Old Man - Edward Thomas


Introduction/General Points

Central Theme: Contrast between age and youth whilst the title 'Old Man', summarises the subject of the poem: exploring the elusiveness of memory; by combining one of the names of the herb with what perhaps is a jest about the impotence of the speaker's failing memory. 

Loose Iambic Pentameter: Creates mood of reflection, the metre (often in background) conjures the impression of a soliloguy/dramatic monologue. Deviations from it suggest the ambling lethargy of speaker.

Irregular Blank Verse: Accompanied with Iambic Pentameter, creates an unsettling sense of unpredictability, underlining the idea that language and memory, which identify us, cannot always be relied upon - revealed more explicitly later in the poem.

Structure: Structured into four stanzas, perhaps reflective of the fact Thomas' daughter Myfanwy was four when this poem was written ('the child'?)

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Stanza One

  • 'Old Man' and 'Lad's-love' antithesis of the two folk names of long-cultivated herb Southernwood, contrasts age and youth to convey reflection upon memory within the poem.
  • Reinforced by elusive qualities of the herb in oxymoronic description 'hoar-green', silvery-green tone connoting idea of the contradiction of age and youth - clue to the folk name Old Man.
  • Although description suggesting the herb lacks attractiveness, also later describes its 'bitter scent', it is contrasted with 'rosmary and lavender', theme Thomas develops in poetry: sentimental value and cherished memories out ranks exterior beauty in importance.
  • The speaker 'likes' folk names of the herb, but dislikes the bitter scent - equivocation conjuring the elusiveness of memory.
  • Further justified in the word inversion that puts 'clings' before the negating 'not', encouring both positive and negative meanings momentarily. Given a sense of clinging - the speaker takes interest in the plant for its names and 'clings not' in that they seem incongruous with the physicality of the plant.
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Stanza One (Continued)

  • Develops theme of naming: herb is personified 'half decorate, half perplex', repetition of 'half' suggesting inadequecy, whilst 'decorate and 'perplex' isolate themselves as only polysyllabic words in last four lines - prominence itself suggesting incongruence between matter and name.
  • Implicit irony, just as its name is made to sound inappropriate, its response makes it fully inhabit the ‘Old Man’ title - herb itself is in a state of confusion, as if it an old man - paradoxical feeling of awkward self-consciousness.
  • Made aware of discrepancy between names and herb, impotence of names to evoke 'the thing is it'. Identified by herbs unusual names, is remebered fondly, by one who 'knows it well' - phrase suggesting a familiarity of wealth and memory associations, an idea challenged later in the poem.
  • However, contrasted with the gentle internal rhymes, 'tree' and 'rosmary', 'things' and 'clings', conjuring a sense of fond, but distant reminiscence - elusiveness of these memories.
  • Repetition of 'names' throughout stanza, focuses attention on limitations of language, especially to remind us of our memories.
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Stanza Two

  • Longer stanza length draws attention to the significance of the relationship between child and speaker, their differences and similarities where the herb and enjoyement are concerned. Emphatic of importance of child's memories ensuring she never experiences frustration/desolation of speaker.
  • The relentless, free-spirited actions of the child is conveyed through the onomatpoeic sibillance of present-continuous tense dynamic verbs 'snipping' and 'shriveling' - herb has no sentimental value to child and is just something that passes 'whenever she goes in or out of the house'. This precise modification, Thomas' need to capture the scent it evokes. Ironic due to elusiveness of plant. 
  • The vividity of the actions of 'the child', suggest speaker is projecting his own memories on the vision, an effect strengthened by the neater, more consistent adherance to iambic pentameter in this stanza, increasing movement and confidence to the lines.
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Stanza Two (Continued)

  • Speaker is obsessed with herb and it's failure to deliver memories - controlling. Contrast with child clipping herb so that 'it is but half as tall as she', she may not suffer in the same way by ensuring it is kept it in proportion.
  • The foreshortened line ending the stanza 'Forbidding her to pick', emphasises the speaker's prevention with its echoes of the Garden of Eden, suggestive of attempting to protect the child's innocence - does not wish her to experience this desolation. Line also replicates the sense of interruption by the speaker whilst the child is picking the herb.
  • The effect of the shortened line is to give a sense of brutality and suddenness, implying a more complex relationship with the plant, or specifically, the memorit of it, that suggested in the first stanza.
  • Reinforced by the irregularity of the blank verse rhythm of the poem, frequently interrupted by caesura and enjambement, not only mirroring the child's attempt to pick the herb, but also how the speaker's attempts to remember what the scent evokes are futile. 
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Stanza Three

  • More conflicted, troubled narrative voice. Herb is depicted similarly to before 'bitter', 'shreds' and 'shrivel' - as appeared before. However, the order and proximity conjures a harsher image of the herb. The speaker claims the herb makes him 'think of nothing', contradictory to the vivid detailed visions previously seen. We imagine the speaker is reflecting upon the past, a reflection that childhood gets forgotten quickly. The result being bleakness - cataphorically referencing to the fragmented final line. 
  • The speaker is frustrated that the scent of the herb is evocative, yet what is evokes remains tantalising but out of reach. His repeated attempts to capture to memory within the scent are 'always in vain', the caesura, emphasising the metaphorical locked door to memory. 
  • It is a paradox the scent has 'meaning' yet the speaker cannot remember why it is meaningful.
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Stanza Four

  • The speaker attempts again to recall memories but the repetition of 'nothing' forcefully conveys an impression of bleakness and emptiness.
  • The evocative metaphor 'I have mislaid the key', portrays both profound helplessness in its figurative sense, and the banal tragedy or forgetfulness literally. 
  • The speaker is able to provide context for the scent in terms of 'the child', and together with - ironically - resounding asyndetic list drawing the poem to a close, showing build up of negativity illustrated in anaphora of 'no', provides clues to what he hoped the scent would evoke - a childhood in sunlit Eden, a paradise with playmate or parents. He percieves childhood to be a paradise he wishes to regain, to which recapture lost innocence.
  • The depiction of the 'hoar-green bush' anaphorically links back to the 3rd line as if all Thomas' attempts to recall memory is being unwound. The final image of essentially a hell, without joy or hope, language, meaning, unchanging and never-ending. It is extraordinarily bleak, desolate image, seeming to reflect death.
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Stanza Four (Continued)

  • The 'nameless avenue' is seemingly a paradox that should lead somewhere, similar to the herb promising to evoke but does not, it is bitter. Thomas is perhaps highlighting language has limitations, but a place without language is a place or horror. Furthermore the speaker remains 'nameless' because without his memories, he has no identity.
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