‘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.
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Summary of A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
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
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.
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 center, 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.
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.”
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 acknowledged 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 ’50s, 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.