It's cold and gloomy today in Ripon, Wisconsin, with a steady late spring rain that started last night. Our back door blew open at some point early this morning, and when I woke the house was well chilled and smelled of rainy wind.
No doubt that's why I woke up thinking of a beautiful hopeless poem by the fairly neglected poet Edward Thomas, who died in the trenches of WWI. Here it is:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me Remembering again that I shall die And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks For washing me cleaner than I have been Since I was born into this solitude. Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: But here I pray that none whom once I loved Is dying tonight or lying still awake Solitary, listening to the rain, Either in pain or thus in sympathy Helpless among the living and the dead, Like a cold water among broken reeds, Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, Like me who have no love which this wild rain Has not dissolved except the love of death, If love it be towards what is perfect and Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Thomas, who was the great friend of Robert Frost, isn't much read these days. Still, in some ways he seems utterly contemporary. The matter-of-fact "love of death" and the notion of death in its inevitability being unable to "disappoint"--these things seem completely of a piece with recent headlines. I can hear a touch of Larkin in this poem's tone, though without Larkin's usual bitterness. Hard to believe Larkin wasn’t thinking of Thomas when I read the end of his poem “Dockery and Son,”for instance:
Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not we use it, it goes, And leaves what something hidden from us chose, And age, and then the only end of age.
I guess it is the tone of Thomas’s poem which strikes me, especially in light of recent national and international massacres. With the bombs and guns of Kosovo and Colorado still sounding in everyone's minds today, I find myself wondering anew what I often wonder about lyric poetry: why is it that such poems can console even as they remind us of the worst horrors?
Entirely apart from the First World War, Thomas was a naturally melancholy sort. He was gently mocked by his friend Frost in "The Road Not Taken," in fact, for his endless sighing about what-might-have-been. His early death casts a strange light, for me, on Frost's poem; for Thomas, there were no "ages and ages hence" in which to sigh over the past, a task he bequeathed to his much tougher-minded friend, who mourned Thomas for many years. In a real sense, Frost never got over Edward Thomas's death, one sign of which was that he was only able to write a single poem about his dead friend, 1920’s “To E.T.,” which critics agree is not one of his best, being marred by uncharacteristic sentimentality. Forty-two years after leaving England, when in 1957 the aged Frost revisited his old haunts there, he was too overcome with emotion to enter the house where Thomas had once lived.
And of course Thomas's tragic view of life was abundantly fulfilled by the war which took his. In fact, this world provides all the evidence a cynic could want, always; all the more reason, I think, to value those artists who can find some honest beauty even in bleakness. Poetry, all art really, is never quite adequate to the task, particularly when the task involves the great mysteries of human hatred, loss, fear, and the like. That’s hardly a reason to forego art; quite the opposite. “Rain” won’t bring back the dead of 1917 or 1999, obviously, but it offers up its finely tuned and unselfpitying sorrow as a real kind of gift. In a necessarily limited but still crucial sense, I think that a poem like "Rain" cannot disappoint. ____________________________________________________________ Published in ForPoetry (April 1999). Online: link no longer available.