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The Double Vision of Dylan Thomas

1. Introduction

This essay starts from the proposition that Fern Hill is the single most important imaginative locus in Dylan Thomas's work. More important, that is, than either Swansea or Laugharne, which might be felt by some of Thomas's readers to have stronger claims to pre-eminence. Laugharne and its environs feature in a clutch of late poems and Under Milk Wood (though the town of New Quay is also claimed to have played its part in the development of Llaregyb). But it seems to me that by this time Thomas's imagination had simplified the world, reducing it to a single dimension. Thomas's dealings with Fern Hill and its inhabitants produced a story, "The Peaches", and two poems, "After the Funeral" and "Fern Hill", which form a rich and many-stranded creative knot. These works achieve their fullest meanings when considered alongside one another. What's more, they offer a progression suggestive of Thomas's evolution as a writer – though evolution may not be quite the right word. Why not? Because evolution implies a process during which complexity increases, and I'm inclined to see "The Peaches" and "Fern Hill" as embodying different orders of complexity. They also illustrate different literary forms. One is a short prose narrative, the other a lyric poem, and the kinds of complexity they exhibit is intimately tied to form. I shall start, therefore, with some general definitions and considerations, after which I'll move outwards to examine certain aspects of "The Peaches" and "Fern Hill". In the last part of my discussion I shall widen the perspective, first by looking back to "After the Funeral" and its origins, then by looking forward, and offering a brief consideration of "Fern Hill"'s key position in Thomas's oeuvre.

"The Peaches" is a short prose narrative. Narratives occupy a spectrum which stretches between fictive and documentary extremes; at one extreme may be found various sorts of fantasy, at the other strict autobiography. The "Gorsehill" of "The Peaches" is the Fern Hill of real life and the later poem. Jack and Ann Jones and their son Idris become the Jim, Annie and Gwilym of the tale. The real-life Dylan Thomas does seem to have been "the bad boy" the story's narrator happily owns up to being. Paul Ferris sees "The Peaches" as "based on a true incident"1 in Thomas's early life. He tells us that the original of Mrs Williams (a Mrs Basset, the wife of a well-to-do ex-mayor of Swansea) had little difficulty in recognising herself from the story, and wasn't inclined to forgive the writer. Ferris thinks her portrait an "unkind and perhaps inaccurate picture". Constantine Fitzgibbon affirms that the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog are "autobiographical but strongly flavoured with poetic license".2 Thomas himself called these stories "illuminated reporting". As Ferris says, "they read like a true record, free from hesitations".3

So far, so good. In The Nature of Narrative, Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg define "narrative" in terms of the presence of "two characteristics: the presence of a story and a story-teller".4 A drama, lacking a story-teller, is not a narrative. What then of poetry? Epic poetry presents no problems. Possessing a story and a story-teller, epics are clearly narrative. Lyric poetry is not so easily dealt with. Scholes and Kellogg write:

A lyric, like a drama, is a direct presentation, in which a single actor, the poet or his surrogate, sings, or muses, or speaks for us to hear or overhear.

In lyric the relationship between the voice of the poem and its reader or audience is more oblique. Northrop Frye declares: "The lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else... The poet, so to speak, turns his back on his listeners, though he may speak for them..."5 The voice of the lyric poem is self-sustaining and self-communing: it doesn't need a reader or auditor. It can stay forever in that dark bottom drawer. As to whether it may or may not present a story, Scholes and Kellogg's definition remains uncommitted.

Dylan Thomas, of course, is famous for his readings – particularly in America, which lionised him. But in fact "reading" his poems, as one can tell from his recordings, is the last thing he did. He incanted them. In Thomas's own mouth his poems became rhetorical performances that swept his audiences up with their hwyl, or quasi-mystical charisma. He was a word-musician, and his voice was the instrument with which he delivered his sonatas. A poet with almost nothing to say, he concentrated on "the colour of saying", using language as his palette. To quote Northrop Frye again:

[Lyric] is also the genre which most clearly shows the hypothetical core of literature, narrative and meaning in their literal aspects as word-order and word-pattern. 6

Thomas is one of those poets for whom words are things, the signifier before the signified, sacred objects, pieces of the divine creation. Gerard Manley Hopkins is another, and it's no coincidence that his poetry was important to Thomas. But Hopkins was a Jesuit intellectual with a system. Thomas is no intellectual. He feints at intellectuality when talking about his dialectical approach to poetry-making in his early letters to worshippers like Pamela Hansford Johnson, but it's a method he has felt his way to instinctively, not thought out in cold passion. It falls away as he goes on writing poetry and, increasingly, struggles to go on writing it as he travels further and further away from the early notebooks that provided so much of his material. But enough of generalisation: let's move on and look at "The Peaches" and "Fern Hill" in the light of the simple definitions so far provided.

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2. "The Peaches" and contingency

"The Peaches" has, pace Scholes and Kellogg, a story and a story-teller. The story concerns a boy taking a holiday on his aunt and uncle's farm, where he's joined by his best friend. But the friend becomes unhappy and his mother comes and takes him away. The narrator of this story is the adult into whom the boy has grown. Here immediately the reader encounters a kind of double vision – a double vision characteristic of stories in which an adult, man or woman, narrates an autobiographical story set wholly or partly in childhood. (A more recent novel-length example of the genre is Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky.) This double vision is a product of a contradiction in the way the story is delivered. The first term of the contradiction arises from the posture adopted by the adult Dylan (as I shall follow Welsh critical tradition by calling him), who allows his boyhood self within the story to know and understand only what a young boy can know and understand; that is, he deliberately withholds from the reader the subsequent insights that, as a grown man, he must necessarily have gained into the incidents and people who compose the story. The act of story-telling therefore involves a strategic erasure. The second term of the contradiction arises from the decision by the adult Dylan (who is also, of course, the author) to tell the story not merely in the fully mature language of an adult, but the enhanced language of a poet. The first term of the story imparts psychological realism to the portrayal of the boy; the second term undermines it – even explodes it. This fault-line (which is characteristic of stories in this sub-genre) can only be avoided by the adoption of a naïve and reduced language such as that which Joyce adopts for young Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce's novel was a big influence on Thomas, but not in this key respect. To adopt a naïve language requires a ruthless temperament and a particular kind of fidelity which some writers might see as a sacrifice to be avoided (though others as a challenge to be embraced). Thomas, I suspect, would have seen such a procedure as a form of self-denial, and if there's one thing Dylan Thomas never was it was a self-denying man.

A story implies a series of events moving through time: it manifests duration. The second sentence of "The Peaches" begins: "It was late on an April evening..." Straightaway we are in time. And soon enough, in fact, we encounter, through the child Dylan, the discomfort of time experienced, for he's left in the cart outside The Hare's Foot by his uncle and passes through fear to hunger and anger. The experience is one of exclusion. Through the pub's window with its half-drawn and stained blind, he can see the curious realm from which he is barred, one of smoking, drinking card-players. This realm, with its unhappy swallowers, two fat women in bright dresses, small dark child, and "sour woman with a flowered blouse and a man's cap", is ambivalently rendered, but it's plainly preferable to life outside and the lurid daydreams which the abandoned boy conjures up. Matters improve, however, when Jim comes out and drives off. Dylan likes his uncle's "affectionate bass voice" and the way he "conducted the wind with his whip". Things are even better when he arrives at Gorsehill and runs into his aunt's arms:

One minute I was small and cold, skulking dead-scared down a black passage in my stiff, best suit, with my hollow belly thumping and my heart like a time bomb, clutching my grammar-school cap, unfamiliar to myself, a snub-nosed story-teller lost in his own adventures and longing to be home; the next I was a royal nephew in smart town clothes, embraced and welcomed, standing in the snug centre of my stories and listening to the clock announcing me. She hurried me to the seat in the side of the cavernous fireplace and took off my shoes. The bright lamps and the ceremonial gongs blazed and rang for me.

This packed, polyclausal passage, both elaborate and energetic, is highly characteristic, and it signals a profoundly literary approach to writing. It's the written English of a very good writer indeed, not the spoken English of a boy. It celebrates words-as-things and things-as-words, revelling in the sheer, cluttered contingency of the world. It's also cunningly self-reflexive, as the narrator draws attention to his own status as story-teller. At last Dylan is where he wants to be, thinks he ought by rights to be – at the centre of his own story. Before, he was pushed to the periphery of the tale, marginalised by his uncle abandoning him outside the walls of the warm pub. Now, by the agency of his loving aunt, he assumes centre-stage, and the contingent world recognises his centrality in the blazing lamps and ringing gongs.

Here, implicit in these first three or four pages, is the thematic dialectic of the whole tale. As a story of young Dylan, it's a story about the inescapable mixture of pain and pleasure, joy and suffering, which composes diurnal reality and, in this case, the process of growing up. But there's a much larger story which the callow boy can only glimpse, a story of domestic and class tensions – of the marital discord caused by Jim and his drinking (supping his piglets one by one), and the class discord which erupts between the families Jones and Williams when Jack, Dylan's visiting friend, gets scared off by Jim. This larger story isn't Dylan's story at all; he's in it, but peripheral to it. There is, then, in addition to the thematic dialectic I've already described, a narrative dialectic which emerges from Dylan's attempts to assert his centrality in the larger story he cannot truly comprehend. "The Peaches", in fact, neatly and brutally exposes what it means to be a child: to seek to insist "This is my story" when authorial power – the power, that is, to make things happen, the power of narrative decision – lies elsewhere. It's the story of all our lives – from the insulation of "innocence", when we understand too little of reality to grasp our lack of ability to control it, to the state of "experience", when we may feel we can exert some degree of influence on the world around us, but appreciate the constraints that compromise and bind us. All the stories in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog have to do with the movement from innocence to experience, but all are marked by Thomas's awareness that there is no absolute condition of "innocence" which suddenly, one fair (or foul) day, disappears to be replaced by "experience". Innocence and experience rather constitute polar terms in a handy metaphor and signify a progression from lesser to greater understanding of the world and the people in it. Each of the stories presents a collision between Dylan and reality through which he learns – though not in an orderly, conscious fashion – something about the complexity, and most often about the unaccommodatingness, of existence.

There are just two occasions in "The Peaches" when Dylan asserts control over his own narrative. One I have noted. The other comes when he's playing with Jack:

On my haunches, eager and alone, casting an ebony shadow, with the Gorsehill jungle swarming, the violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping, hidden under four-stemmed flowers the height of horses, in the early evening in a dingle near Carmarthen, my friend Jack Williams invisibly near me, I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart, the long heat and depth between the legs, the sweat pricking in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between the toes, the eyes in the sockets, the tucked-up voice, the blood racing, the memory around and within flying, jumping, swimming, and waiting to pounce. There, playing Indians in the evening, I was aware of me myself in the exact middle of a living story, and my body was my adventure and my name.

Unsurprisingly my word processing package, which is no literary critic, graced the first 116 words of this passage as I typed it with angry green underlining and commented, with baffled impotence, "Long sentence (no suggestions)". It is indeed a huge sentence, a carolling paean to the instinctual life of the child perfectly at home in his body and in the natural world. Away from the obscure and anxiety-creating entanglements of the adult-dominated domain, with the child-friend "near" but significantly invisible, Dylan reassumes centrality in his own narrative. A world of one can be an entirely fulfilling world, for it contains no one else who might challenge your position within it. But of course this moment of perfect union between self and world is a fragile thing. Just a few pages later the spell is broken, Jack is disaffected, and play has lost its innocence:

Below me, Jack was playing Indians all alone, scalping through the bushes, surprising himself round a tree, hiding from himself in the grass. I called to him once, but he pretended not to hear. He played alone, silently and savagely. I saw him standing with his hands in his pockets, swaying like a Kelly, on the mudbank by the stream at the foot of the dingle. My bough lurched, the heads of the dingle bushes spun up towards me like green tops, 'I'm falling!' I cried, my trousers saved me, I swung and grasped, this was one minute of wild pleasure, but Jack did not look up and the minute was lost. I climbed, without dignity, to the ground.

This play is pseudo-play, in fact the antithesis of play. It has become infected with self-consciousness. The boys are going through the motions, and because instinctuality has been lost, everything is lost. It’s fine for Dylan to be "eager and alone" in the earlier passage, but not for Jack to be "all alone" in this later one. Aloneness is now compromised. Dylan's aloneness in the first passage is dependent on Jack's proximity and involvement. Jack is the necessary other who attests Dylan's reality, completing his world even in his seeming absence from it. But for Jack to be present and insistent on his separateness is fatal to Dylan's chances of achieving a vibrant separateness: it again displaces Dylan from the centre. Jack is not even dignified with humanity: he is a Kelly, a budgerigar's plastic plaything, trapped in the cage of his own unhappiness.

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3. "Fern Hill" and unconditionality

In "The Peaches" an adult narrator recounted a story of his childhood, erasing the understanding that he must be assumed to have gained of its events in his subsequent process of maturation, and fostering the illusion of a directly-experiencing, psychologically authentic child-self. In "Fern Hill" an adult again speaks of his childhood, but there is no attempt to create an earlier separate version of himself. Nor does this adult narrator tell a story. What he does is witness a former state of being, creating a simulacrum of the presentness of that state of being even as he insists upon its pastness. The poem then takes a radically different angle of approach. Nevertheless, it once again exhibits a kind of double vision, though the terms of the double vision have shifted. The doubleness is mediated through the treatment of time and is immediately signalled in the poem's opening words: "Now as I was...". This startling oxymoronic phrase instates what is over and done with as a living present within the rhetorical structure of the poem and is maintained by verbal means throughout.

The events of "The Peaches" occur one April on a farm near Carmarthen: they happen within time and exhibit duration. The experience celebrated in "Fern Hill" occurs "once below a time". This eye-catching phrase is a revision of the familiar "once upon a time", the formula that opens a traditional tale, but it's difficult to believe that a poet as teasing and pun-given as Dylan Thomas wouldn't want his reader to press beyond that recognition. Literally, perhaps, the phrase is meaningless. But we are dealing with poetry here, that realm of elusive, metaphorical significations. For me the switch from "upon" to "below" implies a sharp paradox in the relationship of the child to time. To exist "below a time" is on the one hand to exist out of time, beneath (as it were) the belt of time, to experience a holiday from mutability. On the other hand, it's to occupy a position of subordination to time. The phrase implies being both under the protection of time and under its thumb. Far from being achieved in spite of time, the child's timeless state is a gift or indulgence of time. "Time let me hail and climb..." we read, and later "Time let me play and be...". Time, we must suppose, could resume its tyrannous habits whenever it wanted to. As it is, it's a bell that tolls at intervals through the poem to remind us that the unconditional existence of the child must have, in truth has had, a stop. The poem – or the child – both has its cake and eats it.

There is, within the experience of the child within the poem, no story. There cannot be a story because duration is denied. Night and day paradoxically exist in the poem, as do wakefulness and sleep, but they form no progression of weeks that might be found on a calendar. "All the sun long it was running, it was lovely... And nightly under the simple stars... In the moon that is always rising..." These phrases witness a condition of existence from which the constraints of number and measurement have been banished, releasing the child into a timeless domaine magique. A related phrase (like others in the poem a refurbished cliché), is "happy as the heart was long". This again challenges literality and gestures at a condition which might be characterised as mystical. Internal to the child's life, there is in fact no mechanism that might ever threaten an end to the miraculous persistence of that condition. Sunlit day follows sunlit day in a seamless sequence, and every day is exactly like the last. Since change cannot occur in the child's life, there is no way that psychic development can take place in him. He cannot therefore be said to inhabit either a state of innocence or experience nor to occupy some indeterminate point in the progression from one state to the other, for contraries are interdependent and mutually reifying.

When does the idyll end? When the child leaves the farm and returns to the outside world? But the outside world, present with a vengeance in "The Peaches", is absent from "Fern Hill". All the poet can indicate is that the idyllic child-state he is celebrating belongs to his past:

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.

Does this much-admired last line strike a metaphorically false note? If the poet has insisted on one thing throughout, it's that the child experienced total liberation. He therefore knew no chains; it's rather the adult poet who sings in his chains – the chains of adult knowledge, which is partly the knowledge that, subject as he now is to the full force of time, he can never reinhabit the self he was then. Nor is the sea a thematic addition to the poem's imagery, since it grows out of nothing contained within the landscape of the poem. It's the adult speaker who is now "at sea", tossed on waves of separation from his own earlier self and (as we know from Thomas's biography) a dweller by the sea. These considerations add up to a powerful case. One might, I suppose, counter that the sea, like the child unaware of its "chains", sings out of its timeless condition. But human beings possess consciousness, as the sea does not, and while children must grow into adulthood, seas undergo no comparable transition. Again the simile breaks down. Only for the child can the state of timelessness, entire and sufficient unto itself as an experiential present, be simultaneously regarded as illusory when considered retrospectively within the imperatives that govern the time-frame of reality. In short, the last line may work on an emotional level, but reveals its inadequacy when submitted to analysis. In doing so it signals the difference between Thomas and, for example, John Donne, for whom a simile, no matter how fanciful, must possess both emotional and intellectual cogency.

Duration is not the only thing erased in the poem. People, indeed the entire social realm, have been whisked out of sight. The farm is there, but neither Gorsehill's inhabitants – loving vivacious Annie, boozy sharp-tempered Jim, and preacher-minded woman-fancying Gwilym – nor their true-life versions from Fern Hill. Not even Jack, Dylan's invisible playmate, has survived of the incursive Williams family. But the banishment of other humans is essential to the poem's conception, for with others come not only the pain and puzzlement consequent upon immersion in the social realm, but the sidelining of the boy in his own life. Dylan achieved unchallenged centrality in his own life just twice during the mixed fortunes of the story, but in the poem there is nothing that might threaten his eminence:

And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns...

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn...

It was Annie, we remember from "The Peaches", who conferred royal status on Dylan when he arrived at Gorsehill. Here it is the curiously unpeopled environment itself that does it. "Honoured among wagons...": in the story Jim had driven the grass green cart at an exhilarating lick, but these wagons have no drivers, and as a consequence seem contained in a still world, a sort of Constable painting of idealized rurality. In the poem, moreover, all nature organizes itself around the figure of the child – not only the vegetable kingdom ("I lordly had the trees and leaves / Trail with daisies and barley...") but the animal kingdom too ("I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves / Sang to my horn..."). It can only be because the spell of the poem is on us that we don't dismiss the speaker as a raving egotist. It’s interesting to compare this passage with the one from the story that comes closest to it, the passage quoted above in which Dylan is on his haunches in the Gorsehill jungle. That passage too took in the animal world, with its "violent, impossible birds and fishes leaping". That phrase points in the direction of myth, but stops short of going there; the poem effortlessly travels the whole way: it is all about creating a myth. The prose passage insists on the physicality of the child, with his realistically torn knees, sweaty groin, and dirty toes. The child in the poem seems in contrast virtually disembodied. There is no rough and tumble here because there are no arms and legs to do it. He can play and sing, hear and see, but beyond these notional indications is almost an abstraction. We do not see him, as we cannot but see the boy in the story. When he tells us: "And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades..." he seems to have dissolved into thin air, become one with the trade winds that pass invisibly over the farm.

The farm... For the story, Thomas changed the farm's name from Fern Hill to Gorsehill. For the poem he changed it back again. Gorsehill suits "The Peaches", for it implies a location with plenty of thorns: trip in the wrong place and it will hurt you. And young Dylan is certainly hurt, though more in mind than in body. Fern Hill is an altogether more accommodating name, a place of feathery greenness that invites you to lie down and rest without risk. Compare the farm in the poem with the farm in the tale and you see that it has undergone a face-lift. Jim Jones's demesne is a sorry place.

The ramshackle outhouses had tumbling, rotten roofs, jagged holes in their sides, broken shutters, and peeling whitewash; rusty screws ripped out from the dangling, crooked boards; the lean cat of the night before sat snugly between the splintered jaws of bottles cleaning its face, on the tip of the rubbish pile that rose triangular and smelling sweet and strong to the level of the riddled cart-house roof.

This is the farm as apparently it was in reality, and there is nothing of it in the poem. The poem gestures at the farm, sketching it in oblique or metaphorical and sometimes incantationally repetitious phrases: "the lilting house... famous among the barns / and the happy yard... the hay / Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys... the gay house... the house high hay... the swallow thronged loft..." The farm is no longer the powerfully visualized and richly individualized Fern Hill: it has, in fact, become an idea and an ideal of a farm which a few rhetorical phrases are sufficient to sketch.

A final point of comparison: foxes. In the poem foxes can be heard but cannot be seen: "the foxes on the hill barked clear and cold". Despite their distance from us, the alliteration serves to bring them into at least aural focus. Getting no nearer, however, they remain on the edge of the poem, a piece of evocative background, neither amiable nor dangerous. In the story, however, foxes penetrate the house itself. In Annie's best room, a stuffed fox occupies a glass case. Mrs Williams remarks of it: "There's a lovely fox!" Dylan tells Jack that it's decorated with real blood, but gets the retort that it's red ink. The real-life fox of the house is anything but stuffed and lovely: it bites. When Gwilym tells Dylan that one of the pigs has disappeared, Dylan hypothesizes that the sow or a marauding fox has had it. "'It wasn't the sow or the fox,' said Gwilym. 'It was father.'" And Jim is feral indeed: when on the road to the farm he halts his cart to light his pipe, he shows to Dylan "his long, red, drunken fox's face..., with its bristling side-bushes and wet, sensitive nose". Jim will scare Jack and his family's money off the farm, adding a further nail to the coffin of the Jones fortunes. If he is a fox, he has anything but a fox's legendary cunning.

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4. "Fern Hill" as music

In part two of this essay I argued that "The Peaches", like all the stories that make up Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, convincingly shows a psyche in process of development and illustrates a point on the narrator's progression from innocence to experience. By contrast, the static, unchanging world of "Fern Hill" has no way of doing this that is internal to the life of the child. Of the Blakean contraries that impregnate the story and constitute its dialectic, the lyric possesses no trace. What the latter does instead is to assert that change has occurred at some unspecified stage in the narrator's life subsequent to his farm idyll. That stage is not only irrecoverable but unspecifiable. Once the narrator was innocent, now he is experienced, and the farm and all it symbolizes is "forever fled from the childless land". All it symbolizes, I have written – and that is precisely what the farm is: not a living reality but a symbol, a symbol of a precarious state of being, purified of all body-centred crudity to the virtual point of sanctification. "Fern Hill" is a late symbolist poem – very late indeed, for the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive is a generation younger than T.S. Eliot, who was a post-symbolist. But Thomas the poet was never a neo-classical modernist, like Pound and Eliot, he was a neo-Romantic with a dash of surrealism – though he worked the surrealism out of himself in his twenties. "Fern Hill" is best understood as a piece of music, as rhythmic incantation. Shelley, the nineteenth-century master of English-language symbolist music, would have understood it perfectly.

When we consider the forms of these two works – the peaks of fiction and lyric in Thomas's output – we inevitably see large differences. "The Peaches" is mimetic, it offers an imitation of life. It must therefore find any shape it might possess in the events which compose it. It might, like many stories, have had no shape at all, but in fact Thomas finds one, and it is satisfying. The tale begins with an arrival at the farm (Dylan's) and ends with a departure from it (Jack's). Beginning and end both sound the theme of abandonment, initially when Jim leaves the boy outside The Hare's Foot, finally when Jack, severing his bond with Dylan, goes off with his mother to Swansea. In between we follow the curve of the story, with its mimetic mix of pleasures and frustrations.

Formal lyric poems derive their shapes from a very different set of imperatives. These are linguistic and abstract. Metre and rhythm, rhyme, stanza structure, and the use of verbal formulae are all modes of repetition that produce pattern – which free verse, of course, typically does without. "Fern Hill" is a word-fugue, a verbal machine in which each of these elements functions at maximum intensity. The result: the poem lifts itself above the level of intimate personal speech (a mode common to lyric) and aspires to the condition of incantation, to function like a magical charm and cast a spell on the reader. In the process, language is shifted out of the realm of realism and onto the plane of the ideal. Everything is calculated for its effect, down to the poem's idiosyncratic but masterly exploitation of vowel-rhyme. Vowel-rhyme, unlike its sibling consonant-rhyme – brash and discordant in the hands of, say, Wilfred Owen – is the most delicate of rhyme options, so unobtrusive that many readers of the poem don’t even notice it's there until it's pointed out to them. Why does Thomas choose it? Precisely because, I would suggest, of its obliquity. On the one hand it offers that element of structural discipline which Thomas's poetic sensibility seems to have needed as a condition of maximum performance. On the other it avoids the drawback of punctuating the line-endings with obtrusive chimes that might impede the flow of images and the poem's liquid onward momentum – for this is a poem which is always pressing forward towards its end (with its plangent statement of the inevitability of loss), an end that it must anticipate even as it defies it.

The mechanics of "Fern Hill" have been much discussed, and I don't want to labour them unnecessarily. I'll therefore confine myself to pointing up that aspect of the poem's verbal medium that most notably expresses its double-visioned treatment of time. "Now as I was..." the poem begins, preparing a temporal dialectic that will reverberate through stanza after stanza to the poem's very end. The fact that the experiences are over is attested by the pastness of the verb tenses by means of which they are evoked: in stanza one, for instance, "... was young and easy... grass was green... Time let me... honoured... I was prince... I lordly had..." At the same time the poet sets in motion a series of participial words that paradoxically create an illusion of presentness. This series starts slowly, with just one example in each of the first two stanzas ("the lilting house", "singing as the farm was home"). The texture then thickens, with five instances in verse 3 and four in verse 4 (running, playing, bearing, flying, flashing; shining, spinning, walking, whinnying). Stanza five drops back to one example. Stanza six increases again to three. The last instance of all, most appropriately, is "dying": "Time held me green and dying". This time-defying paradox constitutes the last throw of the fissured psyche that began "Now as I was", and it's a suitably memorable one.

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5. From brutalist to sentimentalist

"The Peaches" was not Thomas's first creative engagement with Fern Hill and its inhabitants. This was "After the Funeral", which Daniel Jones in his edition of The Poems ascribes to the spring of 1938. Thomas's elegy in fact constitutes a revision of a notebook poem of 10 February 1933. As "Fern Hill" was first published in 1945, Thomas's dealings with the farm and Ann Jones occupy an imaginative span of some twelve years – a significant chunk of his writing life. Ann Jones died of cancer on the seventh of February. In late January Thomas had reacted to telegrammed news that his aunt was dying in a letter to his friend Trevor Hughes:

Many summer weeks I spent happily with the cancered aunt on her insanitary farm. She loved me inordinately, gave me sweets and money, though she could little afford it, petted, patted, and spoiled me. She writes – is it, I wonder, a past tense yet – regularly. Her postscripts are endearing. She still loves – or loved – me, though I don’t know why. And now she is dying, or dead, and you will pardon the theatrical writing. Allow me my moments of drama.7

Ralph Maud describes this letter as showing well "the poet's self-dramatizing, anesthetized state".8 Self-dramatizing, yes. Anesthetized? I wouldn't have thought so. It's common enough for people to feel empty after a death, and Thomas attests to this response elsewhere in the letter. But the letter has about it nothing of somebody lost for words. On the contrary, it has all the polish, calculation, energy and verbal inventiveness of Thomas's early epistles to his friends, and it is in addition a tour-de-force of self-analysis:

Am I, he said, with the diarist's unctuous, egotistic preoccupation with his own blasted psychological reactions to his own trivial affairs, callous and nasty? Should I weep? Should I pity the old thing? For a moment, I feel, I should. There must be something lacking in me. I don’t feel worried, or hardly ever, about other people. It's self, self, all the time. I'm rarely interested in other people's emotions, except those of my pasteboard characters. I prefer (this is one of the thousand contradictory devils speaking) style to life, my own reactions to emotions rather than the emotions themselves. Is this, he pondered, a lack of soul?

This is in part a true reflection of the brutalism of youth, its ability to regard a world in which it doesn't yet have a deep personal stake with the objectivity of an alien surveying a strewn battlefield on planet earth from a passing flying saucer. At the same time it offers up a devastating piece of self-exposure, and Thomas must have calculated that the brilliance of its insolence in the face of life would shock its recipient into twisted admiration (if, that is, he cared about Hughes's response at all, and wasn't simply pursuing a stimulating train of thought for its own sake). The notebook poem reproduces something of the cynical detachment of the letter but is, as a piece of expressive writing, albeit one in verse, very much its inferior:

Another gossips' toy has lost its use,
Broken lies buried amid broken toys,
Of flesh and bone lies hungry for the flies,
Waits for the natron and the mummy paint[,]
With dead lips pursed and dry bright eyes,
Another well of rumours and cold lies
Has dried[, and one more [joke] has lost its point.] 9

There is, in this curiously toneless and apparently indifferent rumination, no glimpse of Ann Jones, the person whose death precipitated the funeral and who might have meant something to the author. The mature poem, which retains little of the wording of the original bar its opening line, is a much more interesting piece of work. It has some magnificent writing in it, particularly where Thomas evokes Ann's dead body:

I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain.
And sculptured Anne is seventy years of stone.

This has the ruthless objectivity of great poetry in it, as Thomas weaves together his sense of the narrowness of her spiritual life, the pain of her final suffering (which, if I read its tone right, is not unsympathetic), and the monumental quality of her death-state. Yet about its rhetoric there is a curiously willed quality, and for me it's this sense of manufactured emotion, as if Thomas is working himself artificially up into something, that triumphs at the poem's end:

These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm,
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.

"After the Funeral" was written the year before "The Peaches", and there is that fox again. Thomas imagines the fox reanimated so that it can cry out words of love: but whose love? The line is ambiguous, as is the "hewn voice" of a couple of lines earlier. "She loved me inordinately... She still loves – or loved – me, though I don’t know why." Because, first, "sculptured Anne is seventy years of stone", it is her voice, which cannot speak from mute stone, that might speak through the fox. But these lines also enact a kind of verbal self-flagellation in which Thomas, "Ann's bard on a raised hearth", punishes himself for his inability to return her love. The love that might speak itself through the miraculous fox is therefore also his love. He is, too, "the strutting fern" that love would also render productive. In one sense, of course, fern-Thomas has been productive, for it has just finished the poem to Ann, laying its poetic seeds on the black sill of her best room (where perhaps the funeral reception took place). The poem, then, is in part an expression of Thomas's guilt for being the egotistical self-preoccupied individual he boasts of being in the letter to Trevor Hughes. Five years have gone by, and he is still worrying away at the emotional void inside himself.

Place "The Peaches" beside "After the Funeral", and it's easy to conclude that the story is the better memorial to the aunt. Here is a live Annie, fussing over Dylan, worrying about making ends meet, working hard, doing her best with a drunken, unreliable husband, a vivacious and somewhat down-at-heel little body, with her mud-caked tatty gym-shoes and her black dress smelling of moth balls. She has her weak points – notably her servile class deference to the sparkly Mrs Williams – but although the narrator never openly broaches the issue of his feelings for her, the manner in which she's treated, the linguistic suspension in which she moves and has her being, nevertheless breathes affection for her. "The Peaches" is, among many other things, an act of reparation to Ann Jones. She doesn't, of course, appear in "Fern Hill", and although I've argued that the poem's conception allows no place for her, it may well be that Thomas believed "The Peaches" sufficient to balance the books, and that as a consequence he felt no compunction in leaving her out.

"Fern Hill" is obviously a poem that looks back, but it's also a poem that looks forward. In fact it seems to me a pivotal work, for it anticipates the unfinished Under Milk Wood. "Fern Hill", I said, sun-drenched and sacred, is a timeless world, a world without people. Under Milk Wood is a timeless world with people. Like the world of the farm, Llaregyb is a static realm, impervious to change. Day follows day and each day is the same. Fern Hill and Milk Wood are rural paradises, realms of Arcadian bliss. But it's one thing to do Arcady in a lyric poem, another to do it in a play for voices. It's one thing to give Arcady a single, isolated child inhabitant, another to make it a populous village. It's one thing to ascribe innocence to a child, another to ascribe it to adults. "The Peaches" is a dark comedy, and so is Under Milk Wood, but the play sells life short, as the story did not. In the play, one painful emotion certainly looms large: loss. Loss is a function of memory, and memory is painful in Under Milk Wood. It's there in Captain Cat remembering his lost shipmates, there in Polly Garter mourning Little Willy Wee even as she consoles herself in the arms of other lovers. Loss, of course, is what "Fern Hill" is all about: the loss of innocence and joy. But in Thomas's own life, as we've seen with regard to Ann Jones, loss was bound up with guilt, with the sense of transgression. Thomas wants to make Llaregyb as free of guilt and sin as the world of the farm, but he can work this magic only at the cost of creating an enchanted and sentimental world. "Fern Hill" and Under Milk Wood are both, in terms of their relationship to their author's psyche, worlds and works of consolation. For all its comic and poetic charms, the play for voices is a regressive performance.

(Written 2001; unpublished.)

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1 Dylan Thomas: a Biography (Hodder & Stoughton 1977) p. 46.

2 The Life of Dylan Thomas (Sphere 1968) p. 40.

3 Op. cit. p. 163.

4 Oxford University Press (1975) p. 4.

5 Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton 1957) pp. 249-250.

6 Ibid. p. 271.

7 Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, ed. Paul Ferris (Dent 1985) p. 13.

8 Poet in the Making (Dent 1968) p. 21.

9 Ibid. p. 168.

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