The Ambiguous Reversal of Dylan Thomas's "In Country Sleep."
Balakier, James J., Papers on Language & Literature
Among the relatively few father-daughter poems in the "canon," Dylan Thomas's "In Country Sleep" is striking for its frank portrayal of a caring though conflicted state of fatherhood. Other poems belonging to this diverse lyric sub-genre, such as Jonson's "On my First Daughter," Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy," Yeats's "A Prayer for My Daughter," are essentially expressions of the poet-father's deep concern for the well-being of his living or dead daughter that have little to do with the existence of the child in her own right. Thomas's poem, an arguably Browningesque dramatic monologue of "a soul in action," addressed just after story-telling bedtime to the sleeping child, voices the playing out of a universal parental crisis, that of loving but letting go of the son or daughter so nature can take its course. Thomas's poem for his eldest son Llewelyn, "This Side of the Truth," is, on the other hand, one of his most didactic lyrics. In it the poet-father kindly tells the boy that there are two ways of "moving about your death," "good and bad." "In Country Sleep" is a far more arresting and complex treatment involving a loving father's deep, oedipally colored attachment to his daughter and his concern that she retain her natural innocence and faith in life.
The popularity of Thomas's poem since his death may be attributed in part to the wide appeal of the straight-forward situation it dramatizes - a father confronting his concerns for his sleeping daughter's welfare.(1) However, when William York Tindall told Thomas that he "thought this poem to be about how it feels to be a father, Thomas cried, but whether from vexation, beer or sentimental agreement I could not tell" (Tindall 273). In actuality, "In Country Sleep," despite the immediate sense of connection readers may feel with it, has been the subject of varied critical interpretations(2) turning on the identity of the mysterious Thief who the father fears will steal his sleeping daughter's faith in "the green good" of country existence. Thomas once told a woman that the unidentified Thief, usually assumed to be Time or Death,(3) was in reality jealousy, and that the poem was addressed to his wife Caitlin (Ferris 226), from whom he was increasingly alienated in the 1940's. Their marital problems in fact figure in several poems, including "I make this in a warring absence," "How shall my animal," and perhaps most notably "Into her Lying Down Head," in which the speaker's enemies enter his wife's "faithless sleep." Still, Thomas gave a quite different explanation at another time to a reporter in New York: "Alcohol is the thief today. But tomorrow he could be fame or success or exaggerated introspection or self-analysis. The thief is anything that robs you of your faith, or your reason for being" (Quoted in Ferris 227).
By the same token, all three of the figures involved in the central action of "In Country Sleep" have a Joycean resonance and reflect multiple prototypical identities. Joyce was Thomas's "most admired prose writer" from whom "he learnt wordplay" (Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins 14). The influence of Joyce's mythmaking, pun-filled "funferal," Finnegans Wake, which has been described as "a prodigious, multifaceted monomyth, not only the cauchemar of a Dublin citizen but the dreamlike saga of guilt-stained, evolving humanity" (Campbell and Robinson 3), is subtly evident in Thomas's poem, though his mythologizing operates on a much smaller scale. Thomas's persona is in a sense all fathers (and possibly all husbands too) and has affinities with figures ranging from Shakespeare's benign father-magician, Prospero, to the biblical or Miltonic Adam, the father of humankind, out of whose "yawning wound" God extracted the rib from which he made his helpmeet Eve. The sleeping daughter herself is an amalgamation of fairy tale heroines such as the "Haygold haired" Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, along with Adam's beautiful but disobedient wife, Eve. …