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Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or to give it its full title, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798, has long been one of my favourite poems. So has Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October. But it was only a few days ago, when I was reading Wordsworth’s poem again and it brought the other one to mind, that I realised how similar they are.
Wordsworth gives his poem a very precise date. Dylan Thomas gives the month and tells us in the first line that it is his thirtieth birthday, which makes the day in question October 27 1944. What might seem at first no more than a curious coincidence turns out, as we read on, to be the first indication of each poem’s concern with time and its passing, a concern which each poet states in the opening lines.
Five years have past; five summers with the length
Of five long winters!
It was my thirtieth year to heaven…
Wordsworth, by repeating the word ‘five’ three times and comparing summer with winter, makes those five years feel longer. Dylan Thomas makes us aware at the outset that time is ever moving, his birthday a reminder that death (heaven) is his ultimate destination.
Both poets then turn to their surroundings, giving us what, in each case, are among their most memorable lines of descriptive verse.
… and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur…
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist…
Time and place come together in both poems when the poet remembers his childhood. The place is the same, but he has changed.
That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures.
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
But neither poet is content with a nostalgic longing for the past. Each remembers his childhood without regret as the necessary prelude to something deeper and longer lasting.
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity.
And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
Both poems embody a sense of the mysterious power that nature itself had over the poet in his childhood and that, in the present moment, it still has.
… that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
And the mystery
Still in the water and the singingbirds.
Both poets end their poems by looking to the future. For Wordsworth, hope in the future is closely bound up with his love for his sister, in whom, rather than in himself, he puts his faith.
… when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies…
In Dylan Thomas’s poem, the only other person he mentions is his mother, remembering
… when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light…
But he too ends the poem by looking forward.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
There are of course differences between the poems too, but they are differences of style rather than substance. Wordsworth is more meditative, his lines are longer, his voice is that of someone thinking aloud, the form is blank verse. Wordsworth in this poem, as in The Prelude, follows in the footsteps of Shakespeare.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Although the form is different, closer in structure to something by John Donne, with lines of different length and a strict, though subtle, rhyming scheme, Poem in October is a meditation too. Look at it carefully and you see that each verse is a sentence, except for the last two, which are made up of three and four sentences respectively and have the effect of slowing down the poem (and the thought process) before it reaches its conclusion. Listen to Dylan Thomas himself reading it and you hear the subordinate clauses of which each sentence is made up turned into one over-arching line that carries the meaning. In other words, sentence structure and poetic structure work on different levels, both equally important, combining to give the poem depth and complexity.
Each poet is of his age. You would not expect a twentieth century poet to write, as Wordsworth does, about ‘that best portion of a good man’s life, his little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love’. Only Dylan Thomas could write about ‘the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall’ or ‘a springful of larks in a rolling cloud’. And yet in each there is a lyricism which is expressed as much in the rhythm of the lines as in the words themselves. There is in each as well something that comes close at times to ecstasy in his response to nature and the hidden power that nature represents. Both poems are, in the end, an expression of very similar feelings on very similar occasions, a birthday, an anniversary, whose very particularity makes them universal.
Instead of the usual essay, my post on Christmas Day will be a short story. I hope you enjoy it!
The next entry in my READER’S DIARY is due on 18 December and will be about whatever I’ve been reading lately.
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