Try a close reading of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, a poem that addresses the course themes of time and place. You’ll find it online. Print out at least one copy so that you can annotate it. (It may be found at https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/fern-hill/)
Read the poem carefully at least twice before you attempt this exercise. There are several readings on YouTube, including a reading by Dylan Thomas himself and a reading by the actor Richard Burton. Try and listen to one of these; you’ll find it’s a completely different experience to reading a poem in your head.
Make an entry into your learning log and jot down some notes:
There then follow a number of questions. I have answered each question directly:
A suggested, I printed a copy of the poem and annotated it with my first impressions, trying to get a sense of the overall story and style of the poem. I then listened to Thomas and Burton reading it. Preferring the latter, I listened to Richard Burton read it a couple more times. I then tried to do the close reading. Finally, I researched on the internet. Here are my thoughts; the research is in a separate paragraph.
My response to Fern Hill (taking each question in turn.)
What’s the mood of the poem? How does it make you feel?
For me it was a celebration of the joys of childhood spent in a beautiful rural setting. There is a sense of time being plentiful and the land full of noise, life and colour. The sun is always shining and though there are clouds, the sky is blue. There are many references to his childhood being care-free, innocent and without any responsibilities. Yet the final three lines strike a very melancholy note. The personification of time holding him “…green and dying…” conveyed, to me, the sense of Thomas’s childhood being so much more joyous than his adulthood.
What poetic devices does Thomas use and what effect do they have on the poem? Use the list above to help you?
The personification of time stood out first. In the first stanza Thomas is master of what he surveys; he was “prince of the apple towns” and he “lordly had the trees and leaves”. Yet in the same stanza, Time lets him hail and climb. In this subtle use of words, Thomas is already indicating that Time is actually in charge.
Alliteration is used often, for example “…lilting house and happy” and “…the grass was green”. Both of these occur in the first stanza and so our attention is drawn very quickly to how joyous staying in the house was whilst emphasising the beauty of the rural surroundings. There are many more examples; “…green and golden…” and “…huntsman and herdsman…” It also brings a lyrical quality to the writing.
He uses assonance at times. I particularly liked this example from the opening of the second stanza; “I was green and carefree…” Emphasis is again given to his innocence but as with the alliteration above, the poem is being given a beautiful sense of rhyme and rhythm.
The 5th, 7th and 9th lines of the third stanza end with stars, nightjars and dark. This combination of consonance and rhyme (again) gives the poem its rhythm.
An example of a simile occurs in the third stanza; “…green as grass.”
In truth, I think he uses every item in the list given in the course materials! The net effect is to give the poem an almost song-like quality. I must confess to not really recognising this until hearing Richard Burton reading it.
How do the poetic devices help evoke the themes of time and place? Can you identify any other theme running through this poem?
The repetitive use of Time (it starts the 4th line of the first two stanzas) emphasises its importance to the poem. Its use in an entirely different context in the penultimate line of the final stanza evokes melancholy, where it now emphasises the darker mood at the close of the poem.
As mentioned above, the personification of time also shows us how Thomas in particular, and all of us in general, are the servants of time.
The combination of rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance all work to draw attention to the beauty of Fern Hill. The “trees and leaves”, “huntsman and herdsman”, foxes barking “clear and cold”, “tuneful turning”, “green and golden” and so many more, convey a place of rural beauty.
The other themes that struck me included the innocence of youth and the joy that came from being without responsibility. I thought there was a more subtle theme hidden with the poem. He conveys a sense of being the master of all he surveys. He was “…honoured among wagons” and the prince of the “…apple towns.” He was beholden to no person and no thing, except time.
What lines or images stay with you? What do they remind you of or how do they make you feel?
There are so many. If I had to pick two or three, it would be the ultimate mastery of time, the beauty of the rural setting and the joy of youth. As for my feelings?
As somebody who is 60 at his next birthday, the mastery of time is starting to be felt now!
The beauty of the rural setting has some resonance. Five years ago my wife and I moved from a semi-rural town in south-east Surrey to Brighton. Our house is in the centre, across the road from the Brighton Pavilion. I really never thought I would miss the proximity of the countryside but the truth is I am starting to.
The joy of youth produces an entirely different reaction in me. As a teacher, I am only too aware of how the joy of youth is not a universal experience. Whilst I had a happy childhood, and clearly Thomas enjoyed his time at Fern Hill, it is easy to forget the misery that some children suffer. Although it is tempting to infer universal truths from Fern Hill, it is also important to remember who the poet is. This will be covered more in the question after next.
What’s the rhythm like? Is it choppy or is it flowing and smooth? How does the rhythm impact on the poem
Hearing Richard Burton read Fern Hill made it sound song-like. That probably makes it clear that to my ear, the rhythm is flowing and smooth. I was reminded of my guitar teacher (sadly I wasn’t very good at playing the guitar and gave up!) Discussing songwriting, he used the Bee Gees as an example of writers who were more interested in the “percussive quality of words” rather than just their meaning. That comment could have been made about this poem. The choice of individual words and the phrasing of the lines show enormous thought and care for the sound and rhythms of the poem as a whole.
Is the ‘speaker’ important? What are his views? Are they apparent or inferred?
I think this such an interesting question. As I mentioned above, the joys of childhood as portrayed in this are his. As much as we may wish to infer more universal messages from his themes, these are his experiences. Although I will deal with research in the next paragraph, his family owned a farm at Fern Hill. This time and place are specific in this poem – they are his. And those final three lines hint at a troubled adult life.
I knew little about Dylan Thomas, save for Under Milk Wood and Do not go gentle into that goodnight, as well as his alcohol problems. So I started with the poem. The most interesting site was www.schmoop.com which had a stanza by stanza analysis of the poem. It went far deeper than I did:http://www.shmoop.com/fern-hill/poem-text.html
Their analysis is written for a young audience but it works. Lines are picked off in pairs or threes and they regularly provide hyperlinks to check the meaning of words. The authors go into much more detail than I did. Although, for example, I had picked up on Adam and Maiden referring to Eden, I didn’t take note of other references to Christian words and phrases.
Schmoop make many references to the rhythm and musicality of the poem. So, combining that with Richard Burton’s melodic reading, I decided to investigate if anyone had experimented with the poem and music.
On YouTube I found various performances of John Corigliano’s composition for Fern Hill. One interesting example may be found here: https://youtu.be/bIrOKrA9yLg. This in turn led me to his website and a short but lovely piece of writing about Thomas. It concludes:
Fern Hill is a blithe poem, yet touched by darkness; time finally holds the poet “green and dying,” but the poem itself, formally just an ABA song extended into a wide arch, sings joyously of youth and its keen perceptions. I set it for mezzo-soprano solo, chorus, and orchestra, aiming to match the forthright lyricism of the text.
The “lyricism of the text” strikes me as much more elegant than my “…it sound[ed] song-like”! Corigliano also mentions Thomas’s “Poetic Manifesto”. I concluded with a search for that. I found an excerpt from it on a blog by Ellen R M Turner.
To your third question – Do I deliberately utilise devices of rhyme, rhythm, and word-formation in my writing – I must, of course, answer with an immediate, Yes. I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved and devious craftsman in all words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears, and to whatever wrong uses I may apply my technical paraphernalia, I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the directions I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paranomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twistings and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading and researching this poem and remain struck by its beauty.
My original (and rather sketchy) annotations
Corigliano, J. (no date) Fern Hill At: http://www.johncorigliano.com/index.php?p=item2&sub=alph&item=79 (Accessed 04 August 2017)
schmoop. (no date) Fern Hill Summary At: http://www.shmoop.com/fern-hill/summary.html (Accessed 04 August 2017)
Turner, E. R. M. (2012) Dylan Thomas’ Poetic Manifesto At: http://takingbackourbravenewworld.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/dylan-thomas-poetic-manifesto.html (Accessed 04 August 2017)