In English there are poets of the intellect, poets who use words and grammar with the precision and coldness of mathematics. In contrast to these are the impressionists of poetry who use words as an artist uses broad dabs of color, a smear of scarlet for a stalk of flowers.
Among the most impressionistic poets in English are two associated with Wales — first Gerard Manley Hopkins, who studied Welsh at one time, and second Dylan Thomas, who was Welsh though he wrote in English.
Today I want to talk about Thomas. His verbal impressionism was at its height in the poem Fern Hill. It is one of those works often initially mystifying to the high school or college level reader, a poem that seems to create an atmosphere rather than to convey information. Many find it difficult to understand.
It is really quite easy, however, once one realizes that Thomas has taken a simple yet profound theme — childhood’s end — and has depicted it impressionistically, using words instead of pigments, repeating them and repeating phrasing and consonantal sounds to build up the overall image. Thomas once wrote how as a child he fell in love with the sounds of words quite apart from their meaning. In Fern Hill he combines sound and meaning and melody, not to make a clearly-defined statement, but rather to make his point through the overall impression given by his combination and use of words — his verbal impressionism:
In the following I have emphasized certain words and letters to draw your attention to the repetition of sounds and of certain key words, though I have not marked all that might be noted:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
You will want to know that a “dingle” is a small valley between hills, what would be called a “hollow” in the eastern United States. Thomas has put the adjective “starry” after it instead of before it, but he means simply a little valley or dell with stars above it.
Thomas is showing us his childhood, when everything was fresh and new, everything green (the color of youth and growth) and golden (the color of light and preciousness) and bright. He gives it to us in a Welsh rural setting of green and wagons and apples and daisies and barley and “rivers of windfall light” that is, a world flooded with light that came without any effort on his part. It was a time and place in which he felt princely and lordly — as though things were there to serve and please him. Time was like a kind and doting grandfather, letting Thomas climb “golden in the heydays of his eyes” — in the golden days of youth. “Heydays” means here the height of Thomas’ youthful vigor, his youthful “prime.” He tells us this happened “once below a time” — a play upon “once upon a time,” used by Thomas to indicate his childhood was felt to be in a place “below” time — outside of it — timeless. We shall watch this interplay between his illusions and the realities of time.
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,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
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.
In the second stanza, Thomas emphasizes by repetition: In stanza one he said he was “young and easy.” In stanza two it becomes “green and carefree.” Now he repeats Time as a benevolent male figure who let Thomas “play and be golden.” And he was, he says, “green and golden,” young and fresh and bright and precious. As he was princely and lordly in the first stanza, in the second he is “famous” and singing — he is happy in this youthful paradise, in which time seems a kind and merciful figure. The bawling of calves, the barking of foxes, the ringing of the church bells combine to make a music expressing a world that is peaceful, joyous and holy — “the sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams.” Keep in mind that the sabbath is a day of rest from labor, and Thomas uses it to indicate a seemingly everlasting tranquility. We feel the slow passage of green and golden days that seem a part of eternity. The streams are “holy” because everything in that childhood world is mysteriously “holy.”
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
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.
Thomas uses words in unexpected ways, but we understand very clearly what he means when he says “all the sun long” — all the day long — only here the sun becomes a manifestation of time that seems ever-fresh and unending and un-aging. Of his life at that time, he says, “It was running, it was lovely…it was air and playing,” evoking the great energy and joy of childhood. Even fire was “green as grass.”
Then came the transition to the peace and forgetfulness of night, a passage like riding into sleep and dreams when, “under the simple stars,” waking consciousness would fade as though “owls were bearing the farm away.” And again there is the sense of holiness, when “blessed among stables” Thomas would hear, dream-like, the nightjars “all the moon long” (for “all the night long”).
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,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
Thomas tells us that each morning was like the first morning of Creation. He would return to waking consciousness and find the farm, gone during the night, come back “like a wanderer white with dew,” the cock that cries the morning on his shoulder. Not at all a prosaic statement like, “I woke on the farm and heard the rooster on the fence crowing.”
Again Thomas presents us with images of light and freshness: “It was all shining, /It was Adam and maiden.” That repeats his previous notion that each day was like the first day of Edenic creation. The sun never aged, but was continually born afresh: “The sun grew round that very day.”
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Thomas speaks here of “the sun born over and over,” which seems in direct contradiction to his earlier mention of “the sun that is young once only.” The solution is that by “born over and over” he is referring to the actual individual days of his childhood, while by “the sun that is young once only” he is referring to his childhood as an entire period. The sun of childhood is “young once only,” and then childhood with its bright, golden light is gone forever.
And notably, in this stanza Thomas introduces the first hint that all is not well. He repeats his feeling of high status, that he was “honoured among foxes.” He tells us he was “happy as the heart was long” under the “sun born over and over,” — as the seemingly endless days passed, each one fresh and new — but he tells us, abruptly, that he ran “heedless” — unaware of something of great significance behind it all. And then he presents us, clearly and simply, with the serpent in the garden, with the discovery that death is, even in Arcadia:
“…nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace…”
“Nothing I cared at my sky-blue trades.” By those words, Thomas indicates he was occupied with his childish activities and play beneath the blue sky — “at my sky-blue trades.” And so did not heed what was gradually happening. Like all children, he thought youth and its freshness were eternal, but he has a stunning realization here. He is to fall out of the apparent grace that was given him, he is to lose Eden. That is to be repeated with bitter painfulness in the following stanza:
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
By “lamb-white days” he again paints with a broad, impressionistic brush as he did with “sky-blue trades” Here he indicates the youthfulness, innocence, and purity (“lamb-white” of the days of his childhood. Thomas realizes that while he ran and played beneath the sun that always seemed reborn, or slept beneath the moon that seemed always rising, it happened eventually that he realized Time was leading him by the hand to the loft and sleep, and that when he woke childhood would have ended, that he would wake not to another day fresh and new and white with dew, but instead would wake to “the farm fled forever from the childless land” — his childhood’s end, the loss of innocence, and the knowledge of the real state of things in this transitory world — “Nevermore.”
And Thomas finishes with the lines that almost bring tears to one’s eyes, the realization that he had been foolish and naive, that even while he was young and happy and seemed to be the favored child of Time, it was not so. I shall not add any emphatic marks to these last lines, because in them you will see the key points of the poem all brought together in the final truth: that even while he was young and fresh and happy and heedless and rejoicing, Time held him captive and dying, in spite of his freshness, joy and innocence that seemed as free and flowing as the sounding sea:
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.
Those last three lines are engraved on a stone in Cwmdonkin Park in Swansea, Wales, near Thomas’ childhood home.
“Dylan,” by the way, is a Welsh name correctly pronounced “Dullan,” but Thomas preferred the English pronunciation of his first name, with the “y” like the “i” in “still.”
As for the title and setting of the poem, it is interesting (but not essential) to know that though Thomas lived as a child in the city of Swansea, Wales, he spent considerable time in his youth with relatives who lived in a farmhouse near the village of Llangain, in Carmarthenshire, Wales. The name of that farm was “Fernhill.”
If you found this posting interesting, you may wish to read Part II of it as well: