With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,…
Never an October goes by that I don’t think of these words of Dylan Thomas. And so it is this year. Driving, looking out my study window, but, especially, walking, the physical world assaults the senses. The autumn wind fills the human heart to bursting with words that demand expression.
Some poets speak of spring melancholy (April is the cruellest month according to T.S. Eliot), but I’m with DT on this one – autumn being the season to challenge the heart’s endurance. The eye is assaulted with fall colours, the nose assailed with smells of ripe vegetation, fallen leaves, damp earth or, conversely, a dry herbal scent. The ear is filled with the sound of birds. Not song birds, however, who, for the most part, have now abdicated, leaving us with crows and ravens, birds traditionally associated with sinister omens and events.
In October the poet becomes the sun’s emissary. On his walk, he is empowered like the ‘crabbing’ sun with a life force that can turn the world of the senses into language. ‘(H)earing the noise of birds,/Hearing the raven cough…’, the poet’s shuddering heart ‘(s)heds the syllabic blood and drains her words.’
In this poem about making a poem, the poet ‘(s)hut… in a tower of words,’ addresses the problem of how to move the inside out, how to give voice to voiceless moods and feelings, how to speak the unspoken, for only in outward expression can nature or the world of the senses be fulfilled. ‘Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,/Some of the oaken voices,…’. The poet as alchemist turns the physical world into language.
But this is not all. The poem moves into a connection between words and time. At the start of the 3rd stanza, ‘(T)he wagging clock/tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning/Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning/And tells the windy weather in the cock.” What was ‘the raven cough in winter sticks’, arrives at ‘(s)ome let me tell you of the raven’s sins’, sinister connotations which were only hinted at in the first stanza.
The fourth stanza further develops the darkening mood of the poem. While from the first there is a premonition of winter (and thus death) – frosty fingers, winter sticks for leafless tree branches – the October wind now “(w)ith fists of turnips punishes the land,’. Words are ‘heartless’. Blood once ‘syllabic’ is now ‘chemic’. ‘The heart is drained that,/spelling in the scurry/Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.’ Is the poet thinking here about his own future, did he have a premonition of his own tragic life and death? Or is he thinking about the future of the planet, the build-up towards war in Europe? Or was he referring to the fury of creation?
The poem appeared in 1934 in Dylan Thomas’s first collection of poetry. He must have written it before his 20th year. What do you suppose brought him to the last line of the poem: ‘By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.’
*You can hear Dylan Thomas read his poem on YouTube.