Week 211: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

The beautiful particularity of this poem should not blind us to the fact that its closing stanzas are bleak as anything Edward Thomas ever wrote. Thomas’s long-running battle with literary hackwork and depression is well-chronicled, and probably the reaction of many will be ‘Join the club, mate’ – after all, most of us, unless we are unusually lucky in our vocation, are doomed to spend the best part of our lives in a place we don’t particularly want to be doing things we don’t particularly want to do. But Thomas, through a combination of temperament and domestic circumstances, did perhaps genuinely suffer more than most. The poem makes an interesting comparison with Philip Larkin’s famous anti-work diatribe ‘Toads’, but set beside Thomas’s existential angst Larkin’s seems no more than a cheery grumble: as a librarian he was after all doing something he clearly took some pride in and which presumably offered a measure of financial security, and by all accounts he seems to have got on rather well with his secretaries. Thomas worked alone for a pittance, and knew himself wasted.

The Long Small Room

The long small room that showed willows in the west
Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled,
Although not wide. I liked it. No one guessed
What need or accident made them so build.

Only the moon, the mouse and the sparrow peeped
In from the ivy round the casement thick.
Of all they saw and heard there they shall keep
The tale for the old ivy and older brick.

When I look back I am like moon, sparrow, and mouse
That witnessed what they could never understand
Or alter or prevent in the dark house.
One thing remains the same – this my right hand

Crawling crab-like over the clean white page,
Resting awhile each morning on the pillow,
Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
The hundred last leaves stream upon the willow.

Edward Thomas


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