[extropy-chat] Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night"

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Fri Oct 7 18:02:21 UTC 2005

When I was in high school I had an excellent teacher for poetry class,
Mr. Barney.  The first day of class he announced that he had been
diagnosed with an irreversible condition and would go blind by the end
of the year.  Indeed, over the course of the year his vision got worse
and worse and he was soon no longer able to read the books that he loved.

Dylan Thomas was one of the poets he introduced us to, and I especially
liked his poem Fern Hill, which you can read at
<http://www.bigeye.com/fernhill.htm>.  Mr. Barney played for us a
recording of Thomas reading the poem, which helped a great deal in
understanding it.  I can still hear his voice as he savors each of
the words he had written.

Fern Hill is a poem whose theme is nostalgia for childhood.  Thomas paints
such an evocative word picture of his childhood days, playing on a
farm among horses and haystacks and apple trees, that it's as though I
lived it myself.  Although nothing in my youth was anything like what
he experienced, when I read this poem it is like I was there, prince of
the apple boughs, lord of the trees and leaves, under "the sun that is
young once only".

High school kids are not nostalgic.  They are looking forward in their
lives, not back.  But even then the poem spoke to me, the power of Thomas'
wordplay and its vivid imagery captured me.  Today I am middle aged, and
Fern Hill is overwhelming.  I can't read it without breaking into tears,
for what I have lost, for the golden glory of childhood, for the tragic
brevity of those magical years, when all unknowing our days are numbered,
are being taken from us one by one.

     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.

This is where the theme intersects that of Do Not Go Gentle, the idea of
us being swept forward by cruel Time, which Dylan sees as a force that
takes away all that is precious.  At best Time may be merciful and give
us a few fleeting moments of happiness before it inevitably erases all
that was.  To me, Fern Hill is even more powerful in its evocation of
what is, in memory, the happiest of times, and even then we are enchained,
dying, the prisoners of Time.


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