Nature and Dylan Thomas
Owen Barfield, friend of C. S. Lewis and a philosopher in his own right, was of the view that human consciousness had evolved over time so that instead of participating in an innocent and unknowing way in the natural world around it, we now stand detached and aloof from what we now call ‘objective reality’. We do not have to accept the entirety of this theory to see that, if it is in any way true, it would presuppose at some point an attempt through art to regain what had been lost - to seek out, in other words, a connection to Nature in an effort to reverse or at least slow the movement away from it.
We see this attempt in the last two centuries in particular, firstly in what has been called the Romantic Movement, especially in poetry, at the end of the Eighteenth and beginning of the Nineteenth Centuries, and secondly in the Twentieth Century in the work of poets like Dylan Thomas.
Thomas most certainly had a connection to nature or strived to have such a connection. He was often responding to the romantic poetry of the past and its obsession with nature as well as his own beliefs that nature haunts us and will kill us as well as being inextricably connected to human life. His famous quote ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ Is my destroyer’ demonstrates a keen sense of mortality inextricably linked to natural forces. Although very young at the time of writing, Dylan shows an awareness of death, perhaps because of the failing health of his octogenarian father.
The poem opens with these lines which follow a very strict iambic pentameter for the first two and then are chopped abruptly on the third, a mere five syllables: a very powerful five syllables as they carry the tone for the whole poem and emphatically state that nature will be his destruction. The alliteration of ‘force’ and ‘flower’ brings to the forefront of our minds the concept that nature is an all powerful being that only 'allows' us life for a short while.
The same sentiments are echoed in ‘Here in this spring’, with ‘A worm tells summer better than the clock,/ The slug's a living calendar of days;/ What shall it tell me if a timeless insect/ Says the world wears away?’ reiterating his belief that nature is omnipotent. That the quote is written entirely in iambic pentameter save for the last line which is iambic trimeter makes for a masculine and more emphatic ending not to mention the chilling idea that nature is fully aware of a coming Judgement Day of which we remain ignorant. From the same poem is ‘The force that drives the water through the rocks/ Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams/ Turns mine to wax’ again following the same rhythm and meter, with a powerful metaphoric ending signalling a transmutation of lifeblood. The constant rhythm followed by this abrupt termination suggests sudden death.
The final two lines of the poem, ‘And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb/ How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm’ is a deviation from the standard form as seen earlier as this is merely two lines of iambic pentameter, without the five syllable line to end it, producing an eerie flavour and suggesting perhaps that death has finally come and cut the poem short. Dylan died a year after writing it. Here he speaks of how the same maggot that gnaws at dead bodies gnaws at his sheets also, promoting the inevitability of death and the idea that to nature we are naught but eventual food. There is another irregularity with the half rhyme of ‘worm’ and ‘tomb’, which has the same effect as the assonance but uses the words to create an auditory half-echo, impacting the reader.
Contrasting with the particular morbidity of these examples is Thomas' appreciation of natural beauty and the influence that romantic poetry had on him. ‘Poem in October’ begins with ‘It was my thirtieth year to heaven/Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood’ which hints at a religious aspect: Thomas had a pious upbringing; he views the wood as his neighbour and evidently sees it as something special. The first line is written in iambic pentameter, with the second line responding in two extra syllables still remaining masculine. He also offers some personification implying that the harbour and wood have voices. From the same poem is ‘Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales/Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud./ There could I marvel/ My birthday’ perceiving each as a gift on his birthday which he would spend in no other way than admiring nature. The first two lines being both twelve syllables and iambic in metre, the last two seem to deviate, as if he is left speechless by the beauty of his surroundings. He breaks up the simple sentence and drags it out into two lines also making use of enjambment.
In the poem ‘Here in this spring’ there is a line ‘Here in this spring, stars float along the void;/Here in this ornamental winter,’ two lines of iambic pentameter, aiding the metaphor of floating stars as it provides a gentle tempo and regular pattern further bolstered by the alliteration of ‘spring’ and ‘star’. The evocative metaphor in referring to winter as ornamental shows a belief that nature, even something as robust as a season, is beautiful and decorates the world.
Thomas’ connection to nature suggests that he was of the belief that nature was related to us and could affect each and every one of us be it cause us pain or uplift us, in a manner not unlike that suggested by Barfield’s ‘original participation’:
Why east wind chills and south wind cools
Shall not be known till windwell dries
And west's no longer drowned
In winds that bring the fruit and rind
Of many a hundred falls;
Why silk is soft and the stone wounds
The child shall question all his days.
This stanza follows a simple pattern of quadratic pentameter, followed by one line written in iambic foot, - this leads us on a gentle rhythm before the idea is punctuated by a much longer line of the same rhythm. This doesn't upset the general feel of the poem but rather adds suspense - the unanswerable enigma of ‘the child shall question all his days’. ‘Child’ here is perhaps a metaphor for all humanity - comparatively speaking we are in infancy compared to the stones and silk of the world. This bolsters the concept that there is an inextricable tie between us and nature affecting us at all times, be it the wind chilling us or stones grazing our skin. As a heightened example of pathetic fallacy it suggests that, although nature has no ‘hands’ to scratch us, it nevertheless still does so. The imagery of this child is extended in ‘Streamed again a wonder of summer/With apples/Pears and red currants/And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's/ Forgotten mornings’. The bond between us and nature is taken or left behind somehow in the winds of where we were: we may learn about one another simply through nature. There is further imagery in this idea of a summer of wonder, this creating an almost magical aura, referencing apples and pears and evoking the magic of simple and natural beauty.
Thomas, growing up around natural beauty and capturing it through poetry, reminds us of a participation in it that we are receding from and invokes a desire to reverse that withdrawal.
(with thanks and apologies to Ryan Ellory)