Ninetieth Birthday

by R. S. Thomas

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The Poem

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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 emphasized later in the second half of the stanza: “Yet no bridge joins her own/ World with yours.” The poem concludes with a description of the visitor listening to the old woman but with the sense that what she has to say has no relevance to the present.

The movement from the first stanza to the second is a movement from the external to the internal; although the second stanza contains descriptive elements as well, it makes judgments about the characters and their worlds while the first stanza sets the place. The poem does not contain a description of the visitor’s world; the first stanza’s precise images bring the reader into the poem and provide the sense that the visitor is familiar with but not part of the landscape. The second stanza reinforces this, implying not only that the visitor is removed enough from the landscape to notice it but also that the visitor can never become part of that landscape. Even the landscape does not serve as a bridge between the two worlds.

Forms and Devices

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“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,...

(This entire section contains 531 words.)

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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 as an account of the old woman’s life. Each year there is a little less. She is slowly dying. The stanza’s other metaphors, “bridge” and “abyss,” both function on a conceptual rather than visual level. There is no physical abyss between the old woman’s world and the visitor’s world, but there is a vast cultural and social difference.

Formally, one of the more interesting aspects of the poem is the use of the second person. While the second person is not unusual for poetry, there is often a clear sense that the speaker is addressing another person. In “Ninetieth Birthday,” however, the quiet and sad tone as well as the privacy of the moment—only the visitor and the old woman are present—imply that the poem could well be the speaker’s own thoughts or memories. While it is certainly possible that the speaker is addressing a close friend, the speaker might also be using the second person to feel more detached when describing a painful experience. The phrase “all you can do” near the end of the poem expresses feelings of futility and helplessness, emotions from which the speaker might well want to be somewhat distant. The visitor is glad that the old woman is still alive, but her old age and solitude are deeply sorrowful to the visitor. In using the second person, the speaker lessens some of the immediacy of the sad feeling. Yet, powerfully, the distance increases the reader’s sense of the depth of the sadness. The distance between the speaker or reader and the visitor gives a greater idea of the distance between the visitor and the old woman.