Last updated: 06 November 2008
Perhaps Dylan Thomas' best known poem, Fern Hill is a nostalgic and melancholic look back at times gone by.
Fern Hill was completed in 1945, and was the last poem to be included in Deaths And Entrances, published the following year. Placed at the end of the collection, it appears to move away from the war-induced darkness of tone which characterises many of its other poems.
Using outwardly naïve language and simple descriptions, Thomas creates an idyllic sketch of a Carmarthenshire dairy farm in which his aunt Ann and uncle Jim had lived when he was a child. In this lyrical poem about childhood and about being "young and easy", Thomas uses words and phrases which recreate a child's interpretation of the world.
Describing how as he "rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away", he recreates a typical childish fantasy that the world disappears when it is no longer visible. The sense of youthful freedom is reinforced by the form of the poem, with regular verses free flowing and unrestrained by a restrictive rhyme scheme.
Absent from Fern Hill is the adult narrator, who views the past with a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism. Thomas emphasises through repetition that this pastoral world is green and golden, and very different from the shabby realism of the same farm portrayed in his short story The Peaches, which is "so poor and grand and dirty". Childhood is recreated as a sensuous experience which is not relegated to memory like the "long dead child" from Thomas' first-person Poem In October.
For the first four stanzas nothing bad is allowed to intrude on Thomas' youthful paradise: even Eve is referred to indirectly in her pre-Fall innocent state as a 'maiden'. But in the final stanzas the mood changes and we are reminded about the passage of time which holds him "green and dying". He reintroduces familiar themes of mortality, religion and the endless progression of time.
Once these darker images have crept into the poem, it is possible to detect some slightly sinister undertones. "Green and golden" suggests freshness and innocence, but it can also refer to being gullible or immature.
Similarly, the reference to time allows Thomas to be "Golden in the mercy of his means" which, at first, appears to mean that time is merciful but on rereading we are reminded that he is in fact at the mercy of time.
With this poem Thomas appears to have kept the resolution which he made in The Map Of Love to simplify his poetry. But, ever true to his status as a poet and to the long tradition of poetry which inspires him, Thomas always returns to the larger philosophical issues of life. The tone and vocabulary of Fern Hill are deceptively naïve and simple, and serious themes linger in the background throughout.