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...
Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill” from The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Copyright 1939, 1946 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughsAbout the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,The night above the dingle starry,Time let me hail and climbGolden in the heydays of his eyes,And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple townsAnd once below a time I lordly had the trees and leavesTrail with daisies and barleyDown the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barnsAbout the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,In the sun that is young once only,Time let me play and beGolden in the mercy of his means,And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calvesSang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,And the sabbath rang slowlyIn the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hayFields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was airAnd playing, lovely and wateryAnd fire green as grass.And nightly under the simple starsAs I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjarsFlying with the ricks, and the horsesFlashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer whiteWith the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was allShining, it was Adam and maiden,The sky gathered againAnd the sun grew round that very day.So it must have been after the birth of the simple lightIn the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warmOut of the whinnying green stableOn to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay houseUnder 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 hayAnd nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allowsIn all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songsBefore the children green and goldenFollow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take meUp to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,In the moon that is always rising,Nor that riding to sleepI should hear him fly with the high fieldsAnd 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 dyingThough I sang in my chains like the sea.
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.
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Of unstilted youth and gracious age