The plagues of Egypt
The poem that I have chosen to work with, “The Hand That Signed the Paper,” seems especially potent to me. The poem was written when Thomas was only nineteen, and his youth shows. The poem is painted in broad strokes and is not as nuanced as his later poetry, but still comes from a sophisticated mind. It is an elegant example of the kind of historical knowledge and awareness of tradition that T. S. Eliot argued any good poet ought to have. 1 Ezra Pound described the artist (and poet) as “The antenna of the race, the barometer and voltmeter” 2 Allen Ginsberg described himself as “the Defense Early Warning Radar System.
” 3 “The Hand That Signed the Paper” is written with qualities of both characterizations of poets as social detectors. The poem was written in 1933, a year after Germany began re-armament4 after its military was deconstructed by the Treaty of Versailles. The poem challenges the political and social attitudes of Western Europe as it reframes Weimar Germany as victim to the synecdochic hand. The consequence of those attitudes (Thomas as “Early Warning Radar System” would argue) is Germany’s rapid reorganization towards Nazism. The content of this poem is of a much greater depth than the form.
The poem is organized simply: four sentences as stanzas, each with four lines. The poem follows a timeline of war; through: battle, treaty, effect and history. This organization serves to be a “formally watertight compartment of words, preferably with a main moving (narrative). ” 5 Thomas strived for this kind of formal structure for most of his poems, although sometimes he dismissed with a rhyme. Thomas’ word choice, historiography play and powerful imagery cooperate to produce an insightful poem that touches on war responsibility, government politics and the abilities of men.
Thomas became renowned in Britain among contemporary poets and critics for his modernist surrealist techniques; his “prowess for combining intellection with feeling” 6 in his poetry. This particular poem achieves that lofty goal of combination through its distinctive and effectual words. Thomas uses metaphor and metonymy throughout this poem. He metonymically links kings and fingers to nations at war; the titular hand is linked to the convention at Versailles of Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Reviewing the first stanza, Thomas is able to distill a years-long war down to a single sentence using these techniques. Thomas uses a degree of repetition at the beginning of this poem by repeating its title. The title would seem to imply a disembodied hand, and so the first line has an almost comical tone. This is transformed immediately by the second line, which begins with a phrasing that shifts the meaning of “The Hand. ” “Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath. ” This modifies the understanding of the hand to something that has a political and authoritative power.
Thomas’ use of the word “tax” is equally interesting, as tax (in this context) could mean either forcing economic burdens, or, (with a slightly more literal reading) making the physical act of breathing burdensome. The third line “Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;” is morbid and striking with its cold, harsh tone. The imagistic juxtaposition of “globe of dead” (globe being, by definition, whole) and “halve of country” brings a heavy reality to the poem and is a reminder of its macabre subject.
The final line in the first stanza finally aligns the poem within its historical context and figuratively presents the resolution of World War I as five kings murdering a sixth. With that defeat, discourse begins. The second stanza follows the poem’s timeline as it moves through the culmination of battle towards post-war diplomacy. The hand is referenced again, emphasizing both its narrative and its connotation. The hand’s finger joints are described as being “cramped with chalk. ” This positions the hand as being after it’s drafting of that signed paper.
The image of the hand leading to a sloping shoulder and not simply touching, is also ripe with implication. It implies an ignorance of the consequent actions of the body of that shoulder. As if simply; only a slight attempt has been made at rectification. The stanza is closed by the phrase “A goose’s quill has put an end to murder / That put an end to talk. ” There is a concept of war or death putting an end to dialogue present here. This phrase could be a reference to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or could be a reference to war ending the freedom of speech and being a result of the failure of diplomacy.
Thomas’ use of the “goose’s quill” in his poem is an injection of aristocratic and bureaucratic imagery. During this time period, treaties would have most likely been signed using fountain pens, but the poetic treaty is still signed with a goose quill. If the second stanza deals mainly with the drafting and introduction of “the paper. ” than the third stanza describes the effects of the treaty; and its concern is of the consequences for that sloping shoulder. There is bitterness in this stanza as the treaty is considered to be a disaster in biblical terms.
The fever, famine and locusts that are referenced are allusions to the Old Testament. This biblical allusion is reinforced in the final stanza, when Thomas speaks of a “hand rules heaven. ” The fever and famine in the poem could be accurate words to describe the period of extremely high inflation that the German citizenry were burdened with after WWI and the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Locusts, as one of the Plagues of Egypt, are analogous to fear; and could easily be compared to the genesis and rapid, powerful growth of the Nazi party.