The poem begins with the speaker happily recounting spending time outside in a picturesque landscape with green grass, apple trees, and a starry sky where he felt like a “prince.” He details his adventures as a youth, recalling how he acted as both a “huntsman and herdsman” and saying that time allowed him to play in the sun “once only”—the first hint that this happiness won’t last.
Throughout the first three stanzas, the speaker continues to detail his adventures and their landscape. He rules his natural dominion, referring to himself as "prince of the apple towns" and "famous among the barns," and it seems he alone is present in this natural world along with the animals. In the second stanza, he expands on his adventures as a "green and carefree" boy, his greenness (or youth) matching that of the landscape. He repeats the phrases "time let me ___" and "golden in the ___ of his ___," beginning lines with them just as he did in the first stanza.
In the third stanza, he continues to elaborate on the landscape, getting caught up in his descriptions as he lists thing after magical thing, beginning several lines with "and..." In the fourth stanza, he compares witnessing the coming of the day to Adam and Eve in Eden and God creating the universe.
The next stanza begins the poem’s ending tone of regret, alluding to the Pied Piper as the speaker begins, with the phrase "nothing I cared," to characterize himself as "heedless," indicating his later regret. The speaker ends the poem lamenting his carelessness and mourning the loss of his childhood and innocence, beginning the stanza by repeating the phrase "nothing I cared" from the previous stanza.
Personifying the “lilting” house at the start of the poem sets the stage for the landscape the speaker describes: it is so lively and vivid that it is almost a character itself. Time is similarly personified, becoming almost like a playmate to the young boy. Thomas’s use of the phrase “once below a time” emphasizes the power of time—the speaker is merely a guest in time’s domain—and instantly reminds us of fairy tales beginning “once upon a time,” calling to mind stories of childhood innocence.
The line “in the sun that is young once only” in the second stanza is the first hint that the speaker’s joyful innocence won’t last. Though time “lets” him play, it remains in control. In the second stanza, he also mentions the Sabbath and “holy” water, marking the first of many Christian references that will grow richer as the poem progresses and giving Fern Hill a sacred aura. The colors green and gold, which will become recurring images, also appear.
The third stanza continues the celebration of Fern Hill as the speaker recalls the beauty of both days and nights at Fern Hill. His simple recollection of Fern Hill—"it was air"—is telling. Air is, of course, necessary for life, but also invisible and easy to take for granted, just as the young narrator doesn't fully appreciate Fern Hill. The poem's images become more abstract and dreamy, such as the vague adjectives "lovely and watery" and the unnaturally "green" fire. Again, green is used to mean full of life.
In the fourth stanza, the Christian imagery deepens dramatically. Invoking "Adam and maiden," the speaker conjures the image of the Biblical paradise of Eden—a comparison that becomes explicit in the fourth stanza. This comparison adds to the earlier hint that the speaker’s happiness at Fern Hill will end—after all, Adam and Eve are eventually exiled from Eden. He also mentions the Creation and its aftermath—"the birth of the simple light." The fields themselves seem to "praise" God, and the stable is personified, "whinnying." Notably, he mentions the color "white," often associated with purity. This is Adam and Eve before the Fall.
In the fifth stanza, Thomas continues to rely on personification, as the speaker describes the “gay house” and his “wishes” that “raced,” again emphasizing how alive the landscape of Fern Hill feels. But all of this must end, as the children follow time “out of grace”—a reference to the Christian concept of God’s grace, the love and mercy that allows for salvation despite one’s sins. The image also alludes to children following the Pied Piper, a figure from a German legend who led a town’s children away with his magical pipe. The sun, previously described as young "only once," is now "born over and over," and the clouds are "new made." But the renewal the natural landscape experiences is inaccessible to the child.
By the sixth stanza, the speaker is forever cast out of Eden, waking up to remember what he has lost and realizing that he is “dying.” Again, his previous days are described as "white," characterized as a time of innocence and purity.
“Not how it feels to be young, the theme of ‘Fern Hill’ is how it feels to have been young,” writes William York Tindall. “But art, at once in time and out of it, is time’s great evader and destroyer. ‘Fern Hill’ is Thomas’s victory over what he laments. The green and golden joy of childhood and the shadowy sorrow of maturity become the joy of art.” In this manner, the loss to time is not total; it is possible to use art to recapture the happiness of innocent youth.