Edward Thomas was born in London. Financial pressures gave him little choice but to compile anthologies, prepare hundreds of book reviews and write over thirty books on literary and topographical subjects. This unceasing work could not have helped the serious bouts of depression from which he frequently suffered. It was not until he met the American poet, Robert Frost, that Thomas found the confidence to write. For many years he was read, if he was read at all, for his finely detailed descriptions of the English countryside. Few readers recognised that his poetry was as much about himself as it was about nature. This poem brings to mind the more famous one by Robert Frost, “The road not taken” about journeys and choices. Frost hinted that this poem was a sly dig at Thomas, who was famously indecisive when it came to making choices.
Frost’s poem was considered as a life affirming, positive poem. Thomas’ poems is altogether bleaker. A cold monochrome pervades the first few lines and the characteristic despair kicks in at the end of the first verse: “At twenty you wished you had never been born”. This poem explores a number of related themes including those of life and death, youth and age, decision and indecision, the change in a person’s perspective over time, about the choices we make and, in the end, how one should appreciate life.
The poem opens by describing a wintry seascape, this helping to establish already the idea of the passage of time as we normally associate seascapes with spring or summer. The narrator is walking along a deserted stretch of seacoast, observing the “rough, long grasses” that “keep white with frost” on the winter day. The narrator comes to the signpost with arrows giving directions to different destinations and asks himself where he wants to go. This, of course, is symbolically one of the most important questions each person faces in his or her life. No sooner does the speaker wonder which way he should go, when the “voice” of his youth reminds him that when he was young he wouldn’t the “doubted” his instinct but instead would have made a quick decision. Yet, “another voice” reminds the speaker, and the voice of youth, that when he was young he was full of gloomy pessimism and despair and had then wished that he “had never been born”.
The image of a “hazel lost a leaf of gold” symbolizes the passage of time, thereby enhancing ‘time’ as a prevalent theme throughout the poem. He continues to wonder what choice he would make when he’s sixty years old. The second voice- the voice of mature experience takes over and emphasizes on the inevitability of death and burial ( “A mouthful of earth to remedy all”). The final reality of death makes human life at “any age” and human experience of any kind seem valuable. This mature voice criticizes the speaker’s pessimistic view of things when he was twenty. He says that if he experiences any kind of consciousness after he is dead, his “wish maybe to be here or anywhere” no matter the situation. Merely to exist can seem a joy, to “see what day or night can be” and witness “the sun and the frost, the land and the sea” whether he is “poor man” or a “king”. Thus the poem ends with the speaker admonishing his younger, pessimistic self to appreciate even having the free will to choose his own paths in life as the destination in the end (i.e. death) is same for everyone, from “A poor man of any sort, down to a king”.
Though Thomas did not live for very long, he crammed a lot of experience, good and bad, into the thirty nine years he lived. This poem of mature years, is reflective and meditative, leaving a permanent impact on the readers’ mind.