Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607
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 light, the poem is a successful struggle by the poet, who carries the burden of mortality, toward a heroic affirmation of the sacramental nature of the universe.
From the outset, the poet attempts to read the deeper realities in the natural scene. He watches as the “herons, steeple stemmed, bless,” a phrase which builds on the religious connotations discernible in the phrase “Herons spire and spear” in stanza 1 (“spire” suggesting the spire of a church in addition to its primary meaning of “to rise upward”). When Thomas writes of herons, he draws on symbolic meanings that he has established in earlier poems. In another birthday poem, “Poem in October,” he refers to the “heron/ Priested shore,” and in “Over Sir John’s Hill,” the heron is also a central image of the holiness to be found in nature.
The poet’s affirmation of life even in the face of death becomes even more impressive when it is realized that he has no firm intellectual basis for his faith. Although he possesses a vague sense of the divine realm as a coincidentia oppositorium—a harmony between the light and dark elements in creation—the stanzas which describe the heaven that awaits all creatures, human and nonhuman, are full of contradictions and uncertainties. God is described as “fabulous” and “unborn”; the latter may mean “eternal,” but it could equally mean “not present.” The priestlike souls are “gulled,” which suggests that they may be fooled, and the “cloud quaking peace” that envelops them does not sound very peaceful.
The doubts and ambiguities make the poet’s ringing celebration of life in the final stanzas even more impressive. It does not seem to matter that this is an emotional rather than a carefully reasoned response. The poet has come to feel that his life is more than the piece of driftwood he described in the first stanza. He realizes that he is aflame with divine love and that this unites him in spiritual communion with every other human soul in its perilous, seaborn pilgrimage.