Poetry Sunday: Fern Hill

For my northern hemisphere readers, the full flush of summer has arrived. In honor of the season, I’ve picked an appropriate poem for this installment of Poetry Sunday: the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ idyllic, evocative hymn to nature and childhood, “Fern Hill”, from his 1946 collection Deaths and Entrances.

Born in 1914, Dylan Thomas was named in honor of his uncle, a Unitarian minister. He moved to London in 1934 and that same year published his first volume of poetry, 18 Poems, which was highly acclaimed. A sought-after speaker, he frequently gave readings of his work both in person and on the radio: both his poetry and also scripts and plays such as Under Milk Wood. He was excused from military service in World War II on account of chronic pulmonary illness, but witnessed the Blitz firsthand while living in London. He recounted the experience in a poignant poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London“, which reveals the author’s freethought sympathies: “After the first death, there is no other.” As Ian Lancashire puts it in his analysis of the poem, “Without relying on religious belief in personal salvation or an afterlife, Thomas represents death consolingly as part of life” (source).

Thomas’ poems are luminous, dense with imagery, rich with brilliant detail and metaphor. During his life and after, he was internationally acclaimed. His deservedly most famous work, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, was written for his father, who was dying of cancer. Like “Refusal”, it does not appeal to an afterlife for consolation, but rather calls upon us to face death with dignity and defiance in this world. Thomas died in 1953 at the age of 39; his death was generally supposed to be the consequence of alcoholism, but evidence surfaced in 2004 indicating it may have been a result of complications from pneumonia.

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.

Read the rest.

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