Time is a concept that appears a great deal in poetry, as it is a concept that doesn’t translate well into most forms of art. Trying to capture the essence and feeling of time is a very difficult thing to do because each individual person looks on concepts like nostalgia very differently. For Dylan Thomas, the passage of time was an idea worth exploring and putting to page, in the form of his poem called Fern Hill. In Fern Hill, Thomas explores his own past and views times gone by with unmistakable fondness, and brings the full weight of his literary talent into sharing that feeling with his reader. More importantly, he invites his reader to look back on their own life, and to consider their past, present, and future with a warm, if critical, gaze. This poem is one of his better-known works, and for good reason too — his abilities and talents are unmistakable throughout the entirety of the piece.
Fern Hill was initially published by Thomas in the October 1945 edition of the Horizon Magazine, though he would also publish it in the next year as a part of his volume, Deaths and Entrances. The title of the poem comes from Fernhill, a house in Carmarthenshire, which was owned by Dylan Thomas’s aunt and uncle. Thomas spent much of his childhood at Fernhill, often living there for holidays and extended visits. If Fern Hill is any indication, the experience had a profoundly positive impact on the adult Dylan Thomas, who seems to look back on those times with great happiness.
Fern Hill can be read in its entirety here.
Fern Hill analysis
First and Second Stanza
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Fern Hill is written as six stanzas containing nine lines each. The structure of the poem is extremely subtle, and the flow relies on half-rhymes as well as internal rhymes, as opposed to the more traditional full rhymes at the end of each line. The lack of structure is used to great effect, as it evokes and mimics the way memory wanders and recalls the past in small pieces at a time.
Recalling the past is an immediately clear theme for this poem — the very first words of the poem are “Now as I was young.” The first two stanzas introduce two main characters that serve as the basis for the work: the narrator and Time. The concept of time is personified somewhat here; it is not a “complete” personification, in the sense that Thomas gives Time physical attributes, but rather depicts Time as being a parent or guardian figure, which allowed him to embark on the adventures his narrator describes.
These two verses describe many of the speaker’s adventures, relying heavily on connotation to express the happiness borne from those days gone by. Lines such as “happy as the grass was green” and “as I was green and carefree” highlight the joy of the child, while also planting positive images in the reader’s mind. Thomas uses the colours green and golden often, and his word choice throughout is telling. He points out daisies, light, rivers, apple trees, and the sun throughout, and also describes activities like singing, playing, and being carefree. The entire introduction to the poem is filled with language that is easily interpreted as joyous, even as the story itself moves rapidly from image to image, and adventure to adventure. Recalling the events of their childhood leads the narrator to feel happiness, and to associate each memory with fondness and laughter, and the reader is meant to as well.
Third and Fourth Stanza
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.
Fern Hill continues in its middle verses largely by amplifying Thomas’s use of connotation and repetition; he both repeats themes and images from previous verses, such as the colour green, and introduces new positive connotations for the reader. Central to these verses is the parallel drawn between the speaker’s childhood and the biblical Garden of Eden, the original Paradise.
The main purpose of these two verses is largely to amplify the sense of childhood happiness that was established early on in Fern Hill. In the third verse specifically, the lines suddenly become very short, and the scenes pass by rapidly, as Thomas writes about playing in the river, imagining green fires, and then it being nighttime. Each of these lines begins with the word “and,” as though the speaker is breathlessly trying to summarize a day’s worth of excitement to a casual listener. In the fourth verse, the child awakens the next day and imagines their field and home as a Paradise worthy of Adam and Eve, which symbolizes perfection in the adult narrator’s mind. Another recurring image is that of horses, which likely are meant to symbolize freedom for the speaker.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Fern Hill concludes with a subtle, but definite shift towards the present, and concludes in such a way that it reads almost like a eulogy, as the present speaker mourns the “death” of their past self. The fifth verse continues very much in the same vein as the ones that precede it, using positive imagery and symbols that represent that happiness. There are bright colours used — blue, green, and gold — and more references to carefree freedom: the house is described as gay, the sun and the sky are referenced, and the words “nothing I cared” appear, depicting the child’s freedom in plain words.
In the sixth stanza, however, Dylan Thomas brings his story back to the present, though his story is still told largely in symbolism and metaphor. The images used, however, have different connotations, and the story becomes more abstract when told through them. Thomas describes the shadow of a hand, and describes the farm where most of the story took place as having fled forever, now that the land has no children upon it. In these final four lines, the speaker acknowledges that their childhood is in the past, and, like the barn, will never return. The character of Time returns here, and the speaker addresses its influence as a bout of mercy, as though it sheltered them from the “real” world for as long as it could, and held the dying child in the end. Of course, the story itself is proof that the child never truly died, but rather grew up, to become a person who looks back on those years with happiness that would be very difficult to ever match again.