Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin are poets with unmistakably distinctive voices of their own. While the poetry of the Welsh bard appeals to the senses and the emotions, Philip Larkin, the University librarian of Hull is much more intellectual, even somewhat excessively self-deprecating. If one makes a contrastive and comparative study of the poems of these highly individual master poets one cannot fail to be struck by the difference in their attitude towards life and death, towards matters of perennial interest such as the relation between man and nature, man and man, man and God and similar questions of eternal significance.
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Representative poems that have been selected for detailed examination are “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, and “Church Going” and “The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin.
The force of Dylan Thomas’s feeling is as apparent in the short poem “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” as in the significantly longer “Fern Hill.” Thomas’s melancholy seems to derive from his awareness of the possibility of death even in his ‘green age’—the prime of his youth. This feeling gains poignancy because of the fact that Thomas did, indeed, die rather young, before completing the fourth decade of his life.
“The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” brings out clearly the poet’s idea of the kinship of all forms of life—vegetable, animal and human. The same principles govern the growth, decay and death of all living things. The green flower blooms according to the same natural instincts that bring about the destruction of the roots of mighty trees. it is also noteworthy that the poet bemoans too the fact that with all the poetic gifts at his disposal he is still dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”
This is perhaps natural empathy at its purest—emapathy not just for people or even animals but the feeling of natural affinity with something as far removed from human interests as (not Burns’s “red red rose”) but the “crooked rose.” This is pathetic fallacy in reverse—the poet regrets the fact that while the rose speaks to him, he, unfortunately, cannot return the favour.
Thomas establishes the same kinship with the “water in the rocks”, the “mouthing streams” the “water in the pool” “the quicksand”, and ‘the blowing wind.” There can, however, surely be nothing more stark than his insight that
I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.
The starkness of this image can be traced to the thought expressed in the final lines of the poem that the “lips of time leech to the fountain head.” This thought now leaves Thomas “dumb to tell a weather’s wind” how “time has ticked a heaven round the stars.” Equally, it leaves him as “dumb to tell the lover’s tomb” how “at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.” The ‘crooked rose’ of the first stanza links to the “crooked worm” of the final stanza, reminding the reader that the worm of death is always inseparable from the rose of desire.
“Fern Hill”, by Thomas may appear somewhat more celebratory, but it too ends with the thought that
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
These two lines express as perhaps no others can the extraordinary nature of the poet’s estimate of his unending endeavour in life. Each of us may be, as Auden remarked, incarcerated in the cell of himself, aware of the fact that he or she is both“green and dying”, but at the same time that is no reason why a poet cannot sing in his chains “like the sea.”
The poem can perhaps be considered an “Ode on Intimations of Mortality From Recollections of Early Childhood” but although the shadow of mortality may hang over the poem like a dark thundercloud there can be no doubt that the poet is expressing himself in song, like the sea of his own concluding image. (It may also be useful to note that Dylan was named after a Celtic sea-god.) He recollects the time of his early childhood in lilting lofty verse:
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Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
The poet recalls that he was “green and carefree” then, “famous among the barns.” He had celebrated the sabbath that “rang slowly/ In the pebbles of the holy streams.” These sermons in stones and streams had filled the instructive hours of the “lamb white days” of his childhood and had left him free to run his “heedless ways” :
And nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
He realizes now that Time which held him “green and dying” had allowed him to be “young and easy in the mercy of his means.”
Thomas was perhaps impelled to ‘sing’ in such an elegiac tone by the insight he had into his own life and his awareness of the fact that he was happily, or unhappily, burning the candles of his life at both ends. After all, he had prayed at the conclusion of another poem written to celebrate his thirtieth birthday:
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning. (“Poem in October”)
Philip Larkin, as suggested earlier, is a more cerebral, if also self-deprecatory voice than the seemingly boisterous boom boom of the Welsh bard. Where Thomas might seem mystical, vatic and pantheistic, Larkin is a professed agnostic who may even call himself an atheist, but who is pulled mysteriously to visit churches at times when there are no other visitors about.
“Church Going” has an especially ambiguous title. It could refer to the fact that churches are no longer in fashion as they once were—and the poet even speculates on their future:
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep:
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
He admits that the visitor to a church of the future could possibly be “ my representative”:
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation—marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these…
Whatever his personal views, the poet gravely pronounces of the church:
“A serious house on serious earth it is” although he somewhat detracts from the gravity of this statement with the dryness of his concluding remark:
“If only that so many dead lie round.”
In “The Whitsun Weddings” the reader is reminded somewhat ironically, of the fact that the poet is not just an agnostic but also unwed—a bachelor who is making a bachelor’s sardonic commentary on the “Whitsun Weddings” that crowd an hour of his singular life. He calls this in his individual phrase “this frail/ Travelling coincidence.”
When the train in which the sardonic poet and the wedding parties are being hurtled to their destinations,
as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The weddings themselves and their atmosphere provide no more than the sense of success—but an entirely bluff kind of success: “Success so huge and so wholly farcical.” There can be no doubt that the poet has managed to capture in this phrase the essence of the hollowness of the marriage ceremony and of the hollowness that is at the heart of the institution of marriage, which, after all is only a kind of separation, in the poet’s sad but wise words.
The two poets thus display differing attitudes to the questions of life and death—the so-called ‘big’ questions. Dylan Thomas appears always haunted by the spectre of death even as he swaggers about as the very picture of braggadocio. Philip Larkin, on the other hand, even when he appears most self-deprecatory manages to seem to justify himself and his highly individual manner of living and thinking. For Thomas life is a song by a man in the grip of Time, For Larkin, life is no lark but a serious business like the business of poetry, the coincidence of travel or like the church going, going, gone.
Larkin, Philip. “Church Going.”The Poems of Philip Larkin. Web.
——-. “The Whitsun Weddings.” The Poems of Philip Larkin.
Thomas, Dylan. “Fern Hill.” The Poems of Dylan Thomas. Web.
——. “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.” The Poems of Dylan Thomas.
——-. “Poem in October.” The Poems of Dylan Thomas.