A Refusal to Mourn
This poem by Dylan Thomas, arguably his greatest, was first published just after the end of the Second World War and was written after Thomas heard news of a young girl who had burned to death when the house she was in was set on fire during an air raid. The full title is A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.
The idea behind the poem is complex, and its message double-edged, but Thomas finds a perfect balance between horror and sadness, and between indignation and heartbreak. Children shouldn’t have to die, and neither should anyone else whose life is cut short by another’s hand, but we have to accept that they can and do. There’s no consolation to be found in mourning and in any case it’s hypocritical to favour one death with elegies, when suffering is so widespread. The best we can do is allow the dead some dignity.
During my delayed journey yesterday I passed some of the time by following the reaction on Twitter to the terrible events in Norway. I wish I hadn’t. Such events bring out the ghloulish worst in some people, and the worst of the worst is always to be found on the internet. Going online is sometimes like lifting the lid on a cesspit.
I was going to post something myself, but having realised that I don’t really care much for what other people think about this, I can see no point in adding to the blizzard of opinion. Far better to post this, which expresses everything I might have aspired to say far more eloquently than I ever could.
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.