A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Unknown Bird (5)

Since talk about birdsong is all over the internet at the moment (eg here), I thought I'd follow yesterday's poem about the oven bird with another bird poem — this time by Robert Frost's English friend and fellow poet, Edward Thomas. I've long admired and been moved by this poem, and have written about it before on my blog. When young I naively thought I might be able to pin this bird down. Now I realise it's an impossible task, of course. But, from time to time, I still hear its 'bodiless sweet' song, 'sad more than joyful', in my imagination and in my heart. And, for a moment, 'become light as that bird wandering beyond my shore'.  

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him:
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off -
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is - I told men
What I had heard.

I never knew a voice,
Man, beast or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
'Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straighway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.



Ruth Mowry said...


Isn't this a great example of letting go of the mind?

The Weaver of Grass said...

Another poem I didn't know Robert - and very beautiful too - as is all his work.

George said...

Terrific poem! Amazingly intimate encounter between bird and man. And here we find the perennial anthem for both species: "Twas sad only with joy too."

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, a lovely poem, Ruth and Pat — it somehow gets right inside you with its yearning and its melancholy, yet its redemption too. Joy tempered with sadness; sadness tempered with joy.

It's really wonderful, isn't it, George. Is the bird within or without the man? Perhaps both.