Week 367: The Long Small Room, by Edward Thomas

Remembrance Sunday comes round again, and this week’s piece, though not in itself a war poem, does confront us, indirectly but powerfully, with one truth about the Great War which we are understandably reluctant now to recognise, but which goes some way towards explaining the enthusiasm with which the war was initially greeted: namely, that enlistment gave to many the chance of escape from an unhappy and unfulfilled working life. And one such was the poet Edward Thomas, who as a mature married man had no need to volunteer, but did so anyway in 1915, going on to be killed at Arras in 1917. This poem looks back on the years of badly paid literary hackwork that had been his lot in the years leading up to the war, and it is hard not to speculate on what might have happened had he not been caught up in the great events of his time. Would the dam that was holding in all that pent-up rare original poetry of his own never have broken? Would he have simply carried on with the drudgery he so despised, his hand continuing to crawl on towards age, until the last of those hundred leaves fell from the willow?

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

Week 366: I Could Give All To Time, by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is by no means the only poet in whom a hunger for recognition comes into conflict with a wariness, an inner reticence, a distaste for self-revelation. But I think in him the conflict was particularly acute. On the one hand he could be quite shameless in his pursuit of favourable reviews and his presentation to the public of a folksy and largely misleading image. On the other hand we have cryptic comments scattered throughout the work, like the line in ‘Paul’s Wife’ where Paul does not wish his fantasy wife (for which read muse figure) to be spoken of ‘in any way the world knows how to speak’. In this poem it is not made explicit what the ‘things forbidden’ are that he has managed to preserve for himself but I take them to be his poems, or those things that his poems keep alive, and he is rightly confident enough in his own powers as a poet to feel that he has succeeded.

I Could Give All To Time 

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Robert Frost