‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas and etc.: Has the Owl performed Consistent Symbolism?

—Edward Thomas

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.

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.

Almost in every country the Owl’s cry bears some special significance. Just as a cuckoo’s note creates a sense of pleasure in our mind as a cuckoo visits us during spring time; so an owl’s cry creates in our mind a sense of impending calamity and suffering. The Owl is a nocturnal bird of prey struggling hard for its existence. This suffering gives its cry a special melancholy tone. Nightingale, Cuckoo, Blackbird and Robin are all merry-birds, but the Owl is a gloomy bird.

First take a note on the Owls: The three extant families in the group:  Strigidae (typical owls), Tytonidae (barn owls and grass owls) and Phodilidae (bay owls). Although owls hear some likeness to hawks and eagles once placed with them in the same order, they are not closely related. Unlike other birds of prey, owls have virtually noiseless flight, the butterfly-like flapping of wings being mulled by a velvet-like surface on the night feathers. Owls are protectively coloured, generally brownish. Many Species show two phases of coloration, one in which the brown tends toward red, the other in which it tends toward grey. The females usually are larger than the males.   Owls rest in buildings, holes in trees, or nests abandoned by other birds. Some nest on the aground or in holes in the ground.”-Encyclopedia Britannica, VII, P. 645

While discussing about the Owl, we can well remember The Owl and the Nightingale, a late 12th or early 13th century English poem, is some 2000 lines long. The poem is written as a debate , a popular device in both Latin and French poetry, between the two birds, and the poet ranges over a number of topics including witchcraft, the church, and marriage, giving expression to a wisdom based on experience rather than on schooling, it is difficult to say whether the birds have any consistent symbolism. The gravity of the owl contrasts with the gaiety of the nightingale and suggestions as to the meaning of their respective notes have included theology and art, monasticism and life in the World, winter and summer, and Anglo-Saxon poetry and French poetry. The poem is attributed to Nicholas de Guildford.

Now the poem in focus, The Owl is Edward Thomas’s one of the representative poems and of course, one of his best. All the traits of Thomas as a poet can be found in this poem. The synthetic beauty of the poem is simply unique. The Owl is a poem consisting of sixteen lines, divided into four stanzas of four lines each. In the whole poem the word ‘Owl’ occurs only once in the eighth line. But from the ‘very first line it is felt that something is going to happen, the soldier is going to tell something very important. And when the readers reach the eighth line they realize that it was ‘the owl’s ‘most melancholic cry’ to which their attention ‘was being drawn by the poet. Through the third and fourth stanzas the poet gradually paints the complete picture, i.e., the reactions of the owl’s cry on him and no less on his readers. Therefore, although the word ‘Owl’ occurs only once in the whole poem, yet that one word is the key-word.  

Thepoet was roaming through the hill for hours together. Here is a sharp focus on the undeniable necessity of three fundamental things – food, fire and rest for a healthy and comfortable life. The poem gives two contrasting pictures: fulfillment and deprivation.   The poet came downhill hungry and cold. He was tired too, yet his spirit was high. The speaker   was hungry but not starved when he was coming down the hill.  Though he was trembling by dint of cold, he was warm enough inside to protect him against the chilling north wind. Nothing other than rest under a roof was the ‘sweetest thing’ to him in such hard times. He took shelter at the inn. He got immediate comfort- food, fire and rest- in a room with fireplace to warm up him, food to satisfy his hunger and a bed to lie down.  There he had food, warmth of fireplace and rest which he was then in badly need of. He was too tired to indulge in all the merry-making of the night like singing, dancing, feasting and drinking. He wanted only rest, and that he got.  He wanted to have complete rest, so he abstained from all night-time enjoyments.

But he was very much disturbed by an Owls melancholy cry. Calm and quiet night is contrasted to the screaming voice of an owl penetrated the silence of the night and disturbed the speaker’s mental state.  The plaintive cry of the owl reminded him of the inexplicable suffering which he himself had undergone when he was on the hills reveals the speaker’s conscience and humanity. The poet realized that he was fortunate enough for getting a shelter on such a wintry night. The poet got his shelter, food and rest, on such a night, but there were many, soldiers and poor included, who had to court exposure and uncertainty on such a night.

Whether in prose-writing or verse-making main subjects of interest for Thomas is word-picture of countryside of England and Wales. In this poem the very first word ‘downhill’ takes the reader to the countryside almost instantly. Then the way he starts to narrate his tale makes it a personal poem. The way men suffer in this world, through the machinations of fellow men as well as through the process of nature are the other noteworthy phenomenon.

  As soon as the word Owl is mentioned, we get three characteristics of Thomas in a single stroke-uncertainty—melancholy and love of birds.  The owl’s cry is symbolic of the voice of his conscience. The moment he was going to feed himself in the inn, his conscience woke up and he fell in mind of the suffering soldiers at the front and the starved poor lying under the open sky. The structure of the poem is old —fashioned as the poet’s most poems are in matters of form.   His sympathy for suffering humanity in general, which extends even up to the foe.  This is no case of petty right or wrong. His simple straight style of drawing word-pictures and tenthly. We must not fail to note brevity of the poet — he has used minimum words to convey maximum information and feeling.