In Country Heaven (Dylan Thomas)

This poem was left unfinished at the time of Thomas’s death in 1953. There was an early draft of 43 lines, and this later re-written section of 16 lines. It’s a poem that arose from a harrowing vision Thomas had of the Earth’s destruction, the atomic bombing of Japan having made such a possibility terrifyingly real. Describing this nightmare vision, Thomas wrote, “The Earth has killed itself. It is black, petrified, wizened, poisoned, burst: insanity has blown it rotten.”

About God, Dylan Thomas was ambivalent, to say the least. I’m reminded of the conductor Bruno Walter who, when asked to differentiate between the composers Bruckner and Mahler, suggested what whereas Bruckner had ‘found God’, Mahler spent his life ‘searching for Him’. I’m inclined to think that while Thomas’s mind regularly deconstructs God, like Mahler, his ‘heart hears’ Him.

In this poem, to borrow from Robert Browning, ‘God’s in his heaven, but all’s not right with the world’. On the ‘crest‘ of a heavenly hill, God has a grandstand view of all His planets, as well as of the sacred ‘canonised valley‘ below. In his ‘country heaven‘, this is ‘the last ward‘, the final resting place, ‘of beasts and birds‘ and of all ‘that was made and is dead‘. It’s a place of ‘joy‘ and, whenever there’s a sunrise across the crest of his hill, God ‘crosses the breast of the praising east‘, ‘where all sings‘.  

Today, however, there are clouds on the horizon. God is ‘humble‘ as he ‘kneels‘, and as he ‘weeps on the abasing crest‘. In the poem there’s possibly an indication of ‘trouble in store’ as ‘the angels whirr like pheasants through naves of leaves‘. Stalkers set off, and shotguns are loaded, at the beginning of every October, which is the time at which the ‘leaves‘ turn blood red and fall.

In Thomas’s nightmare vision, having misused its newfound atomic ability to self-destruct, the Earth has ‘shotgunned’ itself, triggering its fall into ruination and death. Its ‘sky‘ has become as opaque as a ‘cataract‘, and exploding shrapnel has ‘pierced‘ God’s ‘eyes‘. The ‘light‘ has gone out of them, and falls together with his ‘tears‘ and ‘blood‘ down the ‘ragged gutters of his face‘. His grandstand view now obscured, ‘the suns‘ he once rejoiced to see in ‘the praising east‘, ‘dissolve‘ and disappear. His ‘Heaven is blind and black‘.

When Thomas, however, had contemplated the intended, but sadly not-to-be, completion of this poem, he had seen its becoming, “at last, an affirmation of the beautiful and terrible worth of the Earth. It grows into a praise of what is, and what could be, on this lump in the skies. It is a poem about happiness”. 

Well, Thomas has now gone from this Earth. What becomes of it is, in large measure, in our own hands. We can’t say that he hasn’t warned us! It’s up to us to keep our planet, and ourselves, not to mention Thomas’s God in his country heaven, safe and happy and well. I do hope we succeed.

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