The Vocabulary of Happiness
By Robert Castle
We only become moral when we are unhappy
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
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
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
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
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
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.... (400-402)
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
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
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.
= THE POTOMAC HOME =