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 **** 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.
So much has been written about "Fern Hill" :- the other writers that might have influenced Thomas; the positioning of the poem within the writer's oeuvre; his tortuous creative methodology (rewrite upon holistic rewrite), that we sometime can lose sight of the essence of the work. For me, this is a piece which unashamedly celebrates the simple joys of childhood and gently mourns the erosion of such ecstasy as adulthood corrupts the innocence with the passage of time.
Although poems can make us think, above all, they make us feel; "Fern Hill" is, I believe, one of the most sensory poems written inasmuch as, after a reading (slow please, very slow - try to hear a talking voice!), I can see the places Dylan recalls, I can hear the sounds, I can share the elation and dreams, I can feel the sun, I can notice the colours and fruit, I can lament the passing of my own childhood. Thomas tries to make us, as adults, feel as he feels - he knows that all adults share one common experience at least - we were all once children, so that:- we were all once delighted - none of us, as children, ever valued those fleeting pleasures within a greater whole - we are all nostalgic for something, someone or somewhere.
"Fern Hill" has occasionally been criticised for portraying an idealised, sanitised vision of the poet's highly-individual perfect holiday environment - but so what? - his locations and happenings will be different to mine (and yours and yours and yours) but our wistfulness and nostalgic regrets will be very similar (especially if teased out by Dylan!). As noted within my analysis of "A Visit to Grandpa's":-
'As we peer back into our own childhood we sift and filter our memories so that the ones portraying our contentment or delight predominate - we remember sunny holidays, visits, happy places, treats, Christmases, presents. We recall those kinfolk people who loved us as children, their closeness and kindness; their voices, smells and faces. We remember as yesterday Sunday lunch times, beaches and long-dead dogs; we cannot with ease recall Monday mornings, sideways rain or the taste of cabbage. We all therefore have our own sanitised nostalgia - wistful perhaps, sentimental certainly so that when a masterly creative talent such as Thomas chronicles his own rose-coloured background his work instantly chimes and rhymes with us. "Yes", we mutter unconsciously to ourselves, "that was like it was; that could be me; that was how I used to feel; I knew people like those people; I remember places just like his places; I was frightened by those things too; I found that difficult to understand as well"'.
So to the poem itself - simple though the message might be, the work is meticulously constructed in a way which draws upon all of Thomas' brilliance as a communicator of genius. Six nine-line regular stanzas contain assonance rhyme schemes (abcddabcd) so subtle that one is almost unaware of being gently manipulated into such a subliminal sense of order. The poem is full of colour; green predominates (within every verse) to reinforce the image of uncorrupted joyous naiveté that was the child Thomas frolicking within the nature of his beloved holiday farm. The "sun", in all its glory, dominates so much of the poem that we almost feel like screwing up our eyes with the intensity of its persistent presence. Perhaps it never rained in Fern Hill - perhaps it did but the child never really noticed!
The first two words of the first stanza are vital to the poem:- "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs". "Now" implies the immediacy of the reversion of the poet back to childhood - in other words - "Take note - this is a man-child writing!" And "as" implying either "when" or "because" - I much prefer the sense of "because"; because I was so carefree rather than when. The main verb within this single-sentence stanza is "let" i.e.:- because I was a carefree child ("young and easy") playing round the farm, then "time" allowed me to imagine I was older than I was; it let me think that I was ripening "golden" in the full bloom of youth ( my "heydays") so that I could pretend a position of authority when I rode to market ("prince of the apple towns") on the wagons (with my Uncle). On the ride (real or imagined), I would dangle "daisies and barley" as I passed the trees as the sun reflected off the sheen of the apples - what a wonderful line - "down the rivers of the windfall light"!.
Let's look at some of the words and expressions used within this brilliant stanza:- "lilting" - "with a light or springing rhythm" applied by Thomas to the house rather than to himself. One can imagine from the viewpoint of the child cavorting in the garden, it is the HOUSE that appears to undulate; "hail" - in the sense of either:- a barrage of questions, or a greeting, or attracting attention, or having one's origins in. All of these meanings could have some credibility - personally I prefer the last - time let me "originate" and then "grow". "Honoured" implies the child imagining he was respected, "prince" and "lordly" are extensions of the same idea.
Note the expressions which are a play upon clichés:- "happy as the grass was green" for the more popular "happy as the day is long" and "once below a time" in contrast to "once upon a time". Everything about this stanza implies the imagination and naiveté of exuberant youthfulness and the indulgence of adulthood and the permissive observation of personified time.
Subsequent stanza analyses will follow over the next weeks or so if there is any demand. Let me know (anybody!) if this is valuable - if not, I'll climb back in my box! Don't forget - interpretation of poems (especially Dylan's) is a highly subjective task - ultimately you have to make your own mind up.
Above all - read the poem (then read it again)!