“THE HUNCHBACK IN THE PARK”
G. SRI RAMA MURTY, M. A.
Thomas who made a fine art of obscurity seems to be weary of it sometimes. At least half a dozen poems of his are clear in thought and simple in style. These ‘straight poems’ as Henry Treece would like to call them have a discernible development of thought.1 Thomas is quite aware of the difference in quality of these poems and his more usual compositions. It seems he is equally happy with both types of poetic compositions. Sending this poem ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ along with ‘among those skilled in the dawn raid was a man aged a hundred’ to Vernon Watkins, he wrote: “I am sending now two different poems, that is two poems. 2 The second one is a different poem replete with the tricks of style of which Dylan is the master. The first, a simple poem, none the less is one of the great poems of Thomas that are likely to make his name immortal.3 Tindall regretted very much that he did not include it among the sixteen great poems of Thomas which he would like to include in an anthology of his own, should he be asked to compile one. 4
In his revision of the poem in 1941, Thomas retained only the opening lines and the general idea. Surprisingly, in this poem also Thomas’s concern is with the art of poetry and the vocation of the poet. In making poetry itself the subject matter of his poetry, he most resembles Wallace Stevens with whom he has very little in common.
“And the park itself was a world within the world of the sea town; quite near where I lived, so near that on summer evenings I could listen, in my bed, to the voices of other children playing ball on the sloping, paper-littered bank; the park was full of terrors and treasures. The face of one old man who sat, summer and winter, on the same bench looking over the swarmed reservoir, I can see more clearly than the city-street fates I saw an hour ago; and years later I wrote a poem about, and for, this never, by me, to be forgotten. ‘Hunchback in the park’....And the park grew up with me; that small interior world widened as I learned its names and its boundaries; as I discovered new refuges and ambushes in its miniature woods and jungles, hidden homes and lairs for the multitudes of the young, for cow boys and Indians and, most sinister of all, for the far-off race of the Mormons, a people who every night rode on nightmares through my bedroom. In that small, iron-railed universe of rockery gravel-path, playbank, bowlinggreen, bandstand, reservoir, chrysanthemum garden, where an ancient keeper known as smoky was the tyrannous and whiskered snake in the grass one must keep off, I endured with pleasure, the first agonies of unrequited love; the first slow boiling in the belly to a band poem, the strutting and raven-locked self-dramatization of what, at the time, seemed incurable, adolescence.”5
It is significant that it was in this park which had been a part of his mental make-up that a simple memorial of carved stone was erected to Dylan Thomas in 1963 of which Fitzgibbon gives the following touching account:
Though the poem reads like a ballad, it does not tell a story or portray action. It simply introduces a few images all based on the author’s childhood memories and lets them speak for themselves. It is in the nature of a parable.
We are presented with the picture of a hunchback, a solitary mister, living all alone. He drinks from the public fountain basin with the help of a chained cup filled with gravel by the urchins in the park. He eats from a used up newspaper. If children mock at him, he does not mind them. If they pull him out of his reverie by calling him ‘hay mister’, he shakes his newspaper at them. They run off out of sound. He dodges the park keeper gathering leaves with his stick while the children, the author among them, makes paper boats and tigers in the forests of willow groves. All the while he makes a faultless woman figure straight as an elm. The figure remains long after the children followed him to his ‘dark kennel’ bent by age in due course.
There is a wealth of a suggestion beneath the baffling simplicity of this lucid poem. By the use of simple symbolism, the poet transforms his ordinary childhood experiences in a charming work of art. The poem, as it is, is a parable of poet’s vocation.
Under the guise of the hunchback, Thomas actually describes the life of an artist, say a poet. The artist is a solitary figure in society. He is locked out from the gay world of the urchin boys who tease and torment him. He suffers at their hands as Jesus suffered for the sake of humanity. He knows that the children do not know what they are doing. They are a part of the world which includes the flora and fauna, the park keeper’s the fountain basin and the chained cup which he understands imaginatively and abstracts into his private world of fantasy. Bu, the children themselves do not know the richness of life spread around them, they being a part of it. ‘The wild boys innocent as strawberries’ is no mere sentimental phrase as many critics have taken it to be. It implies the contrast between the world of natural beauty and the dream world of the poet as G. S. Fraser points out. 7 However, children too have their own world of fancy. They too are ‘Makers’ as poets are of dreams. They make their paper boats and grass tigers in the forests of willow groves. The groves are blue with sailors. Pitted against these two dream worlds, we have the third world of reality seen through the odin-eyed8 poet’s vision. The poet with a hump on his back lives in a world of isolation, poverty and misunderstanding–the world of imperfections–strives day and night, pygmalionwise to create an ideal type of beauty and creates “a woman figure without a fault straight as a young elm. His creation is like God’s creation. He is an Adam out of whose ‘crooked rib’ this Eve of imagination is born. This ideal beauty being his abstraction of the world of nature and its processes is the symbol of the truth he discovered which he unravels behind the ‘fabulous curtain’ of his poetry. Keats like, he believes his art will survive ravages of time and inspire future generations. He makes the woman figure
“straight and tall from him crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the lock and chains
All night in the unmade park
After the railing and strawberries
The birds, the grass, the trees, the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
That followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.”
Nothing is in a state of rest. The world flows and dies in stream of time. The poet alone can save, like the Fisher King Eliot 9 against the ruins of time. The Poet imposes an order the apparent character of the mundane passing world of senses creates a more durable world in which the contrarities and contradictions are not removed but harmonized, not eliminated but absorbed forming new organic wholes in the consciousness of the poet much in the same way as they are discovered to be doing in the case of the metaphysical poets discussed by Eliot. 10 The poem thus is ‘a vision of three worlds and two times’ is a richer poem than it seems on first looking into”. 11
The idea that the artist’s public life has nothing to do with his private creation is important to note. We have to judge the poet by what he means to achieve and what he has achieved and not by the standard of what he is in real life. As A. T. Davies observes, it is only a misunderstanding of the role and function of the poet’s public (or private) misdemeanour invalidate, in any real way, his poetic statement.12 Albeit the habit of judging poetry by the character of the poet has been persisting for a very long time. Wordsworth condemned Goethe on moral grounds as Carlyle and Hopkins Keats. 13 Curiously even Dylan Thomas told his friends several times that he would like to judge the poem by the character of the poet, although he did not follow it in practice. We know that Francis Thomson is an influence on him while Keats and Yeats remained his lifelong companions. The poem is the things to judge a poet by. The aim of the poet or artist is perfection. In his desire for an endless striving for perfection he is most like a saint. “The saint’s perfection”, says Gilson “lies within himself and he is perfect in the measure of his achievement. Estate Perfecti: the spiritual man addresses these words to himself, the artist to the things of his creation–Be ye perfect. It is in the perfection of his works; not of himself, that the artist finds fulfilment.” 14 The poet’s true vocation is to make the poem perfect–a woman figure without a fault as Dylon puts it.
Although it is written in a clear style, ‘The Hunchback in the Park’ is a typical Thomas’ poem. The Hunchback’s acceptance of the order of the world around him and the suggestion of his partaking the divine process of creation, and his creation of a woman figure without fault (woman being the symbol of creative principle, the creatrix of the world as in Indian Tantric thought); invite our attention to the religious strain that runs through his poetry. W. S. Merwin draws our attention to the fact that, Thomas is a deeply religious poet, his religiosity consisting in celebrating the process of creation and destruction. “The human imagination will be for him (for the religious poet),” says Merwin, “the divine imagination, the work of art and the artist analogous with the world and its creator”. 15 Creation involves suffering. Out of suffering comes joy. As to Blake so to the poet ‘everything that lives is holy’. “His vocation as an individual artist will be to remake in terms of celebration the details of life to save that which is individual and thereby mortal by impinging it in terms of what he conceives to be eternal. The emotion which drives him to this making will be compassion, or better love of particulars of life.”16 If the particulars of life are contradictory, it is not for the poet to question them. He has to cultivate a moral attitude or Keats’s ‘negative capability’. The hawk as well as heron is sacred to him; life as well as death is acceptable to him. “Hunter and hunted; mocked mocker; boys and hunchback; growth and decay, life and death, dream and reality: all sets of polar opposites are, for Thomas, at some level equally holy and necessary, holy is the hawk, holy is the dove...This theme the coincidence of opposites, runs through all Thomas’s work and the end of this poem states it clearly.” 17
The simplicity we find in the poem
is the fruit of consummate craftsmanship. The studied crudities of the poem are
a result of careful manipulation of sound and word. ‘Sprung’ in a manner which
Certain structural qualities of the
poem call for notice. The poem is strikingly beautiful and effectively
meaningful because of what
The imagery in the first two lines of the second stanza is noteworthy:
“Like the park birds he came early.
Like the water he sat down.”
At first sight these lines seem to present us with visual images. But on closer examination the lines seem to derive their power from sources other than the faculty of sight. If we take the literal meanings of words ‘birds’ and ‘water’ we do not get anywhere. The park birds being birds in the park, there is no question of their coming early unless it be from their nests. But the comparison is not between the bird and the Hunchback but the birds’ coming early out of their nests and the Hunchback’s coming out of his dog kennel. That is, we are asked not to see a resemblance but grasp a relation as in metaphor. The source of power of this image is less or sight than of intellect. The second term taken literally does not convey any sense. There is no possibility of instituting a comparison between ‘water’ and the Hunchback. It is obvious therefore that although the visual element is thinly present, we have to look for the intellectual basis too in order to feel the full force of the lines in question. Let us take ‘birds’ and ‘water’ as symbols. The ‘birds’ stands for ‘spirit’ of ‘inspiration’ as in the case of the Spire Cranes. The hunchback sits between the ‘trees and water’ waiting for inspiration which came to him early. The image may have been suggested by the Biblical story of creation relating how the spirit of God moved on the face of waters to create the universe. The poet’s brooding on the world around leads to poetic creation. The image is in keeping with the religious tone of the poem. In the same way ‘nurses’ and ‘swans’ stand for trees and water again. ‘Nurses’, the O. E. D. defines, are trees planted for the sake of others. The word perhaps is calculated to emphasize the element of sacrifice on the part of the poet. Here again both the literal and symbolic meanings hold good. Even the denotative meaning of nurse as a woman in charge of children has associative value here. Thomas’s romantic fondness for the servantmaid (Patricia) in his house is well-known.
The word ‘chained cup’ repeated in the last line of the second stanza–‘But nobody chained him up’ is again interesting. In the first phrase the meaning is plainly literal, whereas in the second instance, it is metaphorical as well as symbolic. The hunchback is an old dog. Hence he sleeps in the dog kennel. The dog is driven into the kennel at night. He is chained. But the hunchback is not chained, although he leads a dog’s life of it. ‘Chained’ here is metaphorical. It is also symbolic because it signifies restrictions on the freedom of the artist. The artist is free. The image conjured up by the two lines: ‘slept at night in a dog kennel. But nobody chained him up’ is as fresh and brilliant as Marvell’s lines:
“The grave is a fine private face
But none I think do there embrace.” 21
The word ‘lock’ in ‘garden lock’ too deserves notice. It is one the words that made Henry Treece think of verbal compulsion regard to his early poetry. Compare silver lock and mouth (Spire Cranes); the twilight locks (when the twilight locks no longer). Here the lock is garden lock as well as the Water lock that lets water enter. “Locking each other out,” observes Tindall, “These dreamers make and remake the unlocked garden until Sunday summer bell at dark.” 22 The fact that both the dreamers are located together in the garden is perhaps more relevant to the purpose of the poem.
The use of the words ‘let’ in the first stanza and ‘make’ in the last stanza may not be fortuitous. We may recall his famous remarks on his poetry in the oft quoted letter to Henry Treece to see how he maintains an antithesis between ‘letting’ and ‘making’ in poetic process. ‘Making’ implying intellectual control comes later than the impingement of external reality on the unconscious of the poet.
Elder Olson has observed that Dylan Thomas had achieved a sort of clarity and verbosity in his later poems. The early poems are generally, sometimes needlessly, obscure mainly because of the economy of words. 23 In the middle period thought balances style. One feature of the development in later poems is the use of larger units of thought, namely sentences. The Hunchback is an example of the developed style. A single sentence runs through two stanzas without making construction difficult and obscure. This is one positive achievement of Thomas. The poem on the whole belongs to the middle period of development. In the broadcast version of the poem Thomas preferred to have a stop at the end of the first stanza and a comma at the end of the fifth stanza, modifying the rhythm of the poem to some extent. It is one of the poems that Thomas recorded.
It is not always that the prose
works of a poet interest the readers of his poetry. Sometimes, however, they
throw light upon the poetry. Sometimes the same theme will be developed in two different
media of expression thus giving the reader a chance to study the art of the
author in relation to his chosen medium. Thus Bernard Shaw’s novels offer a
fruitful study in relation to his dramas. 24
Keats’s letters are important for an understanding of his poetry. The stories
of Dylan Thomas and his other prose writings make an interesting companion
reading to his poetry. The poem under consideration has certain similarities
with the story, an autobiographical one, Patricea,
THE HUNCHBACK IN THE PARK
The hunchback in the park
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water enter
From that opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark.
Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.
Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound.
Past lake and rockery
Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
Through the loud zoo of the willow groves
Dodging the park keeper
With his stick that picked up leaves.
And the old dog sleeper
Alone between nurses and swans
While the boys among willows
Made the tiger jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors
Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault
Straight as a young elm
Straight and tall from his crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the locks and chains
All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
Had followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.
1 Dylan Thomas: “A Dog Among Fairies”
3 Dylan Thomas: Karl Shapire in Dylan Thomas: The Legend and the Poet. Ed. E. W. Tedlock
4 “A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas”; William York Tindall
5 “Reminiscences of Childhood (version) in Quite Early One Morning Broadcasts” by Dylan Thomas
6 “The Life of Dylan Thomas” Constantine Fitzibbob. P. 30
7 “Dylan Thomas” G. S. Fraser. P. 32
8 “The Price of An
Eye” Thomas Blackburn.
9 “Wasteland” T. S. Eliot
10 “Selected Essays” T. S. Eliot
11 “A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas” Tindall. P. 209
12 “Dylan: Druid of the broken body” A. T. Davies. P.
13 “Fire and the Fountain” John Press. P.63-64.
14 “Choir of Muses: Gibson quoted in Dylan: Druid of the broken body” by A. T. Davies. P. 5
“The Religious Poet” W.
17 G. S. Fraser Opcit
“Aspects of the Novel” E. M. Forster.
19 “White Goddess” Robert Graves
20 “Hound of Heaven” Ll. 6-72 .
21 Tindall Opcit
22 “The Poetry of Dylan Thomas” Elder Olson
23 Reminiscences of Chi.ldhood. P. 2-3 in “Quite Early one Morning”
24 “Shaw, the Novelist” by E. Nageswara Rao.