Poem in October (Dylan Thomas)

Thomas called this, “the first place poem I’ve written”. The place was Laugharne, on the estuary of the river Taf in Carmarthenshire, where Dylan lived for 4 years in the Boathouse and where, in the graveyard of St Martin’s Church, he and his wife Caitlan are buried. Detailed analyses of Thomas’s poems can differ from one another as much as chalk from cheese. What follows is simply one person’s attempt to follow its meaning.

The opening verse, even by Thomas’s standards, is a very long sentence. The gist of it is, that he ‘woke’ on his birthday on ‘hearing’ the sounds of ‘the morning beckon’ him to ‘set foot’ (on his bedroom floor), and from there to ‘set forth’ from Laugharne – the rest of the sentence being a description of early morning sounds and sights. It was a ‘rainy autumn‘ day, but there was a ‘border‘ between the town and the surrounding countryside, and as ‘the gates of the town closed‘ behind him, there came a growing change in the weather. 

The natural world, for Thomas, was sacred, though not in any conventionally religious sense. Among the sights was ‘the heron priested shore’. To Thomas, with characteristic ambivalence, a heron standing with upward pointing beak resembles a priest or church spire, but with downward pointing beaks, they spear.  Among the sounds were distant murmurings suggesting ‘water praying’, and also choirs of singing birds, which filled him with such delight that it seemed as if they were ‘flying my name above‘, and as if the very trees they’d flown up from had themselves become ‘winged‘. Even the ‘rainy autumn‘ was a joy to experience. The ‘shower‘ of falling rain drops reminded him ‘of all my days‘ in this, his ‘thirtieth year to heaven‘. 

As he climbed Sir John’s Hill outside the town, ‘the sun of October‘ became ‘summery‘ and, lit up by its radiance, the whole of nature seemed stupendously abundant. A ‘rolling cloud‘ contained a whole ‘springful of larks‘, and the ‘roadside bushes‘ were ‘brimming with whistling blackbirds‘. Over the town below, there was still some ‘pale rain‘, and a ‘mist‘ out of which poked the distant towers and turrets of St. Martin’s church and Laugharne castle. But where he now was, ‘beyond the border‘ of the town, there were ‘fond climates‘ that made it seem as if ‘all the gardens of spring and summer were blooming’ – a cornucopia of fragrant blossoms in the rapture of which ‘I could marvel my birthday away‘. 

All of this might run the risk of sounding like ‘tall tales‘, except that ‘the weather turned around’, which I take to be a turning within Thomas’s mind to his childhood days, for he ‘saw in the turning so clearly a child’s forgotten mornings‘, now remembered. The ‘long dead child‘ in him became alive again, and the ‘wonder of summer‘ shone in a ‘blue altered sky‘ and many-splendoured fruits. There was a sacredness that’s found, not indoors or in books, but outside, in the ‘parables‘ brought to mind by the streaming ‘sun light‘, and in the ‘legends‘ imagined in the ‘green chapels‘ within canopied woods. These, ‘in the listening summertime of the (long} dead‘ child, he had ‘whispered‘, in his ‘joy‘, to the ‘trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.’ Recalled afresh in the poem, they’re now ‘twice told tales‘.

Again ‘the weather turned round‘. The child was a man again, but for this man ‘the true joy of the long dead child sang burning in the sun‘, and ‘the mystery sang alive still in the water and singing birds‘, and that child’s ‘tears burned in my cheeks and his heart moved in mine’. In ‘the town below lay‘ autumn leaves, the colour of ‘blood‘, a reminder of transience, change, decay and death. But ‘on this high hill‘, it was ‘summer noon‘ and the poet ‘stood there‘ in a timeless moment, like the ‘eternal now’ into which life and death and everything in between are forever absorbed. 

For me, Thomas is a religious poet. Some might dispute that adjective but, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, words can have a wide variety of meanings linked to the wide variety of contexts in which they may be used. In the context of this poem’s contents, the use of the words ‘religious’ and ‘sacred’ is, in my view, unequivocally legitimate. There are moments when I experience Dylan Thomas as a ‘god-intoxicated’ poet, his god being closer to that of Baruch Spinoza than of the Apostle Paul, the entire cosmos being this god’s outward expression.

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