The sun had begun to set, and I was about to call it a day, when I came upon a crossroads in the middle of empty pastures and harvested cornfields. Utility poles and their drooping lines headed off in all four directions. There were no buildings. But there was, unaccountably, a telephone booth in one corner of the intersection, attached to a utility pole by a cable. (Yet another lost world.)
A signpost stood beside the road near the telephone booth. Wondrously, one of the signpost's arms -- pointing east into the coming dark -- contained the name I was looking for: "Yellow Tavern."
I was so taken by the scene that I decided to call my then-girlfriend (who was three time zones away) in order to tell her that I was standing in the middle of the Virginia countryside at sunset calling her from a lonely telephone booth and that I had just discovered the way to Yellow Tavern. She was not impressed. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I had called her collect to deliver this momentous news.
I'm afraid that I cannot concoct a moral to this story, other than this: even in this day and age, we should be on the lookout for signposts. You never know when one might turn up.
Tristram Hillier, "The Argument" (1943)
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller's-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what 'twould be
To be sixty by this same post. 'You shall see,'
He laughed -- and I had to join his laughter --
'You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
'Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, --
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, --
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?'
Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).
Tristram Hillier, "January Landscape, Somerset" (1962)
Well, well, there is quite a bit to consider in that poem, isn't there? Although Thomas's character is strongly present in nearly every poem he wrote, I believe that "The Signpost" may be the one that captures him best. To use Philip Larkin's phrase (which I have quoted before): "the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind." And we mustn't forget the anecdote that Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" may have been prompted by Thomas's tendency to hesitate or second-guess in choosing between forks in the road when he and Frost went out on walks together in England.
In addition, there is the heartbreaking irony in ". . . the first voice told/The other he wished to know what 'twould be/To be sixty by this same post." We know in sad retrospect that that possibility ended at Arras in April of 1917. But perhaps it doesn't matter: ". . . but either before or after,/Whatever happens, it must befall,/A mouthful of earth to remedy all/Regrets and wishes shall freely be given." (Those lines could just as well have been written by Thomas Hardy, don't you think?)
Finally, there is the astounding technical accomplishment: fifteen rhyming couplets that sound like everyday conversation. This is exactly what Thomas and Frost were after. Who knows what 20th century English and American poetry would have been like had Thomas lived, and had he continued as "the only brother" Frost "ever had"?
Tristram Hillier, "Trott's Lane" (c. 1944)