Study Guide

Fern Hill Quotes

  • Time

         Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes (4-5)

    In the beginning of the poem, the speaker personifies time as something with eyes. The speaker felt like he was under the watchful gaze of time. And because he says, "the heydays of his eyes" (5), we know that the speaker believes he's in his prime. Time's prime, that is, as if time was at his best when the speaker was young. Life couldn't have been better.

         Time let me play and be
    Golden in the mercy of his means (13-14)

    Time seems like an awesome guy here, right? The speaker says, "[t]ime let me play and be" as if time is giving him permission to play and just "be." The speaker doesn't have any worries and is just enjoying himself, and it's all thanks to time, who's a kind, benevolent, compassionate figure here. So what happens between now and the end of the poem?

    In the first, spinning place […] (34)

    Okay, what in the world is the "first, spinning place?" Well, the speaker doesn't say the word time, but we still think he's referring to time here. It's the beginning of a new day, and the speaker feels refreshed and like the day is brand new. You know that phrase, "every day is a new beginning?" Well, the speaker literally feels like he's waking to a day as new as the first day of time.

    […] that time allows
    In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs (42-43)

    Oops, sounds like something's changed here. Time is still personified as a him, and this time the speaker is concerned with "his tuneful turning so few and such morning song." What's up with that, time? What was a merciful bounty has become something that "turns" and only has a "few" morning songs. The speaker is beginning to experience the passing of time and it's not like he thought it would be.

    This is also the section of "Fern Hill" that might allude to the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Pied Piper played a flute that led children away from their town. He was owed a debt and the town didn't pay, so he took the children as payment. In the same way, time is playing a tune that leads children away from youth. It lends a creepy note to a so far joyful poem.

    […] that time would take me
    Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand (46-47)

    Throughout the whole poem, everything has been shining and light and golden, and time has been on the speaker's side. But not in this last stanza. Here time has taken him by the wrist and begun to lead him away. Suddenly, we don't see the speaker in light, but as shadow himself. And time's no longer the passive, watchful figure that he was at the beginning of the poem. Here, he's acting directly on the speaker.

         I should hear him fly with the high fields
    And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land. (50-51)

    Time is folding up all the pastoral beauty the speaker loved and skipping town in the middle of the night. What's important here is that the speaker doesn't notice until it's too late. It's not that he watched as time packed up and drove away. Rather, he wakes and all that's left is the "childless land."

           Time held me green and dying (53)

    Time holding the speaker can be interpreted several ways. For example, time could have held him as if you might hold someone who is sick or "dying." But also, time could hold him like a baby, as in, cradled against his chest. At this point in the poem, we know that the speaker's view of time has changed from the beginning, so his relationship with time is complicated: part-protector, part-destroyer.

  • Youth

    […] I was prince of the apple towns
    And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves (5-6)

    So, the speaker doesn't come out and say, "I was young, once." But, he chooses to describe himself as "prince" and says, "once below a time." The figurative language here immediately sets the scene—he's young, he feels invincible, and he's got it made… for now.

    Time let me play and be  
    Golden in the mercy of his means
    And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
    Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold (13-16)

    Again, the speaker doesn't use the word youth, but by now we know he's describing what his youth felt like on the farm. It was a "golden" time and again, he seems to be in charge, as if youth has anointed him dominion over the landscape.

    […] it was air
         And playing, lovely and watery
             And fire green as grass. (20-22)

    In stanza three, the speaker continues to praise youth. The "it" we think is youth, and the speaker leaves no doubt that he thought it was "lovely." Plus, the speaker's using nature imagery to describe youth, as if it were something as natural as the setting where he finds himself. This seems important because it expresses the speaker's belief that youth was something that shaped and was shaped by the landscape around him. Youth tied him to the setting and the speaker loved every inch of it.

    Before the children green and golden
        Follow him out of grace. (44-45)

    Here, youth is expressed as children green and golden. Although it's sin that casts man and woman out of Eden, in this poem, it's time that leads children out of youth. So, for the speaker, youth is a kind of innocence, which is lost as the speaker grows older. In other words, youth sounds like perfection, and everything else is just… not.

    Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me (46)

    The speaker says, "the lamb white days," which suggests innocence and purity. On the other hand, associating youth with "lamb" could allude to the idea of a lamb being led to slaughter. Just as time is leading youth away, so is the innocence of youth being destroyed by time. What was originally a time of great confidence has begun to shift to a time of vulnerability and naïveté.

    Oh I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
         Time held me green and dying
    Though I sang in my chains like the sea. (52-54)

    The speaker finally directly says, "I was young." We know this by now, but it's almost like a confession of sorts. Whereas earlier in the poem, youth is referenced in figurative language, here the speaker says directly that the past was his youth. While he was living it, youth was a magical time. But now, at the end of the poem, the speaker sees that time with more clarity.

    The final two lines are a reference to youth as well, but with a different tone than the rest of the poem. Here, the speaker is no longer free, but "in chains like the sea." From the viewpoint of an older, wiser person, he sees his youth as a time mixed with good and bad, a bittersweet golden age that would inevitably pass.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    And I was green and carefree […] (10)

    Does the speaker literally mean he was the color "green"? Let's hope not, unless he was an alien baby. Green here probably metaphorically represents being new and fresh and full of life. And also a total noob. After all, if you're green, it means you have absolutely no clue what you're doing.

    And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
    In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs (42-43)

    We're nearing the end of the poem here, and the speaker's tone has shifted. Instead of being young and carefree, he says, "nothing I cared." What's changed? It sounds like rather than celebrating being carefree, he's making a confession, admitting, that, yes, in retrospect, when he was young, he didn't have any cares and didn't realize things were going to change.

    Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me (46)

    This is a repetition of the sentiment stated in the quote above. The speaker repeats "And nothing I cared." You could say that repeating the same phrase alters the meaning a bit. The first time he says it, he may be just admitting that he was being careless when he was younger and living footloose and fancy free, unaware that things were going to change. But repeating that phrase makes it sound insistent, possibly frustrated. The speaker could be saying, with a twinge of regret, that he didn't care time was passing and didn't realize his blissful childhood would end so soon.

  • Happiness

    About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green (2)

    The poem begins by the speaker directly stating that he was happy. Happy as grass, he says. Okay, what does that mean? Immediately, the speaker is equating his emotional state with the landscape, as if nature and emotion are intertwined with each other. In other words, he's using his descriptions of nature as a manifestation of his internal being.

    And I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
    About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home (10-11)

    Okay, he might as well break into "I'm siiiiiiinging in the rain!" here. This guy's happy and he's definitely not afraid to show it. The speaker is happy. The grass is happy. The yard is happy. Happy, happy, happy.

    Another way the speaker creates a tone of happiness is through his use of sound play in the poem. Notice how "green" and "carefree" rhyme? The double E in "green" and "carefree" match up with each other. The "y" in happy also has that long E sound. This assonance makes lines echo each other and gives them a light-hearted feel. Imagine a kid smiling at a camera and saying "cheeeeeeeeese!" That long E sound works the same way in these lines, and brings to mind smiles and good times.

    And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
    Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long (36-37)

    He was so happy back then, it made the whole world glow with good feelings. He's on the top of the world and everything he looks at seems to be as happy as he is. This excess of positive emotion works well to make the poem a song of praise, but also makes the change in emotion at the end that much more dramatic.

  • Change

    Down the rivers of the windfall light (9)

    Okay, so he doesn't say "change" in this line, but the speaker is talking about light as if it's a river—streams of light, so to speak, falling from the sky. So while he doesn't say things are changing, he's using words that bring out the feeling of motion and movement, rather than things that are still. And this could suggest change, right?

    All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
    Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
       And playing, lovely and watery
               And fire green as grass. (19-22)

    The speaker comes out and says that life on the farm was lovely and beautiful. But, the speaker is also describing the landscape as something in motion. He says "it was running," and the pronoun "it" is open for interpretation. "It" could be youth, a typical day at the farm, the land itself, but also time and the experience of change. Things are in motion and changing all the time. Just like that saying "you can never step into the same river twice," life is constantly changing at the farm for the speaker, whether he accepts that change or not.

    Notice, he also uses the word "watery" and "fire." Again, these are simple, beautiful descriptions of his life on the farm that simultaneously hint that things aren't exactly permanent. "Watery" suggests something fluid that can morph into new shapes, just as "fire" is an element that can change whatever it is heating. So while the speaker might just be describing his happy childhood on the farm, he's also subtly suggesting that things can and will change—though he may not have known it back then.

    Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
        In the sun born over and over (38-39)

    Ever sat back in a field and stared up at the clouds? Ever watched as they morphed into different shapes right before your eyes? In a way, the "new made clouds" could allude to this transformative quality. Also, the sun is "born over and over" so it is constantly made new again, lucky feller. Although this could mean that the sun only lives one day and then is recreated anew each day after that, it also suggests a constant state of change as time marches on. The genius of these lines lies in how Thomas used words that suggest two opposite things at once. On one hand, life is new and fresh every day, and it'll never change. On the other hand, life is constant motion, unstable, and changing right before the speaker's eyes.

    And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
    In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs (42-43)

    The key here is the word turning. What he thought was an endless childhood has become "so few and such morning songs." Things have changed, and looking back, the speaker realizes now that he's older that his days were limited. Also, he uses the word "morning" but he could also be alluding to "mourning," as in, his poem is a "mourning song" about youth. He misses how things used to be and there's nothing he can do now. Too bad, so sad.

             Time held me green and dying
         Though I sang in my chains like the sea (53-54)

    At the end of the poem, the speaker's perspective on youth has shifted in a major way. He's changed now that he's older and he describes himself as "dying." Earlier in the poem, youth on the farm was full of life, but now it's the opposite. He sees it as a time of dying, even though back then, he felt very much alive. It's a sort of a metaphorical death. He wasn't actually, physically dying, but his youth was dying, and what's worse, he didn't realize it until too late. Finally, in the last line of the poem, the speaker puts two opposite things next to each other, possibly to suggest the paradoxical nature of youth seeming both eternal and too brief. "Chains" suggest imprisonment, while the "sea" is fluid and in motion and vast. Normally, we don't think of the sea as chained but as something free to move however it wants. One effect of placing these two words next to each other is to suggest a feeling of being both trapped and changing through time.