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I recently read a poem called “Where Once The Waters Of Your Face” by Dylan Thomas. What does it mean? I feel there are a lot of terms related to sailing but I’m not sure I understand it completely. It sounds beautiful and I would really love to be able to fully appreciate this work.

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  • Doing a little bit of Googling, some critics claim that the meaning of "Where once the waters of your face" revolves around the womb, childbirth, etc. I think this is absolutely right. This comment is not the right place for a real answer, but there are way too many details of this correspondence for me to write a complete answer, so If there are still aspects of the poem you don't understand after this hint, revise your question to include them and we'll do our best to answer them.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 1 at 14:47
  • Thank you bobble, Peter for your comments! have added the interpretation tag. I hoped to learn about the metaphorical meaning and see if matched up with my own understanding. I found this poem particularly intriguing because of how it conveyed the the passage of time and the experience of death. It felt relevant to the challenges our climate faces today. For me, it conjured the contrast between Earth & Mars, desert & ocean. This then connects perfectly with the womb / childbirth view, with the ocean fertile, the desert barren and the transformation from one to another. 🙏🏽
    – Abhishek
    Aug 1 at 19:02
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Interpretation on Reading

It seems to me, on reading the work, but not any analysis others have done of it, that the "you" of the poem is a personified voice of the oceans, all the seas of the world. There is an extended set of comparisons of "your" formerly living and marine state, with its current dry and dead situation.

For example:

  • where once the waters "spun to my screws" (ships propellers) now "your dry ghost blows"
  • Where previously "mermen through your ice / Pushed up their hair", now "the dry wind steers Through salt and root and roe."

Indeed most of the poem is a series of such comparisons.

Since the oceans have not in fact dried up and died, but are just as wet and living as they ever were, this must be a metaphor. It could be a metaphor for a dead or departed human lover, but I do not think so. While the sea is often personified as female, there is nothing in this poem suggestive of romantic love.

Instead the use of the mythological figure "the mermen" on the "before" side suggests to me that the comparison is of the romantic or mythic view of the sea once felt, compared with the mechanical or "realistic" view now held, whether by people in general or just by the narrator, is not clear.

The last stanza seems to confirm this, but also to say that this change is not complete, that some of the mythic idea of the ocean remains, when it says

There shall be corals in your beds
There shall be serpents in your tides,
Till all our sea-faiths die.

I take "our sea-faiths" to mean our beliefs in the sea as a mythic, personified being, and not just a complex object composed of water, plants and animals. What might be thought of as the remnants of the belief in Neptune and similar sea-gods.

Some Critical Comments and My Responses

Ralph Maud

In Where Have the Old Words Got Me?: Explications of Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems by Ralph Maud (2003: McGill-Queen's University Press) notes (on pages 292-294) that the poem “Where Once The Waters Of Your Face“ was composed in March 1934, shortly after Dylan Thomas met Pamala Hansford Johnson, and declared his love for her by letter, only to be rejected. Maud says that the poem "reveals itself, in context, as a love poem" although "heavily protected ... by a completely calked seascape imagry". Maud further asserts that the poem contains an image of progeny (offspring) who would never be, presumably in the lines:

... shades
Of children go who, from their voids,
Cry to the dolphined sea.

Maud says this indicates the seriousness of Dylan's love for Miss Johnson, looking forward to children with her. Maud also says that the last stanza suggests that the love between them was not truly dead.

Maud says nothing about why this love poem should be conveyed in this seascape imagery.

Willard Liston Rudd

In Images of creation and destruction in the early poetry of Dylan Thomas a 1971 Master's Thesis by Willard Liston Rudd (University of Richmond) Rudd asserts on page 3 that the narrator of the poem is an "infant" who is "happy that his recent birth has not brought permanent sterility to the womb" but Rudd gives no reason for suggesting that this is so except that seaweed has served as an image of the umbilical cord in other works by Thomas. Rudd does not say how the waters of the poem, with all their details of actual seas, represent the wasters of the womb. On page 34 of the thesis Rudd says:

The womb of "Where Once the Waters of Your Face" is made fertile by "salt and root and roe."

But the poem reads:

Where once the mermen through your ice
Pushed up their hair, the dry wind steers
Through salt and root and roe.

so "salt and root and roe" are associated with "the dry wind" and in general the later, barren side of the comparisons.

I do not find Rudd's interpretations persuasive.

John Goodby

In "His Influences and Reading | Dylan Thomas" by Professor John Goodby published in the Wales Arts Review Goodby writes:

Dylan Thomas is unusual, however, in the way he so often hides his allusions, or distances them: does the ‘dolphined sea’ of ‘Where once the waters of your face’ come from the influences of Yeats, or Anthony and Cleopatra, or anywhere (but there is always a somewhere)? As a result his allusions are often discounted or missed, with the result that he can seem not very well read – or, worse, to write in some naïve, ‘inspired’ way. Because of this, and because the reader is often in need of some kind of purchase on the more difficult poems, it is important to unearth as much empirical evidence as possible, albeit this should be offered in a way that does not nail the poem to a single interpretation.

Goodby lists many writers who influenced Thomas, but says no more, in this article, about the imagery in this specific poem.

Singh1 and Jain

In "Appreciation of Beauty and Nature in the poems of Dylan Thomas" by Ms. Lekha Rani Singh1 and Dr. Usha Jain (IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS)) Volume 22, Issue 9, Ver. 6 (September. 2017) PP 26-29) the authors say:

The vividness of images in Thomas poetry is a result of the skilful metaphorical representation of ineffable mysterious natural phenomenon. Thomas’s perception rises above the sensuousness and employs his sensibility in animating human expressions - “spat life into its fellow” – so metaphors aptly convey the mood of the poet and by using metaphors “Where once the waters of your face,” he seamlessly transforms a love poem into nature poem.

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    Great answer! It started off good and became even better. You might be interested in the other questions tagged interpretation, about analysing entire (short) pieces of literature like poems; several of them are still unanswered. I realise it takes a long time to write a properly well-supported answer to this kind of question, so no rush; just if you're planning to stick around on this site :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 1 at 17:33
  • @Rand Thanks. I probably will stick around. I have encountered you a few times on the SFF stack. I am something of a regular on the law stack (over 57k rep), the ELL stack (over 21k) and the writing stack (over 2k) Aug 1 at 17:39
  • Thank you David for your detailed answer and references! I agree with you that there is no evidence to suggest this is about Thomas’ unrequited love or an infant experiencing birth. I really like your formulation of the mythic vs the mechanical w.r.t “sea-faiths”. I’d extend that further and say that and say that the “mermen” are actually us, and we came from the ocean...the wet and barren landscapes represent our own complicated and conflicting relationship with of Nature, whether we are part of her or her masters.
    – Abhishek
    Aug 1 at 19:34
  • @Abhishek Chadha Thank you. I am far from an expert on Thomas, his life or his work. It does seem from the comments by Maud that the connection in time between the poem and the unrequited love for Miss Johnson is close enough that there must be some relation, but exactly what is far from clear, at least to me. Of course, A great deal has been written about Thomas and his work. I have read very little of it. Aug 1 at 22:05

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