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January 1, 2010

The Poetic Imagery of Dylan Thomas


Dylan Thomas is widely regarded as one of the 20th Century's most influential lyrical poets, and amongst the finest as such of all time. His acclaim is partly due to the force and vitality of his verbal imagery that is uniquely brilliant and inspirational. His vivid and often fantastic imagery was a rejection of the trends in the 20th Century poetics. While his contemporaries gradually altered their writing to serious topical verse, Thomas devoted himself to his passionately felt emotions. Thomas, in many ways, was more in alignment with the Romantics than he was with the poets of his era. He was considered the Shelley of the 20th century as his poems were the perfect embodiments of 'new-romanticism' with their violent natural imagery, sexual and Christian symbolism and emotional subject matter expressed in a singing rhythmical verse. His rich rhetoric and imagery gave his poetry a magical touch.

Poetic Imagery of Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas attached great importance to the use of imagery, and an understanding of his imagery is essential for an understanding of his poetry. Thomas' vivid imagery involved word play, fractured syntax, and personal symbolism. Thomas’ poetic imagery shows the use of a mixture of several techniques, the most prominent being the surrealistic, imagistic, and metaphysical. But the bible, his study of Shakespeare and other English poets also laid under contribution. Thomas as a resourceful "language-changer", like Shakespeare, Dickens, Hopkins and Joyce, shaped the English language into a richly original mélange of rhythm, imagery and literary allusion. Here follows a brief discussion on Dylan Thomas’ poetic imagery along with a critical inquiry into the major woks by this poet:

Nature Imagery

Dylan Thomas is especially renowned for his celebration of natural beauty. Some of his poems contain vivid and refreshing pictures of nature, even though he does not have any philosophy of nature to offer. The influence of the Romantic poets is seen in his recurrent vision of a pristine beauty in nature. Indeed, Thomas was a nature poet in the sense that much of his truest inspiration arose from a natural scene which he had observed long and lovingly. This is particularly seen in Poem in October. In this poem Thomas illustrates nature wonderfully alive with ordinary sights and sounds. In his thirtieth birthday when he comes out of the town, he finds the whole nature is greeting him. Thomas sees himself on his way to heaven or in the sight of heaven. The whole scene seems holy to him. He feels a complete harmony with nature. The wood seems to him to be his neighbor, the herons to be priests and the waves of the ocean rise high as if in honour and worship of their creator. The birds are calling and the gardens are blooming. In short, the poem encapsulates one of the most remarkable accounts of wonderful vivid nature pictures with a general atmosphere of joy.

Imagery of death

Death is a frequent theme in Dylan Thomas’ poetry, especially in the corpus of his mature work. Thomas employs different interesting and unorthodox images to present various aspects of death. In the poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, for example, he emphasizes resistance towards death as he repeats this appeal in the last line in every stanza. Imagery is used by Thomas to create the theme of his poem and what it means. Although readers are unaware of the details behind the on coming death of Thomas’ father, the motives of the author for writing this poem are very obvious. In this Thomas is asking his father through pleading words to fight against the darkness that is taking over and leading him into the afterlife.

Initially, Thomas uses images of fury and fighting in the lines "do not go gentle", "good night" and "dying of the light" to emphasize the resistance towards death. With these images, Thomas conveys death as the end and where darkness prevails. He takes his stand within concrete, particular existence. He places birth and death at the poles of his vision. Excessive images of anger and rage towards death exemplify the passion Thomas feels for life.

Secondly, Thomas brings into action images of "burn" and "rave at close of day" to show and emphasize the resistance towards death. Contrasting images of light and darkness in the poem create warmth of living and the coldness of death, so as to discourage people from choosing the dreary, bitter coldness of death:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In addition, Thomas uses images of " wise men" and " grave men [who] have not used their blinding sight" to tell his dying father that all men either smart or ignorant need to fight against death. A man peacefully may prepare to die only when he has made his true contribution to society. Here Thomas shares an attitude towards death, which is very much similar to Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a snowy Evening:
The Woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Sexual Imagery

Sexual imagery is recurrent in Thomas’ poetry. He uses sexual imagery almost everywhere. The influence of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets is often cited in connection with Thomas' unconventional religious imagery. Thomas speaks with directness and passion on the theme of sex quite similar to Donne. Thomas’ work shows the same fusing of sexual and religious imagery as it is seen in Donne’s poetry. In both poets there is an intense consciousness of death. Donne preached a sermon in his grave-clothes and Thomas’ poems show a similar fixation with the physical fact of death:
And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Imagery of Growth and Decay

The imagery of Destruction and creation are very much common in Thomas’ poetry. Like Thomas Hardy, he indicates a driving force of the universe, which both generates and destroys. Many of his poems can be studied in this contextual consideration. In The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, for instance, he indicates that an invisible cosmic force is responsible for both creation and destruction. The process of life goes on because of the operation of this force. Again, this force is working in the animal, vegetable and human world. This is the force that destroys the roots of trees and also acts as the destroyer of the poet’s youth. The force is watering the ground and withering away the mountain spring. In the same way, the very worm, which is eating up the body of the dead lovers, will also eat up the poet when he is dead:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

Imagery of the Subconscious

During the 20th century Thomas was being hailed as the most spectacular of the surrealist poets, or poets who used fantastic imagery of the subconscious in their verse. And it cannot but be so in the age of Freud, Jung and Bergson. Dylan has uncanny insights into the processes of the mind, much more profound than that of any other poet. He penetrates deeper into the human soul than even Freud and his followers.

In his best works he captures psychological moods which have been rarely captured, especially those of childhood and adolescence. He himself matured early, and his early poetry is the poetry of an adolescent. In The Hunchback in the Park Thomas talks about a solitary hunchback who eats bread from a newspaper, drinks water from the chained cup of the fountain, and sleeps at night in a dog-kennel. These details about him show that he is a homeless outcast, not a normal member of society. He is doubly an outcast, because of his deformity and vagrancy, and therefore an object of mockery to the truant boys playing in the park.

Religious Imagery

Dylan Thomas’ interests were psychological but they were also religious. Indeed, God and Christ are rarely absent from his poems since he takes imagery largely from the Bible. For example, in the poem After the Funeral we see religious imagery when the poet regards the woods as a kind of chapel where a religious ceremony would be held in honour of his deceased Aunt. He visualises four birds who will fly over her, making the sign of the cross in order to bless her spirit. Again, in the poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London we have religious imagery like: “Zion of the water bead” and “the synagogue of the ear of corn”. The words “Zion” and “synagogue” provide a sacramental quality to enhance its religious appeal.
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