Summary and Critical Appreciation of Dylan Thomas’s poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death

Summary of the Poem:

A child was burnt to death in one of the air-raids on London during the Second World War. The death of the child by burning is deeply moving, but Dylan Thomas does not want to make propaganda out of it. He will not utter a single word by way of mourning until the world ends in darkness out of which God created man, bird, beast, and flower, until the doomsday when there will be again complete darkness and perfect silence, and when the ever-rolling and tumbling seas are stilled.

The poet will not pray for the departed soul of the girl or lament for her till he himself dies, enters Zion, Kingdom of heaven and becomes one with grain, sand, and water, (i.e. the forces of nature/macrocosm). While praying people make sounds, but the poet is determined not to make the slightest sound. The poet will not also shed tears for the girl, because salty tears are barren and will never germinate and grow.

The poet finds in the child’s death something heroic and majestic, which he does not want to profane by mourning. If he mourns over her death he will have to utter such grave (weighty) truths as will take away from the dignity and majesty of her death. Mourning will reduce her death into a commonplace affair. There are already too many elegies on the death of an innocent child, and the poet does not like to add to their store.

The child lies buried with those who died first (i.e. Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ) and has merged into the primal seed, water and other objects of nature (i.e. macrocosm). Water, seeds are timeless, having been in existence since the creation. The dead child’s mother is London by which flows the river, Thames. The Thames is unmourning. It flows out to the sea in harness in order to ride it. Man dies but once. And when he dies, he is born to a new and eternal life. Death is not an end, but a beginning. Through death, man becomes part of the timeless unity of all things -of the macrocosm.

A Critical Appreciation of the Poem:

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London is one of the four war poems Dylan Thomas wrote in 1945 and included in his volume of verse entitled Deaths and Entrances. The occasion for this elegy is the death of a little girl in one of the air-raids on London during the Second World War. Though the death of the child is a fit occasion for lamentation, the poet does not want to mourn in a conventional manner, for it will demean the glory, dignity and majesty of her death. The poet shall never mourn the glorious death of the child till the very end of the creation, till the time he himself dies and becomes one with water, seed, grain (i.e. the macrocosm, the objects of nature). Elegies have always been written on the death of an innocent child, and such elegies are full of the same lamentation, the same stale and hackneyed words and phrases, similes, metaphors and personifications. Her death is too glorious and majestic for such platitudinizing. He does not want to reduce her glorious death into a commonplace affair.

Though A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London is not a song of lamentation in the conventional sense of the word, it embodies other qualities of the conventional elegy. Like Milton’s Lycidas or Shelley’s Adonais it is deeply meditative or philosophical. It expresses the great philosophical truth that after death a man returns to the macrocosm out of which he was created. The girl burnt to death lies buried “with the first dead” dressed in the long companionship of matter-the ageless grain, seed, water. Like a typical elegy (say, Lycidas, Adonais) the poem (A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire of a Child in London) ends on a note of consolation in which man dies, he is born to a higher and eternal life. Thus with her death, the child has got an entry into a higher, more glorious world, and has joined the company of Adam and Eve or Christ.

The poem illustrates Dylan Thomas’s imagery. Here he mostly uses religious and biblical images for conveying the futility of mourning over the death of the child burnt to death. The religious images are Zion, synagogue, bead, sackcloth, still, hour (Doomsday) blaspheme, etc. They suggest the sacredness of the child’s death, the child’s becoming one with the forces of nature (i.e. macrocosm), or the poet’s reluctance to mourn her death. ‘Stations of breath’ suggests the renewal of life through death (breath meaning life). Salt seed is a natural image. It suggests the futility of mourning. ‘Robed’ is a good poetic image. Just as one dresses oneself in a robe, so also the dead equip themselves with the long companionship of the macrocosm. In ‘riding Thames’ there is the image of a horseman.

A peculiar characteristic of Dylan Thomas’s imagery is the blend of religion and forces of nature. Zion of the water bead, the synagogue of the ear of corn, the valley of sackcloth-these are interesting examples of the intermixing of religion and the objects nature in the same image.

The meaning of the poem put in a nutshell is: “the poet will never, till the end of the world and the return of all things to their primal elements, distort the meaning of the child’s death by mourning for her. One dies but once, and through that death becomes reunited with the timeless unity of all things.” This meaning is reinforced and expanded by the poem’s rhythm and imagery. Thomas uses a basically iambic meter, varied by extra syllables. The movement of the poem, despite the scarcity of punctuation, is fittingly slow and solemn, and the metrical variations are semantically justified, as in the lines,

“Tells with silence the last light breaking”

“Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,”

“The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother”.