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Altarwise by Owl-Light (Stanzas I - IV) -- Dylan Thomas

(Poem #405) Altarwise by Owl-Light (Stanzas I - IV)
  Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
  The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
  Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
  And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
  The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
  Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream.
  Then, penny-eyed, that gentlemen of wounds,
  Old cock from nowheres and the heaven's egg,
  With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds,
  Hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,
  Scraped at my cradle in a walking word
  That night of time under the Christward shelter:
  I am the long world's gentlemen, he said,
  And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.

  Death is all metaphors, shape in one history;
  The child that sucketh long is shooting up,
  The planet-ducted pelican of circles
  Weans on an artery the genders strip;
  Child of the short spark in a shapeless country
  Soon sets alight a long stick from the cradle;
  The horizontal cross-bones of Abaddon,
  You by the cavern over the black stairs,
  Rung bone and blade, the verticals of Adam,
  And, manned by midnight, Jacob to the stars.
  Hairs of your head, then said the hollow agent,
  Are but the roots of nettles and feathers
  Over the groundowrks thrusting through a pavement
  And hemlock-headed in the wood of weathers.

  First there was the lamb on knocking knees
  And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
  That Adam's wether in the flock of horns,
  Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve,
  Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
  On thunderous pavements in the garden of time;
  Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
  Out of the wrinkled undertaker's van,
  And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
  Dipped me breast-deep in the descending bone;
  The black ram, shuffling of the year, old winter,
  Alone alive among his mutton fold,
  We rung our weathering changes on the ladder,
  Said the antipodes, and twice spring chimed.

  What is the metre of the dictionary?
  The size of genesis? the short spark's gender?
  Shade without shape? the shape of the Pharaohs echo?
  (My shape of age nagging the wounded whisper.)
  Which sixth of wind blew out the burning gentry?
  (Questions are hunchbacks to the poker marrow.)
  What of a bamboo man amomg your acres?
  Corset the boneyards for a crooked boy?
  Button your bodice on a hump of splinters,
  My camel's eyes will needle through the shroud.
  Loves reflection of the mushroom features,
  Still snapped by night in the bread-sided field,
  Once close-up smiling in the wall of pictures,
  Arc-lamped thrown back upon the cutting flood.
-- Dylan Thomas
Do I like this poem? Definitely. Do I understand it? Most certainly not - I
have not the slightest idea what Thomas was trying to say here, but he's
said it extremely well. The sheer *density* of it, the kaleidoscopic
tapestry of images, the cascade of words and syllables, is stunning. To call
it amphigouri would perhaps be to do Thomas an injustice (see the Note
below), but it is certainly enjoyable as such - every line magnificently
vibrant, and none the less diminished for the lack of an immediately
apparent whole.


This poem...

 "represents an important stage in the poet's development, and it has been
 the subject of literary controversy ever since its publication in Twenty
 Five poems. The starting point of the controversy was Edith Sitwells review
 of the book and the subsequent correspondence in the Sunday Times
 (September 1936). In the review, which is warmly eulogistic, Edith Sitwell
 speaks of  'Altarwise by owl-light' as 'nothing short of magnificent in
 spite of the difficulty". This last phrase was seized upon by others and
 interpreted as an allegation of obscurity, in the ordinary sense of the
 word. Earlier in the same review, however, Edith Sitwell had made clear
 what she meant by 'difficulty' : it was, she wrote, 'largely the result of
 intense concentration of each phase, packed with meaning, of the fusion
 (not confusion) of two profound thoughts'.

     Dylan Thomas: The Poems edited and introduced by Daniel Jones J M Dent
     Everyman Classics 1985 pg 262

The poem is, incidentally, in the form of a sequence of sonnets.


There've been a lot of Thomas's poems on Minstrels - see the poet index
[broken link]

For a biography, see poem #14

For an unabashed example of amphigouri, see Swinburne's lovely self-parody,
Nephelidia: poem #99

And finally the aptly titled No comment: . Recommended :)

-- martin

12 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Gwilym Williams said...

According to Vernon Watkins, and he should know, it was intended to be a much longer work, but the sequence of ten sonnets was all that Dylan Thomas completed. The last three sonnets are about the Crucifixion, Egyptian burial and the Resurrection.
Using Vernon Watkins' insight as a starting-point one can explore the poem in depth.
On rose and icicle the ringing handprint

Gwil Williams

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