The poem by Edward Thomas titled “The Path” is an intriguing, suggestive work that can be understood in various ways, both literal and symbolic. On one hand the poem seems to describe an actual path that runs alongside a road that itself runs along the edge of a very steep hill. Below are woods:
Running along a bank, a parapet
That saves from the precipitous wood below
The level road, there is a path. (1-3)
Children walking along the path see the steep hillside and a fallen tree below; adults do not look down over the hill, preferring instead the view that they can see simply from the road (4-8). The path winds along the side of the road, just on this side of the steep drop-off; it is bordered by moss that tries to grow out into the path, but the moss is worn down by the feet of children walking on it. So far, so good. But then the speaker says that the road leads to no house nor to any school, that it is rare to see a child on the road and that the path ends suddenly “where the wood ends” (22).
Until we reach line 16, then, the poem makes perfect literal sense. Beginning with line 16, questions arise. If few children take this route (“To see a child is rare there” ), why did the speaker earlier claim that the path had been worn flat and bare by the feet of walking children? Is the speaker therefore making a very strong distinction between the road and the path, suggesting that children often walk on the path but very rarely walk on the road? And why does the path end where the woods end? What lies beyond the woods? Does the road continue even though the path ends? Why is so much made of the difference between the perceptions of adults and children? And why is the path described as one
. . . that looks
As if it led on to some legendary
Or fancied place where men have wished to go
And stay . . . (19-22) ?
The first fifteen lines of the poem raise no great questions; the last seven lines raise numerous questions indeed. Does the path symbolize the life of a growing child? Does the greater perception of the children suggest that we grow less perceptive as we grow older? Is the path worn down in the sense that all children must traverse the same basic path as children but then leave that path behind as they become adults? Do the woods represent adulthood? This latter possibility would make sense if the road represented the route that adults must take when they leave childhood and enter adulthood. If so, then why does the speaker say that to see a child on the road is rare; wouldn’t it make more symbolic sense if one never saw a child on the road? Do the final lines suggest that many adults have wished they could have continued following the paths they charted in their childhoods?
Thomas’s poem raises many such questions, as well as others, but it offers no clear answers. Its chief effect is to promote thought and reflection, and perhaps that is enough to ask of any poem.