The Vocabulary of Happiness

By Robert Castle

We only become moral when we are unhappy

                --Marcel Proust

    Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” depicts a euphoric childhood. The memory of this childhood carries with it a childish quality, by which I mean that the poem’s language is conspicuous for the simplicity of its images. Take two similes that describe happiness: “happiness as the grass is green” and “happy as the heart was long.” Both echo the child’s perennial question: “Why is the grass green?” To which the parent would reply prosaically: “Because it is!” The poet explains his happiness unpretentiously because happiness simply is or happens. Besides, we are verbally ill-equipped to sustain the image of happiness very long; Thomas, however, devises a descriptive strategy to broaden the vocabulary of happiness.

     The poet fills the landscape of his memory with three or four images: the farm (the house), the trees, his own playing and being, and the sounds of joy. The farmhouse is associated prominently by singing and merriment as the poet describes it as “lilting.” He also speaks of the tunes coming from the chimneys and of “the gay house.” Likewise, he related his own singing with the farmhouse: “singing as the farm was home.” Calves sing to his horn, and the horse stables are pictured as “whinnying.” Sounds of songs become the prime articulation of his happiness.

     Secondly, the poem systematically tenders the narrator’s self-image. He describes himself as “Honored among wagons,” “famous among the barns,” and “honored among foxes and pheasants.” The repetition of these descriptive forms suggests once more the limits on the descriptive vocabulary of pure joy. Repetition permeates the poem, although this does not result in duplicating the childhood images. “Young and easy” is later evoked by “green and carefree” and twice by “nothing I cared” and “the sun that is young only once.” The latter phrase suggests that this childhood memory is more than one individual’s. “The night above the dingle starry” becomes “nightly under the simple stars.” Time first lets him “hail and climb” and then “play and be.” Time is also both golden “in the heyday of his eyes” and “in memory of his means. “All the sun long” is followed in the same stanza by “all the moon long.” “Horses flashing in the dark” of night become in the morning “spellbound horses walking warm.” These repetitions -- whether by repeating the form or re-combining the words -- replicates the limits of a child’s vocabulary. Hence, the condition of happiness and the state of childhood are fused, inseparable.

    If childhood and happiness are inseparable in the poet’s mind, the fear that they must come to an end lurks in his mind. Nighttime and falling asleep initiate a sort of resignation that all good things must end. But he awakes the next morning and the form, having been carried away the night before, returns to him. The farm mystically embodies his childhood joy and, further, is associated with the garden of humanity’s childhood: “it was Adam and maiden.” This allusion to Eden reinforces the collective memory of the “Fern Hill” childhood. And just as an individual must grow up and forced to enter “the childless land,” so were Adam and Eve removed from paradise.

    The child’s mind and language avoids the principles of right and wrong. And here we find another quality of and purpose for the poem’s elusiveness. The poet and the rest of us must leave our childishly happy state through no fault of our own. Time’s march never ceases:

                             that time allows
               In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
               Before the children green and golden
               Follow him out of grace.

    They follow “out of grace” not because they lacked grace, that is, were sinful; no, they follow mannerly and politely. The lack of sinfulness, the absence of morality, is implied by the poem’s natural religion:

               And the sabbath rang slowly
               In the pebbles of the holy streams.

    No God judges and condemns. Time has mercifully permitted man a vision of happiness. “Fern Hill” records our ultimate gratitude for being able to sing in his chains, being able to find a language to express happiness, happiness being the very chains which prevent him singing his joy.


                         The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness,
               The boundless, overflowing bursting gladness,
               The vaporous exaltation not to be confined!
                         Ha! Ha! the animation of delight
                         Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light
               And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind!

                               (Prometheus Unbound, IV, 319-324)

Listen to Shelley’s uninhibited catalog of song and delight in and hear the Earth rediscover Paradise. Man has awakened from his obscene blindness (original sin) and become an

                             ocean of clear emotion,
               A Heaven of serene and mighty motion.

Prometheus is free and everyone rejoices. A happy ending indeed!

    But life has not ended. Man must continue. Shelley’s Fourth Act in Prometheus Unbound exhibits not only unbounded joy. It expresses Man’s unlimited creative potential. Act IV would not, solely, represent Shelley’s idea of how life should be but his vision of the collective joy of the ages. The joy of concord:

               Man, one harmonious Soul of many a soul
               Whose nature is its own divine controul
               Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea....

Yet, like the pending despair over leaving “Fern Hill,” never far from Shelley’s joyous song is destruction and despair. The Savior is never too far from his cross (or mountaintop). The Proustian artist never strays from his bed in the cork-lined room.

Roland Barthes, writing about Proust, describes the artist’s dilemma:

     Time, which has restored writing to him, risks at the same moment snatching it from: will he live long enough to write his work? Yes, if he agrees to withdraw from the world, to lose his worldly life in order to save his life as a writer.

The one who participates least in the joyous aftermath of Prometheus’ saving act is Prometheus. He does not appear in Act IV. The only one he cannot save is himself; he cannot share the happiness one brings to the world. The progress of the poet does not ensure the prospect of eternal joy, but allows a greater Fall the next time he writes.

     Happiness cannot be sustained. The vocabulary of joy in Prometheus Unbound, which extends much further than the poet’s attempt in “Fern Hill,” cannot save the poet who creates it. Every work of art contains seeds of its failure: the failure being its very attempt to come into being. Shelley likens Prometheus’ freedom to the poet’s, the freedom that cannot be enjoyed once one is free. The reciprocal condition for imagination and freedom, flowing around a poetic pivot, impel us to envision the joy of the circle. The spirit of man might be revivified by the rite of imagination. Experiencing this joy or, better, knowing this joy must be attainable, we would like to return to it. Given the chance, slipping inside this circle, we would never leave.


    Is there any happier work of art than Singin’ in the Rain (1952)? Gene Kelly’s character overcomes Hollywood treachery and is ready for love. Within a jaded world he discovers innocence in the form of a woman. I have heard complaints that he and his film are simply too happy. The permanence of movie art becomes more everlasting, more eternal, than anything Thomas or Shelley can envision. Dylan Thomas acknowledges but cannot hold onto the happiness of his childhood; Shelley’s Prometheus cannot enjoy the joy of leaving his bondage in the Caucasus Mountains. Gene Kelly will try and triumph.

    The permanence striven for within the happy confines of Singin’ in the Rain derives from the multiple meanings of its title. It is a song that appears twice in the film, although the first time best serves our theme. Gene Kelly sings it once he knows for certain Kathy Seldon loves him, that is, he has found true love beyond physical attraction and momentary gratification--in a sense beyond happiness. The song embodies the joy of the moment; its words are the closest thing to a vocabulary of happiness. Didn’t Thomas wrote in Fern Hill”: “singing as the farm was home,” and the poem repeatedly expresses joy through song.

    At the film’s end, Don and Kathy are together looking at a billboard referring to a film they have starred in called Singin’ in the Rain. We can only guess its contents: the movie we have and are still watching!. However, it represents an emboldened enlargement of the field of joy: not only are the couple together in love but also star in a movie about them being in love. Then there is Singin’ in the Rain, the title of the movie itself that encompasses the song and the movie of the same name within the movie. The artist’s joy reaches out to the audience and captures films original essence: not pure entertainment but the creation of pure unending joy.


It is difficult to discern a flaw to Donen and Kelly’s vision of happiness. Even Singin’s paradox, unlike poet’s banishment from Fern Hill and Prometheus’s bounded joy, is one of means to secure a lasting illusion. It is the final nuance of Singin’s joy: namely, the language of its joy. Kelly’s happiness is expressed not by words but dance. Before and after reaching the crescendo in the title song outside Kathy’s apartment, the film embodies several numbers noted for their speed (“Moses”), chaos (Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”), and grandeur (the love dance with Cyd Charisse). In "Singin’ in the Rain” his joyous language evolves from words of love and joy into a childish stomp of ultimate gratification through the deep puddles of a Hollywood boulevard. The dance endures alongside the title song of (theoretically) the movie about his finding love and happiness in the movie we cannot stop watching because, like Don, we want our innocence to last forever.


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