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 pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                           Dylan Thomas


        Taken from



Dylan Thomas (Swansea, Wales, 1914-1953) was “famoso por su brillante imaginería verbal y por su canto a la belleza natural (...). Terminados sus estudios de enseñanza media, marchó a Londres, donde en 1934 publicó su primer libro de poemas, Dieciocho poemas, en el que a pesar de su juventud mostró un excepcional talento tanto en sus imágenes como en su dicción poética. El libro fue muy elogiado por la crítica. Los temas de estos poemas, el sexo, la muerte, el pecado, la religión y la redención, parecen oscuros porque contienen elementos del surrealismo y de su propia fantasía personal, pero la frescura y vitalidad de su lenguaje sumergen al lector en los poemas revelándole la universalidad de las experiencias que describen” (


The hand that signed the paper is a work where content is much more important than form.

There are many interpretations hidden in the words of this author, as I will analyze later, because the form of the poem is very simple: it has four stanzas where there are four verses in each one.


In a linguistic analysis of the poem, we can identify the use of certain cataphoric, anaphoric and homophoric items. For instance, the use of “the” in stanza 1(the hand, the paper, the breath and the globe) is cataphoric, while the subsequent uses or “the” are defining, so they are anaphoric. Examples are: The mighty hand or The five kings.

The use of “the” in the dead in line 1 of stanza 4 is homophoric and anaphoric since the phrase the dead could be said to get an universal application. Also we have in the poem the use of participant relations where parts of the body and certain elements are made to act as if on their own volition. For instance, in the title of the work, The hand that signed the paper, the poet presents the hand as if acting independently of its owner whose brain must have given the signal before the actual signing was done. Also, we have fingers taxed the breath, A hand that rules pity, a hand that rules heaven, etc.

On the other hand, there is a  preponderance of the nominal group in the poem, and most of these nominal groups are inanimate: The hand that signed the paper, The globe of dead (stanza 1, line 3), a scribbled name (stanza 3, line 4), etc.

Synonymy is another lexical device used in the poem: did a king to death (stanza 2, line 4) and murder (stanza 2, line 3) can be said to be identical meaning. Also, paper and treaty can be said to be synonymous. The use of fingers and hand is an instance of hyponymy. The implication of this is that the poet uses them as elements of foregrounding to lay emphasis on the actual message of the poem.


The rhyme is unique for the whole poem: ABAB. The vocabulary used by Thomas is not very complicated, but there are some words difficult to understand even for English students, as goose (line 7), locusts (line 10) or scribbled (line 12).


As I have said before, this text of Thomas is full of words with double meaning that make this poem an excellent portrait of what happens when the (hand of a) man has got the power to initiate and to end a war with a simple sign in an insignificant piece of paper. This is shown in a masterly way in lines 7 and 8: A goose’s quill has put end to murder/ That put an end to talk.

Thomas does not use the term death, even it would be a more appropriate word for a poem which talks about war and its consequences, but he uses murder to emphasize the dramatic effect of death, the only way of not finding death in a natural way. This two lines are, in my opinion, the most brilliant ones in the whole poem.


In the line 2, Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath, Thomas shows the fingers of the hand as kings, as powerful figures; we can see this again later, two lines further down. The expression taxed the breath is very good to explain how difficult it is to survive in a war, because signing that paper means killing a lot of innocent people.


The second stanza begins with a reference to God, to divine power: The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder: God is Almighty, that hand can be so mighty as God.

In lines 9 and 10 (The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,/ And famine grew, and locusts came:). It makes reference to plagues that people who are physically and psychologically injured in a war have to endure.


Great is the hand that holds dominion over/ Man by a scribbled name. Here the writer criticizes the power of bureaucracy. Is it possible that a man, for having signed a piece of paper, had in his hands the destiny of millions of men, women and children?


The last stanza is a return to terms explained before: Thomas comes back to show the fingers of the hand as individual kings, as powerful men (The five kings), and also comes back to compare the hand of the man with God’s hand: A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven.