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Analysis of Poem 'The force that through the green fuse by Dylan Thomas

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

A young Dylan Thomas

A young Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas and a Summary of 'The force that through the green fuse'

'The force that through the green fuse' is a short formal poem full of rich imagery and textured language. The theme is that of universal energy, of natural forces and their presence within the human psyche.

One of Dylan Thomas's best-known poems, it is a powerful hymn to the green world, quite challenging yet brimming with music and rhythmical undercurrents. Some have pointed out an almost mystical approach to the natural forces that shape and make us what we, and the environment we live in, are.

Look out for internal rhyme and line ending half-rhyme.

When you consider the influences that helped shape the poetry of Dylan Thomas you begin to understand why some enthusiasts call him a religious Romantic. William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, D.H. Lawrence- the young Welshman knew their work and confessed in a letter to being 'in the path of Blake'.

There's no doubt he wrote some of the most intensely lyrical poetry of the 20th century. What most people don't know is that over half of it was created before he'd reached the age of 21.

As a sickly child, he spent many hours at home in Swansea, Wales, near the sea, his mother regularly reading passages to him from the Bible, another great influence.

The poem you're about to be guided through was finished in late 1933 and included in his first published book, in 1934, plainly titled 18 Poems.

How did the poet create his poems? Dylan Thomas explains in a letter he wrote to a friend:

'I make one image - though make is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be made emotionally in me and then apply it to what intellectual and critical forces I possess - let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.'

Lead in to Analysis

This is a short poem with a tight structure. There are four stanzas each with 5 lines and a final couplet rounding off the poem, 22 lines long.

Although iambic pentameter is dominant - 5 stresses per line - the third line in all four stanzas is exceptionally short.

Reading this poem slowly, straight through, three, four or five times, is recommended. It's so densely packed with rich imagery you have to work your way carefully into and out of each scene. And the language is textured, full of assonance and ambiguity.

Dylan Thomas loved William Blake's poetry. A direct influence can be seen with Blake's poem 'The Sick Rose':

O rose, thou art sick:

The invisible worm

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

'The force that through the green fuse'

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.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

Stanza 1

This strong opening line is a statement that immediately connects nature and humankind - the same energy apparent in such a delicate plant as a flower is also present in us. We are one and the same because of this force, which brings both life and destruction.

'And I am dumb'.....suggests that the speaker is in shock because of this revelation. The fate of the rose is the same for each and every person. The tree could be the tree of life, the rose a symbol of love.

Look at the four words in the first line: force, through, fuse and flower. There are melodic tones running through an impulse of power. It's as if the season of spring is suddenly exploding into action.

green fuse - this is the stem of the flower, the detonation that sparks off an explosion.

Stanza 2

The speaker introduces the element of water and equates it to red blood being driven around the body. That same driving force can also solidify blood into wax - this is the life and death theme again repeated.

Understanding how this force works within the cycle of life and death is beyond the speaker's grasp. The first 3 lines provide a statement, the 4th and 5th lines repeat a kind of refrain.

The imagery is vivid. Water, rock, mountain streams and springs; blood, wax, veins and mouth.

mouth unto - the verb to mouth is to move the lips as if saying and unto is an archaic word that means to. Unto is used frequently in certain translations of the bible.

Stanza 3

If the first two stanzas were influenced by Blake and Hopkins, this third stanza has a direct link to the Book of John (5:4) in the Bible.

'At certain times an angel of the Lord would go down into the pool and stir up the water..'

This pool was at Bethesda. The first person to enter the pool after the angelic stirrings could be healed.

In contrast this same hand is responsible for stirring deadly quicksand, in which souls may perish. Again it is life and death we're dealing with, opposite ends of the spectrum. The speaker then takes us out to sea where ropes, wind and shroud sails conjure up an image of the final voyage.

Lines four and five repeat the speaker's silent confirmation And I am dumb. The hanging man could be Christ on the cross, or the speaker's incorruptible spirit body. Unlike the clay, the corporeal, which will decay, the hangman's lime quickening the whole process.

Hangman's lime - in former times after certain criminals were hung, their bodies would be buried and covered with lime, quicklime, a chemical that speeds up the decomposition process.

Stanza 4

The imagery in this last stanza is both moving and inspirational. The speaker's vision widens and we are taken out through time and into the cosmos.

The lips of time suggests an intimate kiss; the fountain head is the original source - of Time or Love or Healing? Love is dying slowly, or is the blood of those who have died the healing balm, able to revive Love?

As the world turns and human life and love turns with it, the winds of change cannot be predicted. Heaven on earth will always be related to time, the process of growth and decay, spirit and matter.

lips of time leech - this short phrase makes me think of a kiss and the idea of exploitation. Is leech used as a verb; is time sucking blood or energy from the fountainhead, the source?

End Couplet

We've come full circle and reached the lover's tomb, where words are superfluous perhaps. Death is beautiful, decay inevitable, time the healer and destroyer. The crooked worm could represent evil, or pure decay, or the twisted notions we all hold on the subject of love.

You could ask - Where are the three preceding lines of stanza five?

The force, the force, the hand, the lips......?

This poem does have plenty of ambiguous imagery, food for thought, but it's power lies in the evocative language building up with repeated refrains. It takes us from the grave to the stars, from birth to death, from the tomb to the fuse. The mysterious universal force drives everything on.

Overall Impression

This poem is both overwhelming and inspiring. Image after image gather until you feel like you're in a romantic's gallery curated by William Blake, sponsored by the Church of Hopkins.

I found the iambic pentameter a little plodding but the figurative language with its biblical undertones more than makes up.

The end couplet is a puzzle. Is this an unfinished fifth verse? Interesting that the poet felt he had to end with a death and the crooked worm, not a heaven and a sky full of stars.

Overall a mysterious poem beautifully formed. The force that drives the music through a poem...


100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2014 Andrew Spacey