Sunday, July 3, 2011

Poetry Review: "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower" by Dylan Thomas

I love Dylan Thomas' work. He was an early 20th-century Welsh poet, and I'm very enamored of his verbal style with its big emphasis on sounds and images. His most famous poem is probably "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night", but I like some of his slightly more obscure work, like "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower". I'll try to explicate/critique it a bit.

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm."

Technical breakdown: We've got 4 stanzas of 5 lines each, plus an ending couplet. The middle line of each stanza if half-length, for emphasis, and the closing couplet reminds me of a sonnet's ending. "The Force" has an ABABA rhyme scheme, but it's loosely done--"flower," destroyer," and "fever" only sorta-kinda rhyme. The long lines are basically iambic pentameter ("The FORCE that DRIVES the WAter THROUGH the ROCKS").

Thematic breakdown: The poem is mostly talking about life, death, and the way time connects the two. Nature and humanity are also compared and contrasted a good deal.

Stanza 1, Explosiveness: Time is the "force that through the green fuse drives the flower", but time doesn't just nudge or push the flower into the open--it forces it. Time is aggressive in this poem. Also, the flower's middle is a "green fuse"--not a stem, stalk, or tube, but a fuse as if it were a stick of dynamite. Flowers+dynamite=Dylan Thomas' poetry. Time also "blasts the roots of trees", which could mean that it makes them grow or that time sends tree roots slamming through the dirt like shrapnel. Time destroys by pushing life along at such a pace that the living things are worn out and broken by the pace of their development--at the end of stanza 1, the speaker tries to talk to a "crooked rose"and mentions how his own youth is "bent".

Stanza 2, Currents, Drought, and Draining: Time moves the waters, too, in the same rough way that it produces plant growth. The water doesn't flow on its own power over the rocks; it is driven right through the rocks. The running water is compared to the speaker's own bloodflow, but the same force of time that makes water and blood burst along their paths, also dries river beds and solidifies human veins. Creeeepy. The speaker feels time draining him like a vampire, like it drains the mountain springs.

Stanza 3, Divine Destruction: For the first time, the speaker address the role of the Divine in the processes of Time. Unfortunately, though the divine presence can heal and can avert destruction, it also brings about death eventually.  "The hand that whirls the water in the pool" is a Biblical reference to the healing waters of the pool at Bethesda mentioned in John 5:4 --"For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." The same supernatural intervention that heals some people of their diseases also stirs the quicksand of time, bringing about the speaker's death. I'll be honest and admit that I have no idea what "the hangman's lime" line means. Obviously it's something to do with death, but if you Google "the hangman's lime" you'll find Wesleyan's poetry magazine, and if you try to do other hanging-related web searches, you get disturbing results. So. Draw your own conclusions on this one.

Stanza 4, Scattered Meaning: This stanza is a puzzler, because while time is leaching "at the fountainhead" of something--life?--love is dripping something and easing it's own sores with fallen blood. The blood of what? Of life? Time drains Life, and Love is satisfied by the bits of Life that fall upon it? Dylan Thomas loves his lyrical complexities, and this one is a doozy.

Final Couplet, Love and Death: Well, we've got lovey words like "lover" and "sheet" in these two lines, but both romantic images are directly tied to death. The lover is in a tomb and the sheet seems to be a funeral shroud that the speaker envisions for himself.
What a devastating poem. It's absolutely beautiful, but it doesn't offer even a smidgen of hope about the future. Death is eminent. Time will drive you, force you, and explode you in a direction you don't want to go--straight toward the grave. And along the way, the speaker notes his own loss of choices and his loss of speech, since he can barely convey his sense of growing panic and inevitable doom.
On an unrelated note, Happy 4th of July!


  1. Good analytic help for a student..most others on the net are just waxing poetic...;)

  2. Good analytic help for a student..most others on the net are just waxing poetic...;)

  3. In the anthology I own, a footnote explains "hangman's lime." Apparently they used to put a substance called Quicklime into the graves of convicts to speed up the process of decomposition.

  4. The hangman's lime explains the process of metamorphosis. It says that nothing dies but remains in a different form.

  5. The hangman's lime explains the process of metamorphosis. It says that nothing dies but remains in a different form.