Nathaniel Perry
Breathing and Interested: The Bequests of Edward Thomas


I want to tell you a story about my daughter Jane Bell. Not long ago, she was nearly five at the time, we were walking to get the mail. Our driveway is long—about two-fifths of a mile from the house to the mailbox—so it is a substantial hike for someone with short legs. But the kids are always game for it. Well, the time I’m referring to now it was just me and Rache (our oldest) and Jane Bell headed down to the mail on a chilly windy day. The clouds hung overhead like a fixture with a bulb out, not looming or menacing, but something still to notice. What JB had noticed, though, was beneath the clouds: a crow and a vulture sort of circling one another. Now, I know these birds don’t really interact, unless they are bickering over the same carcass, but to Jane Bell, they were engaged in some sort of skydance.


I asked her what she was looking at and she replied, “I’m watching the crows. They’re interesting.”


I didn’t really know how to respond—by telling her they weren’t both crows? By pointing out that most people don’t look twice at crows or vultures? In the end I think I let her just have her moment. I would give a lot to know exactly what was passing through her head then, exactly what was ‘interesting.’


After we made it to the mailbox (in it was some fabric for my wife’s sewing business, clippings and stickers from a grandmother, a poetry journal, and ads), Janey immediately turned and started running back towards home with Rache on her heels. She didn’t stop, and I saw her next in the house under a blanket eating a roll and waiting for me.

What I kept thinking about as I walked the dogs back up the driveway in the cold wake of my kids who had disappeared back up over the hill, were all the times I have showed her, or any of them, something I thought was ‘interesting,’ or something I thought they would think was ‘interesting.’ Lots of times, I’ve been right, and they’ve marveled for a few respectful seconds and then run back to whatever they had been doing. Other times, they haven’t even cared that much. But this crow thing, it was an ‘interest’ of her own making and discovering. No one had told her to find it interesting; it wasn’t a big sensation on YouTube or a science video at school. It was her eye composing the world. This is exactly what Emerson was talking about nearly two hundred years ago, and something a lot of us still easily can forget how to do.


I want to turn now to a poem, and to what anyone would consider a very unusual poem to think about in the context of parenting and intuition and the world. But in the context of the ‘interest’ that Jane Bell suggested on our walk to the mailbox, I think it makes plenty of sense. This is a war poem by Edward Thomas and, I think, one of the most emotionally intense poems in English. It is certainly the best homefront poem I know of. And Thomas, as Matthew Hollis’ wonderful recent biography reminds us, was not only a great friend of Robert Frost’s, but he was a dedicated father. He was in many ways a miserable man—constantly tortured by indecision (Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has Thomas mockingly in mind), tortured by the ways his life did not match up to what he’d imagined, and tortured by his difficulties in providing for his family. But in all Thomas’ poems, the knowledge of a father of young children is not far below the surface. I’m not trying to make a cloying biographical reading here, it wouldn’t be there. But what is here, is the same concept Jane Bell was getting at, and what her crows are getting at, of course. Let’s look at the poem:


Blenheim Oranges


Gone, gone again,

May, June, July,

And August gone,

Again gone by,


Not memorable

Save that I saw them go,

As past the empty quays

The rivers flow.


And now again,

In the harvest rain,

The Blenheim oranges

Fall grubby from the trees,


As when I was young—

And when the lost one was here—

And when the war began

To turn young men to dung.


Look at the old house,

Outmoded, dignified,

Dark and untenanted,

With grass growing instead


Of the footsteps of life,

The friendliness, the strife;

In its beds have lain

Youth, love, age, and pain:


I am something like that;

Only I am not dead,

Still breathing and interested

In the house that is not dark:—


I am something like that:

Not one pane to reflect the sun,

For the schoolboys to throw at—

They have broken every one.



I think we can read the first two stanzas here as describing the speaker’s own early life; so in our reading, a father’s remembrance (or lack thereof) of his own childhood. What he remembers, or claims to remember, is nothing but the passage of time—months. Except, of course, this is an adult’s memory; children rarely think about the months in the way we do. And he belies this adult perspective with the simile that ends the second stanza (the familiar river of time). He then brings the poem back to the present with a natural image.


In the harvest rain

The Blenheim Oranges

Fall grubby from the trees.


These ‘oranges,’ (Blenheim Oranges are really a cultivar of apple, used mostly in cooking), which should have been harvested by men, but are instead being harvested by rain, arrest the speaker into ‘interest.’  Just like Jane Bell on our walk down the driveway, we feel the poem pause and turn as the speaker looks up to consider this image. It takes him right back to memory, which he now sees with slightly more detail—“As when I was young / And when the lost one was here.” Notice too, as the ‘interest’ takes hold, the rhyme scheme becomes less predictable as well. But what he remembers (the ‘lost one,’ a friend perhaps? someone not much older than a child?) brings him back to the more recent past—the beginning of the First World War.


As were all Edward Thomas’ poems, this poem was written in the last few years of his life, before he was killed in the war, at Arras. So there is often something elegaic in the way we hear his voice (it was a time of vast cultural elegy as well), but this poem feels full too of the difficulty of preserving what little the world still seems to offer (those good apples gone grubby and untaken). With such a tone well-established, the poem moves to its main image; the deserted and broken-eyed house.


Look at the old house,

Outmoded, dignified,

Dark and untenanted,


As is often the case with images in a poem, this one seems to have double meaning. After having described his somewhat empty memory of childhood in the early stanzas, the reader immediately connects the empty house to the speaker of the poem—‘outmoded, dignified.’ This poem in its seemingly neatly rhymed quatrains is definitely dignified, and already, in the swirl of art in the early 20th century, maybe a little outmoded too. It is a poem that is no longer a child (carefree, new) but it has been, at points, full of “youth, love, age and pain.” But then, not content with the simple metaphor, Thomas draws the connection himself with his lucid and chilling refrain—“I am something like that;”


Only I am not dead,

Still breathing and interested

In the house that is not dark:—


And this is it—the moment where the poem explodes out of its historical moment and into the realm of universal human experience. The word ‘interested’ would be the most noticeable word in the stanza even without its connection to the anecdote with which I began this essay. With its amazing ear-boggling rhyme with ‘dead,’ the word almost resurrects the dead in its offness. But it is also off in diction; it is a word that seems scientific, observational, uncommitted. We expect, in this elegiac mode, on the heels of the 19th century, something more like ‘I pine’ for the undarkened house, or I am ‘griefstricken’ or who knows what. But ‘interested’ throws the reader back on her heels. We are ‘breathing and interested’ and that is a pretty solid definition of what it means to be alive. When Jane Bell looked up at those birds, she did not see a cold excluding sky, she did not complain immediately about the wintry wind puffing her wispy hair out around the rim of her pulled-down homemade hat, but she saw two black birds who, to her, were not dark. The world was enlightened by their presence—and she, though she may not have been able to put it into words, wanted to know how they did it. Or perhaps she just wanted to watch them do it. She was, suddenly, interested.


Now, I’ll finish looking at the poem in a minute (I know we can’t leave it off there without some fussing), but let’s keep thinking about that word ‘interested.’ How do we cultivate this kind of interest? Both in our kids and in ourselves? Is it an interest that we can share? It is I think, an awareness of paradox, an awareness of suddenly shifting expectations, an awareness, of course, of beauty, but also an awareness of the beauty of experience. I think, too, it is something we can

practice. Here’s an example from outside the parenting or poetry world. We keep a small group of chickens, whose numbers fluctuate based on the availability of laying hens in our area and the hunger and tenacity of our local hawks and owls. At the moment, we are down to only three hens and one rooster. Though we have so few, the hens are young and have audaciously laid eggs all through the winter, so they’ve been a real surprise. The rooster, as are many of his tribe, is a renowned jerk in our family, though he does admittedly do his job. He has of late been picking on the smaller of the hens—chasing her around, dominating her endlessly in the various ways that happens (…), and basically making me wonder if he knows something I didn’t know, like if she was sick or hurt or something along those lines. Now you can’t take a chicken to the vet, so there’s not really anything I’d do if she were sick, but you still worry about any creature under your direct care, so I’ve been worrying.


When I went out to shut the coop last night, I noticed she wasn’t in with the others, and I found her hunkered down in the leaves up by the edge of the fenceline. She saw me coming to check on her and hightailed it—as only a hen can do, with wild squawking and windmilling feet— into the coop. As I bent to look in the little grated window on the back of the coop to see if I could get a better look at her, she popped her head up into the window, just inches from my nose. It so startled me, and the look on her face (if chickens compose their looks) was one of such wide-eyed surprise to see me there that I fell back laughing and laughing. Seconds after that I noticed from her rear feathers that she may indeed be a little sick, so I stopped my laughing and resumed my mild state of concern. However, it is that moment of laughter that gives me pause. What is that part of the mind that reacts to things how they ought to be reacted to, instead of always filtering observations through the context of the moment, or through what the mind has been engaged in prior to the moment? The hen’s face was funny, even though her being sick was certainly not funny, and for a brief moment of relief, I found it funny.


It is easy to get mad at our kids when they lose focus, or stop paying attention ten seconds after they promised they would give us their full attention. But it seems imperative to find a way to differentiate between lapses in focus, and the sudden onset of ‘interest.’ Kids are, of course, interested in ‘the house that is not dark,’ because most of them (thankfully) have not had much experience with the dark kind. And even when they have, the light tends to dominate. But parents are often on the other side of that slide. We forget about the house with light, we have to remind ourselves, as Thomas reminds himself, that we are indeed ‘breathing’ and still ‘interested.’ Thomas in fact, in the last stanza of the poem (which we will look at) tries to pull back from the power of that breathing self, but he doesn’t fully leave it. The reader leaves the poem if not with hope, than with the awareness of awareness, which is certainly more than darkness. And we can keep this in mind with our kids. We have to be aware that they are aware of the world in flux, with all its sudden changes and paradoxes and moods.


The human world often seems, to us and to them, somehow controllable and predictable (though it really isn’t of course). The natural world, or non-human world, or whatever you want to call it, though, is often the essence of interest. There are a thousand things to catch the eye—the hue of morning light laid up against a tree trunk, a flock of sparrows rising suddenly out of the bracken at the edge of the woods, a cardinal hopping and hunting in a patch of muddy winter cover- grass, the surprising green of the pine, the bamboo someone improbably planted twenty years ago. We can notice these things, and we notice our kids noticing them. We can then take this understanding of the peripatetic eye back in the house and be a little less judgmental when things shift suddenly, when interest moves our kids’ minds (and our own minds) away from the moment.


And, weirdly, this can lead us to the end of the poem. Thomas repeats his refrain, now darkly considered:


I am something like that:

Not one pane to reflect the sun,

For the schoolboys to throw at –

They have broken every one.


Though this seems to pull us away from the hopefulness, or awareness at least, of being ‘breathing and interested,’ it doesn’t quite. The observation seems almost sort of a denoument in the poem, or a deflation of what it had previously given the reader. We are not surprised to see Thomas return to grief and the adult awareness of loss, but it does not undo the ‘interest’ from the previous stanza. In my reading, in fact, it throws it into greater relief. The speaker is both ‘breathing and interested,’ and terrifically fractured and sad. I intimated in the last paragraph that this ending has something to do with being outside, and it seems significant that the poem stays out of the house. The speaker is indeed standing in the non-human world (or at least not under a roof) when he makes this final observation. His being interested, and outside, has allowed him to understand his contradictory but very human position—he is both alive and like the dead he is mourning. Maybe Jane Bell, though not thinking about death, was having a similar awareness of contradiction; the birds were not the same but were acting the same. The sky was grey, perhaps, but not the grey she’d expected. Who knows? She realized something almost unnamable, saw herself as part of a much larger thing, and was interested, breathing and alive.


Let’s turn our discussion of Thomas to a poem he wrote for one of his daughters. I think it gets at this interest in the context of parenting a bit differently, and in perhaps a more direct way. It is the third poem in a suite of four ‘Household Poems,’ one written for each of his three children and one for his wife. This is the one is for his youngest daughter:




What shall I give my daughter the younger

More than will keep her from cold and hunger?

I shall not give her anything.

If she shared South Weald and Havering,

Their acres, the two brooks running between,

Paine’s Brook and Weald Brook,

With pewit, woodpecker, swan and rook,

She would be no richer than the queen

Who once on a time sat in Havering Bower

Alone, with the shadows, pleasure and power.

She could do no more with Samarcand,

Or the mountains of a mountain land

And its far white house above cottages

Like Venus above the Pleiades.

Her small hands I would not cumber

With so many acres and their lumber,

But leave her Steep and her own world

And her spectacled self with hair uncurled,

Wanting a thousand little things

That time without contentment brings.



I love this kind of poem—the sort that shatters all expectations from the very beginning. That third line—“I shall not give her anything”—is just so arresting and surprising, the reader reads on newly centered on what the poem has to say. This is a poem that doesn’t focus on the ‘interest’ of the first poem with as much clarity, but it is there beneath the surface of the poem’s conclusions. Let’s look at how Thomas gets there. After claiming he won’t give his daughter anything, Thomas moves along to suggest all the things she might have had from him (and, since this is a poem, he, in a sense, is giving her anyway), which in this poem are mostly places and their non-human inhabitants.

Thomas was a great walker and bicyclist—he knew enormous swaths of countryside and their country lanes by heart—and for him, there maybe were no greater things than small sights like “Paine’s Brook and Weald brook, / with pewit, woodpecker, swan and rook.” The pair of proper nouns gives the little girl all at once both pain and wellness (‘weald’ being a forest, but ‘weal’meaning something like ‘well’ or ‘good’), and the animals suggest the presence of life beyond and behind our human ones.


Now Thomas clearly loves these things. We can tell by the way he sets these named places and things in the context of the meter and rhyme of this poem1 —so why not ‘give’ them to his little daughter? Perhaps by withholding the names and places, Thomas hopes to keep awake in his daughter her native awareness of the world, to let her own original imagination name and dictate and become interested in the world around her. She will one day have these things and others like them, but perhaps she does not yet need them. He continues the poem by suggesting that these names, the beauty in these places, are indeed riches—the little girl becomes a kind of queen in the subsequent lines—but she is not a happy queen. She, with her future speculative human riches, is “Alone, with the shadows, pleasure and power.” How different from the bird-encrusted brooks we just passed over… The poem then imagines as Myfanwy’s gift the universe entire; it moves from England out to the near-east (all the exotic sand and silk and glitter of the place are captured by the single name of Samarcand) and then further out to some imagined kingdom of mountains and cottages with its lonely ruling ‘white house’ and up to the stars, where Venus rules in the image above the seven sisters of the darkened sky.


So he has both given her and not given her these things. They are given in language by being present in the poem, but are withheld as true gifts. They are gifts he has imagined giving her but has decided against. Why? Because he has a better gift for her. He will


… leave her Steep and her own world,

And her spectacled self with hair uncurled,

Wanting a thousand little things

That time without contentment brings.


The image of home returns the girl to her innocence first off. She is no longer the sad stately queen from the earlier lines, but is again a quiet disheveled curious little girl (we read the curiosity in the metonym of those glasses perhaps). But in that innocence is also crucial knowledge—the knowledge of ‘her own world.’ Thomas was fully in love with his own world. As I said before, he knew the countryside and the country lanes and his country neighbors and probably individual trees better than most people know their friends. So this, for Thomas, was the ultimate gift, the thing you already have. It is important to notice that he does give that local world its name—Steep— reminding us again that language is important in shaping the world, but now it is a word that belongs too to his daughter and her imagination, which is, we presume, the true ruler of ‘her own world.’


Thoreau and Emerson, of course, go on at great length about our need to travel in our own worlds, to locate the marvelous and wonderful in the grounds we find around us. In fact the American nature writing tradition is full of this kind of exploration of what the poet George Scarbrough calls ‘the county world’—the near world, the personal world. But these writers almost exclusively talk about this kind of understanding of the world in the context of solitude, a single man or woman out exploring, understanding and composing the world. Edward Thomas, though, in this poem and in others may be one of the few writers I can think of to link this kind of understanding of beauty and knowledge also to the role of the father or mother. Certainly the young Myfanwy here is a picture of semi-content solitude—but, like the house at the end of “Blenheim Oranges,” she is being watched. So Thomas takes up the classic stance of the parent—full of knowledge, and unsure how to give it to his child or not even sure if he wants or needs to give it to her.


Consider for a moment how the poem ends, again on a seemingly down note. The little girl sits uncontented and destined to remain in a world without contentment. But these lines, as in the first poem we looked at, make for more of a paradoxical ending than one might at first think. Haven’t we just learned in the first half of the poem that the contentment of desires is either impossible or unwise? Little Myfanwy has already been the queen of the universe in this poem, and that contentment, that ultimate fulfillment did nothing to make her future-self less inquisitive or less needy for more knowledge, more names for the things she finds. So I think the parent has to read those last lines as not so much an indictment of his or her inability to find happiness for their children or to give it to them, but instead as a realization that somewhere in being unfulfilled is the chance at happiness. To always be needing to know more, to be always wondering what a bird is saying or where the pewit nests, is to be always trying to understand the world (never caring, Thomas suggests, if we own it or not). These ‘thousand little things’ are not, in my reading, the smartphones and hair-bows and half-mocha caramel iced soy venti lattes of our contemporary world, but instead are more akin to the ten thousand things of Taoism, the (seemingly) little things that literally make the world—woodpeckers, rooks, pain and Paine’s brook.


So Thomas, at the end of the poem, knows what all of us know—that the world is difficult and sad, and that we can never have enough of it. But he also knows that contained within that fact is also all the joy of being in the world. We cannot prepare our children for what the world won’t give them, but we can let them take what it will give them without getting in the way. I hope that is what I did for Jane Bell that day on the driveway. She hasn’t mentioned the two birds since then— they did not bring her contentment I suppose, but they did bring her the knowledge of it. She was ‘interested,’ as Myfanwy clearly is at the end of Thomas’ poem, and that in itself is enough. When you are ‘interested’ in something, that interest almost assumes at its start that you won’t find out all that you want or need to know. When in the fall I kneel to inspect a flowering roadside weed, I learn nothing other than what my hands and eyes can tell me. But that is OK, or more than OK. I may even forget to look up the name later, but it is the interest in the moment that keeps me breathing, that keeps us moving through the world with our eyes open. I hope beyond anything else I can give her, that I can give that to Jane Bell, or leave her to it, more accurately. I hope she will not go to war like Thomas and so many of his friends, and I hope she will not become ensnared in the glittering constellations of things she thinks she wants to have. But I can’t stop her. I can instead, like Thomas in his beautiful poems, give her the want, the desire, to see those thousand good little things, and always be interested in them. And, god willing, I’ll be breathing for a good long while beside her as she goes.


Found In Volume 48, No. 04
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Nathaniel Perry
About the Author

Nathaniel Perry is the author of Nine Acres (APR/Copper Canyon), which won the 2011 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize.  He is the editor of the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and lives with his family in rural southside Virginia.