Part 2 – Project 3: Exercise 3

This exercise asks us to attempt a close reading of Dylan Thomas’ poem Fern Hill. The instructions suggest making an entry into your learning log and jotting down some notes as follows:

• What’s the mood of the poem? How does it make you feel?

The overall mood is light and happy. It makes me feel the freedom of childhood. At the end, however, the narrator appears to accept the fact that these days are gone, and the poem takes a turn for the more serious

• What poetic devices does Thomas use and what effect do they have on the poem? Use the list above to help you.

In the first line, Thomas uses assonance:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

There is also assonance in lines 7 and 8 (as well as further on in the poem):

And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
          Trail with daisies and barley

As this poem has no explicit rhymes, and a meandering sort of structure, the assonance helps give rhythm to the poem and adds some ‘middle rhymes’.

Thomas makes use of alliteration is various places, for example, here in line 2:

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

Again, the alliterations adds a musical effect to the sentences, which is most prominent when read aloud.

There are instances of repetition, such as here in stanza 3:

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.
     And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
     Flying with the ricks, and the horses
          Flashing into the dark.

Repetition serves to highlight and emphasise. In this case, the narrator has so much to say about his childhood at Fern Hill that he’s just blurting it out as it comes into his head – one idea after another – without much pause. It draws our attention to the fact that this was a fun and full childhood.

There are examples of consonance in Fern Hill, such as in stanza 6:

     I should hear him fly with the high fields

Again, consonance serves to improve the rhythm and add some middle rhyme.

Thomas’s similes, such as this one in stanza 3, help us to really see what the author is trying to describe:

          And fire green as grass.

There is another metaphor in stanza 4, which compares the farm to the garden of Eden, as if it was a paradise:

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, it was Adam and maiden,

One of the poetic devices that Thomas uses over and over in Fern Hill is that of personification. Specifically, here are some instances of time being personified:

 Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

Time let me play and be
     Golden in the mercy of his means,

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying

These examples talk about time like it is an entity that ‘allowed’ the narrator to enjoy himself, but he was also at time’s ‘mercy’. There is also some repetition in these lines.

Overall, these poetic devices serve to emphasise important points and/or improve the rhythm and ‘musical tone’ of the poem.

• How do the poetic devices help evoke the themes of time and place? Can you identify any other theme running through this poem?

The obvious themes of time and place serve to highlight the other running theme of a carefree childhood/youth.

When it comes to place, there is a lot of visual imagery. In the opening lines of the first three stanzas, for example, Thomas talks about how young he is and how he spent his time playing around the farm:

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…

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home…

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…

There is repetition that highlights the theme of youth. Thomas uses the colour green frequently to describe himself as young, as well as the word golden, to show that time was favouring him. In two places he repeats the phrases ‘young and easy’ and ‘nothing I cared’ to show how carefree he recalls his childhood to be.

Thomas describes the new days/nights using visual imagery like ‘…In the sun born over and over…’, and metonyms such as ‘…all the moon long I heard…’, which makes the movement of time in this poem more interesting than just saying ‘every new day’ and ‘at night I heard’. The narrator actually mentions the moon twice, the stars twice and the sun four times, in the course of describing days and nights coming and going.

The repetition I mentioned in the previous section adds a childlike quality to this part of the poem:

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.
     And nightly under the simple stars

It’s written in the same way a child might keep blurting out ideas as they come into his head – and this, and that, and the other – with repeating words (e.g. lovely) and possible exaggerations (e.g. hay fields as high as the house).

Finally, we have the personification of time as  acting like an authority figure that ‘allowed’ the narrator to enjoy his ‘green’ days.

Time let me hail and climb
     Golden in the heydays of his eyes,

Time let me play and be
     Golden in the mercy of his means,

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying

Personifying time in this way highlights the importance of the concept to the narrator, indeed, the main theme of this poem is the short amount of time we have to enjoy the carefree days of childhood, before it’s snatched away from us. It also brings the (some might argue, abstract) concept of time to life. Which is more interesting, dramatic and impactful: ‘I had time to play and be young’ or ‘Time let me play and be golden in the mercy of his means’?

Finally, if we have a look at some of the verbs used in the poem – climb, singing, playing, running, raced – we can see how they evoke the mood of a childhood spent having fun in the outdoors.

• What is the poem saying about time and place (and any other theme you’ve identified)?

The place that the poem talks about is believed to be Dylan Thomas’ aunt and uncle’s farm ‘Fern Hill’ in the small village of Llangain. Thomas often stayed with them in the school holidays, but was just 11 when his family moved from Fern Hill.

The poem talks about Fern Hill in a way that leads us to believe the narrator had wonderful childhood memories of the farm. He talks about himself being honoured among wagons, foxes, and pheasants, as well as being prince of the apple towns, herdsman, and huntsman. It sounds like Fern Hill was a place where he felt at home, and where the animals of the farm were used to him being around.

Thomas describes the farm in the mornings as ‘…like a wanderer white
with the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all shining, it was Adam and maiden…’. He is painting a picture of Fern Hill being like a paradise.

With regards to the theme of time, the narrator spends the first five stanzas talking about Fern Hill from the point of view of his childlike self, before ending the poem looking at it through an adults eyes.

Time is personified as an entity throughout the poem and for most of it, the narrator talks about how he is ‘green and carefree’ and how time allows him to ‘hail and climb’ and how he is ‘golden in the heydays of his eyes’. Thomas describes the days as if endless in ways such as ‘…in the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways…’.

It is only at the end of the fifth verse that the narrator starts to talk about how, as a child, he didn’t realise how few carefree days we really get before we are no longer young children and time moves us on, as illustrated in this passage:

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
     Before the children green and golden
          Follow him out of grace,

In the final verse, spoken now as an adult looking back on his childhood days, Thomas describes not realising that each night, time took him by the hand:

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,

Or that every night when he slept, time flew over the fields and that he would wake to the farm no longer being his childhood playground.

          Nor that riding to sleep
     I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Finally, the narrator says that even children cannot escape the fact that time is always leading us one step closer to death, although in this case, he was obliviously singing in his chains.

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.

The other theme running through the poem is childhood/youth, and Fern Hill highlights how, for this narrator anyway, his time as a boy at the farm was carefree and fun, filled with running, climbing and playing, and that time was not even something that was on his radar.

• What lines or images stay with you? What do they remind you of or how do they make you feel?

I particularly like the images of the young boy playing under the apple trees, or singing in the farm yard, or running through the ‘house high hay’. I grew up in a very urban area, but this is exactly what I’d imagine life to be like on a farm 100 years ago. It makes me feel happy that this little boy got to have that experience.

• What’s the rhythm like? Is it choppy or is it flowing and smooth? How does the rhythm impact on the poem?

At first read, I found the rhythm quite odd, but having read it loud myself numerous times, and having heard it read by both Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton, I find the rhythm actually quite smooth. The long sentences sound dramatic when read out loud, and the alliteration, assonance, and consonance help to bring a musical quality to some otherwise lengthy verses.

• Is the ‘speaker’ important? What are his views? Are they apparent or inferred?

In this poem, the speaker’s views and memories are the whole poem and to me they are very apparent. His childhood views are that time is on his side, allowing him to play and be carefree, and his adult views near the end of the poem are that time was never really on his side to begin with, and he was always just marching towards death, whether he was ignorant of that fact or not.

• Are there any lines you don’t get? Can you hazard a guess as to what they mean or allude to?

It took me a while to get what some of the phrases meant, but having read line by line, even word by word, I understand most of them. The section I still can’t really interpret is the bold part below, in the fourth stanza:

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, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
     And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable
          On to the fields of praise.

If I had to guess, I’d say that ‘the sky gathered again, and the sun grew round that very day’, just means that the sky was becoming lighter as the sun rose and became round in the sky, as opposed to the shape it is as it rises up from the horizon.

‘So it must have been after the birth of the simple light in the first, spinning place…’ is the most confusing part of this to me. As Thomas has already referenced the bible when speaking about ‘Adam and maiden’, I am taking ‘the birth of the simple light’ to mean when God created light (Genesis 1). Perhaps the spinning place is the earth, spinning on it’s axis? And then the horses walking out into the warm sun, could reference the 6th day of creation when God created the ‘beast of the earth according to its kind’ and ‘man in His own image’.

Overall, my guess is that Thomas is boldly comparing waking up on the farm each day to waking up in the garden of Eden after God had created light, animals, and man.

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