A short introduction to the poem ‘Thaw’ by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), written by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Thaw’ is one of the shortest poems Edward Thomas wrote, and he was a master of the short poem. In a brief flurry of poetic creativity between late 1914 and his death in 1917, Thomas produced some of the finest poems of the early twentieth century. Here is ‘Thaw’, along with a brief analysis of its language and imagery.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
In summary (or crude paraphrase), the poem is about how nature is often more sensitive to the signs of the passing seasons than mankind: we may be aware of the snow half-thawing, but the rooks see deeper than us, and notice the subtle and ‘delicate’ signs of spring’s imminent arrival.
The language of the poem is simple: only two words, ‘speculating’ and ‘delicate’, are longer than two syllables, with ‘speculating’ being the longest in the whole poem. But it is designed to stick out: a word associated with human thought and with economic activity (financial speculation), ‘speculating’ acts almost as a sort of anthromorphism, with the rooks being endowed with the human quality of weighing up and considering options. The ‘speck’ that peeps out from ‘speculating’ also echoes the ‘freckled’ wintry land, dappled with snow in the previous line.
In terms of rhyme, the poem is two couplets, rhyming ‘half-thawed’ with ‘cawed’ and ‘grass’ with ‘pass’ (though ‘saw’ in the third line also echoes the first pair of rhyming words, providing a delicate bridge between the two couplets). And look how the beginnings of the last three lines almost spell out ‘T(H)AW’ in an acrostic! Coincidence, maybe, but it reinforces the tight interconnectedness of the poem’s language and imagery.
Like the imagists – even someone as superficially different from Thomas as modernist poet T. E. Hulme (who, like Thomas, died in 1917 in the First World War) – Thomas seeks to capture a single moment in vivid and clear imagery. If you enjoyed ‘Thaw’ and our analysis of it, continue your Edward Thomas odyssey with probably his best-known poem, ‘Adlestrop’ and our pick of the best Edward Thomas poems.
If you wish to explore more of Thomas’s poetry, the Faber edition (Edward Thomas. Collected Poems.) contains a very useful introduction and all of his major poetry, as well as excerpts from his war diary.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Edward Thomas in c. 1905, from the Hutton/Stringer Archive; Wikimedia Commons.