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...
(The entire section is 1,459 words.)