Monday, April 11, 2011

Poem on His Birthday by Dylan Thomas

...Terror will rage apart
Before chains break to a hammer flame
And love unbolts the dark

And freely he goes lost
In the unknown, famous light of great
And fabulous, dear God.
Dark is a way and light is a place,
Heaven that never was
Nor will be ever is always true,
And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

There he might wander bare
With the spirits of the horseshoe bay
Or the stars' seashore dead,
Marrow of eagles, the roots of whales
And wishbones of wild geese,
With blessed, unborn God and His Ghost,
And every soul His priest,
Gulled and chanter in young Heaven's gold
Be at cloud quaking peace,

But dark is a long way.
He, on the earth of the night, alone
With all the living, prays,
Who knows the rocketing wind will blow
The bones out of the hills,
And the scythed boulders bleed, and the last
Rage shattered waters kick
Masts and fishes to the still quick stars,
Faithlessly unto Him

Who is the light of old
And air shaped Heaven where souls grow wild
As horses in the foam...

Death, death, death. Is there a poem that I have discussed this month that doesn't meditate at least indirectly on death? (Maybe "Dream Song 14?") I do not think it is because I am morbid. I think, rather, that the greatest poems are about death because death--our ultimate unsolvable question--weighs heavier on our minds than anything else. I have saved a few poems for this stretch to be discussed together, because they each give me some hope for existence beyond death. I include yesterday's, from "Song of Myself," in this group and today I continue with a passage from Dylan Thomas' "Poem on His Birthday."

The basic concept is familiar to us through all those cheesy greeting cards with the Grim Reaper on them: each birthday is more bittersweet than the last because it means that we are a year closer to death; as Thomas puts it in part of the poem not quoted here, he "[t]oils toward the ambush of his wounds." (What a great way to put it!) What Thomas did not know when he wrote it is that he had only four years to live, collapsing at the age of 39 in New York City's White Horse Tavern. He wrote this poem in celebration of his own 35th birthday.

I love "Poem on His Birthday" for this line, more than anything else: "Dark is a way and light is a place." Whitman's assertion that death is "different" and "luckier" does little to assuage the anxiety of anyone who doesn't have that Whitmanian peace of mind; to Whitman is seems so easy, as if he has never been anxious about death. In one short line, Thomas acknowledges the bitterness, the suffering, the lonesomeness of death, and assures us that at the end of that journey is a permanence (a "place," not a "way") in the presence of God. The anxiety remains--you can see the specter of doubt in the idea that "Heaven that never was / Nor will be ever," yet it is somehow "always true"--but how wonderful seems the other side of it:

And, in that brambled void,
Plenty as blackberries in the woods
The dead grow for His joy.

Note the echo of Whitman, for whom the dead grow out as grass. It wouldn't surprise me if Thomas were conscious of that parallel, though his vision of life-beyond-death is as Christian as Whitman's is Transcendentalist, and not really of the same stripe.

Thomas' legacy is still controversial. At his worst he could be incoherent, but I don't know who can read "Poem on His Birthday" and not be awed. It's relatively short, unlike "Song of Myself," and though I have selected the best portion to reproduce here I encourage you to read the rest of it.

1 comment:

lawnwrangler said...

i don't have your email here is the link i mentioned:
the deadline for summer sessions was today, but there's always next year.