Dylan Thomas and Deuteronomy

I have been thinking that Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” may have echoes of Deuteronomy. If I am not imagining things, these echoes affect the meaning of the last line, “After the first death, there is no other.”

In particular, the last line draws on the possible meanings of Deuteronomy 4:39, in the Dhouay-Rheims translation, “Know therefore this day, and think in thy heart that the Lord he is God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath, and there is no other.” In Hebrew, the final phrase, “there is no other,” consists of two words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. The meanings of this phrase could easily make a book.

But let us backtrack. What is going on in this poem? The syntax may be puzzling at first, but then it comes clear: its  main clause (“Never … shall I let pray the shadow of a sound…”) envelops a long subordinate clause “until the mankind making…”

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

The subordinate clause is about the end of the world, where God “tells with silence the last light breaking” etc., and the speaker must again cross into the Promised Land, “the round / Zion of the water bead / And the synagogue of the ear of corn.”

The main clause is about the refusal to mourn: “Never … Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound / Or sow my salt seed / In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child’s death.

In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his last speeches to the Israelites, who are to enter the Promised Land without him. He reminds them of their history and of the commandments, warns them against idolatry, promises them restoration if they repent, and dies at the end of the book.

Thomas’s poem continues:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

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.
After the first death, there is no other.

This reference to blasphemy echoes Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy 4:15: “Keep therefore your souls carefully. You saw not any similitude in the day that the Lord God spoke to you in Horeb from the midst of the fire.” And then in verses 16-19:

16 Lest perhaps being deceived you might make you a graven similitude, or image of male or female,
17 The similitude of any beasts, that are upon the earth, or of birds, that fly under heaven, 
18 Or of creeping things, that move on the earth, or of fishes, that abide in the waters under the earth: 

19 Lest perhaps lifting up thy eyes to heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them, which the Lord thy God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven.

To mourn anyone other than the first is similar to serving anyone other than God; but why is this, and who is the first? It could be the first of all mortals, but it could also be that first death, that first profound loss, that any of us encounters in our life. Not the first that we see, necessarily, but rather the first that we know. It may be “sorrow’s springs” in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall.”

Why is that first loss sacred? It is the ancestor; every other loss joins it. The lineage is in the brilliant lines, “Robed in the long friends, / The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,”

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

To mourn a later loss–as though it were the first–is to prop up a false god, to become vulgar, to kill. It is blasphemy and bad poetry. The true mourning lies in the respect.

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Then we arrive at the last three lines (which follow “the dark veins of her mother”):

Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Like the inscrutable God, the first death holds all death; nothing can compare to it.

What does this mean? I have only skated over the surface–but the last line seems to echo two verses of Deuteronomy: 4:39 (quoted earlier) and 34:10, “And there arose no more a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face….”

Back to the two Hebrew words, “ein od,” אֵין, עוֹד. They can mean “There is no other” or “There is nothing else.” In Deuteronomy, they describe God: there is no other God, or everything is God. (There is also a sense in which it applies to Moses; as 34:10 makes clear, there never would be another.) In the poem, the meaning is also double, triple, or more: there is no other death comparable to the first, and that death is all of humanity.

Or, even more simply: a loss is incomparable and unredeemable; it is the first because it has no copies, and in that sense it is also the last. It is and can only be “deep with the first dead.”

Any death at all, any death taken to heart, is the first. No death after it is death. There is hope in this–after all, death comes only once–but there is also unmitigable grief. The first is the only one, and there is nothing beside it.

But joy is in here too, in the singularity. I refuse to mourn a girl crassly, I refuse the pomp of multiple elegies–because there is only one death, and with it only one mourning.

Note: If there is a previous analysis of a relation between this poem and Deuteronomy, I would be interested in reading it.

Mourning: Together or Alone?

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering two pieces: “Grief in the Digital Age” by Elise Italiano (Acculturated, August 1, 2014), and “The Problem with Collective Grief” by Arnon Grunberg (New York Times, June 21, 2014). I would not say that they contradict each other; they are on different tracks. Yet in combination they raise a question: are private and communal forms of mourning at odds with each other? (I separate mourning from grief; mourning includes ritual expressions of loss, whereas grief consists of the raw emotion.)

Elise Italiano explores how “status updates,” “selfies,” and other digital communications affect both private and communal grief—for instance, at Ground Zero, where one is surrounded by people sending tweets, talking on cell phones, and taking pictures of themselves. She finds this phenomenon profoundly isolating—as it separates people not only from each other, but also from solitude.

Arnon Grunberg describes the Dutch fervor over the downed Malaysian airplane (193 of those killed were Dutch). He perceives the calls for collective mourning as nationalist in essence and responds, “The sad thing about mourning is that it really is quite unshareable, that it involves an extremely individual emotion. People have the right not to show their emotions and not to share them, even when it comes to soccer and calamity.”

Both are right. Grief and mourning are highly personal, but there’s nothing intrusive about establishing a place or time for mourning. To the contrary: such places and times allow the private mourning its own stretch.

Take a place like Ground Zero. If cell phones and other digital devices were not permitted at all, then there would be fewer distractions—and both solitude and companionship would be possible in a way that they are not now. (Visitors are not supposed to make or receive cell phone calls inside the museum itself—but they are allowed to take pictures with their cell phones.) True, people would object to such a prohibition; many feel that they have the right to use their devices. But the loss of such a right would be outweighed by the increase of respect.

Something similar can be said for times of mourning. On one level, mourning cannot be timed. It comes when it comes, and goes when it goes. On the other, a person participating in ritual mourning need not display or force private emotion. The ritual mourning makes room for the private mourning, even if the two do not coincide.

Collective mourning can be constricting and oppressive when it lays claim to private emotions. But when it does not lay such claim, it dignifies the privacy. To mourn with others in a time and place—even if my mourning is out of sync with theirs—is to set aside the distractions and dishonorings, together, for a while.

Much of what we mourn is not recognized. I may mourn someone who is not a family member, or someone still alive but gone from my life, or something as seemingly mundane as a misunderstanding. All of these relate in some way to death, but they may not get a funeral, or I may not have an official place in them. The formal mourning makes a possibility for those (people and mournings) that have no place.

If I step into formal mourning, even clumsily, then I participate in something beyond my own impulsive sadness. I learn history; I temper my urges. If I accomplish this, the impulsive sadness takes its time and shape but also remembers others.

If I can mourn in an allotted room, on an allotted day, then I can carry such a room into other days, or such a day into other rooms.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories