While telling a friend about a new poem he’d been working on, Dylan Thomas commented that he would use the title “Deaths and Entrances” for both the poem and the collection “because that is all I ever write about or want to write about.”* Though Thomas did, of course, write about several other topics, he did use mortality as the topic of many of his poems. His treatment of the subject, though, changes drastically over the course of his career, beginning with satire and moving through anxiety, resistance, and finally a graceful acceptance.
Thomas’s first major poem to deal with the topic of death is “After the Funeral.” Like many of Thomas’s poems, this one was inspired by an actual event, in this case the funeral of his aunt, Ann Jones. It was written gradually between February 1933 and March 1938, and because of its shift in attitude during the writing process and because it is a relatively early poem is an ideal place to start for considering Thomas’s changing treatments of mortality.
The first part to be written, roughly the first third of the poem, treats the funeral almost sarcastically, and focuses on the hypocrisy of the mourners. Thomas describes their expression of grief hyperbolically, making them appear ridiculous with their “mule praises, brays” and “salt ponds in sleeves,” and a “desolate boy,” possibly Thomas himself, “who slits his throat” in grief. Even the deceased is not treated much better, described bluntly and without any sentimentality or romanticising as “dead, humped Ann.” The satire may be interpreted as a precursor to his later rejection of the appropriateness of traditional funeral practices, but the mourners’ actions so far are more vaudevillian than anything else.
However, the tone of the poem soon changes abruptly. Even though the proceedings are “magnified out of praise” and thus inappropriate for Ann, in the very next line after the parentheses the narrator proclaims himself to be “Ann’s bard,” which has very romantic, traditional connotations, and as though the narrator viewed himself as a knight in shining armour. The style of the rest of the poem is almost Romantic, with references to nature (“meek as milk,” “ferned and foxy woods”), and more elevated language as he creates a “monumental / Argument of the hewn voice” in honour of Ann. In moving from “dead, humped Ann” to this more admiring treatment, he turns from satire to elegy, as though he changed his mind halfway through the poem on whether traditional religious ceremony is appropriate for the ugliness of death.
The next poem, “Deaths and Entrances,” was written in the early stages of the Second World War, just before the Blitz. The poem appropriately has an atmosphere of anxiety, and though the Germans had not yet dropped any bombs on England, Thomas anticipated the upcoming violence (the “death”) and possible invasion (the “entrances”).
This poem is unique because it the only one here examined that is not based on a real event, at least as of the time Thomas began the poem, so death is not actually present in this work, but merely speculated on. In the second stanza, which focuses on the invading enemy, Thomas refers to “your polestar neighbour,” implying a great distance, but in the next line refers to the same person as the “son of another street,” as though the Germans were simply from across town rather than across the English Channel, with the implication that they are not much different from Thomas’s British audience. Thomas goes on to graphically describe the invading soldier’s death, “He’ll bathe his raining blood in the male sea,” portraying the horror of war deaths, regardless of which side of the fighting the victim is on.
Of course, the anxiety of “Deaths and Entrances” did not remain hypothetical for very long. In 1941 Thomas wrote “Among Those Killed in the Raid was a Man Aged 100,” which was inspired by a real event. The poem presents a great irony – a man, having lived for so long, dies suddenly and violently in a bombing raid. Like “After the Funeral,” “Among Those Killed” explicitly rejects the appropriateness of traditional funeral services (“O keep his bones away from that common cart”), but here they are rejected not because they are “magnified out of praise” but because they are inadequate for the occasion.
Mortality seems inevitable and unpredictable in “Among Those Killed.” The old man’s death comes in the second line, giving no time to prepare the reader for the event. Instead, he simply dressed, “stepped out and died,” and there does not seem to have been anything he or anyone else could have done even to foresee it, much less prevent it. Like “dead, humped Ann” in the early part of “After the Funeral,” there is no ceremony for death here. It happens, and there is no need for romanticising the event.
The “refusal to mourn” is more fully developed in a poem written a few years later, as the war neared its end, in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” Again, this work was inspired by a real story of someone killed in a German bombing raid, but this time the victim is a young girl. “A Refusal” is a follow-up work to the slightly earlier “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” which has the same subject, theme, and several similar images. “A Refusal,” though, uses a less elevated style and is less elegiac. As in “Among Those Killed,” death is something inevitable, but here Thomas conveys that concept by emphasising the universality of the girl’s experience by calling her “London’s daughter,” as though she belonged to the whole city. Furthermore, he ties in the image of death with images of fertility, such as the “ear of corn” or referring to tears as “salt seed,” emphasising that death is the inevitable end of these images of life. This is especially true with the latter image; a “seed” is obviously an image of life and fertility, but salt makes ground barren. Though he is not cold, he refuses to take part in undue ceremony for life’s unavoidable outcome.
“Do not go gentle into that good night” is likely Thomas’s most famous poem, written for his dying father, D.J. Thomas, in May 1949. D.J. worked as a provincial schoolmaster, and was feared for a bad temper that may have been caused, or at least worsened, by failed ambitions for his own writing or higher appointments in education or academia. After a bout with cancer in 1933 his temper began to mellow, and he became increasingly resigned as his health worsened throughout the rest of the 1930s and 40s.
Thomas takes his refusal to mourn death even farther into outright defiance as the “salt seed” of “A Refusal” become “fierce tears.” The narrator’s tone is also more confident than his previous work. “After the Funeral” changed its approach halfway through its composition, “Deaths and Entrances” is anxious, “A Refusal” and “Among Those Killed” are more confident, but still offer mostly the narrator’s interpretation of events, but “Do not go gentle” relates not just personal reflections but tells the reader how to approach death; and not acceptingly as in “Among Those Killed” or even with a sense of resistance, but instead they should “rage,” a powerful word that conveys not only some vague sense of injustice but of anger and violence. Exactly how one should rage against the inevitable is unstated, but “Do not go gentle” plays strongly on its reader’s emotions.
The last poem Thomas wrote on this topic is “Elegy.” Now, any conclusions drawn from this work must be conservative, because it remained unfinished at Thomas’s death in 1953. However, it clearly develops “Do not go gentle,” and even rejects his previous works’ injunction to resistance. Though he had directly stated in “A Refusal to Mourn” that elegies are inappropriate for the dead, the very title of this work is “Elegy,” and a return to the conclusion of “After the Funeral.” Here, far from “raging,” he accepts his father’s death gracefully. There is even a hint of sentimentality in the last line of the Vernon Watkins’ extended version of the poem, “Until I die he will not leave my side.”
Most of the poem focuses on the contrast between his father’s pride and his current state. He was “innocent,” courageous, since he “never cried,” and above all else, proud. Despite his pride, though, he is “too frail to check the tears.”
The image of night returns from “Do not go gentle,” but this time there are two nights that Thomas refers to as “blindness and death.” As in “Do not go gentle,” one night is death, but “blindness” would seem to refer to life, since one would assume that the two nights are meant to parallel the two states the elder Thomas is caught between. Specifically, the blindness probably refers to his pride.
Whether all the disparate treatments of death correspond to Thomas’s own personal feelings about mortality, one can only speculate. However, Thomas evidently felt some need to partake in the “ritual” of creating poetry for the deceased, and possibly working through his own feelings, since he did so for so many difficult events in his life.
*This line, and most of my biographical information about Thomas, comes from Ralph Maud’s Where Have the Old Words Got Me? Explications of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems.
The above is a revised, edited version of an essay written at university.