Two Poems by Edward Thomas that Illuminate Shakespeare: Myth
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The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
In this series of posts I am looking at ways to read with expression and understanding of the text. Shakespeare in the Mountains is a project that gathers people who are interested in reading aloud to eat, walk and read in the north of Spain. In my last post, I looked at Robin Goodfellow and made a link with Edward Thomas. In this post, I am going to examine two poems by Thomas that extend the theme of Englishness that is explored in the course Shakespeare- Myth. Thomas was a reader, walker and reviewer before he committed himself to the poetry that he is now remembered for. The poems are tight, condensed gems that give us powerful images, simply expressed.
This poem seems straightforward: a lament for the killing of a badger. There are only two words with more than two syllables: precipice and juniper. This makes it easy to understand. It is also repetitive: juniper is repeated twice; ancient and dark twice, dark three times. The rhyming is negligible, almost undetectable, although briar, juniper, Winter, juniper and there contrast with dark and chalk, roots and birds, dark, and hounds and beasts. This is art that hides art: just enough in there to give the poem structure but not so much that it calls attention to itself.
The image is of a steep-sided valley in chalkland (a combe) so densely grown with beech, yew and juniper that it is almost impenetrable, blocked at its entrance by “bramble, thorn and briar”. So dense is the undergrowth that even the birds do not get in there, except for the missel-thrush, that speckle-breasted relative of the European blackbird that likes to eat snails and juniper berries. This is where the badger has his set. Yet the hunters got in there, dug him out and gave him to their dogs.
Thomas suggests something more troubling by using the word “ancient” repeatedly. This might seem like an intrusion of modernity into a deep, ancient space yet, ironically, Thomas says that the combe looks “far more ancient and dark” now. Does this mean that the killing itself is ancient and dark? Does it suggest a connection with a more distant killing of other Britons in the deeper past?
Let’s turn to another poem, which uses a similar motif. It is the next poem in my Everyman’s selection (ed. William Cooke, Everyman: London, 1997, p. 18).
The Hollow Wood
Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish-
Fish that laugh and shriek-
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.
Lichen, ivy and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog’s mercury and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.
The image here is similar. We start with a goldfinch flitting amongst thistles that are growing on open upland above a deep valley filled with trees: the hollow wood. There is a strong contrast between the sun-filled upper layer and the wood where birds “swim like fish”. The striking image gets progressively darker. The fish/birds “laugh and shriek” in the green of the woodland, yet the trees are “half-flayed and dying” and it is only the mosses and lichens that make them green. There are fallen trees “on their knees” making us picture them tumbled over but propped against another trunk, perhaps. The metaphor humanizes the trees just as the “bird/fish” were humanized by their shrieking.
The rhymes at the beginning and the end of the poem are facile: flits, flits and twits; drops and tops. Between those ends there is another rhyme at the darker heart of the poem: “to and fro far below”. The lines are shorter: three feet, even though the syllable count is irregular. There is a lot of repetition: moss, trees, hollow wood.
The poem invites a metaphorical reading, in part because of the anthropomorphism of the trees and fish. Thomas is a famous First World War poet and it is tempting to think that the goldfinch twittering in the uplands represents those who carry on with their lives, naively unaware of the horrors of the trenches. There was a horrific “to and fro” there. Or you could say that the poem reflects a person’s mind, the deep, hollow wood representing the unconscious whilst the flitting bird represents the face that the conscious mind presents to the world. Psychology was growing in interest and importance before the beginning of the war and there is no doubt that Thomas would have been aware of it.
However, there is another possible explanation. In The Combe, Thomas used the words “ancient and dark” to refer to the valley and the “most ancient Briton” the badger. The two poems go together and suggest a darker reading that plumbs ancient history. The Roman historian Lucan, described the sacred groves of the Celts in this way:
“A grove there was, untouched by men’s hands from ancient times, whose interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above. No rural Pan dwelt there, nor Silvanus, ruler of the woods, no Nymphs; but gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings and every tree was sprinkled with human gore.”
This is, according to Barry Cunliffe and Nora Chadwick,is a nemeton or sacred grove, where the ancient Celts worshipped dark gods and made human sacrifices in the woods. The druids were wiped out in Britain by the Romans in AD 61 when they stormed Anglesey and there is no direct literary evidence of their rites or beliefs. Yet the lack of evidence stimulates the imagination to work on the few details that we do have. Is Thomas suggesting that there is some continuity? Perhaps those ancient gods are still there.
He was certainly interested in the deep history of the British Isles and, as we have already seen, used his long poem Lob to playfully connect many different characters from fairy tales, popular rhymes and children’s stories together, personifying them all in a traveler in the landscape he encounters in Wiltshire. In my last post, I followed this character into Shakespeare and suggested that Robin Goodfellow has a direct connection to Lob. And I came to the conclusion that I would rather read Robin Goodfellow as a merry prankster than as a dark and malicious hobgoblin. Edward Thomas has turned this all around, hasn’t he?
Should we then go back to Robin Goodfellow and think again? Should we look for the darker side of Shakespeare’s mythological worlds in the woodlands?
If we are looking for shadows, however, I think we will have to look elsewhere than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In my next post, I shall examine that thoroughly pagan play King Lear and give some hints and suggestions as to how we might choose to read it.