British poet Edward Thomas, who deserves to be better-known in the U. S., is one of the best nature poets I’m aware of. And today’s ode to the beginnings of spring shows one reason why. Like many a good nature poet, Thomas’ landscape, animals, and plants are infused not only with his region’s specifics, but with his own understanding of the order and significance of life. What takes his poetic observation to a next level? In this poem, it’s, well — bird poop.
Here’s a link to the text of “But These Things Also.” This is a grey poem about and often grey time, despite all the odes to the greenness and new-found warmth cataloged in other spring poems. In the reduced contrast of this poem’s palette, white splashes against grey make up its color field. Thomas (who didn’t make it past middle age,* but who could have been myopic) sees plausible flowers emerging. It’s not. It’s bird droppings. Here, nature instructs, changes his poem from an otherwise competent one to a better one. The later appearance of starlings, the British bird of indifferent song and nuisance potential, are foreshadowed (foreshite?) — and we might know (as Thomas certainly would have) that the starlings flocks are startling in their amazing patterned flights. Life and spring may well get on with amazement after first meagre overtures.
“In splashes of the purest white” vs. “Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle on the milky way” Thomas vs. Wordsworth in a springtime faeces & flowers battle
You can hear my rock-band setting of Edward Thomas’ “But These Things Also” below, but before I leave off writing about his poem, let me speak a bit about what I note about the poem’s use of rhyme. Like another great nature poet, Emily Dickinson, Thomas here is not over-determined by his need to make perfect rhymes, and the ABCB scheme starts right off with a sight rhyme of “grass” with “was.” Let’s not mark him down a grade, because the poem has a great deal of near rhyme, an effect that I find often more effective than ding-dong perfect rhymes. The pair of adjacent words “earliest” and “violets” are as strong to me as violet’s eventual end-rhyme with “debts.” And “debts” still hears the echo of the preceding “dung” and following “mist.” You may hear other consonance, assonance, and pararhymes in Thomas’ word choices.
It’s these sorts of things that make me resistant to some poetic formalists. While perfect regularity can reinforce a sense of fate (or to be honest about my own response, boredom) — irregular rhyme appearances, and variations to and from perfect rhyme, can evoke surprise and discovery.
OK, enough dancing about architecture. Let’s get onto the audio piece, the performance. Graphical player below for some of you, and if not, this highlighted link that’ll open an audio player. This is one of those pieces where I wish there was a better singer than myself handy, but it was still fun to move from chair to chair to create this one-man-band recording. I recorded this close enough together with our last piece, Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone,” that I’m thinking if this was a polished prog-rock album that I’d fade the two pieces into a 7-minute medley.
*I decided to insert into Thomas’ ode my own aged vision issues, by making “man” in his text, “old man” in my performance.