Poem on His Birthday

by Dylan Thomas

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The Poem

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Last Updated December 18, 2023.

"Poem on His Birthday" by Dylan Thomas is a thoughtful exploration of life, death, and spirituality. This lyrical musing on midlife invites readers to consider the profound reflections of a poet grappling with the complexities of existence.

Thomas wrote this poem to immortalize his feelings upon reaching middle age on his thirty-fifth birthday. "Poem on His Birthday" is a more serious and contemplative poem than his nostalgic "A Poem in October," which celebrates his thirtieth birthday. In "Poem on His Birthday," Thomas appears concerned with making sense of his inevitable mortality.

As is typical of Thomas's works, he makes expert use of symbolism throughout the twelve stanzas of this poem to convey deeply emotional themes. The natural elements, such as the sun, river, sea, and birds, represent life's cyclical nature. The poet's house on stilts becomes a metaphor for the precarious balance of life, elevated among the "beaks and palavers of birds." The herons, mentioned throughout the poem, symbolize a spiritual presence and offer a connection between the mundane and the divine.

The poem contains religious and mystical symbolism, reflecting Thomas's fascination with spirituality. The poet contemplates the journey toward death as a spiritual odyssey. The use of "angelus knells" and "falling stars" and the reference to the "nimbus bell cool kingdom" contribute to the mystical atmosphere and invite readers to consider the intersection of the earthly and the supernatural.

Thomas's creative use of language, including metaphors, similes, and alliteration, creates a vivid and evocative experience for the reader. The description of the sea as a "tusked, ramshackling" entity and the use of many alliterative phrases like "black base bones" and "midlife mourn" add to the poem's sonic beauty and visual richness. These devices not only serve aesthetic purposes but also deepen the emotional impact of the themes explored.

These alliterations are often combined with assonance, where vowel sounds are repeated to create a captivating rhythm and tone throughout the poem. Phrases such as "This sandgrain day in the bent bay's grave" create a sense of musicality and coherence, linking words and phrases through the repetition of sounds. This harmonious interplay of alliteration and assonance establishes a distinctive cadence that emphasizes the meditative tone of the work.

Written in the middle of the twentieth century, a time marked by global upheavals, Thomas's work reflects the thoughts of many at the time. "Poem on His Birthday" captures a sense of existential questioning and spiritual introspection. This resonates with the widespread uncertainty and fear many felt as the world recovered from World War II and considered another confrontation between superpowers. This may be the "Terror [that] will rage apart" mentioned in stanza 5.

The imagery of turbulent seas, falling stars, and impending doom further suggests a heightened awareness of the precariousness of life, echoing the collective unease of a world on the brink of unprecedented technological and political challenges. However, the absence of explicit contemporary references in the poem may be a deliberate choice, allowing Thomas to focus on the universal aspects of the human experience.

Thomas's personal life and background undeniably significantly influence "Poem on His Birthday." Born in Wales in 1914, Thomas grew up surrounded by the rich natural landscapes and cultural heritage of his homeland. These elements find vivid expression in the poem's imagery of nature.

Thomas's struggles with mortality and his tumultuous relationship with alcohol and chronic health issues, which led to his death in 1953, contribute to the profound introspection evident in his work. This poem takes on added poignancy when one considers that, at the time of its creation, he was not merely at midlife but nearing the end of it. Although the poet imagines living another thirty-five years as someone regularly in poor health, there may have been an added sense of urgency when he wrote this poem.

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