Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Dylan Thomas: 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'

Grenfell Tributes by ChiralJon. Used under Creative Commons license

The overwhelming tragedy of the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London on 14 June has made me think of Dylan Thomas's famous poem of the Blitz, 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'.

I hesitated a lot before posting this. Grenfell Tower is a massive human tragedy, where at least some of those who lost their lives were children. It is not like one of my more usual "something made me think of this poem" situations. I also hesitated because 'A Refusal to Mourn...' has always unsettled me. It's in the title, and certain lines. Thomas is plainly mourning, in his own way, and the title is paradoxical, but it unsettles. When I thought about it, though, I realised that this disturbed feeling was probably conjured deliberately by the writer and that in some ways it is the only normal reaction. After all, the violent death of a child (in particular) should be disorienting, disturbing and unsettling.

I have read various analyses of this poem over the years, and there is no consensus. 'A Refusal to Mourn...' is oblique, open to interpretation and mysterious. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of my thoughts about it come from this moment and this shocking event. But a great poem can do this. So here are a few thoughts:

The poem's structure reflects the confusion of grief. The first two stanzas, in particular, contain beautiful phrases, but they tumble over each other at a velocity suggesting desperation. There is something here, of the flurry of thoughts and the attempt to draw them into a clearer picture, which is reflective of shock. In the final two stanzas the speaker seems to try to gather his ideas into a slightly more straightfoward, elegiac conclusion.

The speaker's thoughts are of both life and death. "Fathering", "the last light breaking", "the round/Zion of the water bead" (this sounds like an image of the womb), "sow my salt seed/In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn"... Some of these images could be of life and death at the same time.

The speaker is commenting on the equality of all human beings. There can be no doubt that Grenfell, a disaster which occurred in a poor subsection of one of the richest areas in the country, was a tragedy arising at least in part out of inequality and its terrible effects. During the Blitz in World War II, which this poem remembers, many if not most of the children who died were from poor families, as they had fewer options in terms of evacuating to safer areas.

My interpretation might therefore be very much of this moment in time, but it seems to me that by keeping the child's identity indefinite, the interpretation is open for her to represent all human beings from all backgrounds, or at least all children who die violently. There are references to a variety of religious traditions (Judaism with "Zion" and "synagogue", "the stations of the breath" as a variation on the Catholic Stations of the Cross, "London's daughter...the dark veins of her mother" perhaps a reference to some pagan tradition.) "The mankind of her going" also opens this elegy up beyond a single human being.

The final line "After the first death, there is no other" has also inspired much analysis. Some think it's a reference to the resurrection, while others think it denies this possibility. I have always (even before recent events) had a sense that the child's death is meant to represent all deaths, and thus it is "the first death". I was reminded of the famous John Donne quotation from Meditation 17: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." When the equal importance of all human lives is forgotten, as it so often is, the conditions for various kinds of horror and disaster are far more likely to arise.

Here are a few of the reputable funds to which you could donate if you want to assist victims of the Grenfell disaster:

British Red Cross - London Fire Relief Fund

The Kensington & Chelsea Foundation

The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund

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