Poem on his Birthday (part iii) – Dylan Thomas

Stanza 9. The struggle between belief in God and undermining doubt continues from stanza 8, where Thomas ‘prays .. faithlessly to Him‘. The ‘young Heaven’s fold‘ of stanza 7 is now ‘old and air shaped‘ like a blown up balloon, thin-skinned and liable to burst, especially if threatened by ‘souls‘, like Thomas’s, ever disposed to ‘grow wild as horses in the foam‘. In this ‘midlife‘ crisis, as well as the Christian imagery of ‘heaven‘, there is that of the ‘druid herons‘ which, in stanza 3, ‘walk in their shroud‘. And so he feels the need to ‘mourn‘ the ‘voyage to ruin I must run’. Too many of the ‘loves‘, poems and people, of stanza 5, will be like ‘ships‘ confidently floated at ‘dawn‘ only to be ‘clouted aground‘ by life’s slings and arrows. Being the poet who, in stanza 2, ‘toils towards the ambush of his wounds‘, he must ‘cry‘ about this ‘with tumbledown tongue’, ‘yet‘ he will also begin to ‘count my blessings aloud‘.

Stanza 10. These blessings are the ‘four elements‘ of water, earth, air and fire, and the ‘five senses‘ with which he perceives them. Though these too often confront him with an en-‘tangling‘ world of ‘spun slime‘, yet being a man with ‘a spirit in love‘, he can search for a way to ‘his nimbus bell cool kingdom come‘. A ‘nimbus‘ is a halo of luminous cloud but this one, unlike the fiery nuclear ‘hammer flame‘ of stanza 5, is ‘cool‘, and merits a repeat peal of the angelus ‘bell‘. Or does it? Perhaps the divine ‘kingdom come‘ is nothing more than another of the ‘lost, moonshine domes‘, which humans, Samuel Taylor Coleridge for one, have dreamed up, down through the years?

Stanza 11. Thomas, in this poem, will go down fighting (though some might say ranting). We should note that although the poem’s first 8 stanzas used the 3rd person ‘he’, from stanza 9 onwards, there’s a change to the 1st person ‘I’. ‘The closer I move to death,” he writes, even ‘through his sundered hulks‘ of the ‘dawn ships clouted aground‘ in stanza 9, the more his spirits begin to rise, and the world around him to become increasingly animated and rapturous. ‘Louder the sun blooms‘ and, like a ‘tusked ramshackling‘ walrus, the ‘sea exults‘. Every ‘wave‘ and ‘gale‘ he’s now fired up to ‘tackle‘, as the whole ‘world .. spins its morning of praise‘, with an even ‘more triumphant faith‘ than when, in the beginning, ‘the world‘ was ‘said‘ by God – came into being at his command, and was declared ‘good’.

Stanza 12. Thomas’s closing vision is reminiscent of the Bible’s promised ‘new heaven and a new earth’. In their delight, he can ‘hear the bouncing hills‘. The ‘berry brown fall‘ of autumn’s decay and death becomes ‘larked and greener‘. ‘Spring‘ arrives with a portentous (but non-nuclear) thunderclap‘ and the ‘larks sing‘.

Thomas is now ready to ‘sail out to die‘, his destination being ‘fiery islands‘, not because lit by a nuclear blaze, but because ‘spanned with‘ a radiant rainbow of ‘angels‘. These ‘islands‘ are ‘mansouled‘, which reminds me of John Donne’s, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main“. When men come to understand that, ‘holier then‘ are ‘their eyes‘, with a new brightness. These ‘shining men‘ are now bound together, with each other and with the poet himself. He who, in stanza 8 thought of himself as ‘alone with all the living‘, is now at one with all ‘my‘ shining men, ‘as I sail out to die‘.

This wonderful poem is as ambiguous, complex, convoluted, and even at times contradictory, as the poet himself. To read it is to go on a risky roller coaster journey like that of the ‘switchback sea’ of stanza 1. If we’re hoping to arrive at a sure and settled destination, we’d best think again. It takes us to a whole variety of places, from the disagreeable and even terrifying, to the admirable and doubtlessly desirable. Which of these places have some reality, however, and which are extravagant fantasy? For some, this poem will be an inspirational and thought provoking exploration but, for others, just a provoking jumble-sale of randomly assembled words and ideas. If you’ve followed me on this journey, I do hope that you can be numbered in the former category. 

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