Close reading of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas
• What’s the mood of the poem? How does it make you feel? The first half of the poem has a mood of exaltation, excitement, and joyful nostalgia. It makes me feel inspired and happy and makes me think of sweeter, more innocent times. The second half of the poem loses some of it’s enthusiasm and begins to evoke a sadder, more serious mood.
• What poetic devices does Thomas use and what effect do they have on the poem? Use the list above to help you. Thomas uses many poetic devices to achieve strong imagery. In fact, there are so many examples that I feel a bit intimidated in identifying them. Some examples that I found for each poetic device include:
Rhyme: Fern Hill doesn’t follow a specific rhyme scheme nor has rhyming line endings. However, it does make great use of internal and assonant rhymes. This makes the poem unpredictable at first glance, while also making it sound more natural and speech-like than one with a more traditional rhyme scheme. After listening to Thomas’s reading I was able to spot some internal rhymes, such as ‘as…was’, ‘boughs…house’, ‘me…be’, ‘only…slowly…holy’, ‘sang…rang’, ‘means…streams’, ‘lovely…watery’, ‘stars…nightjars’, ‘white…light’, ‘place…praise’, ‘house…clouds’, ‘long…songs’, ‘ways…grace’, ‘swallow…shadow’, ‘rising…riding’, ‘fly…high’, ‘and…land’, ‘me…sea’.
Rhythm: Because there are internal rhymes rather than ending rhymes, I am forced to pause inside the lines rather than just at the end. He carefully places stressed and unstressed words in just the right places to create a specific rhythm; I would describe it as lilting and swaying.
Repetition: There all kinds of repetition in this poem, both in the structure of the poem and in the choice of words. There are 6 stanzas, each with 9 lines and a repeating syllable count pattern of 14, 14, 9, 6, 9, 14, 14, 7, 9 (except for the first and last stanzas, in which one of the lines has 15 syllables). This gives the poem a structure of its own and makes it sound like a song. There are 12 lines that start with ‘and’, which gives the poem continuity and helps connect each line or stanza to the next. Certain words are repeated throughout the poem, including ‘green’ (7), ‘time’ (6),’golden’ (4), ‘house’ (4), ‘sun’ (4), ‘young’ (3), ‘happy’ (3), ‘easy’ (2), and ‘lovely’ (2). The repetition of these words emphasises the way he feels about his memories.
Alliteration: Thomas uses alliteration as another way to obtain internal rhyme and to achieve a fluid, song-like rhythm. There are a lot of examples of alliteration in the poem, not only one line at a time but throughout entire stanzas and the whole poem. Some examples include ‘house…happy’, ‘grass…green’, ‘once only’, ‘mercy…means’, ‘green…golden’, ‘huntsman…herdsman’, ‘clear…cold’, ‘sabbath…slowly…streams’, ‘hay…high…house’, ‘simple stars’, ‘wanderer white’, ‘walking warm…whinnying’, ‘house high hay’, ‘trades…time…tuneful turning’, ‘fly…fields…farm forever fled’, ‘sang…sea’.
Assonance: Like alliteration, assonance abounds everywhere in this poem and is yet another way of creating internal rhyme and fluidity. It would be exhausting to cite all the examples of assonance with the vowel sound ‘a’, which serves as a link in the poem (as with ‘and’, ‘as’, ‘was’, ‘among’, ‘about’). Some more examples include ‘boughs…about…house’, ‘time…climb’, ‘honoured among wagons…towns’, ‘trees…leaves’, ‘trail…daisies’, ‘green…carefree‘, ‘sun…young’, ‘horn…foxes on…cold’, ‘sabbath rang’, ‘awake…farm…wanderer’, ‘come…cock on’, ‘walking warm’, ‘whinnying green’, ‘honoured among foxes’, ‘my sky‘, ‘morning songs’, ‘golden…follow…out of’, ‘swallow thronged loft…shadow of’, ‘forever fled…childless’.
Consonance: I notice a certain predominance of the consonant “s”, which gives the poem a certain clearness and crispness. In his reading, I couldn’t help relating this usage of the “s” sounds to the hissing sound of a snake; his dragging of the “s” sounds gives the poem a haunting undertone. Other examples of consonance include ‘Time let me hail…climb’, ‘honoured among wagons…prince…apple towns’, ‘trail…barley…windfall…light’, ‘And…green and…among…barns’, ‘farm…home’, ‘In…sun…young once only’, ‘green…golden…huntsman…herdsman…Sang/horn‘, ‘hills…clear…cold/’, ‘sabbath…slowly…pebbles…holy’, ‘rode…owls…were…bearing…farm…away’, ‘moon long…blessed among stables…nightjars‘, ‘ricks…horses…dark’, ‘come back…cock‘, ‘Adam…maiden’, ‘honoured among foxes…pheasants’, ‘Under…the…made…clouds’, ‘In…sun born…and’, ‘tuneful turning…morning songs, ‘children green…golden‘, ‘farm forever fled from the childless land‘, ‘green…dying…sang…chains’.
Personification: Thomas mostly uses personification to emphasise the importance of time in the poem; ‘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’, ‘that time allows / In all his tuneful turning’, ‘Follow him out of grace’, ‘time would take me‘, ‘hear him fly’, ‘mercy of his means’, ‘Time held me‘. Time holds power over the narrator and is the one allowing him to live.
He also uses personification with other elements, such as ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘the sun that is young‘, ‘simple stars’, ‘the owls were bearing the farm away‘, ‘the farm…the cock on his shoulder’, ‘the sky gathered again’, the sun grew round‘, ‘birth of the simple light’, ‘spinning place’, ‘the whinnying green stable’, ‘gay house’, ‘the sun born over and over’, ‘my wishes raced through the…hay’, ‘farm forever fled‘. These examples look very natural and inconspicuous within the context of the poem and it took me several readings to wonder about them. I feel that since Time is personified from the very beginning, the following examples go a bit unnoticed by blending in with the imagery and all the adjectives.
Simile: The similes work to exaggerate, personify, or describe the narrator’s memories or certain elements of the farm. For example, ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘the hay / Fields high as the house’, ‘fire green as grass’, ‘the farm, like a wanderer white’, ‘happy as the heart was long’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’.
Metaphor: It was a bit difficult to identify the metaphors in this poem, as I feel like the entire poem is a metaphor. The colors themselves are metaphors, with green alluding to youth/happiness/carefreeness, white to innocence/exploration, blue to carefreeness, and golden to freedom/prime of life; ‘Golden in the heydays of his eyes’, ‘I was green and carefree’, ‘Golden in the mercy of his means’, ‘a wanderer white‘, ‘nothing I cared, in my sky blue trades’, ‘the children green and golden‘, ‘lamb white days’, ‘green and dying’.
Some metaphors are there to reinforce his precious childhood memories and the fact that he felt so in control that he could compare himself to a ruler of a kingdom, ‘And honoured among wagons’, ‘I was prince of the apple towns’, ‘I lordly had the trees and leaves’, ‘famous among the barns’, ‘I was huntsman and herdsman‘, ‘I rode to sleep’, ‘blessed among stables’, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’.
Others still help evoke the holiness, light, and sacredness of the farm, ‘rivers of the windfall light‘, ‘the sabbath rang slowly / In the pebbles of the holy streams’, ‘the tunes from chimneys, it was air’, ‘horses / Flashing into the dark’, ‘it was Adam and maiden‘, ‘the birth of the simple light‘, ‘fields of praise‘.
• How do the poetic devices help evoke the themes of time and place? Can you identify any other theme running through this poem? The theme of time is strengthened by the use of personification (giving it power and a will of its own) and metaphors (showing changes in the perception of time).
The poem evokes a sense of place by providing strong imagery with the use of similes and metaphors. Place is personified by being described with human-like qualities, such as ‘happy’, ‘gay’, and ‘lovely’.
The overall use of all the other poetic devices mentioned above contribute to the poem’s changing moods about time and place; they help create the transition from exaltation to sorrow and from childhood to death.
Some other themes that I identified in the poem include childhood, innocence (and loss of it), beauty, nature, spirituality, and death.
• What is the poem is saying about time and place (and any other theme you’ve identified)? The narrator often mentions that he is at the mercy of time and how it allows him to live; it is an entity that has control over the narrator. The poem shows how we are unaware of the impermanence of life when we are young and carefree, but that as we grow older we come to the realisation that time is limited and our lives will eventually end. This realisation takes away some of our joy and innocence, thus childhood remains as the best memories of being almost rulers of the world. Place is incredibly important to the poem and, in fact, it is part of the reason for the child’s carefreeness and confidence. The memory of his childhood home seems to be so special and lovely that he now praises it as something sacred and perfect.
• What lines or images stay with you? What do they remind you of or how do they make you feel?
‘All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay / Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimney, it was air / And playing, lovely and watery’
This is the line that has most stayed with me, because it’s the one that makes the less sense but is the most expressive. It refers to something that is so good and so exciting that it can’t be described with ordinary language and instead ends up as a jumble of adjectives and feelings and images. It makes me think of my own carefree childhood of running around, playing, and just being myself.
• What’s the rhythm like? Is it choppy or is it flowing and smooth? How does the rhythm impact on the poem? I feel the rhythm of the poem is very fluid and melodic. Even though there are pauses inside the lines, the use of alliteration, assonance, and consonance gives the poem its continuity. This rhythm, accompanied by narrator’s praises, makes the poem similar to an ode. I can only describe Thomas’s own reading as incredibly beautiful.
• Is the ‘speaker’ important? What are his views? Are they apparent or inferred? The speaker is very important, seeing as the poem is made up of his memories of childhood and home. He is obviously very nostalgic and emotional about past times. The last two lines, ‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea’, shows that he is now aware that even while he was young and happy, time had a hold on him.
• Are there any lines you don’t get? Can you hazard a guess as to what they mean or allude to?
There were many lines that I didn’t get in the first few readings, but that I understood as I re-read and analysed the poem. There is still one line that I don’t understand, which is ‘Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand’. It seems to be referring to a room full of birds, though I don’t understand the relation of this to the context of this last stanza. The last part, ‘shadow of my hand’, might be referring to something dark and within himself.