Robert Frost didn't love many people, but one of the few he did love was Edward Thomas (1878-1917), a splendid English poet who has been underappreciated on our side of the Atlantic. The two met in England in 1913 and formed a lasting bond. Frost recognized the lyric element in Thomas's prose writings about nature and persuaded him to start writing poetry. ("Did anyone ever begin at 36 in the shade?" Thomas wondered.)
Thomas also began writing under the stimulus of World War I -- Frost said the war "made some kind of new man and a poet out of him." He called Thomas "the only brother I ever had," and penned a touching elegy for him, which begins:
I slumbered with your poems on my breast,
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb,
To see if in a dream they brought of you
I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.
Edward Thomas wrote 142 poems between December 1914 and April 1917, when he died in Flanders. He never saw a book of his poems in print. His poetry was triggered by his genuine love of the English countryside, his feeling for the unfathomable mysteries of nature. Prone to depression, he always delighted in what he called "this England." His friend Walter de la Mare remembered that "England's roads and heaths and woods, its secret haunts and solitudes, its houses, its people themselves resembling its thorns and 'juniper' its very flints and dust, were his freedom and his peace." Like Thomas Hardy, Thomas loved the oldest English poetry, traditional ballads and folk songs, which come down to us, he said, "imploring a new lease of life on the sweet earth."
Thomas wrote "The Owl" in February 1915, three months before enlisting. Ever since college, I have loved the dramatic clarity, the rhythmic poise and the spiritual balance of this impassioned poem that was first published under the title "Those Others."
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.
I'm moved by the scrupulous emotional precision of this poem about coming to a place of rest after a long winter tramp in the country. The speaker recognizes that he entered the inn hungry but not starved, cold but not frozen, tired but not so exhausted that rest was impossible. The owl's melancholy cry splits the poem in half. The first part is given over to a feeling of gratitude, the second to the speaker's recognition of his own privilege, of what he managed to escape but others could not. I especially like how Thomas savors the word "salted," which means "flavored" but also carries connotations of bitterness and tears, of open wounds. "The Owl" sounds a deep nocturnal note, and it demonstrates what de la Mare called Thomas's "compassionate and suffering heart."
(The two stanzas from Robert Frost's poem "To E.T." appear in "The Poetry of Robert Frost." Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright © 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1964, 1967 by Lesley Frost Ballantine. "The Owl" seems to be out of copyright. It appears in "The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas." W. W. Norton & Co. First American edition published in 1974 by arrangement with Faber & Faber Limited.)