Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Poem: "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas

The Poetry Foundation has a discussion of Dylan Thomas, which mentions that the jury of self-appointed jurors is still hung. It has not returned a consensus regarding Thomas's greatness as a poet. My mind, in contrast, is full of phrases from his poems, and recordings of Thomas's readings still ring in my ear. I think of him as the quintessential poet.

Blame it on my Welsh forbears.
Thomas lived through the Second World War, though he did not serve in it. He could not avoid reacting to the death of innocents, especially when it came in the form of a young girl burned to death in London during the Blitz, any more than residents of New York could avoid reacting to the death of innocents in the 9/11 attack, or residents of London, to the 7/7 killings.

The poem he wrote was called, paradoxically,  "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London." Its last line is "After the first death, there is no other." The Poetry Foundation page says this about it:
As Tindall observed, this statement can be taken either as a pledge of eternal life or as a realization that death is death, that one is dead forever—or both.
That observation led to this posting, since my own interpretation has been different from either of those presented. Before my father died, I realize now, death had been something quite unreal to me. I recognized intellectually that it existed, but it existed separate from me. After he died, it was solid, real, and unavoidable. I will never go through that transformation of feelings again. In a real way, "After the first death, there is no other."

Here is the poem.
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.  
Here is the poem recited by the author himself.

I appreciate that Thomas's writing is sometimes difficult, but I believe this one can be interpreted in a fairly straightforward way. Never again, he says, until I am dead (and my body transformed into water and grain) will I pray or cry ("sow my salt seed") for her death. The sowing of salt is also an custom in which the earth is made sterile so it would never live again.

I think Thomas is saying that, if we focus on death, despite the "majesty" of that transition, we blight and trivialize life, just as salt blights the soil. Thomas says he will not trivialize her death ("murder/The mankind of her going") or blaspheme it with any further words, though they would be "a grave truth" in every sense of the phrase.

The blaspheming words would pass through "the stations of the breath" from lung to mouth, but the phrase also recalls the stations of the cross, which are points along the path to death.

The last stanza says that the girl, as Thomas said of himself in the second stanza, is made of parts that will now become parts of water (the Thames) and plants ("grains beyond age," though "grains" has two meanings here as her elemental particles and the plants that the particles will enter). 

Who is her mother with the "dark veins"? In this context, she is London. The girl is identified as "London's daughter." The dark veins of the city may be the streets criss-crossing her "by the unmourning water/Of the riding Thames."
However, the darkness of those veins reminds us of the girl's father, who is our father too: death, who is called "mankind making," "Bird beast and flower/Fathering" and "all humbling darkness." The darkness of death runs like a river through life and gives birth to everything.

The last line reminds us that death will never enter the world for the first time again, because it is an essential part of the world we know. 

Update (24 August 2013): I added the picture of London and distinguished London and Death as the girl's mother and father a little more explicitly. Added also Dylan's recital.

Also, I've just thought of an explanation for "the sea tumbling in harness." That is the movement of the blood as it pulses. So the "still hour" of that sea is the moment of death.


  1. Replies
    1. Your comment gave.me a big smile. Thank you.

  2. In general, the poetry of Dylan is remarkable for its in-depth analysis on the woe of humanity due to war and other conflicts. The post covers all these aspects vividly. Thanks for sharing it.
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  4. This is my favorite poem of all time and I scour the web for people’s interpretations. Your is hands down my favorite and I agree with all of it. I have one albeit basic and broader thought to add.

    I’ve always read this poem as an incredibly elegant “call to arms”, in this case during and about WWII. His use of this inherent paradox of intense, visceral refusal to mourn the death of an anonymous child (which he is obviously doing by the very nature of the poem) is also his personal war declaration. It is not until either the war is over and calm is restored to London, or his own death occurs (whichever is first) will he allow himself to mourn. The focus must be on the fight at hand. Mourning is merely the vanity of both acquiescence to your tormentor and also trying to explain the unexplainable (why such horrors in the world occur). No. It’s not going to happen. He refuses. This is war and our singular focus is to win. Once we win, we mourn. After the first death, there is no other.

    Every time I’m feeling sorry for myself or trying to pump myself up for a major battle in my life, this poem is my inspiration and has been since I first read it in high school many years ago.

    Blasting ACDC’s “Thunderstruck” isn’t a bad tactic either...:-)

    1. That's an interesting perspective that I did not consider.

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