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A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London by Dylan Thomas

“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” is written, as the title asserts, in reaction to a child’s death during World War II. This child, a daughter of London, was a victim of air raids of the Nazi forces. Dylan Thomas heard the news of the young girl’s death when the house she was in was set on fire during the raid. The situation made Thomas pen down this piece in response to the death of not only a single child but also those who could not reach their prime due to the horrendous effects of the Second World War. Through this piece, he deliberately rejects mourning a young one’s unfortunate death by providing sufficient grounds.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London by Dylan Thomas


Summary

Dylan Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” begins with a contradictory remark. In the title, he talks of not mourning the death of a child. But, in the first stanza, he provides the ground of mourning the loss. The idea in the first stanza reaches to the first line of the third stanza to make complete sense.

In the first stanza, Thomas’ persona says that he is not going to mourn until mankind-making and all-humbling darkness that fathers the creation silently tells him about the breaking of the last light and the “still hour” coming of the sea tumbling in harness.

In the second stanza, he talks about entering Zion and the synagogue. After entering there, he will pray the “shadow of a sound” or sow his tears in the valley of death to mourn the death of the child.

While, in the third stanza, the persona asserts that he shall not murder the “grave truth” or blaspheme below the station of the child’s death through an elegy of “innocence of youth”.

In the last stanza, Thomas first mentions the child died during the raids. According to him, this innocent child now lies by the “unmourning water” of Thames. Lastly, he wishes that there should not be any other death after the first demise.

Meaning

Through the title of the poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”, Thomas hints at the harsh reality of World War II. This poem is not a heartfelt elegy on a brave soldier’s courageous struggle on the battlefield and glorifying death. Rather, it centers on the death of a young daughter of London who was robbed of his innocence, youth, and most importantly life due to the air raids of the early 1940s.

Through this piece, Thomas provides strong points concerning the prerequisites to mourn death. He uses several allusions in order to portray the nature of death. Then, he comes to the point of lamentation. According to him, one can mourn the loss that is natural. In the case of the absurdity of mankind, a word or two of grief ceases before it is uttered.

Structure & Form

It is a modern elegy that is written in the first-person pronoun “I”. Therefore, it is also an example of a lyric poem. The poem consists of four six-line stanzas. Thomas uses a specific rhyme scheme throughout the piece. It is ABCABC. So, the first and fourth lines, second and fifth lines, and third and sixth lines rhyme together. In the first stanza, the rhyming pair of words are:

  • “making” & “breaking”
  • “flower” & “hour”
  • “darkness” & “harness”

Structurally, there are four sentences in the poem. The first sentence is the longest one. Lines 1-13 complete the first sentence in which the first nine lines constitute three dependent clauses.

Regarding the meter, this poem consists of an amalgamation of iambic-trochaic meter with several variations.

Literary Devices

Thomas’ “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” contains the following literary devices:

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. For instance, the first thirteen lines are enjambed in order to form a single sentence.
  • Personification: In the line, “Tells with silence the last light breaking”, Thomas personifies “darkness”.
  • Metaphor: In the first stanza, the poet metaphorically qualifies death by using the phrases “mankind making”, “Bird beast and flower/ Fathering”, and “all humbling darkness”. Moving on to the following stanza, the phrase “the least valley of sackcloth” is a metaphor of the valley of death.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in: “mankind making”, “Bird beast”, “flower/ Fathering”, “last light”, “salt seed”, etc. Besides, there are repetitions of similar sounds that create internal rhymings.
  • Allusion: In the second stanza, Thomas uses biblical allusions to the Temple of Zion, the Jewish synagogue, and the “valley of death”.
  • Irony: “The majesty and burning of the child’s death” contain irony. This line understates the shocking and grave incident by glorifying it.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Critical Appreciation

Lines 1-3

Never until the mankind making

Bird beast and flower

Fathering and all humbling darkness

The first line of “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” begins with a firm rejection of not mourning the loss of a child. His poetic persona says that he will not mourn until death silences him. He uses several metaphors in order to qualify death. At first hand, he depicts it as the maker or creator of mankind. It fathers every living creature such as birds, beasts, and flowers.

Death, described as “darkness”, humbles all. This line points to its egalitarian nature. In this way, the first three lines refer to the cycle of life and death. Thomas sees death, not as an end, rather he sees it as a precursor of life.

Lines 4-6

Tells with silence the last light breaking

And the still hour

Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

In the following line, he personifies “death” or “all humbling darkness” and invests it with the idea of speaking. It informs him about his own death. The phrase “last light breaking” is a roundabout reference to the last hour of a man’s life when the final light breaks into darkness.

At that hour, one’s body becomes still. For Thomas, this stillness of death originates from the tumbling sea. Here, the “sea tumbling in harness” is another metaphorical reference to oblivion.

Lines 7-9

And I must enter again the round

Zion of the water bead

And the synagogue of the ear of corn

The second stanza begins with biblical references. Thomas’ speaker talks about returning to the “Zion of the water bead” and the “synagogue of the ear of corn”. Zion is a biblical city considered the holy city of Israel, the place where God lives with his people. The synagogue was built in Babylon as a substitute to the Temple of Jerusalem located on the mount of Zion.

The phrases “water bred” and “synagogue of the ear of corn” are sacramental images. By using these images accompanied with the word “again” Thomas takes death as a sacred reality and hints at the cyclical nature of life and death. In this way, death as a return to nature is expressed with religious significance.

Lines 10-12

Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound

Or sow my salt seed

In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

In the following lines, the speaker talks about praying to the “shadow of a sound”. He also talks about sowing his “salt seed” in the “least valley of sackcloth”. What do these references mean?

  • Firstly, he is reminding readers of the value of prayer. He prays to the “shadow” or an echo of the divine sound.
  • The following phrase is a circumlocution of shedding a tear for the deceased. Salt contributes to the infertility of the soul. Likewise, mourning for who has gone is, in fact, futile and unproductive. Death is part of the cycle of life and death. Hence, it is meaningless to lament someone’s death as the soul is imperishable. It takes a new form after leaving its earthly burden.
  • The last reference “the least valley of sackcloth” is an allusion to the “valley of the shadow of death” mentioned in Psalm 23.


Lines 13-15

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

I shall not murder

The mankind of her going with a grave truth

To understand the meaning of the first line of this stanza, one has to read the previous lines again. Here, Thomas refuses to mourn the “majesty and burning of the child’s death”. He mentions the child for the first time. According to him, the death of the child is a stately event. Her death is both glorious and bright. The poet wishes not to trivialize this event in sorrowful terms.

In the following line, Thomas alludes to the Ten Commandments in the Bible. Through the word “murder”, he refers to the death of the child by the fire caused by air raids. The “mankind of her going” points out to her sharing in the sin of humankind. She died with a “grave truth”. It is a reference to the child’s final resting place.

Lines 16-18

Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath

With any further

Elegy of innocence and youth.

Then, the poet expresses his refusal to “blaspheme down the stations of the breath”. This phrase refers to the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is also a reference to his refusal of mourning. As the child died due to the divine order of nature, he does not wish to blaspheme against this order through lamentation.

In the last line of this stanza, he refers to the conventional elegiac poetry that mourns the loss of innocence and youth. The poet rejects this idea in his poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”.

Lines 19-23

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.

The fourth stanza begins with a reference to the child as “London’s daughter”. She is lying deep inside the grave. By pointing out her identity, Thomas refers to other Londoners who died during the air raids. This child is robed with a shroud in which a dead person is wrapped for burial. The phrase “long friends” can be a reference to the worms or others who have died a long time ago. They are now lying around the girl in the graveyard.

The “grains beyond age” refers to layers of earth. It means the child has now become part of mother earth. The elements forming her body have returned to nature. Thomas further illustrates this idea by using the metaphor “the dark veins of her mother”. The phrase “dark veins” is the soil strata of mother nature.

She secretly lies by the “unmourning water”. Here, the poet uses the literary device called pathetic fallacy and personifies the river Thames in the following line. The sound of the riding waves of Thames is contrasted with the silence of the child’s grave. It seems nature is indifferent to the death of the child.

Line 24

After the first death, there is no other.

The final line of “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” refers to an epigrammatic idea. By “first death”, Thomas is talking about spiritual death caused by the sin of mankind. The physical death represents a passage to enter another kind of life. So, after her death, the girl becomes a part of the cycle of life and death. She has not died at a spiritual level. Through her bodily death, her soul is freed to enter the divine one. For this reason, there is no other death after the first one.

Main Theme

The main theme or central idea of Thomas’ poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” concerns death. This theme is evaluated at different levels. Firstly, the poet uses several religious metaphors in order to elevate the idea of death. According to him, it is a process that helps a soul to leave its earthly burden. It can become part of the divine soul after physical death. For this reason, the child died at a physical level, not at a spiritual level. Thomas also visualizes death as a stage of the life-cycle. Death does not end this cycle. Rather it keeps it moving and fuels the creation of a new life. Besides, this piece also taps on the themes of the cycle of life and death, mourning, and loss.

Tone

From the beginning of this piece, the tone is serious and emotive. The poet uses several rhetorical expressions to describe death. His word choice emotionally connects readers with his ideas. The seriousness of his voice and the peaceful cadence of the lines reflect the mood of the poem. Being a poem dealing with a somber and grave incident, Thomas uses such a tone. In the third stanza, the tone changes into glorifying one. Here, he elevates the death of the child. In the last stanza, it becomes calm and serious again. It can be sensed by reading the line “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter” and “After the first death, there is no other.”

Historical Context

Dylan Thomas’ elegy “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” was first published in The New Republic magazine in 1945. It was later included in his 1946 volume of poetry Deaths and Entrances. The poems in this collection deal with the effects of World War II. It became one of the best-known poetry collections of Dylan Thomas. In “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”, Thomas alludes to the death of a child during the Nazi air raids (1944-45). London had suffered greatly during those attacks. Several people lost their lives and many of the city’s children had been evacuated to safer areas. Unfortunately, this child had remained in the city and died when her house was set on fire due to the air raids.

FAQs

What is the underlying message the poet is conveying in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”?

In this poem, the underlying message of Dylan Thomas concerns the nature of death. According to him, death is a precursor of perpetual life. The child who died is not dead in his eyes. She lives eternally. He thinks whether she has transformed into other parts of nature or become a part of the divine soul. For this reason, the poet refuses to mourn the death of a person whose imperishable soul rests eternally.

What is Dylan Thomas’s attitude toward the death of the child in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”?

The poet’s attitude is calm and composed regarding the death of the child. He refuses to lament the loss of London’s daughter. There is a tone of rejection in his voice while he talks about her death. According to him, she is jow part of mother nature, not dead.

When was “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” written?

The poem was first published in 1945. In 1944-45, the Nazi air raids devastated London. The child of the poem was a victim of those raids. So, this poem was probably written between 1944-45.

What does “After the first death, there is no other” mean?

Through this line, Thomas refers to the “first death” as physical death. The soul cannot die, only the body can. Hence, after the bodily death of the child, her soul is released from her earthly burden. Now her soul lives eternally in heaven.

Who is “London’s daughter”?

In Dylan Thomas’ poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”, the child who died during the Nazi air raids, is referred to as “London’s daughter”.


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