Birds in the poetry of Edward Thomas

Abbie Rhodes

Depending on your persuasion, Edward Thomas was either a prominent War Poet, or simply a poet who just so happened to serve and die in the First World War. It is often a controversial categorisation to make, as he wrote much of his work before being drafted and a good majority does not mention the conflict at all. 

What, therefore, if not war, does a War Poet write about? For Thomas, his themes were often a troubled pastoral, between his affection for the English countryside and crushingly acute depression. Throughout his poetry, birds appear as a prominent recurring motif – both within the wider symbolism of the natural countryside, and as an entity in their own right. The creatures are presented as elusive yet almost omnipresent; they always appear to have some deeper knowledge of the world that is currently unknown to the narrator, and are more effective at conveying man’s connection with nature than the general landscape as they are easier to anthropomorphise, or more specifically in Thomas’ case, project difficult emotions and longings onto.

Thomas uses birds to explore themes of restriction, freedom, and spirituality – often presenting them as free souls striving to be unbounded by their physical form. This is especially apparent in ‘The Unknown Bird’, wherein the bird’s “bodiless” form is described as “sweet”, giving the impression that the narrator wishes to hear the bird again not only for the beauty of its song, but for the release it offers him in knowing it is possible to be free from the restrictions he feels as a result of his daily life.

Such language continues to the end of the poem, as the narrator goes on to describe his “heavy body” – the weight of his existence in his current, physical form – becoming “light as that bird” upon merely thinking about it. Moreover, it is not only physical freedom that the narrator strives after in the thought of the bird, but also mental freedom; Thomas describes the bird as “wandering beyond [the narrator’s] shore” in the final line of the poem, where the “shore” is assumed to be the limits of the narrator’s mind, encompassed by the experiences of his everyday life and everything he has ever known. The bird offers him an insight into a world beyond that which he experiences – a sort of personal paradigm shift – thus freeing his mind from restrictions of routine and the mundane. 

Freedom, however, is not consistently presented as a positive thing in the poetic narrative, and can alternatively be used to portray man’s lack of control over nature – and consequently the narrator’s lack of control over his own life. In ‘The Swifts’, Thomas describes the narrator’s turmoil caused by the swifts’ sudden disappearance, the fact he has no control over when they will return, and how he is none the wiser to the fact that he “would not have that view another day until next May” until they return the next year. The narrator is left in a limbo-like state, restricted himself by the bird’s freedom and the subsequent reminder of the impermanence of the world around him – and by extension his inability to hold onto it.

The notion of the narrator (the poem’s sole representation of humanity) being deeply in tune with the bird – representative of the spirit of nature – is especially poignant from an ecocritical perspective, as it conveys the importance of listening to and learning from the natural world. Through this lens, human culture is believed to be “crucially connected to the non-human world” and that we “ignore that connection at our peril”, which is relevant to the themes Thomas explores in ‘The Unknown Bird’ as the narrator finds he better understands the world through the birds’ actions and the analysis of his own life and emotions these actions provoke. It is almost as if the animals serve as fortune tellers, and, in ignoring the connection he feels with them, the narrator would be turning his back on an insight into his future and/or the potential he remains blind to when this connection is lost.

As well as highlighting the birds’ offer of freedom, Thomas also focuses on their ability to communicate the unknown (both that of the wider world and within himself) to humanity: as an ecocritical lens would describe, his poems “negotiate between the human and non-human”. This continues his emphasis on the importance of the link between humans and nature – the new things he learns from them and in turn the meaning he gives to them through his poetry.

Upon hearing the unknown bird, the narrator therefore allows himself to ponder the unknown of his own emotions – the mystery of the bird’s identity paralleling the mystery that his state of mind remains to him. 

The birds in ‘The Swifts’ reveal to the narrator the aforementioned insight into his future – even if this is only the time when they will appear to him again. In the first stanza of the poem, the narrator explains how he cannot know he will next enjoy the sight of the swifts “another day until next May” until they reappear and reveal this unknown to him. The second stanza consists of lines of varying length, with the first two – explaining how “the swifts alone” appear to be the only constant in the narrator’s life that reappear year after year – the only lines that can be read alone and make sense.

The lines following this are all enjambed, one long phrase split over five lines that work to lengthen the time it takes to read them. This reflects the narrator’s desire to exist in his current moment for as long as possible, not wanting to face the future the swifts have revealed to him where he will “only see them to know them gone” – hence the function of the birds in this particular poem can be interpreted as fairly negative. Moreover, the rather tenuous link between the migratory patterns of swifts and the impermanence of the world surrounding him suggest this notion has been playing on the narrator’s mind for some time – the swifts merely trigger this thought to resurface, or reveal the temporary unknown of a thought momentarily forgotten.

The birds providing insight into the unknown is not always presented as such an act against the narrator’s will, alternatively he will actively seek out this ‘enlightenment’ the birds provide. This is especially apparent in ‘The Unknown Bird’, as not only does the bird offer the narrator the freedom of the spiritual world, it also reveals to him unknowns within himself – emotions and thoughts that are left misunderstood, or otherwise more temporary unknowns: things he has forgotten.

Thomas emphasises throughout the poem that the narrator’s connection with the unidentifiable bird is very personal (and therefore very moving), as he claims to be the only one able to hear its song “though many listened”. Such a unique understanding could draw parallels with Thomas’ own life, as he perceived himself to be rather misunderstood and struggled to communicate his emotions effectively to others – as the bird cannot communicate with those who cannot hear it.

Despite knowing very little about it, the narrator is able to distinguish fine details in the tone of bird’s song, attributing human emotions to it such as “sad”, though “only sad with joy too,” and through this anthropomorphism Thomas arguably reveals more about the narrator’s feelings than the bird’s (as of course, if a bird is even capable of feeling either sadness or joy, it is extremely unlikely a human could accurately interpret these emotions from the bird’s song). Upon hearing the unknown bird, the narrator therefore allows himself to ponder the unknown of his own emotions – the mystery of the bird’s identity paralleling the mystery that his state of mind remains to him. 

In addition to conveying the wonder found beyond the human world, the birds also possess an ability to return the narrator to reality from a ‘fantasy’ world. In ‘The Owl’, Thomas uses a bird as his narrator’s harrowing reminder of the world that he “escaped and others could not”, reaffirming the fact his peace was only temporary and that, despite surrounding himself with food, warmth, and the comfort of the inn, he could not distance himself from the guilt of feeling contempt while others were suffering – as he cannot distance himself from the owl’s “melancholy cry”.

Thomas uses the birds less to express the dynamic nature of the natural world, and more to convey the unmovable force it exists as over him.

The bird is suggested to have a sort of omnipresence, wherein it can witness or feel the pain of “soldiers and poor” (the former presumably in France) and subsequently relay this back to the narrator in the inn. This reinforces the notion of the owl following the narrator wherever he goes – unable to find sanctuary from the bird (whether it serves as a metaphor for guilt or the realisation of what awaits outside, or both) – even in the superficial comfort of the inn, and is further emphasised by the last line of the second stanza continuing into the third, the line in question describing the owl’s “most melancholy cry”.

The punctuation, or lack thereof, could visually represent the narrator’s pondering of the sound, but could also convey how the call follows on through the poem as it does in the narrator’s mind. Thomas then continues in describing the narrator as “salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice”, as if admitting he was living in a fantasy when he believed he could ever find comfort from the harsh realities of life. However, in ‘The Cuckoo’, the reminder of the grim reality of life comes not as a direct result of the bird’s nature, but by association on the narrator’s behalf.

The bird’s presence in this poem is less as an all-powerful force and more another victim of something Thomas knows to overpower humankind and nature alike: death. Though the bird does not die itself, its absence from the narrator’s life due to its call being “drowned by the voice of [his] dead” is something that further isolates him from the people around him (the children can hear it, but the narrator can only say “nay” when he does not) – depriving him both of a fond memory of the cuckoo and of connection with those he loves.

In explaining how place and landscape matters as much as time and history, an ecocritic may comment on how the poem shows “permanence [matters] as much as change” – or rather, how the permanence of the promise of death is reflected in the repetitiveness of natural cycles has as much of an effect on the narrator’s life as the change that comes as a result of the passing of time.

Thomas uses the birds less to express the dynamic nature of the natural world, and more to convey the unmovable force it exists as over him. Often, this force intimidates him, making him question his own place in the world and how much control he truly has over his life, but other times he can be fascinated by the new discoveries their alternative perspective offer – longing to both become part of their world and to be free from it. 

Abbie Rhodes