Poem of the week: The Thrush by Edward Thomas

A mellifluous lyric meditates carefully on what the songbird might be thinking

The Thrush

When Winter’s ahead,
What can you read in November
That you read in April
When Winter’s dead?

I hear the thrush, and I see
Him alone at the end of the lane
Near the bare poplar’s tip,
Singing continuously.

Is it more that you know
Than that, even as in April,
So in November,
Winter is gone that must go?

Or is all your lore
Not to call November November,
And April April,
And Winter Winter – no more?

But I know the months all,
And their sweet names, April,
May and June and October,
As you call and call

I must remember
What died into April
And consider what will be born
Of a fair November;

And April I love for what
It was born of, and November
For what it will die in,
What they are and what they are not,

While you love what is kind,
What you can sing in
And love and forget in
All that’s ahead and behind.

The first thing that seems unusual in this apparently traditional “nature poem” is the use of the verb “read” and its application to the months. The metaphorical meaning of read is probably more familiar to us than it was to Edward Thomas’s audience: at least it feels strangely contemporary in our age of “ecopoetry”: we have grown used to poets, though not thrushes, reading landscape as varieties of text.

Thomas goes on to respond to the bird in a more traditional way, through hearing and sight. There’s a beautifully precise and poignant description of the exact spot the thrush is occupying, “alone at the end of the lane / Near the bare poplar’s tip”. Then the grammatical perspective seems to shift, and the first person narrative about the bird (“I hear the thrush”) shifts to the vocative. Who else, in stanza three, could the “you” refer to? So the first stanza asks to be reread, and the second seems to become parenthetical. . Thomas was seemingly addressing the thrush, not only the reader or himself, in that first, quatrain-length question.

The question arises for the speaker because the bird doesn’t obviously “read” any difference: he sings on regardless, in November as in April.

Thomas may partly be conducting the conversation with himself, of course. At heart, the poem is an inquiry into different modes of consciousness, and how differently a bird and a person may perceive things. The thrush may know that winter will give way to spring, or simply not be influenced by the seasons as humans know them. His more instinctive “lore” (the term is perfectly chosen) may not include such distinctions. The speaker has a sharper knowledge, closer, perhaps, to “law”. He can name the months, and chants his litany of favourites in stanza five: “But I know the months all, / And their sweet names, April, / May and June and October …” This creates a vivid echo with the flatter emphases of the previous stanza, where, owning up to the educated tendency to call a spade a spade, Thomas makes bold use of repetition: unlike the thrush, perhaps, humans call “November November, / And April April, / And Winter Winter”.

Thomas makes no Romantic assumptions in his poetry. Here, he treats the themes which another poet might sentimentalise, in a characteristically quizzical way, nudging himself gradually towards optimism with: “I must remember / What died into April / And consider what will be born / Of a fair November.” It’s interesting that he qualifies November with “fair” – and perhaps he means something more than seasonal clemency by the adjective. November is fair in the sense that dying and death are fair, if necessities of rebirth and regrowth are to occur. Finally, poet and thrush find the amplitude in which to sing – and therefore, the space and tranquility to “love and forget in”. The poem avoids anthropomorphism: it finds, instead, the song-thrush in the man, and the thrush’s lore accessible to him despite his better knowledge, his closer reading.

The song-thrush has a varied and rather etiolated though liquidescent call: listening to it is like following a small stream descending unevenly over pebbles and making twists and turns echoed in sound. There’s another poem where Thomas talks about the “pure thrush word” – suggesting he likes, and even marvels at, the prosaic as well as the lyrical aspects of its voice. This poem, though, is pure word music: its sounds always emphasise the song.

Smart Devices: 52 Poems from the Guardian Poem of the Week, edited by Carol Rumens, is published by Carcanet. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Poem of the week: The Owl by Edward Thomas
The melancholy cry sounds an uneasy reminder of all those excluded from material comfort

Carol Rumens

01, Feb, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Words by Edward Thomas

This loose-limbed lyric on the elemental power of language seems rooted in a distinctly Welsh landscape

Carol Rumens

25, Feb, 2013 @10:51 AM

Poem of the week

Edward Thomas spent his last two years writing understated poetry that perfectly balances emotion and caution

Carol Rumens

25, Feb, 2008 @12:30 PM

Article image
Poem of the week: The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy

The hymn-like metre combines with the Romantic, Keatsian image of the thrush to produce one of Hardy's most lyrical poems

Carol Rumens

28, Dec, 2009 @11:07 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: All Day It Has Rained by Alun Lewis
The relaxed details of a slow Sunday at a military training camp in ‘Edward Thomas country’ mix with foreboding about what will follow

Carol Rumens

01, Jun, 2015 @9:46 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: The Opposite of Confidential by Claudine Toutoungi
A chorus of birds takes on the leading role in a poem exploring creativity and freedom of expression

Carol Rumens

26, Mar, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Slow Food by Thomas McCarthy
An Irish poet looks back, past the snobbish abundance of his country’s recently upended boom years, to the appalling suffering of the Great Famine

Carol Rumens

23, Jan, 2017 @11:27 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Self-Unconscious by Thomas Hardy
A curiously jaunty account of the bright life of nature a man misses while wrapped up in his plans

Carol Rumens

02, Jan, 2023 @10:59 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Sonnet to Vauxhall by Thomas Hood
A dazzling sonnet captures the fizz and excitement of a Victorian firework display at London’s celebrated pleasure gardens

Carol Rumens

27, Nov, 2017 @10:12 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: Poetry for Supper by RS Thomas
The contested virtues of spontaneity and slog, when it comes to producing art, spark off a lively pub debate

Carol Rumens

31, Oct, 2022 @10:50 AM