Bill Durden - President of Dickinson College

Discusses the poem "Fern Hill"

Read "Fern Hill" Here

I am deeply honored to be asked to be the first Dickinsonian to contribute to this new and distinctive series that focuses upon readings that you hold precious. Such an emotive, delicate word as "precious" is not at all out of order. There still is poetry or fiction that for many of us penetrates our being so decisively that words, concepts and images they evoke linger within and color our every thought and action at some incalculable, incomprehensible depth. What a delightful process to still experience. And if you are lucky, this begins to happen at an early age. So many penetrations of words and images then occur over the years that ultimately what is inside you is as lively and material as that which is outside you. There truly is then "something" to you.

Interestingly (at least to me), the poetry or fiction that has truly made its way into my psyche and stayed, has to do with space. I am captivated by the aesthetics of space. I absorb through words space-its beauty, its dynamic and its etching of human motion-geometrical patterns of flow-- on its surface. And, of course, my proclivity for space leads naturally to a concern for time-thus, I engage looming twins of dynamic existence. I was so taken with space that even my first scholarly writings in German literary criticism that I published in the mid- to late 1970s dealt with an analysis of the motion of characters in fictional worlds and the impact of the spatial designs their motion made upon their psychological state. I was and remained focused on space and motion within space as a high aesthetic.

The poem that I always keep near me is by Dylan Thomas, the forceful, volatile Welsh poet of the 20th century. It is entitled "Fern Hill." I discovered Thomas as a child. I once-by chance-heard a recording (I think it was-not "live") of him reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales" on the radio. My holidays have never been the same since. I sit and hear peacefully a CD of his lyrical, melodic reading of that poem even to this day. It is a permanent part of my holiday. But his poem "Fern Hill" has penetrated me in a soulful, respectful way for a lifetime. It is always with me. It remains figuratively on my "Bedside Table." I see, taste and roam "the Hill"-I walk there freely "on the diagonal." From there I can still look out "as I was young and easy and under the apple boughs about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green" even as I inevitably age-consuming less space and devouring more time. This space-Fern Hill-- fortifies me and fills me daily with an energy and optimism that I thought would much earlier wane. And I am appreciative that for a good while now "Time has let me play [on Fern Hill] and be golden in the mercy of his means." But, of course, time on "the Hill" is not unlimited; it leads you eventually and almost imperceptibly to a "narrow space"-- a "swallow thronged loft." So, time on Fern Hill has actually "held me green AND dying" (emphasis added). I know from "the Hill" that I always contain both my possibility and my limitation. They co-exist. I know about space; I know that about time; that I can accept. By the way, this poem was also read by a good friend at our wedding so many years ago-"as [we, too] were so young and easy in the mercy of his means."