I guess we all have our poetic touchstones, poems that we measure other poems against, talismans against the tritely sentimental, the strained or strident, the artily pretentious. This week’s poem is one of my touchstones. Not a lot happens in it – a man comes to an inn after a long day’s walk, looking forward to rest and refreshment, and as he goes in hears an owl calling from the hill. Yet somehow, like a clearing sky at twilight, it opens up whole vistas of time and imagination. A lot turns on that ‘salted’ in the last stanza. No easy sentiment here – the poet is honest enough to admit that the thought of others less fortunate than himself adds relish to his situation. And yet, after all, what clinches the poem is the compassion of its last two lines.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.