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 331: Women He Liked, by Edward Thomas

Another of those Edward Thomas poems that may seem to be about nothing much – a clump of nettles in a corner of a farmyard, a bundle of faggots, or in this case a lost path under trees – but which root themselves in the mind because they themselves are rooted in a world half-forgotten yet still obscurely important to us.

I am not sure about the gnomic line ‘To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails’. It’s a good line, but is it actually true? It seems to me that naming a thing is an essential part of the love act, and what we don’t name we don’t notice, let alone love. But if one is moved now and then to query a poet’s assertion, that is merely another way of engaging in that ongoing dialogue between the living and the dead that we call reading.

Stormcock is another name for the missel-thrush.

Women He Liked

Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Love horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.

For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.

Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.

Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

Edward Thomas

 

Week 283: The Owl, by Edward Thomas

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.

The Owl

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.

Edward Thomas

Week 232: The Sign-Post, by Edward Thomas

This Sunday, April 9th 1917, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, on the first day of the Battle of Arras. I will celebrate it with the first Edward Thomas poem that I ever came across, around the end of the nineteen-fifties. At that time Thomas was still far from having the iconic status among general poetry readers that he now enjoys, and he certainly hadn’t figured in my English teacher’s rather conservative version of the school curriculum, which stopped with that daring modernist Wordsworth (and let us never forget that Wordsworth was a daring modernist). But I fell in love at once with Thomas’s combination of close observation, natural speech rhythms and rueful self-examination.

The Sign-Post

The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.

One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould by
To be sixty by this same post. ‘You shall see,’
He laughed – and I had to join his laughter –
‘You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, –
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, –
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?

Edward Thomas

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

Week 55: Aspens, by Edward Thomas

I have been reading Matthew Hollis’s fine account of Edward Thomas’s last four years, ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’, and this seems a good time to feature another piece by the man who is perhaps not the greatest of twentieth-century English poets, but is certainly now among the most loved. Which might have surprised him: the biography paints a picture of a difficult, overburdened man whose capacity to inspire love was sometimes greater than his capacity to return it. I think that what we respond to is the core of absolute integrity in his life and work, that finally found its expression in poems like this that combine hauntingly precise observation of the natural world with wry self-analysis.


All day and all night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing –
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

Edward Thomas

Week 1: Over the Hills, by Edward Thomas

Over the Hills

Often and often it came back again
To mind, the day I passed the horizon ridge
To a new country, the path I had to find
By half-gaps that were stiles once in the hedge,
The pack of scarlet clouds running across
The harvest evening that seemed endless then
And after, and the inn where all were kind,
All were strangers. I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line. It became
Almost a habit through the year for me
To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night. Recall
Was vain: no more could the restless brook
Ever turn back and climb the waterfall
To the lake that rests and stirs not in its nook,
As in the hollow of the collar-bone
Under the mountain’s head of rush and stone.

Edward Thomas

This seems to be one of Edward Thomas’s less anthologised poems, but is one of my personal favourites. I love the harvest evening with its pack of scarlet clouds, and that wonderful image in the closing lines, even though I would be hard put to explain the exact depth of its resonance.