20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 7: Responsibility

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
The hand that signed the paper
The Castle GO
The Responsibility GO
The Voice of Authority GO
  women's voices

The hand that signed the paper by Dylan Thomas

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The fingers' joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose's quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.



   

INFORMATION

   


'sovereign': belonging to a monarch, powerful
'goose's quill': an old-fashioned quill pen
'locusts': insects that gather in vast swarms and strip the land of vegetation
'dominion': power, rule, authority
'crusted': covered with dried blood

   

HISTORY

   

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


This poem was published in 1935, in the middle of a decade marked by international unrest. But the poet does not set his poem in his own time. Taking an imaginary historical story, he uses the stark tale to say something about the power and ruthlessness of kings and rulers.

Signatures on treaties are quickly scribbled. The drawing-up of a treaty may take a little longer. The result is the same: countries, people, futures are signed away. The signatories may care very little for the fate of individual men, women and children and a very much for political and military power. 'Power,' said Lord Acton, 'corrupts' - and added, 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'.

Whenever this remark is repeated, people listening nod wisely and agree. Amazingly, though, very little is done with the information. We still allow power to remain in the hands of rulers. Why? 'Someone has to lead.' 'We've chosen someone we can trust.' 'We've always had hereditary rulers, and some have been worse than others.' 'Our ruler came to power because the army backed him - we had no choice.' 'Our ruler stays in power because big business backs him.' 'We just want to get on with our lives - what happens in government isn't anything to do with us.'

There are plenty more excuses where those came from, and they really are excuses, not reasons. 'But we've got to have some sort of government, otherwise there'd be chaos' is another.

This poem (and these remarks) aren't intended to promote anarchy, or even democracy; they aren't intended to support any particular political system. But they are asking the reader to think about how nations (and the world as a whole) are ruled, and how it might be done differently - and without armies.

There are different ways of interpreting the poet's telling of his tale. Did the king signing the paper condemn himself to death, or some other king? Was it his own city, people and country he signed away, and why? Was the 'murder' the killing of many by armies ordered into battle? Was the 'talk' negotiation or rumour? Are the king's fingers counting off the dead in war? - and on which 'side'? If nothing else, this poem reminds us that the truths of 'history' are never plain or simple.

However you interpret this narrative, one powerful man brought disaster to a whole country and its population. Killing, in whatever way and however many, was made part of the solution to a problem, as it often still is. It's a rotten part.

 
            
     

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