Sometimes, when people first read through a Dylan Thomas poem, they say, ‘What on earth is he on about?” And there are times when he reminds me of someone who needs to get so much in, that he crams his suitcase close to bursting point; or reminds me of Einstein’s e=mc2 equation, which compresses an ocean of pent-up energy into a tiny droplet of matter. His poetry can certainly seem linguistically and hermeneutically crowded, but poetry it absolutely continues to be, with every word being the one it should be, in the place it should be – which involved a great deal of care, much trial and error, and many hours of hard work. The stanzas in this poem are like two long 12 line sentences, each with only a few commas preceding its full stop. What follows is one person’s attempt to do some unpacking. I’ll only find part of what’s in there, and may misinterpret some, but you’ll be able to put that right, and to find lots more to boot (metaphorically speaking I hope). After my unpacking, a comment or two will round things off.
1-4. Out of my marital bed, that ageless place of cure, after one more act of love to soothe my inescapably mortal body, whose remaining days are already counted …
5-7. at a time when the ruin of war, caused by bombers which have assumed the shape of an invading army, from across the sea, over beaches guarded by barbed defences, and despite the shooting of anti-aircraft guns, (that army) has swept its way into our wounds, physical and emotional, and flattened our houses.
8-9. (Out of that bed), I climb to greet a war my heart is not in, but also, and more creatively, to greet that one dark thing (the human experience I’m going through) to which I owe my light (the inspiration for my poetry).
10-11. I call for a confessor (with whom to share my discordant and disturbing feelings) who might prove to be a wiser mirror than my own reflections, but there is none to restore a glow of light, meaning and hope, after a night of slaughter and destruction that has entailed the stoning of any belief or hope in god.
12. Though I am a holy (set apart) maker of poetry, the scene revealed by the rising sun leaves me feeling lonely and struck dumb.
13-16. I can’t summon praise for the spring time, even though, like Gabriel (the angel of the annunciation of the Christ child), it promises new life and beginnings, and even though I can see shrubbery that’s radiant with the rising sun rather than incendiary bombs (and reminiscent of the ‘burning bush’ from which God spoke reassuringly to Moses), and even though the arrival of morning (after the horrors of the night before) invites the people to grow joyful, despite the woebegone pyre still smouldering around them …
17. The multitude still weeps sultry (hot and humid) tears, that only cool down, when they fall on the broken and weeping wall of a shattered home (like Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem praying for a return of better days).
18-20. The arising morning sun is prodigal, like an archer who resembles a father with his quiver full of the infants of pure fire (his children being his rays, and their fire being pure, unlike that of the hellish incendiaries), which rays he pours out in abundance. But there can also be something counterintuitively blessed about the hail of bombs that fell from above and the upheaval it has caused below.
21-24. In the midst of all that uncalm, being a poet, though alone, Thomas is sure he can still stand and sing, in the husk of man’s home, in the shell of London his lived-in city, and in the holy spring, the mother of better times, though Time, in the end, will turn even the promise of spring into a toppling house. As for the poet, he has survived another night and day, even if only, who knows, for a last time.
The poem captures the destructive horror of the blitz, but also the great resilience of the human spirit. The worst can bring out the best, in people and poet. There are religious references, such as confessor, god, holy, Gabriel, and also a ‘prodigal Sun’ (even if that sun/son is a father), but these don’t seem to offer much, if anything, in the way of consolation. More to the point seem to be the warm and comforting physicality of human love; and the ever faithful arrival of Spring with its colour-filled promise of continuing life, the joy of which can’t be eradicated even by warfare; and the inspiration of poetry, which captures the thoughts and feelings of the moment, the darker and the lighter, and preserves them for posterity, both as a warning and an encouragement. Hard as we must try, we’ll never be able to eradicate wars, but despite destruction and suffering, we can rise from the ashes, and make a new beginning. As another poet wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”.