It’s National Poetry Day! I love poetry. I feel like I could blather about my favourite poems for an eternity, but neither you nor I has the time. Instead, I’m going to settle with presenting a reading of my very favourite poem: Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas.
This is a study in nostalgia, and it calls to me achingly. I’m not talking about the sort of nostalgia that’s for times that never existed, or for kittens and puppy dogs and chocolate-box things. I’m talking about nostalgia that cuts you in half for times and ways of being and outlooks on the world that you can never get back. For childhood, not for purity or innocence in any kind of gaudy unsexed manner, but the innocence of view where every detail is fresh and full of possibilities. Where your imagination runs riot with the world and its possibilities in a way that will be destroyed as you age and learn more and more about what the world is and what it will allow – the interpretations that can be legitimately put on things. And I’m not talking about how you interpret your friends, or politics, or a novel, but how you interpret grass and apples and time and physical reality itself.
As children we are unbounded. We have no preconceptions and every moment of experience is fresh and all enveloping and mixed with what our imaginations choose to make of it. But every moment of experience also moves us closer to understanding. Understanding is a rich and beautiful thing, but every ounce of it is limiting – placing caveats not only on what can be, but what we can imagine things to be, and how we can imagine them. Wonder is a fire in children that slowly drains out of us as we age. It is a thing I have always striven to hold onto, but it feels like trying to grasp sand. Every day delimits reality and renders it familiar – places it in categories with other experiences had before, sorts it and boxes it away.
Fern Hill is a poem about loss, about how every moment of time lived is one in which time steals from us. And yet time is also a gift – every moment of wonder must be lived through time. It is a celebration. As every verse is cut with sadness, introducing more structure and sense and limitation, every verse is also lined with joy and passion. The last couple of verses always make me want to cry:
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.