Edward Thomas’s ‘Owl’: missing a feather?

One evening of heat, unseasonal heat – it was late May – I was sitting in the book room with the window wide open, and I heard a tawny owl calling from the trees a short way out in the dark. It was a gladdening sound. I hadn’t heard an owl so close to the house for two or three years, and when a neighbourly bird drops out of hearing – swifts, say, or cuckoos – it’s hard these days not to take it as an ominous sign. But here, repeatedly, undeniably, was an owl.

Near or far, I love the calls of the tawny owl. This one, maybe a female, was giving out a softer, more solfeggio version of the textbook kewick: something more like keway. I put my elbows on the windowsill and harked for an answering tu-whit-tu-whoo, but all I heard was keway, keway… Her mate was out of my earshot, or perhaps not there at all.

An owl’s call is the catalyst and crux of Edward Thomas’s 1915 poem ‘The Owl’, and although he doesn’t give his bird a label, it seems reasonable to assume he’d heard a tawny. Or does it? At an estimated population of 50,000 pairs in 2005, Strix aluco is the UK’s most abundant owl, and the New Naturalist Library’s authoritative volume Owls dubs it “the typical owl”. But it also says that in the 19th century the tawny was often referred to as less common than the barn owl, and that its population only began to rise with changes in woodland and a decline in the number of gamekeepers in the early 20th century. Here’s room for doubt.

Perhaps firmer ground is offered by the poem’s lines “a most melancholy cry / Shaken out long and clear upon the hill”, which it’s not fanciful to take as a commentary on the tawny’s tremulous hoot. And in line ten, “no merry note” is surely a nod to what is surely a tawny in Shakespeare’s song ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost:

When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
Tu-whit, tu-whoo! – a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Tawny, or not tawny? That is a question to which only Thomas knows the answer. But there’s something perhaps even less knowable in ‘The Owl’ to consider, and for that it’s worth reading the whole thing. My source is The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley.

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet not so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out 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 what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

It’s one of Thomas’s best known poems, appearing in anthologies, biographies, critical studies and so on. Recent Thomas biographers Matthew Hollis and Jean Moorcroft Wilson both refer to it; the poet Bernard O’Donoghue, remembering student days in Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, recalls being ‘fixated’ on it; Birds Britannica, that superb compendium of avian lore old and new, quotes ten lines of it. It’s not hard to see why. There’s the numinous bird at its heart, and the strong sense of occasion, of situation; there’s the poet’s compassion, his ethical mettle. ‘The Owl’ is a poem of conscience and of witness, a waypoint in a decision-making process that ended with Thomas signing up for war and his own death. All these distinguishing marks commend it to the editor as they do to the reader.

But here I need to confess to a sleight of hand; perhaps you’ve already spotted it. I’ve added a word – or rather, if my hunch is correct, restored one that dropped out. The word, in line three, is ‘not’. What? Added a word? This sounds like a wild idea verging on insolence, and much as I’d like to say that someone else has had it too, I have to admit: I can find no ghost of that ‘not’ – or remark on its absence – in any of the books I have access to, or anywhere on the internet. I’ve searched high and low, Boolean and Bodleian. Well, not yet in that august institution, but it may come to that.

Let’s go back to the beginning. As conventionally printed, the first stanza of ‘The Owl’ reads like this:

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

The scenario is as follows. The poet, one of English literature’s great walkers, was nearing the end of a walk. Edward Thomas could be a companionable wayfarer, famously so with Robert Frost, but on this occasion he was alone, and his thoughts were his own. The weather wasn’t perfect, and (as soon becomes apparent) it was getting dark or was dark already. He assessed his condition. He was hungry, but the pangs were tolerable; he was cold, but again, bearing up well. In the poem’s first two and a half lines, he’s engaged in what Longley calls “careful discrimination between degrees of discomfort”, and in each case the word ‘yet’ is the fulcrum of the balance.

But now there’s a problem – or at least a puzzle. Unlike the way the first two work, the third ‘yet’ introduces a degree of discomfort – in this case of fatigue – so strong that the prospect of easing it is the prime concern. Why? The change of tack has no obvious logic, and the ‘yet’ grates: there seems to be nothing to yet about. If this were a third balance, it would have only one arm. Can this be what Thomas intended? He was a thoughtful poet, and the more I read ‘The Owl’, the more I wonder if he really meant to follow those two instances of careful discrimination with a statement so unequivocal.

That’s the accepted printing. But what happens when we add (or restore) the ‘not’? For one thing, the poem gains rhetorical consistency: the third ‘yet’ now has the same compositional function as the other two. But more than this, it seems to me that the very purpose of the poem is enhanced – its act of bearing witness is clearer and more coherent – if it proceeds from what is now a characteristically wry allusion: “tired, yet not so that rest / Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof”. The walker knew his destination, and the thing under the inn roof that in foretaste seemed sweeter than rest was a mug of ale.

If this reading is correct, and all three kinds of discomfort were perfectly bearable – “Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I”, which is to say not very – then the contrast between the poet’s mildly felt needs and the hardship endured by “all who lay under the stars” is so much the sharper. And let’s not forget the poem’s first word, ‘Downhill’, which now looks not only like a topographical term but also a nod to the easiest kind of walking. (It’s also a signpost for the direction of the poem as a whole, a forecast of the comedown in the poet’s state of mind.)

Other words now light up differently, too. ‘Sweetest’ and ‘salted’ make a more telling pair of sensory-metaphysical opposites; ‘sobered’ and ‘rejoice’ look back more pointedly to the initial mood of anticipated merriment. A good walk, a drink, a meal, a fire, the warmth of the familiar inn – all altered by the owl’s cry. As the poet thought of soldiers and poor and reassessed his condition, the measure of his moral discomfort – even guilt – was the gap between his situation and theirs. Five months after writing ‘The Owl’, Thomas enlisted.

How sturdily does all this stand up? I can immediately think of a couple of knockdowns, and there are bound to be others. The weightier, formulated as a question, goes: If such a widely anthologised poem were missing a word, how could the lacuna (noun: an unfilled space, a gap, a missing portion in a book or manuscript) escape the notice of so many readers, including printers, professors, poets, even the author himself – for more than a century? To which I might reply, in the form of another question: Is there ever an explanation for an oversight, other than the oversight itself? And it’s always hardest to see what isn’t there.

A second objection is that adding a word adds a syllable, and the line would now have eleven instead of ten. Granted, most of the lines in ‘The Owl’ are decasyllabic, but not all. Line twelve, “And others could not, that night, as in I went”, also has eleven; and besides, it’s very often a loose-limbed prosody with Thomas. Loose-iambed, you could say.

If omission there was, it happened upstream of the poem’s first appearance in print. Six months after Thomas was killed at the start of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, London firm Selwyn & Blount published 64 of his poems as a slim hardback book with the undemonstrative title Poems, and ‘The Owl’, on pages 12 and 13, does not have a ‘not’ in the third line. We need to go further back.

The notes in The Annotated Collected Poems give 24th February 1915 as the date it was written, and according to Longley, Thomas wrote up “fair (more or less) copies” of most of his poems in notebooks that are now held by the Bodleian and the British Library. Next came a typescript produced for submission to the poet’s publisher – his friend Eleanor Farjeon was “his principal typist” – and then there were the proofs. There must also have been at least one other copy, submitted in January 1917 – under a different title, ‘Those Others’ – to the Nation, which had previously published some of Thomas’s prose. (The newspaper declined it, and another poem submitted with it, later that month.)

Each new copy, made manually, opened a door to human error; and as anyone who works in publishing will confirm, the smaller the error, the harder it is to catch. Longley says that “the printer’s typescript of Poems […] clearly passed through Thomas’s hands”, but this will have been in late 1916 or early 1917, when he was preparing to go with his artillery battery to France and, as Matthew Hollis puts it, “seemed fully absorbed in army life”. These were circumstances far from ideally suited to the careful work of preparing a text for press.

As for the proofs, Thomas didn’t see them at all, having been by then – February 1917 – posted Orderly Officer to Group 35 Heavy Artillery Headquarters in Arras; Farjeon and another trusted friend, John Freeman, handled them in London on his behalf. The proofs had not come out well. In the words of Jean Moorcroft Wilson, “the typesetting was careless and inconsistent and made Thomas’s verse look like prose on occasions”. Hollis is more blunt: the proofs were “a mess”.

But the fact that Poems wasn’t an unruffled production doesn’t in itself prove that mistakes crept in; and although I haven’t yet been able to consult the first draft, fair copy, typescript and proofs of ‘The Owl’ – they’re not available online – I know that even when I do, they may not settle my ‘not’ hypothesis one way or the other. “Like other poets killed in the First World War, Edward Thomas bequeathed a degree of textual uncertainty”, writes Longley, and “some issues will always remain undecidable”.

On the one hand, this is disheartening. But on the other, it puts the imagination to work, and imaginative thinking about poetry is never a bad thing. If we picture the poet with his notebook, writing in a hurry, his thoughts faster than his pen – “the best of fountain pens is slow”, he wrote in the essay ‘How I Began’ – it’s perhaps not entirely outlandish to wonder if the ‘not’ was dropped by Thomas himself.

“I never had noticed it until / ’Twas gone”, he wrote at the start of another poem, ‘First Known when Lost’, and loss is a thread that runs through much of his most personal writing, particularly the poetry; even ‘The Owl’ can be read as a poem about loss – a loss of ease. As Paul Kingsnorth puts it in his essay ‘The Poet and the Machine’, Thomas “was in love with the lanes and the downs and the people who called them home, and he knew […] that these things were flaming down a dying arc. He knew he would love and lose, and he wrote to understand how to live with that”.

A century and more after the poet’s death, loss is part of the lexicon. Species loss; biodiversity loss; habitat loss. Were Thomas’s ghost to keep us company on a downhill walk toward the end of an evening, what losses would he notice now? Birds, no doubt, and hedgerows; quietness, perhaps; even inns. He liked a good inn. As for the gladdening cry I heard on the stuffy air in May, it hasn’t been repeated. But then absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and I tell myself that the revenant bird may, hopefully, call again. For love of Edward Thomas and tawny owls, I’ll keep listening.


Books mentioned or quoted from in this post: Owls by Mike Toms (William Collins, 2014), volume 125 in the New Naturalist Library; The Annotated Collected Poems by Edward Thomas, edited by Edna Longley (Bloodaxe Books, 2008); Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn (Enitharmon Press, 2007); Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey (Chatto & Windus, 2005); Poems by Edward Thomas (Selwyn & Blount, 1917; facsimile edition Imperial War Museum, 1997); Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (Faber and Faber, 2011); Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras by Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2015); Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth (Faber and Faber, 2017).

Thomas’s war diary has been scanned by the National Library of Wales, and can be viewed here; other manuscripts and letters written by him and by his wife Helen can be found here.

The owl in the picture (top) is a drowsy tawny spotted one afternoon some years ago on a stretch of the Ross and Monmouth Railway, now a bridleway. Did the author of ‘Adlestrop’ ever travel on it? It’s not impossible. To see the photo in full, click here.

The Met Office reported that May 2020 was the UK’s sunniest May on record, and for England the driest; details here.

The British Trust for Ornithology says the tawny owl was moved onto the Amber List of Birds of Conservation Concern in 2015 “because of concerns that it may have been undergoing a long-term population decline”; more information here. To listen to a staggering 1300-plus recordings of tawny owl calls, courtesy of the online birdsong archive xeno-canto, click here.

Matthew Hollis walks and talks around Thomas’s Hampshire stamping ground in a nice short film made by the Guardian in 2012. The tour takes in Petersfield’s White Horse Inn, one of the poet’s regular haunts and as likely a candidate for the inn in ‘The Owl’ as any. View it here.

And finally: Thomas’s poetic namesake Dylan was taped reading ‘The Owl’ on a tour of America in the early 1950s – though perhaps ‘performing’ would be a better word. It’s a declamatory, stentorian rendition – stresses pounded, vowels quavered, Ts tersely tongued – disconcertingly at odds with the poem’s introspective mindset; and, of course, minus a ‘not’ in line three. You can listen to it here.