Analyzing the Themes of Creation, Life, and Time in Dylan Thomas' Poem "Fern Hill"

Updated on January 18, 2020
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Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

What is the meaning of life?

In life, we are created, we are born, we age, and we die. If creation results in dying, what then is the point of life? In Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” the poem itself is a clear answer to that very question.

The poem unfolds like life itself. Just as we see and examine the poem, the poetry allows us to see and examine life. One of my literature professors once said, “Poetry allows for an understanding of the quality of life so we do not go through life as a pod person.” It seems that the answer to a meaningful life lies within the lines of vivid images that poetry allows. By examining the poem, we may come to a better understanding of life.

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A Metaphor for Creation

When examining Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” the beginning of this poem can be understood as a metaphor for creation. The metaphor for creation is hinted upon within the poem when it states:

. . . it was Adam and maiden,

The sky gathered again

And the sun grew round that very day

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light (30-33).

These lines resemble the creation story that is told within the Bible. With the beginning of creation, man is born upon the earth, just like the sun grew round like a child within a mother’s womb. In the beginning, the birth of simple light, God created something from nothing; he took nothing and made it imaginative and beautiful. Just as God created something from nothing,

Dylan Thomas, the god of his creation, “Fern Hill,” put words on the nothingness of a blank page. He created something from seemingly nothing; he took the darkness and the depth that poetry allows and brought a simple light to it, making it imaginative and beautiful. After creation, comes life; the innocence of a child is born.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty; and darkness covered the deep waters” (Genesis 1: 1-2).

A Metaphor for Life

Within the poem, there are several key elements that help develop a deeper understanding of life. The poem itself is a metaphor for the passing of time in one’s life. For example, in the beginning of the poem, Thomas expresses the joys of childhood. By considering the beginning of the poem to be like the beginning of human life, we can explore the colorful imagery used to create the poetry, just as we are colorful and imaginative as children. It may also be suggested that just as a reader is innocent to the overall meaning of the poem when they first begin to read it, such is a child’s innocence to the overall meaning of life.

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Innocence and Beauty

In “Fern Hill,” the beginning of the poem can be expressed as the beginning of our lives. It is fun and bounces around the beautiful imagery that poems allow; it is like a child, “. . . playing, lovely, and watery” (21). It produces colorful imagery that only a child could see.

Within the poem itself, the narrator is recollecting his childhood. He imagines himself in an enormous world that is filled with only color, music, and beauty. His childhood is filled with imaginative adventure, “And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns” (6). The child’s imagination runs wild, all it experiences is vivid color, “And fire as green as grass” (22), and the melody that life gives in every instance, “. . . the tunes from the chimneys, it was air” (20).

Like a child, the poem depicts the beginning of life as simple and carefree. We are innocent to the ending of the poem, just as in the beginning of our lives, we are innocent to the realization of the end. With no care in the world childhood is pure innocence, an easier time in life, “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs / About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green” (1-2).

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Theme of Aging

As we move deeper into the later stanzas of the poem, it seems that childhood is fading. With the progression of time it takes to read the poetry, such is the progression of time that pursues the child’s life. While the narrator remembers what it was like to dance, “about the happy yard and singing as the farm was home” (11), a realization starts to develop within his mind. He relays his reoccurring experiences during his innocent time as a child. He remembers, “The night above the dingle starry” (3), and begins to realize that while he repeatedly falls asleep under the “. . . simple stars” (23), he awakes to the same sun every morning. As a child, it seemed as though time did not progress, that every night he would fall asleep under the same moonlit sky, and awake to the shining light of the same sun, never to change. It seemed as though time did not pass, yet he seemingly was growing with age. As he begins to realize his aging, a new consciousness is formed.

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Wisdom in Reflection

As he ages, each time he awakes, he begins to gather a new appreciation for the new day. Just as the “. . . sun [was] born over and over” (39), he starts to understand that while the sun never seems to change, he certainly does, is, and has. With age comes the loss of innocence.

The reflection of passing time brings us to the narrator’s present-day. Now, in old age, he remembers his childhood and the central idea of the poem is formed. “I ran my heedless ways, / My wishes raced through the house high hay / And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows” (41-43). At this point, in the poetry, the reader realizes that the poem is a meditation on old age, youth, and the loss of innocence that is bound by time.

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Theme of Time

The thought of death looms in the narrator's mind. His recollection of childhood has made him realize that he is no longer young and the carefree, but that his life is nearing an end, just as the poem itself is. In the realization of his growing age, there is a deeper master that maintains control over his life--that which he cannot escape--time. At first, “Time let me hail and climb” (4), then, “Time let me play and be” (13), but as his life draws near its end, time no longer “lets”.

As the poem progresses, the metaphor of time passing in life is further revealed. For example, the end of the poem can be juxtaposed with the end of human life. When one glances back through the passages read, or the life lived, a great consciousness is developed--meaning is found. These elements can be perceived in both the understanding of the quality of poetry and the quality that time gives to life itself.

In the final passages of the poem, the ultimate theme of the poem is revealed. Near the end of the poem, the narrator is no longer a free, innocent spirit filled with imagination and vivid color. He no longer sees his life in time as free, he is now constricted by time itself and, “Time held [him] green and dying” (51). While he is still part of the natural, green world, his experience of looking back at his childhood has made him come to this conclusion; he is now imprisoned by time itself.

The theme of time seems to be the ultimate message of “Fern Hill.” As life spans from childhood to old age, time is always in control. Our unconscious awareness of how we live through time is made conscious when we grow old and realize that we are going to die. This awareness is most likely the greatest grief people experience in their life; however, the message of the poem seems not sorrowful, but happy.

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The Meaning of Life

The passage of time and death has been made quite clear by mother nature herself. On a global level, every spring, nature is born and prospers throughout the summer. This is like the beginning and middle times of our life, the most joyous experiences we have. As summer comes to an end, fall brings the realization that death is around the corner. Leaves change color indicating that change is happening.

In the end, winter brings death to nature and its beauty. The trees become bare and the frigid cold almost makes it seem as if time has stopped. However, life is born again with the progressing spring and the whole cycle is repeated. On a larger and much quicker scale, the poem portrays the birth and death of light or life. “In the sun born over and over” (39), it seems as though all one has to do is wait until the next passing morn.

Even though the narrator realizes that “Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me” (37), it seems as though he is not saddened by his eventual death.

As the poem ends and he reflects on his lamb white days—and allusion of the purity of childhood and Jesus Christ—he does not seem to fear death. In the last two lines he states, “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea” (53-54). This brings us back to our original question. If we are created only to be destined to die, what then is the meaning of life?

It seems that in his last days, the narrator has come to an epic culmination of his life, an understanding of life’s meaning. The meaning of his life was all the fun and carefree times he experienced throughout time itself. Even though he can never go back in time and actually relive the moments, the carefree innocence and unawareness of death were the best times of his life. In the last lines, time becomes a sneaky prison, yet in his old age and realization of this theme, he is able to sing in his chains like the sea. His death is imminent, but he can still look back in his life and remember how he lived as a child once innocent.

Analysis of Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill"

The Beauty of Life

In conclusion, through Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” the beauty of life can be examined as a definite experience worth living. The quality that the poem puts on life is like a child, innocent, beautiful, and carefree. As the poem progresses, so does time. The narrator moves from childhood to his inevitable old age. However, in the face of death, he is not fearful of what is to come. Because of his past experiences, he has captured the beauty that is life, and is able to sing in the chains of time like the sea.

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 JourneyHolm

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      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        4 months ago from Houston, TX USA

        The point of life is to train ourselves to become companions of God. That means putting away negative thoughts such as: Jealousy, Vengfulness, and Wrathfulness. We do that with Forgiveness and Acceptance. Any story which depicts God with negative thoughts (see above) is Blasphame.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        4 months ago from Queensland Australia

        Luke, I have never been one to try and analyze poems and in fact, rarely read such. However, I found your analysis of Fern Hill informative and enjoyable. Thank you for sharing this.

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