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Death. Even the mere suggestion of the word is able to conjure up visions of dark, grisly impressions and cold, somber moods. The subject of death is neither an appropriate nor amusing subject of conversation among people because of the ill feelings of tragedy and mourning so often associated with it. Through his poetry, Thomas attempts to reverse the common opinions of society on death by using diction and comparisons that offer a new and contented perspective of death and reverences it as an integral, inescapable part of the natural cycle.

Dylan Thomas begins “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” by setting up a motif of atavism that prevails throughout the rest of the poem. He uses terms that refer to creation as he describes a darkness as “mankind-making,” “bird-” “beast-” and “flower-fathering,” and “all-humbling.” This darkness is represents the nothingness from which the world evolved, and we also know it is a great power by the descriptor “all-humbling.” According to this first stanza the same darkness will also mark the end of the world when the end of the world when the “last light” breaks and the seas are silenced. This stanza establishes a cycle of darkness before creation and a darkness after destruction that lays a symbolic foundation for the rest of the poem. The next stanza depicts Thomas as he himself enters this cosmic cycle and reveals this tremendously cosmic cycle to be death.

Thomas’s word choice is crucial as he describes the death cycle in order to compress as much meaning into as few words as possible, because it is his words that allow the reader to comprehend death as a religious as well as natural and inescapable experience. The use of the words “round” and “again” in Line 7 confirm the fact that the poet is entering a cycle from which he initially came, and also serves to compare the death cycle to a bead of water and the water cycle. A bead of water by no means can excuse itself from the boundless revolutions of shape from water to vapor to water. By associating death to a cycle that is so fundamental in nature and necessary for every form of life on the earth, the reader may conclude that death is also an equally endless and inescapable cycle, and that no soul may escape as the cosmic cycle transforms the person from flesh to dust.

Thomas brings more religious terminology into this stanza to reference death as more than a cosmic event. He describes the bead of water as the temple (Zion) through which he will be transported to the “synagogue of the ear of corn” in Line 9. The phase change of water is not only symbolic death as a cycle, but is also the means by which the body of flesh will decay and again return to replenish the earth. Furthermore, Thomas refuses to let a single prayer of sorrow escape his lips or sow his “salt seed,” or tears, in the least. Thomas describes his tears as salty because bemoaning death accomplishes nothing. Thomas refuses to weep unproductive tears over something he cannot reverse or overturn. Instead, Thomas illustrates the death of the child as majestic in the third stanza.

Thomas not only believes that death is inescapable and ultimate, but he also describes it in such a way that it is not the tragic ending that society considers it. In the poem, Thomas refuses to “murder the mankind” or the humanity of her going with the “grave truth” or certainty of her death, as the child has escaped the wickedness and corruption of the world that caused her fate. Thomas’s refusal to “blaspheme” nature’s course because the child’s death has brought release and peace, and it would be pessimistic and meaningless to consider it otherwise. Instead, Thomas honors the child’s death as he buries “London’s daughter” among the “first dead,” or in the ground where the particles of ancestors have returned. The fact that the grains are “beyond age” suggests that Thomas believed that this life cycle is without end, continuing forever and forever without disturbance. Further proof is in the last line: “After the first death, there is no other.” This reflects Thomas’s belief that after one endures the first or physical death they must never face anything like it again; in other words, there is no spiritual death. Thomas is saying that because individual deaths are a necessary part of the grand scheme of things there is no need to mourn the death of the child, as her body will decompose and the elements will return to the Earth. As the cycle repeats itself infinitely her spirit will continue on in existence for eternity.

Some might interpret this poem as a refusal to mourn because the death of a child is too heinous to comprehend, and that the last line is to be interpreted that “after the first death” there is nothing. However, Thomas used too many religious references (”Zion,” “synagogue,” “sackcloth,” etc.) to interpret the poem to mean that life is a futile existence. Also, the two longest sentences turn out to be anything but “A Refusal to Mourn” in their language and rhythm, but are sober and dirge-like. The ambiguity of such contradictions in the poem are most likely Dylan Thomas’s poetic reflection of the emotional turmoil created by the tragedy and misfortune of a child’s death.


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