Understanding a poem is a matter of first and foremost understanding the poet. The individual poet's choice of words and emotions which grab the reader, make a connection, and then deliver an emotional message which leaves a lasting message can be achieved through a number of techniques. But the poet who achieves a lasting memory in the minds of hearts of his readers is a person who approached the pen and ink often from a radically different perspective or with an emotional charge to his life that others not only find fascinating, but envy. Such is the case of Dylan Thomas, a Welshman with a known history of avid drinking, little self-discipline, and a penchant for over-indulgence which lead him to an early grave.
As a young child, Thomas loved the written word. He began writing his first poems at 8 or 9, while his attention was fixed in familiar nursery rhymes. Of his writing, and his love of early childhood rhymes, Dylan wrote this to an American admirer:
The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant was of very secondary importance -- what mattered was the very sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and quite incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And those words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk carts, the clapping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing." (Neuroticpoets.com/Thomas, online)
His first love was not far from his poem Fern Hill and can bee seen in the shades of this famous work. The smooth meter, and ambient rhyming scheme points the reader in the direction of nursery rhymes. At a time when other writers, such as William Carlos Williams, were experimenting with free verse, and word structures which resembled nothing like the poetry which had come before it, Thomas maintained a more traditional and romantic approach to his poems. Williams, and other modern poets of this same time period, attempted to create utterly new styles in poetry, having been influenced by the turning of the 20th century with all the expectations of newness and invitation which came with it.
Thomas could more appropriately be called the Robert Frost of the welsh isles. Influenced by traditional childhood literature and having a love for nature, these structured and themes often appeared in his works, inspiring readers to find the beauty in simple landscapes, and relate their worlds to the green hills, and crisp breezes which were a part of Thomas' childhood.
The poem Fern Hill is a beautiful look back at the time when life, like the green hills in the springtime, is fresh. Thomas used the metaphor of spring, and newly mowed hay to represent his own remembrance of youth. The imagery supports the metaphor, in which Thomas describes a welsh country farm as if on the back of a wagon sitting just outside the family barn. He picked this setting as an emotional benchmark. In the same way that the smells and sounds, as well as the images are a part of his memory, so is his picture of youth, full of fresh and new sounds smells, hopes and dreams. However neither the poem nor the reader is allowed to stay in the place of fresh greenness nor does childhood hope. In the last few lines, Thomas turns his poem back to the reality of time, and the reader is left with a bit of sorrow on his palette as he considers the poets' waning years.
The following images and pictured are taken directly from the poem, and will be evaluated line by line in order to uncover Thomas' purpose in this classic poem.
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
Thomas uses this setting to set the stage of time, as wall as the emotions of his youth. As a child in the countryside, he romped under the apple tree boughs, and remembers the scent of the ripening apples. And while nature turned around him slowly, so did the days of his youth, which allowed him the time to climb trees, and lay in the green grass, just as happy in his youth as the grass was green, and consider the stars which hung in the sky above the 'dingle' or the small hollow which his house inhabited.
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
Thomas looks back, and sees that these days were the best of his memory. The hey day, the pinnacle of success as when the farmers brought in the hay for market, so were the days when Thomas played on the family wagon. His memory of these times lifts him, at least in his own memory, to a level of prince, or leader of the entire town.
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 key to these verses is the use of leadership, and words which refer to ruling, or reigning. He was the king of his day. The prince of the apple town, even the trees and the leaves made a trail behind him as he walked through the hillsides. This day, the time of his youth, was the day of his highest achievement.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Thomas continues to use the metaphor of the spring day as a measuring of his youth. Even the sun enters into the imagery in the stanza. The sun, rising in the east is young only once during the entire day. When it appears on the horizon, it is young, and golden, casting playful shadows and warming the cool earth. So is youth for Thomas. Happy, and golden, he plays in the fields, undoubtedly singing the nursery rhymes he learned as a child.
At this point, Thomas begins to foreshadow the coming loss of youth. He points out that the sun allowed him the time to play, and the Sabbath day, a day of rest, waited slowly for him to sit by the side of the stream and throw pebbles into the babbling brook. As an adult, time moves too quickly, and often prevents us from such enjoyment. So the imagery of the early morning sun, and the green countryside are both a reflection of his remembrance of his youth.
Stanza Three talks of the day ending, and with the end of the day, Thomas' youth, and his carefree time in the hollows of he green hills are over until he returns. He uses the sounds of the farm as reminders of his time there, but in the night, as he grows older, his memory of the place is like the night sounds somewhere off in the distance. As an older man, the day returns in the fourth stanza, and so does the wandering Thomas.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Thomas returns to the farm country as an old man. He says that the place is like the freshness of dew on the grass in the morning, and one can imagine walking across a field in the early morning hours. The dew carries the scent of cool green grass, and wets the tops of his shoes until they are soaked through.
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
Just as Adam and Eve where the first man and woman, so he feels as he returns as a man to his childhood garden of Eden. And although the sun and the sky are the same, he seems to have changed, as he speaks of in the next few lines.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm