A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark
Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.
Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey Mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound
Past lake and rockery
Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
Through the loud zoo of the willow groves
Dodging the park keeper
With his stick that picked up leaves.
And the old dog sleeper
Alone between nurses and swans
While the boys among willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors
Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault
Straight as a young elm
Straight and tall from his crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the locks and chains
All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
Had followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.
Literary comments on The Hunchback in the Park – by Dylan Thomas.
I should begin this post by detailing how this happens to be one of my favourite poems, for its comments on human nature, cultural norms, metaphor, nostalgia and reality. Since Thomas has something of a cult following, in no small part emanating from the enigmatic and tragic personality of the poet himself. Whilst not being one of his best-known poems, The Hunchback in the Park is layered with hidden meaning.
A first-reading, prima facie approach to the poem may not reveal much to a superficial, and perhaps prejudiced reading. A lonely old man, plagued by pesky school-children, appears to be lost between the reality he no longer lives in and the horrendous present he finds himself in. The only characters established are those frowned upon by a ‘modern’ British society, perhaps even Welsh, if the poem is considered drawn from Thomas’ personal experiences. The truant boys, already an idiom, appear predetermined to their fate of failing to attend school, having low prospects in life, or at least in the pure economic terms that often cloud an audience’s perceptions. Whilst their behavior appears carefree the ‘innocent as strawberries’ simile provides an objective and melancholy tone from the author: this appears only to reflect on their possible future as miscreants. The irony of this; that their behavior is innocent, and yet on another level, destroying the soul of the ‘hunchback’, offers a damning verdict on the interactions between people never really able to understand each other, and yet all, fully, uncontrollably influenced by the environment in which they live.
And what of the hunchback himself? The idea of the ‘garden lock opening’ and letting the trees and water enter is subversive, implying that the park only exists, as this timeless and not ephemeral place, through the man – it is somehow dependent upon him in order to access its true identity. But likewise, he is a part of the park – having been there ostensibly for so long, he is as timeless as the trees, water and railings. Thomas uses the powerful metaphor of the ‘Sunday sombre bell at dark’, with clear religious connotations – the ‘bell’ may be coming from a church rather than the park itself – to reflect a melancholy tone on the park and its sorry inhabitant, from the outside work. At ‘dark’ the park disappears from view and the hunchback is left with nothing but his dreams. It remains his ‘end’, every time it occurs.
The only use of the first person narrator occurs in stanza two: where ‘I sailed my ship’. Thomas appears to be implying some link to his childhood, in which he references the past through a series of linked clauses, giving the sense of entanglement between past and present, between memory and reality. The narrator themselves appears to make reference to their own connection to the park, and how it has experienced little change. As the poem continues the focus on the decrepit and physically incapable hunchback increases: he is ‘hunchbacked in mockery’, but by whom; has this adjective been assigned to him by the children, by himself or by the narrator?
Yet more sad is the manner in which mentally the hunchback appears to have given up the vestiges of hope. He runs ‘on out of sound’, rather than sight, a subversion of the idiom perhaps suggesting he is unable to truly cast away the images of his tormentors, or rather, those young, free and ‘innocent’, which remind him of his past and the innocence he will never hold again. In a strange way, he is trapped by the park – the only place where he can find solace and is largely safe from societal abuse; and yet he can not leave, trapped by his memories; he is not ‘chained up’, because he is a prisoner by his memories and life, not by some tangible ‘chain’ that would restrict a dog.
In stanza five there is outstanding imagery: the ‘tigers jumped out of their eyes’ and the ‘groves were blue with sailors.’ We might imagine that if the boys are no longer here, all day, tormenting the ‘sleeper’, then some vestige of the presence lingers, along with his sense of surreality: the ‘sailors’ link to the narrator’s line earlier in the poem, and add a tranquil but melancholy tone, evinced by the ‘blue.’ What is interesting here is how the poem has progressed: from very real, harsh and crisp images of the hunchback, to these mystical and ambiguous transformations.
And finally there is strong synopticity and poignancy in the final two stanzas. The hunchback ‘makes a figure all day’ – in his mind, it is implied – but to have such mental power and focus on an entity of perfection appears to suggest he continues to have something worth living for. And finally, whilst he has been neglected, forgotten, is sneered upon even by the truant boys, in a sense, the world does not exist without the hunchback. For when he closes his eyes, his memories – and in a sense, the world around him – follow him, timeless into his kennel. The park and the world are just as much a part of him as he is of them. The listing structure and lack of punctuation enhances our belief in this. The park keeper closes our view on to this world with the ‘locks and chains’. But whilst it never truly existed outside of the hunchback’s mind, the image will last for a long time in ours.
I really enjoyed this poem due to its reflections on humanity, life, memory and person. The sense of loss and weariness as well as an uncertain grasp on reality and dreams, often broken, is strong throughout. Subtle literary devices such as punctuation, use of metaphorical or figurative language, and the enjambment, should be picked out by a student of Thomas in order to accrue the highest marks, and my analyses are by no means synthesized throughout the text, or explored to their fullest extent. But I can offer my own interpretation, held within my head, which may yet shape, refute, or be dismissed by yours. The beauty of poetry is that it gives us all something a little different in the space between our eyes without having ever existed.