‘Especially when the October wind,’ by Dylan Thomas

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

I’d wanted to squeeze this one in while we were still in the month of October, but I didn’t quite make it in time! Nevermind; this is my belated final October post.

Dylan Thomas is one of those rare and extraordinary poets whose music can entrance and satisfy the reader even before understanding the significance of his words. That was certainly the case for me with this particular poem, whose rhythm and texture of sound were what initially mesmerised me; I had to read it through several times before really getting to grips with its full import (for me). It is a complex piece, and I find it difficult, but personally it speaks to me about poetry, and the process of writing it.

In the first verse, a fiercely evocative image of autumn is delivered; the wind “punishes” the speaker’s hair with “frosty fingers”, and he “walk[s] on fire”. I love this idea of the poet walking on fire (it brings to mind the fiery colours of the autumn leaves creating a carpet underfoot and paints a gorgeous contrast with the “frosty fingers” of the wind). I think that through this opening the poet is telling us that especially when life is hard (“Especially when the October wind” is cruel and “punishes” his vanity) he finds the greatest strength and inspiration; he walks “on fire”.

Thomas tells us that he hears the “raven cough in winter sticks”. I adore this description of the autumnal trees (that are shedding their leaves) as winter sticks. It is such a brutal, honest image. The speaker hears the raven’s “cough”. A cough is just an involuntary noise (the previous line mentions the “noise” of birds), but the sound greatly affects the poet’s “busy heart”. “As she talks” (notice it is the only the poet who can understand the language of the raven) his heart “shudders” and “Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.” The final line of this first stanza is such a exquisite description of the poetic process. The raven, a bird traditionally associated with sinister omens or happenings, inspires the poet – he “drains her words”, and they influence his own.

As we move into the second stanza, Dylan Thomas pursues his theme of language. As well as “shed[ing]…words” from the heart – as well as language/ poetry being a natural form of release for him – it now becomes apparent that language is also a kind of prison: “Shut, too, in a tower of words”. This is the eternal paradox of language: it is the great liberator, but also a great suppressor; there is so much it can say, yet so much it is unable to express. The barrier of language, or his devotion to poetry, isolates him.

Next, the speaker marks the “the wordy shapes of women”on the horizon, and the rows of “star-gestured children”. Dylan Thomas’ love-life, like that of many artists, was notoriously stormy and complicated. To me, these lines evoke the poet’s paradoxical fear and longing for a ‘normal’ romantic and family life. The women mentioned in this poem are mythical (they walk “like the trees”) and are constructed by language only (they are “wordy”). It seems that the poet is aware that they are constructs of his own mind and language.

“Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches”. I love this line, and something about it for me is so typically Dylan Thomas. I love the way it is repeated and reformulated throughout the remainder of the poem. I cannot decide whether he the “you” in this phrase is poetry or a woman. I suppose that it could be both, but I think that my initial instinct was that he is talking about poetry.

So, sometimes it is the “oaken voices” of the trees that inspire him to write; sometimes it is the “water’s speeches” that give him fuel for poetry. Nature gives him tools for creating his art. We can understand here that the speaker experiences the world intensely through language: even the water makes “speeches”.

The “wagging clock” is an unforgettable image. It evokes the persistence of time’s progress and that ever-present ticking. And even time is experienced through language, for the poet: the clock “tells me the hour’s word”, “declaims the morning” and “tells the windy weather in the cock”. It is the narrator of his life, even dictating the weather.

“Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins./ Especially when the October wind… With fists of turnips punishes the land”. I love how Thomas revisits the first line of the poem as we approach its close. The description of the turnips as “fists” is violent and evokes hard times, which Thomas would have known in  wartime Wales. I think it is interesting that the poet now situates himself specifically in “Wales”. He does not often make his poems so obviously personal.

As we come to very end of the piece, Thomas returns to the raven, and her “sins”: “The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry/ Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury./By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.” What is he telling us, here? For me, I feel that there is something very mystical about these lines (the word “spelling” at once evokes magic, but also has the obvious association with writing). It think that Thomas is recognising the sometimes unfathomably mysterious nature of the poetic process. The raven’s heart is drained, for the poet has taken its ink. The “chemic” blood is transformative, alchemizing his poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh