Lesson on 'A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London' by Dylan ThomasNicola Onyett
This unusual elegy (which refuses to call itself such) was written amid the carnage of war-torn London and first published in 1946. The dead child is a civilian counterpart to the iconic Unknown Soldier and he commemorates her passing in a torrent of powerful religious images. The poet's ironic 'refusal to mourn' refers to his belief that death is simply too enormous a subject to sum up in mere words, even though words are, of course, the only tools at his disposal.
To explore how a poet tackles the profound subject of death To explore poetic diction and make predictions about texts To compare and contrast two poems on a similar theme written several centuries apart To evaluate a critical response to a poem and the ways in which this may affect their own views
Poetry Archive recording of Dylan Thomas reading 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' A selection of visual images, preferably a film clip or clips with sound to illustrate wartime bombing, appropriately sourced from the internet Copies of Dylan Thomas’s poem for each student Copies of an alphabetical list of all the nouns and noun phrases in the poem for each student for the starter activity Copies of 'On my first Sonne' by Ben Johnson Copies of William Empson's response to Thomas’s poem for the plenary (see below)
Teaching sequence of activities
Using the alphabetically crunched list of nouns and noun phrases from the poem (see below), students work in pairs to predict the form, tone and subject matter of the unseen text. age Beast Bird child's darkness daughter dead death death (ear of corn) Elegy friends flower grains harness hour innocence light London's majesty mankind mankind mother murder salt sea Secret seed shadow silence sound (stations of the breath) synagogue Thames truth (valley of sackcloth) veins water (water bead) youth Zion
Share first impressions from the starter as a whole class before beginning to focus on Thomas's elegy. Display visual images while students listen to Thomas read the poem. (If a wartime film clip with sound is used, this can be played before, during or after the poem is heard). Discuss how far and in what ways the students feel their original predictions were accurate once they have heard the poem. Students should then go on to investigate key aspects of the poem such as: How Thomas's a-b-c-a-b-c rhyming scheme in each stanza adds to the sombre tone of the poem The impact of Thomas's cascading sequence of religious and biblical images as he presents the death of the child How Thomas uses aspects of form, structure and language to suggest that life and death are part of a cyclical pattern, in that we are born from darkness and return to it when we die They then present their findings to the whole class. Many students will have already looked at Ben Jonson's elegy 'On My First Sonne' at GCSE. Working in pairs or small groups they can compare and contrast the ways in which Thomas and Jonson deal with the tragic subject of a young child's death in terms of form, structure and language as well as theme, before feeding back to the class.
Project the following comment on 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' written by the critic William Empson: 'This poem tells us that Dylan Thomas isn't going to say something. I take it that the child was killed in an air raid, and that Dylan Thomas won't say so because he is refusing to be distracted by thoughts about the war from thoughts about the child herself or about death in general ... his is a refusal to integrate perceptions of the dead girl into a coherent, 'logical' whole which is necessarily inadequate to its object, and to use this misrepresented experience or fate of another person to achieve a false poetic resolution.' (William Empson's article 'To Understand a Modern Poem': 'A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' is in Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, (Chatto and Windus, 1987) Ask your students (working in pairs or small groups) to read the poem again in the light of Empson's comments and reflect on how they respond to his point of view. In the light of this, ask your students to share with the group their final reactions to Thomas's poem, given that while he firmly denies that a child's death can be used as raw material for poetry, in fact he does so.
Students could compare this poem with other poetry of World War II, or write creative responses of their own in poetry, prose or drama which tell of children who have been killed in historical or contemporary conflicts around the world.
Denise Levertov's 'What Were They Like?' would be an interesting text to compare with Dylan Thomas's poem. While Levertov worked as a civilian nurse during the London Blitz, this 1971 poem actually reflects the horrors of the Vietnam war. Denise Levertov’s What Were They Like? would be an interesting text to compare with Dylan Thomas’s poem. While Levertov worked as a civilian nurse during the London Blitz, this 1971 poem actually reflects the horrors of the Vietnam war. Students could listen to the famous recording of Richard Burton narrating Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood'.