Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw,
A thousand years ago even as now,
Black rooks with white gulls following the plough
So that the first are last until a caw
Commands that last are first again, – a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.
Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.
Edward Thomas, February 1916
Edward Thomas enlisted in July 1915, fought in the First World War, and was killed in the Battle of Arras in 1917. His poems turn repeatedly to rural England, but in a way that indicates the distinctly modern concerns of the early 20th century. February Afternoon was written while he was a Lance Corporal instructing officers at Hare Hall Camp in Essex.
Written in a period of violent change and uncertainty, this poem claims to recognise a timeless quality in the patterns of the “natural world”. Yet at the same time the slightly archaic diction such as “caw” (the sound of a crow or rook) and “shaw” (a copse or thicket, often bordering a field) gives the poem a slightly antiquated tone. The prominence of these words are increased by their position within the “embracing” rhyme of the sonnet’s opening eight-line stanza (the stanza comprises two groups of four lines in which the outer and inner pairs of lines rhyme, rather than, for example, a sequence of four couplets). The recognition of the apparently unchanging habits of birds counterposes the limits of the human lifespan with the much more gradual changes that take place in the surrounding environment.
Within the poem the passage of time is not a simple, measurable phenomenon. Of the poem’s fourteen lines, nine are run-on. The regular rhyme-scheme becomes a more reliable means of gauging the passage of time through the poem than the division of the sonnet into fourteen discrete units of ten syllables. But at the same time, the internal rhyme and half-rhyme brings about an element of disruption that offsets the regularity; as “first” and “last” are repeated on the following line, their final consonant-cluster picked up by “dust” two lines later. Similarly in the closing six-line stanza, where “strike” intervenes between “oak” and “stroke”. There is no longer any certainty as to what will happen next.
Meanwhile, the birds are endowed with human characteristics. The “parleying starlings” are not simply chattering but discussing terms or negotiating, as if at war. The rooks and gulls are regulated by a voice that “Commands”. Military terminology has permeated all aspects of life, even the non-human.
However, this is a process that is not acknowledged; there is no explicit recognition of the way in which human action shapes the world which it seeks to use. The plough is not a timeless and static implement, but a tool, developed for the cultivation of land, that has evolved from the first horse-drawn apparatus to the modern machine. Similarly, the position of hedges is not an arbitrary or ‘natural’ fact, but an economic and often political choice, influenced by the ownership of the land and the methods used to farm it.
The “Time”, then, before which the poem’s speaker stands confounded, is a means of measuring a definite historical progression. Despite the timeless manner in which “men strike and bear the stroke / of war as ever”, there is still change in the ruling classes that control the armies that fight and die within these wars.
Meanwhile, the being with the notional power to change things is constrained to the position given to it by the human consciousness which created it. If God is impotent and unable to respond to human need, the poem indicates our need to find an alternative. Thomas’ poem seems to suggest that freeing God from the constraints which we have imposed is one means of doing this; alternatively, we might recognise that God is no less our construction than the “array / That we have wrought him.”