silent watches

Jul 15, 2021 poetry appreciation

The silent watches of the night haven’t been so silent of late. I live just round the corner from a popular pub, so some of the noise has had to do with En-ger-land (glad that’s over). But a lot has been generated by some extremely vocal owls who have, I swear, taken to sitting on a windowsill very near me in order to have protracted conversations in the small hours. It’s so loud! Fortunately, it’s lovely too.

Owls seem to be one of those things lots of poets bang on about. Edward Thomas’s ‘The Owl‘ is one of my favourites.

Owl poems can go in all sorts of directions. I love the way this one manages to be faithful to the quality of the owl’s cry, and evoke it for us—’a most melancholy cry/ Shaken out long and clear upon the hill’—but at the same time takes us somewhere most unexpected. For the poet, the hoot speaks of the suffering of those left, actually or metaphorically, out in the night ‘as in [he] went’. To remember his good fortune in comparison with others who ‘l[ie] under the stars/… unable to rejoice’ has an impact on the poet’s experience: ‘salted was my food, and my repose,/ Salted and sobered’. That’s such a simple image, and yet so powerful. Yes, salt can bring out the taste of things—hence the poet’s appreciation of his own circumstances—but too much turns the stomach, and we cannot enjoy.

There’s nothing fancy or tricksy about this poem, yet I find that the more I read it the more I appreciate its clarity and depth. Such a wonderful reminder of the “sobering” corollaries of good fortune: our awareness of, and compassion for, those who do not share it.

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