Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1309
Thomas wrote very few poems between the taut lyric of “Twenty-four Years,” which marked “my birthday just arriving,” and his famous celebration of what he designated his “thirtieth year to heaven”—the “Poem in October.” In the intervening years of World War II, he was involved with film work in London, and he found that he was generally unable to compose poetry anywhere else but in the familiar home ground of his west Wales landscape. He began the poem in 1941, writing to his friend Vernon Watkins that the first line would be, “It was my twenty-seventh year to heaven” (using one syllable too many, as he must have sensed). He did not, however, complete it until he was again living in the cottage in Blaen Cwm, where he had written poetry since childhood.
During the summer of 1944, when he also wrote “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” “New Quay,” and “Fern Hill,” Thomas had reached a kind of midpoint in his life and realized that his tremendous excitement and feeling of wholeness in observation of the realm of nature might be receding beyond recollection. Both as a means of fixing this feeling permanently and as a strategy to remain in contact with one of the originating forces of his artistic passion, Thomas wrote what Donald Hall has called “a long and gorgeous rendition of weather and landscape, bird and water.” What makes the poem so successful is the fact that the familiar sentiments of a very common human emotion have been placed in a form that is uniquely Thomas’s, and that the rhapsodic language at which Thomas excelled has rarely been as well suited to a subject.
There are two specific features of Thomas’s style of composition notable in the poem. The first is his manner of constructing a frame in which details accumulate gradually while the narrative consciousness of the poet remains at a distance; then, when the full dimensions of the image have been developed, the poet’s perspective on the scene is introduced. In the first stanza, Thomas follows the opening declaration (“my thirtieth year”) with a series of sounds that are an invitation to the poet to join the waking world. Then, after the features of the harbor town have been recorded, Thomas gathers the poet, who has already expressed a proprietary interest by the use of the word “my” in the first and second line, into the scene in an immediate present narrative by summarizing “Myself to set foot/ that second” as he sets forth. This technique is used in many of the following stanzas, which are actually written as an extended, continuing line broken by divisions into separate subunits.
The second feature is Thomas’s use of a kind of compound adjective, as in the well-known description of the seacoast as the “heron priested shore” where the “net webbed wall” marks the boundary of land and water. In later stanzas, he continues this practice with such figures as the “rain wringing wind” and a “lark full cloud” or a “blue altered sky”—the latter figure including a double meaning recalling his lyric beginning in “Altarwise by Owl-Light.”
The long rhythms of each stanza contribute to a song effect in which the interplay of rhyme, alliteration, and assonance within the line help to maintain a high energy level; each linguistic device is like a chime in a series of sonic highlights. The frequency of these sound pulses parallels the surges of excitement that the poet feels as he is overwhelmed by a display of nature’s infinite variety, a phenomenon that he regards as a personal benediction, as if all he sees is a tribute to his being. “My birthday began,” he starts the second stanza, as if the world is on show for him, and his description of an ascent from the harbor to the “hill’s shoulder” is presented as a climb from birth through a life of “fond climates and sweet singers” toward a summit envisioned as a “wonder of summer.”
The action of the poem in the first three stanzas proceeds upward beneath a “springful of larks in a rolling/ Cloud” in a journey that approximates Thomas’s life before the intrusion of adult consciousness into the child’s world of pure wonder. From the “parables/ Of sun light” through “twice told fields of infancy,” Thomas’s expressions of “the truth of his joy” as a youth are rendered with a purity of recall that places no distance between the sensation of the experience and its re-creation in the poem. Then, in a pivotal middle (fourth) stanza, there is a sudden shift as “the weather turned around.” From this point, the recall of the adult is more like a review, in which the experience is seen again through the double perspective of the adult reflecting on the child’s experiences. The motion now is reversed, so that the child begins to recede into memory. The focus of the second part of the poem is less a descent (for a youth, in the “sun born over and over,” as Thomas puts it in “Fern Hill,” there is no summit, merely the possibility of going higher). It is more an awareness now of precipitous possibilities. The goal of the adult poet is to keep the summit in sight.
The turning of the weather parallels the change of seasons from summer to autumn, indicating the passage to the poet’s maturity that has occurred in the span of poetic time. There is also an added element of poignancy in the poet’s recollections, because his awareness of death and time makes him even more sensitive to the temporary beauty of the natural world. The “twice told fields of infancy” relived in the double vision of the man in his thirtieth year permit the poet legitimately to claim of the boy that “his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.” The images of the poem wrought in Thomas’s highly charged lyric language are a proof of this sentiment, a convincing demonstration through poetic art that “the mystery/ Sang alive/ Still.” This peak of emotion is followed by a pause of reflection. The poet repeats that, amid his recapitulation of the marvelous, “the weather turned around,” but that the poem itself has been the occasion for the “long dead child” to emerge and sing “burning in the sun” of a youth temporarily regained. As the poem concludes, Thomas fuses the two moments that he has celebrated, his “thirtieth year to heaven” and his “summer noon,” by syntactically pulling the present and the past together. He revivifies the experience of the moment by describing the “town below . . . leaved with October blood”; the autumnal phase of the poet’s life is still colored with the passion of creative action.
The final line is a universal prayer for favor and continuance from the forces of the universe. Yielding completely to the ultra-Romantic spirit of the poem, Thomas begins the last line (which is divided into a triad) with the unabashed “O” of countless effusions of feeling. His fervent wish is that his “heart’s truth”—the sum of his desire as a man and a poet—will still be sufficient cause for him to “sing” (that is, to write poetry) from a position of strength and confidence (“on this high hill”) when another year has passed. There is more than irony in this last wish, since Thomas often stated his fears that his days would be short. In accordance with the mood of the entire poem, he has let the “long dead child” speak at the close. Knowing quite well that he was enchained by circumstance and temperament, he could still choose, as he put it in his other great pastoral celebration of the same year, “Fern Hill,” to “sing like the sea.”
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