(Poem #335) After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)
After the funeral, mule praises, brays, Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap Tap happily of one peg in the thick Grave's foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black, The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves, Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep, Shakes a desolate boy who slits his throat In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves, That breaks one bone to light with a judgment clout' After the feast of tear-stuffed time and thistles In a room with a stuffed fox and a stale fern, I stand, for this memorial's sake, alone In the snivelling hours with dead, humped Ann Whose hodded, fountain heart once fell in puddles Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun (Though this for her is a monstrous image blindly Magnified out of praise; her death was a still drop; She would not have me sinking in the holy Flood of her heart's fame; she would lie dumb and deep And need no druid of her broken body). But I, Ann's bard on a raised hearth, call all The seas to service that her wood-tongud virtue Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads, Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods That her love sing and swing through a brown chapel, Blees her bent spirit with four, crossing birds. Her flesh was meek as milk, but this skyward statue With the wild breast and blessed and giant skull Is carved from her in a room with a wet window In a fiercely mourning house in a crooked year. I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow, Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain; And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone. These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm Storm me forever over her grave until The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
The perspicacious among you will have noticed that although we've been sending Minstrels mails for a year now, the poem count is only at 335. The missing thirty or so poems are testimony to the times we've been off email or too busy or too lazy to get around to posting a daily poem (not counting a 10-day break in winter)... we hope to bring that number down this year. Anyway. On to the poem, folks, on to the poem. 'After the Funeral' is, I think, the only one of Dylan Thomas' poems to deal with a specific individual - whereas most of his work is concerned with abstractions or nature, 'Ann Jones' is a very personal, very particularized kind of poem. It's no less powerful for all that, of course - indeed, many critics consider it the acme of Thomas' art, the kind of poetic statement that he would have turned to more and more, had he lived a bit longer. thomas. I found the following explanatory essay on the Web: This poem is an elegy, reflecting, once again, Dylan Thomas' concern with tombs. Abandoning most of the conventional matter of the elegy, the poet here is self-consciously absorbed with writing about his subject and comments on the appropriate way of memorializing his aunt, who was the mistress of Fern Hill. His awareness that the poem may be a monument disproportionate with the natural life of the real woman is at the living center of the poem. Shaped by the phrases beginning "After," the first twenty lines fall into two parts: lines one through nine treat the feelings of the "desolate boy" at funeral time; lines ten through twenty are in the voice of "I," who will, in line twenty-one, announce himself as bard. The "mule praises" of line one insist on the presence of a real mule with ears like sails shaking in the wind, an animal likely to be watched closely by a young boy. The wooden peg tapped "in the thick/Grave's foot" is the first official marker of the grave and thus an inspiration for the poet to carve "this skyward statue" in verse, the true monument. First, as a boy, in the early part of the poem, he comes to terms with the death and his feelings about it. The images of her lids, her teeth, her eyes so sunken that they resemble an expectoration, the puddle-like sleeve folds, in conjunction with the sleep-tormenting smack of the spade, are desolating. He imagines himself in the coffin shedding dry leaves, but the poetic outcome of this grief is minimal, although perhaps very real: "one bone to light with a judgment clout." The wake, the "tear-stuffed time" held on the farm before burial, provided images from which the true verse memorial could be elicited. The "stuffed fox," "stale fern" and dowager's hump were facts about the aunt and they lead the poet to significant metaphor - the "hooded, fountain heart" with the poet's concomitant crisis of consciousness. The real woman would not have approved of his being immersed in the hyperbolic metaphor of her known compassion. Literally, "her death was still a drop" too tiny for poetic magnification, but the druid poet must create the fiction of her monument in words. In conflict with himself, he has written what might be "a monstrous image blindly/Magnified out of praise." Yet the very size suggested by "Magnified" is a key to the monument described in the lines beginning with twenty-one: it is a "skyward statue" with a "giant skull," and there is a "monumental/argument." Lines twenty-one through twenty-six are the most joyful, creating the sound of religious music. Her "wood-tongued virtue" makes her a primitive goddess of the forest, a suitable icon for a "brown chapel." The "Babble like a bellbuoy" has always, however, seemed (to this writer) to be a precious line, its alliterations too easy to suggest the universal praises of the seas and the choir. The "ferned and foxy woods" is a transformation of the fox and fern (line eleven) of the living room on the farm. The sign of grace for her spirit is the cross made by the four birds flying from the four directions. In lines twenty-seven through forty the bard is the maker of a tombstone. Although her flesh was "meek as milk," the statue with "wild breast and blessed and giant skull" is appropriate because it is carved from a magnified image of her. Viewed through a wet window "in a fiercely mourning house in a crooked year," she is perceived as marble-like, monumental. The dead woman and the sculpted image come together in the last lines. Nowhere has Thomas better depicted the joining of mortality with immortal art. Her "scrubbed and sour humble hands" become "These cloud-sopped, marble hands," "her threadbare/Whisper in a damp word" becomes "this monumental/Argument of the hewn voice." And the two conditions join, as well, in one tremendously powerful line, "And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone." The conclusion returns to the images that inspired the monument. It will whelm the poet until "The stuffed lung of the fox twitch.../And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill." -- [broken link] http://184.108.40.206/hux/syllabi/543/dylan_2.html Another interesting piece of writing is this, on Thomas' 'Welshness': The word-play of Wales' most famous English-language poet, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), may owe something to his awareness of the sound-pattering of poetry in Welsh. (See, for example, the opening lines of Fern Hill.) But Thomas, too, is a product of that cultural wound that Bobi Jones mourns. Like his friend Glyn Jones, Thomas' parents were Welsh-speakers from West Wales. But neither Thomas nor his sister were taught Welsh by their parents; indeed the young Thomas was sent to elocution lessons. Welsh-speaking parents realised that English, properly spoken, was the language of educational and social advancement. But even in Thomas the traces of the older tradition do survive; apart from his concern with the sound pattering of his poetry, in After the Funeral, his elegy to Ann Jones, the aunt with whom he stayed at Fern Hill, his holiday 'country heaven', shows him consciously taking on the role of the Welsh bard (from the Welsh 'Bardd', poet). The role of bard at the court of the Welsh princes or the houses of the local lords was to give voice to the values and the history of the community, by celebrating victories, praising past heroes and the current lord, writing elegies, etc. In After the Funeral Thomas celebrates the loving virtue of this modest woman: ...I, Ann's bard on a raised hearth, call All the seas to serv'ice that her wood-tongued virtue Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads, Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods. Indeed, one might argue that the poem epitomizes the situation of the 'Anglo-Welsh poet, caught between two languages', as one of them put it, and between two literary traditions: the Welsh tradition in which the poet writes out of his or her social situation, often as the spokesperson for the community (Welsh Writing in English does itself show a greater sense of locality and community than most contemporary English poetry) and the English tradition in which these writers have been educated and which, certainly since the Romantic period, emphasizes the expression of individual's personal feeling. Thomas might construct himself as Ann's bard, but, like an English lyric poet, he 'stand(s) alone' with his grief. -- [broken link] http://www.erzwiss.uni-hamburg.de/Sonstiges/hardtimes/63Brown.htm