Pastoral


‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

NOTES

At dawn a sentry standing on duty pulls a poppy from the top of the trench he guards. A rat jumps over his hand. At first amused, the soldier reflects on the animal’s presence on the front line.

Break of Day in the Trenches: Dawn in the trenches was an important part of the soldier’s day: before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, when soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack. The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn, however, and in a thoughtful or whimsical frame of mind. Rosenberg himself described the poem in a letter to his friend Eddie Marsh as “a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk” (Stallworthy, p.165).

“The darkness crumbles away.”: As the poem begins, the night is ending, and, like the earth at the top of the trench, “crumbles away”. This is a poem that constantly reminds the reader of the presence of earth and dust: from the perspective of the rat who scurries close to the earth among the corpses, to the soldiers who are in constant close proximity to the dirt of the front— in life as in death.

“It is the same old druid Time as ever,”: the druids were the priesthood of the ancient British pagan religion. In his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Stallworthy writes that here “we can see the figure of Old Father Time personified as a druid (standing perhaps before a druidic sacrificial altar)” (p.166). Dawn, Stallworthy explains, was the customary time for druidic sacrifice— which, of course, was also often human sacrifice. Yet all this is conveyed with what seems like a light, popular allusion— a reference to the familiar image of Father Time, sickle in hand.

“Only a live thing leaps my hand, / A queer sardonic rat”: A rat appears and runs over the soldier’s hand. The rat is described whimsically: the soldier’s sense of surprise is followed by clear amusement at the animal’s peculiar (“queer”) expression, which suggests a mocking or scornful (“sardonic”) look. The rat is the first of two symbols that Rosenberg uses to subvert the pastoral mode in this poem. In the pastoral nature is idealized and opposed to the corruption of the world of men: a typical example might be Shelley’s ‘To a Syklark’. In ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, on the other hand, it is the much-loathed rat who seems to be contemplating men— as Paul Fussell notes, “perfectly aware of the irony in the… [swapping] of human and animal roles”.

“As I pull the parapet’s poppy / To stick behind my ear”: The second focus of contemplation in the poem is a flower— a poppy growing out of the parapet (that is, the top of the trench wall). The soldier pulls the poppy from the earth and places it behind his ear. The poppy, of course, is a familiar symbol of war: its redness, above all, being associated with the blood of dead soldiers (see my notes for ‘In Flanders Fields’, below). There seems something romantic, amused, even devil-may-care about the soldier’s unsoldierly gesture: more suitable perhaps to the actions of a young boy, or a lover. Note the alliteration here, whose ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ may suggest the sound of far-off gunfire.

“Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies”: The rat seems oddly amused (“droll’). Here the voice of the poem becomes directed towards the rat, addressing him wryly. The rat has more freedom than the soldier who is subject to military laws that forbid fraternisation with the enemy. If the soldier shared the same “cosmopolitan sympathies” as the rat— to be ‘cosmopolitan’ means to be careless of nationality or affiliation when approaching others— then he would be shot.

“Now you have touched this English hand…”: The rat is free to roam, and the soldier seems to take pleasure in its carelessness about Nationality. Remember that Rosenberg hated the war and the army with a particular passion, fighting only for money to help his family. Rosenberg, a working-class, Jewish poet-artist, was doubtless used to being an outsider, due to his class, race and creative inclination. His ironic identification with the hated trench-rat is very much a source of the poem’s power: it allows a kind of grim objectivity regarding human affairs to be expressed in an almost playful, leavened tone.

“Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”: Blake’s Songs are once again referenced here by Rosenberg, as in ‘On Receiving News of the War’. Here the reference to “the sleeping green between” recalls Blake’s poem ‘The Ecchoing Green’ (Blake’s spelling).  Note the easy colloquial tone of the writing here, with its affirmative asides: “…soon, no doubt, if…”.

“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass / Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes”: the rat seems aware of the irony that he, normally the subject to man’s dominion, now wanders freely amongst the bodies of the dead. These are the same idealised, classical bodies that Brooke seems to evoke in ‘Peace’: well-sculpted men of “sharpened power”, now broken in death. Their bodies here, lying in the dirt, seem to figure the end of one ideal of heroic manhood: but perhaps also the collapse of Western civilization.

“Bonds to the whims of murder”: the dead men were tied (“bonds”) to the seemingly  arbitrary commands of those who directed them to ‘murder’— a strong word, this, in connection with soldiering.

“Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.”: the soldier’s corpses are metaphorically described as lying within the earth’s guts; a metaphor that seems extended by the image of France’s ‘torn’ fields, and the sense that the country has been violently eviscerated by the war.

“What do you see in our eyes…?”: the poem now becomes interrogative. This passage particularly recalls William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. ‘The Tyger’ interrogates how it can be that such a deadly creature as the tiger could be created by a ‘good’ God. The questioning here and the elemental imagery describing battle (“shrieking iron and flame / Hurled through still heavens”) echoes much in Blake’s poem, but most clearly perhaps the apocalyptic fifth verse after the creation of the tiger: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears, / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The rat is an emblem of death, like the tiger; but the heavier condemnation for both creature’s existence seems to fall on those agents in both poems that allow them to be or flourish— God in Blake’s poem, man’s violence in Rosenberg’s.

“What quaver— what heart aghast?”: Again, Blakean syntax here (that is, the line is constructed in such a way that it recalls William Blake’s writing). Does the rat see fear (a “quaver”) in men’s eyes? Or perhaps the rat sees terror (“heart aghast”) within?

“Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping;”: the poem concludes with a clever return to the flower which the soldier picked from the parapet at the poem’s beginning. The reference to poppies “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is a return to the old notion that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers. Like the poppy that the soldier in the poem picked (thus killing it), these poppies continually “drop”: like the dead soldiers who nourish them.

“But mine in my ear is safe— just a little white with the dust.”: for a little while, the poppy behind the soldier’s ear is safe, declares the soldier. There is an irony to this, however: the poppy plucked from the earth is now dying. The whitening of the dust seems to signify the beginning of this journey towards death. The soldier’s observation seems aware of the irony:  that man’s actions mean that safety is unlikely— that the “dropping” of another poppy is at best delayed for the short while this dawn scene lasts.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is one of the most richly associative in the whole anthology: Jon Stallworthy has himself written that this is one of his favourite First World War poems. It straddles many areas of interest for students: it plays with the pastoral mode; it subverts symbols conventionally associated with the war (rats and poppies); it does so in a realistic way, giving a strong flavour of everyday life for soldiers in the trenches; it contains its own implied critique of the classical, ‘heroic’, muscular values prevalent before the war; and it has strong mythic overtones. It is indeed one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, and expresses the momentary pleasures and everyday horror of the war without sentimentality. I always feel that ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a key poem in Stallworthy’s anthology; it is a poem that can be linked to many of the other poems in the collection, both good and bad.]

‘To His Love’

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

NOTES

This poem is a monologue, in which one soldier speaks to the fiancé or girlfriend of a dead soldier of his death— mourning his loss and regretting that he will never have the pleasure of the dead soldier’s company again. The poem was inspired by the supposed death of Ivor Gurney’s best friend Willy Harvey in August 1916. Reality told a happier story than the drama described in the poem: Harvey was not in fact killed, but had been made a prisoner of war, returning to his fiancé Sarah Kane at the end of the war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four stanzas of five lines, comprising three lines of free verse (ABC) and a rhyming couplet (DD). One of the most interesting things about this poem, however, is its exemplary use of alliteration (repetition of consonants for effect) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds for effect). It is a musical poem, structured by soft sound, throughout using the ‘oh’, ‘oo’, ‘uh’ sounds denoted by the letter ‘O’, but also using ‘I’ and ‘E’ sounds to create different effects. For example, the effect of the varied ‘O’ sounds is mournful; the drawn-out vowels of ‘Ee’ slow the pace of the poem down. Alliteration, found in all four stanzas, also provides an elusive rhythm to the poem. In the first verse, for example, sibilance gives the opening a sound of susurration, of whispering.

Ivor Gurney: A Gloucester man, Ivor Gurney was a talented young composer before joining the army in 1914, seemingly destined for success. He was bipolar and suffered from manic depression. He loved the Gloucester countryside and would go on ecstatic walks there, but also had two major nervous breakdowns, the first before the war (1913) and the second at the very end of the war (1918). He was suicidal during both and was discharged in 1918. His life was tragic after the end of the war: he was admitted to an insane asylum in 1922 and stayed there until he died in 1937.

To His Love: The poem addresses the lover of the soldier who has died.

“He’s gone… useless indeed”: A blunt and mournful statement of loss; a sense that all earlier plans have been destroyed.

“We’ll walk no more on Cotswold / Where the sheep feed / Quietly…”: the Cotswolds are a famously beautiful part of the English countryside, near where Gurney grew up. Like many of the WWI poets, nature and the countryside provided consoling memories and inspiration, when contrasted to the horrors of war.

“so quick”: quick here takes its older meaning, ‘full of life’.

“His body… is not as you knew it”: The sinister connotations of this euphemism— that the soldier’s body has been maimed or blown apart— provides a grisly hint of what has happened to the soldier at the hands of mechanized weapons, probably shelling.

“on Severn river / Under the blue…”: A powerful contrast between this peaceful image and the horror of what has happened to the soldier. Peaceful and horrific memories struggle with each other here (the Severn is the river that runs through Gloucestershire. Gurney contrasted two rivers in the title of his first poetry collection, Severn and Somme, with broadly the same meaning).

“You would not know him now…”: The ellipsis here seems to suggest that the speaker doesn’t want to pursue that description of the soldier’s body when talking to his lover. Note the subdued tone the varying ‘O’ sounds give the line; and the way the the ‘n’s give the line a stuttering rhythm. This ingenious use of alliteration and assonance can be traced throughout the poem.

“he died / Nobly”: the speaker quickly turns from thinking of the dead body to the noble manner of his death– doing his duty with chivalry.

“cover him over / With violets of pride / Purple”: The flowers will cover him like a shroud. The purple of the violets, like the soldier “from Severn side”, symbolise pride as purple is a colour associated with kingship.

“Cover him, cover him soon!”: The exclaimed repetition of ‘cover him’ shows the desperation and revulsion of the speaker.

“with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers—” The flowers must cover him ‘thickly’ to hide the horror of the body underneath. Memories of the man fight against the traumatic image of the maimed body: the flowers symbolising happier times on the Severn. This is also, in psychological terms, an account of what Freud termed repression: to turn away from, censor or bury a memory.

“Hide that red wet  / Thing”: The imprecision of description of the ‘red wet Thing’— his friend’s bloody and maimed body— suggests the unspeakable violence done to it.

“I must somehow forget”: The last word demonstrates the tension between remembrance and forgetting that the poem says is necessary for all soldiers who have seen the consequences of bloody combat.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Gurney is among the group of British Soldier-Poet ‘greats’ that Stallworthy places together in the middle of his selection of WWI poets. His biography seems important to this selection: Gurney’s subsequent madness makes this a poignant choice of a poem about dealing with the horrors of war; the musicality of the poem, with its use of assonance and alliteration, is also appropriate to the life of this composer.]

‘As the Team’s Head Brass’

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

NOTES

As a couple walk together into the wood beyond, a walker rests at the edge of a field. There, a farmer is methodically ploughing his fields with a team of horses, and the narrator and farmer fall into conversation about the war.

As the Team’s Head Brass: the ‘team’ are a pair of horses led by the farmer, pulling a plough. The farmer is preparing his land for the sowing of crops; in some ways, this seems to be a timeless agricultural scene. The “head brass” are the metal bridles around the horses’ heads that allow the horses to be led.

STRUCTURE: This is a narrative poem— it tells a short story. It is written in Iambic Pentameter, and has, I think, a Shakespearian feel to it: everyday events and dialogue are elevated to high poetry by Thomas’ feel for the significance of small things.

“As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn”: time is important in this poem. The poem throws us into events immediately occurring. The flash of the brass in the sunlight as the horses turn at near end of the field punctuates the poem.

“The lovers disappeared into the wood.”: Lovers appear again as key figures in a Thomas poem. We only see them at the beginning and the end of the poem, but they are important symbols of love and life. In ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ the absence of lovers is a terrible loss; in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ their fleeting presence is a cause for optimism and hope.

“I sat… and watched”: the peaceful watching of the narrator as time passes by gives this poem a thoughtful, ponderous tone.

“the fallen elm / That strewed the angle of a fallow”: the narrator sits on a fallen tree that lies on unploughed (“fallow”) land. The narrator views the farmer working the field just as he views the war in this poem; from the side, at an angle to events.

“Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square of charlock”: charlock, or wild mustard, is a weed that must be cleared on arable land for farming. Thomas’ description of the “yellow square” of weed is precise and vivid. This poem utilises pastoral conventions— for example, suggesting at first the peace of the country as opposed to the war beyond— but only does so to subvert those conventions through a realistic depiction of the effects of the war. English agriculture had been in a long, steep decline since the mid-Victorian age. The countryside was a difficult place to live in 1916: this fact, rather than an idealization of the country life, comes through in Thomas’ poem.

“the ploughman leaned… About the weather, next about the war.”: the farmer turns his horses to work back up the field when he reaches the narrator. They exchange pleasantries, and talk about the war.

“Scraping the share… till the brass flashed / Once more.”: the “share” is the ploughshare, or blade that turns over the ground. He turns over the earth as he ploughs his lines along the field, ‘screwing’ “along the furrow”. When the farmer begins to return towards the narrator, the horses’ bridle flashes as it catches the sun. This flashing punctuates the poem, giving a sense of the slowness of rural rhythms.

“The blizzard felled the elm…”: Thomas preserves the iambic pentameter here as he moves forward in his narrative, beginning a new line below. There is a sense of time having passed, but also of continuity. With the blizzard and the fallen tree, Thomas introduces an image of a mishap caused by natural forces.

“‘When will they take it away?’ / ‘When the war’s over.’”: the dialogue between the farmer and narrator introduces the war for the first time. War and good husbandry seem to be contrasted.

“One minute and an interval of ten…”: the rhythm of the encounter is slow, punctuated by work. The repetition emphasises this.

“Have you been out?’…”: an interesting and wryly humorous conversation begins between the two. The narrator’s answer that he would join up “If I could only come back again…” shows the easiness of the two’s conversation. There is no pretence here, no mock-heroism. There is an almost documentary feeling here, and the absurd, self-deprecating humour of the watching narrator belies the seriousness of the following conversation.

“Only two teams work on the farm this year…”: the significance of the single farmer working this large field is made clear by the manpower shortage caused by the war. This practical aspect is made immediately personal by the farmer’s dead friend.

“The second day / In France they killed him”: this swift killing of new recruits was sadly common; new soldiers often made mistakes that exposed them to enemy fire. Sadly, Edward Thomas himself was one of these unlucky recruits, dying very soon after seeing action.

“The very night of the blizzard, too”: as in ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, Thomas is again effective in making the presence of certain things in nature (a fallen tree) represent the absence of human beings (the man who was killed on the same night that it fell). Similarly, the blizzard here becomes linked in its devastating power to the effects of the fighting on the front.

“Now if he had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”: this irony is really at the heart of the poem’s narrative. The tragedy of the farmer’s friend’s death is relayed in an unsentimental, factual way. A sense of the unremitting pressures of the farmer’s life comes through, perhaps, in his resigned attitude.

“And I should not have sat here… it would have been another world”: Thomas cleverly uses this tree to emphasise the tragedy of lost possibilities that the war has brought. There is a philosophical air to this reflection on change and loss. As we have seen in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, this sense that the world has changed for the worse is insisted on through the small details of life that have been affected by the war.

“Ay, and a better, though if we could see all all might seem good’”: a better world has been lost, agrees the farmer; though he proposes optimistically, as a form of consolation, that in the broader view the loss of his friend might be explained for the good. This comforting faith is the last thing said between the farmer and the narrator.

“Then the lovers came out of the wood again:”: the reappearance of the lovers seems to reinforce this sense of hope near the poems end, yet the final three lines work to subtly undermine this.

“…for the last time / I watched the clods crumble and topple over”: the absorption of the narrator in the action of the plough now seems linked to change, and by extension, the war. The crumbling clods of earth and their toppling as they fall from the plough suggest the change in the world wrought by humans; perhaps also suggesting the falling of men to earth in fields abroad.

“…the stumbling team.”: the “stumbling” of the team suggest the difficulty the farmer continues to face, but also of course the loose footing of life itself.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem describes events similar to that Hardy describes in ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ (p.161) but are quite different in tenor. Where Hardy generalises and hardly touches on the actual effects of the war occurring abroad, Thomas is careful to construct a more contemporary encounter that is arguably more powerful because of the understatement of its message.]

‘Rain’

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.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

NOTES

In this poem Thomas lies awake at night, listening to the rain falling onto the roof of the hut that he rests within. The rain and the poet’s solitude prompt thoughts of those soldiers who are exposed to danger and death in the world outside.

Rain: This poem lies within a tradition of Romantic poetry wherein the solitary poet, contemplating or moved by nature, finds himself in connection with a wider world. Romanticism is one of the most broad and influential of all artistic and literary movements, beginning during the second half of the eighteenth century, and placing great emphasis on individual insight, feelings and imagination as a means of understanding the world. The Romantics revered nature as a source of beauty and ‘numinous’ experience— in nature they sensed the sacred, or God. ‘The Sublime’ was the name that was given for this sensation of connecting with a broader, more profound spiritual reality.

The rain in ‘Rain’, then, is a part of nature that allows the thoughtful and inward-contemplating Thomas to connect with the wider world (just as, for example, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Eolean Harp’, the wind playing on harp strings prompts the poet to wonder if he responds to nature similarly). Like the Romantics, Thomas finds an inspiration in nature that leads him via his memories, emotions and thoughts to a new understanding of the world around him. Where he diverges most clearly from the Romantics in ‘Rain’ is an absence of the sublime, or an explicitly spiritual dimension. Instead, in the contemplation of his death and that of others, this late Romantic poem embraces existential questions and modern alienation– in other words, the problem of finding a meaning for human existence in a seemingly hostile world.

STRUCTURE: ‘Rain’ is written in blank verse— Iambic Pentameter without rhyme. This is one of the most common verse forms in English, but Thomas experiments with it very effectively. He plays with the rhythm and intensity of each line through a number of different means, each intended to give a sense of the increasing and decreasing intensity of the rain on the sounding walls of the hut, and the poet’s response to this. To create this effect, Thomas uses repetition, clever internal rhyming and also uses the spondee— a metre where two syllables within a foot have equal weight. Another feature of the poem is that it is a monologue, giving us entry into Thomas’ thoughts in solitude, in which the reader is an implied listener— ‘hearing’ the immediate fears and thoughts of the poet.

“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain…”: The poem opens describing a rainstorm at night in the kind of plain, conversational language that is a feature of the poem. In lyric poetry the use of rain to suggest sadness and melancholy might ordinarily be thought clichéd: Thomas is careful, then, to convey his thought and sensations in deliberately pared-down, simple terms. The poem’s tone is as a consequence disarmingly open, even confessional. This line introduces two important technical features of the poem. The first is the repetition of words— “rain” here, but also “solitude”, and “love”— that becomes a feature of the poem. “Rain” alone is repeated throughout the poem seven times, and in this first line as later, the repetition conveys not only the insistent force of the rainstorm outside but the also heightened consciousness of the listener. The second feature is the rhythmical variation in this and other lines. The regularity of the iambic pentameter is often challenged by the use of repeated stresses. Here Thomas uses spondee, that is, stressing two syllables in a row, and in poetry the effect of this is often to slow down the pace of a line. Along with the pauses denoted by the commas in the opening line, this gives the effect of a quickening and slowing of pace— the sort of rhythm you might hear as you listen to sheets of rain against your roof or window in a blustery storm. So the line scans something like this: “RAIN, MIDnight RAIN, NOTHing BUT the WILD RAIN…”. Thomas connects this insistent and slow spondee rhythm with the word “rain”: as with “wild rain” here (repeated again at the end of the poem).

“On this bleak hut, and solitude…”: the poem begins with a melancholic, contemplative tone. “Rain”, “nothing”, “bleak”, “solitude”, “me”: these words suggest the introspective, lonely and rather depressed nature of Thomas’ thoughts. As critic Bernard Bergonzi points out in ‘Heroes Twilight’, Thomas talked of his “elaborate self consciousness” which one perceptive doctor recognized led him to depression and illness (p. 79). Note, indeed, the complicated elaboration on his thoughts and feelings over these first six lines: Thomas using enjambement to convey the flow of his conscious mind.

“…and me / Remembering again that I shall die…”: Thomas’ solitude, with a heightened consciousness of his surroundings and himself, brings about what is known as an epiphany— a sudden realisation of profound meaning— in Thomas’ recollection of his own mortality.

“And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks…”: the oblivion of death is contrasted to the gift of life. Thomas’ awareness of the falling rain leads to a heightened perception of the world beyond himself.

“For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude.”: The image used here is one of ritual cleansing, or ablution. Ablutions— cleaning oneself with intent to purify the self or honour a god— are common rituals in the world’s religions. In this sense the rain comes as a blessing to Thomas; it first awakens him to a consciousness of death, but then provides consolation as a sign of life. Thomas’ deepening sense of a life-long loneliness, however, is emphasised by his second reference to “solitude”.

“Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:”: Thomas pursues the idea of rain being an ablution with the image of rain blessing the dead, and thus cleansing them of sin. Note the spondee here, “rain rains”: conveying the weight of the rain through a repetition of sense and slowing of rhythm.

“But here I pray that none whom once I loved”: Thomas reverts in this line to regular iambic pentameter. The effect is to move from the heightened consciousness of the rain against the roof of the hut— the thrumming that is outside Thomas’ control while the “rain rains”— to a more measured prayer, thus conveying Thomas’ effort of self-control.

“Is dying tonight or lying still awake”: the internal rhyming here— “dying” with “lying”— subtly suggests the rhythmic sheets of rain on the roof, while Thomas’s mind is drawn to those caught outside in the deluge. Thomas is, of course, thinking of those soldiers serving abroad. The rain first led Thomas into isolated self-examination and thoughts of death: his spirit however rebelled, embracing the rain and the living world beyond. This feeling does not last long, however. He is forced into sympathy with those like him: awake in the rainstorm, and conscious of death.

“Solitary, listening to the rain, / Either in pain or thus in sympathy”: Thomas’ own isolation— “solitary” is repeated for a third time here— draws him into agonized kinship with soldiers whom he has known (“whom once I loved”) and the possibility that they are exposed to the rain, whether injured or alone on duty. Thomas again uses internal rhyming here— “rain” and “pain”— to create an echo of the sounding rhythm of the rain. The rhyme also perhaps signifies the growing linkage of the two ideas in Thomas’ mind.

“Helpless among the living and the dead,”: Thomas’s pity here, his reaching out to the exposed and the injured, contains a sense of self-consciousness too, of his own helplessness.

“Like a cold water among broken reeds… all still and stiff / Like me…”: a key simile here, where Thomas pictures those exposed in the rain on the battlefield as being “like a cold water”. This conceit develops the central figure of rain. Rain has brought Thomas to a consciousness of isolation and death, but it has also signified life, and his consciousness of it has encouraged his connection with the wider world. Yet opposed to its vital energy— with which Thomas has carefully suffused the poem and its rhythms— is this image of those whom the rain falls upon. They are imagined as water at rest, cold and without life, “among broken reeds”. These countless broken reeds (“myriads”) are themselves images of broken men (the image is biblical: from Isaiah 36:6). This is an image of abjection, that is, of having fallen to the lowest possible state, of being cast down into suffering. Thomas’ imagination encompasses both the dead and these dying men caught in the rain— he too shares this feeling of abjection. Note the alliteration and assonance Thomas uses— “all still and stiff”— to maintain the strong rhythms of this poem.

“Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved…”: Thomas expresses his kinship with the suffering (“like me”). Previously in the poem Thomas has dwelt on solitude and the rain that has awakened him to a consciousness of both life and death. At the end of the poem, Thomas becomes interested in the role of “love”, the word repeated twice in the lines following. Thomas asserts that the rain has “dissolved” his love: note the continuing use of watery metaphors, as the rain seem to lead to a dissolution of Thomas’ sense of self, of his capacity for love. In literary terms, this is an interesting turn: the rain at the end of the poem is not a clichéd Romantic symbol: it is a kind of solvent for the soul, dissolving the self.

“…except the love of death, / If love it be towards what is perfect…”: the idea that only a “love of death” remains after the self has been stripped away is disturbing, even doubtful (“if love it be”), but Thomas seems to accept oblivion with a cold appreciation of his emotional circumstances. The “love of death” would later, in fact, gain a place in psychological theory. After studying the trauma victims of the Great War, Freud became interested in this drive towards self-oblivion, which he called Thanatos, the death-drive. Freud later developed the idea that this secret drive within the self, opposed to the preserving instinct for life, sought the peace of non-being. Something like a wish for this “perfect” consolation of complete oblivion seems to be conclusion of Thomas at the end of the poem. This is not to say that this poem contains a suicidal wish at the end: rather a wish for non-being, for being out of the world— out of the rain.

“…and / Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.”: the rainstorm, or “tempest”, has brought Thomas a vision of the nature of both life and death— it has spoken to him (“tells me”) and given a glimpse of death that is at once bleak (because like “cold water” it is inert and without life and energy) and yet consoling (because it has “dissolved” conflict).

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Apologies to my A-level scholars for the length of these notes, but I have found this a very difficult poem to be brief on. As a poem that both uses and transforms the pastoral mode— contemplating war indirectly through natural forms— this poem bears interesting comparison to Robert Frost’s ‘Range-Finding’. Frost, of course, was a prime influence in Thomas becoming a poet: neither fought before writing their poetry about the conflict but nonetheless approached the war in novel ways. This poem can be compared with ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley and ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen for the different ways in which each of these poems philosophically examine the relationship of the living to death and the dead.]

‘The Cherry Trees’

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

NOTES

This is another short but profound poem about the fallen cherry blossom on a road, prompting a meditation that links flowers, love and loss.

STRUCTURE: An elegaic stanza– see notes for ‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’.

The Cherry Trees: In this poem Thomas describes the cherry trees shedding their blossom. In England the flowers tend to bloom for three or four weeks after they flower in April, so once again, this a poem set during a late English spring, here in May— the associations of life and home here providing a strong contrast to the war abroad. This poem may be a response to an earlier poet’s short poem about the flowering of cherry trees: A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ (1896). You can read Housman’s fine poem at Bartleby, here. Hausman’s poem is full of humour and promise; Thomas’ dwells on tragedy and loss. Both are suitable to the story of Easter, in which Christ dies, and is born again.

“The Cherry Trees bend over and are shedding…”: The trees, as throughout the poem, are given human qualities; they “bend over” here, like old men or women, or perhaps exhausted soldiers. The ‘shedding’ of cherry blossom occurs just weeks after blooming; if they are a symbol of abundant and beautiful life, they are also a sign that life is fleeting.

“On the old road where all that passed are dead,”: the ‘old road’ again has symbolic weight. As in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’, Thomas is using traditional poetic symbols here for the journey of life; the notion of “passing”, so familiar to us now that it is a euphemistic cliché, derives from this symbolism. Thomas is quite literal, however: the soldiers who marched past on this road are indeed dead.

“Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding”: The blossom appears like confetti on the grass, as if scattered by human hands (“strewing”). This is a striking and powerful simile (“as”), mixing together images of life and love (flowers, a wedding), and death (the blossoms fall because flowering has ended).

“This early May morn where there is none to wed.”: The final line is devastating. The “early May morn” in the quiet English countryside becomes a reminder of the thousands of deaths occurring abroad, leaving “none to wed”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Another poem by Thomas that contemplates the pain of absence and loss. It again features the motif of absent or disappeared lovers, as in ‘In Memoriam’ (p.79) and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (p.179). Ivor Gurney similiarly explores the effect of war on lovers in ‘To His Love’ (p.181) and the same subject is touched on in Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

NOTES

This is a short poem of reflection: the presence of flowers in a wood prompt mourning for a richer and happier world, lost forever because of the war.

Edward Thomas: Edward Thomas was a prolific reviewer and writer before the outbreak of World War One— a man drawn to the beauty of the English countryside, who found in nature and rural life a source of deep inspiration for his work. Thomas lived in Earlsfield with his family after he and his wife defied their parents’ wishes and married. They were thrown into genteel poverty, and Thomas wrote copious literary reviews and books to sustain his family. Thomas wrote some notable books about rural life and the English countryside, only discovering poetry late on in his life, at the urgings of an American poet, Robert Frost (see ‘Range-Finding’). When war broke out Thomas (a middle-aged man of thirty-nine with a young family dependent on him) had doubts about joining up. In 1915 he did enlist, and was soon promoted to the position of officer. Before travelling to France, Thomas wrote all of the poems for which he is now famous; tragically, he was killed almost as soon as he saw action, killed in the Battle of Arras, 1917.

STRUCTURE: A simple poem of iambic pentameters in alternating rhyme, ABAB, known as an elegaic stanza (an elegy is a mournful or melancholic poem, most often written for the dead).  Part of the craft of this poem can be found in the suggestive rhyme. ‘Wood’ is rhymed with ‘should’. ‘Wood’, of course, is a homophone for ‘would’: and the poem is deeply concerned with what would have been— and what should have been. Similarly the rhyme ‘men’ and ‘again’ are linked; a hopeful possibility the poem ultimately closes off for the reader.

In Memorium (Easter 1915): ‘In Memorium’ shows this to be a poem of remembrance. Easter, when the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated, is the most important date in the Christian calendar; a time for reflection on sacrifices made. As Professor Tim Kendall reports on his website, this title was an editor’s later addition, the poem originally going untitled.

“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide…”: A pastoral scene; Thomas felt an intense connection with nature, as did many of the Georgian poets. It is spring; the woodland floor is “thick” with life. “Nightfall” however hints at a shadow cast over the scene this Easter.

“…call into mind the men, / Now far from home…”: the presence of the flowers (and new life) reminds the poet of an absence: that of the soldiers who are abroad.

“…who, with their sweethearts, should have gathered them…”: the poet’s recollection of the soldiers who have gone becomes intensified by the recognition that the loss of men means an end to lover’s walks, or even the possibility of love. What is mourned here is the loss of those who, together, give to this beautiful scene meaning.

“and will do never again.”: A bleak conclusion, with a terrible sense of loss; some relationships are ended forever by the war, and some relationships that might have been, never shall be.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem has a haiku-like simplicity; its draws its power from its brevity and the profound observation that the presence of the beautiful flowers signifies the absence of lovers, and so a loss of profound meaning and happiness in the world. Thomas offers the reader a glimpse of a happier world, to make clearer the true horror of the war.]

‘Range-Finding’

The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

NOTES

This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.

Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.

First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.

“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.

“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.

“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.

Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.

“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.

“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]