“I see the boys of summer in their ruin
“Lay the gold tithings barren,
“Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils …”
Great store is set today by grit: telling it like it is, calling it as you see it, just “telling the damn story”. But where is the magic if you only speak of what is, and ignore what was and what will be? Time at the heart of being. It’s the tone of prophecy that sets Dylan Thomas apart from the other kind of poet. The magic of his words, that always seem to say more than you can decipher. That seem to do things you cannot explain.
Ruining summer by bringing in the frost. Pointing out the maggots when the flowers are out for all to enjoy. The prophetic poet is not looking to be popular. Wailing over the sound of boys playing, the lazy summer buzz, the poet sees death in everything. The flowers are bright and make up the whole scene, but soon enough they must die.
“Flower, flower, all all and all.”
The flower connects the human being with the earth. It is alive, but of the earth. It is living but is of matter only, and without the spirit, and so is of the earth.
The flower, as plant, stands between the mineral – the dry unaliveness of earth – and the animal – the spirit clothed in flesh for as long as it walks here. The flower is all, tells us all, because it stands at the very centre of creation.
The flower blooms in its garden, our living world, which stands in the midst of the dry earth around and above the fires that roil beneath the surface; the flower and its all-embracing idea exist only in our hemmed-in world of the living. All beyond is darkness and death, dryness and desert. The poet reminds us of the smallness of the flower, and the smallness of life. Why?
Because beauty is only beauty when small and fragile, precarious and evanescent. And the poet’s business is beauty. And so he gives us the sublime – the eternal darkness before and after death, and the vast deserts where life cannot thrive – so that the beautiful can stand out for us in its moment.
And yet … our living life, our fluid spirit, is in the world which is also dryness and death. You cannot have one without the other. But it is so much easier to focus on life, and put thoughts of death aside. And so you tell it like it is, and talk only of “the working world.” Of the ceaseless activity of the human spirit.
And talk of the working world brings its own worries and fears. Unspoken but present. All the answers are supposed to be here. We’ve been honest haven’t we? Called it as we saw it? Told it like it is? But something is missing …
“Fear not the working world, my mortal …”
Remember you are mortal, the poet is saying. Look past the working world. “This too shall pass” is the lesson. And with awareness of mortality comes freedom and vision. The working world will do what it will, but it can only hold you for so long. And then you will be free, as you were free before. And with this knowledge, you cannot but be free now.
I read an article that suggested that “the cities of nine / Days’ night whose towers will catch / In the religious wind / like stalks of tall, dry straw” could be read as a prophecy of 9/11 … Please no, not this. This is not the kind of prophecy we find in Thomas. He does not prophesy the events of the working world. His prophecy is certain: that you will die, and all this will die. And so gives meaning to life above anything those who live and die distracted in the cities’ bustle can give you. Here, by his “breakneck of rocks” looking out by the sea the poet is troubled, “at poor peace,” that he cannot reach those “eternal waters away,” cannot reach those who, for all their working cares, cannot see the reality of life and death. When the poet presents to us the rhythms of nature, he is showing us this reality of death in life.
The poet does not see everything, is not a seer. He is himself limited by the tools he has chosen: his words. “Shut, too, in a tower of words …” he sticks to what he knows, which is words. He is not an expert in nature or the human soul, but in words. But we have a lot still to learn about words, and so we can learn a lot about life by listening to the poet and seeing where the words go, and how they brush up against lived life.
The poet is not a seer, he just gives the impression of being one. This is his art. And words, his tools, are powerful and can often seem all-encompassing. As if all truths could be spoken. Tell it like it is, call it like you see it …
Perhaps the poet does try to say everything. But it is only in his failure to do this that he succeeds in the business of being a poet. Poetry is not about putting things neatly. It is not about spelling things out once and for all. It is about instilling in the mind of the reader a kind of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and providing fragments of a language by which this uncertainty might be navigated.
Certainty is the enemy of art. The poet points to the signs of death at the heart of life, and the readers’ certainties are shaken. And possibilities for new creation are opened up, again and again, at each reading.