The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

These are the first two verses of a poem which Dylan Thomas published when he was 20. They are full of youthful exuberance and vitality. But what do they mean? What is Thomas getting at here?

What exactly is this “force”? The force which runs through the black and white “fuse” of these words seems to be both a negative and a positive force. Positive, because it is the life force itself, the force which drives the energy of youth. Negative, because this is a force which will push us all on to destruction. It bends the rose, dries the mountain streams, blasts the roots of trees and drives youth on to old age and destruction.

Commentators on this poem have been very preoccupied as to the nature of the “force” mentioned in the very first line and deliberately likened to electricity. Bryan Magee even goes as far as to suggest that the “force” can, at some level, be equated with Schopenhauer’s concept of the “Will”. This is an intriguing suggestion, though I am very doubtful that Thomas would have ever had much time for the gloomy Sage of Frankfurt.

I’m inclined to think that this is a blind alley. The actual nature of the “force” is not the real issue. I think that what the poet is really saying is that as we are all “driven” by the same “force” then, at some level, we are all connected, related, even identical. If the whole of animate life is driven by one force, whatever its positive or negative aspects, then it can be seen as a kind of unity. Yet that is not how we experience life. We cannot communicate with “nature” and we feel isolated.

Of course, we sometimes can and do empathize and identify with creatures other than our fellow men and women. We may relate to our dog, our cat, even our budgie or goldfish as being creatures somehow essentially similar to ourselves. But how far does this really extend? To the whole of the animal kingdom, or to creatures that are less cuddly, or to insects? What about trees and plants? Maybe during times of elation, or during other “peak” experiences, we may experience some fleeting sense of unity with all that lives. But it is something rare and passing.

But Thomas’ poem goes even further. What about streams and rocks? What about earth and matter? Is it possible to feel that sense of union and identity with the whole of nature?

In his brief, and compellingly readable, autobiography, the composer Arnold Bax describes an experience which perfectly illuminates the underlying meaning of Thomas’ poem.

Bax describes in some detail a spring morning in County Dublin. Unable to work, Bax goes for a bike ride. He describes the sights in some detail. He has a rest at a bridge over a river near Glendhu wood. Then he relates an experience which had occurred before and which can only be described as mystical:

“Whilst my vision became saturated with that aerial colour of Irish distances the two sounds of which I was alone aware were in a moment fused into one. My life’s blood it was that laughed and danced down the mountain, and that hill-stream coursed through my veins – was my very being. I was also that blue rim of earth held in the tangled net of the still naked birch-stems, and deep in that multicoloured pool of consciousness I sensed the images of all the beauty and pain in beauty that had ever illuminated or shadowed the race-memory of man.
It only lasted for a moment. “Who am I? Where am I?” came the question in a kind of panic, and instantly the dusky flames in that mirror within me broke up into shafts of diminishing light and went out altogether. My consciousness slid back into the rather delicate organism that was known as Arnold Bax.” (Farewell My Youth. p 96).

The similarity here – the mention of mountains, streams and veins – is very striking. Bax and Thomas were contemporaries – they died in the same year. Thomas would have known little or nothing of Bax, and yet here are two British artists who have both hit upon the same profound truth about the nature of human existence. Thomas expressed it through his poetry, Bax through his music.

We may stand dumb before the crooked rose but at least, through the medium of great art, we can communicate with each other.

Bax, A. 1992 Farewell My Youth ed. L. Foreman, Scolar Press.

Thomas, D. 1978 The Poems ed. D. Jones, J M Dent & Sons

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