Edward Thomas has been labelled a ‘Georgian poet’ and a ‘war poet’, and he was really a little of both of these, and yet not quite either of them. In a brief flurry of poetic creativity between late 1914 and his death in the Great War in 1917, Edward Thomas produced some of the finest poems of the early twentieth century. ‘Aspens’ is one of his best.
All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing –
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.
The title of this poem, ‘Aspens’, tells us what it’s about – specifically, the way aspen trees sway side to side day and night, whatever the weather. Thomas identifies in the trees’ continuous movement a metaphor for human endeavour – like the aspens, we have no choice but to go on.
Edward Thomas wrote ‘Aspens’ in July 1915 and sent it to his friend and mentor, the American poet Robert Frost. Although the poem is ostensibly about aspens, one of the things which make Thomas’s poetry so rewarding to revisit is the way he subtly includes hidden meanings, barely acknowledged depths, to what appear very straightforward nature poems. What does it mean, for instance, for Thomas to say of the aspens, ‘while they and I have leaves’. They and I? But a poet does use ‘leaves’ of paper (drawn from the trees, of course) to write down his poetry, and the choice of ‘grieves’ as a rhyme with ‘leaves’, as well as the earlier self-conscious reference to ‘my rhymes’, imply that Thomas is drawing a subtle parallel between aspens and poets. Poets, too, ‘talk together’: Thomas literally met up and talked with Frost about his poetry. And he knew what it was to commit himself to writing and reviewing with the same apparent doggedness which marks the aspens’ sedulous commitment to their activity.
And the movement is key. Repetition is used several times in ‘Aspens’, as if poetically enacting the dogged continuation of the aspens’ movement: ‘A silent smithy, a silent inn’, ‘the night of nightingales’, the references to the weather and the leaves among other things. This is the poet who risked the unthinkable and included the same word (already summoned in the poem’s title) three times in the opening line to his poem ‘Rain’: ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain …’
Yet we should not overlook that other prominent word, ‘grieves’: Thomas was writing ‘Aspens’ against the backdrop of the Great War, and it’s worth incorporating this into an analysis of the poem’s treatment of writing and carrying on. The war may have halted the movement of Thomas’s pen two years later, but not before he had filled many ‘leaves’ with his poetry – poetry which is, in many ways, still undervalued by the world at large.