The Hunchback In The Park – Dylan Thomas
A solitary mister
Propped between trees and water
From the opening of the garden lock
That lets the trees and water enter
Until the Sunday sombre bell at dark
Eating bread from a newspaper
Drinking water from the chained cup
That the children filled with gravel
In the fountain basin where I sailed my ship
Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up.
Like the park birds he came early
Like the water he sat down
And Mister they called Hey mister
The truant boys from the town
Running when he had heard them clearly
On out of sound
Past lake and rockery
Laughing when he shook his paper
Hunchbacked in mockery
Through the loud zoo of the willow groves
Dodging the park keeper
With his stick that picked up leaves.
And the old dog sleeper
Alone between nurses and swans
While the boys among willows
Made the tigers jump out of their eyes
To roar on the rockery stones
And the groves were blue with sailors
Made all day until bell time
A woman figure without fault
Straight as a young elm
Straight and tall from his crooked bones
That she might stand in the night
After the locks and chains
All night in the unmade park
After the railings and shrubberies
The birds the grass the trees the lake
And the wild boys innocent as strawberries
Had followed the hunchback
To his kennel in the dark.
I remember seeing this poem for the first time a couple of years ago as I was teaching the poetry section in the anthology and was required to teach this, along with three or four more, to my classes to get them to write a Controlled Assessment on them. So it comes as no surprise to see it here in this section, because it is about a character that I can relate to so well and it shows how we take away the voice of one so lowly at times because of our horrible actions and attitudes towards such people.
There is a saying in the UK that “it does what it says on the tin” and this poem is no different. Simply entitled “The Hunchback in the Park” and written by Dylan Thomas, from his Collected Poems 1934 – 1953, we see a tale of a man who is living on the streets. As I type this, there is a reminder in my head, as should be in yours if you are following this blog, that there is another poem in this section that could be linked with this, to be able to write a response in the exam. Can you figure it out? Have you got the same idea as I have? This is what you need to do as you study these poems, assuming your teacher, like me, would let you read ALL of them one after another, so as to be able to let you have the choice in the exam.
This then, is the story of someone who lives not in a house or home, but in the park! This is the story of a “solitary mister,” a term we use to show respect to our elders in the UK, or at least we used to, but this one is not so well off as we are, not so fortunate, for we see him “propped between trees and water” in a situation more than likely, not of his choosing. We know from the title that he is a “hunchback,” that he has a disability and so, we are being asked to consider just how we treat people with disability here. This man is to be found in the “garden lock that lets the trees and water enter,” a space of land that through the day may be busy with people seeking their place of peace and tranquillity, but at night would be isolated and relatively safe to bed down under the stars.
As a reader, we are left to assume whether it is his choice or not to be there. Some choose to walk away from the pressures of life and live different lifestyles. To these people comes derision and contempt from those who have homes, mortgages etc. Comments like “get a job” when they are begging on the streets are common, but this man is different to those because of his disability. He can be found in this place in the park “until the Sunday sombre bell at dark,” which suggests he then moves on from “eating bread from a newspaper” and “drinking water from the chained cup that the children filled with gravel in the fountain basin” to somewhere quieter.
It is a sad existence he lives, one that is filled with pain. And the voice of the narrator in the poem comes through now as he says that where this man is seen is where he “sailed [his] ship.” To the man [or boy] in question, he is associating the place with the man, in a way saying that the two always seem to go together. But then we get the next line where suddenly, the tone changes in the poem for we see that the hunchback man sleeps “at night in a dog kennel.” This darkening of tone is meant to have an effect on the reader. It is meant to make us feel sorry for this man, for the fact that the only place he has where he feels safe is in a dog kennel. It is quite a statement that the poet is making about how we treat people near us in our society. And even though it was written approximately 70 years ago, the same still rings true today.
But there is a difference with this man, for “nobody chained him up,” showing that this is by choice that he lives like this. In a way, this is his ‘normal.’” Once again the reader should respond in support of the man. This is a man who, “like the park birds [he] came early” into the park, who “like the water [he] sat down” to take in the beauty of the day in the park. People call him “Mister” as a sign of respect for him, but those who are cruel, and it is aimed at children on purpose for they can be so cruel at times, aim insults at him. It is the “truant boys from the town,” the ones who are sent to school by their parents and then choose to walk out of school and get up to all sorts of antics, many illegal, that hurl their abuse at him and treat him harshly.
These boys from the town mock him and then run when he is “out of sound,” and laugh when he shakes his paper. They make fun of him, mocking him for his disability. In truth, they should be ashamed of themselves, but they are children who know no better because they do not understand disability yet. At this point the reader must be asking themselves the question: has the poet been in a park one day, seen something like this happening in front of his eyes and then penned the poem? When we talk of ‘intentional fallacy,’ we need to ask these questions. [There is an explanation of this on a previous post]
The use of the rhyme with the words “rockery” and “mockery” is a particularly good one, showing the mockery from the boys but also how the man is realistically and metaphorically “hunchbacked in mockery.” It is as if the mockery from the boys makes him stoop all the more, such is the pain inflicted by these boys. All this happens until the “bell time,” or the time when there is a sound that tells all in the park it is time to leave. The park is about to be closed. This is when we see the picture being painted of a “woman figure without fault, straight as a young elm,” seeing this man before her, seeing his plight, standing there “in the night after the locks and chains,” watching what happens next. Whether the poet intended us to take this in this way is uncertain, but one can see this from this reading and it becomes a man watching a woman watching a hunchback. It is a vignette [a short impressionistic scene] that is being shared here.
It is at night when we as readers see the extent of this hunchback’s plight and we feel for him, because after all that he has seen and put up with through the day; “the railings and shrubberies, the birds the grass the trees the lake and the wild boys innocent as strawberries,” we see him followed until he gets to his “kennel in the dark.” At the end, the reader should be feeling that feeling you get when you know someone is being treated harshly and there is little you can do about it. This is because that is the intention of the poet, to make you think about such people in society, who are forced to live life in a certain way that is not necessarily the same as ours.
This theme of ‘difference’ and how we deal with it is something that can and indeed must be written about in any exam setting. There are all sorts of differences here; the difference between the narrator and the hunchback, the difference between the woman and the hunchback and then the difference between each of us who reads this poem. All will have different experiences of people with disabilities [never ever write the words ‘disabled person’ in an exam!!!] and therefore will react to the themes of this poem in differing ways. It is true therefore, that when writing about literature, like this, there is no wrong answer, so long as your comments can be backed up with evidence from the poem.
This then, is a very effective poem, that shares a story about a man who lives in the park. It also shares a theme for us to consider; that of disability and how we deal with it. It depicts young, innocent children who hurt the feelings of the man, mocking him and running away from him when he reacts. It shows the reader just how not to treat someone who is different and is therefore, a polemic [look it up if not sure] in its style and content.