Sunday, 20 September 2015

Edward Thomas: 'The New House'

Photo: Martin Dawes/Geograph

The New House, by Edward Thomas

This is a short post, because I’m in the throes of moving house (for the third time in three years), which has given rise to some predictable thoughts about the housing crisis in the UK, and the way in which property, and the lack of it, is dividing families, communities, and society. These sheltering boxes of bricks, concrete, stone and wood seem to have acquired a greater value than the lives lived in them, and are treated with far more reverence and respect.  

But I also started thinking about impermanence and human illusions of ownership and security in general, and Edward Thomas’s poem, The New House, came to mind. If I was asked to provide an example of what poetry can do that prose cannot, this would probably be it. In just 16 lines, the poem precisely captures an emotion that is strange, fleeting, and subtle, but at the same time instantly recognisable.  

The genius of this poem lies in the fact that Thomas chooses a new house to convey the sadness of passing time, using his anticipatory melancholy about the life and loss that will be lived within its walls in the future. 

The conventional way to reflect on the fragility of life and inevitable decay would have been to write about an old, deserted house: it is not unusual to experience a frisson of melancholia in an abandoned building or a mossy ruin. 

But the leap of Thomas’s imagination that propels the reader into the future, to mourn a past that is still to come, is utterly original, and the simple beauty of the last two lines in particular makes an indelible impression on the memory.

Edward Thomas died two years after he wrote The New House. He was killed in the First World War, at the battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917, aged 39. I can’t tell you much about the houses he lived in, but I think that this poem, which is now 100 years old, and the others he wrote, will outlive the houses that survived him. 

The New House, by Edward Thomas 

Now first, as I shut the door,
     I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
     Began to moan.
Old at once was the house,
     And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
     Of what was foretold,
Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
     Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain: old griefs and griefs
     Not yet begun.
All was foretold me; naught
     Could I foresee;
But I learned how the wind would sound
     After these things should be.

March 1915

Edward Thomas, 1878-1917

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