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.…