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Edward Thomas’s poem “The Sign-Post” explores a number of related themes, including those of life and death, youth and age, and decision and indecision. The poem opens by describing a wintry seascape, thus helping to establish already the idea of the passage of time. We normally associate seascapes with spring or summer, not with winter, but this poem reminds us that even the sea and beaches are overcome by the kind of death associated with winter. The first six lines of the poem, then, depict a kind of geography whose symbolism seems relevant to the rest of the poem.
Line 7 poses a crucial question when the speaker, observing a sign pointing directions, wonders, “Which way shall I go?” (7). This, of course, is symbolically one of the most important questions each person faces in his or her life. Which choices will we make? Which literal and symbolic movements will we make? What will be our immediate and our long-term goals? No sooner does the speaker ask which way he will go than the voice of his youth tells him that when he was young, he would have made a quick decision; he would not have paused to ponder his direction. Yet another voice reminds the speaker, and also the voice of his youth, that when he was young he was actually full of a gloomy pessimism and despair (10). One theme the poem very much explores, then, is how we change over time – how we look at the same things from different perspectives depending on our stages in life. The idea of experiencing different perceptions at different stages of one’s life is reinforced again in lines 11-14.
Beginning in line 14, the second voice – the voice of mature experience – takes over a good portion of the poem, emphasizing the inevitability of death and burial (“A mouthful of earth” ). The final reality of death makes human life at any age and human experience of any kind seem valuable. Once in heaven, the youthful speaker will wish simply to exist again on earth, conversing once more, as he converses now, with the voice of maturity:
". . . 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, Winter, Autumn, 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?" (21-30)
In other words, if we experience any kind of consciousness or self-awareness after we are dead, we are likely to miss our time on earth and the companionship we enjoyed there. We are likely to wish that we could be on earth again under almost any circumstances. Merely to exist on earth can seem a joy, no matter how old we are and no matter what directions we ultimately decide to take.
A main theme of the poem involves a person’s divided impulses and divided goals and ideals, although ultimately the poem suggests that one goal we would probably share at almost any stage of existence is merely the basic opportunity to exist.
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