Tuesday, February 9

Singing in our chains

A poem I cherish is "Fern Hill', Dylan Thomas' mesmerizing recollection of his childhood in Wales. I first read it many years ago and was instantly sent flying back on the magic carpets of memory to several summers I spent as a boy at my grandmother's farm in the lush green countryside on the coast of Asturias in northern Spain.

There are many lines and images in Fern Hill that have exerted immense staying power in my mind over the years. The sabbath ringing out slowly in the pebbles of holy streams, the rivers of windfall light, time holding him —and me and all of us, all children— golden in the mercy of his means. He beautifully recounts his days in that Edenic paradise of Adam and maiden, under the sun that is young once only.

Often we hear our tender years referred to as "carefree", and even employ that adjective ourselves, though we surely know the cloying disservice it does to truth. Children are full of cares and concerns, worries and fears. As adults we shed most of them and make room for the great care that children do not have, one that becomes a constant ticking companion as we age — the gathering alarm over the passing of time. In the poem Dylan Thomas projects this awareness back into this memoryscape of his youth, remembering now that he did not then care that time in his tuneful turning allows us just so many morning songs before we follow him out of grace.

It all leads up to the scintillating last stanza, in which time takes him by the shadow of his hand up to the swallow thronged loft, in the moon that is always rising, before he wakes some melancholy morning 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.

But certainly don't take it from me. Read and listen for yourselves as the incomparable actor Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins (born in Margam — Port Talbot, Wales) recites Dylan Thomas' 'Fern Hill'. Click on the play symbol for the audio...

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.
Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” from The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Copyright 1939, 1946 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.

The photo of Dylan Thomas at the top of the post was taken in 1952 by Rollie McKenna.
The audio is available at the Poetry Out Loud website, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation.

You might also like these related posts:
       Odyssey of the Great Dream
       Of unstilted youth and gracious age
       Living stilts


  1. One of my all-time favorite poems, and Anthony Hopkins is perfection. I love Dylan Thomas. Excellent!

  2. Anthony Hopkins makes me weak in the knees. I'm dizzy now, and can't type.

    I'm book marking Poetry Out Loud. Thank you. Loved this. ((sigh))

  3. Love Hopkins' voice there. Great post. Bookmarking Poetry Out loud, thanks.

  4. Hi, Sue. For me, it just doesn't get much better than Fern Hill read by Anthony Hopkins. I would be almost embarassed to confess how many times I have reread and reheard the poem. Glad you enjoyed it.

  5. willow, more sighs guaranteed at the Poetry Out Loud site. In the post I gave the home page link, once there, look under poems on the right side bar and click on Audio Guide.

  6. Monica, I'm glad you enjoyed. A very good idea to bookmark Poetry Out Loud. See my previous comments for how to get to the Audio Guide. Enjoy!

  7. Thanks for the link to Poetry Out Loud!

  8. Knowing nothing previous of the poem or photo, I found it odd that I too had a vision of autumn as I read it...

  9. Hi e: Enjoy Poetry Out Loud, again and again ...

  10. Hello, VE. I agree it is an autumnal reflection in one's life

  11. Saw the movie"The Edge of Love" about Dylan Thomas and his two loves not long ago. It's uneven and I wondered how much of it is fact vs movie fiction. Anyway, he was a raucous fellow, that we know. Too bad so many of the great poets die so young.

  12. CG, I'll have to check out the film. Thanks for the head's up.

  13. He works a lot of synesthesia into it, that may be part of why it is so haunting. I think children are afraid of things adults teach them are silly, then they grow up and learn to be afraid of socially respectable things.

  14. Stunning!!! Love this! and Sir Anthony Hopkins is the best! :) The Bach

  15. Hi, ArtSparker. Nice to see you here on the blog. I know we frequent some of the same "art blogs". Beautiful word -- synesthesia -- and a new one for me. Thanks. I am like a kid with a new toy whenever I come across a new word. Don't know how socially respectable that is on my part, but it is the truth.

  16. Hi, Bach. Welcome to the alchemist's pillow. I know you from comments on willow's blog and will be checking over at the your pad. Glad you liked the poem and Sir Anthony Hopkin's reading of it. I have heard it so many times but still shake my head in grateful wonder whenever I give it a new listen.

  17. I found a youtube of Hopkins reading it (because I couldn't find a link). I appreciated his pauses at the end of both the penultimate and final stanzas.

    The lyricism of this poem, with its childlike syntax, always sends me straight to that child place too, even though I didn't grow up with a farm in my life. There is a trickery about it, a fairy-like magic, and I see the photo of you at 3 here, running into the woods, into a different world, where children hail and climb with bare legs.


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