Earlier this year I received an email asking for a poem about social justice. The poem should be historical, the email said, meaning a poet no longer living. Short, it said, because it might be made into an animated film. I worried my way through a long list of poems: poems on race, gender, sexuality, migration; poems I teach to engage questions of identity and belonging; poems from my Irish and British literature classes; poems I love for how deeply they move or convict me. I finally settled on Edward Thomas’s “The Owl,” not because it is considered a war poem, thought it is, but for the more difficult and complex questions it raises. It is a poem about comfort and discomfort, about the power of art—represented by the song of an owl—to make us aware of the suffering of others. When I teach it now, it is also a poem about privilege and empathy, about the limits (and possible failures) of empathy, perhaps even a poem about complicity.
The poem consists of four unrhymed quatrains in a kind of rough pentameter. Like his close friend Robert Frost, Thomas worked the patterns of speech and thought against and across the music of meter and rhyme. A paraphrase is misleading: The speaker comes down a hill to an inn, where he enters to get out of the cold and find food and rest. Outside he hears an owl. When he still hears it inside, it reminds him that others do not have access to food or shelter. In anthologies Thomas is usually slotted with the poets of World War I, though unlike the others—poems of propaganda by Rupert Brooke and John McCrae, or poems of witness by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon—this poem doesn’t really seem to be about the Great War. The war is more context than content. Soldiers, generic and abstract, make an appearance in the final line, a last-minute cameo that just barely manages to contextualize the poem. They come into focus obliquely—as the war so often did in Thomas’s poems. But that’s because it’s not really a poem about the war as much as it is a poem of self-reflection about the relation of the self to the social, to others.
“Downhill I came,” Thomas begins, “hungry, and yet not starved.” The word yet is critical, a fragile demarcation of privilege and precarity that he repeats, continuing:
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.
The poem thus establishes its terms of comfort and discomfort: food, shelter, rest. If there is a turn in the poem, it is in the second stanza, which focuses more clearly on the issue of shelter, of what is inside and what is outside.
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
I love that a sense of comfort moves the poem here to a more musical rhythm, with patterns of internal rhyme and assonance—fire/tired, night/quite, I/cry/cry. It is the only stanza in which the first and third lines (almost) rhyme, and the end of the first line echoes the third of the preceding stanza—a repetition of “rest”—an identical rhyme that ironically deploys rime riche to emphasize economic means. The outside is “barred out” except for the repeated cry of the owl. It reminds me of the way Matthew Arnold refuses to rhyme roar in “Dover Beach” for thirteen lines (and two stanzas) and then repeats the word three lines later, emphasizing the way that sound resists sight, the tide’s roar incongruous with the tranquil scene, the owl’s cry jarring as it penetrates the comfort of the inn.
Any of us who teach literature are familiar with the ways that students may bring personal, even anachronistic associations to the reading of a poem. We do it ourselves. “Barred out” pulls the barred owl into the poem for me, an idiosyncratic reading since the bird is North American, not English. The barred owls cry is often rendered as “who cooks for you?”—a fitting yet inaccurate question for this poem. When I read the poem I think about the story that Harriet Tubman used owl calls as a signal on the Underground Railroad, the birdsong registering possibilities of unseen resistance. I know that these readings are specific to my experience, yet they are part of my love for this poem, part of how I understand its reach. Reach is a useful word here. The owl’s song exceeds the limits of the second stanza, crossing the middle of the poem in a striking enjambment: “An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry // Shaken out long and clear upon the hill.” Thomas describes the cry as:
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.
To move from the second stanza to the third is to be “shaken” with an awareness of the difference between haves and have-nots, inside and outside, comfort and cold.
Although critics hear a revision of Shakespeare in the owl’s cry—the “merry note” of the owl in the winter song “When icicles hang by the wall,” from Love’s Labours Lost (Act V, Scene 2)—I hear instead a reply and reversal of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” another poem of four quatrains in which the bird says marks the middle of the poem. Indeed, the poem falls in a poetic tradition—from the bird trapped in Anne Finch’s tapestry to [Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s skylark and [John] Keats’s nightingale, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s kingfisher and kestrel to W. B. Yeats’s wild swans, Ted Hughes’s crow. These are poems in which a bird becomes a metaphor for the poet’s meaning, even as its song offers a useful figure for autotelic nature of poetry itself. This is poetry as ornithomancy.
For Hardy’s thrush and its illogical and incongruous song of “joy illimited,” Thomas gives voice to those “unable to rejoice,” and the owl’s song haunts him even after he is comfortably installed indoors.
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.
Honestly, there’s something almost reckless now about that “speaking for all” when we think about this as a politics—speaking for the other, not speaking with, not listening to. And the way that the soldiers and the poor are ushered in here at the end feels a little hasty, a little forced. Yet I remain moved by this poem, in part because of that expansive imaginative leap from personal experience to social awareness, a leap that is made possible by the shift in sense here from sight and sound to taste: “salted.” He repeats “salted,” moving from the literal seasoning to the figurative sense and adding “sobered,” to make clear that the speaker’s comfort can no longer be quite comfortable. Critics suggest the salt of tears. Again the imperatives of the idiosyncratic: as a gay ex-fundamentalist, I think of Lot’s wife looking back at the destruction of Sodom but also of the fact that salt was used as a food preservative, a way to ensure sustenance in times of scarcity.
The call of the owl, despite my unease here, is the call of the poem, a song that refuses the speaker his comfort, that leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, that reminds him to look back and think outside his warmth and comfort—his privilege, however limited it might seem to him (“hungry, and yet not starved”). The poem feels a little quiet in its movement, its resignation, but there is an expanded awareness at the end, a recognition that the speaker’s own comfort must be “sated and sobered” by his knowledge of those who do not have the same comfort. There is a leap of empathy here—if empathy originally meant a leap from the enclosed self to the experience of another, a feeling into the other. Arguably, at the end, he also is unable to rejoice.
The poem ends there, in that awareness. Where do we go from there? It’s not a call to action, just a call for understanding, for a recognition that your comfort, my comfort, is ever marked by the discomfort of others. A poem about going to sleep, it’s a poem that asks us to wake up. A nature poem, it is less pastoral than necropastoral, to use the poet Joyelle McSweeney’s term for the political-aesthetic zone in which the experience of nature is inextricable from the horrors of the Anthropocene and in which the poet encounters death in the spectral and the nonhuman. In other poems, Thomas makes clear he feels no allegiance to nationalism or the politics of war or even really to the English people. As Matthew Hollis puts it in his 2011 biography of Thomas, he was “a man who did not consider himself a patriot, who loathed nationalism, who believed his countrymen were the birds.” Yet he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as a citizen at home, both because he was seeing his own options as a writer becoming more and more limited, thus making it more difficult for him to support his family, and because he realized that others were giving up their lives while remained at home. In an odd way, then, the poem is both antiwar in its sympathy for the soldiers and yet ultimately pro-service in its portrayal of Thomas’s self-interrogation. He wrote this poem in February 1915. He enlisted in July 1916. He was killed in the Battle of Arras, in France, on April 9, 1917.
Complicity is sometimes a hard thing to understand, harder to accept, harder still to capture in a poem. The ways that one can be—the ways that I am—complicit in structures of power and privilege, even as I try to think otherwise—otherwise, think differently, think against the othering I have been taught, consciously or unconsciously. How do we begin to understand our privilege, unlearn bias? We’d like to think that empathy is part of the work of literature, that it makes us more empathic, more accountable. Is empathy or compassion really the answer, though, or can it only take us so far?
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2021 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2021 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.