A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London by Dylan Thomas

‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ by Dylan Thomas is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, or sestets. The stanzas follow a specific rhyming pattern that remains consistent throughout the entire piece. The lines rhyme, abcabc, varying according to the poet’s word choices, in all four sestets. 

 

Summary of A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London‘ by Dylan Thomas tells of a speaker’s inability to comprehend the great losses suffered by London during World War II. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing the only point at which he will allow himself to mourn the death of a “child.” This child died in a fire in London, and while it was a sorrowful event, the speaker will not truly feel for her until it is time for him to face his own death. He knows that he will return to the place from which he came, wherever that may be, as will all those who died during the war, and all the time after. Death is equal across all of time and space. 

 

Analysis of A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Stanza One 

Never until the mankind making

Bird beast and flower

Fathering and all humbling darkness

Tells with silence the last light breaking 

And the still hour

Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London begins with a very long adjective phrase that modifies the word “darkness” in the third line. To start, the speaker describes the “darkness” as the source from which mankind is made and  “Bird beast and flower” are fathered. He sees this darkness, the period before and after life, as having defined who humankind is and what one is able to experience and endure. Additionally, the same can be said for non-human natures as well. The speaker is delving into the origins of life

The “silence” and the last bit of light symbolizes the final moment of consciousness. He extends this metaphor, using the image of the tumbling “sea…in harness” to represent the blood within one’s body. It too becomes still.

Stanza Two

And I must enter again the round

Zion of the water bead

And the synagogue of the ear of corn

Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound

Or sow my salt seed

In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The sign that he is waiting for will be accompanied by a known fact. When it comes, when nature tells him that the end is here, he will know that he “must enter again” the “water bead” from which he came. He also refers to this place as the “synagogue of the ear of corn.” He will return to the centre, origin, and base of all life. He will enter his death, and in doing so once more become a part of the Earth.

While these beautifully crafted lines tell the reader much about the speaker or poet, they do not elaborate on the title of the poem. The events to which the title refers will not be further described until the third stanza. 

The next line takes the reader into the climax of this long phrase that started with the first line of the poem. The reader now finds out that the emotion that the speaker is refusing to give into is sorrow. He is holding back his desire to mourn until the end of this life. He describes this act as holding back his “salt seed” from the earth and not allowing the “shadow of a sound” to escape his mouth. 

 

Stanza Three

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

I shall not murder

The mankind of her going with a grave truth

Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath

With any further 

Elegy of innocence and youth.

In the second half of A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London the speaker finally comes to the reason that this narrative is being told, and the reason for which the speaker wants so desperately to mourn, but refuses to. 

There has been a death in London, a child has died in a fire and he feels great sorrow over the “burning of a child’s death.” The reasoning behind this decision is explained. He does not wish to send this child into Death’s arms without her “grave truth.” He does not want to taint the reality of her situation with his own tears and emotions. This would be an act of blasphemy, he believes. 

He feels the urge to, but will not impact the situation by singing some “Elegy of innocence and youth.” 

 

Stanza Four

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,

Robed in the long friends,

The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

Secret by the unmourning water

Of the riding Thames.

After the first death, there is no other.

In the final set of six lines the speaker concludes his narrative. He describes how this dead child now “lies [with] London’s daughter.” It is not clear whether this is a person, or a group of people, but considering the speaker’s beliefs about death it is safe to assume this refers to all of London. Thomas was writing during and after the years of WWII and the poem is most likely speaking of all that was lost during the bombings of  London. Amongst all of the loss, the poet has decided to draw attention to the death of one child. 

All of those lost are now alongside those that were “first dead.” All of the dead are together in whatever comes after this life. Those that have died have returned to the time before and after life, and their death is nothing special. It is no different from the “first death,” that came at the beginning of time. 

Throughout A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London the speaker, (and perhaps Thomas himself), is attempting to come to terms with death and what comes after. Upon seeing the horrors of WWII it is likely that Thomas was unable to comprehend the full magnitude of what had been lost, and was seeking out an answer of some kind through his writings. 

 

About Dylan Thomas 

Dylan Thomas was born on the 27th of October in 1914 in Swansea, Glamorgan (now Swansea, Wales). Thomas did badly in school as a young boy, paying no attention to the subjects he was not interested in. Even though his performance was bad, he did edit and contribute poetry and prose to the school newspaper. He began writing at a very early age and had a notable knowledge of English poetry in general. It is generally acknowledge that Thomas had completed the majority of his poetic works by the time he was 21. 

His first book, 18 Poems, was published in 1934. It was through this collection that his original voice first began to influence English poetry. He published Twenty-Five Poems in 1936, and The Map of Love in 1939. The originality of his work lay in the inventive combination of religious teachings and sexual imagery, a product of his Welsh upbringing. Throughout his time living in London, Thomas became well known among literary circles, married, and had three children. Although well known, the Thomas family did not have much money. Thomas worked at the BBC as a scriptwriter but took in very little income. He continued to write throughout his troubles with money and his developing problems with alcohol and published Death and Entrances in 1946. 

In the early 50’s his drinking got worse as he began exhaustive touring around America. Although his work was well received and his career appeared to be at a high point, his marriage was falling apart and he died in New York City in 1953 from possible alcohol-related pneumonia. 

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  • Avatar Douglas W. Reynolds, Jr. says:

    Ms. Baldwin’s analysis is very thoughtful and thought-provoking—until she reaches the fourth stanza—at which she seems to have lost control of her understanding of the English language. Here the child herself is clearly “London’s daughter,” as dead as everyone who has ever died before her, buried among them and thus “clothed in the long friends, etc.” and “secret” both as being dead (and thus knowing now what we as living do not), and as hidden by burial (secreted) from mortal view.

    Whether Ms. Baldwin was born after the death of Dylan Thomas, as I would infer frankly from her not speaking directly to the music either of Thomas’s lines or of his beautiful cadences as he read his own works, I do not know; perhaps she would consider doing so unscholarly or disarmingly subjective. I would be sorry if that were the case, for Thomas and “what is now Wales” are I think inseparable, and the music of the “Refusal” is as rich and dark and deep as the “riding Thames” that is the emblem of Thomas’s response. Death is natural, as natural even by fire as the flow of water is natural to the preservation of life.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for your feedback. Our team have a vast knowledge of literature but of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t gaps in our knowledge, we can’t know everything, we’re not Stephen Fry! We rely on our readers to provide historical and indeed geographical context where they know better. So thank you for your insight.

  • Avatar Geoffrey says:

    The analysis has mistaken the syntax of the opening lines.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I;m not sure I know what you mean by this. The opening lines all look correct to me.

  • Avatar Sajjad says:

    Refusal to morn is a universal acknowledgement of unison of man

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Why do you say that?

  • Avatar Sarah says:

    I always understood this poem to be an expression of the disgust Thomas felt when he worked for the British propaganda department, and was asked to use his writing to manipulate the people’s emotions, heightening the outrage at German firebombing. In “refusing to mourn” he is giving the dead child the privacy and dignity in death that would be denied her if her death were turned into a mass spectacle of grieving and emotional manipulation.

    I like very much your line by line analysis.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a really great interpretation. It makes terric use of the poets life, that added context can transform the way that we see a poem. It’s amazing you know so much about Dylan Thomas’s life! Did you have to study him, or just an enthusiast?

    • Avatar Douglas W. Reynolds, Jr. (M.A. Toronto, 1973) says:

      Dear Sarah,

      What we “always understand” is often what is to be proved: and unfortunately the literary historians—some of whom are quite literary themselves—may feel free thanks to oft-summoned literary license to conjecture unmercifully as to what event or combination of historical tidbits gathered into a fantastical crazy-quilt of premises caused a poet or any artist to do what he has done. It is so natural and fulfilling for humans to do this that it happens all the time: and that it why such conjecture has been identified as “intentional fallacy,” which my own literary education has insisted I avoid. Plausibility is not proof, and even poets have been known to be puzzled about where their “meanings” come from—or even lie about them retrospectively, for that matter . . . .

      • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

        I hear what you are saying but as a poet love the idea of somebody analysing my work and postulating as to the deeper meanings and the reasoning behind the poem. Surely that’s what makes literature so fun. Ultimately there isn’t really a right or wrong answer to many of the questions. I find it satisfying that during the study of literature you can make a compelling argument for a theory that has very minimal chance of being correct. For instance, when I studied children’s literature I argued that the Harry Potter series was a metaphor for Nazi Germany. To be fair I got a dreadful mark but I passed the assignment!

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