18 pages 36 minutes read

Dylan Thomas

All That I Owe the Fellows of the Grave

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1933

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A young man’s meditation on mortality, Dylan Thomas’s “All That I Owe the Fellows of the Grave” is a brash stare-down with death itself. The poem is a reminder that, yes, we are flesh and blood, and yes, we approach the inevitable catastrophe of death—but until then it is our luck to live fully, generously, boldly.

Written in the summer of 1933, early in Thomas’s career (he was not yet 20), the poem reflects Thomas’s sympathies with the classic Romantic vision—its impulse toward nature, its mystical elevation of the poetic imagination, and its childlike sense of wonder and spontaneity; Thomas disdained the fretful poetry of political and social activism that defined so much of his era. The poem reflects Thomas’s love of striking language, which he learned from poring over the master texts of the Modernists, chiefly the novels of James Joyce. The poem rewards dramatic recitation, given the poet’s intuitive sense of idiosyncratic rhythm and melody.

Poet Biography

Dylan Marlais Thomas was born October 27, 1914 in Swansea, a teeming port city along the southern coast of Wales. Although too much of a born anarchist to respond to the authoritarianism of public education (he dropped out of school when he was 16), Thomas, a sickly child often bedridden with asthma, grew up listening to his father’s dramatical poetry recitation. Of this poetry, the most influential included the sonic delights of Edgar Allan Poe, the mysticism of William Butler Yeats, and the wild galloping rhythms of Gerald Manley Hopkins.

After a brief stint as a local news reporter, Thomas in 1932 devoted himself to the call of poetry. Unschooled in the craft save for his own voracious reading, he filled copious notebooks with apprentice poems reflecting faith in his own visionary sense. These poems, charged with emotional intensity and lyric sensualism, include “All That I Owe.” When he was 20, he moved to London and published his first volume, 18 Poems, to great critical acclaim of his originality—but sales were disappointing. Thomas’s life nevertheless reflected his bold spontaneity, and he became a fixture in London pubs. He married a dancer, but neither had any steady income. During World War II, Thomas’s weak lungs barred him from duty. Thomas and his wife left London and sought the security of the countryside near Laugharne in Wales.

After the war, his several poetry volumes earning him celebrity but little steady income, Thomas wrote scripts for BBC radio. He still published poetry, most notably his signature “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a call to live every moment. Over the next several years, Thomas explored writing verse dramas and film scripts. In 1950 he accepted his publisher’s invitation to tour American colleges. His readings, centered on his own irrepressible charisma (and what became his notorious drinking binges), made him a sensation. He gained an entirely new, youthful audience who esteemed his rebellious bohemian persona and his sensual poetry. He would tour America three more times, each tour his expanding audiences expecting more outrageous behavior. On November 9, 1953, after an epic drinking bout, Thomas collapsed in New York’s Chelsea Hotel and died two days later. He was only 39. He was buried in St. Martin’s Church in Laugharne, his tomb marked by a simple white cross. The gravesite remains a pilgrimage destination for Thomas’s legions of devoted fans.

Poem Text

All that I owe the fellows of the grave

And all the dead bequeathed from pale estates

Lies in the fortuned bone, the flask of blood,

Like senna stirs along the ravaged roots.

O all I owe is all the flesh inherits,

My fathers’ loves that pull upon my nerves,

My sisters’ tears that sing upon my head,

My brothers’ blood that salts my open wounds.

Heir to the scalding veins that hold love’s drop,

My fallen filled, that had the hint of death,

Heir to the telling senses that alone

Acquaint the flesh with a remembered itch,

I round this heritage as rounds the sun

His winy sky, and, as the candles moon,

Cast light upon my weather. I am heir

To women who have twisted their last smile,

To children who were suckled on a plague,

To young adorers dying on a kiss.

All such disease I doctor in my blood,

And all such love’s a shrub sown in the breath.

Then look, my eyes, upon this bonehead fortune

And browse upon the postures of the dead;

All night and day I eye the ragged globe

Through periscopes rightsighted from the grave;

All night and day I wander in these same

Wax clothes that wax upon the ageing ribs;

All night my fortune slumbers in its sheet

Then look, my heart, upon the scarlet trove,

And look, my grain, upon the falling wheat;

All night my fortune slumbers in its sheet.

Thomas, Dylan. “All That I Owe the Fellows of the Grave.” 1933. The Poetry of Dylan Thomas, Volume 1, edited by Daniel Jones.

Summary

Given Thomas’s idiosyncratic gift for expansive linguistic reinvention and aural impact, a line-by-line translation—or other rigid anatomizing—risks spiritually gutting the poem. After all, not much happens. This poem has no narrative context, setting, or characters. Caught up in what William Wordsworth, in his Lyrical Ballads, calls a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” the speaker exhorts (apparently to himself) a defiant embrace of mortality—but without any clear dramatic situation. It’s unclear what inspires the rumination.

The poem opens in declamation, preparing to enumerate everything the speaker owes to those who have come before him. This is no monetary inheritance; he acknowledges his debt to his ancestry, their imprint upon his “fortuned bone” (Line 3), in his blood, in his very flesh. He insists he is not alone, that biologically he is tied to humanity, all of them his fathers and sisters and brothers. In an imaginative burst that conceives humanity itself as a single grand organism, he decides his ancestors collectively shape him. Their tears are his tears, their blood, his blood, their loves, his loves. The speaker repeatedly defines himself as the “heir” (Lines 9, 11, 15) to these riches, how his flesh remembers these earlier generations. Their itches, their inclination to indulge the kinetic thrill of the flesh, are his itches.

This “heritage” (Line 16) of blood and flesh and bone is the speaker’s inheritance; this is the “all” that he “owes” to the dead—and it is everything. He compares himself to the sun. Surrounded by a shared humanity, he is like the sun surrounded by the “winy” (Line 14) sky, an exotic word that means invigorating and exhilarating.

In the closing stanza, the speaker sternly reminds himself that obsessing over death only compromises one’s ability to thrill to the urgencies and ironies of life. Look, he tells himself, look on the fortune in your “bonehead” (Line 21), that is to say his skull. Look to your blood, scarlet and rich, still circulating, still animated. He challenges himself in Lines 22-24 to momentarily inhabit the perspective of the dead, “browse upon the postures of the dead” (Line 22). His perception, “rightsighted from the grave” (Line 24), yields special insight into the value of being alive, his heart still beating, his metaphoric “wheat” (Line 29) still growing. He reminds himself not to live as if he is already in his winding sheet, that is a shroud (“wax clothes” [Line 26]) traditionally wrapped around a corpse in preparation for burial, then sealed with wax. He reminds himself as much as the reader: Do not let your fortunes slumber as if you are already in a winding sheet; do not live as if you are dead already, denying the treasure, “the scarlet trove” (Line 28), of being flesh. The wheat is still growing and not yet on the mill floor. He cannot afford indifference.

In the closing line, the speaker, unsettled by the ease of living like the un-dead, is determined not to ignore the ecstasies and sorrows of flesh and blood, or take for granted its stunning wonder. He resolves not to live as if his “fortune” already “slumbers in its [winding] sheet” (Line 30).

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