Elegy (Dylan Thomas)

Love rather than friendship

This, though not finished, is the last of Dylan Thomas’s poems. Completed in a notebook were the 17 lines quoted above, along with 2 following lines which he crossed out. In the notebook there were other lines not made use of, though some might have been if he’d lived to complete the poem.

Dylan Thomas, as poet extraordinaire, was a correspondingly complex man, his life and poetry full of ambiguities, inconsistencies and even contradictions. The world is not a simple place, and life, love, sex and death are not simple matters. Thomas needed to experience and/or explore them as much as he could, and he did. Whatever we choose to look for, we’ll likely find in his poetry, but we mustn’t imagine that any one thing we find will reveal his essence, or sum him up. The only thing we can be sure of, is that it won’t. Reading Thomas is an endless adventure which can lead from nowhere, to everywhere, or anywhere in between.

It’s arguably in keeping with this that the poem has a 3 line verse scheme, and yet a 4 line rhyme scheme, which he departs from at its end, (tho’ perhaps not if he’d completed it). There are also lines which, rather than stopping at the end, ‘run on’ into the next one. We can therefore expect the contents of the poem to be similarly unorthodox and unsettling. It’s about Thomas’s experience of being present with his father on “that darkest day(16th December 1952) when he died. 

The father-son relationship wasn’t easy going. David Thomas was a senior English Master at Swansea Grammar who, in his life upheld the proprieties, and in his heart, longed to be a poet but lacked ‘the vital spark’. Dylan had a contrasting contempt for conventional proprieties, and for all things academic, and his poetic ‘spark’ was often more like a roaring furnace. They certainly, however, cared about one another, though it’s been said, in a thought-provoking phrase, that their relationship was one of “love rather than friendship”.

The poem reflects these ambivalences. David Thomas was “cold“, suggesting unemotional and unapproachable, and yet also “kind“, hinting at some deeper warmth and supportiveness. He’d latterly endured some “all dark” years of illness and failing eyesight. Being irreligious, and therefore “unblessed“, he faced “the darkest justice of death“, and yet burial “in the kind ground” meant release into “rest and dust“. He was “too proud to die“, yet when the time came, even though “broken and blind“, he was a “brave” man who “did not turn away“.

And what of the ambivalences in Dylan Thomas’s response? To read about his life is to easily consider him irreligious and “unblessed“, but again it’s not that simple. We need be neither uncritically accepting, nor cynically dismissive, when he writes, “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t”. And so there’s Biblical imagery in the poem. Death is the “last, crossed hill“, recalling Jesus who died but continued to live, and his father’s lying “among the long flocks” recalls Jesus the ‘good shepherd’. At his bedside, Thomas “prayed” not only that his father might enjoy an afterlife, but once again “grow young, under the grass“.

After his father’s last “all dark” years, he wants him to “lie lightly” and to know “love“. He wants him to “be fathered and found” which is surely what Dylan, in his uneasy relationship with his father, had himself longed for. And now, holding his hand as his father died, the poet “saw through his faded eyes to the roots of the sea“. He “saw“, and understood, so much of what had been, what might have been, and what perhaps, who knows, might yet be? Some of what he “saw“, is what he has sought to convey in this candid and compassionate, hopeful and moving poem.

Let’s end, first, with some words of a fellow poet, Arthur Symons: “Pathos which can touch the intellect becomes so transfigured that its tears shine: you can see by their light”, and finally the poet’s own words about his father: “Until I die he will not leave my side.” Friendship not necessarily, but love certainly.

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