The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower Stanza 3
By Dylan Thomas
The hand that whirls the water in the pool Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind Hauls my shroud sail.
Man, we're starting to get some positive-negative whiplash here. The third stanza continues that back and forth, positive-negative pattern set up in the previous two stanzas. But there is something different about line 11.
In the first line of stanza 3, the force is personified. Now we have "the hand." The force seems a little less mysterious now that it has a hand, right? What else has hands? Tic-Tock? Remember, the force is an extended metaphor for time. The hand is also a time metaphor.
The hand whirling the water in the pool sounds nice. Stirring quicksand? Not so nice.
So, the hand that moves life-sustaining water also "stirs" deadly quicksand. It's the all-powerful force again, capable of controlling life and death. And if that's not enough, that same hand is also capable of "roping," (controlling, capturing) the wind. Impressive, right?
The next line mixes the positive and the negative.
Actually, it's a little more (okay, a lot more) complex than that.
The line provides us with one image that can actually be understood as both positive and negative, simultaneously. What's that? Impossible you say? Well let us just break it down for you.
A "shroud" is a piece of rigging that helps hold a ship's mast in place—that's a good thing (you need a mast to hold the sail up).
A shroud is also the cloth used to wrap a dead body for burial. Yeah, that would be a bad thing.
So, the hand (the force) that pulls ("hauls") on the ships rigging, that fills the sail and moves the ship through the water (the journey and adventure of life), is also pulling on the speaker's death shroud, making it flap like a sail in the breeze. Spooky.
Perhaps the force is driving the dead to the afterlife like it drives the ship to its destination.
That little four-word line simultaneously gives us the image of the wind filling the sails of a ship, moving it to its destination, and a death shroud flapping in the breeze. Those four words are doing a lot of work, mixing life and death. That's poetry for you—lots of overworked, underpaid words.
Before you get all broken up about it, the speaker isn't dead. He's just imagining his death. It's another example how the speaker is kind of seeing and experiencing everything all at once. This intensified way of seeing mirrors the poem's intense tone.
The fact that Thomas chose to have this line encompass both aspects of the force in one image feels important. Let's ponder…
Perhaps Thomas wants to suggest that this force isn't positive or negative in the sense of good and bad. Rather it's in the more yin and yang sense of opposite, complimentary, equally necessary forces. One can't exist without the other. This seems to be at the core of what the speaker is feeling and grappling with.
Hey, what's that? Is that what we think it is? Why, yes it is. It's a developing theme. Can you see it? We better go ahead and put out a theme alert:
Be on the lookout for aspects relating to the interconnectedness of life and death.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.
Line fourteen is a return to the by now familiar refrain, "And I am dumb to tell."
This time, the speaker is unable to tell "the hanging man" that the lime the executioner (the hangman) is going to throw on his dead body is made up of the speaker's own "clay." What?
To clear this up, we have to know a couple things: first, "lime" here is not some garnish for your iced drink; it's that white powdery stuff mobsters are always throwing on dead bodies after they toss them into shallow graves. It speeds up decay and keeps things from getting, well, super-stinky.
Second, that "clay" isn't the stuff you used to make your folks a coffee cup in elementary school. Thomas is using "clay" in the literary-poetic sense of the body.
So, lime is the stuff that's tossed on dead bodies, and "clay" is the material that makes up the body.
Now, let's take another look. The speaker can't tell the dying man, the one swinging from the rope (that rope in line 12 suddenly seems more ominous), that he is, in a sense, part of the process.
This seems a little random, but let's consider it in terms of that developing theme we mentioned in the last section: the interconnectedness of life and death.
When we consider these lines through this lens of interconnectedness, things get a little clearer. The elements in the speaker's living body have something in common with that lime that will cover the condemned man in death.
Basically, Thomas is showing us that elements of death are present even in life. In a sense, by simply being alive we are participating in death.
Not convinced? Check this out. Take a look at the end of the lines. We have "hanging man" and "hangman."
Notice anything? The words are nearly identical. "Hangman" is actually part of "hanging man"—you can't spell one without the other, right? The words look similar and sound similar, yet one person is alive and one is dead. This is another example of life and death's interconnectedness, how one is contained in the other.
Man, we're getting depressed—time for a cupcake break.