Dylan Thomas', A Refusal To Mourn - Analysis

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2nd Jun 2017 Philosophy Reference this

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Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal To Mourn The Death, By Fire, Of A Child In London,” is a poem about mourning. More specifically, the poem’s focus is on the speaker’s predicament of whether or not to mourn “London’s Daughter” (L 19). A question arises from this predicament. Who is “London’s Daughter?” Is this a single person, or does she represent a group of people? This poem was published in 1945 at the end of World War Two. This is significant because Thomas was living in London during the Nazi “Blitz” attacks, which resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 people (Stansky 3). He most likely saw the destruction that resulted from the war firsthand. The poem, then, can be read as a refusal to mourn a singular death. The speaker uses “London’s Daughter” to represent the many people who died in London during the war. However, it is how the speaker mourns, or his subconscious mourning, that is interesting. By “refusing” to mourn and questioning his beliefs, the speaker contradicts himself, and demonstrates his inability to fully register the death of another.

At first glance, the reader may think that the speaker is primarily concerned with a child’s death. But a closer reading reveals that the speaker is extremely self-centered. The speaker immediately focuses on himself in the poem, rather than describing the “child” or group of people he is mourning. He is more concerned with his own response to death, rather than the sadness that accompanies death, and the person or persons that have died. In line seven, the speaker says, “And I must enter again the round/ Zion of the water bead/ And the synagogue of the ear of corn” (LL 7-9). The speaker is resorting to his religious beliefs to find comfort. He refers to a synagogue as a “water bead,” which could represent a bubble of escape. The speaker finds comfort in this bubble because it gives him meaning regarding death, and it shields him from the unknown. He stuck in his own little world, unable to comprehend this death. But then, he says, “Or sow my salt seed / In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn / (LL 11-12). This is an interesting shift in tone because the first nine lines of the poem portray the speaker as somewhat religious and optimistic. Now the speaker seems angry. Line twelve, “least valley of sackcloth to mourn” seems to show his lack of confidence in his religion (L 12). He is saying that he will not sow his seed in the valley of remorse, meaning that he is not going to dwell on this singular death. He will not subject himself to mourn.

Throughout the poem, we see the speaker questioning his beliefs and his actions. This is not an uncommon response when dealing with loss. People experience a full range of emotions when dealing with death; questioning one’s beliefs does not seem out of the ordinary. The speaker, after considering hiding out in his religious bubble, proclaims that he, “shall not murder / The mankind of her going with a grave truth” (LL 14-15). He is stating that there is no grave truth, and he is not going to keep trying to convince himself that there is an absolute truth. He is saying that to try and impose meaning on her death would be wrong. It would take away from her memory. The speaker does not want to make this death symbolic, “Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath / With any further / Elegy of innocence and youth” (LL 16-18). He feels that to glorify death, or overly celebrate it would be disgraceful. The speaker is in denial. At this point in the poem, he seems to lack the capacity to feel for this person. This choice not to mourn seems to be less like a choice as the poem continues.

The speaker’s lacking ability to mourn is demonstrated further when he juxtaposes himself next to the Thames River. He says, “Deep with the first dead lies London’s Daughter / … Secret by the unmourning water / Of the riding Thames” (LL 18,22-23). His use of “first dead” implies that there have been many more, or there will be more deaths. He says that he is not going to spend his time dwelling on this singular casualty when there are so many more deaths to worry about. How could he possibly feel the same emotions for all of the coming deaths? How could he put so much energy and feeling into this one death? He claims that instead of mourning, he will flow like the Thames, ubiquitous and unknowing. He would much rather celebrate life and continuity. However, he contradicts himself yet again, with the final line, “After the first death, there is no other” (L 24). By stating this “truth,” he is consciously trying to make sense of death, which seems like an act of mourning. There is a pattern emerging in the poem. The speaker goes back and forth on what he believes to be the truth of the “child’s” death.

The speaker’s fickleness regarding his beliefs takes away from the “child’s” death, and centers the poem on the speaker. From this small sample size, we can draw a conclusion that he does not possess an advanced capacity for mourning. Maybe he can only mourn once, and after that it is only repetition. Humans may not have the ability to fully register the magnitude someone else’s pain, and in this case the speaker is only able to understand his own pain and experiences, and therefore is unable to mourn this “child.” The poem, then, is the speaker’s account of his desire to mourn, even though he says that he is not going to. The entire poem contradicts itself. The speaker cannot make sense of this death. So instead of trying to mourn, he refuses to, which becomes a subconscious act of mourning.

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