This week’s choice is “The Hand That Signed The Paper” by Dylan Thomas.
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;Dylan Thomas (1914—1953)
Hands have no tears to flow.
Poem 275. The Hand That Signed The Paper
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 finger 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.
This poem emphasizes the power that one person holds over others by simply signing a warrant, order or proclamation. The poem speaks of an impersonal and indifferent hand, its five fingers personified as despotic rulers whose arbitrary pronouncements are made without passion or concern but which have immense impact on the population.
In the first stanza we see that a ruler may destroy their own cities, citizens and country as well as those of other rulers. These need not be direct and intentional outcomes but carelessly taken decisions can have unexpected, far-reaching and profound consequences: “Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath/Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country”.
The second stanza shows that the hand is not disembodied—“The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder”— this perhaps suggesting that the ramifications of the signatures are shrugged off—the colloquial phrase “slopey shoulders” applies to persons in authority who avoid accountability. The fingers are described as “cramped with chalk” and I think this suggests gout, implying the kind of excess that the powerful enjoy. Prolonged attacks of gout can cause chalky deposits around the joints and tendons of the hand. The third and fourth lines show that a signature can end conflict just as easily as it can foment it: “A goose’s quill has put an end to murder/That put an end to talk”.
The third stanza emphasises the power of a signature “Great is the hand that holds dominion over/Man by a scribbled name”: even if a treaty ends a war, it may engender famine and pestilence and the breeding of other plagues: “And famine grew, and locusts came”; and who can guess all of the consequences of a briefly scribbled name?
The last stanza underlines the indifference that the signatory may have for those who suffer from the consequences of ill-thought-out and hastily signed accords: the fingers may be used to count the casualties of a policy but seldom if ever do they temper or ward off the blow. The last two lines are the most telling, and an indictment of God (whose remoteness is reflected by the indifference of mortal kings): “A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;/Hands have no tears to flow”.
This is another poem I first heard read by Richard Burton, his deep Welsh voice giving full expression to the words. It is a powerful poem and I won’t pretend I understood the subtext at the time; I just enjoyed the sound of the words and the feeling that a meaning was wrapped up in them like a present in paper.
- Listen to Richard Burton’s performance on YouTube.