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"A Rude Red Tree" - In Memory of Dylan Thomas PDF Drucken E-Mail
By Julian Scutts
An investigation into one of Dylan Thomas' more obscure poems: "Altarwise by Owl-light"

The Rude Red Tree

- Is “Altarwise by Owl-Light”* by Dylan Thomas wilfully obscure?

· Notes on “Altarwise by Owl-Light”:

. “Altarwise by Owl-Light” marks the conclusion of the Twenty-five Poems (published in1936) and consists of ten sonnet-like strophes, each of 14 lines but with no regular rhyming scheme. Critical opinion is divided on the merits of the poem. On the one hand, Dame Edith Sitwell immediately hailed the poem as a major breakthrough in Thomas’ poetic career, describing it as “nothing short of magnificent” (Quoted in J. W. Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas, London, 1962, p.137). On the other, Andrew Sinclair finds the poem “wilfully obscure” ( Andrew Sinclair, Dylan Thomas No Man More Magical, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975, p. 91). Daniel Jones refers to the poem in more neutral terms as being extremely complex but not, for this reason alone, inaccessible to critical scrutiny, for despite its lack of a readily comprehensible sense it evinces a certain kind of coherence through the effects of sustained metaphors (Daniel Jones, Dylan Thomas: The Poems, London, 1971, p.264).

1: Introduction

. The debate still continues as to whether he was a latter-day Dionysus, an alcoholic seeking relief from a deep-seated schizoid state of mind or a true mystic, even a deeply religious poet malgré lui. Indeed, the work we are to consider is typical of Thomas’ poetry in exhibiting many references and allusions to biblical themes and religious belief. Do these simply reflect a largely involuntary assimilation of his mother’s commitment to Christianity and of the “Bible-black” culture of the Welsh chapels surrounding him, or do they point to a deep personal concern with religious issues? On the other hand, it should also be remembered that his father, D.J. Thomas, was an avowed atheist. Perhaps Dylan Thomas’ poetry reflects an unresolved conflict between the ideologies to which he was exposed during his childhood. In this connection Andrew Sinclair writes: "She [Florence Thomas] probably read no books except the Bible and, in Constantine Fitzgibbon’s opinion, she gave Dylan his 'totally unformulated love of God', a half-way house between her warm, chapel-going heart and the conscious atheism of her husband.” (Footnote 1)

In including the words “half-way” house in this comment, Sinclair employs a word of evident importance to Dylan Thomas himself, a fact indicated by three occurrences of “half-way” in “Altarwise by Owl-Light”, two of which are located in conspicuous proximity to each other in the opening sonnet. But then, should we in any case be much concerned about Thomas’ personality when seeking the proper approach to his poetry? There are well-known schools of critical opinion which deny the very relevance of biographical information to poets’ works seen as objects of intrinsic value. My approach to Thomas’s poetry will hopefully avoid extreme positions, whether those of what I consider to be a dogmatically "objective" approach or of those predicated on the assumption that a work is a personal statement or some piece of documentary evidence revealing important things about the state of an author’s mind, world view, etc. I will proceed therefore to review theories and opinions concerning the author’s life and psychology before considering a theoretical approach to textual analysis with a view to finding a unified approach incorporating the advantages of both critical philosophies.

.2: .Biographically and Psychoanalytically Based Analyses

Nomen est omen. In the view of two notable biographers, David Holbrook and Andrew Sinclair, Dylan’s sense of personal identity was greatly influenced by his awareness of the symbolism inhering in the name “Dylan”. It was chosen for him by his father D. J. Thomas and originates in a bardic legend in the Mabinogion, the great compendium of ancient Welsh cultural tradition. According to this legend a magician made a virgin step over a magic wand., whereupon she dropped a male child, whom the magician’s son duly named Dylan, the “Sea Son”.The child then ran into the sea, there to lead a fish-like existence in what was to become his native element.. Dylan Thomas’ poetry repeatedly attests tothe power exerted by the imagery and symbolism of his name. Here we may recall those celebrated words in the final lines of “Fern Hill,” now engraved on a stone plaque in Cwmdonkin Park, his favourite playground haunt in childhood:

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

In his monograph The Code of Night David Holbrook argues that the choice of name reflects the father’s feelings of sorrow, embarrassment and probably guilt concerning the circumstances of Dylan’s birth. Before bearing Dylan, Mrs Thomas had suffered a miscarriage during her first pregnancy and might therefore have felt subconsciously that Dylan was a substitute for, or reincarnation of, the child who might have been. Holbrook further asserts that an analysis of Dylan’s poetry proves that the poet had internalized his parents’ attitude towards his birth with devastating consequences for his sense of personal identity. . His mother’s unconscious attitude, the theory runs, engendered in Dylan’s mind a feeling of his personal unworthiness leading, in turn, to the development of a so-called schizoid personality .In this case the subconscious mind is thought to produce a two-fold division between the true inner self and an outer persona with its function of serving as a kind of shield or go-between to protect the inner self from direct exposure to a hostile world. Thus he succumbed to a schizoid frame of mind with its tendency to construct around itself a mask-like persona so as to shelter the vulnerable inner self. D. Holbrook finds no lack of specific evidence drawn from Dylan’s poetry to support his theory. "Before Iknocked," perhaps the crown witness in Holbrook’s case, reveals with unusual clarity the depths of Dylan’s anguish and self-deprecation, particularly in the closing lines:

You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.

In “ Before I knocked” the poet imagines himself to be a sperm-cell at the point at or near the moment of conception. The lyrical I utters in the lines quoted above a reproach to God, to his own father or to both, for having “doublecrossed” his mother’s womb. Beyond the literal meaning of ”doublecross”as a synonym for “to deceive” or “to betray”, the word acquires a religious connotation in the Cross of Calvary by dint of its proximity to the words“cross and altar” only three lines before. In Holbrook’s analysis, Thomas’ repeated references to the story of Adam and Eve, which was “never for a second silent in his service" in words quoted from “Ceremony after a Fire Raid,” appealed to the poet so strongly, not least for the reason that the doctrine of Original Sin found a close parallel in his notion that his own life had been blighted from the very moment of conception.

The concepts of "cross" and "altar" appear prominently in “Altarwise by Owl-Light” with “altar” providing an element of the poem’s enigmatic title. The poem further provides what might be taken as evidence of Thomas’ obsessive concern with his prenatal and infantile stage of existence. Images implying a need tobe protected or covered abound, particularly in combination with words denoting cloth, bandages for wounds and gauze-like fabrics, words which, however, could also imply a concern with the process of poetic creation so often compared to that of weaving. Indeed, the very obscurity of the poem itself may be ascribed to Thomas’ need to fend off the world by constructing a dense and well nigh impenetrable verbal barrier. On the other hand, Dylan Thomas wrote many “straight” poems that appeal to us as a cry from the heart, so why did he wish to produce such obscurity in the case of “Altarwise by Owl-Light”? There is an alternative explanation for the poem’s complexity: it may pose an exploration of possibilities of language denied to its conventional use. How can we separate the private person entirely from the poetic self? Let us now consider the poem as an objective verbal construct with the help of a “logocentric,” a word-centred  approach.

3: Towards aLlogocentrically Based Approach to “Altarwise by Owl-Light”

The very obscurity of the poem “Altarwise by Owl-Light” paradoxically carries a certain advantage. The absence of a readily intelligible surface of meaning relieves us of the usual obligation of analysing the real or supposed intellectual content of a work. We are left with words isolated from a genera lmessage and consequently more likely to be found interesting in their own right. As the poet is relieved of any obligation to keep to a specific theme, his choice of words probably reflects fundamental patterns of thought and verbal association rooted in the deepest strata of the mind more faithfully than in a straight poem addressed to some subject or other.

A number of theories concerning the function of words, images and symbols inpoetry provide useful guidelines in this discussion. I shall attempt to outlinethose I consider most relevant to this study as I refer to some of their leading proponents.
Jurij Tynjanov, a leading figure in the movement known as Russian Formalism in the Stalinist era, applied Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language to hisanalysis of the role individual words play in a poetic context.. He magnified the difference between langue and parole, (i.e. between a language as a general system with its fixed grammatical and lexical features and language asarticulated in speech or writing) so far as to attribute to the word an almost mystical or theological quality reminiscent of The Word in the Bible. It is no wonder that Trotzky accused the Formalists of being followers of
Saint John. In his article “The Meaning of the Word in Verse” (Footnote 2) Tynjanov argued that words in poetry reveal aspects of language which are usually overlooked when used to convey everyday information or express opinions. Normally , according to Tynjanov, we extract from a word one particular meaning that fits its immediate context even though words can contain several different meanings. Poems exploiting the rich variety of meanings and associations residing in words will often confuse readers who expect it to convey a straight message or narrative. “Altarwise by Owl-Light” might then be taken as a good example to demonstrate Tynjanov`s theory of the word by showing what happens when a poet exploits the potential of individual words once freed from their usual subservient role in conveying a coherent message.

Calvin Brown, a critic adopting an extreme position among proponents of the objective school of work-oriented criticism, denied in his discussion of a famous poem by Walt Whitman that great poetry owed anything to references to the world outside the realm of art. According to arguments put forward in his study “The Musical Development of Symbols”, (Footnote 3) words and the sequence of words form no statement about truths and realities in the  world outside literature that should rightly affect the critic’s evaluation of a work. Words are necessary and valuable only to the extent that they collectively develop patterns of an essentially “musical” kind. Words, if repeated, act like musical notes that contribute to a leitmotif as this becomes enriched by its ever-changing cumulative context. Again “Altarwise by Owl-Light” offers laboratory conditions in which to test Calvin Brown’s theories as the work’s very obscurity renders it incapable of making any coherent statement concerning facts or events in the extra-literary world.: In “Altarwise by Owl-Light”: the frequency, juxtaposition and sequence of words do indeed become the focus of attention as a result of being detached from their usual referential junctions.However, I will argue that Dylan Thomas explored the essential aspects of language and words as generators of meaning. The poem has many musical qualities both by virtue of its sonority and its quasi-musical development, having inspired the musical settings of Jonathan Darnborough and Denis ApIvor,but essentially it remains an exploit in the artistry of words and language (Footnote 4).

According to the leading psychologist Carl G. Jung  an individual word may transcend its immediate context and reveal some aspect of an individual’s, or even an entire culture’s, consciousness. L.A. Willoughby, with particular reference to the image of the Wanderer in Goethe’s poetry, modified this assertion by claiming in his article “The Image of ‘the Wanderer’ and the ‘Hut’ in Goethe’s Poetry” (Footnote 5) that a particular word or image demonstrates the unity and the unbroken continuity of a poet’s subconscious as well as conscious mind as reflected in his or her art. In full agreement with this premise I find it useful and instructive to discuss certain words and images found in “Altarwise byOwl-Light”: in the light of other works written by Dylan Thomas

4: General Survey of the Linguistic Features of “Altarwise by Owl-Light”:

The very title "Altarwise by Owl-Light” implies how we should approach the poem in its entirety. As it stands the title conveys no logically coherent meaning,only a pair of non sequiturs. What has an altar to do with being wise (one might also understand the first world in the title as meaning in the fashion of an altar) or what has an owl, that nocturnal predator, to do with light in the normal way?  However, if we slightly rearrange the words in the title to read “wise owl” and “altar light” the association of words approaches the acceptably conventional . The most common form of altar light is that of candles, and candles pose a conspicuous field of reference in the poem, most noticeably in the sixth sonnet. In some sonnets the density of words having a common association is high enough as to warrant the impression that the sonnet contains a recognizable theme or leitmotif. This is particularly evident in the eighth sonnet with many references or allusions to the Crucifixion. In preceding sonnets there are references to aspects in the earthly ministry of Christ (the camel and the eye of a needle, the Lord’s prayer). In the following stanza the word “resurrection” appears. The chronology of the New Testament ,indeed of the Bible as a whole (in view of frequent reference to stories in the Old Testament), is further corroborated by allusions to the apostolic missionsof Peter and Paul in the concluding sonnets the Christian voyage (subsuming other biblical or classical seafarers mentioned earlier, Jonah, Noah, Ulysses).The poem admits then of some concessions to chronological order and the stages of historical or linear development.

On the spatial plane the poem’s opening stanzas contain references to the animals, plants and scenes that Thomas could have encountered in his childhood spent in
Wales while in later stanzas references to rice, bamboo, volcanoes and white bears widen the vista to comprehend the entire globe. The motif of connections between he earth and the heavens is most clearly evident in the image of Jacob’s ladder. Typical of Thomas’ early verse are images of normally immobile places, such as a garden, and objects rising and falling. On the horizontal plane, the mode of transport most favoured in Thomas’s imagery is the ship. Motor vehicles in this and other poems by the poet tend to come off badly. In all, the poem conveys a feeling of the universal affinities that interrelate all phenomena of nature and the mind.

The poem severs logical connections and reintegrates the isolated and fragments of words and images, which tend to fall into a number of wide-ranging categories,the more prominent of which I include in the following list:
biblical motifs,plants and trees, farmyard animals, card games and children’s games, aspects ofthe human body and items of clothing, textiles, bandages and other coverings,fire and combustion, aspects of language and communication both spoken and written, sounds, time and the shape of things. A category one might name“things with covering surfaces” subsumes “pavement(s)” in the second and thirdsonnets) as well as coverings made of textiles. This category itself may be subsumed under the yet wider category of things with a surface, which includes references to parchment and other materials supplying a background and support for written language.

The resultant quilt of interconnecting strands is so complex as to render a comprehensive and detailed analysis impossible in the scope of this article. I can only hope to illuminate aspects of the poem by focussing on examples of significant features as well as the general principles which govern the way Thomas juxtaposes words and parts of words. In this connection let us consider Thomas’ use of the pun and similar devices which provide not only a means of achieving humorous effects, though some indubitably do, but also, and more importantly, the nodal points connecting the themes and motifs mentioned above. Here are some examples of what I mean:

“suit” (in the fifth sonnet) interlaces the domain of clothing and cards, both prominent fields of reference in the work.

“rung” (in the second and third sonnets) unites a reference to a part of a ladder and the verb “to ring” in the past tense or the past participle.
“root” (in the second sonnet) connects the domain of plants and language (wordroots).

“van” (in the third sonnet) “ in Rip van Winkle” and the undertaker’s vancombines a literary legend and the vehicle used for transporting corpses, both associations underpin the notion of passing time.

spelt” (in the sixth sonnet), as the preterit of “to spell” connects language and the crop “spelt” in the plant realm.

“marrow” (in the third (”marrow-ladle”) and fourth sonnets) connects the realmof anatomy (bone-marrow) and plant life (the vegetable marrow).

“bay” (in the tenth sonnet) combines a possible reference to a species of tree and a coastal feature.

“ash” (in the ninth sonnet” is probably meant to link a reference to a species of tree to the ash produced by fire.

Thomas’ poetry evinces the author’s keen awareness of the way not only words but also the phonemes and morphemes within them coalesce. In this connection itis interesting to note an apparent misspelling in “to-morrow” and thirty-six uses of the hyphen, the first of these being located so prominently in the poem’s title. The resulting hyphenated compounds together with a good number of other unusual verbal combinations and frequent alliterations, evoke in my mind something of the vigour and throb of Anglo-Saxon verse. The two most frequently used substantives, more precisely substantive roots, are “time” and “sea” and“man”. As the poet with a certain theme or matter of discussion, frequently used words are likely to reflect his underlying concerns and thought patterns.In two cases “time” and “tune” are directly associated, anticipating “time” in "Fern Hill" as one who, like the Pied Piper, leads the children out of grace.Thomas’ concern with the composition of words is revealed in the apparent misspelling of “sea-saw”. Using a computer search facility I discovered that the first occurrence of sea as a morpheme is found in the word “season”. In linguistic terms, of course, there is no affinity beyond an accidental likenessto unite “season” with occurrences of the word “sea”. However, we should also remember that Thomas delights in linking etymologically unrelated words purely on the basis of their common sound or some other accidental feature, as in the case of the homophones “ark” and “arc”. The word “season” might therefore have enjoyed a special significance to Thomas, the Sea Son, if only at a subconscious level.

5 : A Discussion of Words and Images Found in the First and Last Sonnets in “Altarwise by Owl-Light”:

1st Sonnet

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow's scream.
Then, penny-eyed, that gentleman of wounds,
Old cock from nowheres and the heaven's egg,
With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds,
Hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,
Scraped at my cradle in a walking word
That night of time under the Christward shelter:
I am the long world's gentleman, he said,
And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.

10th Sonnet

Let the tale's sailor from a Christian voyage
Atlaswise hold half-way off the dummy bay
Time's ship-racked gospel on the globe I balance:
So shall winged harbours through the rockbird's eyes
Spot the blown word, and on the seas I image
December's thorn screwed in a brow of holly.
Let the first Peter from a rainbow's quayrail
Ask the tall fish swept from the bible east,
What rhubarb man peeled in her foam-blue channel
Has sown a flying garden round that sea-ghost?
Green as beginning, let the garden diving
Soar, with its two bark towers, to that Day
When the worm builds with the gold straws of venom
My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree.

In view of the complexity of “Altarwise by Owl-Light” I focus the final section of this article on words and images found in the first and the final sonnets ofthis work. One would normally expect the introductory and closing sections of a work to throw a measure of light on the content and significance of the whole. On the face of it, the first sonnet signally fails to meet such expectations with its inclusion of such an odd assortment of words such as “gentleman,” “salvage,” “cock,” “hangnail” and “graveward,”  not to mention “atlas-eater” and “nowheres,” “mandrake” and “penny-eyed.” One might even come to suspect that the author has thrown in blatantly nonsensical words to put hunters for meanings off their scent.

Taking a broad look at some of the words found in the first sonnet, we may place some of them in categories of words with a common range of association,and I suggest that one such category relates to beginnings, which would of course be appropriate to the first sonnet. Within this category is a subcategory that includes references to chickens and poultry, the cock which traditionally announces the break of day and recalls Peter's denial of Christ, the egg with its associations with various creation myths. A reference to Adam recalls the biblical version of mankind’sbeginnings while the juxtaposition of Adam and Abaddon intimates the entire biblical history of mankind as described from Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The alliteration noted in “Adam and Abaddon” and “Cancer toCapricorn” support the theme of beginnings by making prominent use of the first letters of the alphabet.

Thomas combined an exploration of language and its constituent parts with an exploration of what language describes, whether his own psychological obsessions or the world, history, religious truth and all else that may have concerned him. The opening sonnet might also be seen to relate to Thomas’ own beginnings, as the common objects mentioned in this sonnet belong to his hometown and its rural and marine surroundings with evocations of his Aunt Annie’s farm Fern Hill and views of the coast and the sea.

The three occurrences of the word “gentleman” conjure up - in my mind at least- the image of a well-dressed, courteous but self-restrained, perhaps inhibited, sober Englishman, a far cry from a certain casually dressed, easy-going, bumptious, perhaps openly offensive, boozing Welshman, need I say more. The foregrounding of the word “gentleman”, connoting the very antithesis of the Bohemian poet, prepares the ground of a contrast, itself conventional enough,with the word “lady” situated in the last line of the fifth sonnet, “And sirenssinging from our lady's sea-straw.” This reference to “our lady” is an obviousallusion to the Virgin Mary. The word “straw” in the same line reminds the reader of the story of Christ’s birth in a manger (the word “straw” recurs significantly in the closing lines of the last sonnet). In the seventh sonnet the line “Time's tune my ladies with the teats of music” suggests a further development of the motif based on the evocative power of the word “lady”,whether appearing in the singular or plural. The reference to “teats”, though in no way salacious, draws attention to an aspect of female sexuality that deeply concerned Dylan for reasons already discussed in connection with the poet’s psychological attitude to his own mother and the implications of his name. An awareness of the legend in the Mabinogion with its account of a virgin birth, undoubtedly played a part in Dylan’s self-identification with the notion of Christ, an association which in his (or rather his father’s) case answered a need to repress thoughts about the male role in the sexual act and at the same time to sublimate physical sexuality so as to bring this into accord with icons of the highly spiritual.
The word “gentleman” is echoed by occurrences of its constituents“gentle” and “man” that we find scattered throughout the poem with “man”participating in a fresh combination in “manwax” (in the sixth sonnet). In this poem words and their components possess a life of their own with powers akin to those of cellular division and recombination. With no logically coherent sense to maintain, individual words gain an autonomy otherwise denied to them. AsTynjanov pointed out, words are normally expected to be subordinate to theoverall sense of the sentence or passage in which they are situated with the effect that a word’s full potentialities are ignored at the moment of being read or heard.

Of course, many words in this sonnet defy categorizations of the kind I mention. With some words the poet stakes out points of reference that are to be exploited in later sonnets.” Cock” implies the motifs that await their development in later sonnets, particularly the motif of weather by itsassociation with weather-vanes, and possibly that of Peter the Apostle,referred to in the last sonnet, who denied Jesus before hearing the crowing of a cock. Others, however, imply an element of narrative or thematic substance that will help to shape and develop the rest of the poem. One such word is“mandrake”. Others such as “hangnail” and “dog” constitute keywords in Thomas’ personal vocabulary of private associations.

The occurrence of the word “dog” in the first stanza enjoys great significancein the light of Thomas’s semi-autographical collection of short stories underthe general title of Portrait of the Artist as a young Dog, an obvious allusionto James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The jocular self-deprecation expressed by the word“ dog“ also implies, however indirectly,an association with the divine, the word dog being a mirror image of “god.“

A further significance of the word “dog” derives from it close proximity to thewords “mandrake” and “scream”. The associations of the mandrake root are ancient and not without ambivalence. In the Bible Rachel coveted the mandrakes which Reuben had brought back from an excursion out in the fields, the reason being the supernatural power of fertility then attributed to the plant. In medieval times the plant was prized for its reputed medicinal qualities, bu tthere was a catch. Not only was the root of the plant poisonous in any but the correct dosage but the process of extracting it from the soil was considered to be fraught with danger. According to popular superstition the proper way to pull oiz a mandrake root, which resembles a human torso in shape, was by attaching one end of a cord to the root and the other to a dog, which was forced to extract the plant by pulling it from the earth. The ritual was to proceed in such away that the plant should not be rent with excessive force as such violence might cause the plant to scream, and anyone hearing this scream was sure to die very soon afterwards. The ritual had to take place by moon-light, preferably in the immediate vicinity of the corpse of a hanged criminal still suspended on the gallows.

The word constituent “hang” appearing in the first sonnet poses a verbal cluethat not only relates to the ritual of uprooting a mandrake plant but also to the legend of the Hangman that later comes to fuller prominence in “Fern Hill”.The story told that a professional hangman had once occupied the farmhouse of Thomas’ aunt Annie. This man had hanged himself in the kitchen of the farmhouse after the elopement of his daughter with a man so despised by her father that she had been held a prisoner in the farmhouse for fear that she would marry against her father’s will. Of course, a reader in 1936, lacking the hindsight that we possess today, would have been unable to form these associations to the extent that is now possible.

However, the reader in 1936 could well appreciate that the occurrence of the word “mandrake” in the first sonnet introduced the motif of plants and trees so central to the poem’s subsequent development. The next plant to be mentioned is the hemlock, also poisonous like the mandrake root, but with a strong historical association with death of Socrates. The close affinity of gallowsand trees also broaches the central image of the tree with all its religiousand mystical associations with the Garden of Eden and Christ’s death by crucifixion, the same association made by John Donne in the words “Christs Crosse, and
Adams tree” in his poem “Hymn to God my God, in my sicknesse."

If we pursue the analogy between poetry and music discussed earlier to its logical conclusion,we should expect the final sonnet to pose the culmination and resolution of the entire work. Indeed, certain words and expressions do seem to round off a number of motifs that have appeared in earlier sonnets. The three-fold themesof tailoring , seafaring and language communication merge in the expression“tale’s sailor” The motif of the sea is established in the first sonnet whilethe word “altaswise” conflates “altarwise” and “atlas-eater” found at the beginning of the poem. We are reminded of the combined motifs of the Crucifixion, the seasons in the line “December’s brow screwed in a brow of holly”. The word “bay “ merges the domains of tree and marine geography. The words ‘rhubarb man’ echo ‘bamboo man’ in the fourth sonnet, which also connects man and a form of plant life, an association established by the reference to the mandrake in the first sonnet. References to colours blue, green, gold and red within the final sonnet lend force to the final words of the poem - “the rude red tree”. As a strong association between trees (or other forms of plant life) and language has been developed throughout the poem and as the poem abounds in homophones, I make so bold as to suggest that “red” in the positionof the penultimate word also stands for ‘read’, the past participle of the verb‘to read’. An analogous link between trees or plant life and the verb “to write” occurs in the lines

Now stamp the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice,
A Bible-leaved of all the written woods
Strip to this tree: a rocking alphabet,
Genesis in the root, the scarecrow word,
And one light's language in the book of trees.

The sonnet seems to end on an optimistic note in spite of - or perhaps partly on the strength of - a final reference to things poisonous - namely in the words “straws of venom.”
The worm, which in the poem possesses a strong phallic connotation as the worm which mounted Eve,’ finally appears in a positive role, almost in the guise of a silk work, as the weaver of a ‘nest of mercies’ composed of straws of venom. Do we not discover in this conclusion evidence of the final poetic sublimationof all the negative forces and influences that impinge on the poet’s consciousness? Just as “red” is a homophone “read,” so “rood” (i.e the Holy Rood”) is a homphone of “rude”, suggesting , I surmise, that the poet’s quest for a poetic resolution is bound up with a more general quest for healing in a psychological and even in a religious sense.


1. Andrew Sinclair, Dylan Thomas No Man More Magical,
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975, p. 17.

2. Jurij Tynjanov, "The Meaning of the Word in Verse", Translated into English by M. E. Suino, Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystina Pomorska, (Ann Arbor, 1978).

3. Calvin S. Brown, "The Musical Development of Symbols: Whitman", in Music and Literature,
Athens [U.S.], 1948).

4. Denis ApIvor . Dylan Thomas works, Altarwise by Owl-Light, opus 32; Jonathan Darnborough, “Altarwise by Owl-Light” (1980, revised 1990).

5. L. A. Willoughby, "The Image of the 'Wanderer' and the 'Hut' in Goethe's Poetry", Etudes Germaniques, 1951, 3, Autumn.

Monographs referred to in this article

Holbrook, David, The Code of Night,
London: Athlone Press, 1972.

Jones, Daniel (Ed.), Dylan Thomas: The Poems,
London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971.
Sinclair, Andrew, Dylan Thomas No Man More Magical,
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

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