Sunday, December 02, 2007

"The Force that through the green fuse drives the flower" Dylan Thomas

In many ways, Dylan Thomas is the inheritor of John Keats. Via Hopkins. Dylan Thomas has Keats’s same auditory richness, the same passion and hallucinatory linguistic response to the experience of life. His poetic sensibility, like Keats’s, is based on the traditional forms of English poetry, and deeply rooted in the rhythmic power of Shakespearian iambic.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks 

Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams 

Turns mine to wax. 

And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool 

Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind 

Hauls my shroud sail. 

And I am dumb to tell the hanging man 

How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;

Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood 

Shall calm her sores. 

And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb 

How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

I have been learning this poem and contemplating its deep, fabulous beauty. What does this wonderful poem mean? It is almost abstract in its distortions of image and causality. Once one gets past the dazzling power of the language, its driving rhythm, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Perhaps it’s just a kind of auditory intoxication, brought about by the increased oxygen in one’s blood as a result of drawing enough breath to read the poem aloud.

The poem works in a series of lexical fields, all of which suggest some Great Idea. These Platonic Forms, as it were, in themselves are always absent from the poem; they are only ghostly presences that pervade the poem, but which are never clearly articulated, so that one is never sure whether they are really there, what they might be, and whether one has understood them correctly; hovering mirages of ideas.

These lexical fields, composed of simple words describing simple natural things, create a metaphysical landscape in the mind.

Here are the word groups:
1. force, drives, youth, red, blood, water, green, age, sucks, hauls, whirls, stirs
2. rocks, water, blowing, wind, flower, rose, worm, winter, veins, drips, gathers, heaven, stars, time
3. rope, sail, fountainhead, sheet, wax, ticked,
4. shroud, hanging man, clay, lime, blasts, destroyer, tomb, sheet, hangman, crooked

There is considerable overlap, with many words appearing in one or more group, like this:
1. force, drives, youth, blowing, wind, red, blood, water, green, age, sucks, hauls, whirls, stirs
2. rocks, water, blowing, wind, flower, rose, blowing wind, winter, veins, drips, gathers, heaven, stars, time, destroyer
3. rope, sail, fountainhead, sheet, wax, ticked, tomb
4. shroud, hanging man, clay, lime, blasts, destroyer, tomb, sheet, hangman, crooked, blowing, wind

The first word group is associated with images of energy, perhaps the energy of youth, of different forms and directions of energy, the colours of energy. To my mind they suggest the power of the natural life force which all living things share, the Great Idea of Power, Life Force.
The second group is associated with images which suggest the Great Idea of Nature, nature as distinct from the products and culture of Humanity’s Industry, which forms the Great Idea of the third group. Thus we have two Great Ideas embodying one contrast: Nature versus Humanity’s Industry.
The words in the fourth group are associated with images of death and decay, suggesting another Great Idea, set up in contrast to the Life Force of the first group - Death.
So we have four Great Ideas set up in contrast to each other, overlapping pairs of spectra: Death - Life Force; Nature - Industry.
What does the movement of these four Great Ideas and their shifting relationship to each other suggest to me?
(Paraphrasing the meaning of a poem, as opposed to the technical description of how the verbal contraption works, is always the part where the discourse of the literary analysis of poetry steps dangerously over an invisible border into the land of kitsch. As Steve Martin says about music, explaining music in language is about as useful as dancing architecture.)

Paraphrase part 1
There is an immanent unity and an opposition between nature and humanity’s industry, a unity born of the fact that they both possess the same opposing forces of life and death. All things pass. All things develop, change and die; youth becomes age, blood becomes wax, and although time can be captured in a clock, it nonetheless always ticks away. We, and our industry and culture, with our human body and nature, share with nature our impermanence.

This reading is highly personal, I must stress. There is nothing in the poem's logic of expression, its succession of images and indeed even in its syntax, which points clearly to this meaning.
Any notion of diachronic casuality, for example, one of the main signs of a constructed meaning on which a poem -or any work of language- is based, is problematized in the poem. The images and words in each of the four fields do not necessarily appear in any causational relationship to each other in the poem, but rather echo or prefigure each other in a synchronic relationship. Rope comes before sail, hanging man comes before hangman, shroud suggests (winding) sheet. It is this shifting relationship of words that both evokes and hides the spectral presence of the four Great Ideas, and their slowly revolving pattern.

And I am dumb to tell, is the one image and constant word group that occurs in every verse of the poem, sounding like a mantra through the mist. And this, I take to be the central meaning of the poem:

Paraphrase part 2
It is impossible to convey a great idea, a deep truth, in language that does not restrict this truth.

Any philosophic, scientific, technical or expository description of a truth must necessarily and involuntarily restrict that truth through the pattern imposed by the syntax, vocabulary and breath of that language, not to speak of situating that truth in a tradition of other attempts to describe it, the canon. It is therefore impossible to convey through paraphrase the meaning of the poem as I have attempted above. We do not have the power to express these truths without the contamination of language, and all that it brings. (Language is a virus William Burroughs)And I am dumb to tell. The only way for language to express such an Idea, such a truth, is through poetry like this: abstract, incantatory, centred on the breath and the physical body, the energy of song itself.

The miracle of the poem is that it does, at least for this reader, tell. It is Dylan Thomas, perhaps more than any other 20th century poet in English, who most fulfils Keats's theory of negative capability: ...capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. This can be clearly seen in The force that through the green fuse drives the flower but is by no means restricted to this poem alone. It is Dylan Thomas's characteristic stance when his writing is being most truthful to its nature. (This leaves out Under Milkwood, which while his most popular work, and one of my favourites, usually steers away from the metaphysical intensity of his best poetry.)

Dylan Thomas was yet a greater poet, a more mighty magus of language than even he was aware.


Anonymous said...

It's perhaps unwise to intellectualize the poetry of Dylan Thomas, since he is often either perversely obscure or else academic analysis doesn't fit its mould.
This poem is an Orphic incantation which celebrates creative destruction, destructive creation. It is pantheistic in its telling of the forces of birth and death. The only industry which it might dwell upon is the industry of nature, of some kind of cosmic force, but not the industry of man.

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