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Gilbert: The Owl

I recently came across a poem written almost exactly hundred years ago by the British poet Edward Thomas, who was probably Robert Frost’s closest friend. They met just before World War I, when the Frost family was living in England. They didn’t know each other long, but after Thomas died, Frost told his widow, “I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He was, Frost wrote, “the only brother
I ever had.”

Thomas’s poem “The Owl” was written about eight months after the War began and coincidentally ten days after Frost and his family had sailed back to the United States, accompanied by Thomas’s fifteen-year-old son. In the poem, the narrator talks about taking shelter at an inn one evening hungry, cold, and tired. He ate, warmed himself, and rested. All his previous suffering, all the night’s discomforts, were blocked out, the poem says, [quote]
. . . 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 that I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

The owl’s cry made the narrator savor his food and rest all the more, but it took away the joy of his more comfortable circumstances and left him “sobered,” reminding him that while he had escaped the misery of the night, while he had food, fire, and rest, others did not, specifically, the poem says, soldiers and the poor.

But in fact Edward Thomas didn’t exempt himself from hardship as he could have. He didn’t have to go to the war; he was thirty-seven, married, with two kids.

Perhaps he himself had heard the owl’s cry, as it were, giving voice to his conscience, and felt not only empathy for the poor and the soldiers who were without shelter or food but also a sense of obligation, kinship, duty, or guilt that he should be comfortable while they were not. Thomas enlisted, and he was killed.

In the poem’s last two lines the narrator says that the owl was [quote]

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

World War I was a century ago, but there are still many “soldiers and poor,” - cold, hungry, tired people “unable to rejoice.” We still need the poet’s voice, and the owl’s, to remind us of that fact and to spur not just our sympathy but also our help.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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