SOUND AND MEANING
IN DYLAN THOMAS'S POETRY
THELMA LOUISE BAUGHAN MURDY
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
THELMA LOUISE BAUGHAN MURDY
I wish to express my appreciation to the members of the
supervisory committee, who read the manuscript and made valuable
suggestions: Dr. Stephen F. Fogle, Dr. John T. Fain, Dr. T. Walter
Herbert, and Dr. John R. Spencer. I am deeply indebted to Dr.
Ants Oras for the combination of kindness and criticism which make
for an outstanding research director.
My other sources of assistance and encouragement were numer-
ous and varied. I am grateful indeed to the Southern Fellowships
Fund, for without its support I could not have undertaken the
research project. Professor John Malcolm Brinnin, Professor Gene
Baro, Professor Daniel G. Hoffman, Mr. Lloyd Frankenberg, Dr. Arthur
L. Klein, Professor W. T. Weathers, Professor Clifton C. Hill, and
Mr. James E. Hansen, among others, contributed important information
to the study. The staff of the University of Florida Library--
particularly those connected with the Interlibrary Loan Department--
helped make possible the annotated bibliography.
I am above all appreciative of my husband's understanding,
TO MAMA. AND DADDY
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . iii
LIST OF APPENDICES . . vi
INTRODUCTION . . . 1
CHAPTER I . . . 17
CHAPTER II . . . 49
CHAPTER III . . . 100
CONCLUSION . . . 126
A THOMAS DISCOGRAPHY . . 170
Record Readings by Dylan Thomas . 170
Recordings of Thomas's Work read by Others 173
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . 177
Primary Sources: Works by Dylan Thomas . 177
Books and Monographs . .. 178
Articles, Reviews, and Memoirs . 185
Special Issues and Groups of Articles
on Dylan Thomas ................ 203
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . 206
LIST OF APPENDICES
I Examination of the Problem of Pitch Analysis 132
II Graphs of Striking Power, Tone, and Pitch, in
"Death shall have no dominion,"
"In my Craft or Sullen Art," and
"Do not go gentle into that good night" 158
III Alphabetized Index of Dylan Thomas's
Collected Poems 1934-1952 . 155
IV Thomas's Reading and Recording Itinerary in America 159
Over the years, criticism of Dylan Thomas's poetry has generally
emphasized either its sound or its meaning. On the one hand, critics
who disparage Thomas contend that sound dominates his poetry almost to
the exclusion of any precise meaning. John Wain, for example, comments
that a set of meanings can be extracted from Thomas's poems but that it
is doubtful whether or not Thomas really cared much about any precise
meaning as long as the sound of the poem satisfied him.1 Even more
vitriolic in his condemnation of Thomas's poetry is Robert Graves,
Dylan Thomas was drunk with melody, and what the words
were he cared not. He was eloquent, and what cause he was
pleading, he cared not. He kept musical control of the
reader without troubling about the sense.2
On the other hand, critics like Elder Olson and Derek Stanford, who
admire and defend Thomas, attempt expositions of the meaning of his
poems. Few studies other than the excellent articles by William T.
Moynihan try to relate the sound and meaning in Thomas's poetry. The
purpose of this study is to submit analyses of certain aspects of the
sound pattern in twenty-eight selected and representative examples of
1See "Dylan Thomas: A Review of his Collected Poems," in
Preliminary Essays (New York, 1957), p. 182.
The Crowning Privilege: Collected Essays on Poetry (New York,
1956), pp. 138-139.
Dylan Thomas's poetry and to relate these aspects of sound to the mean-
ing of his poetry. It is important to emphasize, however, that the
study does not pretend to be absolutely conclusive.
All poetry involves auditory discrimination. Whether or not
sound is emphasized in a particular poem, still it is an integral part
of the poem. To understand both the sound and the meaning of a poem,
Thomas felt, it should be read silently under conditions that allow
the full concentrated time for study and assessment and, whenever
possible, be read orally (or at least be read silently as if one were
hearing it). Silent reading is private reading, and oral reading is
often public reading. In this connection, Thomas said that the printed
page is the place in which to examine the works of a poem, the plat-
form the place in which to give the poem the works.4 Upon other occa-
sions Thomas more seriously expressed his belief in the importance of
oral reading of poetry. In a B.B.C. broadcast of 1946, he defined
memorable words-in-cadence which move and excite me emotion-
ally. And, once you've got the hang of it, it should always
be better when read aloud than when read silently with the
Six years later, in a conference held by Thomas with students at the
University of Utah, he commented upon the value of oral reading in
3See "Dylan Thomas on Reading his Poetry: introduction to a
poetry reading," Mademoiselle, XLII (July, 1956), 37.
5Dylan Thomas, James Stephens, and Gerald Bullett, "On poetry:
A Discussion," Encounter, III (November, 1954), 23.
helping the listener to interpret the meaning of the poem. As Thomas
further said, oral reading of poetry brings the listener closer to the
poet. It follows, then, that a poet's reading of his own poems usu-
ally brings one closest to the poet and to his intended emphases and
meanings of the poems.
As an oral reader of poetry--his own and that of others--Thomas
was superb. In his reading as well as in his writing of poetry, Thomas
concealed his craft in his art. Although he had an acute sense of
timing, volume, expression, and incantatory gestures, to the listener
his performances seemed sheer spontaneous melody. To an unusually
high degree he was able to communicate a poem's emotion and meaning to
an audience. But these talents carried an inherent weakness (which he
recognized): he was unable to read well poetry that is restrained and
intellectual. Most of the time, however, Thomas was free to choose
the selections he read, and he chose to read only the poets he liked.
"And when I read aloud the poems of modern poets I like very much,"
he said, "I try to make them alive from inside. I try to get across
what I feel, however wrongly, to be the original impetus of the poem.
I am a practicing interpreter, however much of a flannel-tongued
one-night-stander."6 Although Thomas asserted that he disliked read-
ing his own poems in public, his readings of them were even more an
interpretation and re-creation than were his readings of other poets'
works. Perhaps Thomas's hesitancy to read his own poems stemmed from
"Dylan Thomas on Reading his Poetry: introduction to a poetry
his realization of the dangers of a poet's reading his own works.7)
In introducing a reading of his own poems he once explained:
[But the danger] for what a reader-aloud of his own
poems so often does, is to mawken or melodramatise them,
making a single, simple phrase break with the fears or
throb with the terrors from which he deludes himself the
phrase has been born.
There is the other reader, of course, who manages, by
studious flatness, semidetachment, and an almost condescend-
ing undersaying of his poems, to give the impression that
what he really means is: Great things, but my own.8
Thomas further remarked that the suspected weaknesses of a poem are
often confirmed when the author reads his work. Despite his concern
for the problems involved, Thomas did read well many of his own poems.
As John Lehmann said, with Thomas "more than with any other poet of
our time, the voice heightened and illuminated the power of the word."9
But not only does oral reading contribute to the understand-
ing and appreciation of poetry, it can also contribute to the actual
7Thomas was certainly sensitive in his criticism of other people
reading his poetry. Once when a verse-speaking choir recited "Ad death
shall have no dominion" to him over the telephone, he described the
reading to Vernon Watkins as "Picked voices picking the rhythm to bits,
chosen elocutionists choosing their own meanings, ten virgins weeping
slowly over a quick line, matrons mooing the refrain, a conductor with
all his vowels planed to the last e." Letters to Vernon Watkins (New
York, 1957), p. 50. (Hereafter this volume will be abbreviated to LVW.)
8Quite Early One Morning (Norfolk, Conn., 1954), p. 167.
9In E. W. Tedlock, Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet
(London, 1960), p. 47.
Thomas is one of the few modern poets to have become known
first through his recordings and only later through his printed poems.
Americans first acclaimed Thomas as a result of his recordings with
Caedmon Publishers. In fact, the struggling new Caedmon company became
successful largely as a result of the popularity of Thomas's readings.
By 1962 the U. S. public had bought 400,000 copies of various record-
ings of Dylan Thomas reading Dylan Thomas.
creation of poetry. As he composed, Thomas read his poetry aloud to
himself, criticized it, and altered it. Although he has been attacked
for "an unbalanced delight in the mere sound of words,"10 he denied
being more interested in sound than in meaning.11 Thomas did not alter
portions of a poem purely for the sake of the sound; his best poetry
reveals more than a mere "lovely gift of the gab." Indeed he once
accused Vernon Watkins of making his criticisms on the basis of sound
rather than of meaning.
I think you are liable, in your criticism of me, to under-
rate the value--or, rather, the integrity, the wholeness--
of what I am saying or trying to make clear that I am say-
ing, and often to suggest alterations or amendments for
purely musical motives.12
And any careful study of the many drafts of Thomas's poems reveals
his keen self-criticism which did not allow sound to dictate meaning.
Although Thomas is not (like T. S. Eliot, for example) an intellectual
poet, his poetry does have meaning. Especially in his later poetry,
the meaning is more mood or emotion than thought. Within this frame-
work, Thomas attempts to balance sound and meaning. For the ideal
relationship between sound and meaning in poetry of the highest excel-
lence follows Pope's famous dictum that "The sound must seem an Echo
to the sense." In such great poetry--among which Thomas's best de-
serves place-sound is a medium of meaning.
10Geoffrey Bullough, The Trend of Modern Poetry (London, 1949),
1See Babette Deutsch, Poetry in Our Time (New York, 1956),
12LVW, p. 66.
In order to show in greater detail the nature of Thomas's
craftsmanship, it is necessary to discuss Thomas's approach to poetic
composition. His method might well be described generally as "pyro-
technical fragmentation." He began composing most poems merely with
a single phrase or line, usually words with a purely emotional premise.
(A clear illustration is the line "I advance for as long as forever is,"
which was the stimulus for the poem "Twenty-four years.") If the phrase
were resonant and pregnant, it suggested another phrase, which rein-
forced and elaborated (primarily by means of images) the original
emotional premise. In this manner, the poem would develop. The whole
process was rather like an explosion of fireworks--the kind that, after
the original explosion, expands into elaborate patterns.
The analogy should not be carried further. Thomas was a slow,
patient craftsman, who tested each phrase over and over, both silently
and orally. As Vernon Watkins attests
He used separate work-sheets for individual lines, sometimes
a page or two being devoted to a single line, while the poem
was gradually built up, phrase by phrase. He usually had before-
hand an exact conception of the poem's length, and he would
decide how many lines to allot to each part of its development.
In spite of the care and power and symmetry of its construction,
he recognized at all times that it was for the sake of divine
accidents that a poem existed at all.13
Because in his working methods Thomas re-copied the entire poem whenever
he made any revision or addition (no matter how minor or major), his
manuscripts are surprisingly numerous for a single poem. That his
13LVW, p. 17.
method of composition became slower with his later poems14 helps ex-
plain why his poetic production declined steadily during his career.
An example is the late poem "Fern Hill," which developed from "more
than two hundred separate and distinct versions of the poem."15
At all times Thomas had the need to feel the effectiveness of
his poetry.16 He wanted a poem "to do more than just to have the ap-
pearance of 'having been created'";17 he wanted it to be a "fresh
imagining."'18 He strived to achieve "the strong, inevitable pulling
that makes a poem an event, a happening, an action perhaps, not a
still-life or experience put down, placed, regulated."19 And in his
best poems Thomas does express incontrovertible, living truths..
Because this study concerns the sound of poetry, because
Thomas himself stressed the importance of oral reading of poetry, and
because an author's own reading of his poetry illuminates its meaning,
the poems under discussion are limited to the twenty-eight poems
15John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America (New York,
1958), p. 125.
16Several examples can readily be cited from Thomas's letters
to Vernon Watkins. In connection with Watkins's criticism of a line
in "Twenty-four years," Thomas said: "And sorry about that bracketed
line in the birthday poem, but, until I can think of something else
or feel, it will have to stay." (LVW, p. 49.) In a similar instance
concerning "Once it was the colour of saying," Thomas explained:
"I see your argument about the error of shape, but the form was con-
sistently emotional and I can't change it without a change of heart."
(LVW, p. 54.)
17LVW, p. 38.
18Ibid., p. 39.
19Ibid., p. 38.
recorded by Thomas and available on commercial records or on the
University of Florida tape. These twenty-eight poems constitute
almost one-third of Thomas's ninety-one Collected Poems.
Thomas's poetic productivity was not equal throughout his
career. The number of years which each poetic period covers is roughly
the same: the first period covers five years, the second period six
years, and the third period seven years. But of the poems later pub-
lished in Collected Poems, Thomas wrote seven times as many in the
first poetic period as he wrote in the third poetic period. More spe-
cifically, in his early poetic period (19553-1938), he published fifty-
four of the poems in Collected Poems; in his middle poetic period
(1959-1945), he published twenty-nine of these poems; and in his late
poetic period (1946-1953), he published only eight of these poems.
Since Thomas was somewhat hesitant about reading his own poetry in
public and since he chose with particular care those selections he
did read, it is not surprising that a higher percentage of the poems
he wrote in his middle and later poetic periods are recorded by him
than poems he wrote in his early poetic period. Quite naturally, he
read those works he judged his best. The poems under consideration in
this study represent about one-fifth of the poems in Collected Poems
which Thomas wrote in his early period, about two-fifths of those he
wrote in his middle period, and three-fourths of those he wrote in his
Each of the three periods of Thomas's poetry shall be described
in greater detail in the chapter devoted to the poems of that period.
It is necessary here to say only that these categories, although valid
as outlines to the development of sound and meaning in Thomas's poetry,
are not designed as watertight compartments. The characteristics of
adjacent periods necessarily overlap. Yet their general validity was
recognized by Thomas himself, as recorded by William York Tindall.20
The three chapters consider, respectively, Thomas's three
poetic periods. The twenty-eight poems under examination are arranged
chronologically by date of revision (where applicable) or by date of
composition.21 The ten poems discussed in the first chapter are:
I "From love's first fever to her plague"
II "Light breaks where no sun shines"
III "If I were tickled by the rub of love"
"IV "Especially when the October wind"-
V "The hand that signed the paper"
VI "Should lanterns shine"
VII "And death shall have no dominion"
VIII "It is the sinners' dust-tongued bell"
-IX "After the Funeral"
X "When all my five and country senses see"
In the second chapter the twelve poems discussed are:
XI "'If my head hurt a hair's foot'"
XII "Once below a time"
XIII "There was a Saviour"
XIV "On the Marriage of a Virgin"
XV "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait"
XVI "The Hunchback in the Park"
XVII "Ceremony After a Fire Raid"
20See "Burning and Crested Song," American Scholar, XXII
(Autumn, 1953), 488-489.
2The chronology follows the listing by Ralph N. Maud in
"Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems: Chronology of Composition," PMLA,
LXXVI (June, 1961), 292-297.
-XVIII "Poem in October"
-XIX "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire,
of a Child in London"
-XX "A Winter's Tale"
XXI "Fern Hill"
XXII "In my Craft or Sullen Art"
The six poems discussed in the third chapter are:
XXIII "In Country Sleep"
XXIV "Over Sir John' s hill"
XXV "In the white giant's thigh"
XXVI "Do not go gentle into that good night"
-XXVIII "Poem on his Birthday"
The poems in the first chapter are representative of Thomas's first
poetic period, those in the second chapter, of his second period, and
those in the third chapter, of his third period.22 The three periods
show Thomas's evolution as a poet.
Various methods of analyzing sound are possible. It was an
original purpose of this study to analyze the twenty-eight poems in
respect to three physical elements of sound: striking power, tone,
The striking power (the relative intensity or dynamic power) is
the capacity of syllables or words to command auditory attention. Like
the analyses of tone and pitch, it was calculated for each syllable of
each poem. The procedure for striking power followed--with some in-
evitable modifications for British English--the acoustic table of
22Appendix III is an alphabetized index of Dylan Thomas's
Collected Poems 1934-1952 which will facilitate the reader in finding
a poem in either the Dent or the New Directions editions. It would
be advantageous for the reader of the commentaries to refer to each
poem as it is discussed.
striking power established by the research of Ernest Robson.25 His
table is based upon the striking powers of the individual sounds of
speech, which were evaluated in syllables whose tone levels and time
durations were constant. The table presents the striking power num-
bers in numerical positions relative to the weakest sound (th), which
is assigned the number 1. Thus the striking power numbers of the
stronger sounds are solely indications of their striking power rela-
tive to th. Each articulated vowel or consonant contributes its own
striking power to the syllable which contains it. Naturally, the
greater the number or density of consonants in a syllable, the greater
its striking power.24 The references in the following chapters to
words of high striking power are to those whose striking power number
is 40 or over.
The tone is the innate "musical" notation of the vowel sounds,
based upon the positions of the mouth in articulating the particular
vowel. For Thomas's pronunciation, the vowel scale listed below was
used. The classification is not a strictly scientific one, but does
arrange the vowels in a continuum (from 15 to 1), beginning with those
pronounced high and toward the front of the mouth, progressing through
those pronounced low to those pronounced high and toward the back of the
mouth. In the case of vowels with a muffled quality (a, A, f, and .)25
23See The Orchestra of the Language (New York, 1959), p. 156
24The account of Robson's method of assessing striking power
derives from the explanations in The Orchestra of the Language,
25For the index to these phonetic symbols, see p. 14.
and of diphthongs, their arrangement depends upon the impression they
produce on the hearer. The total effect, then, is an arrangement in
relative order from clear, thin, bright vowels to darker, richer, more
resonant vowels. For present purposes, it is useful to group together
certain vowels which are similar in the impression they produce on the
hearer. It must be pointed out, however, that technically the sounds
15 i, I M~ e
8 a, A y
The pitch, or relative "musical" notation of the individual
speaker's syllables, was estimated by concentrated and repeated lis-
tenings to each syllable of the recordings of the twenty-eight poems.
Appendix I explains the problems--unsurmountable, in this case--in-
volved in obtaining a more scientific analysis of the pitch patterns.
Patterns of striking power, tone, and pitch were graphed for
the syllables of each of the twenty-eight poems. Contrary to expec-
tation, no distinct and significant correlation between the patterns
26For the index to these phonetic symbols, see p. 14.
characterized the three poetic periods of Thomas's poetry. These sound
patterns reflected the meaning only in a few instances, which will be
pointed out in the pertinent commentaries. Because the results of the
investigation proved mostly negative, graphs of only one poem from each
poetic period will be reproduced (in Appendix II) in illustration of
the method of analysis attempted. It is suggested, however, that
similar studies be undertaken in connection with other poets. A com-
parative analysis of the patterns of striking power, tone, and pitch
in the poetry of contrasted pairs (for example, Thomas and Spender as
compared with Auden and Eliot) might well illuminate the auditory
techniques of so-called romantic and so-called intellectual poets.
The procedure of the present study is to discuss each of the
representative poems from Thomas's three poetic periods in respect to
its characteristic and its unusual auditory elements. Each commentary
takes into consideration two poetic components closely related to sound
(1) prosodic structure--syllabic patterns, stress patterns,
paragraph or stanza formation, line-end word patterns,
distribution of pauses
(2) auditory repetitions and links, especially in arrange-
ments of vowel and consonantal sounds.
Throughout the study, references to vowel and consonantal
sounds use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. The
most frequently used symbols are identified as follows:
The discussion of prosodic structure and auditory repetitions
and links reveals some of the changes in Thomas's poetic style.
Fundamentally, the earlier poetry is staccato in its rhythm and com-
pressed (sometimes obscure) in its meaning; the later poetry is
legato in its rhythm and relatively simple in its meaning. Thomas
referred to his poetry as "the record of my individual struggle from
darkness towards some measure of light," 27 and certainly the meaning
27Quite Early One Morning, p. 188.
of his poetry does progress from the darkness of self-concern and fear
to the light of faith and love. (Perhaps Thomas was expressing his
expanded vision when he wrote--in "Ceremony After a Fire Raid"--that
"Love is the last light spoken.") This study attempts to point out
some of the tendencies which contribute to the general contrast
between the earlier and later poetry--for example, the shift in pho-
netic atmosphere from a striking use of explosives to a more subtle
use of continuants, the shift in structure from relatively end-stopped
units to longer grammatical units, and the shift toward increasingly
intricate and pervasive designs of auditory repetitions and of syllabic
and stress patterns. It is further submitted that Thomas's progress
toward simplicity and lyricism was to some extent a conscious effort.
Through oral reading of poetry on the radio and in lectures, Thomas
came to realize that sound should not dominate one's first impression
of a poem, but that sound and meaning should reinforce each other and
simultaneously affect the reader.
It is not to be thought that the study exhausts the possibil-
ities even of the limited aspects of sound and meaning which are
explored. A complete study would probably be so complex as to break
down under its own machinery. Although scientific methods can be
applied for purposes of analysis, poetry itself is no science.
Formulas cannot dictate poetry of high excellence. When asked for the
rules of poetry, Thomas replied that there weren't any, that a poet
made his own rules, and that the result either was or wasn't poetry.28
28See Caitlin Thomas, Leftover Life to Kill (New York, 1957),
Some of the subtlest and loveliest auditory effects, indeed, escape
analysis. Though Thomas was a dedicated craftsman, he believed poetry
to be ultimately a sublime enigma:
You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically
tick, and say to yourself when the works are laid out
before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes and
rhythms, Yes, this is it, this is why the poem moves me so.
It is because of the craftsmanship. But you're back again
where you began. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes
and gaps in the works of the poems so that something that is
not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.29
It is the purpose here to contribute to the understanding of the
craftsmanship and the appreciation of the genius of Thomas's poetry.
2"Dylan Thomas on Reading his Poetry: introduction to a
poetry reading," 37.
The following chapter discusses ten of the poems from Thomas's
most prolific and experimental period, 19553 to 1959:
I "From love's first fever to her plague"
II "Light breaks where no sun shines"
III "If I were tickled by the rub of love"
IV "Especially when the October wind"
V "The hand that signed the paper"
VI "Should lanterns shine"
VII "And death shall have no dominion"
VIII "It is the sinners' dust-tongued bell"
IX "After the Funeral"
X "When all my five and country senses see"
The chief quality of these poems--in contrast to Thomas's later poems--
is their compressed meaning. Thomas himself best explains his method
of obtaining this impression through the use of conflicting images:
I let an image be made emotionally in me and then apply
to it what intellectual and critical force I possess; let
it breed another; let that image contradict the first; make
of the third image out of the other two together, a fourth con-
tradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal
limits, conflict. The life in any poem of mine cannot
move concentrically round a central image, the life must come
out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another;
and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations,
recreations, destruction, contradictions.
Like the images, the themes of the early poems arise from opposites--
notably, the "womb-tomb" theme. Sound patterns frequently do not
correlate with meaning; when they do, it is most often in only a
phrase or line. And the general auditory pattern is of a staccato
1C. Day-Lewis, The Poetic Image (New York, 1947), p. 122.
rhythm, enhanced by a predominance of striking explosives, by a tend-
ency toward metrical regularity, by characteristically end-stopped
lines, and by obvious rather than subtle auditory repetitions. In V
short, the early poems tend to be compressed and "obscure" in meaning,
striking but obvious in sound.
"From love's first fever to her plague" seems, at a first
glance, as if it might be throughout rather smooth and light in
rhythm. The syllabic pattern is quite irregular; the lines are long
but varied (from four to thirteen syllables); the line-end word pat-
terns reveal no significant assonance or consonance; the paragraph
formation ranges from three to nine lines in a paragraph. In them-
selves these characteristics could contribute to a fluid rhythm.
Other elements, however, combine to make the rhythm predominantly
slow, if not sometimes heavy. The speech-stress patterns2 generally
tend toward the iambic and, in paragraph VI, are almost perfectly
I learnt the verbs of will, and had my secret;
The 'code of 'night tapped on my 'tongue;
What Xhad been'one was 'many'sounding'minded.
The syntactical repetitions (the numerous phrases beginning with
"from" and the phrases "One womb, one mind," "One breast," and "One
sun, one manna") and the echoes ("Shone in my ears the light of
2Throughout the study the speech-stress patterns are based on
Thomas's speech stresses in his recorded readings of his poetry.
sound, / Called in my eyes the sound of light") are obvious auditory
links. There is a high frequency of pauses:3 twenty-two occur within
lines and thirty-eight occur at line ends. Because nearly 80 per
cent of the lines conclude with the finality of a comma or period, it
is not surprising that most of the lines end in weighty words, many of
which are nouns. (Indeed, most of these nouns are stressed monosyl-
lables.) It is interesting to note that every paragraph terminates in
The poem concerns the evolution of a poet from the simplicity
of innocent childhood to the complexity of bewildered adolescence to
the simplicity-in-complexity of mature manhood.4 To a certain extent
the poem's phonetics shift to reinforce the shift in meaning. That is,
the opening paragraphs seem smooth and light when compared with the
slower, heavier, later paragraphs. In the opening paragraphs the
voiced continuants frequently produce a soft, lingering effect; in the
later paragraphs the explosives frequently produce a sharp, clipped
The apparent simplicity of infancy is reflected in the pre-
dominant monosyllables and the simple balance and repetition of the
lines descriptive of man's earliest years. In "All world was one, one
windy nothing," alliteration and assonance are obvious in the five w
3Throughout the study the term "pauses" refers to any punc-
tuation mark in the poetry which designates an interval of silence.
4Such a cyclical theme is common in Thomas, who (like William
Blake) seems to have believed that without contraries there can be no
sounds, three n sounds, two 1 sounds, and three A sounds. The single-
ness of a child's vision is emphasized by the repetition of the word
"one" in his verse as well as in the closing lines of the stanza:
And earth and sky were as one airy hill,
The sun and moon shed one white light.
The simple sound pattern of two internal rhymes within one line ("sun,"
"one" and "white," "light") reinforces the meaning. Part of the melodi-
ousness of the line results from the almost continuous alternation
between vowel (or semi-vowel) and consonant in these two lines. The
exceptions to this alternation are climaxed by the two final stops t
and the initial labial 1 in the strong, slow phrase "white light."
The final lines of stanzas I and II form closely related lines
placed in inverted order:
And earth and sky were as one airy hill,
The sun and moon shed one white light.
The sun was red, the moon was grey,
The earth and sky were as two mountains meeting.
A noteworthy aspect of the sound structure of these four related lines
is that, in the speech-stressed syllables, the patterns of the strik-
ing power and the vowel tone are relatively parallel. Since these
patterns move in the same direction, they reinforce each others
audibility. For "The sun and moon shed one white light" is an emotion-
ally charged line in which the crescendo builds to two final words of
high and almost identical power and of identical tone: "white light."
Stanza I, lines Stanza II, lines
8 and 9 5 and 6
In later paragraphs the complexity of adolescent and adult life
is often echoed in the profusion of explosives, such as in the lines
"The root of tongues ends in a spent-out cancer, / That but a name,
where maggots have their X [cross]." The concept of the slow, painful
process of reaching maturity is reinforced by the assonantal wail in
"wise to the crying thigh." The feelings of harshness of life are
reflected in consecutive stressed monosyllables and the insistent
alliteration of "Need no word's warmth."
Other aspects of the poem also reveal the evolution of the
poet's growth toward consciousness and maturity. Persona references,
for example, are first to "my world" in general, later to "my ears,"
"my eyes," and "my mother," and then directly to "I." These refer-
ences show the poet's progression from the outwardness of childhood to
the inwardness and self-consciousness of adolescence. When the poet
is unconcerned with his own identity and considers the universe as
a single entity ("one windy nothing"), his world is apparently simple;
when he becomes self-conscious and divorces himself from the universe,
his world is complex. Yet in the closing lines the mature poet grad-
ually realizes the wisdom of experience, the simplicity in multiplic-
ity: "one sun, one manna, warmed and fed." Only when he dissolves
himself in the eternity of "the hundred seasons" does the poet recon-
struct and comprehend the true simplicity.
In general, then, the sound in "From love's first fever to her
plague" reflects the meaning in that the impression of the opening
paragraphs is of relative simplicity and the impression of the later
paragraphs is of relative complexity. In the opening paragraphs con-
tinuants and vowels are more prominent, and in the later paragraphs
explosives and consonantal clusters become more conspicuous.
"Light breaks where no sun shines" is a deliberate and forceful
poem. Its five stanzas are composed of six lines each, in regular
syllabic verse with a sustained pattern:
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 6 10 4 10 4 10
II 6 10 4 10 4 10
III 6 10 4 10 4 10
IV 6 10 4 10 4 10
V 6 10 4 10 6 10
Although no definite pattern of speech stresses appears, scattered
occurrences of consecutive stressed monosyllables seem outstanding.
And, stressed or unstressed, the words of the poem are, in about nine
out of ten cases, monosyllables. Another factor contributing to the
forcefulness of "Light breaks" is that one out of every six syllables
is of high striking power. No other poem under consideration has pro-
portionately so many syllables of high striking power. And these syl-
lables occur, interestingly enough, in an initial position in one out
of every three lines and in a terminal position in one out of every
three lines. As for the pauses in the poem, three-fourths of the lines
are end-stopped (with all the paragraphs ending with a period). Such
a balanced and emphasized structure helps create an insistent rhythmic
As to his method of composition, Thomas might well have com-
posed the poem around the phrase "where no sun shines." The method of
building a poem of music and meaning from a single phrase was a practice
not uncommon to Thomas. Witness his statements in Letters to Vernon
Watkins concerning the following phrases: "when I woke the dawn spoke"
(the inspiration for the poem by that title),5 "I advance for as long
as forever is" (the inspiration for "Twenty-four years"),6 and "desire-
less familiar" (the inspiration for "To Others than You").7 Further
evidence of the possibility that the phrase "where no sun shines" may
have formed the nucleus for "Light breaks" is the fact that only a
month before writing this poem Thomas had used similar word-order in
two phrases in "From love's first fever to her plague": "When no mouth
stirred" (I, 5) and "who Need no word's warmth" (V,6).
Such a hypothesis as to Thomas's method of composition probably
cannot be substantiated, since, according to Ralph N. Maud, the MS.
/ version for "Light breaks where no sun shines" shows few if any var-
iants. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that the phrase is the syn- Jdntk
/ tactical basis of the poem. In stanza I occur "where no sun shines,"
"Where no sea runs," and "where no flesh decks the bones." Thereafter
the repetitions occur with diminishing frequency: in Stanza II, "Where
ne-seedFstifs: and "Where no wax is"; in stanza IV, "Where no cold is."
These consecutive stressed monosyllables hammer a steady, strong rhythm.
Like the syntactical repetitions, other aspects of the organ-
ization of this poem are also more deliberate and obvious in the open-
ing stanzas than in the succeeding ones. For example, in both stanza I
and stanza II lines 1, 5, 4, and 6 end in a z sound; in the succeeding
stanzas a final z or s sound at the end of the line occurs irregularly.
Throughout the poem a large percentage of the words terminate with a
sibilant. Indeed such a prominence of sibilants may reveal that Thomas's
early experimentation with correlating or contrasting sound and meaning
is not always successful.8 In an informally taped recording (made in
Gainesville, Florida, in 1950, with only his host, Gene Baro, present)
Thomas mars this poem with four small misreadings, all involving the
80ne successful use of the sibilants--in conjunction with the t
sound--is discussed below.
final s sound." Naturally such minor misreading are insignificant
in themselves, but they do indicate that even Thomas himself found the
frequent occurrence of sibilants somewhat confusing.
The variety of relationships among the line-end words merits
attention. The predominance of final consonance (of sibilants) has
already been discussed. Initial consonance occurs in "heart," "heads";
"rounds," "robes." Assonance occurs in "shines," "tides," "light";
"bone," "robes," "globes"; "unpin," "lids." Initial and final conso-
nance occur in "stirs," "stars." Full rhyme occurs in "robes,"
"globes"; "die," "eye." Of the internal auditory effects one of the
most suggestive occurs in the line "Divining in a smile the oil of
tears." With assonance linked with approximate rhyme, the phrase
glides smoothly. The final word, "tears," is the only important word
omitted from this linkage, and its isolation helps to point out the
semantic contrast between "smile" and "tears."
According to most interpretations, the chief concern of "Light
breaks" iz-sexual activity which leads to the conception of new life.
The prospect of new life "where no sun shines" seems viewed with hope,
even though death is implicit in life.10 But in the final line the
point of emphasis shifts suddenly; Thomas refers here not to the ful-)
filled but to the unfulfilled sexual activity--i.e., the "waste
9Thomas reads "seas run" for Collected Poems "sea runs,"
"socket" for C.P. "sockets," "limits" for C.P. "limit," and "allot-
ment" for C.P. "allotments."
l0That line 5--"And blood jumps in the sun"-concludes this
main thematic development of the poem is accentuated by the fact that
it is the only irregularity in the syllabic pattern of the poem. It
is lengthened from four to six syllables.
allotments" or sperm which will not fertilize. Over these the sun
(the source of life and death) will never rise; "the dawn halts."
Because it bears the concluding and perhaps unexpected observation of
the poem, the final line is extremely important:
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.
The strong emotional effect of the lines is influenced by the skillful
use of combinations of s and t. For, sound reinforces meaning as the
line itself halts with harsh consonantal clusters: "waste," "allot-
ments," "halts." Moreover, the spondee of the monosyllables "dawn
halts"--especially since it follows the long, relatively fluid "allot-
ments"--creates a marked staccato rhythm. And the sharp fall of the
tone of the line and the assonance of the two final words ("dawn
halts") contribute to the singular effectiveness of the poem's con-
In "If I were tickled by the rub of love" the poet wonders
what should be the ultimate consideration in his life and poetry.
Basically the treatment of the theme revolves upon a serious pun.
With reference to Hamlet's fifth soliloquy, the "rub" is the obstacle
causing fear of death. But Thomas, like the Queen in Richard II, feels
that "the world is full of rubs." He is concerned with a rub (a fric-
tion) that will tickle one to forget, at least for the present, the
problem of death.
In the opening stanza the phonetic atmosphere revolves around
the predominant consonant of the thematically most important word:
"tickle." The explosive k and its cognate sound g echo throughout the
stanza: "rooking," "girl," "Broke," "breaking," "cattle," "calve,"
"scratch." Other explosives emphasize the auditory links: "rub,"
"side," "bandaged," "red," "set," "apple," "flood," "bad," "blood,"
"spring." These consonants--particularly the unvoiced ones (p, t, k)--
produce a clipped, staccato effect.
In succeeding stanzas Thomas implies that if true love existed
for him he would be able to meet the prospect of death. Since the
world is imperfect ("half the devil's and my own"), perfect love seems
unattainable, and the forces of decay and death continuously worm their
way into life. As Thomas expresses it with a brilliant and character-
istic pun on "quick" as "life" or "living":11
I sit and watch the worm beneath my nail
Wearing the quick away.12
The poet understands that this life-in-death situation is true reality,
"the only rub that tickles." Yet his conclusion is remarkably hopeful,
for he decides that in his life and poetry he "would be tickled by the
rub that is: / Man be my metaphor." In this final phrase the skillful
use of alliteration (in "Man," "my," "metaphor") and of a polysyllable
as a line-end word contributes to a strong and memorable closing.
11Such a meaning of "quick" is familiar in the phrase "the
quick and the dead."
12A more obvious instance of Thomas's use of "quick" as "liv-
ing" is in "A Winter's Tale," VI, 4, where he substitutes for the
proverbial "in the dead of night," "in the quick of night."
This poem, I feel, is not among Thomas's more successful pieces.
Although several phrases have brilliance, the depth of meaning and the
consistency of approach throughout the poem leave something to be
desired. There appears to be no form of definite advance or of mean-
ingful repetition. Perhaps part of the weakness of the piece lies in
the strict but relatively functionless regularity of the form. There
are seven stanzas of seven lines each in syllabic verse of the follow-
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 10 10 10 10 10 10 6
11 10 10 10 10 10 10 6
III 11 10 10 11 10 10 6
IV TI 10 10 10 10 10 6
V 10 10 10 10 10 10 6
VI 11 10 10 11 10 10 6
VII l- 10 10 lT 10 10 6
And the seeming exceptions to the pattern--the four instances of eleven
syllables--are actually in identical positions in their respective
stanzas. Further, the eleventh syllable in each case results from a
feminine ending. Throughout the entire poem the final word of each
line is a monosyllable except in these four cases and in the final
line, "Man be my metaphor." Although there are few internal pauses,
most of the lines are end-stopped, and all the paragraphs conclude with
a period. The relationship between the line-end words, however, pre-
vents the ends of the lines from seeming over-emphasized. The line-end
words do not rhyme (except in the instances of "string," "spring" and
"own," "bone"). Instead, in the first six stanzas, final consonance
occurs in the line-end words, in the pattern of abcacbc.
I love, calve IV rub, crib
side, flood lock, broke
string, lung, spring jaws, flies, toes
II cells, heels V own, bone
flesh, axe girl, nail
hair, thigh, war eye, sea, away
III fingers, hungers VI tickles, chuckle
men, loin sex, six
love, nerve, grave twist, breast, dust
Exceptions occur in II b and c, in V c (where final vowels replace
final consonants), and in VI a. The final stanza is quite irregular
and contains only vestiges of the pattern of final consonance.
"If I were tickled by the rub of love" provides an interest-
ing study of Thomas's early craftsmanship. For in its marked use of
end-stopped lines, of syntactical repetitions ("If I were tickled by
the ."), of serious puns, and of explosives, the poem is typical
of his early period.
"Especially when the October wind" is one of the finest of
Thomas's early achievements. His technique of immediacy is partially
responsible for the poem's success. A metaphoric structure is uti-
lized to communicate poetically the narrator's experiences, for Thomas
describes the poet's visual and auditory perceptions on a particular
October day in the terminology of poetic language: syllabicc blood,"
"wordy shapes of women," "vowelled beeches," "water's speeches,"
"meadow's signs," "the signal grass," and "dark-vowelled birds."
The imagery of the poem is both visual and auditory. The
visual image of "the rows / Of the star-gestured children in the park"
vividly suggests the playing youngsters who, with arms and legs
outstretched in uncontrolled abandon, momentarily resemble pointed
stars. And the auditory image of "The spider-tongued, and the loud
hill of Wales" is only one illustration of the "autumnal spells"
which culminate in the final line of the poem: "By the sea's side
hear the dark-vowelled birds." The absence of consonantal clusters,
the alliteration ("sea's side"), and the assonance ("By," "side")
enhance the smooth roll of the rhythm in the final line.
"Especially when the October wind" has many of the same char-
acteristics as "If I were tickled by the rub of love." It is regular
in form (with four stanzas of eight lines each). It is almost regular
in syllabic pattern:13
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 10 10 10 10 10 10 10 10
II 10 10 10 O 0 10 10 10 11
III 10 10 11 10 10 10 1O0 1
IV 10 10 10 10 10 11 11 9
It has syntactical repetitions (namely, "Some let me make you of .").
In the line-end words the final consonance forms a definite pattern
15Unlike "If I were tickled by the rub of love," the deviations
from the syllabic pattern in "Especially when the October wind" do not
in themselves form a minor pattern caused by feminine endings.
I wind, land III clock, cock
hair, fire meaning, morning
birds, words signs, sins
sticks, talks know, eye
II mark, park IV14 wind, land
trees, rows spells, Wales
beeches, speeches words, birds
roots, notes scurry, fury
Sometimes the similarity between the pairs is complete rhyme, as in
"birds," "words"; "mark," "park"; "beeches," "speeches"; "clock,"
"cock." Occasionally the similarity is between the initial and final
consonants, as in "sins" and "signs" and (with the exception of the
medial consonant r, which Thomas de-emphasized) in "meaning" and "morn-
ing." Also like "If I were tickled by the rub of love," the poem has
numerous end-stopped lines. But the only complete pauses in the poem
(i.e., the period punctuation marks) occur at the ends of lines and,
primarily, at the ends of lines 4 and 8 of a stanza. Combined with the
line-end word pattern of final consonance, the pause pattern helps to
link the four-line units together.
Yet "Especially when the October wind" seems less regular and
more subtle than most of Thomas's earlier poems. In part the difference
arises from the more continuous and prominent visual and auditory im-
agery and from the swifter rhythm. In general, the poem has fewer
consonantal clusters, more semi-vowels ("wordy women," "windy
weather," "wormy winter," among others), and more effective
14Note that the first and last stanzas are linked not only by
identical opening lines, but also by two sets of identical line-end
words: "wind," "land," and "words," "birds."
polysyllables. (The opening word of the poem, the polysyllabic
"Especially," blows a gusty rhythm; the similarity between "when" and
"wind" echoes gently.)
The sound effects in "Especially when the October wind" help
blend harmoniously together the various experiences on an October day
which the poet is attempting to express and simultaneously to commu-
nicate to the reader.
"The hand that signed the paper" is characterized by compression,
objectivity, and clarity. Because few of Thomas's poems can be so de-
scribed, it seems important to discuss some of the artistic devices em-
ployed in this brief but emphatic poem.
The subjective references common in Thomas's poetry are lacking
in "The hand that signed the paper." Instead, Thomas is unusually
detached from the poem. Throughout the first stanza, for example, the
king is progressively depersonalized and fragmented. His "hand" be-
comes "five sovereign fingers" and finally--because the fingers that
sign the paper symbolize the king's greatest power--"five kings."
In large part the poem's objectivity is successful because Thomas
presents a pitiable situation by stating only the stark facts--such
as "And famine grew, and locusts came"--and expressing no sentiments.
As a result, the reader's reaction is all the more sincerely sympathetic.
The formal structure of "The hand that signed the paper" is
tightly organized and very functional in that it contributes to the
poem's forcefulness. The four stanzas of four lines each have the
following pattern, which is regular except in the last line of
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 11 8 11 8
II 11 8 11 E6
III 11 8 11 6
IV 11 8 11 6
The rhythm of the speech stresses in the poem is one of Thomas's closest
approaches to regular iambic. Yet the speech-stress pattern is not
absolutely regular, and the distribution of emphases is related sig-
nificantly to the development of the poem. In the first stanza there
are two instances of consecutive stressed syllables ("Five sovereign"
and "These t'ive kings") and in the second stanza one instance ('(hand
leads"). These early occurrences give only a suggestion of the accu-
mulated emphases of stanza IV; the absence of such emphases in stanza
III makes stanza IV the more forceful. The final stanza concerns
absolute power and rule; it is thus fitting that the rhythm, reinforc-
ing the meaning, be powerful and emphatic. The accumulation of con-
secutive stresses--in "five kings count," handd 'rules/pity," "hand
rules heaven," and "no t'ears"--helps lend the conclusion the desired
effect of power and emphasis.
The line-end word arrangement is fairly regular: the first
and third lines of each stanza end in feminine words which (in the un-
stressed syllable only) rhyme; the second and fourth lines end in
monosyllables which (with the exception of "brow," "flow") are full
rhymes. Supported by generally end-stopped lines, the line-end words
receive considerable emphasis. The position of other important words
in the poem seems also to be carefully controlled. The initial word
of each line is either very weak or strong. Half the lines begin
weakly with "A" or "The"; therefore when an important word begins a
line it is further strengthened by contrast with the initial particles
in other lines. For example, witness the effectiveness of the con-
cluding line--"Hands have no tears to flow"--which follows line 1
beginning with "The," line 2 with "The," and line 3 with "A." In the
medial position in the lines, the high striking power of many of the
words gives them forcefulness. This is the more interesting since,
in the earlier poems studied, 36 per cent to 55 per cent of the high
striking power words occur in initial and terminal positions; in
"The hand that signed the paper" only 8 per cent occur in initial or
terminal positions, and all the rest in medial positions. The emphases
in the terminal position in this poem result from the line-end word
arrangement and from the pauses determined by punctuation marks. Only
three of the lines have no terminal punctuation, and only one line
has internal punctuation. The necessity to pause on a rhyme lends
emphasis to the terminal words in the line.
Auditory repetitions within the lines also form a means of
increased emphasis. Consider the consonantal echoes in
The hand that signed the paper felled a city
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country.
Even more obvious are the syntactical repetitions (e.g., "felled a
city," "taxed the breath," "Doubled the globe," "halved a country";
"And famine grew," "and locusts came").
"The hand that signed the paper" is, then, a noteworthy early
example of Thomas's correlating sound and sense throughout a poem.
The poem concerns power, and the elements of sound enhance emphatic
"Should lanterns shine" is a brief, nineteen-line poem about
the youthful narrator's attempts to find a valid guide in life. In
structure the poem is looser than any of the poems previously consid-
ered, all of which--except "From love's first fever to her plague"--
are in regular stanzas of more or less strictly patterned verse.
"Should lanterns shine" consists of two long paragraphs followed by
two very short paragraphs. The syllabic structure is irregular, with
fewer syllables in the lines of the last two paragraphs than in those
of the first paragraphs:
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 8 12 10 8 8 10 10 10
II 10 8 10 11 10 14 8
III 9 8
IV 10 6
The line-end words form no pattern, although one instance of rhyme
occurs and three instances of initial consonance occur. The metrical
stress pattern tends toward iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter,
but the speech stress is diverse.
In its auditory elements as well as in its prosodic structure
the poem shows less obvious patterning than most of Thomas's earlier
pieces. Further, the tempo of the first two paragraphs is somewhat
faster than that of the last two paragraphs. In the opening ones, the
comparatively long poetic statements, the several polysyllables, and
the predominance of vowel sounds over consonantal sounds tend to pro-
duce a swift rhythm. A main auditory element of the opening paragraphs,
for example, is the rather high frequency of a vowel sound as the ini-
tial or final syllable of a word, as in
Caught in an octagon of unaccustomed light
The mummy clothes expose an ancient breast
And, when it quickens, alter the actions pace.
The emphasis in the poem upon vowel sounds and the sparseness of conso-
nantal clusters make particularly prominent any repetition of consonants;
witness the use in
Till field and roof lie level and the same.
The prolonged effect of the continuant 1--especially since it is
repeated five times within a single line--makes the rhythm smoothly
reinforce the meaning.
In sound and meaning "Should lanterns shine" provides a con-
trast between the diversity of the first two paragraphs and the suc-
cinctness of the last two. In the first two paragraphs of the poem,
the narrator considers various guides in life. But he believes that
conventional religions are satisfactory guides only when one accepts
unquestioningly the basic assumptions; i.e., religions are valid only
"in their private dark." The rituals (clothes) of conventional reli-
gions are, he thinks, outdated, ancient, mummied. Other guides are
equally faulty. Both the heart and the mind are helpless guides, the
narrator feels, and instinct is an unreliable guide. In the final two
paragraphs he muses upon the fact that for years he has been trying
the suggested guides, "And many years should see some change." But
his years' long search for a valid guide is still incomplete:
The ball I threw while playing in the park
Has not yet reached the ground.
These cryptic, symbolic final two lines climax the poem and are dis-
tinctive in large part because of the contrast with the earlier para-
graphs. The longer lines and paragraphs of the opening, its swifter
tempo and its unobtrusive patterning set apart and emphasize the poem's
"And death shall have no dominion," one of Thomas's best-known
poems, concerns immortality viewed from spiritual and physical focuses.
As Thomas E. Connolly has observed, stanza I depicts heaven, stanza II
depicts hell, and stanza III treats of the physical indestructibility
15See "Thomas' 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion,'" Explicator,
XIV (January, 1956), item 35.
Each of the three stanzas is of nine lines, but the pattern of
the syllabic verse is irregular:
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 8 8 10 11 9 8 11 8 8
II 8 8 10 9 9 8 10 7 8
III 8 8 8 11 9 8 11 9 8
Speech stresses vary considerably. Over half the lines open with a
stressed syllable, and many lines contain both anapests and iambs.
Occasional consecutive stressed syllables stand out clearly and under-
score heavily the meaning of the word, as in the staccato phrases
"Dead men naked," "clean bones gone," and "split all 'ends up." Un-
patterned, too, is the use of assonance and final consonance in the
terminal words of the lines. However, not only do most of the line-end
words end in a punctuated pause, but they also end in an n sound.
Thereby the thematically important word "dominion" is emphasized. The
poem is linked structurally, though, less by patterns of stresses, of
line-end words, and of pauses than by syntactical repetitions. For
example, consecutive lines in stanza I begin respectively with "They,"
"Though they," "Though they," "Though," and the first and last lines
of each stanza repeat the theme-statement, "And death shall have no
In certain lines the vowel and consonantal arrangements com-
plement the meaning. Two of the key words in the line "And death shall
have no dominion" are related by alliteration of the sound d: "death"
and "dominion." The short vowel a occurs in three unstressed words
("And," "shall," "have"). The only other word in the line ("no") has
its consonant echoed twice in the succeeding word, "dominion." The
assonance and consonance in the statement of the theme do, then, help
it to ring with conviction. Other lines also have interesting auditory
affinities. One line from each stanza will be selected for comment.
In stanza I the transposition of the well-known phrases "the man in
the moon" and "the west wind" into
With the man in the wind and the west moon
creates an intricate, melodious auditory pattern. "Wind" and "west"
are linked by alliteration, and "wind" is further related to three un-
stressed words (to "with" by alliteration and assonance, to "in" by
assonance, and to "and" by final consonance). "Man" and "moon" are
linked by both initial and final consonance. Moreover, the graphs of
the striking power and vowel tone for this line are closely parallel.
Stanza I, line 3
Striking Power [\ f \
In stanza II in the line "Twisting on racks when sinews give way," all
the stressed vowels are short and high (reflecting the fitfulness and
intensity of the pain of the damned) till the swift tempo and increasing
pressure are relieved by the long e sound (reflecting the contrast in
meaning here, the physical giving way of the tortured sinews). There
is a marked contrast also between the consonants at the beginning and
the end of the line. The unvoiced sibilants and explosives of the
beginning give the impression of abruptness and effort, and the semi-
vowel of "way" gives the impression of soft continuity and auditory
"giving way." Yet, as the later lines signify, those in hell never
die; they live in eternal punishment. In stanza III the theme is ex-
pressed by the image of vegetable life renewing itself and popping up:
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies.
The line is quite rapid, because no heavy syllables slow down the
rhythm. The strong, pulsating dactylic meter further suggests the
meaning of the entire poem--the corollary of "death shall have no
dominion"--life is triumphant.
"It is the sinners' dust-tongued bell," one of Thomas's so-
called marriage poems, is in five stanzas of six lines each. The
syllabic pattern, however, is quite irregular, although lines 5 and 6
are always shorter and have fewer stresses than the other lines.
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 135 12 8 135 12 8
II 11 14 8 13 12 8
III 135 12 8 13 15 8
IV 14 13 7 13 15 7
V 15 14 8 15 14 8
The speech stresses are also irregular, except in that lines 3 and 6
usually have fewer stresses than the other lines. The metrical pattern
varies, often to suit the meaning of the individual line. Note the
contrast in meter and meaning between the following lines. On the one
hand, the sets of consecutive stressed monosyllables in "Time marks
a black aisle" stalks slowly, reinforcing the mearing. On the other
hand, the two anapests separated by an iamb in "In a holy room in a
wave" flow smoothly and--supported by the unobtrusive continuants and
But what gives the stanzas their most common and specific organ-
ization is the pattern of final consonance in the line-end words. This
consonance links lines 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6, so that the pattern
is abcabc. The only variations in the scheme are in pairing the ks
sound of "fireworks" with the k sound of "weather-cock," the voice-
less s sound of "house" with the voiced z sound of "prays," and the
voiced v sound of "wave" with the voiceless f sound of "grief."
Not only the vertical patterning of consonance in the terminal
syllables of lines, but also the horizontal patterning of vowels and
consonants make "It is the sinners' dust-tongued bell" interesting in
the study of Thomas's development of auditory techniques. In one line,
for instance, explosives predominate:
Hear by death's accident the clocked and dashed-down spires.
The poet accentuates the harsh, sharp effect of these thirteen explo-
sives by introducing the line with the imperative "Hear." The slow
tempo of the phrase "and dashed-down" stems in part from the device of
juxtaposing, at the end of one word and the beginning of the next word,
the same sound. The sheer physical necessity to pause and repeat the
explosive d retards the tempo of the end of the line. Through such
techniques Thomas helps sound reinforce sense, in this case the harsh,
insistent striking of the spires clock.
In contrast to his use of sharp explosives is his use of
voiced continuants to produce a sensation of calm. The phrase "the
emerald, still bell" is an illustration. Each of the three occur-
rences of the 1 sound seems more sustained than the preceding one.
The melodic effect is also evident from the analysis of the patterns
of striking power and vowel tone, which are essentially parallel:
Stanza III, line 5, syllables iii-vii
All the other occurrences of the phenomenon in the poem are
similar in retarding the rhythm and reinforcing the meaning of the
words: "dust-tongued," "Time marks," "mute turrets," and (except for
the difference between the unvoiced and voiced quality) "love's sinners."
"It is the sinners' dust-tongued bell," like "And death shall
have no dominion," demonstrates, in selected and individual lines,
contrasting sounds and meanings: staccato rhythms and compressed
meanings, and (less frequently) more sustained rhythms and simpler
"After the Funeral" ("In Memory of Ann Jones") is, according
to Thomas, the only poem he wrote directly about the life and death of
a particular person he knew.17 Thomas composed the poem in February,
1933, in a short form consisting of the first fifteen lines, ending
with: "Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun." He
later criticized this original version as "feeble"; in particular he
felt the ending was "too facile &, almost, grandiosely sentimental."18
In March, 1958, he revised and greatly lengthened the poem. Even after
carefully reworking the poem, Thomas felt dissatisfied with it in cer-
tain respects. To Vernon Watkins he wrote: "I think there are some
good lines, but don't know abt the thing as a whole."19 And Theodore
17See Quite Early One Morning (Norfolk, Conn., 1954), p. 174.
Rayner Heppenstall says--in The Four Absentees (London, 1960),
pp. 174-175--that he substituted for Thomas in a lecture at Oxford when
Thomas gave the excuse that an aunt had died. Heppenstall suggests
that perhaps the funeral was that of Ann Jones. If, however, the lec-
ture date is 1949, the hypothesis is implausible, for the poem on Ann
Jones was written in 1935 and revised in 1958.
18LVW, p. 57.
Ibid., p. 58.
Roethke remembers that Thomas thought the opening lines "creaked a bit"
and believed he had not worked hard enough on them.20
Despite Thomas's doubts, "After the Funeral" is a brilliant--
though somewhat uncharacteristic--poem. It is an elegy for a little-
known but devout and "ancient peasant" woman whose death meant deso-
lation to the young boy from whose point of view the poem is written.
The poem is one long paragraph of forty lines, each with ten, eleven,
or twelve syllables of which four, five, or six receive speech stresses.
The line-end words reveal no definite scheme, but occasional initial
sound similarities occur (as in "sleeves," "sleep," "leaves") and fre-
quent final consonantal similarities occur (as in "thick," "black";
"fern," "alone," "Ann"; "virtue," "statue"; "window," "hollow," to
present only a few). Because of the nature of the line-end words and
because most of the lines are run-on, the lines flow relatively freely
from one to another.
Thomas's original fifteen-line version, the first of the two
main sections of the poem, is a description of Ann's burial. The open-
ing lines reflect the insincerity of the mourners' tributes, tears,
and hand-shaking: "mule praises, brays, / Windshake of sailshaped
ears. ." The proximity of the near-rhyme in "praises, brays"--
note the startling contrast in meaning--and of the alliteration and
assonance in "Windshake of sailshaped" helps create the desired effect
20"Dylan Thomas: Memories and Appreciations," Eirunter, II
(January, 1954), 11.
21LVW, p. 58.
of the monotony of hypocritical funeral-formalities. The muffled
pegging down of the coffin is aptly described by the phrase "muffled-
toed tap / Tap happily," with its strong rhythm and its alliteration,
repetition, and rhyme. When these hollow, slightly comical sights
and sounds culminate in the final funeral ceremony of shovelling dirt
over the coffin ("smack[ing] the spade that wakes up sleep"), the
boy suddenly realizes his great loss. Alone in Ann's room with its
stuffed fox and stale fern, he recalls Ann's humility and goodness.
In his loneliness he remembers her overflowing love, her
hooded, fountain heart [which] once fell in puddles
Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun.
In parenthetical thoughts the narrator discharges himself of
any sentimentality in his tribute to Ann's infinite love, by criti-
izing it as "a monstrous image blindly / Magnified out of praise,"
which Ann would have considered pretentious and unnecessary.
Although Ann needs no priest of praise ("no druid"), the
narrator says he must sing of her virtues to diminish his own grief.
And lines 21-40 form the second portion of the poem, the boy's hom-
age to the deceased. Sound echoes become more frequent and obvious
in this part of the poem. For example, internal rhyme is closely
juxtaposed in "call all," "sing and swing," and "breast and blessed."
The poem becomes a hymnic--and "sculptured" because many of the conso-
nantal clusters produce abrupt, staccato effects-crescendo. The
narrator demands that Ann's natural virtues be recognized in the
hymning heads, the woods, the chapel, and that her spirit be blessed
by a symbolic "four, crossing birds." Again the narrator mentions
Ann's meekness and excuses his praise (i.e., his "skyward statue")
of her on the ground that otherwise his grief would be insufferable.
But his final efforts to depict her realistically only sculpture
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.
These four lines--perhaps the best in the poem--reveal that such de-
vices as assonance ("scrubbed," "humble"), alliteration ("humble
hands"), and occasional rhyme ("cramp" "damp"), obvious as they are,
seem far less important than the contrapuntal imagery in the poem
(which refers to Ann as the actual peasant woman and as the monumental
figure the narrator envisions her). 22 And the poem concludes with the
fervent hope that Ann's virtues "storm" the narrator "forever," until
the stuffed fox comes alive with love and the stale fern lays seeds
on the windowsill.
"When all my five and country senses see" is a quasi-sonnet
with ten-plus-four lines but without a prescribed rhyme scheme. Some
full rhyme does exist (in "eye," "by," "cry" and in "awake," "break"),
but more often the relationship between line-end words is less well-
defined (for instance, the final consonance in "mark," "zodiac").
22See C. Day-Lewis's The Poetic Image, pp. 125-127, for a
discussion of the contrapuntal imagery in "After the Funeral."
Yet, with two exceptions, the poem has ten syllables in each line and,
sonnet-like, its metrical pattern is iambic pentameter.
In the first ten lines, the poet presents his argument that
certain sensations belonging to one sense or mode attach to certain
sensations of another sense or mode. When all the five natural
("country") senses see, he says, they will become cross-modal and see
the destruction of their province of love. Thus the fingers will
forget their role in love and fertility and see how love is subser-
vient to time and death; the ears will see how love is drummed away in
discord; the tongue will see and lament that the "fond wounds" of love
are mended; the nostrils will see that the breath of love burns and is
consumed by its own fire. In the last four lines the poet presents
an emphatic conclusion. The heart, he believes, has agents in all the
provinces of love. These are emotional energies which will become
effective ("grope awake") when the five senses sleep or perish. The
heart, then, is sensual and knowing; even when all else fails, it can
rekindle man's responsiveness to the world about him.
A basic aspect of Thomas's thought seems revealed in this poem.
The five senses, Thomas believes, are elements that contribute to the
sovereign part of man--"my one and noble heart," the repository of feel-
ing and knowledge. On this axiom Thomas's poetic theory seems to be
based, for sound and meaning in his poetry are both usually employed
to elicit from the reader an emotional--as opposed to an intellectual--
response. It is significant, perhaps, that this poem which postulates
Thomas's fundamental concept of the importance of the sensual heart
contains few of Thomas' s usual devices for auditory correlation. The
lack of internal arrangements of vowel and consonant sounds, for example,
is noteworthy. Probably Thomas realized that since he is writing
directly about the senses, it is more effective not to appeal to the
senses through elaborate auditory links.
Thomas's second poetic period extends from 1959 to 1945, the
years of World War II. Nineteen hundred thirty-nine was not only
important to Thomas for the outbreak of the war, but also for the
birth (on January 30) of Llewelyn, his first child. These two events
seem to have influenced significantly Thomas's poetic approach, for
both caused him to look beyond himself. As a result, Thomas's poetry
of the war years is less subjective and more concerned with others
than is his earlier poetry. This concern for others is expressed in
three poems written at the close of his first poetic period: "I make
this in a warring absence" (a poem, written in November, 1957, to his
wife, Caitlin); "After the Funeral" (a poem, revised in March, 1958,
about a dead aunt); "A saint about to fall" (a poem, written in Octo-
ber, 1958, about Thomas's unborn son, Llewelyn). Between 1939 and 1945
Thomas wrote poems about his son ("This Side of Truth--for Llewelyn")
and about victims of air raids ("Among those killed in the Dawn Raid
was a Man Aged a Hundred," "Ceremony After a Fire Raid," and "A Refusal
to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London").
Even the war work in which Thomas participated had beneficial
influences upon his poetry. As a script writer for the British Broad-
casting Company, Thomas developed a sense of unity and of theme, which
he applied to his poetry. Unlike the "obscure" poetry of his first
poetic period, most of the later poetry of his second period is sustained
by a unifying mood or idea. Much of it is grave and formal ceremonial
or hymnic poetry ("There was a Saviour," "On the Marriage of a Virgin,"
"Ceremony After a Fire Raid," "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire,
of a Child in London").
His war work influenced not only the theme, but also the rhythm
of the poetry. As a close observation of Thomas's prose--especially
"A Child's Christmas in Wales"--will indicate conclusively, his prose
and poetry rhythms are essentially similar. Stephen Spender wrote in
1946, after listening to Thomas read on the radio his childhood mem-
ories of Christmas, "I understood at once the patterns of his recent
poetry, which are essentially patterns of speech, the music of rhet-
oric."' The poems of his second period loosen up rhythmically; the
numerous metrical irregularities contrast with the frequent tendencies
toward iambic in the earlier poems.
Thomas's second poetic period is fundamentally one of poetic
transition. The early poems of the period (e.g., "'If my head hurt
a hair's foot'") are similar to those of the first poetic period; the
very late poems of the period ("Poem in October," "Fern Hill," and
"In my Craft or Sullen Art") are similar to those of the third poetic
period. Yet the second period does have general characteristics of
its own. Primarily, it reveals the development toward a more expan-
sive, open-worked poetry, and it reveals part of the basis for this
development, the influence upon Thomas of his work during World War II
1"Poetry for Poetry's Sake and Poetry Beyond Poetry," Horizon,
XIII (April, 1946), 234.
and of the birth of his first child.
The twelve poems analyzed in the following commentaries are
representative of the variety of poetry in Thomas's second, transi-
XI "'If my head hurt a hair's foot'"
XII "Once below a time"
XIII "There was a Saviour"
XIV "On the Marriage of a Virgin"
XV "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait"
XVI "The Hunchback in the Park"
XVII "Ceremony After a Fire Raid"
XVIII "Poem in October"
XIX "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire,
of a Child in London"
XX "A Winter's Tale"
XXI "Fern Hill"
XXII "In my Craft or Sullen Art"
"'If my head hurt a hair's foot'" is a dialogue between an
unborn child (who speaks in the first three stanzas) and its mother
(who speaks in the last three stanzas). The form of the poem is
stanzaic, with five lines in each of the six stanzas. The syllabic,
metrical, and speech-stressed patterns are irregular. However, in
the first three stanzas the lines are generally shorter and yet usually
have more speech stresses than in the last three stanzas. In respect
to line-end word arrangement, the first three stanzas contain only
scattered assonance and final consonance, but the last three stanzas
contain instances of full rhyme ("bed," "head" and "cave," "grave")
and a concentration, in stanza VI, of final consonance ("grain,"
"return," "stone," "open").
With its arbitrary, verbal conceits and its obvious consonantal
patterns, the first part of "'If my head hurt a hair's foot'" is remi-
niscent of Thomas's style in many of the poems of his early period.
The opening lines, for instance, have multiple occurrences of the
similar-sounding labial stops b and p:
"If my head hurt a hair's foot
Pack back the downed bone. If the unpricked ball of my breath
SBump on a spout let tie bubbles jump out."
The bouncing alliterative b' s in "back," "bone," "ball," "breath,"
"bump," "bubbles" are in initial positions. The p's in "unpricked,"
"bump," "spout," "jump" are in internal or final positions. Combined
with this cacophony of consonantal arrangement are the closely juxta-
posed internal rhymes in "Pack back," "Bump," "jump," and "spout,"
"out," and the approximate rhyme in "downed bone." To make the rhythm
even more abrupt, almost every word in these lines is a monosyllable.
The harsh staccato effect seems, then, to be carefully worked out.
But whether or not such an effect is appropriate here is another matter.
It is important to distinguish between sound patterns and poetic values
and not, as Henry Treece does, simply dismiss these opening lines as
a humourlesss plethora of sound and deafness."2 Even Thomas was aware
of an unresolved problem in the lines; he wrote to Vernon Watkins,
"I haven't been able to alter the first part, & will have to leave it
2Dylan Thomas: 'Dog Among the Fairies' (London, 1957), p. 89.
LVW, p. 60.
In the third stanza, the child in the womb makes a more effec-
tive plea to his mother than in the introductory lines. He makes the
startling suggestion that
"If my bunched, monkey,coming is cruel
Rage me back to the making house. ."
Here sound correlates with meaning. For example, the repetition of
the explosive k sound ("monkey coming is cruel," "back," "making")
and the repetition of the A vowel followed by the nasal m or n (in
"bunched monkey coming") creates a pronounced and insistent rhythm
which reinforces the implied situation of the new mother in labor.
In the second section of the poem, the mother expresses her
awareness that the anguish she and her child must experience in life
is inescapable and comments that once life begins, suffering must be
endured. In contrast to the child's staccato speech, the mother's
speech is relatively flowing. Whereas the child often uses consecu-
tively stressed monosyllables with short vowels (such as "Peck, sprint,
dance"), the mother uses few accumulations of stresses and thus creates
a looser rhythm; whereas the child uses compressed, obvious consonan-
tal arrangements, the mother uses expanded, echoic consonantal arrange-
ments. Among the most subtle auditory links in the second section of
the poem is the repetition, in stanza V, of the same long vowel or
diphthong in a stressed position both near the beginning and near the
end of a line:
"Now to awake husked of gestures and my joy like a cave
0 my lost love bounced from a good home;
The grain that hurries this way fronmthe rim of the grave
Has a vcire and a house, and there and here you must couch
and c r:.."
This artistic device is echoed and intensified in the final stanza,
where the words are linked not simply by assonance, but (as in "grain"
and "grave" in stanza V) by approximate rhyme:
"Through the waves of the fat streets nor the skeleton's thin ways."
The stylistic contrast between the two sections of the poem--the more
staccato first section and the more legato second section--helps to set
in relief the child's and mother's attitude toward life. In the final
analysis, that attitude is (as Thomas phrased it) the "unreconciled
acceptance of suffering."4 This idea Thomas attempted to indicate in
the final line, which he originally wrote as
"And the endless tremendous beginning suffers open."
He felt deep concern for this line--"Is the last line too bad, too
comic, or does it just work?"--and asked Vernon Watkins for criticism,
especially of the adjective.5 A few weeks later Thomas had, appar-
ently to his satisfaction, reworked the line to
"And the endless beginning of prodigies suffers open."
Thomas's revision is illuminating. Although only the central portion
of the line was altered, the effect is considerably changed. In the
original version, internal rhyming of syllables ("end-" and "-mind-,"
"tre-" and "be-") weakens the line with a slightly sing-song effect.6
4Quite Early One Morning (Norfolk, Conn., 1954), p. 129.
5LVW, p. 58.
6That Thomas was acutely conscious of such weak internal rhymes
is illustrated in a letter to Vernon Watkins in which Thomas chooses
"formed" instead of "made" (in the following lines from "There was a
Saviour") to avoid "the too-pretty internal rhyme of 'laid' & 'made'
[which] stops the too-easy flow, or thin conceited stream":
And laid your cheek against a cloud-formed shell.
(LVW, p. 83)
In the final version the word "tremendous" (which is responsible for
the internal rhymes and, in addition, is an overworked word in the
English vocabulary) has been deleted. Although the new line has only
one more syllable than the original, the meter is now a strong, almost
regular anapest. The new word, "prodigies," deepens the meaning of
the entire poem; for its associations with wonders and marvels conclude
the poem on a note of awe, if not of hope.
"Once below a time" describes the poet's attitude toward the
human situation, with particular reference to his poetic career. As
a poet past his prime (i.e., "now shown and mostly bare"), the persona
reflects on his pre-natal existence, childhood, and early creative life.
Part I consists of two paragraphs, one of twelve lines, the
other of sixteen lines. The number of syllables in the lines varies
(in no regular pattern) from five to twelve. The first paragraph
describes the poet in his pre-natal existence of
Cut-to-measure flesh bit,
Suit for a serial sum.
The short lines, short vowels, clipped explosives, and predominant
trochaic meter create an effect of the staccato, pulsating tempo of
new life. The line-end word arrangements reinforce this impression,
for most of the related line-end words of the first paragraph end in
final consonance of explosives: "spirit," "fleshbit," "jacket,"
"ashpit." The second paragraph, continuing the tour de force style,
celebrates the poet's birth. The poet sees his early self as violent
and somewhat arrogant and deceitful. From the beginning, the poet
says, he adopted lavish disguises, even though he was actually robed
in "common clay clothes." (The harsh alliterative k's stick together
as clay itself does.) In this paragraph the proximity of diverse
auditory effects suggests the protean aspects of childhood. For exam-
ple, "Hopping hot leaved," with its initial consonance of a spirant,
its assonance, and its use of explosives (p,t,d) creates a clipped
rhythm; sound and meaning here suggest the child in action. Two lines
later, "the chill, silent centre," with its repetition of the contin-
uant 1, its alliteration of the sibilant s, and its approximate rhyme
in "silent centre" creates the impression of stillness; sound and mean-
ing here suggest the child in quiet thought. As an imaginative and
ambitious child, the boy "rocketed to astonish" not just Wales, but
the world itself with his exciting, unrestrained poetic language.
Part II consists of three paragraphs with, respectively, six,
six, and eleven lines. The line-end word arrangement is irregular,
but does contain several instances of full rhyme: "rotten," "cotton"
(which are close together, but in different paragraphs and help link
together the first two paragraphs); "head," "thread," "bed"; "stone,"
"bone," (and the near-rhyme "down"). In this section the poem is less
flamboyant and more sustained and bardic in tone. The mature poet
sees his early scales and mask pierced through to reveal
the boy of common thread,
The bright pretender, the ridiculous sea dandy
who, like all mortals, is simply "dry flesh and earth." Now, although
the poet criticizes his immature self, he feels nostalgic toward the
lost innocence of childhood when he felt firmly convinced of the
triumph of his poetry, when he felt he "Never never oh never [would]
. regret the bugle [he] wore." Abruptly, the tone shifts,
and the final three lines are markedly calm. Thomas here reveals the
persona from which the poem has been written. The mature poet is
resigned, humbled, and saddened:
Now shown and mostly bare I would lie down,
Lie down, lie down and live
As quiet as a bone.
Originally the poet's childhood attitude was expressed by the line
"I do not regret the bugle I wore." Thomas revised the line to
Never never oh never to regret the bugle I wore,
so that "the repetition, the pacific repetition, of 'I would lie down,
lie down, lie down and live' is loudly and swingingly balanced."7
In the last three lines, the extensive use of voiced contin-
uants (e.g., the n of "Now, shown," "down," "bone" and the 1 of
"mostly," "lie," and "live") and the repetition of long vowels (e.g.,
the o of "shown," "mostly," "bone" and the ai of "II," "lie," "quiet")
contribute to the lyrical effect of the concluding passage. This
lyricism differs sharply from the staccato effects of many of the
earlier portions of the poem; thus the contrast in sound patterns
reinforces the contrast in meaning between the attitudes of the imma-
ture and the mature poet. Thomas's reading of this poem (on tape at
7LVW, pp. 79-80.
the University of Florida) further points up this contrast between the
optimism of childhood and the resignation of later life, for he reads
most of the poem loudly and energetically, but these final lines, very
quietly and evenly till the word "bone" resounds hollowly.
Although Thomas usually experiments with an original stanzaic
pattern (and seldom uses that pattern twice), "There was a Saviour" is
a lyrical poem based on the stanza of Milton's "On the Morning of
Christ's Nativity."8 But Thomas's stanzaic form is considerably shorter
and looser than Milton's. "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" con-
tains a four-stanza Invocation--with seven lines to a stanza and the
rhyme scheme of ababbec--which has no equivalent in "There was a Sav-
iour." It is "The Hymn" (the body) of the poem on which Thomas pat-
terned his piece. Milton's twenty-seven stanzas contain eight lines
each and use a syllabic pattern--sometimes slightly varied--of 6 6 10
6 6 10 8 12. Thomas's pattern in "There was a Saviour" is quite
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 6 6 11 6 6 10 9 11
II 6 6 11 6 6 10 10 12
III 6 7 11 6 8 11 10 13
IV 6 6 10 6 6 10 10 12
V 6 6 10 6 6 10 9 12
81In writing to Vernon Watkins, Thomas referred to "There was a
Saviour" as his "austere poem in Milton measure." (LVW, p. 82.) It is
perhaps noteworthy that Kathleen Raine says she has been told that
In respect to line-end rhyme, Milton's scheme is aabccbdd. Thomas uses
the same scheme, but instead of full rhyme he employs assonance in the
final syllables. With two exceptions ("Saviour," "radium," and "year,"
"neighbor") the assonance is perfectly regular throughout the poem.
Certainly Thomas's and Milton's poems bear little resemblance
other than in general stanzaic form. The setting for the "Nativity
Ode" is the "happy morn" of Christ's birth, and the mood is deeply
reverent; the setting for "There was a Saviour" is the present age of
science, doubt, and sin, and the emphasis in the poem is on "There was
Throughout his poetry Thomas frequently employs striking intro-
ductory phrases. Sometimes these revolve around a paradox such as
"Friend by enemy I call you out" and "Light breaks where no sun shines,"
or a revitalized familiar phrase, such as "A grief ago" and "Once below
a time." None is, however, more arresting or utilizes more appropriate
artistic devices than
There was a Saviour
Rarer than radium
Commoner than water, crueller than truth,
which is a network of alliteration and assonance. The r sound is found
in most of the important words of the passage. In the third line, the
k sound lends emphasis to the words "Commoner" and "crueller." Such
euphony of consonants is complemented by the euphony of vowels. The
line-end word relationship between "Saviour" and "radium" is partic-
ularly interesting because it is a tri-syllabic near-rhyme. This,
Milton's "Nativity Ode" was Thomas's favorite poem. ("Dylan Thomas,"
New Statesman and Nation, XLVI [November 14, 1953], 594.)
in addition to the internal rhyme in "There," "rarer" strongly inten-
sifies the echo effect. That Thomas was conscious of subtle internal
patterns of sound is evident from his comment on the internal pattern
of consonance in stanza I, lines 1 and 2. Of the passage
Two proud, blacked brothers cry,
Winter-locked side by side,
he said: "I like the word 'blacked' in spite of its, in the con-
text, jarring dissonance with 'locked.'"9
"There was a Saviour," in its looser stanzaic form, more subtle
artistic devices, and relatively lyrical mood approaches Thomas's style
in his third poetic period. It is the meaning in this poem which, in
its general compression, links "There was a Saviour" to Thomas's early
period. The poet seems to say that Christ is available to men of true
humility but that most of us crucified Christ and now cry in the dark
for the little known fall,
For the dropping of homes
That did not nurse our bones
Brave deaths of only ones but never found.
Concluding hopefully, the poet suggests that, through the terrible
realization of our sins, we may see
Exiled in us the soft,
Unclenched, armless, silk and rough love that breaks all rocks.
9LVW, p. 82.
"On the Marriage of a Virgin" is a fourteen-line poem origi-
nally written in 1935, but revised and first published in 1941. Inter-
pretations of the poem vary. David Daiches and Derek Stanford believe
the poem contrasts the state of virginity with the state of marriage;
S. F. Johnson believes it contrasts supernatural and physical, human
love; Bernard Kneiger believes it describes the conception of the
birth of Christ. Whatever the specific meaning, the theme of the poem--
like that of many of Thomas's prose tales--concerns something which can
never again be recaptured and implies a contrast between the past and
the present. It is not impossible that in this poem Thomas intended
that the exact nature of the contrast be ambiguous and thus generalized.
Throughout, the poem is stately in rhythm, resonant in tone,
and solemn in mood. In part, the majestic but melancholy quality stems
from the use of the long vowel o, which occurs in sixteen per cent of
the speech-stressed syllables: "alone," "morning," "opening,"
"golden," "old," "loaves," "moment," "alone," "golden ghost," "bone,"
"golden," and coursingg." The frequency of this vowel is particularly
impressive since, according to Godfrey Dewey, the o vowel in normal
speech represents only 1.6 per cent of the vowels and consonants.
Two other vowels in "On the Marriage of a Virgin" each form 15 per cent
of the speech-stressed syllables: ai and A. Three vowels, then, form
nearly half the vowels in the speech-stressed syllables. Because of
the predominance of the vowel sounds, the avoidance of harsh conso-
nantal clusters, and the use of voiced continuants (primarily 1, m, r),
the rhythm is flowing and sustained. The even cadence is, signif-
icantly, seldom interrupted by words of high striking power; of all
the poems under consideration, "On the Marriage of a Virgin" has pro-
portionately the fewest words of high striking power (one out of every
Although the poem has fourteen lines, it has little else of
prosodic structure in common with a conventional sonnet. The organi-
zation is two seven-line stanzas, the syllabic pattern is irregular--
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 15 12 135 12 16 15 16
II 14 12 13 15 16 14 15
--and the metrical pattern is varied. Further, the poem lacks a rhyme
pattern characteristic of the sonnet. In fact, the only full rhyme
occurs in lines 2 and 4 of each stanza: "eyes," "thighs"; "alone,"
"bone." The other line-end words are linked, in no regular scheme,
mainly by assonance or by final consonance.
"On the Marriage of a Virgin" is one of Thomas's first poems
entirely in a sustained legato rhythm. The serious treatment of the
theme, the provocative imagery, and the stately rhythm (influenced
mainly by careful combinations of low or middle vowels with voiced
continuants) make the poem consistently majestic and solemn in both
sound and meaning.
In respect to its poetic value, probably the most controversial
of Thomas's poems is his longest one, "The Ballad of the Long-legged
Bait." On the one hand, Henry Treece condemns its length (fifty-four
stanzas of four lines each) as "tiring" and its total effect as "little
more than a technical exercise."'10 On the other hand, Elder Olson
considers the poem one of Thomas's best.11 The true evaluation of the
poem almost certainly lies between these extremes. But it is undeni-
able that the poem contains characteristics of Thomas's best and most
Of all Thomas's works, "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait" is
most enhanced by Thomas's reading of it. The reader of the printed
page bogs down in the long and complicated allegory; the listener to
Thomas's reading soars into a new world of words. Because "The Ballad
of the Long-legged Bait" is a poem of music with an intensely personal
vision, the sound and emotional contexts of the words are usually
effective only when the poem is heard. In describing this poem, Thomas
might have echoed Hamlet, "The word's the thing." It is a fact that
he told Alastair Reid that "When I experience anything, I experience it
as a thing and a word at the same time, both equally amazing."12 With
respect to "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait," Thomas was especially
10Dylan Thomas: 'Dog Among the Fairies,' p. 97.
11See The Poetry of Dylan Thomas (Chicago, 1954), p. 24.
12"A First Word," Yale Literary Magazine, CXXII (November, 1954).
Reprinted in John Malcolm Brinnin, A Casebook on Dylan Thomas (New York,
1960), p. 255.
conscious of words: he said the writing of the poem was "like carry-
ing a huge armful of words to a table he thought was upstairs and
wondering if he could reach it in time, or if it would still be
The structure of "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait" is a
loose ballad stanza. The poem always has four lines to a stanza, but
the stresses are not often in the regular ballad meter of 4 3 4 3.
Further, the typical ballad handles casually an abcb rhyme scheme,
but in Thomas's poem the line-end word relationships vary and the pat-
tern of relationship is also flexible. Only in one-third of the stan-
zas is the pattern of relationship abcb. In about 40 per cent of the
stanzas the pattern is abab; in about 28 per cent of the stanzas other
patterns occur. The type of line-end word relationship runs the gamut
from no similar sounds to eye rhyme and full rhyme. No similarity
in sound occurs in 20 per cent of the paired line-end words; some
degree of final consonance appears in over 50 per cent; full rhyme
occurs in about 15 per cent; other line-end word relationships occur
in about 15 per cent. The progression in the poem is from an accumu-
lation of more obvious relationships--for instance, in the first third
of the poem half the full rhymes occur--to less obvious and more com-
plex echoes. Such a progression in the sound structure is fitting
for a poem whose meaning glides from an apparently simple ballad style
to an increasingly complex allegorical style.
Analysis reveals that the rich, seemingly spontaneous overflow
of evocative and musically haunting words in the poem results largely
from numerous and involved internal vowel and consonant patterns.
Although these patterns permeate "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait,"
they seem concentrated in the passages of greatest importance to the
meaning of the allegory. The following discussion will attempt to
relate the sound and meaning of several of these passages.
With a hooked bride as bait, a fisherman sails away from the
land. Thinking that he is escaping the monotonous commonplaceness of
life, he is oblivious even to religious portents and is concerned only
with his adventure in sexuality.
Good-bye to chimneys and funnels,
Old wives that spin in the smoke,
He was blind to the eyes of candles
In the praying windows of waves
But heard his bait buck in the wake
And tussle in a shoal of loves.
The first four lines contain vertical echoes ("chim-," "spin in," and
"win-"), assonance ("-bye," "wives," "blind," and "eyes"; "pray-" and
"waves"), and approximate rhyme ("wives," "waves"). The flowing rhythm
contrasts sharply with the bucking rhythm of the opening line of the
succeeding stanza. Several elements contribute to the clipped, jerky
effect of this line: the series of eight short monosyllables, the
presence of numerous explosives (b, t, d, and k), and the patterned
interlocking of the dominant consonants and vowels. The line "And
tussle in a shoal of loves," with its prominent continuants (s and 1),
provides a marked contrast to the previous line. It contains only one
explosive (the t, which occurs early in the line), and its unvoiced
sounds disappear toward the end. Thus the sounds of these lines grad-
ually soften, till the conclusion itself is quite fluid.
After the fisherman has cast his long-legged bait as a symbolic
sacrifice to a watery grave, the sympathetic creatures of the world
Sing and howl through sand and anemone
Valley and sahara in a shell,
Oh all the wanting flesh his enemy
Thrown to the sea in the shell of a girl.
The ringing quality of the lines can be attributed to such phenomena as
the voiced consonants (1, m, n, r), the alliteration of the s sound
("sing," "sand," "sahara," and "sea"), the internal rhyme ("sand" and
three occurrences of "and"). But the most subtle sound effect in this
haunting stanza is the tantalizingly approximate rhyme of "anemone" and
Through the death of the girl, the fisherman is freed from
erotic dreams of "Mast-high moon-white women naked / Walking in wishes
and lovely for shame" and from actual sins of the flesh. But, since he
has cast his bait, he must wind the reel. He does so "With no more
desire than a ghost." (The long, melancholy o's seem to emphasize his
slowness and reluctance.) Hauling in the unwelcome catch, the fisher-
man discovers a child, for "Time [has born] another son." He
realizes that, ironically enough, he has not escaped the monotonous
commonplaceness of physical existence, but is inextricably involved in
the cycle of birth and death. For the first time, he begins to under-
stand that both the cause and the result of his passion is the inescap-
From stanza XL on, Thomas universalizes the fisherman's problem
of a quest for experience above and beyond the physical. The stanzas
skillfully evoke images of disparate civilizations and eras. Worksheets
for "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait" indicate that Thomas con-
sciously merged time and space, ages and places, because the manuscript
shows he made specific notations to himself of "times and places"--a
phrase he actually uses in stanza XLIV--and of "history dirge."14 His
successful fusion of contrasting images is perhaps best illustrated in
the resounding line
0 Rome and Sodom To-morrow and London.
As the poem itself reveals, Thomas intended this line to suggest both
Sodom and Gomorrah. Since the narrative in Genesis 18 is well known,
Thomas follows "Sodom" by the meaningful rhyme for "Gomorrah," "To-
morrow." Thus the word "To-morrow" links the past to the future through
denotation and verbal association. Euphonious and soaring, the line is
complex in its inter-locking auditory arrangements. Two vowel sounds
are used two and three times, respectively, within the line: at in
"and," "and"; o in "0 Rome," "To-morrow." The predominant consonantal
patterns are voiced continuants: r and 1 for initial sounds in syllables,
m and n for terminal sounds in syllables:
0 Rome and Sodom To-morrow and London.
Such facets of Thomas's technique in these lines help to make it rever-
berate with sound and meaning.
In the closing lines, the fisherman returns home, only to find
14Lita Hornick, The Intricate Image: A Study of Dylan Thomas.
Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Columbia University, 1958), p. 213.
lost on the land.
He stands alone at the door of his home,
With his long-legged heart in his hand.
Through his experience, the fisherman gained a cosmic insight and
a private conscience. Now, though he is "lost on the land," he has
been redeemed through his bride's sacrifice.
"The Hunchback in the Park," originally written in 1932, was
not published until 1941. Like "The hand that signed the paper" (first
composed in 19533), this poem is distinguished by its objectivity and
clarity. But "The Hunchback in the Park" is, for Thomas, remarkable
too in its direct narrative basis.
The structure of the poem is seven stanzas of six lines each
with a rather irregular syllabic pattern:
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 6 7 7 10 9 10
II 8 8 8 11 8 7
III 8 78 79 4
IV 68 6 9 6 7
V 6 8 8 9 8 8
VI 7 8 5 8 7 6
VII 7 9 8 11 6 7
Like the syllabic pattern, the speech-stress pattern is irregular; yet
the two do not run exactly parallel. Many lines are fairly regular
iambic verse; others have truncated or inverted beginnings with, some-
times, anapestic measures within the line. Occasionally--as in
stanza II, lines 6 and 7--the stress pattern is common ballad meter.
But such a regular pattern is seldom sustained. The beginnings of
certain lines deserve special comment. Stanzas II, III, and IV are
linked by several syntactical repetitions in initial positions. That
is, present participles open several lines: "Eating," "Drinking,"
"Running," "Laughing," and "Dodging." The emphasis on these words is
increased by their initial position, by their similar meter (usually)
trochaic), and by their accumulative effect.
The relationships of final words in the lines of the poem vary.
Five stanzas have one instance each of full rhyme: in stanza I, "cup"
and "up"; in stanza III, "down" and "town"; in stanza IV, "rockery"
and "mockery"; in stanzas I and VII--binding the beginning and end of
the poem together--"park" and "dark." Other line-end words are approx-
imate rhymes: "lock" with "park" and "dark"; "early" and "clearly"; and
the very arresting off-rhyme shrubberiess" and "strawberries." Most of-
the other words are related by final consonance.,
Coming early, when the park is opened, and staying late, till'
it is closed, a solitary hunchback seeks to enjoy the natural beauty
of the gardens. The melancholy calmness the hunchback experiences in
the park is reflected in the frequency (in stressed positions in the
stanza) of the dark, open vowels a and D : "park," "solitary," "propped,"
"garden," "lock," "sombre," and "dark." In the park he feels as one
with the birds, the trees, and the water, until the taunts and mimicry
of the town boys interrupt his musings. The following lines show how
the natural, subtle rhythm of the poem corresponds to the meaning.
The deformed man, teased and chased by the boys, begins
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound.
The smooth, fast-moving tempo of the first line is created mainly by
the quality of the consonants--most of the important consonants are
voiced continuants--and by the ratio of unstressed to stressed speech
syllables (2:1). The rhythm, like the boys and the hunchback, runs
swiftly on. In the second line--the shortest in the poem--the heavily
stressed first syllable ("On") is followed by the assonantal echo of
"out" and "sound." Here the ratio of unstressed to stressed speech
syllables is 1:4, and the rhythm seems to signify the stressed foot-
falls, which fade away like echoes.
Dodging the park keeper and threading his lonely way among the
nurses and swans of the park, he creates a fantasy image of a young
woman who is tall and straight as the trees and who is free to remain
always among the beauties of the park. The hunchback's daydream is
first described by the quiet, slow, and lyrical music of the passage
Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault.
In the first line, the long, lonely day of dreaming is suggested by
the slow rhythm of five speech-stressed syllables out of seven syllables,
by the long vowels (e, ai), and by the patterned consonants which empha-
size the voiced continuant 1:
Made all day until bel time.
And the second line is tightly organized in its cross-alliteration of
w, f, w, f sounds: "A woman figure without fault." The dominant 1
sound of the opening line--which is associated with the hunchback's
dream--is echoed later in this stanza ("elm," "tall," "locks") and
in the final stanza ("All," "railings," "lake," "wild," "followed,"
"kennel"). The perfectly formed woman is, however, only a vision,
an ideal counterpart for the man's crooked shape. And in the final
line of the poem the continuant 1, like the vision itself, fades away.
Reality closes in, as the park shuts the hunchback out and the boys
chase him to his kennel abode. The harshness of real life seems
enhanced by the frequent use of the explosive k in "hunchback,"
"kennel," and "dark."
Throughout the poem, the idea of the restless wandering of >
the hunchback is supported by the long, meandering poetic statements
which continue through several lines and even several stanzas.
Internally, not a single punctuation mark interrupts the rhythmic flow
of the poem. Stanzas I, II, V, and VI have no punctuated pauses at
all; stanzas II, IV, and VII have, respectively, only a period at the
end of the last line of the stanza.
The hunchback's solitary, miserable plight is presented starkly
and quietly, but insistently, and the poem is devoid of sentimentality
and flamboyant tone. Moreover, the contrasting sound patterns seem to
highlight the fundamental difference between the hunchback's ideal and
"Ceremony After a Fire Raid" is a melodic dirge (for a newborn
infant who was "burned to tireless death" in a fire raid) and a ritual-
istic celebration of renewal of life. The form of the poem, although
loose, has, within each of the first two parts--the third part has
only one section--, a relatively regular syllabic count:
Stanza Number of Syllables in Each Line
Part I I 2 5 1 9 6 5 8 10
II 2 5 1 10 7 5 9 12
III 2 3 10 7 5 8 11
IV 2 8 1 9 7 6 8 11
Part II I 5 11 5 6 4 7 5 9 5 8 5 9 6 7
II 5 12 6 6 4 7 5 8 5 8 6 9 6 7
The expanding form of the entire poem compares roughly to musical cre-
scendos. A glance at the printed text of the poem makes that state-
ment obvious. For in the first part each stanza begins with lines of
a few syllables and builds up to a line of ten to twelve syllables;
in the second part the lines of each stanza are longer than most of
those in the first part; in the third part the lines are longer than
most of those in the second part.
As an opening phrase, "Myselves / The grievers / Grieve" is
singularly arresting. The coinage "Myselves" immediately binds the
reader, Thomas, and other grievers together in a communal yet deeply
personal lament for an innocent child's death. Part of the musical
effectiveness of the phrase can be explained by the fact that the
graphs of the striking power, vowel tone, and pitch are parallel:
Striking Power /
Each stanza in part I opens with two or three short lines that
include a repetition of a key word in the thematic development of that
stanza: "grieve" (stanza I), "sing" (stanza II), "forgive" (stanza
III), "cry" (stanza IV). It is interesting to note that when the word
is repeated, it is also varied by slightly altering its form or by
changing its metrical position in the line. For example, in stanza III
the first line is the single word "Forgive," and the speech stress is
iambic; the same word is repeated in the second line, "Us forgive,"
but the speech stress now is the converse of an amphibrach. (This
stress pattern is the more meaningful since the first two lines of
stanzas I, II, and IV are an iamb followed by an amphibrach.) Because
the word "Us" is stressed and is in an initial position in both lines
2 and 5, the reader's involvement in the "ceremony" is secured. The
conclusion of line 3 of this stanza forms an ingenious link with the
poems opening lines, in that "myselves the believers" echoes the
earlier "Myselves / The grievers." Such echoes unify and intensify
the poem's strong musical qualities.
Neither grieving nor singing, though--the poem asserts--can
bring life out of death. And even if a miracle could do so, the "Dark-
ness kindled back into beginning" would not atone for the child's
death. All that can now be done is to beg the child's forgiveness of
the sin committed against it and to believe that "Love is the last
light spoken." Part II deepens the sacrificial aspect of the child's
death, which was suggested early in the poem with the symbolism of the
child's "arms full of fires." The child's burning is, in the second
part, associated with all deaths and sacrificial ceremonies since Adam
and Eve. And the idyllic, ancient garden of Eden is contrasted with
the sinful, modern "garden of wilderness," in which "Beginning crumbled
back to darkness." Not only is this line forceful in its repetition
of the explosive b sound and its approximate rhyme of "back" and
"dark-," but it is also meaningful in its inversion of the prayerful
chant of the mourners in stanza II: "Darkness kindled back into
beginning." Moreover, the verb in each line, though different in mean-
ing, is similar in sound ("kindled" and "crumbled"). The subtle rela-
tionship of these lines and their overtones of Genesis 1:1-5 make it
clear that Thomas probably intended a double and implied antithesis of
light and darkness, of beginning and end, in each line. Thus the
symbolism of life and death is underscored.
In commenting on the poem to Vernon Watkins, Thomas said, "It
really is a Ceremony, and the third part of the poem is the music at
the end. Would it be called a voluntary, or is that only music at
the beginning?" His query about a voluntary--which is especially
associated with an organ solo in a church service--and the reference
in the first line of part III to "organpipes" lead one to suspect that
Thomas consciously wrote this stanza as a poetry of full organ tones.
The sheer evocativeness of this passage, particularly when spoken aloud,
is hardly matched in contemporary literature. The alliterative phrases
at the ends of the lines are very impressive: "molten mouths," "ditch
of daybreak," "burning like brandy." The entire stanza does seem to be
one uninterrupted organ postlude, hinting--through the allusions to the
bread and wine of Holy Communion--at purification and redemption for
all, through the child's sacrifice. The finale is climaxed by the hope
that man can
Erupt, fountain, and enter to utter for ever
Glory glory glory
The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis' thunder.
With its five occurrences of the explosive t sound, the first line is
extremely expressive and forceful. The concluding phrase, "enter to
utter for ever," sets in relief the five explosives, because all the
stressed words begin with a vowel. Further, the three instances of
words ending in the final -er sound ("enter," "utter," "for ever")
evoke the idea of repetition.15 In the second line the resounding
"Glory glory glory" corresponds to the "Holy holy holy" of the Christian
church service. Like those of the phrase "and enter to utter for ever,"
15Consider, for example, other words with final -er sounds
which indicate repetition: "jabber," "chatter," "whisper," "clatter,"
"mutter," "sputter," "flicker," "shimmer," etc.
the speech stresses of the final line are in perfectly regular amphi-
brachs. The suggestions of infinite repetitions (in the -er sound of
"sunder-" and "thunder") and the assonance of the solid A sound (in
sunderingg ultimate" and "thunder") contribute to the powerful, majes-
tic organ chords of the line. The rhyme, which is both internal and
line-end--"The masses of the sea under" and "The sundering thun-
der"--help make the concluding passage one long, glorious reverber-
ation. Thus a dirge for a newborn infant has resolved magnificently
into a paean of hope for
The sundering ultimate kingdom of genesis' thunder.
Over a span of twelve years, Thomas wrote three poems cele-
brating, respectively, his twenty-fourth, thirtieth, and thirty-fifth
birthdays: "Twenty-four years remind the tears of my eyes," "Poem in
October," and "Poem on his Birthday." The first poem is representative
of Thomas's best poetry in his first poetic period, the second in his
second poetic period, and the third in his third poetic period.16
"Poem in October" is an elegiac reminiscence of the lost inno-
cence and joy of childhood. Appropriately enough, the stanzas are
long and complex, usually consisting of a single sentence; this form
corresponds to the leisurely drift of a reverie of the past. There are
16If a recording of Thomas reading "Twenty-four years" had been
available, a comparative study would have been made of the three birth-
day poems as representatives of tneir respective poetic periods.
seven stanzas of ten lines each. The poem is, moreover, beautifully
patterned in its syllabic line:
Stanza Number of Syllables in Each Line17
I 10 12 9 3 5 12 12 5 5 9
II 12 9 3 5 12 12 5 3 9
III 9 12 9 35 12 12 5 3 9
IV 9 12 9 3 5 12 12 5 3 9
V 9 12 9 3 5 12 12 5 3 9
VI 9 12 9 35 15 12 5 3 9
VII 9 12 9 3 6 TI 12 5 3 9
The pattern of speech stresses is varied. One aspect of the
pattern should, however, be discussed. The line-end words form a
special rhythmic pattern. In the following table, m represents the
masculine line-end words, f represents the feminine line-end words,
and d represents the dactylic line-end words.
Stanza Rhythm of the Line-end Words18
III fff d f d ffmd
V fmfffmfd ff
The initial and final assonance and the similar rhythm of the three
dactylic line-end words in stanza III closely bind them together:
17Ralph N. Maud shows--in Language and Meaning in the Poetry
of Dylan Thomas, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Harvard University,
1958), p. 151--the syllabic count to reveal only one irregularity (the
one in stanza VI). But since Thomas pronounces the word "thirtieth"
on the recording as three rather than two syllables, there is also an
irregularity in stanzas I and VII, where that word occurs.
18Note that when the line-end word is not heavily stressed--
as in line 10, stanza III and in line 9, stanza V--the final phrase
is taken into consideration in order to determine the rhythm.
In line 10, stanza VI, the line-end word, "singingbirds,"
hovers between masculine and dactylic rhythm, but Thomas's reading
does slightly accent the final syllable and thus makes the word
"Summery," "suddenly," and "under me." The entire stanza seems espe-
cially light and airy, because--in contrast to the comparatively heavy
masculine line-end words which dominate the first two stanzas--the line-
end words, with one exception, are all fluid feminine or dactylic words.
For three years before he finished it, Thomas contemplated
"Poem in October." When he mailed a copy to Vernon Watkins he said,
"I do hope you like it, & wd like very much to read it aloud to you.
Will you read it aloud too? ItTs got, I think, a lovely slow lyrical
movement."19 Thomas was right. The poem demands oral reading. And,
fortunately, a superb reading by Thomas is preserved on a commercial
recording. Listening to it, one can best realize the slow, lyrical
rhythm which Thomas achieved in the poem.
In the airy opening stanza to "Poem in October"--
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbor wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
--the poet is enveloped in the sights and sounds of the October day,
which are described in an inimitable word magic. Witness the subtle,
interlocking repetitions in the line
Woke to my hearing from harbor and neighor ood
19LVW, pp. 115-116.
or the net of auditory arrangements in "net webbed wall." In the line-
end words of four of the ten lines, the intricate sound relationships
reflect more than simple assonance: "heaven" and "heron" are identical
in all except the medial consonant; "heron" and "beckon" are identical
in all except the initial and medial consonants; "beckon" and "second"
are identical except for the initial and final consonants. Notice also
the internal full rhymes ("year," "hear-" and "net," "set") and approx-
imate rhymes ("call," "-gull" and "rook," "knock") and assonance ("wood,"
"rook," and "foot").
Rising early on the rainy autumn morning of his thirtieth birth-
day, the poet sets out on a walk "in a shower of all my days" (in a
reverie of his past). The gates of the present close behind him as he
crosses the border into the past:
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.
The musical effect of the opening phrase in ingenious. In addition to
the assonance of the ai sound in "High," "tide," and "dived," there is
consonance in "High" and "heron," "tide" and "dived." And the last
three lines--echoing the earlier assonance of "water," "horses," "rose,"
and "road"--close the passage slowly, because of the concentrated accu-
mulations of the long vowel o in "Over," "border," "closed," and
In stanzas III and IV the poet ascends the summit of happy
childhood memories, where the October weather has, in his imagination,
turned to the summer of sun and rolling clouds, of birds and blooming
gardens. Yet below him remains the brown and autumnal present, with
the rain wringing
Wind blow[ing] cold
In the wood faraway under me.
The phrase "rain wringing / Wind" is saturated with phonetic echoes:
the alliteration of the continuant r ("rain wringing"); the frequency
of the nasals n and O ("rain wringing / Wind"); the internal rhyme
("-inging"); the assonance of the clear vowel i ("wringing / Wind").
The impression here of a gentle, even patter of an autumnal shower is
created by the repeated use of the short, clear vowel z. In striking
contrast is the phrase which follows it, "blow cold," with its repeti-
tion of the prolongable, dark vowel o. Combined with the use of the
explosive b and k sounds, this phrase correlates with the idea of cold
gusts of wind.
As the poet muses, his reverie seems for the moment to become
reality. For the "weather turned around," and he is able once again
to feel "the other air" and to see "the blue altered sky" of the golden
days of his youth. In this "wonder of summer" he re-lives the
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels.
The prodigiously involved vowel and consonantal arrangements of this
stanza--and, indeed, of the entire poem--complement its deepest
emotional meaning, harmony. Exceedingly delicate relationships between
words permeate the poem. For example, the closely juxtaposed words
"wonder" and "summer" are related through assonance and through rhymed
unstressed final syllables. Further, the widely separated line-end
words "apples" and "chapels" are related by full rhyme, and both words,
by approximate rhyme, are linked to another line-end word, "parables."
(In turn, "parables" is associated by assonance and initial consonance
to "pears.") The sounds, then, are harmoniously interrelated. Simi-
larly, the poet and the spirit of the child become as one: "his tears
burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine." The poet realizes that
"the long dead child" is a part of the wonder of nature and that his
spirit communicates "the truth of his joy" to trees, stones, and fish.
The effect of unity is heightened by such auditory echoes as the rhym-
ing of the initial syllables in "listening," "whispered," and "mystery."
Everywhere the wonder of nature is evident, for
Still in the water and singingbirds.
In the final stanza the poet, still feeling the child's joy "burning
in the sun," prays for his future ability to recapture and respond to
the lost innocence and joy of childhood, to experience again unparal-
leled unity and harmony:
0 may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning.
"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London"
is a short, twenty-four-line poem of four stanzas of six lines each.
The syllabic count reveals an irregular pattern:
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 9-5 9 9 5 10
II 9 7 10 10 5 10
III 11 5 11 10 5 9
IV 10 5 10 9 5 10
The rhyme scheme, however, is one of Thomas's most regular, for it
follows the pattern abcabc. (Note that the short lines in the stanza
rhyme bb.) In the first stanza all the rhyme words are feminine (since
Thomas pronounces "flower" and "hour" each as two syllables). In the
second stanza all the rhyme words are masculine. In stanzas III and IV
all the feminine rhymes are words ending in -er. Only three pairs of
rhymes are approximate: "darkness," "harness"; "murder," "further";
"friends," "Thames." All the rest are full rhymes. Notwithstanding
such regularity and repetition, the rhymes are not immediately appar-
ent upon a first reading or first listening. In contrast to most of
the poems in Thomas's early poetic period (in which the lines are
mainly end-stopped and sense-determined), this poem is characterized
by enjambment, which naturally de-emphasizes the rhyme words. As to
internal rhyme, two instances occur: "humbling darkness" and "tum-
bling in harness," which makes up for the only approximate quality
of the end-rhyme in these lines; and "grains" and "veins," whose
long vowels contribute to the slow, melancholy effect of
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother.
The pattern of speech-stressed syllables in "A Refusal to
Mourn" is varied. Yet in each stanza a complex pattern is repeated in
similar portions of different lines. In stanza I the phrases "mankind
making" and "last light breaking" form a spondee followed by a trochee;
the identical rhythm, in addition to the assonance in "kind" and "light,"
reinforces the full rhyme. In stanza II, lines 1 and 4 are rhythmically
identical--except for an initial (and extra) unstressed syllable in
line 4--in forming an iamb followed by an amphibrach followed by two
And I must enter again the round
And the synagogue of the ear of corn.
In stanza III, lines 1 and 3, the concluding phrases are identical in
rhythm: "burning of the child's death" and "going with a grave truth."
Line 4 lacks the extra stressed syllable with which lines 1 and 3 con-
clude, but otherwise it, too, has the same rhythm: "stations of the
breath." In stanza IV the first and last lines are metrically identical,
with a dactyl followed by a spondee followed by two iambs plus an
unstressed final syllable:
Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter
After the first death, there is no other.
In regard to the speech stresses, however, only the first seven syl-
lables are rhythmically the same, since on the recording Thomas accents
the word "no." In several cases in which the rhythmic pattern is sim-
ilar, the phrases also bear similar syntactical constructions (e.g.,
"burning of the child's death" and "going with a grave truth") or
auditory repetitions (e.g., "first dead" and "first death"). Such
parallelisms further help to bind parts of the poem intricately
Especially the first three stanzas of "A Refusal to Mourn" con-
tain few punctuated pauses. Instead, these stanzas form a series of
long rhetorical units, as in the opening lines:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Although this swiftly-flowing introduction is interesting in the cross-
alliteration of m and k sounds and in the scattered assonance, it is in
the lines following that some of the most intriguing and complex conso-
nantal arrangements in the poem appear:
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour.
Aside from the assonance in "silence" and "light," the variations upon
the sounds s, t, and 1 singly or in combination are remarkable. The
concentration of these sounds culminates in the adjective "still,"
which (because of the frequency, in the preceding line, of its three
consonantal sounds) is heavily emphasized. Since by uttering the word
"silence," silence is broken and by uttering the word "still," still-
ness is broken, auditory effects cannot really correlate with these
concepts, but can only indicate related concepts. Usually silence and
stillness are related to softness and slowness. And here the sugges-
tion of silence and stillness is conveyed by the softness and slowness
created by the combinations of sounds used in these lines.
Throughout the lyric, the poet elaborates upon a general theme:
that he will not mourn needlessly the death of those who are absorbed
into the mystery of Nature. In particular, he will not make an elegy
for the innocent youth who died in a London fire, for she has escaped
the deaths-in-life which the long-lived experience; she will die only
the one time. The poet expresses this conclusion in the closing line,
"After the first death, there is no other," which is memorable for at
least two reasons. First, it is a succinct statement complete within
one line. Since the poem is, for the most part, composed of long, rhe-
torical units spanning as much as thirteen lines, the clarity and com-
pression of this final line is, by contrast, enhanced. Secondly, the
literal clarity of the line veils an ambiguous implication. Specif-
ically, does "After the first death, there is no other" imply a pessi-
mistic philosophy of mortality, or a Christian philosophy of immortality?
"A Winter's Tale" is considered by several critics, including
David Daiches and W. S. Merwin, to be one of Thomas's most magnificent
poems. Probably greater restraint would make for more enduring criti-
cism. For, in all likelihood, "A Winter's Tale" is simply Thomas's
most beautifully sustained and unified long narrative poem. A compar-
ison between "A Winter's Tale" and "The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait"
illuminates this qualified praise of the poem. On the one hand, the
narrative of "A Winter's Tale"--which may well be based upon myth--
lends itself to a single symbolic interpretation (i.e., a winter
ceremony of the rebirth of man and nature) better than does the narra-
tive of the mysterious voyage of a fisherman whose bride is his bait.
The imagery of "A Winter's Tale" is more precisely handled and its rich
and sustained musical texture more pervasive than in "The Ballad."
On the other hand, "The Ballad" seems superior in the interesting vari-
ety of its rhymes (e.g., "anemone" and "enemy") and in the exquisite
lyricism of individual passages (e.g., "0 Rome and Sodom To-morrow and
London"). At its best, portions of "The Ballad" surpass the beauty of
"A Winter's Tale," but in its total unity and sustained lyricism, "A
Winter's Tale" is the more perfect poem. Thomas struggled long to
achieve unity in "A Winter's Tale" and, in writing to Vernon Watkins,
expressed his feeling that, after all, he had fallen short of his aim:
"I'm sending you some new poems. The long one ["A Winter's Tale"]
doesn't, I think, come off, but I like it all in spite of that. It
isn't really one piece, though, God, I tried to make it one and have
been working on it for months."20
As to structure, "A Winter's Tale" has twenty-six stanzas of
five lines each. Only the first lines of each stanza have the same
syllabic count; that is, each of them except the one in the twenty-
sixth stanza has six syllables. But throughout the poem, even in the
six-syllable first lines of the stanzas, the speech stresses vary
considerably. The line-end word scheme, though, is in a strict pattern
of ababa. Over half the rhymes are full rhymes and, up to the thir-
teenth stanza, the approximate rhymes all involve the addition or omis-
sion of a z sound:
20LVW, p. 126.
I tale, sail, vales VII stones, bones, alone
lakes, flakes sky, sties
II cold, hold, told VIII prayers, lairs, air_
owl, cowl cloud, bowed
III old, unrolled, fold IX strung, tongues, among
bread, head tossed, lost
IV then, hen, men X night, white, light
snow, crow caught, sought
V spades, milkmaids, trades XI cried, bride, astride
shy, sky need, seed
VI prayed, shade, afraid XII sing, wings, spring
light, night nightingale, tale
In the remainder of the poem, the addition or omission of a z sound is
never responsible for the approximate rhymes. It is as if the poem
more or less progressed from regularity in rhyme to greater and more
frequent irregularities (such as the approximate rhymes like "look"
linked with "rock" and "flock"). Repetition of the same rhyme-base
occurs throughout the poem. For example, two rhyme-bases are each used
four times: the rhyme-base "light," in stanzas VI, X, XV, XVIII and
the rhyme base "bride," in stanzas XI, XIV, XXI, XXV. Other rhyme-
bases are also repeated: "old" in stanzas II, III, and XVI; "snow"
in stanzas IV, XIX, and XXVI; "bread" in stanzas III and XXIII; "lakes"
in stanzas I and XX; "tale" in stanzas I and XII; "sky" in stanzas V
and VII. The recurrence of these particular rhymes--many of which are
words concerned with nature--contributes to the pastoral qualities of
The narrative of "A Winter's Tale" opens with a quiet but vivid
description of snow falling over the countryside and of a man at his
farmhouse fireside watching the outdoor wintry scene. In his record-
ing, Thomas reads the first three stanzas softly; but even without the
benefit of his reading, a sensitive reader of the printed passage knows
that its music somehow falls almost as softly as the snow itself. The
few consonantal clusters in the first three stanzas involve primarily
continuants. The occurrences in the passage of the rather intense f
sound are softened by the many 1 sounds: "tale," "blind," "twilight,"
"lakes," "floating fields," "vales," "Gliding windless," "folded flakes,"
"pale," "cattle," "stealthy sail," to list only those in the first
stanza. The quiet effect of the passage is enhanced, too, by the
almost effortless initial semi-vowels in some words (for instance,
"vales," "windless," "Warning," "wended vales," and "world") and the
almost effortless final vowel sounds in other words (for instance,
"snow," "through," "hay," and "snow"). These varied facets of Thomas's
auditory technique account largely for the sound echoing the meaning
in the opening three stanzas.
In marked contrast is the passage in stanza VI:
He knelt, he wept, he prayed,
By the spit and the black pot in the log bright light
And the cup and the cut bread. .
Here the final consonants in all the important words are explosives
("knelt," "wept," "prayed," "spit," "black pot," "log bright light,"
"cup," and "cut bread"). The fact that the twenty-five words of the
passage are all monosyllables further contributes to the staccato
effect. By the clipped sounds in the line "By the spit and the black
pot in the log bright light," Thomas must have intended to evoke the
idea of a crackling, cozy fireside, for in stanza XVIII he repeats the
phrase, again against a background of more legato sounds describing
the serene wintry scene.
The following stanza (XIV) is selected to illustrate the typ-
ical complexity of vowel and consonantal arrangements in "A Winter's
It was a hand or sound
In the long ago land that glided the dark door wide
And there outside on the bread of the ground
A she bird rose and rayed like a burning bride.
A she bird dawned, and her breast with snow and scarlet downed.
In addition to the full end rhyme ("sound," "ground," "downed" and
"wide," "bride"), there is internal rhyme ("hand," "land" and "glided,"
"wide," "outside," "bride"). Further, final consonance of the d sound
permeates the stanza: "hand," "sound," "land," "glided," "wide," "out-
side," "bread," "ground," "bird," rayedd," "bride," "bird," "dawned,"
and "downed." All these words (except "glided" and "outside") are
monosyllables. Many of them are linked by other means than simply
final consonance--for example, rayedd" and "bride" as well as "dawned"
and "downed." A concentration of the consonants b and r near the end-
rhyme "bride" heightens its semantic importance: "bread," "bird,"
"burning," "bird," and "breast." Internal elements and line-end words
weave a web of assonance and alliteration. Moreover, stanza XIV is
representative of the poem as a whole in its harmony of sound and
Thus "A Winter's Tale" is to a great degree a unified and sus-
tained poem because of its rich musical texture, achieved through
ingenious repetitions of consonants, vowels, and even entire rhyme-
bases. In this poem phonetic devices seem employed more extensively,
if less strikingly, than in most of Thomas's poetry.
Like "Poem in October," the lyric "Fern Hill" laments the loss
of childhood joy and innocence by recreating childhood spontaneity and
implying both its transience and its contrast with the poet's adult
Thomas's craft in "Fern Hill" is intricate. Not only is the
poem well-patterned in its structure (six stanzas of nine lines each),
but it is also well-patterned in its syllabic count. The first, sec-
ond, third, and fifth stanzas are perfectly regular; the fourth, sixth,
and seventh have one irregularity each; and the eighth and ninth con-
tain, in identical positions, two different syllabic counts.21
Number of Syllables
Stanza in Each Line
I 14 14 9 6 9 15 14 7 9
II 1414 9 6 9 1- 14 7 9
III 14 14 9 5 9 14 14 9 6
IV 14 14 9 6 9 14 14 9 6
V 14 14 9 6 9 14 14 9 6
VI 14 14 9 6 9 14 15 79
The rhythm of the poem flows with the long, lilting lines, which are
associated primarily with the lightheartedness of youth, and ebbs with
the short, slower lines, which are associated primarily with the
21In effect, then, the second very short line in each stanza
is simply placed as line 9, rather than line 8, in stanzas III, IV,
sinister presence of time. More specifically, although the patterns
of the speech stresses vary widely throughout the poem, certain tend-
encies characterize the long lines as compared to the short lines. For
the most part, the long lines have less than a 1:2 ratio of stressed
to unstressed syllables, whereas the short lines--line 4 of each stanza
and line 8 of stanzas I, II, and VI and line 9 of stanzas III, IV,
and V--usually have a 1:2 ratio. The lilting quality of the long lines
is further heightened by the frequent anapestic beginnings; the more
somber quality of the short lines, by the frequent heavily stressed
'The assonance of the stressed syllables of the line-end words
in the poem helps to produce a singing, chanting effect. The asso-
nantal arrangements are in the pattern abcddabcd:
I boughs, town IV white, light
green, leaves all, warm
starry, barley maiden, stable
climb, eyes, light again, day, praise
II barns, calves V house, allows
home, cold long, songs
only, slowly over, golden
be, means, streams ways, hay, grace
III hay, away VI me, means
air, night-jars hand, land
watery, horses rising, dying
grass, stars, dark sleep, fields, sea
There are only three types of departures from the abcddabcd pattern of
assonance: (1) one instance of only approximate assonance, in "air"
and "night-jars"; (2) one instance of Thomas's pronunciation (on the
recording) making approximate assonance of what can be pronounced in
British English as full assonance, in "again"--which Thomas reads with
a stressed e vowel--with "day" and "praise"; (3) one instance of a
change in the assonantal pattern, in stanza VI, where it becomes
abcddbacd. The rhythm of the line-end words forms a very distinctive
scheme. With the exception of the final phrase ("take me") in stanza
VI, line 1, all line-end words in lines 3 and 8 are feminine and in
the other lines, masculine.
A very important but seldom mentioned factor in the lilt of
the lines in "Fern Hill" is the high frequency of vowels. An examina-
tion reveals that there is often a fairly continuous alternation of
vowel and consonantal sounds and that when consonants are juxtaposed,
they are in several instances lightly breathed h's (as in "hay / Fields
high as the house" or "happy as the heart was long") or semi-vowels
(as in "the sun that is young once only" or "the spellbound horses
walking warm"). In the opening lines of stanza II, many of the words
begin or end in a vowel sound:
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
XbouT the happy yari and singing as the Tarm was home,
In The sun that Is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means.
(Note that a nasal--mostly preceded by the A vowel--links the seman-
tically important words in the line "In the sun that is young once
So superbly constructed is "Fern Hill" that the symbolic
imagery and the sound patterns in every line contribute to the bal-
anced and unified whole. Consider, for example, the first stanza.
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.
The opening words, "Now as I was young and easy," hint (through the use
of the past tense) of the loss of youthful bliss, and the phrase "Time
let me hail and climb" suggests that time rules even the child's life.
Moreover, the phrase "once below a time" (used to less advantage in a
poem by that title) not only evokes the familiar fairy-tale introduc-
tion, but also poignantly underscores the fact that the child is sub-
ject to the laws of time. In the light of these ominous suggestions
(which are made more explicit in the later stanzas), the child's sover-
eignty, as the "prince of the apple towns" who "lordly had the trees,"
is charged with irony. Yet for the moment, all seems green and golden,
and the child is an integral part of his environment. Throughout the
stanza, alliteration (such as "grass was green"), assonance (such as
"trees and leaves"), and internal rhyme (such as "apple," "happy" and
"Time," "climb") create a euphony which aptly reinforces the emotional
meaning of the harmony between the child and nature.
In the second stanza the rhythmical swing of the long lines
describes further the happy, carefree childhood on the farm; the slower
pace of the short lines again emphasizes the somber, inevitable changes.
Especially effective is the syntactical repetition beginning in the
fourth line ("Time let me be / Golden .") which balances the phrase
beginning in the fourth line of the first stanza ("Time let me hail
and climb / Golden ."). In stanza III the opening tempo runs fast
with lightly stressed rhythms, syntactical repetitions, and consonance
of the smooth continuant 1 ("it was lovely it was air / And play-
ing, lovely and watery"). But the succeeding lines foreshadow the con-
clusion of the poem, when the delights of childhood are lost forever;
for here the delights of childhood are temporarily borne away during
the night. This portentous event is, fittingly enough, described with
dark vowels (in "rode," "owls," "moon long," and "horses"). In stanza
IV the farm has returned with the dew, and the flowing phrase of
stanza III is echoed in "it was all / Shining, it was Adam and maiden."
So joyous and so innocent were those youthful days that the poet com-
pares them to the first days of Creation:
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.
Of the many phonetic echoes in these lyrical lines, only two shall be
mentioned: the excitingly approximate internal rhyme in "spinning" and
"whinnying"; the consecutive and vertical assonance of stressed syl-
lables in "green stable" and "fields of praise." Similarly interest-
ing echoes permeate the final stanzas (witness the internal rhyme in
stanza VI, line 5, of "I," "fly," "high"). The facts of time become
more insistent in the conclusion, but the child is still heedless.
The poet makes no moral judgment on the child's attitude; instead, he
implies his sorrow that such joy and innocence are transient and his
wonder that such beauty and spontaneity ever existed at all: