Close reading of ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas – Exercise 3

This is not an easy poem for somebody like me whose mother-tongue is not English, so the first thing I did after reading it once or twice was to check the meaning of words I did not know or wasn’t sure of. And it was well worth the effort since once got over this initial difficulty the poem really started to glow in its delightful freshness and bold language.

Its strong vivid images speak of what it means to be and feel a child and while reading the poem and listening to it I too was and did feel a child again and said: that was it, being fresh, new, uncaring, unheeding, timeless and above all green as Dylan Thomas keeps repeating throughout the stanzas, green as grass, green and carefree, green as fire, green as everything natural, birds, animals, plants, and then golden, as in golden in the heydays of his eyes / golden in the mercy of his means. While green seems to stand for what is palpably fresh and youthful, golden makes me think of a Paradise lost and of the first day or creation myth. And even if in the second part of the poem this innocence is lost, and the child is no more, the sheer joy of that child still lingers forcefully with the reader and the awareness of time passing and of growing up cannot destroy that fullness of being.

Dylan Thomas makes a rich, constant and powerful use of poetic devices which in his case more than devices are real modes of expression.

It seems to me that repetition in all its forms, of words, sounds, syntactic structures, images, rhythm, is the fundamental and most important mode of expression of this poem: Repetitions of single words like green, golden, happy, young. Repetition of syntactic structures, for example the very frequent coupling of words connected by and: couples of adjectives like young and easy, green and carefree, green and golden, couples of nouns like trees and leaves, daisies and barley, huntsman and herdsman, couples of verbs as hail and climb, and the extremely frequent use of the gerund form of verbs: lilting, singing, running, flying and so on. The repetition of sentence structure line after line is also very powerful as in this enchanting sequence:

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.
And nightly under the simple stars

Also repetitions of sounds abound in all stanzas, under the form of assonancethe trees and leaves, trail with daisies, of consonanceThe night under the dingle starry or In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs, alliterationthe grass was green, huntsman and herdsman, clear and cold, of a combination of multiple assonance, consonance and alliteration all together – And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns / About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home, / In the sun that is young once only.

Rich similes and metaphors, personification and imagery are other recurrent elements throughout the poem. The house and sun come to the fore as persons in the lilting house and in the sun that is young once only. Similes like fire green as grass / the farm, like a wanderer white / happy, as the heart was long and metaphors: I was prince of the apple boughs / it was Adam and maiden / in the lamb white days create vivid images as we read or listen to the poem.

In lines like

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams

images densely follow one another and the effect is the transformation of Fern Hill that the poet knew as a child into a magical mythological place, in which as a child he spent heedless careless days outside of time, in intimate community with a nature that was at one and breathing with him, together with all its real and imaginary animals and plants, the streams, the stars and the sun, and in which in fact there was no clear-cut difference between real and imaginary.

The rhythmic repetitions of words, sounds, structures generate a strong musical effect, that is song like and almost hypnotic and that reflects and amplifies the palpable reality of that fabled place.

The theme of an atemporal childness, seen as a place of full being and that of the mythological time with which being a child is connected are powerfully evoked and reinforced by the combined use of all those insistent poetic repetitions – green, golden, happy, young, of recurring sounds and structures, and of strong metaphoric images and personifications. Everything in the poem is fresh, green, simple, energetic and alive together with the child. Time itself is nothing abstract and entertains a sort of personal relationship with the young poet: time let me hail and climb and then, almost tenderly if sadly, when the child grows, time held me green and dying.

Naturally interrelated with the theme of time are the themes of youth and change: becoming an adult is lived in the poem as a loss of grace – follow him out of grace, the fabled place becomes a barren childless land, and in the final line the grown poet says of himself I sang in my chains like the sea. In the last stanza the lamb white days – and the word lamb, symbol of sacrifice, foreshadows what’s going to happen – are over and with them the green of youth and the golden of myth.

All the poem is alive with sharp images and lines, and it’s difficult to choose only a few, but there are some that linger on and stay with me more than others:

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves / Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold (lines 15-16)

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. (lines 19-22)

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white / With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all / Shining, it was Adam and maiden (lines 28-30)

And finally the last two lines of the poem: Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea (lines 53-54)

These are the lines that make me think of long afternoons of free playing in the open air, not only mine but also of my children, as they used to play for hours in the tall grass around home, dreaming it was a tropical forest populated by fantastic beasts and forgetting about everything else, the cold, parents calling to dinner, homework to be done. Together they wrote a story of that time of wild adventures, La Stradina (The Pathway), that is perhaps not a masterpiece but certainly very true and fresh.

My feeling is that the rhythm of the poem contributes in an essential way to its strength and together with the rich imagery really makes Fern Hill. The word ‘lilting’ that Dylan Thomas uses for the house in line 2 is a perfect description of the movement of the poem: reading it aloud a few times makes one want to sing along! In its chanting lines the voice of the ‘speaker’ is vibrant and strong, and it seems that it coincides with that of the poet himself: his are the feelings, his are the emotions and the memories are lived in the first person – Now as I was young and easy … And as I was green and carefree … Nothing I cared … I sang in my chains. There is no screen or mediation between him and what he writes and because of this the poem is extremely forceful and intense.

As I said at the beginning this is not an easy poem for someone who like me is not an English native speaker, but with the help of a good dictionary and many readings there is only one last line that, as beautiful as it sounds, I really still find obscure: …. that time would take me / Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand. The images of the swallow and the shadow of the hand are hauntingly fascinating  but I do not understand what the poet meant.









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