One of the nice things about inching my forward through 20th Century poetry is that I get to keep revisiting old favorites, poets who gain maturity each time I find them (this aids some, and works against others). Here in 1943, I get to jump into a slim little volume called New Poems, a brief collection of what Dylan Thomas, the Welsh genius, had been working on in the early 1940s. This is Dylan’s 4th appearance here on a Poetry Friday, and so it’s time to delve just a little deeper, I think, than the man’s most famous poems. I’ll admit at the outset that what makes him a genius also makes him sometimes challenging to read, but I’ve selected a poem that I, at least, feel I can wrestle with somewhat successfully, and I hope you find a lot to like about it. This is a poem entitled “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid Was a Man Aged One Hundred”:
“When the morning was waking over the war
He put on his clothes and stepped out and he died,
The locks yawned loose and a blast blew them wide,
He dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone
And the funeral grains of the slaughtered floor.
Tell his street on its back he stopped a sun
And the craters of his eyes grew springshoots and fire
When all the keys shot from the locks, and rang.
Dig no more for the chains of his grey haired heart.
The heavenly ambulance drawn by a wound
Assembling waits for the spade’s ring on the cage.
O keep his bones away from that common cart,
The morning is flying on the wings of his age
And a hundred storks perch on the sun’s right hand.”
Dylan brings the realities of war in a besieged Britain to the surface here, in a poem that’s as bluntly and plainly titled as his perhaps-more-famous “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” which I’ve reflected on before. Unlike a lot of his work, then, we get to begin with our bearings well in hand—we know the situation, and we have no need to ask who the “he” is who appears almost immediately. This is where I think Dylan’s power is most effective—when he restrains his wild menagerie of images just enough to turn these lines out that are direct enough to land a blow. The morning comes to the city, seemingly an indication of hope and survival, and then out of nowhere this aged man “put on his clothes and stepped out and he died”. And then the rest of the poem is Dylan urging the poem on at the highest speed he can risk, letting the horses run a little wild in places (and unloading phrases that are almost impossible to make rational sense of) and then raining them in enough to keep us aware of the situation and what he means to say.
There are images that almost seem to possess Dylan Thomas at times—they surface again and again in poems written one after the other, as though he cannot quite capture the image in his head, or else the image is taking over his art. The use of keys and locks is one of those images in New Poems, and so I wonder what the presence of that image means here: I get the impression, in this context, of our defenselessness against this kind of raw violence. No locked front door could protect him; indeed, the locks themselves, these sturdy metal structures that are symbolic of security, fly apart in the urgent power of the blast. The image swarms up to and surrounds that sad image of the old man dying “where he loved on the burst pavement stone”, the whole familiar scene of his home and his block turning into an altar, or a tomb. And there, packed in among these images, is another of Dylan’s favorite images—the association of death and the dead with “grains” (something he does also in the poem about the child killed by fire in London), these seeds that lie in wait for some kind of rebirth. And then there’s something lovely about the way Dylan weaves these images together in the next few lines, as that familiar old pavement, broken under the blast, becomes personified—we should tell the street, he says, of the old man’s glorious end. Because it does seem suddenly glorious, as that aging body “stopped a sun”, a power that seems almost divine, and out of that shattered form the shoots of spring, the grains that will grow, come bursting along with that fire that consumes.
And then he executes the turn (yes, once again, we are inside a sonnet with another old master), the shift in tone from the octet that established our scene to the sestet that will change the poem somehow (teach us? surprise us?). And what are we told? Do not seek the old man out—let him go, it seems to say, because the moment his blood struck the ground, it called out to Heaven. There is an assembly gathered now invisible, waiting for the ring of the spade and the fall of earth that will release him from these chains. And what is “that common cart” we are to protect him from? I’m not quite sure—there are associations there for me with the carts of the dead from plague-infected villages, or the dismal poverty of medieval serfs or squalid Victorian street merchants. I can’t quite tell why Dylan wants him protected from whatever this is. It seems to me though that, on some level, if we can protect the old man here at the last, that will allow this startling beauty to emerge at the end of the poem. The morning is soaring now on “the wings of his age”—in dying, he has given something back to the world that animates it, surges the dawn’s light onwards. Who are those hundred storks, then? Emblematic of the children entering the world to renew it? Or simply the years of his life, flown now to some more wondrous realm? Whatever it is, it strikes me as optimistic and confident—a poem about death that is determined to end in hope.
I’ll admit, as much as I find a lot of beauty in the poem, I think it’s ultimately a little ambiguous, or at least I’m not totally sure I know how we’re supposed to take it. The old man’s rebirth may be a more personal assurance—Dylan Thomas’s obsession with the ideas of resurrection and reincarnation (which reappear in other poems of his) taking this one death and calming us with the certainty that the 100 years of life ended in that bomb’s blast are not all there is for the man (and, by extension, for us). But I see at least some indications that this may be a larger statement about societal survival, something important to all of Great Britain at the time: the old man passes and the block is destroyed, but the street survives and it is time for us to turn our thoughts to the living and to the future (again, possibly as symbolized by the storks?). Regardless, it’s a poem that reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s power as a writer, and as I weave these images in with images I see elsewhere in his poetry, I think I get closer to an understanding of what all his art may have been driving at. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him here on the blog.