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.)