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September 9, 2013

From Elegy

Out of his eyes I saw the last light glide.
Here among the light of the lording sky
An old blind man is with me where I go
Walking in the meadows of his son’s eye
On whom a world of ills came down like snow.
He cried as he died, fearing at last the spheres’
Last sound, the world going out without a breath:
Too proud to cry too frail to check the tears
And caught between two nights, blindness and death.
O deepest wound of all that he should die

On that darkest day. Oh, he could hide

The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.
Until I die, he will not leave my side.
–Dylan Thomas 1953

COMMENTARY: This poem, discovered in Dylan Thomas’s posthumous papers and published by his friend, the poet Vernon Watkins, recalls his earlier, great villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” also written for his father.  The rhymes, the three line stanzas, and the rich repititions (light, die, cry, eye, etc) suggest the villanelle form, but, while “Do Not Go Gentle” is a poem of defiance and fiery, Promethian rage in the face of death, “Elegy” is a poem of tender resignation whose motto might be “too proud to cry too frail to check the tears.” While “Do Not Go Gentle” burns and raves, “Elegy” simply weeps, and, while never really ascending to Thomas’s apocalyptic heights, is, in its way, a much more honest, true-to-life poem.
The theme of the poem is the transformation into memory. As the light leaves Thomas’s father’s eyes, the father enters Thomas’s. The grief that the poem evokes–the tears, the wound, the blindness–acts as a sort of transfiguring lightening. It is the chemical ingredient that allows his father to transform into a permanent presence. Or, to put it in the more contemporary language of clinical psychology, it is the trauma that allows for their to be a post-traumatic stress.

The diction and music of this poem are both beautiful. I love the adjective “lording” in the first stanza, and, in the second, the lines “Walking in the meadows of his son’s eye/ On whom a world of ills came down like snow” where the sudden contrast of “meadows” and “snow” adds to the theme of transformation. The rhyme scheme is also interesting. abc/ bcd/ ede/ baba. The rhymes go around in a circle, beginning and ending with the same sound, and echoing richly in between, like a sort of musical mandala.   

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