‘Aspens’ by Edward Thomas is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem follows a consistent rhyme school that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD, and so on as the poet saw fit.
There are a number of poetic techniques used in this text to increase the impact of the lines. One of the most prominent of these is personification. By the end of the third line Thomas has given the trees an agency that they do not normally have. He does this by imbuing them with human characteristics, making them more relatable to the reader. This makes it easier to accept the comparison between poets and aspen trees that fills the poem in later lines.
In regards to the tone, the speaker is quite solemn. He addresses the presence of the aspen trees as one who knows exactly what they represent and what it means to stand at the crossroads.
Summary of Aspens
The poem begins with the speaker describing the sound of the aspen trees. They are personified and said to talk amongst themselves, just as poets do. Then, just as poets, they are at the crossroads of life’s great choices. Here, they are able to call forth the ghosts of the past and fill the area with a gloom representative of loss and grief, likely associated with World War I.
Thomas concludes the poem by recognizing the fact that as a poet he will not always be listened to. He knows there’s nothing he can do about this.
Analysis of Aspens
All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the consistent presence of the aspen trees. On the surface, these lines appear to speak on a grove of trees and the sounds their leaves make. There is more to the context of ‘Aspens’ than that though. Due to Thomas’ own service in WWI and the fact that the poem was written in July of 1915, the images of the piece have deeper connections to loss and death. By the end of the poem Thomas has also connected the trees to his own sense of himself. They are consistent in their actions, just as persevere with his poetry.
The speaker describes how no matter what the weather is like, or where it is located, the aspens talk to one another. They are at the “cross-roads” and speak until “their last leaves fall from the top.” The point at which these trees meet is a crucial one. Crossroads have been used to represent any number of important moments in life, the good and the very bad. This makes it clear that the speaker sees himself, (and other poets), as well as the world’s grief, at the centre of the crossroads. He, and others like him, are always going to be there to speak on the great, dark changes (the rain) that come over the planet.
The trees, and poets, sustain their lives there, mingle around one another. They eventually shed the very things which create their unique sound, their leaves. The following lines present a number of images connected to continuity throughout long periods of time. Thomas uses the presence of the aspens as a through line and a way to show the durability of life. But all the while they live, a reader must remember that eventually they will shed their leaves and die.
Out of the blacksmith’s cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing—
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.
In the second stanza the speaker describes how all throughout this same area there are sounds ringing out. One of the most prominent of these is that of the “blacksmith’s hammer.” The cacophony of sounds coming from the “cavern” is loud and has been going on for something close to fifty years. These sounds echo those of the trees.
These lines are presented as a direct comparisons to the talking trees.The aspens were said in the first stanza to talk together, and then in the second, blacksmith to “sing.” These very different parts of the world operate similarly but also contrast one another in tone and mood.
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
No matter what sounds come from the small examples of civilization, the sound of the aspens “ is not drowned.” It perseveres and sounds out across the “footless road.” The speaker paints a dark images of the surrounding area in the third stanza. There does not seem to be anyone around, aside from the poets/aspen trees of course.
The sound of the trees serves a second purpose. It spreads out across the area and “calls…ghosts from their abode.” The ghosts spoken of in this line are perhaps the people who once worked or dwelled in the “smithy” or “inn” (mentioned in the fourth stanza). Thomas’ speaker describes the way that a poet is able to use their words to bring up memories of the past.
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
The fourth lines describe the different places the ghosts come from, as well as the way that trees/poets are able to transform the environment. The rustling of the leaves predict a change in the weather or a change in the mood of the area. They are always able to, whether it be in “bare moonlight” or in the “gloom” of a dark evening, to “turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.” This is done through the calling up of memories.
The trees call forward the memories or ghosts, who perhaps represent a generalized loss connected to the First World War. They are no longer able to speak in anything other than the whispering of the trees. It is more the feeling of loss and grief that lets one know they are there. It fills the empty roads and presses up against the houses.
And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
The fifth stanza starts to draw the poem to its conclusion. The speaker, who now appears to be the poet himself, admits that his words might be useless. He understands that there are always going to be “men” who hear the sound of the trees and “need not listen.” The same goes for his poetry.
The trees, which have come to represent the past as well as the memory of loss, call out to the world around them. The speaker hears them, and deeply values the emotions and histories they convey, but that is not so for everyone.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.
The sixth stanza move back into first person again. Here, the speaker relates himself to the trees. He also refers to an unknown “We.” Considering that he just mentioned the fact that he writes “rhymes” it is safe to assume he is referring to other poets, or at least other writers/artists. He knows that as long as the world is the way it is, filled with continual change, discontent, and grief, “We cannot other than an aspen be.” Poets are always going to be dedicated to their craft, just as aspens are to their unique movements.
This group is going to continue to represent what they always have. Their role in the world will not change. The last lines look at the speaker’s life from an outsider’s perspective. He believes that to others he appears to be one who “ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves.” Those who value “different tree[s]” or hold a different understanding or appreciation (or lack of appreciation) for the past, don’t care for his words.