Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While he was writing the poem, Thomas made a manuscript summary of the meaning he was trying to convey:Now exactly half of his three score and ten years is gonehe looks back at his times: his loves, his hates, all he has seen, and sees the logical progress of death in every thing he has seen & done. His death lurks for him, and for all, in the next lunatic war, and still singing, still praising the radiant earth, still loving, though remotely, the animal creation also gladly pursuing their inevitable & grievous ends, he goes towards his. Why should he praise God, and the beauty of the world as he moves to horrible death? He does not like the deep zero dark and the nearer he gets to it, the louder he sings, the higher the salmon leaps, the shriller the birds carol.

The idea that every breath of life is also a movement toward death and that humankind is intimately involved in the same processes that operate throughout the natural world is not a new thought for Thomas. He stated it in an early poem, “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” and repeated it many times over. In “Poem on His Birthday,” however, he draws a distinction. The creatures of the animal kingdom are all “Doing what they are told”; as they “Work at their ways to death,” they have no self-consciousness and therefore suffer no mental anguish, unlike the poet, toiling at the “the hewn coils of his trade” in full awareness of what awaits him. Seen in this...

(The entire section is 607 words.)