Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Message for the Candidates

The Owl

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.


* * *

This poem was written by a British poet and army officer who was killed in the Great War. He had been Robert Frost's beloved friend-in-the-art in before either became famous, and in all his long life Frost never had another such intimacy.

Neither Donald J. Trump nor Ted Cruz will ever read this poem. I doubt that, in real life, either would even notice the voice of an owl, let alone speculate about it. For their part, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may have read it at some point in the past, but they probably don't reserve much time for poetry these days. Both are bright enough to comprehend a version of its point, but could they press themselves into its impossibilities? I suspect not.

I like this poem for many reasons, not least because it forces me to face the moral ambiguities of comfort. The poet's food and rest are "salted" by the owl's voice, yet the owl speaks "for all who lay under the stars, / . . . unable to rejoice." The inclusion of "sobered" doesn't take away from the starkness of that "salted" . . . just as knowing that others are miserable does not altogether dampen our deep, civilizing delight in physical ease. I say "civilizing" but I might have said "animal comfort." Is it possible that they are the same?

In other words: what are the costs when people fail to imagine?

* * *

I thank A. E. Stallings for reminding me of this poem today, and for her continuing advocacy for the Syrian and Afghan families "who [lie] under the stars, / . . . unable to rejoice," yet who do rejoice, because they are human and alive.

No comments: