‘The Hand That Signed the Paper‘ by Dylan Thomas is an outcry against the war that draws an analogy between a hand that is as powerful as a cruel ruler. It’s a composition of four quatrains that criticize politics and wars for their brutal impersonality and mass destruction. It is a timeless poem that shows tremendous disdain for most political leaders. In their self-serving and pitiless management of international disagreements, they demonstrate a lack of genuine compassion for their fellow humans. The poem mocks these reckless and coldly malicious individuals and establishes them as ruthless rulers.
Explore The Hand That Signed the Paper
‘The Hand That Signed the Paper‘ by Dylan Thomas is a socio-political commentary that demonstrates contempt for our selfish and despicable ruling class.
Like most other works of the poet, this poem also borders on ambiguity. This poem’s narrative does not suggest any particular event related to the past or present, but it is a reflection on our leaders at large. The imagery in the poem sketches out the repercussions of a totalitarian ruler that doesn’t show any compassion toward his people. He has been instrumental in wreaking havoc during the war and even afterward. The subject of the poem is the hand that signs the peace treaty, and it has been used as a metaphor for a heartless and cruel ruler who is insensitive to his fellow citizens. This megalomaniac has allowed mass murder through waging war and now has heavily taxed the remaining population to cover up for the cost of war.
In the last stanza, the poet even categorically states that these hands have no empathy or compassion. They are morbidly dry and ruthless and can’t even shed a tear for the sufferers.
In this poem, Dylan uses several literary devices to bring attention to the unworthy politicians of the world.
- Personification: Dylan uses personification to amplify the powers of the hand that is acting freely as if an influential entity of its own. The lines like ‘The hand that signed the paper felled a city,’ ‘ A hand rules pity,’ or ‘Hands have no tears to flow’ personifies the hand as a powerful yet conceited leader.
- Metaphor: Poem also uses metaphor to emphasize the impact of the inhuman character of its protagonist, such as ‘These five kings did…’ where five fingers represent powerful five kings that have the power to change the course of events by signing a paper.
- Rhyme: The rhyme scheme in this poem is ABAB, which brings the reader’s attention to the poem’s main theme through its language and flow.
- Imagery: The poem uses powerful images to sketch out a picture of horror and devastation through the usage of language such as, ‘and famine grew, and locusts came’ or ‘Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country.’
Structure and Form
The structure of the poem ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper‘ is a nonlyrical Augustan ballad that has four nonlyrical quatrains with ABAB rhyming scheme. The first and third lines in each quatrain have iambic pentameter, with an additional unstressed syllable. This feminine rhyme with rhyming words having unstressed syllables at the end gives a unique passive style to the poem. This anomaly goes perfectly well with the apathy shown by the leaders in the poem.
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;These five kings did a king to death.
The opening lines foreshadow the poem’s mood, where the hands that supposedly signed the peace treaty set a terrible and inescapable outcome in motion. The fingers that act as the supreme ruler have ruined an entire city and levied a war tax on commoners who already were struggling to earn their living due to war. These arrogant hands are responsible for so many deaths in war and have reduced the population to its half. In the last line, the poet uses five kings as a metaphor to reiterate the power of those five fingers that have ordered the death of the losing ruler.
The poet has used personification as a literary device to give the enormous powers of a dictator to the hand that can control the destiny of all and sundry. The imagery that the poet creates is dark and is that of destruction in the face of war.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
That put an end to talk.
In the second stanza, the poet is sketching out this powerful hand that actually belongs to an ordinary person like us who has a drooping shoulder and whose fingers are old and arthritic. Yet those hands are powerful enough to sign the documents to end the war that led to this bloodshed. The last line insinuates that a massacre of this nature happens when the rulers or politicians don’t give enough thought to peace talks or dialogues because of their inflated egos.
Here the poet wants to establish that this cold overbearing figure is not a mythical demon but just a human like us. However, the power has corrupted him. The poet, known for his ambiguity, used a ‘goose’s quill’ for a pen, which kings used in the past to sign papers. This signifies that the poem may not just be set in the time when it was written, the time marred with unrest and growing totalitarianism in the world; instead, it might be talking about the times of kings. This suggests that this misuse of power has been happening since time immemorial.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
Man by a scribbled name.
The poet further lays out imagery of horror caused by the signing of the treaty. He says this thoughtless peace treaty has not resolved anything. Diseases have broken out in the war-stricken state, and people are dying of hunger. On top of that, swarms of insects have destroyed whatever crop was left. He sarcastically states that these hands are endowed with such greatness that controls so many lives by indifferently scribbling a name. Still, it wouldn’t do anything significant for the well-being of the same people.
This stanza emphatically establishes the callousness and the unsympathetic character of the ruler or the politician. He is least bothered about the miseries of his people.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
Hands have no tears to flow.
The last stanza furthers the poem’s theme where these five fingers may count the casualties of the war but would not melt to try to heal the blood-laden wounds that have dried or would soothe them. In the third line, the poet juxtaposes these cruel hands with the mighty hands of God, as the power has made them so smug that they think they are the supreme power. The last line establishes that the hands of the ruler are incapable of being compassionate and would never shed a tear for its people.
The poet culminates the last stanza by using a simile. He compares the mighty despicable hand with the hands that rule the heaven that is of God. In the last line, the poet uses brevity to expose the perpetrator’s frosty and ruthless heart, where he doesn’t exhibit any emotions for his fellow human beings.
The poet used the hand as a symbol to deride the detestable ‘actions’ of the inhuman and faceless rulers at large. What better way to depict it than through hands that give those orders by signing consequential documents?
This poem was published in 1935, a few years before the second world war started. This was when the world saw the rise of many totalitarian leaders.
Dylan wrote this poem in 1933 when he was only 19 years of age. Around that time, Germany started picking up its pieces after the treaty of Versailles led to its fall. Nazism started finding its root, and the whole of Western Europe saw the rise of totalitarianism.
The poem will always remain relevant. Its narrative, through conflict, diplomacy, and ramifications, gives it a linear timeline. This magnifies the effect of the poem—an identifiable and comprehensible sequence of events aids in establishing the work’s connection to present times.
Readers who loved this poem should also consider reading a few related poems. For instance,
- ‘Drummer Hodge‘ by Thomas Hardy– This poem is written from the viewpoint of unnamed soldiers who fought in the Boer Wars or the First World War.
- ‘Strange Meeting‘ by Wilfred Owen– This is a war poem that emphasizes that the soldiers fighting against each other actually have no animosity toward each other.
- ‘War Photographer‘ by Carole Satyamurti– This poem vividly clarifies the subtleties of how contemporary war affects people’s lives.