Fern Hill (Dylan Thomas)

Fern Hill was the farm, rented by his aunt Annie, at which young Dylan Thomas spent summer holidays, and is ‘remembered’ in the poem as a place where “all the sun long“, there poured forth “rivers of .. windfall light“, so much so that “it was all shining“.  For me, this isn’t a poem for regret that I am no longer young, but for celebration that once I was and therefore, since the past exists only in the present, still am, though I’m also old. What follows is not a detailed study of what is very much an ‘analysis-superfluous’ poem, but a brief from-the-heart response.

In this poem, the hero who (Dylan Thomas being the poet ) is also an anti-hero, is TIME. We are the subjects of a benevolent despot. Thomas makes this ‘clear’, in a typical double-take ‘reset’ of a conventional phrase. Instead of “once upon a time”, he writes, “once below a time“. Time, not me, is on top, but at least he “let me play and be golden in the mercy of his means“. He even changed pace to allow a variety of experiences. Sometimes life sped along, like “nightjars flying” and “horses flashing into the dark“, while at other times, a day could be long when “the sabbath rang slowly” and the church bells took an age to ring. How “lovely” that “time allows .. such morning songs“, even if they later seem “so few‘ in the longer scheme of things. For Time must pass, and life give way to death. At his moment of choice, Time will “take me up to the swallow thronged loft“, from where these well-timed birds will make their escape from the winter that ends my life. I am inescapably his captive, but Time has given me times when “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

The uncensored perceptions and feelings of the “singing” child are projected onto the farm around him, and so it sports a “gay” and “lilting house” with “tunes from the chimneys“, a “happy yard“, and “house high hay“. It recalls the glorious garden of Eden as seen by “Adam and maiden” on “that very day” when “the sun grew round” for the first time, and lit up “the fields of praise“, so that “it was all shining“. The child is as enchanted as the “spellbound horses“, feels “honoured among foxes and pheasants“, and delights that “the calves sang to my horn“.

When Thomas paid a visit to Fern Hill in later life, it was just a run-of-the-mill farm, smaller, dingier and smellier than the ‘remembered’ one. Which is the ‘truer’ Fern Hill – the one assessed by the mature and sophisticated mind, or the one experienced by the ‘innocent’ and impressionable mind? Let’s go with the latter. The child rejoiced that he was “carefree“, and that “nothing I cared” when “in the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways“. He was ‘living in the moment’, with no thought of past or future, and taking life ‘as it came’, rather than as how it was said, supposed, or expected to come. He was both “green and golden“, raw and naive, yet perceptive and responsive. There’s a difference between childish and childlike, and it’s ok for adults to be the latter, and not inappropriately suppress spontaneous feelings, and miss out on deepest, perhaps truest, perceptions.

The passage of Time in the poem is imaged by the daytime sun and night time moon. There’s an early warning that “the sun .. is young once only” but, not to worry, it’s “born over and over” in days that last ‘all the sun long.” “The night” makes an early appearance, but is “starry” and bright. When the child goes to sleep at night, he dreams of “the horses flashing into the dark”, into which darkness the “owls were bearing the farm away”. But all is well, for when he wakes he hears “the farm .. come back, the cock on his shoulder“, noisily celebrating the arrival of another “shining” day. There is, nonetheless, “the moon that is always rising”, and the Time must come when “we follow him out of grace“.

We needn’t ‘die’, however, before we are dead. We can live in the moment when we read or write a poem, lose ourselves in the making or hearing of music, look into the splendour of a setting sun, smell the breathtaking fragrance of a lily, make love to a fellow human being, or stop sitting and thinking, and just sit. Anywhere can become a Fern Hill, if we can rediscover how full of wonder are even the most ordinary and everyday things, places, and people. To do that (as William Blake says) is to “hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.” The childlike, pristine Fern Hill has not irrevocably “forever fled from the childless land“. It has “come back” in Dylan Thomas’s inimitable poem, and will continue to do so, every time it is read. Therein lies the wonder, the delight, and the undying value of great Art.

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