The Calm and the Restless

The plainness of Edward Thomas' “The Owl” vs. the struggle of Gerard Manley Hopkins' “Carrion Comfort.”

Robert Pinsky in Slate:

ScreenHunter_03 Apr. 22 11.45 Paint may be troweled or knifed onto the canvas in thick strokes or dribbled or splashed. In other works, the painter's strokes might be delicate, the surface nearly flat. Sometimes orchestration is elaborate or dense. Sometimes it is minimal and plain.

In a comparable way, one poem might generate its emotion with eloquent plainness, the force of directness. Another poem might work by turbulent or ecstatic or violent elaboration, the force of eruption. The two classic poems for this week illustrate what I mean.

“The Owl” by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) presents its narrative with a mild, somewhat conversational simplicity: Downhill I came, the speaker explains; then I was at the inn; then I heard the owl; and what the owl's cry brought to mind made me regard my comfort as “salted and sobered.” The poem gets its power from fine, crucial variations from ordinary speech. For instance, both “salted” and “sobered” fit the vocabulary of an inn—a place where salt is consumed and where people are sobered or not. The moral meanings of the phrase—comfort is both relished and tempered by a reminder of its opposite—grow out of that plain vocabulary. In the line after he uses the word “plain,” Thomas deploys some effective, precise words of one syllable; while he “escaped,” others in his predicament “could not, that night, as in I went.” Thomas' penetrating but apparently simple language—like a fine, scentless oil—goes deep into its subject. His moral reflection is tentative rather than assertive, minimal rather than sweeping, quiet rather than loud, and candid about appreciating his own good fortune. The poem respects the mysterious nature of fortune, and expresses that respect with its even, temperate voice. (There's an irony to the word “soldiers” in the final line. Thomas died as a soldier in World War I. He is the subject of the elegy “To E.T.” by his friend Robert Frost.)

More here.