THE OTHER BY EDWARD THOMAS
This is a poem about the poet’s mind, but not ‘the mind of a poet’. It traces his realisation that he has an alter-ego, which appears in the communal sphere, mainly to other people. The poem has two kinds of setting.
The first is the natural one exemplified by the forest, the empty road, and the night landscape in stanza 7. This is a solitary space where the poet feels both his customary ‘melancholy’ as he calls it, and at the same time a sense of belonging, ‘an old inhabitant of earth’.
The second setting is the convivial public one of the inn. This is where he becomes aware that he has a double, and that the double is in the drinkers’ view, preferable to him. Here he talks to people but can’t communicate sufficiently to get much information about the double except ‘ he was like me in general’ but ‘He had pleased them less’.
Once he has come out of the forest and into the inn, from private to public, and discovered his other, he begins on a quest for him. The poem as a whole is a quest. He calls at other inns and gets very little help from people who seem boorish to him, or children who sense ‘I had a purpose’ and because of that clam up. Eventually, as always in Edward Thomas, ‘I sought then in solitude’.
The presence of the other frightens him, but he has a compulsion to search for him, and from what the inn people have said, ‘I learnt his road’, Thomas says with some ambiguity. His search is for himself, ‘to watch until myself I knew’, and he draws on the doppelgänger myth. There’s a kind of parallel, for example, between this poem’s narrative and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. After his first realisation at the first inn he reflects in ways which are difficult to follow. He is following ‘the unseen moving goal’ of his ‘real’ self, and finds nothing, ‘but remedies/For all desire’. What would they be. Possibly suicide. It seems that he overcomes the desire for suicide by finding another kind of ‘reason for living’, a ‘Desire of desire’. The obsessiveness of his quest overcomes his melancholy and his despair, and ‘I quite forgot I could forget’, he says, perhaps meaning that his mind was all the more focussed on the quest (thought this passage, I find very difficult to interpret).
He is not pushed further into despair by his lack of success in finding the Other at the second inn mentioned. It resolves him to search in solitude.
There are three stanzas – 7, 8 and 9 - where Thomas describes a semi mystical experience of solitary oneness with the dark, of his sense of existence is ‘an everlasting lease’ - that is something somehow lent to him at a price for ever - and mentions his melancholy (depression). His melancholy although it is at first sight the opposite of happiness, has its own kind of dark joy, perhaps.
Then there’s a crisis in the story when he comes out of his solitude, and actually encounters the Other in an Inn. Unexpectedly the Other then approaches him and challenges him for running after him all the time as if he were ‘under a ban’. Poor Thomas is dumbstruck and ‘slipped away’ and the poem ends with his following his Other at a distance, ‘dreading his frown and worse his laughter’. He waits for him at the edge of the wood, waiting for ‘his flight’, then following him. And he feels that when the Other ceases, so will he – as in other Dopplegänger tales.
Thomas, at the end, is waiting where he sees ‘the swift shoot from the rafter/by the inn door, and where he can hear ‘the starlings wheeze/And nibble like ducks’. That is he is neither in the forest where we began, nor in the inn. And the poem itself is all about uncertainty –uncertainty as to where Thomas feels he belongs, who he is, what his quest is.
This can be seen as a delineation of his psychology as such, and also as his sense of where a poet lives. In Aspens he sees the poet as beneath everything else, there and yet not always heard. In Adelstrop he seems to be carried out of himself into the landscape by the song of the thrush and the ‘unwonted’ stopping – such as poets do. In Old Man he is somewhere between the future past of the girl, and his own very uncertain memory. It was Keats who claimed that a poet is someone capable of ‘being in uncertainties’
Keats wrote, in a letter to Dilke about what he called ‘negative capability’
‘that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ and how ‘with a great poem the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consider, or rather obliterates all consideration’.
The Other, perhaps, represents Thomas’s early finding of himself as a poet, finding himself in being a poet, and coming to realise that the essential ‘him’ is not to be found, and indeed for a poet may be a hindrance to the loss of self required to write poetry. That is why the Other shuns him. His desire to write cannot be a desire to pin down things, least of all himself, although it is that question (to find how to be a poet) that occupies him. Perhaps he desires, that is, to be other.