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‘Fern Hill’ is a kind of tone poem, a musical form reclaimed for literature by Dylan Thomas. In six stanzas, he evokes the innocence and wonder of childhood and sets it against the inexorable advance of time and death.
The first stanza introduces the theme with a lilting rhythm and a long melody line that is sustained at a moderate pace, each phrase ending on a rising note, until the stanza ends with a rallentando and a falling note on the last line. The stanza goes from:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
The second stanza is, in musical terms, an almost exact repetition of the first, a re-statement of the theme, and hearing it again makes us more aware of some of its key features. In particular, we hear again and again, phrases that are essentially variations on a theme, both in sound and meaning. ‘Young and easy’ in the first stanza becomes ‘green and carefree’ in the second, ‘about the lilting house’ becomes ‘about the happy yard’, ‘golden in the heydays of his eyes’ becomes ‘golden in the mercy of his means’ and so on.
But we become aware in the second stanza of something we might have missed in the first: the passage of time. ‘Time let me play and be’ in the second, coming after ‘In the sun that is young once only’, reminds us of ‘Time let me hail and climb’ in the first, but this time sounds a different note, something ominous, a note of warning. There is something different too in the lines which end the second stanza, slowing down even more than those which ended the first.
And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
The rhyming words, ‘slowly’ and ‘holy’, are still echoing as the stanza concludes with ‘streams’. They toll like a bell.
The poem comes to a momentary halt, a thoughtful pause, then races off again at breakneck speed.
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
And fire green as grass.
This is the scherzo. It has a different shape from the first two stanzas, though it looks the same on paper, two contrasting halves, one of daytime, the other of night, ‘all the sun long’ in the first half, ‘all the moon long’ in the second.
Then comes something like an anthem, beginning with:
… the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden
and ending with:
… the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
After this interlude, the fifth stanza returns to the form and mood of the first. ‘And honoured among foxes and pheasants’ it begins, echoing ‘honoured among wagons’ and ‘famous among the barns’. But soon we hear again the tolling of the bell, as time, halfway through the stanza, makes his next appearance.
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning, so few and such morning songs.
A presence we hardly noticed to begin with now forces itself on our attention and becomes the dominant theme for the rest of the poem. There is no break between the fifth stanza and the last, which begins with a variation on the lines that precede it.
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.
In this way, as much by musical means as by the meaning of the words, we are led to the poem’s conclusion, in which the child’s innocent delight is held in balance with the adult premonition.
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.
In ‘Fern Hill’, Dylan Thomas wrote a poem as insistent on the power of the human spirit in the face of death as he did in ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. In both, it is the musical quality of his writing, whether in the manner of Claude Debussy or Charles Wesley, that gives it such force and lifts the spirit of the listener. The best way to appreciate that is to listen to Dylan Thomas himself reading them, which you can do by clicking on the titles.
Next week’s Reader’s Diary will be posted on 26 February.
The week after that, on 5 March, I will be writing about banker and children’s author, Kenneth Grahame.
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