she has no knowledge. This point is...

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Forms and Devices

“Ninetieth Birthday” is written in very plain language with sentences that are long but not syntactically difficult. It uses neither rhyme nor formal meter, and there are very few metaphors or other figures of speech. Thomas does not usually dress up his poems, particularly the earlier ones, with many adjectives or long words, and this poem is typical in its plainness. In the first stanza, the only word of more than two syllables is “history,” and his few adjectives are simple and ordinary: “green,” “warm,” and “far,” for example. Such simple language is particularly effective in describing the landscape; it is precise enough for the reader to visualize it clearly, and it gives the poem a quiet and thoughtful tone.

The second stanza differs from the first in that it contains more metaphors, and the metaphors are used more to create a complex emotion than to clarify an image. For example, the first stanza uses the metaphor of lichen “That writes history on the page/ Of the grey rock,” which strengthens the mental picture of lichen on a stone, covering it like words on a page or hieroglyphs on a clay tablet. It also creates a sense of the mountain’s age. In the second stanza, however, the metaphor of “time’s knife shaving the bone” does not provide a useful visual image if one tries to picture it literally. While it does function as a description of the physical diminution that comes with aging, it is more effective when read...

(The entire section is 531 words.)