SINGING IN CHAINS
Dylan Thomas and His Resistance Toward Death
By Brandon Ng | Thesis Advisor: Emily Rohrbach | Honors Coordinator: Christopher Lane | Honors Thesis | Department of English Literature | NURJ 2011-12
While Dylan Thomas, a 20th century poet, inherited many characteristics of his Romantic predecessors from the 19th century, his writing also diverged greatly from the traditional Romantic paradigm, specifically with respect to attitudes toward death. Death was a prominent concept in the Romantic tradition, particularly in the work of William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, and these writers did not hesitate to write about the melancholia that death brings. However, writers in the Romantic tradition did not remain fixated on the ominous presence of death, since they ultimately conceptualized human mortality as a path to spiritual transcendence, as an intermediary between human nature and the grand eternal cycle of Nature itself. Dylan Thomas, however, resists this type of solace. Though he writes about death frequently, he conceives of death as an absolute destroyer, as a constraining force that terminates a linear human existence. A more extensive examination of Thomas’s treatment of death, in contrast to his Romantic predecessors, sheds light on his identity as a Neo-Romantic and the psychological issues he confronts in his work.
1. The Paradox of Youth: “Green and Dying”
In Dylan Thomas’s late poem “Fern Hill,” the adult speaker characterizes not only his present self but also the “lamb white days” of his youth as animated equally by growth and decay, by life and the death toward which life is always tending: “Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me,” the speaker recounts (Thomas 46). He concludes, however, with the more-complex understanding of those days that now has replaced that carefree thinking: “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea” (53-54). “Nothing I cared” then about time, the speaker declares, but now a perception of youthful days as paradoxically “green and dying,” creating and destroying, is the speaker’s central concern.
This vision of life animates virtually all of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Albeit acknowledging the splendor of the natural scene surrounding him and the “young” and “easy” days that human existence allows, the speaker of “Fern Hill” experiences an intense anxiety toward human mortality. In Thomas’s poetry, every day of lively “green” youth is equally one step closer to death, which he conceives exclusively as an absolute ending to human experience and thus a force to be resisted.
The resistance to the death concept, to the pressures of human mortality, take shape in a poetry that both inherits Romantic paradigms of thinking about death and revises them. Inspired by the quintessential Romantic poets of the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas’s work revealed similar themes to his Romantic antecedents, such as the sublime quality of the natural world, as well as the dynamic interaction felt between it and the human mind. Despite these marked similarities, however, the fundamental revisions Thomas made to Romanticism are often overlooked. His poetry revised Romantic thought and poetics specifically in respect to the treatment of death and human existence—a phenomenon that Thomas stressed greatly in his work, as well as a topic about which Wordsworth and Shelley, in particular, wrote extensively. Although each of these poets initially expressed melancholia about the prospect of death, in the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley the speakers ultimately assuage their feelings of lament by reinterpreting death as a path to spiritual transcendence. Thomas, on the other hand, refuses this type of solace. Instead, he conceptualized death exclusively as an evil, constraining force that ultimately does nothing more than reduce human beings to their material existence. Moreover, Thomas conceived of human existence in a linear fashion, beginning with birth and ending with death, from which no transcendence can evade. It is this attitude toward human mortality that constitutes a key divergence from the Romantic paradigm.
2. Establishing the Romantic Paradigm
M. H. Abrams summarizes the Romantic exploration of the relationship between the human mind and nature in Natural Supernaturalism, in the context of discussing Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The vision is that of the awesome depths and height of the human mind, and of the power of that mind as in itself adequate, by consummating a holy marriage with the external universe, to create out of the world of all of us, in a quotidian and recurrent miracle, a new world which is the equivalent of paradise” (28). In this sense, the intercourse between human beings and the natural world is the path through which the mind attains “awesome depths and height.” As Abrams asserts, through this “holy marriage,” Wordsworth envisions that a sense of “paradise” will ensue in which mankind is capable of reaching its full potential, its full capacity for thought and feeling. Abrams writes that through the “culminating and procreative marriage between mind and nature,” humans attain a more transcendent existence. Marriage, or “the song,” as Wordsworth calls it, “will be an evangel to effect a spiritual resurrection among mankind—it will ‘arouse the sensual from their sleep / Of death’—merely by showing what lies within any man’s power to accomplish, as he is here and now” (qtd. in Abrams 27). In this sense, Abrams avers that through merging with the natural world, which is so much greater than one man, humankind can triumph over death and achieve a sense of rebirth and eternal life.
Romantic preoccupation with the relationship between humanity and the natural world resurfaced in the twentieth century, as a new generation of writers became interested once more in the concerns of Romanticism. In fact, the central themes of Romanticism have recurred over and again, as Jonathan Bate poignantly summarizes: “Romanticism has remained a living legacy because, like a fit Darwinian organism, it has proved singularly adaptable to a succession of new environments, whether Victorian medievalism […] or the counter-reading of 1980s ideologism” (Bate 436). The rebirth of Romanticism in the twentieth century, which critics often call “Neo-Romanticism,” represents this newfound inheritance of the Romantic tradition, but also reflects the changing, modern social and intellectual context in which this new generation of writers found itself. As Abrams asserts, though works may offer a “drastically altered perspective on man and nature and human life,” it is through this exploration that they “continue to embody Romantic innovations in ideas and design” (Abrams 32; see Ramazani 1-2). In this sense, Neo-Romanticism is a useful term for conceptualizing some twentieth century-writers’ shared fascination with the human mind and its relationship to the natural world.
Thomas inherited his fascination with nature from his Romantic precursors, for through his poetry he freely elaborates on the complex relationship between human existence and the natural world. But even so, though he works within the paradigm of pondering the relation between human nature and nature, he also distinguishes himself from the Romantics by conceiving of death not as a threshold to eternity, but as the decisive endpoint of a linear human trajectory, a viewpoint embraced very much by classicism. T. E. Hulme, a twentieth-century modernist, in his 1911 essay “Romanticism and Classicism,” remarks on the fundamental difference between the two schools of thought, albeit harshly denouncing Romanticism in the process: “Here is the root of all Romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities […] One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite of this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant” (115).
Arguably in few places is the manifestation of man’s restrictive and bounded existence more pronounced than in Thomas’s poetry, which attributes the “fixed” and “limited” nature of human existence to the formidable force of death that all humans must face. Although the speaker in “Fern Hill” tries to break the inescapable cycle of human life by reminiscing on the beautiful “green” and “golden” days of his youth that leave him singing at the end of the poem, ultimately he is unable to escape his pending fate—the force of death that leaves him in chains.
To Hulme, it is precisely this inescapability, this inevitability of man’s limitations that characterizes a classical conception of human nature. Although human beings may see glimpses of a transcendent path to break free from their bounded existence, he argues that classicists accept that this path does not—and never will—exist. He remarks, “What I mean by classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man […] He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas” (119). Throughout Thomas’s poetry, death is the inhibitor that prevents humans from flying “into the circumambient gas,” from realizing their boundless potential beyond the material world. For his Romantic predecessors, however, death was not viewed as an inhibitor, but rather as a means for humans to transcend material existence and live forever.
3. The Death Concept in Wordsworth and Shelley
For Thomas’s predecessors, death was not an absolute ending, but rather an intermediary to the merging of humanity with the eternal natural world. The “spiritual resurrection” that results from the unity of man and nature takes shape in Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” in the context of a speaker confronting the pain of human mortality firsthand (qtd. in Abrams 27). The speaker describes a young girl that has died, though she initially appeared timeless:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears not sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees. (ll. 1-8)
While the girl initially seemed a thing that "could not feel / The touch of earthly years," in fact the speaker is reminded of her humanity upon her death, for she is now buried in the earth—indeed, she has "no motion," "no force," and "neither hears nor sees” (3-4, 5-6). Wordsworth’s use of words connoting stagnation generates a sense of peacefulness throughout the poem, elucidating the girl’s newfound state of being. She is indeed in her grave now, rolling "round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees” (7-8). In this way, despite the fact that the girl’s material state of being has ended, Wordsworth writes that she continues to live on by returning to the soil from whence she came. Her death is not final, but serves as a means to eternal life.
As a result of the girl’s reunion with nature, she effectively lives forever, now part of the never-ending cycle of Earth that repeats itself with the course of each and every day and year. Wordsworth’s use of the words implying circular, endless motion, such as "around" and "diurnal," is particularly significant since it suggests the girl’s newfound endlessness, of human nature’s integration into Nature (7). In this sense, his presentation of death is not one in which earthly death represents an absolute ending to a linear human experience beginning with birth. Instead, it is an intermediary that transforms the individual to a state beyond the bounds of a linear existence. In Wordsworth’s poem, death provides not an end, but an entry into the cyclical processes of nature.
Shelley demonstrates the ability to reappraise the tragic ending that death creates in Adonais, a poem written shortly after the death of John Keats. Shelley’s pastoral elegy records the drama of his psychological reaction to his friend’s death, transforming from initial shock, depression, and rumination to an eventual acceptance. At the beginning of the poem, Shelley’s portrayal of death is identical to Thomas’s experience in “Fern Hill,” for the speaker fixates on the immense loss and melancholia he experiences, manifesting his internal angst:
O, weep for Adonais! Though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: with me
Died Adonais […]. (Shelley ll. 2-7)
The speaker expresses the tragic magnitude of Keats’s death, amplifying his importance through using the very name “Adonais,” a name that typically refers to a God or god-like figure. However, despite the speaker’s divine reverence for Keats, his portrayal consists exclusively of Keats’s cold mortal head resting in his grave. The speaker’s fixation on the lone material imagery of Keats’s bare “head” manifests his despondency and extreme lament. Indeed, the speaker remarks that no amount of tears cried for Keats can “thaw” the perpetual “frost” that binds Keats in death.
The melancholia present in the opening stanza of the poem only escalates as the speaker begins to turn his focus outward on the natural world, thereby expressing the true tragedy of Keats’s death:
Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last,
The bloom, whose petals nipt before they blew
Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste;
The broken lily lies—the storm is overpast. (ll. 47-54)
The speaker reflects on the great tragedy of Keats’s untimely death at the age of twenty-five, before his artistic talent could reach its prime, by comparing Keats with a prematurely dead flower. So young was Keats when he died that his talent did not reach fruition, much like a flower that was destroyed before it could bloom fully. Indeed, although Keats represented “the hope,” “the loveliest,” and “the last,” his petals were “nipt before they blew.” Shelley’s tone toward death is pessimistic and verging on fearful, schematizing it as a “storm” that left a “broken lily” in its aftermath. This rumination, however, does not serve as the speaker’s final conclusion. Through additional reflection, he eventually comes to re-conceptualize death as the beginning of a more glorified existence.
Although the first half of Adonais reveals the speaker’s intense internal angst and pessimistic characterization of death, the speaker is ultimately able to achieve a sense of reconciliation toward death, reinterpreting Keats’s tragedy not solely as an absolute end to his human existence, but more as a bridge between human life and eternal life. The speaker changes his perspective by reevaluating the relation between death and memory. Though Shelley expresses much grief toward the death of his friend, at the end of the poem he no longer views death as a fixed ending of human existence, but rather as a path to spiritual transcendence, achieving a new meaning of death that, as we shall see, Thomas denies in his poetry. The speaker avers:
[…] keep thy heart light lest it make thee sink
When hope has kindled hope, and lured thee to the brink.
Or go to Rome, which is the sepulcher
Oh, not of him, but of our joy: ’tis nought
That ages, empires, and religions there
Lie buried in the ravage they have wrought […]
he is gathered to the kings of thought
Who waged contention with their time’s decay,
And of the past are all that cannot pass away. (ll. 422-32)
Diverging from the despondent nature at the beginning of Adonais, Shelley’s speaker directs these lines to the mourners of Keats’ death, instructing them not to mourn ceaselessly over him, but rather to maintain positivity, to “keep thy heart light.” When grief overpowers them, he tells them to go to Rome, where Keats is buried, and to marvel at him and all of the other powerful minds who are buried there, the people of various “ages,” “empires,” and “religions.” Although they are gone from the earth now, the speaker tells the mourners not to think of them as such, but rather to view the dead as eternal, “wag[ing] contention with their time’s decay.” In other words, death serves to monumentalize the deceased, for though their bodies may physically be gone, death serves as a vehicle for us to honor them forever and hold fast to their timeless ideas within the confines of our minds—within the memories that we have of them. Shelley asserts that through memory, the spirits of the dead remain glorified within us, preventing them from ever truly dying:
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are. (ll. 487-495)
As Shelley’s speaker is composing the poem, the spirit of Keats apparently is descending upon him, and he is captivated by the thought. He describes remembering his friend’s presence as being on a journey that drives him “far from the shore, far from the trembling throng.” The speaker epitomizes this idea through the final lines of the poem, describing Keats’ spiritual presence in his mind as being illuminating, “like a star,” never truly gone from being, but rather “beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.” In this way, he glorifies the death of his friend, conceptualizing death as a continuation of life. While Thomas explains death in a linear fashion, as a marked and finite ending to human life, Shelley does not grant death this power. As his speaker avers, death is not the ending of a rigid existence that begins with birth and ends with death, but rather the intermediary to a more glorified existence, for through death, we remember the lives of the deceased, monumentalizing them within the mind.
4. Thomas as Neo-Romantic
Although Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were all forced to confront the horrors and grief of death, they ultimately accepted it and reinterpreted it, leading to an eventual attaining of solace. Indeed, though in quite different ways, each of these Romantics asserted that humans can triumph over death and reach a sense of the infinite. This conceptualization of death, however, is one that Thomas resists entirely, viewing death as an ultimate ending with no possibility for reappraisal. In “Fern Hill,” one of Thomas’s most prominent poems, he reflects on the extreme sorrow of human existence, for though we are initially enthralled in the temporary joys of life during our youth, ultimately death destroys all of us. Throughout most of the poem, Thomas reflects on the beauty and gloriousness of his days of his youth, employing rich imagery to characterize his idyllic experiences running along the fields of “Fern Hill.” He writes:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green […]
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light. (Thomas ll. 1-9)
Rich imagery abounds in the first stanza of the poem, as Thomas reflects nostalgically on his childhood. He describes his past self as a royal, majestic figure, “prince of the apple towns” and “honored” by everyone and everything in the natural scene surrounding him. Though such comparisons are clearly hyperbolic, as Thomas was only a child at the time, through depicting his childhood experience in such a grandiose and elevated manner, he portrays the fond emotions of his seemingly perfect upbringing. Imagery of the natural beauty surrounding him is ubiquitous in the first stanza, notably the richness of the “apple boughs,” the “trail with daisies and barley,” and the “rivers of the windfall light.” Indeed, throughout the first half of the poem, Thomas associates youth with happiness, remarking that he was in fact both “green and golden” during the days of his childhood in Fern Hill (15).
Thomas’s limitless bliss during his youthful years is also reflected in the pace of the poem at the beginning. During the sections in which the speaker describes the jubilant days of boyhood, the poem moves incredibly quickly through the use of enjambment, letting each verse flow into the next, as opposed to pausing through the use of punctuation. For example, Thomas writes: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass” (19-22). Indeed the speaker’s description of the natural scene around him does seem to be “running.” He describes the different components of the scene, such as the sun, hay fields, and air through enjambed staccato verses of primarily monosyllabic syllables, and uses the connective “and” frequently to link verses, as opposed to adopting more marked pauses (i.e. a comma, semicolon, or period).
As the poem progresses, symbolizing the passage of time, Thomas’s tone shifts drastically. In retrospect, Thomas’s speaker realizes death’s presence and duplicity, as he writes, “Time let me play and be/ Golden in the mercy of his means” (13-14). Although death disguised itself through a seemingly generous time that granted “mercy” during his youth, Thomas is now fully aware that the mercy was only temporary, for every day of his majestic youth moved him one step closer to death:
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that I riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land. (42-51, emphasis added)
The scene portrayed here epitomizes Thomas’s realization of the ominous nature of death. His discovery of falling “out of grace” is incredibly disturbing and exemplifies his conception of death as a merciless “destroyer.” The speaker’s portrayal of death verges on that of a seductress, leading him unknowingly to the “swallow thronged loft.” Alas, the days of his youth have passed all too quickly, and the speaker now finds himself trapped in the grudgingly lonely days of adulthood.
The speaker at this point is now an old man, anxiously awaiting death. Though death managed to fool him during his younger days, he is now fully aware of life’s paradoxical nature: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea” (52-54). The speaker acknowledges the limitations that time imposes because he perceives death as a fixed and absolute end. Though time once held him “green,” he realizes now that it simultaneously holds him “dying,” for its progression moves incessantly toward the end of human existence.
Romantic writers, though expressing a similar lament in response to the initial pain of death, nevertheless felt themselves able to transcend the boundaries of mortality. The speaker in “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” observes that through the young girl’s unity with Eternal Nature, she in effect becomes eternal herself. Shelley’s speaker remarks that Keats’s death actually brings about a more-elevated form of existence through his being remembered by countless generations thereafter. Thomas, however, resists all such reappraisal. At the end of his poem, though he finds himself “singing,” fighting with all of his might against inevitable death, he admits that he is ultimately in “chains,” forever bound to the fixed material fate that time has given him.
Although modern criticism regularly analyzes Thomas’s work relative to the inspiration he drew from the Romantics, such analysis overlooks many of the subtle revisions he made to that paradigm. The similarities, marked most saliently by a shared curiosity about the relation between the mind and natural world, and between Thomas, Shelley, and Wordsworth, can hardly be doubted. Nevertheless, when examining the poetry of these poets through the lens of death, Thomas clearly distinguishes himself from those that came before him.
Both Wordsworth and Shelley were able to mitigate their sorrow by reappraising death—by assigning it alternate meaning not limited to an absolute or finite ending to human experience. Rather, they were able to construe it as a path to spiritual transcendence, as a positive force that, albeit ending life, opens up a new realm of existence that should be revered—“where the eternal are,” as Shelley claims eloquently in Adonais.
Thomas, by contrast, never attained that consolation or sense of reassurance in his poetry; he held on instead to anxiety, angst, and his many qualms about death. Although Thomas repeatedly sought the solace that Wordsworth and Shelley attained their poetry, ultimately he could never break free of his preoccupation with death, the formidable “chains” of a material understanding of human existence.
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Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, eds. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. New York: Norton, 2005.
Hulme, T. E. “Romanticism and Classicism.” Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Herbert Read. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1936. 113-40.
Ramazani, Jahan. Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Adonais. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 879-91.
Thomas, Dylan. “Fern Hill.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 1571.
Wordsworth, William. “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 790.