POETRY DEFEATS EXPECTANCY

2017-07-22Dylan ThomasA stylistic impact of a literary text is often achieved through a deliberate breaking of collocational conventions (see my previous blog). Dylan Thomas was a poet who relied on this device, also called defeated expectancy, to create a poetic effect. The predictability of collocations, as they are used in common speech, was violated by Dylan Thomas again and again. This can be vividly seen at the beginning of his poem After the Funeral, which he wrote in 1939, after his aunt’s death.

After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep,
Shakes a desolate boy who slits his throat
In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves,
That breaks one bone to light with a judgment clout’

The poet expresses contempt for hypocritical mourners, calling their funeral speeches mule praises, and those mule-like attendees have sail-shaped ears, and they walk muffle-toed to keep up with the atmosphere of the funeral, and they are happy to hear a nail being driven into the coffin (tap happily of peg in the thick grave’s foot/=coffin) because it’s not them who are being buried but someone else. They wet their eyes with their own saliva to create the impression that they are crying, they cast their gazes demurely down (blinds down the (eye)-lids) and wear black veils as a token of mourning (the teeth in black), and pretend to wipe away tears with their sleeves (salt ponds in the sleeves).

Compare the above phrases to what is used in mundane speech:

mules bray (but not praise), objects can be sail-shaped (even buildings, like the famous hotel Jumeriah in Dubai) but hardly the same can be said about ears, muffle-hooved may be used all right (the sand muffled the hoof-leaps), but usually not muffle-toed, thick may be sooner linked with sauce or soup (though we understand that the grave may also be thick with earth that fills the pit), the blinds are down on windows, not on eye-lids and the black is worn on faces, not on teeth. The salt ponds are found in deserts, not in sleeves.

Of course, there’s more to the analysis of the poem than just going through broken collocations. In the quoted stanza at least two biblical images may be traced: spittled eyes (contrasted with “Having said these things, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes” in John 9:6), and a judgmental “clout” of the boy, who is  Dylan Thomas’s second self. The matter is that, according to the Christian doctrine, it’s sinful to make a judgment about one’s close and own, so the boy’s negative reminiscence of his aunt (“a judgment clout”), which “breaks one bone to light”,  bars her from her heavenly destination (not one of Jesus’s bones was broken during the crucifixion, verifying that his death was sacrificial).

Those interested in how Dylan Thomas himself reads the poem, may be referred to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWDka2dZMKQ

Incidentally, those who read Russian may compare the original poem with Vasiliy Bataka’s translation. I must admit that my interpretation does not completely coincide with how the translator understands the poem. Anyway, probably herein lies the charm of poetry. It’s always PERSONAL…

После похорон    После похорон похвалы – бесплоднее мулов, которые //  Хлопают ушами, как паруса на ветру.  // По новому столбику кладбищенского забора // –  Самодовольный стук. Глаза притворно мокры,  // И солоны рукава, а ресницы – как шторы…  // Утренний чвяк лопат отчаяньем сотрясает  // Мальчика, который перерезает себе глотку тем,  // Что над тьмой могилы сыплет сухими листами  // Стихов. Но разве что одну незаметную косточку  //  выведет он этим к спасенью, когда  // Молоток Судии, и колокольчик Страшного Суда  // Возвестят приговор.

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