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

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Unknown Bird

As well as Dylan Thomas and R. S. Thomas, there is another poet called Thomas I like very much, and that is Edward Thomas (1878-1917). A somewhat melancholic and solitary figure, his life was cut tragically short when he was killed in action during the Battle of Arras in WWI. He scraped a living as a hack writer, producing reviews, nature essays, topographical works, even a novel - anything to earn a crust.

But his friend, the great American poet Robert Frost, encouraged him to uncover his true, literary talent - which lay in the writing of a type of unsentimental, acutely observant, rather melancholic nature poetry. His poems had a strong, posthumous influence on later English landscape and nature poets such as Ted Hughes. Thomas was a keen walker and walked through much of Southern England and Wales in his travels.

This poem, The Unknown Bird, is one of his finest poems, and one of my favourites:

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.

There's a hint of mysticism in this poem I find very appealing, a sense of something being just out of reach, a communion with a spirit in nature which can give momentary release from the pain and suffering of human life. This chimes in very much with the theme of my recent post A Gift From The Gods.


Anonymous said...

SW: Thanks for posting this lovely poem. Edward Thomas is one of my favourite poets (along with RS as well!). You have sent me scurrying for my copy of his 'Collected Poems'. I agree with you about the mystical quality of this and much of his work.

One of my own favourites by Edward T. is 'Adlestrop'. It has the quality of just leaving you alone with his vision and experience, which burns into your brain for all its apparant simplicity. Dannie Abse wrote a nice 'reply' to this poem called 'Not Adlestrop', which is well worth checking out.


The Solitary Walker said...

Did 3 posts on RST in early January - a very fine poet. Have a copy of his prose writings 'Autobiographies' here in front of me - yet another book I still haven't read, but am looking forward very much to reading!

I remember visiting Adlestrop a long time ago, sitting on the station bench there and recalling that poem, which, I agree, is a wonderful one, and made a lasting impression after first reading it when young. I like the way the movement of the poem goes from small, close-up details out onto a broader canvas, from an individual blackbird to '...all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire'.