Dylan Thomas 1946
Dylan Thomas has been a controversial poet since his first poems appeared in 1933. His work is not easily categorized. He has been variously described as a surrealist, a primitive, a Welsh bard, a metaphysical poet, a dadaist; the list is extensive. Perhaps the term most frequently attached to Thomas is twentieth-century Romantic.
Thomas’s poetry is usually divided into three stages. In the first period, his poems are complex and often obscure, centering on the cycle of birth and death. The poems from the second period, written primarily during the years of World War II, take on a more human and personalized dimension, and include such works as “Ceremony After a Fire Raid” and the elegy “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” “Fern Hill” was written during the last period, when Thomas produced longer narrative poems, using more understandable imagery and fluid lines. Published in Deaths and Entrances in 1946, it is one of his poems which easily fits the description, romantic; in fact, it has often been compared to William Wordsworth’s nature poetry.
The poem is based on Thomas’s own childhood vacations spent at Fernhill, a farm owned by his mother’s oldest sister, Ann Jones, and her husband. In “Fern Hill,” Thomas presents an idyllic picture of childhood on a farm, filled with vivid imagery which presents a child’s view of the world. This is contrasted in the final stanzas with the regret of the adult as he recalls the loss of the innocence and splendor of childhood.
Thomas was born at home in the Uplands district of Swansea, Wales, on October 27, 1914, the second child and only son of middle-class parents. His sister Nancy was nearly nine years older than he. His father was a schoolmaster in English at the local grammar school. Though considered a cold and bitter man who resented his position as a teacher, the elder Thomas’s love for literature encouraged a similar devotion in his son. Thomas feared, respected, and deepy loved his father, and in some sense his life appeared to be an attempt to realize his father’s frustrated dream of being a great poet. In contrast to his father, Thomas’s mother was loving, overly protective, and inclined to overindulge her son. Even at the end of his life, she found no fault in his public behavior and the drinking habits which ultimately led to his death.
Thomas enjoyed his childhood in Wales, and his work in later years would reflect a desire to recapture the relatively carefree years of his youth. A generally undistinguished student, Thomas entered the Swansea Grammar School in 1925. In 1931 he left school to work for the South Wales Daily Post in Swansea. He would later say that his real education came from the freedom he was given to read anything in his father’s suprisingly well-stocked library of modern and nineteenth-century poetry and other works. Thomas resigned from the paper early in 1933, and poetry became his primary occupation. By all accounts, he was not a successful news reporter: he got facts wrong, and he failed to show up to cover events, preferring instead to loiter at the pool hall or the Kardomah Cafe. During the early 1930s Thomas began to develop the serious drinking problem that plagued him throughout the remainder of his life. He also began to develop a public persona as a jokester and storyteller. However, his notebooks reveal that many of his most highly regarded poems were either written or drafted during this period and that he had also begun to experiment with short prose pieces. In May of 1933 his poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” was published in the New English Weekly, marking the first appearance of his work in a London journal, and in December of the following year his first poetry collection, 18 Poems (1934), was issued. During this period he established a lifelong pattern of travel between London and some rural retreat, usually in Wales. As the decade progressed, he gained increasing recognition for both his poetry and his prose.
In the summer of 1937 Thomas married Caitlin Macnamara, a young dancer of Irish descent whose Bohemian lifestyle and behavior rivaled Thomas’s own. For the next twelve years the couple led a nomadic and financially difficult existence, staying with friends, relatives, and a series of benefactors. The stories later collected in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940) were written primarily during the couple’s stay in the Welsh coastal village of Laugharne in late 1938 and early 1939. Too frail for active military service, and needing to support himself and his wife, Thomas took work writing scripts for propaganda films during World War II, at which time he also began to participate in radio dramas and readings for the BBC. His financial burdens increased during this time. In January, 1939 Thomas’s first child, a son named Llewelyn, was born. Daughter Aeron followed in March, 1943. Thomas emerged from the war years a respected literary figure and popular performer; however, his gregarious social life and the excessive drinking it encouraged seriously interfered with his writing. Seeking an environment more conducive to poetic production, Thomas and his family returned to Laugharne in 1949.
During the early 1950s Thomas wrote several of his most poignant poems, including “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” and “Lament.” Nevertheless, fearing that his creative powers were rapidly waning, and seeking to avoid the pressures of writing, he embarked on a speaking tour of the United States in the spring of 1950. During the final years of his life, he traveled to the United States four times, each time engaging in parties and readings in and around New York City, followed by readings and more celebrations at numerous universities throughout the country. Thomas’s personal charisma and self-described public reputation as a drunkard, a Welshman, and a lover of women seemed to serve only to enhance his standing in literary circles. His fourth and final American tour began on October 19, 1953 and ended with his death from a massive overdose of alcohol on November 9.
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“Fern Hill” is considered one of the most beautiful and evocative recollections of childhood in all of English literature. Thomas opens the poem like a storyteller. The word now does not mean at the present time. It is a storyteller’s phrase; “Now as I was young,” advises the listener to sit back and hear a story about childhood. The word easy here recalls the comfort and freedom from care that adults associate with childhood.
Throughout the poem, Thomas combines words that are not ordinarily associated with each other to give the reader a new perspective; thus the “lilting house” becomes one that is full of joy and song. This blend does not give a physical description of the house, but an emotional one. The reader experiences the child’s pleasure. This is a key technique in “Fern Hill,” as Thomas recreates for the reader the idealized dreams of childhood summers. In addition, he combines clichés to create a surprising new way to present an idea or feeling; each cliché alone would attract no attention, but the unusual blend with its word play becomes an intriguing and playful simile. “Happy as the grass is green” does not necessarily translate into a specific, identifiable amount of joy. It simply brings the delight of the tongue twisters and nonsense rhymes of childhood. Green, the color of spring and renewal, is used throughout the poem.
Even the nights are filled with stars, as fits the memories of idyllic childhood.
Thomas uses personification when he introduces time, who grants the child permission to enjoy his days fully, to “climb golden” under his gaze. The use of golden adds the connotation of being charmed, untouched by the ordinary worries of life.
With this line, Thomas re-creates childhood play and fantasies. The child becomes the master of all that is around him. The idea of a fairy tale connotation is further reinforced with the word prince. A child’s kingdom is fashioned from the world around him, in this case, the apple orchard. The line also refers to the apple boughs in the first line and the windfall light in line 9. Such connections help Thomas establish a visual and sensual impression of Fernhill.
Thomas returns to the mode of storyteller as he changes the traditional opening of fairy tales, from upon to below. In addition, it reinforces the impression of time as a gentle overseer in lines 4-5. As lord of all this place, the child rules the trees and flowers. In the last line of the stanza, Thomas uses beautiful images, describing the sunlight in the orchard as “rivers of windfall light.” Windfall refers to the apples fallen from the trees, but in addition the word has a secondary meaning of good fortune or good luck. Both definitions contribute to the emotional sense of the image.
These lines restate the child’s impressions in the first stanza. A sense of well-being is emphasized again as green is repeated and now joined with carefree. The word “famous” supports the child’s sense of being the center of his world; it compliments “honoured,” “prince,” and “lordly.”
This line hints at the nostalgia that will end the poem. Although the child feels that he will be young forever, while even the sun must age, it is he who is only once young.
Again Thomas parallels the lines, 4 and 5, from the previous stanza. Time allows the speaker the freedom to play endlessly.
The emphasis on the colors green and golden, with their connotation of young and blessed, recurs throughout the poem. The alliteration in huntsman and herdsman reinforces the child’s idea of the control that he has over his world; the other images in these lines support this feeling. Notice the repetition of words beginning with “g,” “h,” and “c.”
In this line, Thomas recalls the ways in which children view time as moving slowly. Time, a benevolent force in the child’s life, moves at a different pace for him than for adults.
Thomas presents the reader with a series of images—long sunny days, rich and golden hay fields, sweet melodic air—which convey a sense of joy, song, comfort, and contentment. Everything is exaggerated, as a child might see it. The hay fields seem enormously high; the fire can glow green.
The rest of the stanza describes the child’s ideas about what happens during the nighttime on the farm. As day turns to night, the stars themselves become not distant spheres, but simple objects lighting the sky for a child.
Thomas creates a dream image in which the child imagines that the farm vanishes when everyone is asleep. This foreshadows the disappearance of the farm in the final stanza. However, here the nighttime fantasy is one of adventure, not at all
- In Country Heaven—Evolution, an audio cassette read by Thomas and others, is available from Harper Collins Audio.
- Dylan Thomas Reads is available on audio cassette from Audiobooks.
- A video cassette titled Dylan Thomas: A Portrait is available through Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
- A video narrated by the author titled A Dylan Thomas Memoir was released by Pyramid Film and Video in 1972.
frightening or sad. Thomas even uses “blessed” to describe these night happenings The farm is borne away by the owls, seemingly under the protection of the moon.
The morning finds the farm back, shimmering with morning dew. The alliterative “wanderer white” continues Thomas’s use of connotation; he uses the color white to symbolize purity and renewal. The entire stanza focuses on images of marvel and wonder and renewal. Thomas compares each morning to the first morning of Adam and Eve. The farm becomes Eden before the fall.
Thomas expands his image by going even farther back in time than Adam. He describes the creation of the cosmos itself. The joy of light appearing finally out of darkness is the joy that surrounds the farm and all the creatures on it as they enter each new day. If these images were expressed through an adult voice, they would seem artificial, even ridiculous. Only through the voice of a child can they express wonder effectively.
This stanza restates many of the ideas and descriptions in the previous stanzas. Honoured was first used in line 6; the animals and house are described again. The “new made clouds” recall the birth of light in the last stanza, while “happy as the heart was long” revises the end of line 2. This repetition or echoing effect reinforces the child’s life. Days are similar, one to another. This is the pattern of childhood.
The “sun born over and over” contrasts with the sun in line 12 which is only young once.
The child’s carefree attitude is again described. The alliteration and assonance of “house high hay” reinforce this easy feeling.
With the last three words in line 42, Thomas introduces the idea of loss. Time allows the child such mornings, but they will not last forever. Until this point, the details presented the idealized memories of childhood, recalling what it felt like to be free and easy, to feel that time was generous, giving endless sunny days. Now the adult perspective enters, mourning that the number of those glorious days is so limited. In line 43, Thomas uses alliteration to create an image of the joyful song of time. However, the song is not for adults. Only the green and golden children can hear it.
This line restates line 42, and the word “white” again appears, with its connotation of innocence, remembering the child’s inability to understand the nature of time.
These lines parallel the disappearance of the farm in lines 23-27 as the farm disappears in the nighttime once again. Instead of the protective owls however, it is time that takes the farm.
This line provides a poignant contrast to the beginning of stanza four, when the child wakes up like Adam, overwhelmed by the glory of the world. Thomas effectively uses the alliterative phrase “farm forever fled” to stress the loss. Time will no longer show his mercy in a “childless land.” This final transition from the remembered glories of childhood to the reality of the adult world is irrevocable.
Thomas uses repetition of phrases from past stanzas to emphasize the sense of loss. Line 52 repeats lines 1 and 14, while line 52 changes line 10 to “green and dying.” Green now becomes the color of decay.
The emotional impact of this line is more easily felt than translated. The adult has become a prisoner of time. His life has boundaries like the sea; time orders his movements, just as the moon directs the motion of the sea.
Nature and Its Meaning
The childhood described in “Fern Hill” is spent among trees, streams, hay fields, and animals, and the child who lives among these beautiful rural surroundings feels safe and confident. To some degree this scene is a typical idealization of nature, suggesting that children would be happy and well-adjusted if left alone by adults and society. The idea of the “noble savage”—the pure, childlike person who is noble because untainted by civilization—has endured in literature for centuries, dating back at least to Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel Oroonoko and most widely popularized in the writings of eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like the noble savage, the child of “Fern Hill” is at home in a natural state without the intrusion of society.
In “Fern Hill,” however, it is not nature that makes the boy’s life so blessed, but the boy who glorifies nature. This is evident in the language of joy and amazement that serves to elevate and celebrate the boy’s experiences. He uses personification to give human motives and behavior to objects, animals, and abstract concepts: wagons, foxes, and pheasants “honour” the narrator; the farm is described as having a rooster “on his shoulder”; and, most important, time “let me hail and climb / Golden in the heydays of his eyes.” The child also uses hyperbole, or exaggerated overstatement, to make nature more impressive, as when he says that the haystacks are as high as the house, the dewy farm is “all / Shining,” or the stream is “holy.”
Furthermore, life in nature seemed so blissful that the narrator compares it to the biblical paradise of the Book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden,
Topics for Further Study
- Write a few stanzas of a poem about what your childhood was like, to make it seem happier than any childhood could be. Choose objects and descriptions that will make readers envy you for having grown up so happy and carefree.
- Explain the “fire green as grass” in line 22: what do you think the speaker means by this? Try writing your own similes that seem to make no sense, along with a few sentences for each explaining why they actually are appropriate.
- Do you think this speaker regrets the way his childhood transpired? What sort of life do you think he has lead since growing up? What values does he have as an adult? Support your answers with quotes from the text.
through references to Adam and Eve (“Adam and maiden”) and Creation (“the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place”). And like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden for their sinful pride, children fall “out of grace” when they lose their innocence. Depicted in “Fern Hill” as the object of the narrator’s youthful awe, nature symoblizes a passing stage of wonderment and inner peace.
In memories, childhood is often recorded as a time of freedom, mostly because children have simple needs and desires that are easily satisfied. It is unusual, though, to associate childhood freedom with power, as this poem does. In fact, the narrator’s special status as a child—he is not just “honoured” “lordly,” and “a prince,” but also “golden”—is a more original depiction of childhood than the versions seen in most literature, where children are presented simply as happy and carefree. Part of the freedom that this child senses results from the fact that he moves about in his surroundings without rules or limitations imposed by others. In contrast, the poem ultimately equates time and aging as chains that imprison us.
The worlds in which the boy and the adult narrator live are the same, only their perspectives differ. The adult has become aware that the serene world described in “Fern Hill” is not permanent and may even be an illusion. In this poem, freedom seems to be dependent on perspective, but eventual loss of freedom also appears to be inevitable. In the closing lines, the narrator admits that he may never have been free, even as a happy child: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
The boy of “Fern Hill” is not aware of time, but the older narrator draws attention to time’s passage with the first few words, which indicate that he is beginning a story about days gone by: “Now as I was young .…” Four and a half of the poem’s six stanzas serve as a laundry list of the wonderful experiences, sensations, and sights of the narrator’s childhood. However, the reader detects hints, in the form of statements in the past tense, that the circumstances described no longer hold true: “I was prince,” “I was green and carefree,” “the farm was home,” “I was huntsman and herdsman.” Still, there is a slight shock when the poem shifts to the present tense in line 42 with the phrase “time allows.” The surprise is lessened because that crucial phrase is buried in the middle of a tangled sentence that twists and turns with prepositional phrases, delaying the reader’s recognition of meaning until the last possible moment. What is revealed here changes everything: “… time allows / … so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace.” The days of childhood, each beginning with a blissful morning, are destined to be few. The farm, so real and tangible in “Fern Hill,” is “forever fled.”
Like all of Thomas’s poetry, “Fern Hill” is complex in its structure. The poem has six stanzas, each with nine lines. Ordinary meter is frequently less important to Thomas than the syllabic line. This can be seen in “Fern Hill” which has a unique pattern of development. The first, second, sixth, and seventh lines of each stanza are fourteen syllables long, while the third, fifth, and ninth lines are nine syllables. Each fourth line has six syllables.
The rhyme scheme, as well, is nontraditional. Instead of concentrating on end rhyme, Thomas uses internal rhyme throughout the poem. Alliteration, words that begin with similar sounds, also occurs throughout the poem; for example, line 2 uses “green” and “grass,” and line 28 describes the “wanderer white.” Assonance, using similar vowel patterns, is also part of Thomas’s poetic style. “Daisies and barley” from line 8 illustrate this. In addition, many lines are filled with types of half rhyme: “sun” and “young” in line 12; “spinning” and “whinnying” in lines 34 and 35. These recurring sounds create a melodic quality which reinforces the mood and atmosphere of “Fern Hill.” Like the house Thomas describes, the poem itself is lilting and gay.
According to the poet’s widow, Caitlin Thomas, “Fern Hill” was written in Majoda, New Quay, Wales, in 1944 even though it did not appear in print until Thomas’s 1946 book Deaths and Entrances. The two years’ difference is significant. In 1944 the terror of the war was at a peak, and Thomas had retreated to Wales to avoid the constant bombing of London, his home at the time, by the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force. By the time the poem was published, the terror of the air raids was over, and the British people had time to reflect on the ways the war had changed their lives.
Britain had been preparing itself for invasion from Germany since 1938. In that year, Germany took over Austria under the guise of wishing to protect the German citizens in that country from persecution. Later that year, when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler laid claim to the region bordering Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, Britain and France both urged the Czech government to give up the land in exchange for a treaty in which Germany promised to stop its aggressions. Six months later, Germany broke its treaty and took the remainder of Czechoslovakia by invasion.
By then, it was clear that Hitler could not be trusted, and local governments in Britain began preparing citizens for invasion. More than 38 million gas masks were distributed to citizens, and air raid drills occurred on a regular basis. In September of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, both France and Great Britain declared war. Germany set about conquering the smaller countries in northern
Compare & Contrast
- 1946: The British Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Clement Attlee, nationalizes the British Coal Industry and the Bank of England, among other industries.
1979: Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher is elected Prime Minister for the first of three consecutive terms, serving in her post until 1990. During her tenure she lowered the tax rate and sold nationalized industries back to private concerns.
Today: The Conservative Party is still in power in Great Britain, but has lost its majority to the Labour Party.
- 1946: U.S. colleges reach an all-time high enrollment, as returning servicemen received tuition through the G.I. Bill of Rights (passed by Congress in 1944).
1962: James Meredith becomes the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling against segregation in public schools.
1990: The Americans with Disabilities Act is passed, containing provisions ensuring disabled citizens have equal access to public education.
Today: Although rising tuition rates are creating a wide rift between public and private schools, a college education is available to all Americans.
- 1946: After losing World War II, the Japanese give up control of Vietnam. The French, who prior to the war had controlled the country since 1880, attemp to restore their rule, but Vietnamese Communists fight for independence.
1954: The negotiated end of the struggle between the French and the Vietnamese Communists temporarily divides the country into two, but Ngo Dinh Diem, with U.S. backing, rises to power in the south and refuses reunification.
1963: Diem is assassinated, and U.S. miliatry arms and advisors are sent to Vietnam to help the South resist the Communist North.
1973: After overwhelming domestic protest, the United States withdraws its troops and support from Vietnam.
1975: North and South Vietnam are united as one country under Communist rule.
Today: Large nations are hesitant to extend military help to either side of disputes without the backing of other independent nations.
Europe—Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium—and eventually, in June of 1940, forced France to surrender. Until the United States entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of the following year, Great Britain was the only major country left opposing the spread of Germany and its allies.
After the fall of France, Germany directed its attention to Britain, using submarines to sink supply ships and airplanes to bomb strategic sites. Bombing first targeted airplane manufacturing facilities, and then, soon afterward, major cities such as London, Coventry, Plymouth, and Swansea (where Thomas was born and raised). Great Britain had not been taken over by an invading army since 1066 A.D. The British had expected a German invasion and were prepared to repel it. Thousands of school children were evacuated from larger cities and sent to rural Wales, in many cases to live on farms like the one described in “Fern Hill.”
Between mid-August, 1940 and July of 1941 the cities of Britain were pounded by German bombs almost daily. One of the key reasons that the Germans were unsuccessful in the “Battle of Britain,” as it came to be called, was the British development of radar. A string of radar stations along the coast was able to anticipate incoming Luftwaffe planes and limit their damage, while the British Royal Air Force kept bombing German cities, which had no such protection. In June of 1941 the pressure was taken off of Britain when the Germans diverted their force toward Russia, which had been an ally of Germany in 1939 but was now attacking. Not much later the United States entered the war, keeping Germany busy defending the lands they had captured. The threat of a German invasion decreased, but frequent bombing raids against British cities continued throughout the rest of the war. As late as March of 1944, when Thomas decided to leave London for Wales, air raids killed 79 British citizens and wounded 633.
When “Fern Hill” was printed in 1946, the war was over, and Britons had time to look around and see how their world had changed. Many of the major cities were in rubble and needed rebuilding. Published reports stated that in London alone 700,000 houses needed repairs from war damage. This led to overcrowding in the structures still standing. Unemployment rose as able-bodied workers returned from military service to a world where production demands had lessened from wartime levels and hundreds of manufacturing factories lay in ruin. The end of an American aid program, known as Lend-Lease, created food shortages. The people of Britain desperately needed relief, and Thomas presented a nostalgic look back at more carefree days of innocence and freedom in “Fern Hill.”
In her essay “Kinship and Craftsmanship,” Sheila Deane discusses the importance of the “voice” in Dylan Thomas’s poetry, noting that he designed his poems to be read aloud. The sound of the line was even more important than the exact meaning of any one particular image. She compares Thomas’s description of his own writing style as a sculptor of poetry to the traditional Welsh bards, who were also viewed as craftsmen in their age. Throughout his poetry, the use of language and the rhythms of words were key elements in Thomas’s creative style. In “Fern Hill,” Deane finds that Thomas returns to “an experience of language that he associated with childhood and freedom.” She analyzes the language in the last stanza, looking at the use of rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, and concludes that Thomas “wanted his poems to be a series of interconnected words; each word contributes its sound, shape, and meaning to the design of the stanza, but each word also receives something from the stanza, is ‘charged’ with extra significance by its position and relevance.”
In A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, William York Tindall discusses the similarities between “Fern Hill” and poems by Shakespeare, Yeats, Marvel, Hopkins, Vaughn, and Wordsworth. He also compares it to Thomas’s “Poem in October,” which has a similar theme. Tindall admires the musicality of “Fern Hill,” calling it “a symphony in green and gold major.” In his analysis of each stanza, he stresses the musical effects of the language.
Tyrus Miller teaches comparative literature and English at Yale University, and has written extensively on twentieth-century poetry, fiction, and visual culture. In the essay below, Miller analyzes “Fern Hill” stanza by stanza, praising Thomas’s use of assonance-rhymes, his metaphors describing time, and the images used to convey sexual awakening.
Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” written in September 1945, shortly before the poet turned thirty one years old, revisits the site of his boyhood joys and poignantly renders the glimmering afterimage of their lost intensities. Thomas published it in the literary journal Horizon, alongside his famous poem commemorating the tragedy of the Nazi air raids on British cities, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” He also managed to include it at the last minute in his forthcoming book, Deaths and Entrances, which appeared in February of 1946.
“Fern Hill” dates from one of Thomas’s most productive periods, the last year and a half of World War II, and was partially occasioned by the events of the war. Swansea in Wales, Thomas’s hometown and the city of residence of his parents, was bombed repeatedly in the Nazi air campaign against Great Britain. After the terrible bombings of February 1941, which caused the stricken Thomas to sob to a friend, “Our Swansea is dead,” Thomas’s parents withdrew to their cottage in Blaen Cwm, near the farm of Fernhill, where Thomas had spent time with his aunt many years earlier. His visits to his parents during the war triggered the memories of the happy Edenic times when he was young and thoughts of war were still distant. Though “Fern Hill” bears no open trace of this historical context, its background presence is crucial to understanding the poem’s meaning and emotional force. It represents an imaginative return to this rural childhood paradise, but at the same time offers us, in a sense, a negative print of the adult inferno of buzz-bombs and night fires, the hell of the times from which the poet had only temporarily escaped.
Thomas sought to lend his poetry a sculptural quality, an effect he achieved through his extensive use of repetition and variation of phrases, rich sound patterning, and elaborate stanza forms based on exact syllable counts. “Fern Hill” is an exemplary work in this respect, with its dense weave of repeated phrases and its complicated stanzas; Thomas painstakingly worked out the final form on over two hundred sheets of manuscript. Each of the six jagged, nine-line stanzas repeat the syllabic scheme of 14, 14, 9, 6, 9, 14, 14, 9, and 9 syllables per line. Rather than employing full rhymes, Thomas uses assonance rhymes, in which the rhyme words share a vowel sound; the stanzas follow the rhyme scheme “abcdeabcd.” Yet the technical intricacies of Thomas’s stanzas do not end there. In the a-, b-, and d-lines, the end-words are mostly monosyllabic and hence have their assonance on the final vowel; for example, “boughs” assonates with “towns” in the first stanza. In the c-lines, however, the endings are two-syllable words which assonate on the first of the two vowel sounds: starry / barley, only / slowly, watery / horses, maiden / stable, over / golden, rising / dying. In more conventional rhyme, rhyming on the last syllable is referred to as “masculine”; rhymes on earlier syllables are referred to as “feminine.” Thomas uses both patterns and maintains a rigorous scheme throughout the whole poem.
The craft which Thomas so ostentatiously displays in this poem is not, however, meant as a mere show of virtuosity. The sound structure and linguistic texture is intended to evoke a boy’s blissful participation in the textures, sounds, forms, colors, and intensities of the natural world. In the mouth, consonants are made by various stoppings of the breath, while vowels are formed by the flow
What Do I Read Next?
- Thomas’s Collected Poems (1952) is a slim selection of ninety works. Containing an additional 102 pieces, The Poems of Dylan Thomas, edited by Daniel Jones, was published in 1971.
- Thomas was well known for his scandalous public behavior, reinforcing the reputation for decadence that artists and poets have enjoyed since the Romantic movement. John Malcolm Brinnin’s 1955 memoir Dylan Thomas in America records a number of the poet’s escapades during time spent in the United States in the years 1950-1953, near the end of his life.
- Brinnin’s book begins with a disclaimer from Caitlin Thomas, the poet’s widow. Her Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas, co-written with George Tremlett in 1985, includes many of the same events and details that Brinnin documented, but much more sympathetically.
- Another British writer whose studies of childhood are similar to Thomas’s in their vividness and intellectual complexity is Ireland’s James Joyce. Some of the short stories in his book Dubliners demonstrate a spirit similar to that of “Fern Hill.”
of breath through differently shaped openings of the mouth and throat. Thomas’s choice of assonance-rhymes, which associate words through shared vowels, thus makes the poem’s sound structure reinforce the ideas of open flow and free union presented by the poem’s imagery: the passing of day into night and night into day, the joyous movements of the body through open space, the inter-penetration of everything with everything else. One might even speak of a sort of metrical symbolism working in the poem, with the masculine and feminine assonances interweaving into a natural bisexual or presexual sensuality of childhood. Similarly, the stanza form and its successive repetition throughout the poem dramatize the slow, imperceptible changes, over the course of time and repeated
“The sound structure and linguistic texture is intended to evoke a boy’s blissful participation in the textures, sounds, forms, colors, and intensitites of the natural world.”
experiences, that eventually carried the speaker from his early entanglement with nature to the later reflective maturity in which poems may be given shape.
The first three stanzas represent the boy’s sheer, unending pleasure in the natural cosmos of Fernhill farm, a condition in which time does not pass, but rather reigns, personified, as a benevolent divinity watching over the scene. The poem’s opening word, “Now,” which it pronounces perpetually and repeatedly with every reading, captures the paradoxical fusion of the instant with eternity which characterizes the opening scene. Two of the appearances of the word “time” in these initial stanzas fall at the beginning of the line, which allows Thomas to capitalize the word and hint that “time” does not merely designate a dimension of experience, but rather names an allegorical character. The other appearance sets “time” into a variant of the typical fairy-tale formula for starting a story: “once below a time.” The boy is in a fairy-tale world of his own making, in which Time itself is the King who grants the child-hero his favor. By a sort of magical incantation, Thomas projects time from its everyday sphere—where it is tied to money and work, routine and deadlines, boredom and anxiety, aging and death—into a mythic sphere where life flows, pulses, and recurs, with ever-renewed powers.
Thomas makes this mythical condition concrete by his merging of temporal and spatial imagery, so that typical markers of time are represented spatially, while spatial entities become images of time. For example, “night,” which usually indicates a stretch of time, becomes a position in the boy’s cosmos: “The night above the dingle starry,” “once below a time.” Analogously, “sun” and “moon,” usually referring to bodies in space, instead name stretches of time in “Fern Hill”: “All the sun long,” “All the moon long.” Metaphorically, however, time and space are not opposed dimensions, but a single time-space, drawn together within the magic circle of the boy’s person. Insofar as he is the focal point of all that happens under the sky, “Time” is none other than the sun or moon, shining its light down on him, granting its grace, inviting him to join the celestial bodies in the heights of the day or night: “Time let me hail and climb / Golden in the heydays of his eyes”; “In the sun that is young once only / Time let me play and be / Golden in the mercy of his means.”
A change occurs with the opening of the fourth stanza, at first barely perceptible because of the powerful rhythmic impulse which pushes the reader forward. From this point on, time begins to spread out, becoming linear and irreversible, and hence carrying the speaker from the timeless present of boyhood to the adult world in which the past can only be imperfectly recaptured by memory. The opening phrase of the fourth stanza, “And then to awake,” picks up the closing nightfall at the end of the third stanza and might thus seem merely to continue the cycle of suns and moons of the ecstatic opening. But “awakening” is not just a change from dark to light; it is a change in the condition of the boy who is experiencing the cycles of nature. It carries the implication of leaving behind the dreamworld and coming to clear consciousness of the real world around him. It also suggests, through images of the crowing cock, of a couple naked in the garden (“Adam and maiden”), and of a pregnant sun (“the sun grew round that very day”), that the awakening is above all sexual: the first stirrings of puberty, which will focus the boyhood ecstasies upon the narrower pleasures of the adult body. This focusing comes at a cost, for it introduces a before and after to the eternal instant of the earlier stanzas. As soon as one recognizes time’s passing, the paradise of boyhood is over and can only be imagined. Thomas compares his awakened vision of the day to the first day of creation, God’s bringing of the light out of chaos. But his words betray that this original state can only be imagined, but never really recaptured: “So it must have been after the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place.” It must have been something like this, Thomas pleads, but since there is no going back, one can—literally—only take the poet’s word for it.
The last two stanzas confirm the shift from blissful celebration to wistful mourning for what has been lost in time. In the fifth stanza, Thomas even puns on the word “morning,” implying that his own present poetic mourning might have been heard already in the “morning songs” that time allowed the boy. Only now, however, when that boy’s “heedless ways” are but a memory, can he recognize the “awakening to morning” as a simultaneous awakening of a mourning of lost times. The last stanza is strongly marked by the implication of death: “time would take me / Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand.” The central lines of this stanza suggest death even more explicitly: “Nor that riding to sleep / I should hear him fly with the high fields / And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.” “Riding to sleep” implies a hurrying toward death, while overhead, time is “flying,” carrying away the fields that were once fields of play or “fields of praise” (stanza 4).
The final tercet returns to the paradox of time’s “morning songs,” memorably capturing the fusion of joy and grief, life and death, freedom and necessity that the revisited Fernhill farm represents for the adult poet: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” The last line offers a fragile redemption of lost time in the idea of turning the man’s lament into poetry, of transfiguring grief into elegiac mourning song. “Sang in my chains,” at one level, refers to the chains of necessity, the bonds of time, which hold the adult as they did the boy, however little he knew of such things. But the image of the sea, which ends the lines, admits another reading of the line, which give it a less despairing sense. “Chains” may also be taken to mean the chains of waves which propagate across the sea’s surface. They provide an image of natural rhythm, recurrently coming into being and passing away. To sing in chains like the sea, then, sets the poet in a fragile relation with nature, in which his poems are like waves that rise and fall. But as the previous line “Time held me green and dying” reminds us, this “likeness” between the poet and the sea is possible only in the ideal world of the poem, in the medium of the poetic word; in the world of time, the city, and war, this resemblance can only be a passing wave.
Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Mary C. Davidow
In the following essay, Davidow discusses how Thomas explores “the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the artist” in “Fern Hill,”using methods similar to those in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“The world he creates is the world of a happy child: a world where the sun is always shining and where every sound makes music.”
One method of introducing Dylan Thomas’ poetry to the uninitiated student is through a recording of the celebrated poet’s own reading of “Fern Hill,” an exquisite lyric inspired by remembrances of his childhood experiences at the farm of his aunt, Ann Jones, in Wales. The magnificent, resonant quality of Thomas’ voice underscores the importance of the aural pattern in the structure of the poem.
There is a Blakian spirit in the aura of innocence which pervades the earlier stanzas of the poem. Thomas’ fondness for compound words, for alliterative phrases as well as for the use of assonance and consonance, greatly enhancing the texture of the patterned sounds, indicates his indebtedness to [English poet Gerard Manley] Hopkins. The entire poem, autobiographical in the same sense that [Irish novelist James] Joyce’s novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is autobiographical, tells, in a highly compressed style, of the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of the artist from childhood to young manhood.
The poem’s narrative content—if one may call it that—is divided into two major parts: (1) the first three stanzas, dealing with childhood and preado-lescent experiences leading to adolescence, and (2) the last three stanzas, describing the youth’s emergence from innocence to knowledge, and his gradual development (“by the shadow of my hand”) into adulthood as he, at the same time, responds to the call of the creative spirit within him and becomes a poet joining the company of song-makers (“Up to the swallow thronged loft”) in a country-style Parnassus. To be sure, the reader is more likely to react intuitively rather than consciously to the impalpable elements in the poem—without doubt the poet’s intention.
A major consideration, and one on which the organic development depends, is the poet’s treatment
“Thomas’ young hero celebrates in ‘Fern Hill’ the beauty and mystery of the singular experience taking him from innocence to knowledge.”
of time. The focus of narrative proceeds from the mind of the adult speaker whose account of childhood’s climb toward maturity originates in personal recollection, and thus establishes as a desideratum the sustained use of the past tense. The reader learns that the tad in stanza one grows up to become not only the young man looking back on his “lamb white days” in stanza six, but the poet looking downward from his perch in the hay loft where time has brought him. Contrary to the conventional notion of depicting time as an onward continuum, Thomas, for the most part in the poem, envisions the passing of time as an upward extension, parallelling man’s physical and, symbolically, aesthetic as well as spiritual growth. In stanza one, two key words relating to temporal progression are under and below; they suggest a child’s aoristic conception of sequential relationships. As “prince of the apple towns,” running quite easily, with no need for bending or stooping under the apple boughs” in the orchard, the little boy has only a vague notion of time. In fact, his journey through life has barely begun. Thomas, through the use of the phrase, “once below a time,” emphasizes tenderness of age by introducing overtones of nursery tales in the echo of the opening line of fairy stories associated with childhood. The device is reminiscent of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which begins with the statement: “Once upon a time … there was a moocow.…” Both writers, Thomas and Joyce, fulfill an identical artistic purpose. They elevate the practical and immediate necessity of language to a level of aesthetic magic. The reader’s reaction to the fairy-tale diction is one of delight associated with childhood’s tales of enchantment.
In stanza two, the reader discovers that the child of stanza one has become less dependent upon the adult world for his entertainment. He possesses greater freedom and mobility in the pursuit of his round of daily activities. A carefree, happy, singing child, he visits the barns where he is stranger to neither man nor beast; he plays at being huntsman and herdsman; he uses imagination and is cunning in his games of make-believe. Thomas stresses the youth and happiness of his protagonist through the use of significant repetition of such words as green and golden; at the same time, through this technique of meaningful repetition, he reinforces the unifying links tying one stanza to the next, and thereby achieves organic progression in his poem. The world he creates is the world of a happy child: a world where the sun is always shining and where every sound makes music.
Just as the key colors, green and golden, unite thematically stanzas one and two, the phrase, “huntsman and herdsman,” of the second stanza anticipates the paradox between chastity and sexuality inherent in the diction of stanza three, thus linking the two stanzas together. “Huntsman” suggests Diana, goddess of the hunt as well as of chastity, while “herdsman” brings to mind the image of Pan, god of pastures, flocks, and shepherds; but he is also god of fertility. In the second stanza, the poet indicates the youth’s awareness of the passage of time; of the Sabbath, and of holy things. His environment has sensitized the spiritual, ethical, and emotional aspects of his nature. Also, he has acquired a degree of mastery and command, for the calves come to his call. A second level of meaning, however, gives amplification to the huntsman-herdsman paradox. The statement, “the calves / Sang to my horn,” suggests Pan once again, while the words “clear and cold” suggest Diana.
In stanza three, the protagonist, now an adolescent, gradually gives up his service to Diana and pays greater attention to Pan. The stanza is replete with fertility symbols: sun, hayfields, chimneys, watery, fire, stables, nightjars, horses, and flashing. Since owls, traditionally, are symbols of wisdom, and since nightjars are also known as fernowls or goatsuckers, the poet, through the use of selective diction, suggests that with the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, childhood vanishes, or recedes into the past. Hence, he writes: “The owls were bearing the farm away,” and then later, “All the moon long I heard … the nightjars / Flying with the ricks.” Toward the end of the stanza, Thomas juxtaposes the symbol of chastity, the moon, with symbols of fertility. Childhood is over as the youth acquires physical maturity; he experiences the first stirrings of the passions and recognizes sexuality as a vital force. The rhythm of the stanza is quickened, reflecting the excitement of newly discovered sensations.
Adolescence at times seems precariously pitched between childhood and maturity. The opening lines of stanza four remind the reader of the ambivalence characteristic of this stage of human development. The farm, symbol of childhood in the poem, reappears. But it is a different farm from that of childhood; it is a Paradise, a Garden of Eden wherein, metaphorically, the first fruits of knowledge were shared in human partnership. Unlike Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus after his visit to night-town, Thomas’ young hero celebrates in “Fern Hill” the beauty and mystery of the singular experience taking him from innocence to knowledge: “… it was Adam and maiden, / The sky gathered again / And the sun grew round that very day.” One should not, nevertheless, ignore the ambiguity in the phrase “the cock on his shoulder,” with its suggestion of betrayal of selfness.
With maturity come responsibility and care. “Under the new made clouds” the young man speaking in the poem enjoyed the pleasures of adulthood. In contrast to the innocent joys of childhood which, he tells us, made him “happy as the grass was green,” those of maturer years made him “happy as the heart was long.” Love, he learned, brings with its excitement and delight an ensuing measure of heartache. A note of nostalgia is sounded. In stanzas one and two, time is personified as an indulgent father: “Time let me hail and climb,” and “Time let me play and be;” in stanza five, time is personified as a storybook Pied Piper, an image inherent in the statement that “children green and golden / Follow him out of grace.”
In the final stanza the speaker tells his reader how little, during his childhood years, he understood or concerned himself with his ultimate destiny. Clearly time, imperceptibly, has brought him to a position of height (the loft), and has endowed him with wings (Joyce’s symbol of freedom for the artist). Since the swallow is recognized not only by his swift flight, but also by his habit of nesting in chimneys and barns, stanza six is linked by the reference in it to “the swallow thronged loft” with stanza three’s “tunes from the chimney”; therefore, the swallow symbolizes the swift flight of time on the one hand, and the poet’s function as the maker of songs on the other. With his aesthetic sensibilities awakened in childhood and refined in youth, the poet has joined the company of song-birds in the loft. In the concluding lines of the poem, time is once again personified, not, however, as an indulgent father, nor as Pied Piper, but as a tyrant holding all men prisoners. The poet, despite the tyranny and ultimate conquest of time, lived to create immortal beauty.
Source: “Journey from Apple Orchard to Swallow Thronged Loft: ‘Fern Hill,’” in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 1, January, 1969, pp. 78-81.
C. B. Cox
In the following essay, Cox discusses how “Fern Hill” celebrates the joy of childhood through its “evocative rhythms and imagery.”
“Fern Hill” is deservedly one of the most popular of Dylan Thomas’s poems. Wonderfully fresh and full of vitality, the words combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child. This originality confuses some readers. Striking phrases such as “happy as the grass was green”, “prince of the apple towns”, or “at my sky blue trades”, surprise by their novelty, and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended. These unusual images are evocative rather than precise; and their purpose is to create a strong emotional response, rather than to define a particular attitude. Thomas deliberately uses all his wit and subtlety to gather into each image a wide range of associations. Essentially a romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience which is almost beyond expression. In the repetitions “it was lovely”, “it was air And playing, lovely and watery…”, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be wholly confined into words.
This type of poetry has often been held in low esteem by modern analytic critics, who have little to say about the large emotional effects achieved through evocative rhythms and imagery. It is true that some of the images in “Fern Hill” appear to have been chosen at random; for example, what effects are intended by the line: “Down the rivers of the windfall light”? And other similar examples make the poem as a whole a little diffuse; but there is no point in over-emphasising this. Thomas is celebrating the divine innocence of a child, and for him this is a mystery beyond analysis.
The magical landscapes of the poem have a twofold effect. They create anew the freshness and wonder of a child’s vision, but at the same time they express Thomas’s adult interpretation of his past experience. This is not forced upon the reader by direct comment or moralising, but is shown in and through the concrete pictures of the boy’s life on the farm. A good example of this occurs at the end of the second stanza:
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
“These unusual images are evocative rather than precise; and their purpose is to create a strong emotional response, rather than to define a particular attitude.”
These lines remind us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure. But much more than this is implied. The noise of water passing over the pebble is like church bells calling the boy to worship. Thomas conveys his adult belief that the boy’s awakening to the beauty of nature has a divine significance, and that all human joy is holy.
A comparable example can be seen in the middle of the third stanza. After a day of excitement the child, as he falls to sleep, continues to feel the movements of the day—“as I rode to sleep”. But the continuation of movement into the night, as the boy hears the owls and nightjars, suggests a mysterious and unending vitality in nature itself. In the phrases “under the simple stars” and “blessed among stables”, the words ‘simple’ and ‘blessed’ are introduced not to make explicit a definite religious viewpoint, but to evoke a general feeling of reverence for the innocence of a child.
The gaiety and strength of the poem come largely from this type of adult interpretation. Thomas is aware of the power of time, but instead of becoming melancholy and nostalgic, he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, and as itself part of the wonder of all creation; instead of giving way to regrets he exults in what has been. The boy does not appear in any way separate from his surroundings. This effect is achieved in part by the use of transferred epithets—“the lilting house”, “happy yard”, “gay house”. These words describe how the boy’s emotions transform every object he perceives; but also they prevent us from feeling that he lives in an alien environment. The boy is “honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house”—an integral part of all created things.
For Thomas the child achieves an exalted state, for he is a ‘prince’, honoured and ‘lordly’, a rightful inheritor of the blessings of nature. Lines such as “the hay fields high as the house” evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty of which the boy’s exuberance is but a part. He is “green and golden”, innocent and yet overheaped with gifts. His mind moves rapidly from one impression to the next; and this energy is reflected in the many quick movements of the poem—“All the sun long it was running…”, where the lilting rhythm, with its light stresses—“happy as the grass was green”—carries the reader on in quick surges of delight. The long sentences, beautifully constructed and controlled by Thomas, give this feeling of continuous pleasure; no sharp breaks interrupt the exuberant flow.
These expressions of mystery and power move to a climax in stanza four. When the boy awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the garden of Eden, a revelation of innocence. It is typical of Thomas that this new awareness is expressed in concrete terms. When dealing with comparable experiences, Wordsworth moves away from the actual towards a mysticism beyond the world of the senses. He talks of “something far more deeply interfused” in nature, and tries to find expression for an awareness of the transcendental—“The winds come to me from the fields of sleep.” Thomas’s sense of wonder comes from participation in life itself, for he glories in what is revealed through the senses, and does not look beyond. The spellbound horses are mysterious, to be praised in song, not as symbols of a transcendental reality, but for their own force and beauty.
From the beginning of the poem, the child’s simple unreflecting vitality is seen as a gift of time, soon to be withdrawn. These references to time have a double effect. The words “all the sun long”, “all the moon long”, show how the child measures time by light not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience; but they also remind us that this experience is not permanent. In the final two stanzas, the facts of time become more insistent, and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored. Yet even in these concluding lines, no suggestion is given that the child’s experience is in any way inadequate. “Nothing I cared” is a simple statement of fact, not a moral comment on the heedlessness of the child. Time may hold the child “green and dying”, but he sings in his chains; he is “like the sea”, full of abundance and infinite power.
The effect of the last line is essentially imprecise, and its success comes largely from the music of the poem. Thomas was a constant experimenter in verse, and always used words deliberately for musical effects. The quality of this poem comes largely from a careful use of ecstatic rhythms; in the last line, we have a last flourish of rhythmic exaltation, with the image of the sea gathering together into itself all the previous evocations of heroism and abundance.
In the literature of the post 1945 world, so often full of anger and despair, Thomas’s faith in life seems to some people naive. But in this poem time and death are accepted as undeniable facts, yet Thomas’s attitude is one of courage and sanity. In a world faced by total destruction, he reminds us of the wonder and mystery of individual experience, and for this we ourselves should be thankful.
Source: “Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’” in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1959, pp. 134-38.
Tindall, William York, in his A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1962, 297 p.
Thomas, Caitlin, and George Tremlett, Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1986.
Biography by Thomas’s wife.
Cox, C. B., ed., Dylan Thomas: A Collection of Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1966.
Contains several critical essays written during Thomas’s life or soon after his death, including poet Karl Shapiro’s reflections on Thomas’s career from the perspective of a peer who knew him. Also particularly significant is John Ackerman’s “The Welsh Background,” which highlights some of the social themes that can be found in Thomas’s work.
Emery, Clark, The World of Dylan Thomas, Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1962.
Provides lengthy literary analyses of each of the 90 poems in Thomas’s Collected Poems, For “Fern Hill,” Emery draws attention to autobiographical points of reference, as well as similarities to the poets William Wordsworth and William Blake.
Sinclair, Andrew, Dylan Thomas: No Man More Magical, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
The author of this book is a novelist who adapted Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood as a feature film. The analyses of the poems offered here are a little less formal than most academic works.