A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

1Never until the mankind making
2Bird beast and flower
3Fathering and all humbling darkness
4Tells with silence the last light breaking
5And the still hour
6Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
7And I must enter again the round
8Zion of the water bead
9And the synagogue of the ear of corn
10Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
11Or sow my salt seed
12In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
13The majesty and burning of the child's death.
14I shall not murder
15The mankind of her going with a grave truth
16Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
17With any further
18Elegy of innocence and youth.
19Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
20Robed in the long friends,
21The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
22Secret by the unmourning water
23Of the riding Thames.
24After the first death, there is no other.
Original Text: 
Thomas, Dylan. Collected Poems. New York, N.Y.: New Directions, 1957: 112.
Publication Start Year: 
1946
Publication Notes: 
Deaths and Entrances, 1946.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
2006
Rhyme: 
Form: 
Special Copyright: 

"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" &#169; New Directions. From <i>Collected Poems</i> (New York, N.Y.: New Directions, 1957) by permission of the publisher. Any other use, including reproduction for any purposes, educational or otherwise, will require explicit written permission from New Directions.

Comments

"A Refusal to Mourn" seems just a poem of its time. It was first published in The New Republic in the summer of 1945 at the very end of World War II. Millions had died across Europe, Africa, and Asia, both combatants and civilians, young and old. What was another unknown child's death to the city of London, 30,000 of whose citizens had perished by Nazi fire-bombing and over 1,350 V2 rocket attacks? This rocket blitz was fresh in memory, having ended only on March 27, 1945. Why give more attention to one person's death than another's? Had not poems on the deaths of children been exhausted by keening Victorian poets? Was there much left to say about human mortality, five months after the Allies had entered Auschwitz?

But Dylan Thomas does more than not grieving a child's death. He emphatically refuses to mourn, not because he has contempt for conventional feelings, but because mourning seemed to him to be the wrong thing to do. The poem is not about neglect but about denial. Thomas celebrates rather than grieves for the girl's "burning." He declines to "let pray the shadow of a sound", hinting (because the idiom is "let fall") that praying would be a mistake. There is nothing to pray for, no favour to ask, no need to be released from agony. To utter a "grave truth" (15) would be worse than her death: it would "murder ... her going." The hackneyed pun on the adjective "grave" (punning on `serious' and `sepulchral') looks askance on using a child's death to moralize. Death does not wrong the girl, but turning her death into an occasion for someone to complain about human mortality would. An "Elegy of innocence and youth" would "blaspheme," that is, curse what is sacred. Thomas affirms the importance and dignity of the girl's death by refusing to associate it with the commonplace and the banal. But why is this child's death sacred? Thomas shows that she takes the fear of dying from us by investing death with "majesty" (13), the dignity and ceremonial splendour of royalty. When Thomas characterizes her last breaths as "stations" (16) -- "stations of the cross" are fourteen images or works of art depicting the stages of Jesus' suffering or passion -- the poet compares her with a redeemer on the road to Golgotha to be crucified. She is more than human, less than a goddess, but assuredly kin with birds, beasts, and flowers, and so with nature itself.

The child is redemptive, but (as Thomas interprets her death) she saves us, not from death, but from fearing death. Without relying on religious belief in personal salvation or an afterlife, Thomas represents death consolingly as part of life. The child returns to the "mankind making / Bird beast and flower / Fathering and all humbling darkness", and to "the dark veins of her mother" (1-3, 21). She goes home again to her parents, the darkness and the earth that together engendered her life. The child comes to somewhere sacred, like a Christian church as "Zion" and a Jewish "synagogue" (8-9), but this holy place is open to all, no matter what sect or faith, no matter of which kind of life. Her home is "the water bead" and "the ear of corn" (8-9). Her "long friends" wait for her, "The grains beyond age" (20-21). She passes through death to become one with the dark earth and "the first dead," resting by the "unmourning water" (19, 22). The four elements themselves take her to them: earth, air, fire, and water. Fire transforms her, the darkness of the air falls on her, the earth receives her, and the water rides above her. She is not alone.

Most consoling of all for those who remain behind is this: once we see her death as Thomas portrays it, once we understand that "the first dead" have shown the way, death can no longer be a bogey. "After the first death, there is no other." This last line may appear minimalist consolation, a variation of "You can only die once." In this sense, it offers relief from double-jeopardy, being tried and punished twice for the same thing. Clearly Thomas completely rejects the Christian concept of a "first death" that entails, through original sin, death for all his offspring. Yet, by referring to "the first dead" at the beginning of that stanza (an allusion some have taken to refer to Adam but really applies to innocent Abel, murdered by his brother Cain), Thomas implies that the death after which there is no other is not the girl's, not his, and not ours. That first death belongs to the first life at its very making, a child of the first man Adam, as if only by experiencing death could life itself discover the greater life into which it passed. "Refusal to Mourn" might be thought pantheistic, seeing god in everything at all times. Merely by living, mankind belongs to a much greater life in nature. (That is why darkness "fathers", not just "makes", the birds, beasts, and flowers: all living things are one.) "Grave truths" mistake in mourning the loss of life because life is not lost. The child's death expresses the "majesty and burning" of the four elements, the constituents of life. W. B. Yeats said this differently in yet another of his great poems, "Among School Children": "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" And everything rejoices, as he says in "Lapis Lazuli."

Thomas' majestic verse sweeps readers away, like the words of Old Testament prophets. He opens with a ten-word adjective for "darkness." His passionate, rolling opening sentence has so much energy that it comes to a stop only some eleven lines after it began. It is followed by two five-line sentences, and then a one-liner that a child could understand. Opening drama is followed by a gradual calming and then peace. Thomas uses such ordinary words, everyone's vocabulary, but their combinations make them new. Although we have not heard them before, they remind many people of the King James version of the Bible, and they share with Biblical scripture both immediacy and simplicity: we intuitively understand these words the first time we hear them, even though we may not be able to analyse why that is so. For example, everyone knows that clocks tell the time by chiming. Thomas turns that idiom into something strange: darkness tells the light by (striking) silence. Thomas mints this image: time is like light, measured by moments that darkness chimes with silence. The silences are deaths, but they are the way we tell or measure light and life. We know time by the sounds of a clock. We know life by the silences that a death brings.

Extraordinary too is the stanzaic form of "Refusal to Mourn": four rhyming stanzas, abcabc, that is, eight identical abc triples, each of them consisting of a long line, a short line , and a long line. In this metre, it seems to me at least, Thomas imitates "the sea tumbling in harness", "the unmourning water," and "the riding Thames." These three-line abc units are two waves and a trough -- the crest of a wave, its trough or valley, and then another crest. The poem moves like the sea in its round (Earth-like) "bead", rising and falling with the tides, every day the same, every month the same. The music of "Refusal to Mourn" moves counterpoint to the heart-felt consolation that Thomas speaks. Death is to life what a trough is to the crest of every wave in the tumbling sea.