That sanity be kept I sit at open windows,
Regard the sky, make unobtrusive comment on the moon,
Sit at open windows in my shirt,
And let the traffic pass, the signals shine,
The engines run, the brass bands keep in tune,
For sanity must be preserved
Thinking of death, I sit and watch the park
Where children play in all their innocence,
And matrons on the littered grass
Absorb the daily sun.
The sweet suburban music from a hundred lawns
Comes softly to my ears. The English mowers mow and mow.
I mark the couples walking arm in arm,
Observe their smiles,
Sweet invitations and inventions,
See them lend love illustration
By gesture and grimace,
I watch them curiously, detect beneath the laughs
What stands for grief, a vague bewilderment
At things not turning right.
I sit at open windows in my shirt,
Observe, like some Jehova of the west
What passes by, that sanity be kept.
I loved this poem from the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is a poem I often come back to; I don’t think I ever open my Dylan Thomas book of poems without reading this one.
Its music is, of course, glorious, as with all Dylan Thomas’ poetry. For me, ‘That sanity be kept’ describes the complexity of the role of the poet beautifully. There is, near the end of the poem, a rather exaggeratedly grand description, as Thomas describes himself as a “Jehova of the west”. I find something ironic in the way Thomas describes himself in this way, when he is talking about preserving sanity… by describing himself as a sort of God makes himself sound a little bit delusional. But then, don’t you have to have a certain amount of ego to create poetry, or any form of art for that matter? And poets are God-like in the sense that they are creators. Poets create what Thomas loved to describe as his “craft”; they observe, describe, comment, philosophise, and, on occasion, prophesy.
There also seems to me to be in this poem a sense of ritual — of the religion of poetry. It is almost as though the speaker believes that, were he not to “sit at open windows” in his shirt, making “unobtrusive comment”, then the “traffic” would fail to circulate, that the “signals” would fail to “shine”, and the “brass bands” would fail to “keep in tune”. The writing of poetry becomes a sort of compulsive prayer. Thomas keeps leaving hints to reveal to us the complexity of his relationship to his craft, adding that, as he sits at his open window — that symbolic position of an observer, apart from the world — he is “Thinking of death”.
Another line in the poem that fascinates me is “The English mowers mow and mow”. Why the repetition of such a banal word? I think Dylan is showing us here how sometimes poetry is difficult, and that sometimes the world is dull, leaving him without inspiration (with Thomas, though, this phase is very short-lived.)
I love how the poet describes himself watching the couples “curiously”, watching them “lend love illustration”. This is a very interesting line to me because it seems to suggest that the speaker has only ever read about Love — not experienced it first-hand — and so what he observes in the couples walking “arm in arm” is simply an “illustration” of a theory… he “detect[s]” the meaning behind their behaviour from his high window. This is a very sad image of the poet — he is sort of doomed in his role of observer, apart from the real world. He can make only “unobtrusive comment”, which suggests that he cannot change things. He is a passive observer and commentator, rather than an actor in life’s continuation.
So, in this poem, the poet’s very complicated role is at once that of a passive observer and commentator, a creator with very grandiose (possibly deluded) ambitions or opinions of himself, and that of a sad person who does not connect with others, and who remains apart from the real world… Which is all quite negative and sad. But then I love the image of Thomas sitting at his window in his shirt because there’s something so romantic about it.
As a final thought, I love the idea of the poet doing what he does in order “that sanity be kept”. I love that phrase, and the variation of it — “for sanity must be preserved”. Throughout my life so far, poetry has been a great preserver of sanity for me. Poetry reminds us that we are not alone, it reminds us that there is beauty in this world, and that, even where there is none, we can nevertheless create beauty, through the expression of our experience.
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh