A close reading is the analysis of a poem or an extract of prose in fine detail. Each reader’s close reading is unique; it’s about your response to the text as a reader more than the writer’s intentions in the writing. So there are no right or wrong answers. (CAT p. 92)
Exercise 3 – Close reading of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill
The poem’s mood is deeply nostalgic and bittersweet. It draws some of those feelings out of me, for sure, but it mostly makes me happy. Ironically, I sat down with it for the first time on my birthday, but I’m not unwell or old enough yet to regret the passing of time. Indeed, I feel privileged to have been cradled by time until now. When I read this poem out loud, I feel joy (so much so that I forwarded it to a group of childhood friends; most of them don’t read poetry) and aesthetic pleasure. The poem reads like music, its words, lines and stanzas dance and race and lilt and tumble into each other, in much the same way the reader imagines the speaker lived out the glory of his youth. There is so much joy in the recollection of this innocent time that for me it overshadows the inevitable transition to darkness, to what seems like the speaker’s deep, mournful bitterness that eventually life, or Time, carries us away from youthful insouciance to the end of our cycle.
Thomas makes rich use of poetic devices, which I’ve listed in the order I noticed them:
- Alliteration – “…Apple boughs/ About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” (lines 1-2).
- Alliteration serves multiple functions in this poem but I think it really establishes and maintains a quick, perky and musical rhythm.
- Assonance/(Internal) Rhyme – “The night above the dingle starry/ Time let me hail and climb/ Golden in the heydays of his eyes” (lines 3-5).
- There are several examples of assonance and internal rhyme in the above lines, which is fairly representative of the whole poem. The short words, soft and long vowel sounds, similar-sounding syllables (golden in; heydays…eyes, for example) give rhythm (a gentle da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM), momentum and melody to the poem; together, complementary to the alliteration mentioned above.
- Personification – “Time let me hail and climb/ Golden in the heyday of his eyes” (lines 4-5); “Time let me play and be/ Golden in the mercy of his means” (lines 13-14).
- The personification of time in the poem is significant; apart from the speaker, time holds the most agency and is the ultimate authority over the living. In the beginning, time is portrayed as benevolent and generous; later, as deceitful and/or withholding.
- This poem is rife with repetition; structurally, verbally, thematically, symbolically. It’s very effective because it emphasizes the cyclical nature of time, seasons, from birth through death, and also because the message is the medium: the message (or one version of a few messages) is that repetition, however beautiful, somehow dulls our awareness of a thing so that we’re unpleasantly surprised when it (inevitably) changes or comes to an end. Many lines begin with “and” this juxtaposition reinforces the poem’s rhythm and cadence. Many images are also repeated from stanza to stanza, or just slightly turned from a different angle; the effect is highly visual. Even upon the first read, where, for me at least, the odd/old vocabulary and surprising syntax presented a barrier to really understanding the poem’s subject matter, the rich bucolic, pastoral imagery struck me; I knew at least where the poem was situated. Strong color words like “green” and “golden” turn up time and again, helping us conjure up the speaker’s idealized youth. Similarly, “happy” (lines 2, 11) nature imagery like “apple boughs” (line 1), “apple towns” (line 6), “trees and leaves/ Trail with daisies and barley” (lines 7-8) reinforce a sense of abundance, a feeling of endlessness, the health and heartiness of growth and thriving and living unencumbered by knowledge of pain to come.
- Simile – “Fields high as the house” (line 20); “And fire green as grass” (line 22)
- The similes in this poem tend to compare things in a way that doesn’t make immediate sense; it makes me think of the way a child views the world; everything is big, colorful, full of possibility. It adds to the wonder and magic of these scenes from a bucolic childhood.
- There are an abundance of simple and more complex metaphors in this poem, not always distinct from the dense nature imagery mentioned above. Thomas links one element of nature with another to create a universe ripe with the fruits of youth and of nature and of uninhibited imagination: “Down the rivers of the windfall light” (line 9) is a gorgeous example of Thomas painting a picture where the elements of water, wind and light meet each other in one harmonious (but not literal) image that ultimately speaks to the movement, energy and unstoppability of youth. Following the speaker’s transition to a darker perspective on his youthful ignorance, he refers to “the lamb white days” of his youth. The lamb is a universal symbol of innocence and purity, and here the long, happy days previously described are being painted “lamb white” to indicate the perfect simplicity he once knew, and has now lost.
The aforementioned poetic devices, among others, evoke the poem’s (and course) themes of time and place.
Rhythm, repetition, alliteration and assonance especially work together to drive the pace and music of this poem; each lines stumbles into the next; each stanza begins with a differently-turned repetition of the one before. The speaker is coming to grips with the fact that he himself has been gripped by time, and–as is natural to us as we move from the light(ness) of innocence and blissful ignorance to the shadow side of maturity among the acknowledgement of painful truths, including one’s own mortality—the poem carries us as time carried the speaker to his end: beautifully, cyclically, quickly and inevitably.
Place is evoked somewhat differently, through an abundance of physical details describing what was certainly a special place from the speaker’s childhood: Fern Hill itself. These details turn up across surprising metaphors and similes to lend a golden greenness, a soft “lilting”, a fruitfulness, a tireless animal energy to the speaker’s recollections of his youth. While it seems the only person spending his days at Fern Hill is the speaker himself, the place is also inhabited by time and the sun personified, and a variety of farm and other small animals. Because it lives only in the speaker’s memory and imagination, what we know of Fern Hill is the collage-like impression Thomas offers us: characterized by seasonal colors, overlapping images of trees, leaves, rivers, sun, sky and harmless animals. The place is also a feeling recalled: the “happy” grass, a “happy yard”, a “lilting house.” There’s an emotional resonance to this place of his youth, and perhaps Fern Hill is ultimately a metaphor for youth itself: a place we pass through quickly, unaware of the limits of time. The bittersweet irony is that Thomas does, finally asserts his agency against time, the ultimate authority, by immortalizing his glorious childhood in this beautiful poem.
For me, the poem’s main theme is, as mentioned above, time as the ultimate governing authority of our lives. It reveals time as deceptively benevolent and generous with children, affording them the freedom (of ignorance) to “hail and climb” (line 4), “play and be” (line 13); they are “young and easy”(line 1), “green and carefree” (line 10) only because they can’t see what’s coming. But by asserting that even the sun “is young once only” the reader quickly realizes that, for the speaker, no person or force but time itself is free from its almighty grip. Ultimately, we all “follow [time] out of grace” (line 45), waking startled from the dream of our youth to find we’re still held by time, only dying.
About place, the poem seems to say that what matters are not the facts, but our lasting impressions, of place: how we carry it in our imagination or memory, how we felt when we were there. Certainly, the speaker is indulging himself in the nostalgic idealization of a place associated with his youth. While memories of Fern Hill bring joy (over and over again, as we see in the poem), even song (even at his darkest moment of death, the speaker “sang … like the sea” (line 54), the place itself is immortalized not in fact but in poetry. Place becomes a metaphor for the feelings we associate with it.
Additional themes in the poems might be the inevitability of change, the innocence of youth, the joys of life on Earth.
There are countless lines in this poem that resonate with me, first and foremost, as simply stunning. It’s hard to isolate a selection as the lines and stanzas tumble into each other so beautifully; chopping the poem up seems criminal. All regret aside, I particularly enjoy the lines indicated below:
- And once below a time I lordly had the tress and leaves/ Trail with daisies and barley/ Down the rivers of the windfall light (lines 7-9).
- In the sun that is young once only/ Time let me play and be/ Golden in the mercy of his means (lines 12-14).
- All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ and playing, lovely and watery (lines 19-21).
- And then to awake, and the farm like a wanderer white/ With the dew come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all/ Shining […] (lines 28-30)
- Nothing I cared in the lamb white days, that time would take me/ Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand/ In the moon that is always rising (lines 46-49)
- Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means/ Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea (lines 52-54).
What I love about the above collections of lines (usually I chose groups of 3 lines because the images were so hard to separate) is the way the dense imagery transports me back to that wondrous, childlike moment in a lifetime that we later remember in such sensual but unspecific detail (just like waking from a dream we want to tell about). We’re left with these exquisite impressions but fuzzy on details; and I think it’s best that way.
What I see as I read this poem: children running and playing; also, I imagine sunlight pouring through dense networks of green-translucent leaves and branches; I can feel the bark of an apple tree; I can see the mysterious passage of time. I feel joyful and inspired by the shimmering opportunity to enjoy our brief time on earth. Parents sometimes say that “the days are long but the years are short” and I find it a moving turn of tongue that this poem seems to confirm.
In particular, while there’s a sadness at the end of the poem, I was heartened by the image of the dying speaker singing “like the sea” despite the chains. Time may claim his body, but his spirit can’t be contained; ultimately, life is a generous gift, and even death can’t change that.
The rhythm of this poem is quick and musical; the reader’s tongue seems to trot easily over the words and lines which echo, spill into, repeat and reinforce each other. Short, one or two-syllable words, the juxtaposition of similar, soft or long vowel sounds create and a loose iambic pentameter give the poem a soft, quick cadence. This buoyant, perky cadence seems to echo the carefree spirit of the speaker’s youth, but also the cyclical nature of seasons, life and death, time itself.
For me, the speaker is relatively unspecific; Fern Hill (the place described in the poem) is a metaphor for the blissful ignorance of youth and the startling reality of aging and death. The speaker seems to think that everyone can relate to his experience of playing outside, of passing from a state of total unawareness of time passing to a kind of bitterness about it to death. While not everyone enjoys a happy, carefree childhood, we can all agree that children deserve as much; and most of us grapple with some fear or anxiety around inevitable change, aging and death.
- Shmoop: http://www.shmoop.com/fern-hill/ [accessed 8/06/17]
- Youtube recording of Richard Burton reading Fern Hill: https://www.google.fr/search?q=fern+hill+richard+burton&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=aMc5WeyYJqzEgAbegqLoAQ [accessed 8/06/17]