Here is a Dylan Thomas poem that’s, in essence, simple and straightforward. It was written in the mid 1930s, with memories of WW I still fresh, and tensions already building towards WW II. In 1934, Thomas wrote a newspaper article is which he said that “war is a capitalist machine utilised for the benefit of the few by the blood and bone of the many” and condemned “the militarist who explains to a school of boys that man is naturally a fighting animal, that war is a glorious adventure, and that the great men of history are always the great butchers.”
Two things worth noting are, firstly, the focus on ‘boys’ and ‘men’. The poem likewise mentions ‘kings‘ but no queens. No female warmongers appear in it, but the cost for women of male warmongering may be in the poet’s mind in line 3, if he means that the loss, though wholesale killing and maiming, of its male soldiery, “halved a country“. Secondly, it would be a mistake to dismiss Thomas’s words as a typical far-left tirade. He also condemned the “Marxian pseudo-scientists solving all economic problems with a frozen personality and a gold nib, caring more for the intellectual solidification of an argument than for the welfare of the workers“. Warmongers of right and left are equally condemned, as is also, in line 15, the one who ‘rules heaven‘, and seems to watch it all, unmoved. But then he is the so-called ‘unmoved mover’.
The ‘paper‘ that is ‘signed‘, I take to be the peace ‘treaty‘ of line 9. It has come at a very high cost, including that of ‘felled‘ cities. To pay for war, the people have been so heavily ‘taxed‘, that it’s seemed as if even taking in a ‘breath‘ of air was taxable. Across the ‘globe‘, the expected number of ‘dead‘, from ‘normal’ causes, has suddenly ‘doubled‘. A majority of the population is now made up of women who have lost fathers, husbands and sons. All of this blood and tears lies behind the ‘hand‘ that ‘signed the paper‘. It’s a detached ‘hand‘, impersonal. and at a remove from direct personal experience of warfare’s hellishness. The ‘five sovereign fingers‘ of that hand are like little ‘kings‘, who will be quick to deal with actual ‘kings‘. Defeated leaders can expect no mercy from their conquerors.
The ‘mighty hand‘ which signs the papers does not belong to the young men who do the fighting. Its fingers are calcified, with arthritic ‘finger joints‘, and it belongs to an ageing ‘sloping shoulder‘. The treaty that finally puts ‘an end to murder’, asks for nothing more menacing and demanding than ‘a goose’s quill‘, and ‘a scribbled name‘. Now that there’s a treaty there can be peace talks. The war’s hatred and ‘murder’ had, of course, ‘put an end to talk‘. The time for talk, for serious ‘jaw-jaw’, was beforehand, not afterwards when too many jaws had been shattered.
Peace treaties don’t end deprivation and suffering in the present, and can store up more for the future. ‘Fever‘ and disease, and ‘famine‘ and hunger, can’t quickly be dealt with. Soon ‘locusts‘ will swarm in, to make money out of the sorry mess and the necessary reconstruction. And all this can be signed off with a ‘scribbled name‘.
The fingers do the decent thing and ‘count’ the fatalities, and money will be spent on monuments to honour ‘the glorious dead’. For ‘the glorious returnees’ however, homelessness, unemployment and minimal health and welfare provision are hardly likely to ‘soften the crusted wound‘ and ‘stroke the brow‘. ‘Pity‘, to be meaningful, demands action from the ‘hand‘ that ‘rules‘, but is unlikely to be its highest priority.
And what of the ‘hand‘ that ‘rules heaven‘? “The teachings of Christ” wrote Thomas, “are of far less importance than the inculcation of an emotional fear of the fire-spouting Jehovah who is, according to the corrupted interpretations of His priests, naturally biased in our favour in the event of the outbreak of any and every profiteering war.” The national churches, he said, “clothed Christ in khaki“.
Let’s end with the words of another anti-war poet, Wilfred Owen, “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” For Dylan Thomas, sadly, the hands that ‘rule pity .. have no tears to flow‘.