This poem is one of those written while the poet was living in Carmarthenshire, in the Boathouse overlooking the estuary of the rivers Taf and Towy, in sight of nearby Sir John’s Hill. To begin to do justice to this feast of linguistic brilliance and poetic virtuosity would demand many a page. In this post, I’m simply picking out five key points of focus. The hill; the hawk; the small birds; and the heron were in part i. Now it’s time for …..
(v) The poet and God.
In this poem, Thomas’s imagination reflects on things that can be seen and heard in the natural world. He’s not preaching at us but, like a modern day ‘Aesop‘, he’s ‘fabling‘. He’s looking for whatever in the world of birds and beasts might possibly convey meaning to human beings. He’s also thinking about where ‘God‘ fits into the picture.
Imagining the ‘water‘ to be like a book, allows him to ‘open’ its ‘leaves‘. In an empty ‘shell‘, he sees a ‘clear‘ image of ‘death‘. In keeping with this he sees yet more predators in ‘the pincered sandcrabs‘ who, reminiscent of the unapologetic hawk, are ‘prancing‘ in anticipation of prey. Such images of death make fitting company for the ‘shadows‘. Shadows are also found in such ‘a passage‘ in the ‘psalms‘ as Psalm 23, where we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” which there, however, is counterbalanced by the light of God’s care, comfort, protection and hope. This raises the issue of where and how God fits in to all of this. He seems characterised by ambivalence. He’s a supposed exemplar of justice and mercy, and yet these seem out of balance, and hard to comprehend, never mind defend.
In stanza 4, the poet is a ‘tell-tale’ who brings the ‘guilt‘ of the ‘led astray‘ birds to the divine notice. Knowing his Bible though, he must know that in Matt. 10:19, God is aware of a even a single sparrow falling to the ground, and the poem does note that God ‘marks the sparrows hail‘ (they ‘hail’ their coming death in stanza 3). There’s no need for any ‘tell-tale‘, not should there be any need for a plea for ‘mercy‘. In what way have the small birds been ‘led astray‘, and wherein lies their ‘guilt‘? What kind of justice is it, that would pass a death sentence on these birds, or rather, that would create a world in which, with no regard for right or wrong, life must eat life in order to live? Why does God respond to such carnage, and to questioning of it, with a ‘whirlwind silence‘? At least, in I Kings 19:11f, out of the tempestuous midst of God’s whirlwind, the prophet Elijah nevertheless heard his “still small voice” of explanation.
Left to ourselves, then, we must live in the world as we find it, and be and do whatever we can to lighten its ‘shadows‘. There will always be unexplained suffering and unanswerable questions, and debate about whether or not there is a God has never made, nor will ever make, any difference to that. Thomas, however, in case there is a God, asks him at least to ‘save‘ the little birds ‘for their breast of whistles‘. Deep down, being much more ‘guilty‘ and ‘led astray‘ than any small birds, he’s perhaps hoping for a compassionate ‘light sentence’ on account of his own poetic ‘whistles‘ which, after all, enshrine his own ‘soul’s song‘. Some ‘community service’ perhaps, since his chances of having enough money to pay a fine would be close to zero?
The ‘elms‘ being now ‘looted‘ of the ‘sparrows and such‘, the poem ends in an elegiac quietness, broken only by ‘a hoot owl‘; the sound of the heron ‘fishing‘ and ‘ankling‘ its way through the waters; and the ‘slow‘ moving tune of a river that’s ‘wearing‘ its ‘willows‘, the weepings of which turn the Towy into one great ‘tear‘. Thomas ‘grieves‘ for a world too often unjust and unmerciful where, in every place, death darkens every day. ‘The lunge of the night‘ will eventually knock him over, in what he described, (in ‘Poem on his Birthday’), as ‘the ambush of his wounds’. Before it’s time for his own grave, however, he’ll ‘grave‘ some ‘notes‘ on a stone, or write some lines on paper, ‘for the sake of‘ creating a lasting memory of ‘the souls of the slain birds‘ in order to keep them ‘sailing‘ and, of course, for his own ‘soul‘ as well. His poetry may be ‘time-shaken‘ but will surely nonetheless endure for as long as time itself.