I have been ill this week. Not badly ill—given what many people endure on a daily basis I really have no cause for complaint—but it put me out of the blogging business for a few days, and made me want to post something suitably illness-related tonight. Only my brain isn’t working as well as I’d like it to, and what few illness poems I was turning up were all for huge life-threatening illnesses, and weren’t speaking to me. I ended up deciding that, if I was going to take on a darker topic this Friday, it might as well be something much bigger and scarier than the common cold, so I decided to pick one of my favorite poems about death—a poem I have taught (though not well, I think), and a poem I still reflect on often. This is Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
I think my fascination with the poem begins with the title, since Thomas startles us with a “refusal to mourn”, then finishes the phrase with a death crying out for mourners. It’s a challenge to the reader: a poem that tells you at the outset it will confront a tragic death without sorrow. And then that great opening passage. Thomas is pretty fearless as a poet, and while this poem is in many ways more accessible than most of his stuff, he doesn’t hold back here, since from “Never” this is one long breathing-out until you arrive, airless, at “Shall I let pray”. What exists between those moments is an enormous parenthetical—the list of conditions Thomas is waiting for until he will allow himself tears. I know I tell you to read these aloud often, but you have to read Thomas aloud—you have to—because that’s the only way to hear what’s most beautiful about his talent with words. Maybe the poet who most improves on being heard aloud. The sound of the “sea tumbling in harness”, of the “round Zion of the water bead”. And it’s a distant and sad beauty, because it is the beauty of the end of all things—he will not mourn until the silent darkness has claimed the last light, until the sea is stilled, until his body has broken down to its most basic elements and is taken up again into the water and the earth.
And Thomas is relentless. He tells us over and over again what he will not do, what he cannot allow himself to do, until he reaches the last stanza. I’m glossing past a lot of good stuff, but I want to focus on the things that move me most about poetry, and a lot of it is here in this quiet farewell to the girl he refuses to mourn. She is deep, yes, but not alone. She lies “robed in the long friends”, and though I could not tell you who the long friends are, there is inside me a trust that Thomas knows what he is talking about. London’s daughter is unmourned by the river because she has moved, in some inexpressible way, closer to home…further away from the troubles of time. There is nothing sentimental about it. Thomas doesn’t evoke flowers or angels—only a sense of peace, a willingness to believe that death is not the end, no matter how much it serves as an end.
Because I read the poem that way, I take his ambiguous last line in a particular direction. It can certainly be read in many ways—as an argument that we experience so much death that each new one can hardly shock us, or that each death we experience is just a reliving of our memories from our first encounter. There may be other readings, too, that I’ve never considered. I think, though, that the poem ends with Thomas affirming the simple idea that, once we have died, it cannot happen again. I think some readers will take this ball and run with it—say that Thomas affirms the idea of bodily resurrection or Heaven or that little children’s souls are reborn as guardian angels—but I think Thomas was rarely that orthodox. What it does suggest to me, though, is that he has a confidence about the step after death. Whatever it is, he seems unafraid.
As always, I hope other people will comment. This is a “tough” poem in a couple of ways—tough in the emotion of its subject matter, and tough because Thomas doesn’t phrase things as neatly and clearly as, say, Robert Frost (which isn’t a criticism of either of them)—but I think it can be rewarding for that reason. Even if you’re just sharing a line or phrase that “worked” for you, or tripped you up, or made you a little choked up, I think that’s really interesting to me as a reader of poetry and someone who wants to see more in this poem than I already do. Have a good week, all of you, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly (this cold is not for the faint of heart!).