Monday, 15 July 2013

Dark Summer Poetry: Dylan Thomas's 'Fern Hill' and Celan's 'Night Ray'

It is hot, hot, hot in London and many of us feel as though this is our first real summer in years. Of course, it has come at a price like hayfever, Dante-esque Underground conditions and air conditioning breaking in selected public buildings just when you need it the most - but it's still pretty wonderful, all in all.

Two poems have come to mind tonight which are somehow appropriate to the weather and my frame of mind (relaxed and nostalgic, essentially.) The first is more obviously a summer poem than the second.

FERN HILL (Dylan Thomas)

'Fern Hill' speaks for itself: its vision of a rural childhood is ecstatic and specific, and sensually intense, as Thomas's poems are. Speaking for myself, I find it odd sometimes that I have so many childhood memories which are specific to the five physical senses. They are often so intense that I can remember textures as though I still felt them beneath my hands or feet. Perhaps this is normal, but for such an in-my-head person as myself, you wouldn't think so. I certainly know that I have more sensory memories of childhood - reams of them - than some other people I've compared notes with. (On the other hand, I often can't remember someone's name after I've been introduced to them three times, so on the whole my memory is nothing to brag of.) 'Fern Hill' also reminds me of idyllic summers in Finland as a child, perhaps made more idyllic by memory, but also coloured by loss after my grandmother died. It is in the end a poem about mortality.

The second poem is perhaps less suited to this season, but seems to fit. (There is an ad in the middle of the page which breaks the poem in half, so make sure you scroll down.)

NIGHT RAY (Paul Celan)

'Night Ray' is a dark, dark love poem. Not untypically for Celan, it is unclear whether this early poem is more a love poem, or an elegy. I suspect that more than being a summer poem, 'Night Ray' came to mind after I thought of 'Fern Hill' because each poem seems to faintly echo the other in the choice of imagery, and just possibly in some of the conclusions. Perhaps it's just me, but try reading 'Night Ray' and the last stanza of 'Fern Hill' alongside each other.


  1. In her book 'The Year of Magical Thinking', which the essayist and novelist Joan Didion wrote after losing both husband and only daughter within the space of a year, she said that, of all forms of writing, she found poetry perhaps the most useful for one trying to cope with the experience of grief. I have found this to be true also, and you may have some ideas as to why this may be so. I think it is because the language of poetry, both suggestive and open-ended at once, can allude to things inexpressible in regular speech and thus help us say something just barely visible on the thinnest outer edges of understanding. Celan's 'Night Ray' is like this for me. Lines like 'it talks as I do when I grant admittance to hearts', 'A fine boat is that coffin carved in the coppice of feelings', and 'Now you are young as a bird dropped dead in March snow' are powerful statements of love and loss for me. 'You are light: you will sleep through my springs till it's over' should stay with me for the duration. Thanks for calling my attention to the poem!

    1. I think you've put your finger on something important where Celan's work is concerned especially. People often called his work "hermetic" (which he didn't like it all) but it is certainly more prone to suggest than to state openly. This poem is a little less indirect than many of his other poems, but he so often seems to be going to a sort of pre-verbal or sub-verbal place and retrieving very deeply buried archetypal images. Celan suffered some huge traumas in his life which marked him forever and so the images that he retrieves, like the language that he uses, tend to be broken or twisted or carrying some particularly large burden of pain. If I were a psychoanalyst I'm sure I would find him twice as interesting as I already do.

      I think poetry is useful for confronting grief because at one and the same time you can be very precise about emotions with poetic language, as well as being raw and open and perhaps less reserved (in some respects) than you are with prose. Poetry lets writers and readers be free of the constraints of language (while still using language) in a way that prose generally doesn't. So you can access things that are very deep and perhaps otherwise inaccessible.