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The Owl

By A.E. Stallings

We’ll be spending Christmas in Greece this year, about which I have mixed feelings. Christmas is not a big holiday in Greece or the Eastern church generally, which has its upside (a little less commercialism, though that is changing every year). Easter is what Greeks do best. So I guess I am more inclined to homesickness of a sort. There are things I miss about Western Christmas—mostly the carols. I’ll definitely be getting down to St. Paul’s Anglican church Christmas Eve for the carol service. Meanwhile, I have been cracking open my ancient book of carols from piano lessons of Christmas Past. It was always of course the melancholy ones that appealed to me, the minor keys and the modal tunes. I used to love “We Three Kings” (perfume/gloom/tomb), “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” (which never really sounded merry, and which I suppose I associate in some way with the black & white version of A Christmas Carol that used to frighten me a little as a child), and best of all the Coventry Carol, which always gets me (whether it is the lilting lullaby or the slaughter of the innocents I’m not sure… but what a combination.) Likewise with Christmas poems, it is the poems that explore the juxtapositions of the season—pagan and Christian, birth and winter, darkness and starlight, hope and doubt—that attract me, “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” “I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different,” “I should go with him in the gloom/ Hoping it might be so.”


I have long loved Edward Thomas’s much-anthologized “The Owl.” It seems a simple enough poem, but it is a hard-won Classical simplicity, of proportion, of diction, of parallelism, of syntax and rhetoric (how the three needs of hunger, cold, and weariness are repeated and varied and balanced with the remedies of shelter–sustenance, warmth, and rest—beautifully portioned out across line and enjambment—the three physical needs that must be met before any spiritual ones, such as happiness, can be addressed).
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.
It is of course a World War I poem (Thomas was killed by a shell at the Battle of Arras in 1917), which remains both timeless and painfully topical.
Though it was apparently written in late February of 1915, yet it seems a sort of Christmas poem to me (and arguably a Christian one, in the sense which Ange discussed here); indeed it would make a very fine carol. The elements are all there—the darkness, the cold, seeking room at the inn, thoughts of those still out “under the stars”—the soldiers and the poor, themselves important to the story; and then, though negated, the suggestion nevertheless of “merriment,” and that last word upon which the poem hinges, “rejoice.”

Comments (12)

  • On December 16, 2007 at 1:10 pm Steve wrote:

    When I saw that you had an Xmas post I was expecting Hardy’s “The Oxen,” which you indeed quote– surely one of the great Xmas poems of the past century-and-a-half; I had to look up to be sure the “O” stood for “Owl.” I think the two poems emotionally similar, too, though Thomas, unlike Hardy, can keep nostalgia for orthodoxy in the background, rather than spelling it out.
    You might not see it in the poems, but Stevens thought about Xmas too, and not in a happy way. From a letter to Barbara Church, 12. 26. 1950: “Everyone can understand how an every-day sorrow becomes unbearable at Xmas, which is all emotion.At moments I feel like shutting the day and all its feelings out, although that would only make bad worse.”

  • On December 17, 2007 at 1:40 am Emily Warn wrote:

    Thanks, Alicia, for this poem that does so wonderfully balance hunger, cold and weariness with the sheltering inn, and its warmth, in turn, contrasts and directs us to those without shelter or solace.
    His use of the phrase “All of the night was quite barred out…” and your admitting that melancholy carols appeal to you most reminded me of RIchard Wilbur’s poem “A Barred Owl,” which is about comforting a child after she’s been wakened by an owl’s cry. The cry, as is Edward’s poem, is meant to remind us of the fear that our flimsy domestic shields mask.
    Thanks, too, for raising Ange’s post to the surface just when it seems most apt.
    Emily

  • On December 17, 2007 at 7:17 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I seem to hear the ghost of George Herbert in this fine poem.

  • On December 17, 2007 at 8:16 am Ange wrote:

    Yes, thanks Alicia! I’m sorry to have been so awol; between family and the holidays, it’s suddenly gotten very hard to have a coherent thought. So I’m actually going to save my (lengthy) comment for an actual post (coming soon).

  • On December 17, 2007 at 9:59 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks all for your comments. And a thanks also to Clive Watkins, who helped me with the date of this poem. I’m indebted too, to Steve, for his snowstorm post… Emily, “barred,” does put me in mind of a barred owl, though I have no idea if that could be the owl of the poem… (is it an American owl?) I’m a sucker for owl poems and keep trying to write one, to no avail. It is the one bird sound you hear everywhere in Greece at night, sometimes even in the concrete city (as in the phrase, “like bringing owls to Athens”). (Those would be Little Owls, Athene Noctua.) Whenever I try to describe an owl sound in a poem, I keep going back to this, with its cry “shaken out long and clear”, and can do no better and throw up my hands.
    Thank you for that thought, Henry, on Herbert. That deserves pondering over.
    Ange, I appreciate the holiday frenzy, and look forward to your post, when you have a free moment!

  • On December 17, 2007 at 10:03 am Ange wrote:

    No pun on “owl” and “awol” intended…

  • On December 17, 2007 at 11:15 am Jeremy Green wrote:

    Most likely it’s a Tawny Owl–the same one Shakespeare heard sing “a merry note” (in the winter song from Love’s Labour’s Lost). For this reason, I can’t help hearing “barred” as “bard.”

  • On December 17, 2007 at 12:26 pm Mary Meriam wrote:

    I love that Thomas poem. Here’s the quote from Love’s Labour’s Lost. I wrote this poem about the (silent) screech owl outside my window. Just the other day, I saw him again, collecting snowflakes on his lip.
    The Oak Tree Owl of Owl Creek Cove
    Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
    Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    ~ Love’s Labour’s Lost
    I wash the dishes in the sink
    And watch the owl’s indifferent blink
    As he sits silent in the tree.
    Oh little owl, please talk to me.
    He suns himself on winter days,
    But if it rains or snows, he stays
    Atop the branch with mighty grip
    Collecting snowflakes on his lip.
    I’ve seen him spit. I’ve seen him yawn.
    At dusk, I’ve seen him on the lawn
    As if to pounce on hapless mice.
    I’ve seen him scratch his feathers twice.
    I call to Hoot, but not a peep.
    Perhaps Hoot’s hooting while I sleep.
    He sits so silent in the tree.
    Oh little owl, please talk to me.
    O yawn. She’s in the kitchen doing dishes
    again? Be still, be still, be still, O daughter
    of Eve, and tell me, what are your three wishes?
    Tonight, sweet flight from hidey-hole by water,
    by Owl Creek Cove, to pounce, to catch, to who
    my hungry claws can find to feed me, feed me.
    O read the messages I blink to you,
    dish-washer, see me dance so freely, freely.
    Come ride with me in golden-feather fun,
    say yes? O sleep me now inside the oak
    but wait, the heavens open so, when sun
    sink set. O yes, I listened when you spoke
    my name: to Hoot, you called. I shed a tear
    and called you too, as best I could, O dear.

  • On December 17, 2007 at 1:51 pm Steve Mackin wrote:

    That is one of the most melancholy and ominous things I have ever read. It has an Anglo-Saxon despair to it. Reminds me of Pound’s translation of The Seafarer, “how I in harsh days / Hardship endured oft. / Bitter breast cares I have abided,” bouyed by the memory of the warmth of the Mead Hall and an implied Christian duty to endure. Have read about Thomas, as he figures in Forst’s bio, but I’ve not made the journey to him. Something I now feel a need to rectify. Thanks!

  • On December 17, 2007 at 4:19 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Alicia,
    If owls and pomegranates are commonplace there, no wonder Greece is one place where poetry originated.
    Emily

  • On December 18, 2007 at 12:41 am john wrote:

    Confidential to Alicia: I wrote music to “The Owl” and would be happy to email you an MP3 if you’re curious to hear it. It’s a simple, stripped-down, minimal, quiet, quasi-folkish, melancholy, through-composed waltz.
    Love love love the poem. I worked in homeless services for many years and was doing that when i wrote the music.
    I also wrote music to J.M. Synge’s “Prelude,” which always feels like a prequel to “The Owl” — the long hike preceding the respite at the inn.
    Thanks for the post.

  • On December 19, 2007 at 2:10 pm Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for all these thoughts! Jeremy Green is of course quite right to point out the Love’s Labour’s Lost reference, Winter’s Song:
    When icicles hang by the wall
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
    And Tom bears logs into the hall
    And milk comes frozen home in pail,
    When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
    Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
    When all aloud the wind doth blow
    And coughing drowns the parson’s saw
    And birds sit brooding in the snow
    And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
    When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
    Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
    What a way to wear an allusion lightly–it doesn’t matter if we pick up on it or not to appreciate the poem–yet if we do hear that echo, and think back on it a moment, we get another layer of contrast–for Shakespeare’s winter scene is, for all its description of the cold, one of cozy domesticity (logs for the fire, and milk, dull sermons at church, roasting crabapples). The owl here is that outside note that makes the inside inside, and thus festive. How perfectly Thomas has reversed this, and how unobtrusively. (This puts me in mind also of how Shakespeare’s songs were one of Housman’s declared influences.)
    John, I’d love to hear your piece. I think Emily W. can e-mail you my e-mail…or vice versa. Unless you’d like to attach the piece here to share with all of us? (can that even be done? she wonders…)


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, December 15th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.