BROOKS TOO BROAD FOR LEAPING, FIELDS WHERE ROSES FADE

Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted down — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a double meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.

David

ERNEST DOWSON AND THE PERPETUAL CHILD: LA JEUNESSE N’A QU’UN TEMPS

In a previous posting we took a look at the poetry of Ernest Dowson, who sadly lost himself in drink and other excesses and died at age 32.  It puts us in mind of Dylan Thomas, who similarly was afflicted by alcoholism and died at 39.  That should be a warning to those who are sensitive souls to avoid alcohol completely.

We might also note that a strong theme in both Dowson and Dylan Thomas was a focus on youth as a golden time from which they did not really want to part.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, developed the theory of the Puer Aeternus, the “eternal child,” — we might also think of it as “perpetual child” — a man who cannot quite make the psychological transition from childhood to genuine adulthood, and consequently lives life in a reckless and often dangerous way, and frequently dies young as a consequence.  Such people behave as though they are invulnerable.

A classic example in literature, according to Jung’s student Marie-Louise von Franz, is the character of the Little Prince,  in the the popular story of the same name by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — an author and adventurer who also drank too much and took too many risks, and again died rather young, at age 44.

I had my own experience of a Puer Aeternus in a young man I met many years ago. I recall how together we went to see Crater Lake, in Oregon, which is a very deep and  blue lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano.  There was a protective wall marking off the viewing area at the high edge of the crater, but this young fellow climbed over the wall and walked some distance down a slope of loose rubble just above a sheer drop of several hundred feet into the caldera.  When I saw him climbing over the wall onto that unstable and slippery edge, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I urged him again and again to come back, but he refused; he had to go peek over, closer to the very edge.  Fortunately he survived that day, and managed to climb back to safety (but only after he had done as he wished) without falling to his death.  But this risky behavior, I gradually found as I got to know him better, manifested in other ways in his life as well, and within about three years he was dead.  I always think of him whenever I hear the term Puer Aeternus.

This poem by Ernest Dowson shows us a view of life through the eyes of such a person.  It is titled in French: La Jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps.  It means literally, “Youth Has But One Time.”  In other words, youth only happens once, never to be repeated.  That is the constant refrain of this poem:

Swiftly passes youth away
Night is coming, fades the day,
All things turn to sombre grey

This reminds one of the beginning of the poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici:

How beautiful is youth
Which nonetheless is fleeting…

Notice how Dowson sees nothing between the time of youth and the time of death.  Youth quickly passes, only to be replaced by the end of day (the end of life) and death (All things turn to sombre grey).

Pass the cup and drink, friends, deep
Roses upon roses heap,
Soon it will be time to sleep.

This is precisely the attitude of the “Eternal Child”;  youth is short and already passing, so, as is said in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Soon it will be time to sleep).  And we know what this life of excess did for and to Dowson.

Man, poor man, is born to die,
Love and all things fair will fly;
Fill the cup and drain it dry.

This is the same “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” sentiment, and it is repeated in the next two stanzas:

Make ye merry, while ye may;
Snatch the sweetness of the day,
Pluck life’s pleasures while they stay.

When our youth has taken flight,
When the day is lost in night,
There can be no more delight.

Then comes the last stanza, a rather black and bleak drinking toast:

Here’s a glass to memory
Here’s to death and vanity,
Here’s a glass to you and me.

The memory of youth and happiness, the anticipation of death, the realization that all of life seems pointless and vain, and that all of this applies “to you and me” — such hopelessness is the despairing attitude of the perpetual child, the Puer Aeternus, who like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up — but who, unlike Peter Pan, has to try to live in the real world, but cannot adjust.

It is a sad tale, and a caution that we should learn to recognize that there is life after youth.  If one does not learn this in good time, it is all too easy to fall into the hedonistic and fatalistic trap that caught Dowson and has similarly caught many other sensitive young people who have trouble making the transition from youth to adulthood.

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David

OVER THE SEA TO SKYE

Constantine Cavafy has a poem called simply Ithaka, one of his historical pieces in which advice is given to a traveller setting out on the journey to Ithaka — and the advice is “Hope that the road is long.” The point of the poem is that what is gained from a journey is in the voyaging, not in the arriving — and that when one does arrive as an old man (or woman, we may add) — one may find the goal achieved to be less than what was gained in the traveling to achieve it.

Of course this is a metaphor for the journey of life. You will find the poem here:
http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?id=74&cat=1

In his Verginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote,

Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.

Stevenson is the author of a poem of the category I like to call an “old man’s poem,” though of course there are “old woman’s poems” as well. In it he looks back on youth. It is a pleasant poem to read, full of the freshness of youth, and one can almost see and feel the prow of the swift boat breaking the waves into salt spray — glittering drops of sunlight.

(Skye with the Western Isles in the distance — photo by Fr. Ronald Campbell)

The islands mentioned — Skye, Mull, Rum, and Eigg — are all in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.

OVER THE SEA TO SKYE

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

There is another poem — not by Stevenson — that also has the words “Over the Sea to Skye,” but it is about the escape of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in Scottish history, and that one is not quite so interesting for my purposes here.

David

TO SEE THE CHERRY HUNG WITH SNOW

I have always been very fond of the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman.  He is not a verbal fireworks poet like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He is more straightforward, with a sense of transience remarkably like that of the Japanese hokku writers.

Housman told the truth.  Unlike Mary Carolyn Davies, who tells us that “pain rusts to beauty,” Housman had a more realistic view of things.  He would not say that like iron, pain rusts to beauty.  He would say that as the blade of a knife is dulled by time and wear, so the sorrows of life may be dulled by the passage of  days and years.  In his poem The Rain it Streams on Stone and Hillock, he says to someone who has died,

Tomorrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And he adds,

Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

But the dulling of sorrow by time does not lessen the pain of the human condition:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

So Housman knows life; he knows the brevity of youth; he knows that what is will alter, whether it be joy or pain.  And that leads us to one of his best-known poems, Loveliest of Trees:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

 Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

First, let’s go though the poem part by part, so that we may be certain we understand the poet’s phrasing and vocabulary:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman tells us the cherry is the loveliest of trees; the cherry trees stand all along the woodland road, and they are covered in (“wearing”) white (white blossoms) for Eastertide.  White, for those who have lost touch with religious custom, was associated with Easter.  “Eastertide” means here Easter time — the time of year when Easter happens. “Tide” is an old word meaning “time.”

Many Americans misunderstand “woodland ride” as meaning that Housman must have been astride a horse or sitting in a carriage, but in British usage, a woodland ride was just a rural road, a reasonably wide and worn pathway through a wood.  It comes from the days before cars, when a path broad enough for horse riding was called a “ride.”  But riding is not actually intended by the term.  So we may assume that the poet is walking leisurely and thoughtfully along a woodland road where many lovely cherry trees are in bloom at Easter time.

Next, Housman does something surprising in poetry: he talks mathematics, and his mathematics are based on what to “church folk” in those days was common knowledge gleaned from the Bible, from Psalm 90:10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

So Housman reckons,

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Housman (or rather the young man speaking through Housman) tells us that out of his life, out of his threescore (a score is twenty, so threescore is sixty) years plus ten years, meaning out of the seventy years allotted to him for his lifespan, twenty will not come again.  So we know he is a young man in his twentieth year, a young man of twenty.  For him, those twenty years are “past” — at least almost — and will never come again.  Subtract those twenty (a score) years from the seventy years of a man’s lifespan, and that leaves our fresh young man only fifty years of life.  He tells, us, with bittersweet good humor,

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Realizing that he only has fifty more years in which to live, our young man, who obviously loves things of beauty, knows nonetheless that they are transient, impermanent, as he himself is.  So he tells us that the fifty springs he has ahead of him are little enough time (“little room”) in which to look at such lovely things as the blossoms of spring; therefore he is going to take the time to walk through the woodlands while the cherries are covered in white bloom, to “see the cherry hung with snow” (the “snow,” of course, is the white blossoms).

There is a rather odd misunderstanding of the last line of the poem flitting about on the Internet, asserting that by “to see the cherry hung with snow,” Housman meant he would not only go in spring to see the blossoms, but also in winter to see snow on the cherry trees.  It should be obvious, however, that he was simply using a descriptive metaphor:  snow = white blossoms.  How do we know this?  First from the poem itself:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The first line tells us: “And since to look at things in bloom….”  Winter snow is not “things in bloom,” and that is obviously the subject.  We may add that a cherry tree in winter does not hold snow on its bare limbs luxuriantly, as an evergreen tree does.  So a cherry in winter is not a stunning sight like a cherry covered with spring bloom.

We also know this from Housman’s use of the snow = white blossoms equation in the first verse of his poem #XXXIX from A Shropshire Lad:

‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

We may also turn to other English poets for similar usage — first to  Robert Bridges for the snow = white blossoms equation, in his poem Spring Goeth All in White:

Spring goeth all in white,
   Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
   O’er heaven the white clouds stray:

White butterflies in the air:
   White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
   Scatter their snow around.

“Milk-white may” in the first line means white hawthorn blossoms.  “Prank” in the sixth line means “adorn,” “decorate,” “ornament.”

We may also take a quick look at the first lines of Springtime in Cookham Dean, by Cecil Roberts:

How marvellous and fair a thing
It is to see an English Spring,
He cannot know who has not seen
The cherry trees at Cookham Dean,
who has not seen the blossom lie
Like snowdrifts ‘gainst a cloudless sky
And found the beauty of the way
Through woodlands odorous with may…. 

Again, “may” in the last line means hawthorn blossoms, not the month.

But back to Housman.  There is, as I said, a kind of bittersweet humor in this verse.  One might call the poem a young man’s “apology for his use of time,” his response to someone accusing him of “slacking.”  But Housman knew that what would really be wasted was the all-too-brief beauty of the cherry trees in blossom along the woodland road (the woodland ride), and so knowing that life is brief, he gives us this little argument for appreciating things of beauty, for seizing the day, complete with the mathematics to back it up.

Housman was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and particularly a professor of Latin.  One might therefore think him dry as dust, all endless conjugations and grammar and “Mr. Arbuthnot, please translate line three on page 37,” but obviously he had poetry in his soul and he understood the brevity of life and the sweetness of spring.

There is an odd kinship between this poem and Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  But we have the feeling that the latter is a mature man’s poem, while Loveliest of Trees is a young man’s poem.

David


DYLAN THOMAS: FERN HILL (part II)

In my last posting, I discussed the overall meaning of the Dylan Thomas poem Fern Hill, and I hope readers now find it no longer mystifying.  It is, as I said, about childhood’s end, and how youth passes never to return.  Unfortunately the poem proved rather prophetic for Thomas, who lost himself in alcoholism and died of pneumonia, aged 39.

Today, having already discussed the basic meaning, I would like to take a look at the methods by which Thomas made Fern Hill so effective and memorable in spite of — or rather because of — its impressionistic style.

First, let’s take a look at how important repetition is to it.  Certain words (and forms of a word) are found again and again in the poem, the most common being “green,” which is repeated seven times, and “time” also seven times. Also frequent are “golden,” found four times, and “sun,” four times, and “house” four times.  Then come three repetitions each of “young” and “happy.”  we find “easy” twice; “lovely” twice; “honoured” twice; “light” twice, “moon” twice, and “white” twice.

We also see repetition through use of similar words: “happy”; “gay”;  “carefree” — and different forms of the same word: “play/playing”; “rode/riding” “sang/singing.”

If we widen our focus, we see families of words related in meaning:  “light,” “sun,” “shining,” “golden,” and “morning.”  We take our focus even wider, seeing the  repetitive harmony of words indicating beginnings: “morning,” “birth/born,” “Adam and maid,” (first man and woman in Christian myth), “young.”  And we find groups such as “honoured,” “lordly,” “prince,” “famous,” and “praise.”

All such repetitions contribute greatly to the overall effect and to the chief contrast in the poem between “green” — the word of youth and freshness — and “time,” the word and name of youth’s undoing.

Other elements we should notice are the pleasant repetitions in phrasing, for example:

Now as I was young and easy…
And as I was green and carefree…
Oh as I was young and easy…

and

Golden in the mercy of his means…
Golden in the heydays of his eyes…
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means…

and

All the moon long…
All the sun long…
And happy as the heart was long…

and

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days…
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades…

and

In the sun that is young once only…
And the sun grew round that very day…
In the sun born over and over…
In the moon that is always rising…

Added to these is the effect of other internal rhythms, which I pair here by the same enclosing marks:

{Sang} to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sa+bb+ath {rang} /slowly/
In the pe+bb+les of the /holy/streams.

Sang/rang
Sabbath/pebbles
Slowly/holy

One could carry our examination on to the frequent alliteration (repetition of beginning consonant sounds) and consonance (repetition of the same consonant sounds, whether at the beginning or elsewhere in a word) in such lines as;

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman….

and

I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

All of these usages combine to make a remarkable poem that relies for its impressionistic effect on the mixture of repeated sounds, repeated rhythms,  and related images repeated in variations.

We may sum up the poem by saying that it represents the inherent conflict between youth and time represented in the frequency of the words we discover, through it, to be opposite: “green” and “time.”

The poem shows the heedless joy of the boy Thomas, thinking the happy, golden days are eternal, not realizing that Time — personified in the poem — gives the joys of youth only “in the mercy of his means.”

Now what does this key phrase “mercy of his means” signify?  One’s means are the instruments or methods used to achieve one’s ends — the means to an end.  And the end brought about by Time is aging and death and loss of youth and innocence.  The mercy of his (Time’s) means lies in allowing Thomas the boy to spend his happy, youthful days heedless and unaware — for a brief, golden while — of this bitter reality.  In that at least, Time is merciful to him.

That is why Thomas finishes the poem with the painful, overwhelming revelation:

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.

There it is, the great paradox:  “Time held me green and dying.”  No matter to Time that Thomas “sang in his chains like the sea.”

So, dear reader, if you grasp the meaning of “Time held me green and dying,” you grasp the poem.  “Green” is youth and freshness, The childhood of Thomas; but even while he is young and fresh and youthful, Thomas later sees, looking back, that he was already dying — simultaneously green and dying.  It is like the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  It is a theme Thomas repeats in another poem, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

You should now easily understand those lines, having experienced what Thomas meant through Fern Hill. The same force that drives the sap through the stalk to make the blossom is the force that ages and kills us.  Time holds us green and dying.  It is no accident that we find the word “green” significant in both poems.

“I sang in my chains like the sea.”  What does that mean?  Here we must not be too literal, but must rather get the overall sense of what Thomas wants to convey.  The sea is bound by its rocky shores; Thomas is bound by the inevitability of change and death.  His singing is an expression of the overflowing joy of his youth; his childhood was a song of happiness and rejoicing.  Yet even though his “singing” is as filled with happiness and vitality as the sea is filled with — “sings” with — sounding waves and vigor and motion, and even though he expresses only great happiness through his being, Time is already killing him — “Killing me softly.”  His “chains” are visible to him only in retrospect, when looking back on his childhood he realizes that he was already chained by the human condition, by inevitable aging and ultimate death.  Earlier he thought he was free; now he realizes he was chained.  He had the illusion of freedom without the reality.  Though young — “green” — he was already dying — “green and dying,” in spite of his happiness in those lost days.

One could spend much more time in analysis and discussion of this poem, but now that you have the key to unlock it, better just to read it, to hear Thomas singing in his chains like the sea.

FERN HILL

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.

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.

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.

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.

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,
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.

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.

David

CHILDHOOD’S END: DYLAN THOMAS AND FERN HILL

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:

FERN HILL

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:
https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/dylan-thomas-fern-hill-part-ii/

David