Saturday, April 22, 2006

The borders of sleep

ed 6

In the gloom of whiteness,
In the great silence of snow,
A child was sighing
And bitterly saying: 'Oh,
They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast.'
And still it fell through that dusky brightness
On the child crying for the bird of the snow.

Edward Thomas is among the poets who were popular in the time of our great grandparents and nearly forgotten today. (Ernest Dowson, another, is not quite as obscure, if only because two of his phrases became well known through adoption: "gone with the wind" and "days of wine and roses.") There is a plainness about Thomas's style, too open and direct to allow much academic exegesis; even his name is ordinary, not one that clings to the mind. Born in 1878 to Welsh parents, he seems to have spent most of his career as a penny-a-liner journalist, and would probably never have turned to poetry had he not met and been encouraged by Robert Frost in 1913. The only thing dramatic about his life seems to have been his leaving of it.

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.

Thomas's poetry distills nature, but it isn't the patented sort of "nature poetry." While using the earth and its fruits as a metaphor quarry, Thomas doesn't engage in Wordsworth-derived symbolism. I have no idea what his religious views, if any, were, but his literary method at least doesn't enlist the natural order as a manifestation of the Spirit whose "dwelling is the light of setting suns." Thomas simply uses the forms of nature as an analogue of feelings, and he word paints them in watercolors or sketches them sparingly. The effects are almost haiku-like.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl's chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;
Nothing undone
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying good-night.

"Thomas's poetry is strengthening and consoling, not because it justifies God's ways to man or whispers of reunions beyond the grave, not because it presents great moral truths in memorable numbers, but in a more subtle and very much more effective way," Aldous Huxley wrote. "Thomas describes what is surely the characteristic emotion induced by a contact with nature -- a kind of exultant melancholy which is the nearest approach to quiet unpassionate happiness that the soul can know."

The green roads that end in the forest
Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,

Like marks left behind by some one gone to the forest
To show his track. But he has never come back.

Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest.
Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.

An old man along the green road to the forest
Strays from one, from another a child alone.

In the thicket bordering the forest,
All day long a thrush twiddles his song.

It is old, but the trees are young in the forest,
All but one like a castle keep, in the middle deep.

That oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see

The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

A good selection of Edward Thomas's work can be found at this artistically designed site created by Mike Cope, obviously as a labor of love. (I thank him for the photo collage at the head of this entry, which I am afraid I shamelessly pinched from him.)

It seems I have no tears left. They should have fallen --
Their ghosts, if ghosts have tears, did fall -- that day ...

The men, the music piercing that solitude
And silence, told me truths I had not dreamed,
And have forgotten since their beauty passed.

Edward Thomas volunteered for service in the Great War. While on duty, on April 9, 1917, he was killed in a shell bombardment. His collected poems were published posthumously in 1920.

I have come to the borders of sleep
The unfathomable deep
Forest, where all must lose
Their way, however straight
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

UPDATE 11/13/07: I see the link to Mike Cope's beautifully designed Web site of Thomas's poetry is cold. Here's another site that has the poems.

No comments: