Sunday Poetry: Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas

Fern Hill
by Dylan Thomas

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,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

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.

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.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
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,

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,
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.
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.

I first came across this poem when I was traveling alone on my way to meet a friend in Ireland. A series of Britrail mishaps caused me to be stranded in Swansea, Wales for a couple days, with nothing planned and no way to contact my friend to tell him I was delayed. (This was in the Dark Ages, before the internet and cell phones.) I spent my days wandering through the gruff, gray and untouristy streets of Swansea, and found a beautiful park overlooking the sea. I happened upon a rock with the final three lines of the poem inscribed on it – I believe this is a photo of the same rock.

At the time, I had little background on Dylan Thomas. Like everyone else in the English-speaking world, I knew of his famous villanelle, do not go gentle into that good night, though I did not yet appreciate how difficult it is to write a villanelle. I probably knew that he drank himself to death, but that is probably about all.

A few months later I saw his memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, and it was both odd and reaffirming to see such a notorious rabble-rouser memorialized in such a dignified spot. This past spring, I visited the pub in Greenwich Village where he drank a dozen and half whiskeys on his final evening alive, at the age of 39.

While reading his words in a park where he roamed as a child is a fine way to acquaint yourself with Dylan Thomas, perhaps an even better way is to listen to the poet read his own poem. The first 4 minutes of this Youtube video offer that opportunity, though, if you’re not quick to leave the page after the poem, you’ll have the mood blown by Led Zeppelin. Count yourself warned.

For me, Dylan Thomas hits that sweet spot of poetry, where the words and meaning elevate each other. Much awful popular poetry consists of “heavy” thoughts expressed in academic words, and much awful academic poetry consists of meaningless word play without true rhythm. In Dylan Thomas, you get food for thought and music for the soul. Once you hear his voice intone “Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea”, you sense his boundless energy bound into mortal limitations. If you’re 20 years old, and reading those words overlooking the sea in the park where Dylan Thomas spent his youth, they strike deep, and stick with you forever.

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