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.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

The fourth element: Expression – Poetic devices (exercise 2)

Key concepts and definitions

(Creative Arts handbook, p. 88-91)

Expression or diction is Aristotle’s fourth element.

Poetic devices (modes of expression) are tools used by writers to create art from language, not only in poetry but also in prose.

 

Find examples of poetic devices in poems

Rhyme : words that sound alike, usually at line endings

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII)

 

Rhythm :  a metered structure of syllables, consonants, breathing, or pauses

I grant I never saw a goddess go,

– My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, I think my love as rare

As any she belied in false compare.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXXX)

 

Repetition : intentional repetition for reinforcement and effect

To the swinging and the ringing of the bells, bells, bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells
Bells, bells, bells-

To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

(Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Bells’)

 

Alliteration : two or more words in a line of poetry that begin with the same initial sound

When I see birches bend from left and right… / I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

(Robert Frost, ‘Birches’)

 

Assonance : repeating vowel sounds without repeating consonants. In poetry, often used as an alternative to rhyme

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o‘er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze…

(William Wordsworth, ‘Daffodils’)

 

Consonance: repeating consonants without repeating vowels. Consonance gives melody to verse

As in guys she gently sways at ease.

(Robert Frost, ‘The Silken Tent’)

 

Onomatopoeia : a word that imitates the sound made by the thing being described

It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes. / The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackass snorts. / The banjo tickles and titters too awful.

(Carl Sandburg, ‘Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio’)

 

Personification : ascribing human qualities to an object
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

(Robert Frost, ‘Tree at my Window’)

 

Simile : a figure of speech in which an image is evoked by likening one thing to another
I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.

(William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXXX)

 

Metaphor : to describe something by giving it the identity of something else

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all

(Emily Dickinson, ‘Hope’)

 

Imagery : use of devices such as simile and metaphor to create images in the reader’s mind

…Not a God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

(Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’)

 

Look for some of the devices above in a novel

Alice Munro, ‘To Rich Japan’ short story in Dear Life (2012)

Once Peter had brought her suitcase on board the train he seemed eager to get himself out of the way. But not to leave. (rhythm)

Out on the platform looking up at their window, he stood waving. Smiling, waving. (consonance)

The smile for Katy was wide open, sunny, without a doubt in the world (assonance)

She carried not noticing to an extreme. Not noticing, not intruding, not suggesting (repetition, alliteration)

His opinions were something like his complexion. (simile)

That was where the word poetess came in handy, like a web of spun sugar. (simile)

And here she had been desperate for anybody to throw her any old bone of conversation at all. (metaphor)

The dream was in fact a lot like the Vancouver weather – a dismal sort of longing, a rainy dreamy sadness, a weight that shifted round the heart. (metaphor)

But when the woman answered her mouth went dry and felt as big as a tundra and she had to hang up. (simile)

I have read only about 10 pages into the short story, but it was not difficult to find many examples of modes of expression. I think all of them contribute to create a subtle mood of detached intimacy around the main character, Greta, which seems to reflect her attitude toward other people and life: she looks at everybody, to what happens around her and also to herself from a certain affectionate distance.

 

Come up with examples for each device

As I walked down the street, I looked for a place to eat.
I was a little tense, since that idea made no sense. (rhyme)

You said what are you doing here, you were supposed to be out of town, alas I said, I could not find a plane today. (rhythm)

Yes how true, yes, yes how true (repetition)

Women wishing whisky (alliteration)

I’m dying to ride a bike  (assonance)

The black cat is behind my back (consonance)

Twit twit people do twit all the time (onomatopoeia)

The wind howled all night long (personification)

Mary is stupid as a dumb bell (simile)

That girl is a deer in a forest (metaphor)

Sarah is a deer in a forest, she flees at the light, hides in the dark, and the leaves whisper at her passage (imagery)

 

 

 

 

Rap or romantic?

Read these lines and decide: Rap or Romantic?

• Her untimely exit from her, heavenly body:

romantic (wrong!)

• Five miles meandering with a mazy motion:

rap (wrong!!)

• Victims of worldly ways, memories stays engraved:

romantic (wrong!!!)

• A dead bird flying through a broken sky:

rap (right – at last I got it right)

• Drive my dead thoughts over the universe:

rap (wrong – wrong again!!)

With 4 answers wrong out of 5 I have certainly scored a negative personal record!! But apart from my disappointment I wonder if my failure depends entirely on me and on my poor understanding of poetry genres or if there may be other reasons, for instance the difficulty to draw a line between what is rap and non rap poetry.

Now a bit of research … Key concepts and definitions

Video of a rap poem performed (Ivy, 2007)

Slam and performance poetry, hip hop, rap and grime poetry

A slam is a poetry competition during which poets perform their work individually or in teams and their performance is judged by the audience. It is a form of spoken poetry, as part of an oral tradition, started by construction worker and poet Marc Smith in 1986 in a Chicago jazz club and since then become widespread across the United States (poets.org, 2004).

Rapping is a form of spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics and is distinct from spoken-word poetry in being performed in time to a beat. It spreads across speech, prose, poetry and singing. Today rap and rapping are almost indistinguishable from hip hop. It can be traced back to its African roots as the work songs and spirituals of the African-American community. Many of the rhythmic techniques used in rapping come from percussive techniques and many rappers compare themselves to percussionists. A rapper must also develop vocal presence, enunciation, and breath control. Rappers use the literary techniques of double entendres, alliteration, and other forms of wordplay that are also found in classical poetry. Similes and metaphors are used extensively in rap lyrics (Wikipedia, 2016).

‘Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one.’ (Mattix, 2014)

‘Grime is not garage
Grime is not jungle
Grime is not hip-hop and Grime is not ragga.
Grime is a mix between all of these with strong, hard hitting lyrics. It’s the inner city music scene of London.
And is also a lot to do with representing the place you live or have grown up in.’ (Thake, 2006).

So, all considered, having wandered through the Internet in search of definitions and basic information on the different forms of spoken word poetry, I now understand that perhaps I had some reason at being at a loss when asked to distinguish between rap and non rap!

From what I understand pre-modernist, modernist and post-modernist poetry have more in common than not: they have common roots and a shared use of beat and rhythm, poetic devices, self expression, importance of theme. And these same elements are to be found also in prose when it is read or is spoken aloud. In times and places themes and subject matters change, styles and genres are born, evolve and die, devices are used differently but the basic elements do seem to remain the same like the notes in music.

Bibliography

Ivy, J. (2007) Never Let Me Down In https://www.youtube.com At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=le1kHp5lLmk (Accessed 21.11.16)

Posted May 29, 2004 In https://www.poets.org [online] At:https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-slam-poetry (Accessed 21.11.16)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Rapping’ article [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapping (Accessed 21.11.16)

Mattix, M. (2014) Is Rap Poetry? In http://www.theamericanconservative.com/ [online] At: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/prufrock/is-rap-poetry/ (Accessed 21.11.16)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Hip Hop’ article [online] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hip_hop (Accessed 21.11.16)

Thake, O. (2006) ‘Grime’ definition [online] In http://www.urbandictionary.com/ At:  http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=grime (Accessed 21.11.16)

The third element: Theme – Exercise 1: Poetry and the theme of ‘place’

Key concepts and definitions

(from Creative Arts, page 81-83)

Poetry: from Greek poiesis (‘the making’)

Differences between poetry and prose: are they so different? in what? An article published online (Earl, 2012) offers some very stimulating hints:

‘prose is all about accumulation … while poetry is about the isolation of feelings’

‘Poetry creates its own truth’

‘In both classical and modern languages it is poetry that evolves first and is only much later followed by prose, as though in a language’s childhood, as in our own, poetry were the more efficient communicator of ideas.’

‘Technology also played a roll. With the spread of the printing press after 1440, texts no longer had to be memorized. Poetry’s inbuilt mnemonics (rhyme, meter, refrain, line breaks) were no longer essential for processing and holding on to knowledge.’

‘Poetry’s last major flourishing during the first half of the 19th century was a kind of Silver Age to what came before; it gave us a way to model our increasingly important private lives, as opposed to our public ones. This is its gift.’

Theme: Aristotle’s third element in Poetics. Themes are ideas explored in creative writing.

Differences between theme and subject or subject matter:

Theme : Poetic theme is the main point the author is trying to make with the poem. Another way to think of theme is as the “moral” of the poem.
Subject: The subject of a poem is the topic, or what the poem is literally about. (Bradesca, 2001)

 

Exercise 1 – The theme of ‘place’ in 3 poems

a. The Herefordshire Landscape by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(answer 2) I think that this poem is the one which mostly evokes a sense of place. It seems that the poet looks at a landscape from above, like a bird in its flight. It does not describe a place in its specificity, but through the use of words the reader can vividly picture it and perceive its special smells.

 

b. Slough by John Betjeman

(answer 3) This poem makes a social comment about progress and place. I checked on Slough, a town near London, and its story in time, the air raids in 1940 and the much discussed housing developments which followed after the warI had to look up a word I had never heard, smithereens: fragments, little bits (Merrian-Webster. 2016).

 

c. The Lost Land by Eaven Boland

(answer 1) The third beautiful poem strongly resonates with identity and exile, and it seems to speak of a lost place, Dublin Bay, and at the same time of other intimate personal losses (‘Ireland. Absence. Daughter’).

 

Bibliography

Earl, M. (2012) The Difference Between Poetry and Prose. In: https://www.poetryfoundation.org [online] At: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/the-difference-between-poetry-and-prose/ (Accessed 18.11.16)

Bradesca, K. (2001) The Difference Between a Poem’s Theme & Subject. In http://classroom.synonym.com/ [online] At: http://classroom.synonym.com/difference-between-poems-theme-subject-2101.html (Accessed 18.11.16)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slough

Merrian-Webster. (2016) ‘Smithereens’ definition [online] At: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/smithereens (Accessed 18.11.16)