How might one analyze the poem "Beauty," by Edward Thomas?
Edward Thomas’s poem “Beauty” celebrates the power of beautiful things to uplift us even when we feel most depressed and most distracted. The poem opens with question: “What does it mean?” (1). At first we probably assume that “it” refers to beauty. In that case, the rest of the poem try to answer this question, not by giving a dictionary definition but by showing, through an example, how deeply meaningful beauty can be in and to our lives.
However, it is also possible that the “it” refers to life – as in “what’s the meaning, point, or purpose of life?” This reading makes some sense when the speaker explains how unhappy he is. He is plagued with displeasure that absolutely no human company can alleviate. He even jokingly imagines his own death and a sardonic epitaph on his gravestone. Yet the epitaph may not refer to all of him but only to that unhappiness that now disgusts him and that would displease any potential companion. These thoughts of death, though, quickly vanish (6-7).
In the second half of line 7, both the poem and the speaker begin to change: the speaker now begins to compare himself to a part of nature, even if the river to which he compares himself seems cold and dark. At least, however, he has begun to move beyond himself and escape his earlier fatigue, anger, and discomfort. By the time we reach line 11, the speaker now imagines himself – indeed, the most vital part of himself (his heart) – floating freely, ike a dove, out a window and down a valley to a tree. He begins to escape not only his earlier dark mood but even confinement in himself or in human creations (such as rooms). He is having a Romantic epiphany: he imagines himself coming into renewed contact with natural beauty.
It is not, after all, the beauty of a woman or a child that consoles him. It is the beauty of a recollected tree. Significantly, it is not an actual vision of a present tree that is consoling: it is the remembrance of a tree. One need not be in constant, literal contact with nature for nature to be reassuring and reviving; one need only to be able to recall the beauty of nature to experience that beauty again in one’s heart and mind. Thomas presents us with intimations of beauty recollected in tranquility, to borrow some phrasing from Wordsworth.
The poem’s final lines are especially rich:
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there. (17-18).
Where, exactly, is “There”? Does the speaker mean literally in or at or near the tree? Or does he mean, instead, in his thoughts of the tree? Is the reference to what “yet lives in me” a reference to his metaphorical heart, mentioned earlier, or does this phrase refer to his thoughts, his revived spirit when he thinks about the tree as a symbol of all natural beauty, perhaps of all beauty entirely?
A poem that began with a brief, intriguing question now concludes with a brief, definitive, yet also intriguing assertion: “Beauty is there.” Again, does “there” refer to the simple tree or to thoughts of the tree? The speaker doesn’t clearly say, and so the poem ends on a note of certainty that also contains an element of mystery.
The simple, paraphraseable meaning of this poem is that beauty can revive and sustain us even when we are most worn down and worn out. But the true meaning of the poem lies not in any simple paraphrase but in the experience of how the poem works.
Something extra: Edward Thomas's poem titled "Beauty" invites attention from a number of different critical approaches, including archetypal criticism (which tends to emphasize the importance of common human fears and desires as well as relations between humans and nature) and dialogical criticism, which tends to emphasize the ways one literary work alludes to earlier ones – in this case, especially to the works of Wordsworth.
An archetypal approach to Thomas's poem would emphasize that probably all human beings can relate to the kinds of frustrations the speaker mentions at the very beginning of this work. At the same time, archetypal critics would also stress that probably all human beings can relate to the desire for -- and experience of -- the kind of beauty the speaker stresses at the end of the work.
To read Thomas's poem is to hear echoes, all through it, of earlier poems by the great Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth. This, at least, is how a dialogical critic (with his or her emphasis on "intertextuality") might respond to the work. This is the kind of poem Wordsworth himself could easily have written, and surely Thomas, when he wrote this poem, must have had Wordsworth on his mind and in his heart. Thomas wrote during a time when Romanticism was often under attack, but this poem shows that Romanticism might still live in the hands of a talented writer.
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they . . .
(Wordsworth, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality")