Poem on his Birthday (part ii) – Dylan Thomas

Stanza 5. This part of the poem begins with a moment of quietness, as the poet imagines one of the ‘switchback’ waves of stanza 1 being halted in mid ‘swing‘ and forming a ‘cavernous‘ space, in the ‘silence‘ of which ‘thirty-five bells sing’, one for each year of Thomas’s life. These, reminiscent of ships’ bells, are thought of as ‘angelus‘ bells, evoking the idea of divine Incarnation, and so the possibility of new beginnings, with the dark and dingy parts of the past ‘wept white‘. Thomas’s past included ‘his loves‘, his relationships with poems as well as people, the ‘scars‘ and broken bones of which now ‘lie wrecked‘, like ill-fated ships ‘steered by the falling stars.’ 

As well as the turmoil of the past, there’s that of the future which, for Thomas in the 1950s, included the likelihood of a nuclear armageddon. It’s as if the world’s ‘super powers’ were in a ‘cage‘, trapped by their paranoid fears, and ‘blind‘ to the full implications of that ‘terror‘ which would ‘rage apart’ the foundations of civilisation. How utterly tragic, should it be a nuclear ‘hammer flame‘ that, in a bizarrely  counterintuitive act of ‘love‘, ‘unbolts the dark‘ and makes the ‘chains break‘, in order to restore some light of rationality and hope for those left alive.

Stanza 6. Were the world to be delivered from that ‘cage‘, Thomas could ‘freely‘ go – but where? He is ‘lost‘. Could such a release from the ‘chains‘, at so appalling a cost, be an act of divine ‘love‘? Some might look to the ‘famous light of great and fabulous, dear God‘, but to Thomas this is ‘unknown‘. The very words, typically for him, undermine themselves. ‘Famous‘ carries no guarantee of authenticity. ‘Fabulous‘ may be, not wonderful, but fanciful. ‘Dear God‘, depending on how spoken, can sometimes mean, ‘oh no, surely not‘.

For Thomas, the ‘way‘ to God is ‘dark‘, and the ‘light” that’s promised may be desirable but is hard to believe in, expect perhaps in mythical terms. In those terms, ‘heaven‘ can be ‘always true‘, even if in literal terms ‘it never was, nor will be ever‘. Some might think that in heaven, ‘plenty as blackberries in the woods, the dead grow for His joy‘, but that’s an empty thought if heaven is a ‘void‘, ‘brambled‘ or otherwise.

Stanza 7. But if myth is ‘always true’, let’s hold hands with it, and ‘wander bare‘ along the ‘horseshoe bay‘ with the ‘spirits‘ that haunt it. We now know that the elements everything is made of were once ‘star‘ dust. That includes what’s left of these departed ‘spirits‘, and that’s the bony clutter littering the Laugharne seashore. We could ‘wander‘ with ‘blessed .. God‘, except that God is ‘unborn‘ and may not exist. He may be as insubstantial as ‘His (holy) Ghost‘. ‘Young Heaven’s fold‘ could sound as if it’s for impressionable lambs rather than cynical sheep. And the idea that ‘every soul’ is ‘His priest‘ could well be empty ‘chanter‘ that no one should be ‘gulled‘ into believing. To take such things literally, might lead some to ‘be at .. peace‘, but what kind of peace is it that’s ‘cloud quaking’? – a phrase that recalls the earth quaking nuclear ‘hammer flame‘ of verse 5, and anticipates what’s coming next.

Stanza 8.  The ‘way’ to faith is ‘dark‘ and ‘long‘, and so Thomas, in a correspondingly lengthy sentence, ‘prays ….. faithlessly unto Him‘. How can he have faith when, as he contemplates the nuclear holocaust that soon may come, he has a vision of ‘the earth of the night‘ and of being ‘alone with all the (still) living? This vision is reminiscent of the Biblical apocalyptic imagery of hills crumbling to dust, stars tumbling to earth, the deceased rising from their graves, and the sea giving up its dead. But if anything, the nuclear nightmare is even more terrifying, with ‘bones‘ blown out of the ‘hills‘ by a ‘rocketing wind‘, ‘scythed’ and fractured ‘boulders‘, and ‘fishes‘ along with the ‘masts‘ of wrecked ships, hurled from the ‘rage shattered waters‘ into the red-hot, irradiated sky. Life might remain in the ‘still quick stars‘, but what chance would there be of life remaining in such a brutally ravaged and savaged earth?

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