A Close-Reading of “My Hero Bares His Nerves” by Dylan Thomas
Recently, in web searches, I discovered a website entitled, “Thomas Delighted”, which
forces a feminist reading of Thomas’ poem. The anonymous author of the website
suggests “[that] this poem just exaggerates the stereotype that men are heros and
women are princesses waiting to be saved or seductresses waiting to steal men’s
power” (My Hero Bares His Nerves [from a Feminist lens]). I wish to offer a counter-
point to the former interpretation. (Possessed by Thomas Hardy) Dylan Thomas rewrites
Hardy’s “The Voice”.
Complicated in his image of an arm and anatomy, Thomas writes, “[m]y hero bares
his nerves along my wrist / [t]hat rules from wrist to shoulder” (lines 1-2). As readers, we
should not be so quick to read these lines biologically. The voice is the voice of the poet;
however, Thomas communicates to us that the words he chose are not his own, but the
words he writes are the words of his hero. Yet who is the hero that Dylan Thomas praises
in this poem?
Donald Davie, author of Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, writes of the relationship
between Hardy and Dylan Thomas (See Don McKay’s article in University of Toronto
Quarterly, 1986). Don McKay explores the relationship further in his article, entitled
“Crafty Dylan and the Altarwise Sonnets: ‘I build a flying tower and I pull it down’. There
are other places online where one might find the relationship cited, such as the Wikipedia
biography of Dylan Thomas, in which readers will find how Thomas would reference Hardy
in his public readings. Therefore, I suggest Thomas Hardy as a replacement, in the poem,
for “my hero”.
Rereading the first two lines in this manner, “nerves” should be defined as sensitive
points, or troubles, strife, and suffering. These are not the afflictions of the poet, but
the afflictions of Thomas Hardy. Note, in the third line, Thomas writes of a “ghost” (line
3), and further, Thomas describes a “mortal ruler” (line 4) ruling over his arm, which is to
imply the poet’s loss of control. The inhabitation and haunting of Thomas indicates that
Thomas Hardy is no longer alive, and Hardy has control of Thomas’ arm (however Thomas
tries to defend against the supernatural force), whether he likes the spirit or not, against
his will: “The proud spine spurning turn and twist;” (line 5).
The voice turns from Thomas to the voice of Hardy: “And these poor nerves so wired to
the skull / Ache on the lovelorn paper” (lines 6-7). The question this séance permits is
whether the I, in the second stanza, is the poet or the dead poet which imbibes of him?
This further adds critical commentary to Hardy’s later life and what caused the writing of
“The Voice”. In Hardy’s biography, on Encyclopedia Britannica, he was estranged from his
wife “some 20 years” before her death. In that time, he had an affair with Florence Emily
Dugdale, who would become his second wife. The article adds that the loss of his first wife,
would be the subject of his later work, including “The Voice” (the poem that Thomas
imitates). This informs lines 8-10, which encompasses “love”, which encompasses
Hardy’s “love hunger”, and which answers who is “tell[ing ] the page the empty ill” (line
10). Thomas reads Hardy’s work, which will be the focus of reading the third stanza.
Somewhere in the embodiment of Hardy, Thomas gains an understanding of Hardy’s
life: “Tread, like [A] naked venus / [t]he beach of flesh, and wind her bloodred plait” could
read as the decay of Emma Hardy into sand, and the “plait” being “bloodred” symbolizing
her death in connection with the style of hair she was known to wear which is found in her
various photographs. Further evidence of the affair is found in what Emma speaks,
“Stripping my loin of promise, / He promises a secret heat” (lines 14-15).
War is a topic of Thomas’ poems. The line that follows in the next stanza has to do
with communication during the war and the telegraph, which would not have been a mode
of communication during Hardy’s time. The point of view shifts back to the poet. In poetry
is T.S. Eliot’s quote upon appropriation and knowing how to properly steal a poem, which
would make Thomas and Hardy “knaves of thieves” (line 18), and Emma “[love’s or]
hunger’s emperor” (line 19). Thomas cannot continue imitating Hardy, therefore
his body rejects Hardy, as excremental waste: “He pulls the chain, the cistern
moves” (line 20). Perhaps, Thomas is rejecting Hardy’s concept of love; perhaps, Hardy is
rejecting Thomas, now giving the poet some advise where he went wrong in love
questioning how Thomas is any different than Hardy, post mortem? Perhaps,this is some
indication of the poem and how the poem comes out of Thomas in its process–Hardy
speaks through Thomas, Hardy releases his hold on Thomas, and then Thomas moves
upon the paper.
However one might read the end of this poem, Thomas shares with the reader his
experience with a dead poet that he admires. The subject of the poem is “the mortal
coil” of which Hardy has been studied from Thomas’ point-of-view. Poets are not void
of the harmful, cruel maladies that plague men: they are, equally at fault and they are
human. It is from the fault of someone admired that a person may learn some moral.
Therefore, in opposition of one feminist’s hasty reading of this poem, one may read a
counter perspective: Thomas’ poem is not celebrating a machismo of the early 1900s.
Thomas is writing of a fault of one he admired and what Hardy’s mortal coil was. This
is what Thomas is learning about the history of men and poetry. This is a concept that has
plagued men for centuries: the abstraction of love. Each poet handles love differently.
“Dylan Thomas.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Academic. Encyclopedia Britannica,
Inc., 2016. Web. 24 May 2016.
McKay, Don. “Crafty Dylan And The Altarwise Sonnets: ‘I Build A Flying Tower And I Pull It
Down.’.” University Of Toronto Quarterly 55.4 (1986): 375-394. Humanities International
Index. Web. 24 May 2016.
thomasdelighted.tripod.com/id17.html.My Hero Bares His Nerves (from a Feminist’s Lens),
nd. Web. 24 May 2016.
Thomas, Dylan. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New Directions, 1957. Print.
“Thomas Hardy.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Academic. Encyclopedia Britannica,
Inc., 2016. Web. 24 May 2016.