Over Sir John’s Hill (i) (Dylan Thomas)

This poem is one of those written while the poet was living in Carmarthenshire, in the Boathouse overlooking the estuary of the rivers Taf and Towy, in sight of nearby Sir John’s Hill. To begin to do justice to this feast of linguistic brilliance and poetic virtuosity would demand many a page. In two posts, I’m simply picking out five key points of focus : the hill; the hawk; the small birds; and the heron in part i; and the poet and God in part ii.

(i) Sir John’s Hill.

Sir John’s is indeed a present-day hill, but it’s imagined with a ‘gallows‘ on its top. The phrases ‘hoisted‘ cloud and ‘drop‘ of dusk may suggest a guillotine, but the references to ‘tyburn‘, ‘noosed‘ and ‘halter‘ suggest a scaffold for hanging. It’s also imagined as being both the judicial bench, and the judge who sits on it, who solemnly places ‘a black cap of jackdaws‘ over his wig before pronouncing the sentence of death, and ordering the hawk to carry it out. We’re dealing in this poem, then, with justice, which is customarily combined with mercy, but what kind of justice and mercy we’re talking about remains to be explored.

(ii) The hawk.

Hovering ‘over Sir John’s Hill‘, the hawk is ‘on fire‘, highlighted against the dark sky and ‘hoisted cloud‘ by the last rays of the sun, before the ‘drop of dusk‘. His razor-sharp gaze ‘pulls‘ into focus everything that moves below, as he looks for promising prey into which he can sink his ‘claws‘. Having spotted ‘the small birds of the bay‘, in a ‘flash‘, he ‘crashes‘ downwards and, in stanza 5, ‘the snapt feathers‘ of ‘the slain birds‘ begin to drift across the sky like ‘snow‘. There is, however, no condemnation of the hawk. On the contrary, ‘all praise‘ is ‘sung‘ to him. He is simply doing what hawks do. He kills, not for sport, but in order to eat, and to feed his young. ‘God‘ has created him to be a carnivorous predator, and he despatches his prey with stunning skill and efficiency. He makes no apology for what he’s doing, nor does he hide it from view. He calls out enticingly to his victims, ‘dilly dilly .. come and be killed.’ And his own turn could well come. Predators can themselves become prey, and he is already ‘noosed’ in preparation for his own possible demise.

(iii) The small birds of the bay.

These are the dear departed who ‘swansing .. blithely‘ their last goodbyes to life. Appropriately ‘at dusk‘, and ‘gulled‘ by their high-spirited ‘wrangling‘ and capering, they ‘squawk’ at each other, while ‘blithely‘ they ‘hare‘ into the hawk’s line of sight. They seem to be unwitting victims, ‘green chickens‘, who are said to be ‘led astray‘ in stanza 4, and yet they don’t appear to be unwilling victims. On their way to the scaffold, they ‘cluck, dilly dilly, come let us die‘. Justice, in this poem, is clearly not about punishment for doing wrong. How have ‘the small birds of the bay‘ offended? If justice has meaning in this poem, it seems to have to do with conforming, or failing to conform, to natural law. It’s about being who one is, and doing what one does, in the natural order of things. It’s about going with the flow, and taking one’s place in the allotted scheme of things without confrontation or complaint – not that the birds ask any awkward questions, but Thomas does on their behalf.

(iv) The heron.

The heron is an embodiment of the ambivalences in this poem. He is suitably ‘elegiac‘ in paying his respects to his fellow creatures. He ‘grieves‘ that they are gone from ‘shingle and elm‘, ‘bows his tilted headstone‘ and, like a ‘saint‘, can be heard ‘hymning‘, not head up and loudly but ‘tilting and whispering‘. But at the same time, he too is a predator and, ‘elegiac‘ or not, he ‘stabs‘ at his own prey, ‘in the shallow and sedge‘. He’s a ‘fishing holy stalking heron’ all in one, and he’s last seen ‘ankling the scaly lowlands of the waves‘ in search of supper.

(v) The poet and God.

This follows in part ii …..

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