Rhythms in the poetry of Dylan Thomas

Published 6:00 am Sunday, March 24, 2019

Yolande Robbins

Rhythm is what makes us want to remember poems. And those of a certain age and time remember “scansion” in an 8th grade classroom, where we frequently imbibed without wanting to, strange phrases like “iambic pentameter” and their accompanying rhythms that we had to identify.

If ever there was useless learning, this was it. Yet even as I write this, I’m scanning in my head, rejecting certain words and phrases, not because they are the wrong words or phrases, but because they are the wrong rhythms. They just don’t fit.

Dylan Thomas, the master poet, I think, of our time, knew this. And wrote memorable lines like this because of it.

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The recent loss of someone that I loved brought back to mind these lines from one of his great poems called “Fern Hill” that simultaneously captures the joy in children and the certainty of age and dying.

It begins with these lines:

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

The night above the dingle starry,

Time let me hail and climb Golden in the heydays of his eyes…”

What a wonderful description of being young.

But in the end, and in parallel structures of phrasing, he says,

“Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Earlier in the poem he had written,

“My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky-blue trades,

that time allows In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Before the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace…”

There is a wonderful and surprising arrangement of words in his poetry. He puts words together that don’t normally go together. But it’s the rhythm that binds them and makes them clear. Just read them aloud at home and you’ll see.

He had an unbelievable voice too, resonant, soaring, that you can hear even now on recording. But the other connection is Welsh.

I was always told that my ancestors were Welsh; they had come from the Old Country, and that my grandfather, H. (for Henry) C. Robbins here in Vicksburg and the Delta, was a direct-line descendant of these people. I never knew my grandfather. He went to Kentucky while my father was still young, and he died there. But I still imagine myself as a cousin of Dylan’s.


I think it was G.K Chesterton who said that “The use of the right word, the exact word, is the difference between a pencil with a sharp point and a thick crayon.” I think he was right about that.

But it’s the rhythm that makes us remember it. Those days in an 8th grade classroom were well-spent.

And I love jazz too. Rhythm!

Charlie Parker in jazz and Dylan Thomas in poetry.

It doesn’t get better than that.

Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Post. Email her at  yolanderobbins@fastmail.com