Week 454: Old Man, by Edward Thomas

One of Edward Thomas’s best and best-loved poems, characterised by his brooding, wistful intelligence, that always seems to be trying to bring into focus something half-glimpsed at the corner of the eye, that would give him a completeness he felt he lacked.

The child in the poem is Myfanwy, Thomas’s younger daughter. Born in 1910, Myfanwy survived into her nineties, dying in 2005. In 2000 I was asked by the Edward Thomas Fellowship to write a poem for her ninetieth birthday. Normally I don’t, or can’t, write to order, but as luck would have it I had a little earlier that year happened to call in at the Hampshire village of Steep, Edward’s onetime home, on the way back from a day out with my wife and daughter, and a poem on the subject had begun to form in my mind. The request gave me the jolt to finish and send it off, and in due course I received a letter from Myfanwy herself, expressing her appreciation. I remain moved to have had that living link with the poet I love most, one whom Ted Hughes called ‘the father of us all’, and I hope I may be indulged if I append my own poem as a sort of follow-on to Edward’s.

Old Man

Old Man, or Lad’s-love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

Edward Thomas

At Steep (for Myfanwy Thomas on her 90th birthday)

Driving home through Hampshire with my daughter
I see a sign that beckons like a legend
Though on plain earth, and so it is we come
In April twilight, clearing after rain,
Like pilgrim ghosts your childhood might have seen
Out of its unimaginable future,
Up Stoner Hill and round by Cockshott Lane,
To find, through trees and down a root-stepped path,
Your father’s boulder, set there on the slope.

My daughter runs ahead of me, downhill
Past dim white cherries, cowslips, violets,
Mildly curious, but wanting tea.

‘Who was Edward Thomas anyway?’
I say ‘A poet.’ ‘Oh.’ My daughter’s twelve,
Likes judo, dancing, being with her friends.
Poems are the things that daft Dads write
Light-years away from coolness.
                                                            ‘Was he good?’
So short a question. And so long an answer
If truth were served: as long, say, as long years
Of looking, loving, waiting.
                                                           ‘He was good.’

I take her photograph beside the stone.
‘Can we go back now?’ Yes, my love, we can.
To keep the covenant was all I wanted.
You see, this is our obscure faith, our trust,
Whether we live or die too soon, unknowing,
That somewhere in the private rooms of time
Others will read for love alone the words
We wrote for love, alone.
                                                        And deeper still
There is another covenant we keep:
Let our words be forgotten, let our lives
Fade utterly, but not these: let there be
Always an April evening, woods, a thrush
Singing and a child, always a child,
A daughter, maybe, finding violets
Or standing in the twilight by a path,
Plucking a bush, with one to see her there
Apart, in all a child’s grave otherness,
And love her.
                           ‘Can we get chips?’ We get chips.

David Sutton

Note: ‘Your father’s boulder…’ On the hillside above Steep called Mutton Hill there is set in memory of Edward a sarsen boulder bearing a simple plaque, the best of poet’s memorials, and here you can stand looking out over fields and coppices whose names he would have known, hearing as he once heard the wind in the trees and watching the sunlight come and go on the rim of the downs.

3 thoughts on “Week 454: Old Man, by Edward Thomas

  1. Hi David, I hope you don’t mind a comment on your poem. I like it that your daughter (as depicted in the poem) doesn’t know who Thomas is and mainly wants her tea. It keeps the poem grounded, and that’s where the second covenant comes from? Perhaps I can say that she would keep the second covenant but not the first?

    • Thanks Chris. Yes, though to be fair to my daughter she has, though like all my children predominantly of a scientific bent, become more appreciative of poetry since. And all four have been quite good about tolerating my eccentric enthusiasms over the years. I remember when on holiday in Cornwall once hauling my thirteen year old son, an ardent football fan, off to see the church at St Juliot, where Hardy first met the girl with the corn-coloured ringlets who once and later was all to him. ‘I know what it means to you, Dad’, he said sympathetically, ‘I’d feel like that if we went somewhere the Man. United team had trained together.’

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