Obscurity and the mythic quest for shape: a discussion and explication of Dylan Thomas' Altarwise by Owl-light
Havemann, Carol Pearson
Master of Arts
Dylan Thomas' obscure sonnet sequence, Altarwise by Owl-light, has "inspired more comment and caused more disagreement than anything else by Thomas." Reading the sequence is like experiencing a confused nightmare or dream vision, for the poem is curiously primitive and myth-like. Through the confusion of rioting images, however, Thomas' desire for structure and meaning emerges, Thomas repeatedly employs the term "shape" in the sonnets in a context of questioning, of trying to determine what the correct shape is. In addition, the poem is filled with suggestions of processes by which man tries to order experience and to determine the true shape and, thus, the true meaning of life. Thomas' examples range from literature (journalism, romantic novels and poetry) to the visual arts (painting, photography and movies) and, finally, to mythic systems (astrology, Christianity and the fertility cults). Although critics have maintained almost complete unanimity in agreeing with Marshall Stearns that the eighth sonnet is "the climax in a series of loosely connected sonnets," the eighth sonnet is in itself anticlimactic since it follows the discovery of the shape of the universe in Sonnet VII, originally the final poem of the sequence. The first seven sonnets portray the poet's quest for structure or meaning in the universe, culminating in the discovery in Sonnet VII that the shape of the universe is a circle representing the cycle of process. The final three sonnets further elucidate the theme, exploring the consequences of this truth and discovering what comfort there is for mankind. And, in so doing, the sonnets reinterpret the story of Christ as a mythic representation of the suffering of mankind and man's redeeming capacity for love. Both the theme and the technique of the sonnets are characteristic of Thomas' work. Continually Thomas writes mythic philosophical poems which portray a quest for shape, while both his technique and his theory reveal remarkable similarities to mythic thought, similarities which help to explain some of the obscurities of his verse. Moreover, as the sonnets epitomize the technical obscurity and ambiguity of Thomas' early poetry, they also further suggest the continuing ambiguity and obscurity characteristic of the poetic presentation of Thomas' vision of the shape and meaning of reality at every period of his life.