by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
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.
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953), Fern Hill
There are many talebearing stories about Dylan Thomas, the roistering Welsh poet, about his drunkenness especially, how he commanded the New York bar tender to arrange the shot glasses of whiskey like a pyramid upon the bar then drank them one by one until every synapse in his brain exploded; about his philandering; and of course about the depth of his writing, words that spoke to me when “I was young and easy under the apple boughs” and which speak to me to this day.
He was a man who adequately – if not lamentably – proved that life is a declension from the moment of birth. Yet he nonetheless sang in his chains like the sea. My high school English literature Master interpreted to us pudden-headed dolts that the chains of the sea were the magnetic powers of the sun and moon which controlled the earth’s tides, pulling and yielding on this day, every day and Doomsday. And it made me think how like this is to the magnetism within us, how we are each irreversibly controlled by our inherent forces over which we have no power.
That of course is to say that it is useless to resist. Each of us is captive to our own commanding forces, like the incredible strength of gravity which moves the very Oceans. Yet how rhythmic and predictable it is! And – if we are to believe Mr. Thomas – how joyous we must be in spite of such manipulation. It would be so comfortable to stain the influence as shrewd or devious but it is terribly difficult to rebut one’s own constitution. Even if it were otherwise, how preferable it is to sing in one’s chains.
The allusion to chains naturally stirs thoughts of captivity. What are these chains which make a prisoner of us? And how is it possible other than in a madly literary or poetic context to imagine singing in a dungeon? Perhaps the singing isn’t cheerful? Might the jubilation of song be something profoundly expressive without being happy?
However we envisage expressing ourselves, it is merely the wails or adulation of our soul which speak for us. We haven’t any choice in the matter other than to connect with the cycle and use its forces to our advantage. As a default position only, recognition of the shortness of life and the unalterable and overwhelming powers of it helps to make the case for singing in one’s chains like the sea. By extension the capitulation relieves one of considerable liability, perhaps not a bad thing all considered.