The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Illustration of PDF document

Download Poem on His Birthday Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“Poem on His Birthday” is composed of twelve stanzas of nine lines each. It was written to mark Dylan Thomas’s thirty-fifth birthday, and is the fourth and last of Thomas’s birthday poems. In the first four stanzas, the poet looks out at the real and imagined scene from his house overlooking the bay on his thirty-fifth birthday. As he gazes at the river and sea illumined by an October sun, he “celebrates” but also “spurns” his birthday, likening the passage of his life to “driftwood.”

The first stanzas abound with images of sea birds and fish—cormorants, flounders, gulls, curlews, eels, and herons—as they instinctively go about their appointed tasks. The poet is acutely conscious that the scene he observes, apparently so full of industrious life, is in truth a steady passage toward death. He realizes that all nature is a vast killing field: “Finches fly/ In the claw tracks of hawks.” He applies this insight to his own life. In his inner ear he can hear bells tolling, not only in celebration but also in anticipation of his own death. Yet, although the natural scene is filled with the omens of death, it is also holy. The herons, with which each of the first three stanzas closes, are “steeple stemmed” and “bless.”

Stanzas 5 to 7 switch from the natural scene to the landscape of the poet’s own mind and his anticipation of a rejuvenated life after death. Once again he hears the tolling of thirty-five bells, one for each year of his age, but each bell is a reminder of death and loss. He imagines the terror of death and sees a flash of flame; then divine love “unbolts the dark,” and he inherits a more joyous life “lost/ In the unknown, famous light of great/ and fabulous, dear God.” This is not a conventional Christian heaven. The poet imagines his soul wandering with the spirits of all the sea creatures and birds that inhabited the “horseshoe bay,” every one of them now a priest of God.

In stanza 8, the poet returns to the present, realizing that the liberating experience of death is a long way away. As long as he is alive, he must pray with the living. He knows that death is inherent in all things, and ultimately, all things will return to God. This awareness leads him, in stanza 9, to plead that he may be allowed, in his middle age, to mourn “the voyage to ruin [he] must run,” but with full realization of the holiness of the process.

In the final three stanzas, the poet puts his anguish aside and exultantly celebrates his life. His five senses are undergirded by a spiritual sense that propels him through the world of “spun slime” to his “nimbus bell cool kingdom come.” The closer he moves to death, the more holy the entire creation appears, and the more wholeheartedly he is able to praise it. Angels bestride every human soul, and this is a consoling thought for the poet as he “sail[s] out to die.”

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Throughout the poem, the most conspicuous poetic device is alliteration. “Bent bay,” “birthday bell,” “finches fly,” “seizing sky,” “dolphins dive,” “boulders bleed,” “midlife mourn,” “secret selves,” and “black base bones” are only some of the many examples. Less immediately noticeable is the assonance in such phrases as “mustardseed sun” and “driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age.” Sometimes Thomas combines alliteration with assonance, as with “tumbledown tongue,” “This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave,” “livelong river’s robe” and “Herons, steeple stemmed, bless.” These devices, when combined with subtle variations in rhythm that occur throughout, give the poem a charming, incantatory quality, especially when read aloud, that works quite independently of the poem’s meaning.

“Poem on His Birthday” is one of the last poems Thomas wrote; like most of his later poems, it is much less dense than his early work. It gives an impression of spaciousness and openness, unlike the taut intensity of many of the early poems. The result is greater lucidity and less obscurity. Some of Thomas’s characteristic tricks with language can still be observed, however; he forms compounds to create new expressions, such as “cloud quaking,” “wind turned,” “tide daubing,” and “steeple stemmed” (although Thomas does not hyphenate them). He creates expressions with more than one meaning, often employing an unusual syntax in the process, as in “I hear the bouncing hills/ Grow larked,” “larked” being a way of saying “full of larks” but also implying a playful frolic (a lark), which reinforces the sense of triumph and exultation in the last stanza. Sometimes Thomas will surprise his reader by substituting an unexpected word, as in “the dew larks sing/ Taller this thunderclap spring,” where “taller” replaces the expected “louder” and appeals to a different sense. The technique can also be seen in the synaesthetic line “The louder the sun blooms.”

The image of the sea voyage toward death, derived in part perhaps from D. H. Lawrence’s poem “The Ship of Death,” underlies the poem. The sea is the sea of life, the all-embracing ocean from which life emerges and to which it returns. This image pattern is first suggested in stanza 1, in which the poet compares his life to a piece of driftwood. It can be sensed in the next two stanzas in the poet’s observation of sea creatures and comes to the foreground in the references to shipwreck in stanzas 3 and 5. After going underground, it emerges again much more explicitly in stanza 9, in which the poet mourns “the voyage to ruin [he] must run.” The image then dominates the remainder of the poem, culminating in the vision of the poet sailing out on a turbulent sea to die, accompanied by angels.