Poem of the week: The Owl by Edward Thomas

The melancholy cry sounds an uneasy reminder of all those excluded from material comfort

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 (1878-1917) is among my favourite poets, one of those whose revelations never become predictable (Emily Dickinson is another). Thomas, perhaps more stealthily, regularly delivers a surprise, a lyric poem which, if it were a gift, would be wrapped in honest, glitter-free brown paper. You open the parcel to find a poem which is so unexpectedly truthful and nuanced it suddenly seems hair-raising. The Thrush was the last Thomas poem featured here: this time, it’s The Owl.

The subject is not the bird, but the bird focuses the subject. Thomas isn’t concerned with revising anthropomorphic traditions relating to the owl. The cry is registered as mournful and ominous. The realism is moderated. It’s expressed in a surprising and brilliant evocation of the bird’s call.

The Shakespearean response to “Tu whoo; / Tu wit, tu whoo” as “a merry note” is challenged in the third stanza: “No merry note, nor cause of merriment.” The “most melancholy cry” is taken across the stanza-break, and “[s]haken out long and clear” over the poem’s soundscape. We hear the tremulous, “vibrato” quality of the sound, and know its ancient power to make men and field mice shiver. Perhaps, too, “shaken out … upon the hill” could be associated with a symbolic ripple of the flags and banners of war. The underlying significance of the poem, written in February 1915, is only hinted at the end, and by a single word, “soldiers”.

The first two stanzas are concerned with nuances of sensation that are also moral nuances. The narrator knows what it is to be cold, tired and hungry, but, as he tramps downhill, anticipating the relief of these discomforts, he admits they are only discomforts. The very briskness and bounce in the poem’s rhythmic step (iambic pentameter, with frequent dactyls) echoes the facts of health, hope and recovery. The second stanza finds the narrator safe in the inn, the night “barred out”. Only the owl’s cry penetrates the sanctuary, reminding him of those unable to find any escape from homelessness and hunger.

Matthew Hollis, in his illuminating biography of Thomas’s last years, explained that what preoccupied Thomas at the time was the matter of his enlistment. This is the painful thought the owl’s cry summons. The many repetitions in the poem suggest, perhaps, such an encircling obsession. But the narrative is less specific. Thomas describes his food and rest as “salted and sobered” because the owl is “[s]peaking for all who lay under the stars, / Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice”. The reference to (the) poor opens the poem out beyond its occasion, and beyond the first world war – in which Thomas was to die. The autobiographical voice initially underlines its honesty. But The Owl becomes something more by its final resistance to autobiography, by a kind of unselfishness, in fact. And so this short lyric reaches beyond limits of time, place and personality. It continues to summon a world we know, one in which too many people are at war, and far too many are destitute.

  • The article was adjusted on 2 February to correct the date of the poem’s composition to 1915.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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