Here is a poem by Dylan Thomas, “Being but men”. It is a lamentation of the lost innocence of childhood, somehow transformed into the circumspection of adulthood. It makes me suspect that Thomas looks back on childhood as a golden age and was never reconciled to life as an adult. And he certainly was a flawed human being with his drunkenness, unpredictable behaviour and shabby treatment of others as an adult. Knowing this, the peon has a poignancy of lost innocence which makes it particularly powerful.
Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.
If we were children we might climb,
Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.
Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.
That, then, is loveliness, we said,
Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.
Being but men, we walked into the trees.
The title and the first line already draws attention to the limitations of adult men, “being but men”, what can you expect but that they are afraid, cautious, fearful of their surroundings, expecting danger as they walk into the trees. They may encounter wild creatures, unfamiliar birds with unpredictable consequences.
The following stanza contrasts this caution with the confidence and fearlessness of children who can venture into the trees and catch the rooks sleeping, climb the trees and experience the wonder of the stars.
The child’s sense of wonder and ability to achieve it, should be “the aim and the end”; we should all aspire to be like “children in wonder watching the stars”; but as adults, we have lost that innocence and confidence and can only walk into the trees.
This is a fine poem of experience versus innocence, disillusion versus optimism, limitation versus potential. How much of this did Dylan Thomas experience in his own life?
The Poetry Dude