Channel: Poetry | The Guardian
Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3733

Poem of the week: Words by Edward Thomas


This loose-limbed lyric on the elemental power of language seems rooted in a distinctly Welsh landscape

Poets choose their words with the utmost care, don't they? "The best words in the best order" and all that? In this week's poem, "Words", Edward Thomas echoes John Keats rather than Coleridge, calling on words to choose him. This is perhaps extreme negative capability.

But, despite Keats, and although Thomas is specifically addressing "English words", it's a poem that seems unusually attuned to the London-born poet's Celtic origins.

Both his parents were, as he said, "mainly Welsh", and he spent numerous holidays in Wales. He formed friendships there, a significant one being with the poet and preacher John Jenkins, known by his bardic name, Gwili. There's an entrancement with language and rhythm, a generally elevated tone, and a concern with national identity in "Words" which carry echoes from Welsh poetry, past and future.

Thomas may have known little of his forebears' language, but he certainly heard Welsh spoken, and, with Gwili's help, he made notes on Welsh verse-forms. Whatever cadences he was imagining as he wrote it, the long sentence comprising the first stanza is curiously un-English. It begins with a subordinate clause. It then brilliantly employs what I'd call a rhetoric of postponement. The adverb "sometimes" makes us wait, and the conceit of the winds whistling of "joy or pain" makes us wait longer. The inversion ("their joy or pain/ to whistle through") further complicates the syntax. These seeming distractions legitimise the repetition of the all-important verb "choose". His question is "Will you choose me, English words?" but he has so played the sentence that, by the time we reach its end, we hear an imperative: "Choose me, English words." The most significant word, "me", is the one that has no rhyme.

Rhymes are thickly strewn, but not enforced by symmetrical pattern. Their chimes are sometimes distant – all/wall, for instance, six lines apart in the first stanza. The non-rhymes are as deliberately plotted as the rhymes themselves really are, but this casual-seeming technique increases the sense that "Words" is more free of fixings than fixed, a kind of meandering stream or dry-stone wall of a poem. And this is surely the intended effect. Words, compared significantly to the wind, are treated as an elemental, and also nearly supernatural, force.

The second stanza is looser than the first, and at times more impressionistic than precise. "Light as dreams" and "tough as oak" make an effective antithesis, as, more subtly, do "poppies" and "corn" but "precious as gold" is less compelling, and the addition of the "old cloak" barely gets away with such obvious rhyme-reaching. The bards seem to hover again, exalted and be-robed. Thomas's adjectives, sweet, strange, dear, etc, and the superlatives, dearest, oldest, are catch-all words – vague but highly emotive. He enjoys playing grammatical variations on them, and the pun-paradox "worn new" confirms the exuberance.

But the poem often out-sings its logic. Why are English words "familiar as lost homes are"? It's a lovely and thought-provoking line but how, for an English poet, can English words suggest lost homes? Could he really thinking at this moment of the Welsh language – which might, in other circumstances, have been his mother tongue?

The comparatives of the second stanza form a landscape – old hills, newly swollen streams – but why are these features specifically English? Isn't it sentimental to suggest they are? They might just as well belong to Wales as to England. And how do English words (or the words of any nation) prove love of earth?

I think at this point Thomas has moved instinctively from language to identity. "Make me content/ With some sweetness/ From Wales" clarifies the shift. He's no longer talking about linguistic influence so much as his own heredity. Perhaps the intended move to America triggers the quest. The poem's uncharacteristic buoyancy may well reflect the optimism Thomas felt in 1915 as he made those never-fulfilled plans of joining Robert Frost in New Hampshire. But, besides the optimism, there's anxiety at the prospect of losing his native landscapes. Words, grounded in locality, may no longer come to him. This fear might explain the earlier preoccupation with familiar strangeness and the old made new.

There's a nice, humorous little tribute to Welsh poets in stanza three: they sing like wingless, ie human, nightingales. (Could he be thinking of Gwili, in particular?) But the "sweetness" he asks to be content with, doesn't end with Wales: the sentence continues with three English counties ("and the villages there"), including Thomas's favourite Wiltshire. Deeply explored in his writing, and part of his identity, none of these beloved English places is, however, specifically connected in the poem to actual words. The reference to "the names, and the things/ No less" is, of course, evocative: we imagine farm implements, wildflowers like the "burnet rose" mentioned earlier, nicknames, the colouring of different dialects. But wouldn't the poem be stronger if Thomas had included more of these names and things, and less of the windy dance and trance of inspiration, less of the "sweetness", whether of Wales or Wilts?

While I love Thomas's poetry, I read "Words" with mixed feelings. I especially wonder why, at the end, this most scrupulous of poets seems to distance himself from his vocation – in the line "As poets do"? It might be a wry little joke, I suppose, meant to raise a smile from an admiring friend, like Gwili or Frost. (Both would certainly have approved of the insight that the poet is both "fixed and free" when he rhymes.) But the last stanza becomes more credible if you imagine that Thomas is continuing to ask the really pressing question: will America cost him his identity, not only his Welshness and Englishness, but his identity as a poet?

"Words" overall is a powerful poem, with an important governing insight. Once more we can hark back to Keats's "negative capability". But, equally, we should remember another of Thomas's Welsh friends, the "tramp-poet" WH Davies, and his emphasis on taking time "to stand and stare". Thomas's poem can be read as an extended metaphor drawn from such ideas of receptivity. If "Words" lacks the pure focus of his greatest poems, the lessons it embodies are no less valuable. The sources of poetry are local to the poet. And it's not bardic mysticism but good psychology for any artist to be free-floating rather than manipulative during the first stages of creation, and only later to apply the fixative.


Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
Sometimes –
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet,
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings, –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there, –
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

guardian.co.uk© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 3733

Latest Images

Trending Articles

Latest Images