Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Friday 6 February 2015

Edward Thomas: The Owl


Beautiful barred owl at Munroe Falls Metro Park #barredowl: image via Summit Metro Parks @metro_parks, 5 February 2015

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 (1878-1917): The Owl, from Poems (1917)

"@RicheyWoods: My favorite #Superb_Owl is the #BarredOwl" #barredowl: image via Go Mt. Charleston @ Go Mt. Charleston, 1 February 2015


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Very fine, thank you, Tom. I've been reading Trakl of late and they seem distant cousins in setting and tone.


Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore said...


There’s a ghostly white owl so white
its bones almost show

who flies along the margins of the night
looking not for forgetful mice or stray

baby voles but for open windows yellowish
rectangles of light in which are framed

very elegantly alert hearts leaning
forward toward something unseen eyes

open or closed books open or not but
space is shaped around them and

endless doors are open down endless corridors
and more in the distance are

opening as the corridor rises through a
silvery turquoise element that may or

may not be the sky
and these folks’ hearts elongate to a

distant spot that comes toward them
with a mercy so great only one

portion would alleviate all Africa and
China and one drop alone return the

sick to perfect health

And the owl sees this and is an
angel and tells his vision to the

other owls with similar pursuits and they are
also angels around God’s Throne

and the people thus engaged in their
solitude are not alone but at a

festive feast so well attended one’s
not sure there are any folk left one earth to

do their allotted labors

And this ghostly owl illumined from within
flies to the face of such a person and

from its small beak to the person’s
mouth drops a berry whose sweetness

would describe the best of what’s to be
found on the other side of death

then instead of continuing its flight
disintegrates into light

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, and very fitting for the season. So cold here, and the woods, full of owls.

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore said...

festive feast so well attended one’s
not sure there are any folk left on earth to

(small typo, sorry...)

TC said...

Thanks to all.

Cold here too, now, Nin -- or rather somewhat cold and very, very windy and wet -- that archetypal "dark and stormy night", but, of course, without the war added in, just bumper to bumper Friday evening rush hour traffic sluicing mercilessly up and down the Stygian freeway feeder.

Yes, Don, perhaps poor Trakl would have made a companionable cousin to poor Thomas, if only... -- marvelous poets that they both were, each in his own way.

Abdal-Hayy, that's a very beautiful ghost owl poem. Stopped me in my slow old tracks to marvel at the imaginal power of that small berry, the ghost owl's gift. ("I have brought a great ball of light," wrote Pound, quietly, near the end, addressing that Great Nobody who is finally the one and only audience we can all hope for, "Can you lift it?")

What moves me most in Edward Thomas's poem is the simple and surprising emergence of conscience and concern for others in a situation that would for many if not most people seem, perforce, to be all about themselves. (Well, I suppose "most people now" might be more accurate.)

In the poem that emergence is triggered by the call of an owl, and as someone who was a great lover of natural things and an extremely sensitive, practised observer of such things, Thomas would naturally have responded, and felt something, probably more acutely than in normal circumstances.

There is a kind of poetry that employs owls as symbols. This is not that kind. One presumes it marks the real call of a real owl, in a real situation that may have been more or less routine for the owl, but certainly, for the poet, cold, hungry, and exhausted, stranded in a strange place between ambient death and remembered life, was not routine at all. He's not "using" the owl, as might a "normal" poet on the lookout for a spooky effect. If one were to be caught alone in woods in a foreign landscape on a cold dark night and hearing the hoot of an owl, unseen echoing eerily in the preternatural silence between outbreaks of gunfire and explosions, one might well feel a bit spooked, even if there wasn't a horrendous meaningless war going on. Edward Thomas was a bright young Englishman of Welsh descent who in the years before the War wrote industriously and with no little sensitivity about the countryside and about books (especially poetry, which he loved but did not attempt until 1914). His practical kindness and active promotion had helped support the Welsh tramp poet W.H. Davies, whom Thomas housed for a time in a small house adjacent to his own in Kent, and for whom Thomas arranged the acquisition of an artificial leg. As a married man he could have avoided conscription when war came, but elected instead to do what he perceived as his duty, and went off to war. He died soon after his arrival at the front.

This is his listing in the Commonwealth Graves Registry.


Second Lieutenant
Date of Death:
Royal Garrison Artillery
244th Siege Bty.
Grave Reference:
C. 43.
Agny Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais
Additional Information:
Son of Philip Henry Thomas; husband of Helen Thomas. One of the War Poets.

Mose23 said...

Thinking on what you said about the owl's call, Tom, and how it calls him back to a brutal, material reality. Nature's calling out to us now, outlining a very real catastrophe and we go on deaf as anything.

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice

TC said...

It's the bringing the poor to the table at the end of the poem that surprises and causes things to open out in a way we perhaps had not expected.

The way nature calls out to us now would have the power of omen for certain, were we attuned.

Saw last night a sad waterlogged opossum, pale and thin, skulking beside the road, having been flushed from its hole by the sudden floods. These creatures are so exposed and vulnerable at the best of times, here in the city.

One would wish to see them able to rejoice just the once, along with the poor.