The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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,...

(The entire section is 451 words.)