In ‘Lights Out’ by Edward Thomas was first published in 1917. It explores themes of sleep, death, and the unknown. Despite the poem’s dark subject matter, the speaker’s confident and determined tone presents death in an acceptable and entrancing light. A reader should come away from this poem with a better understanding of death as something that is always going to be there at the end of the path no matter how winding or straight it is.
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Summary of Lights Out
The speaker takes the reader into an image-rich world that depicts sleep, or as it soon becomes clear, death, like a dark forest into which one must enter when their path terminates. Despite the best efforts of many throughout time, there is no way around stepping into that forest, obeying the silence as the speaker suggests in the last stanza, and losing oneself.
Structure of Lights Out
‘Lights Out’ by Edward Thomas is a five stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a consistent rhyme scheme of AABCCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There are also examples of identical rhyme and half-rhyme in the poem. The former, identical rhyme, occurs when the same word is used at the end of multiple lines. For example, “ends” at the end of lines one and two of the third stanza.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, also in the third stanza, “trouble” and “noble”.
Poetic Techniques in Lights Out
Thomas makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Lights Out’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, metaphor, and personification. The former, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, Thomas’s speaker describes the road as if it has the ability to deceive travelers in the second stanza.
A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. This poem provides the reader with an example of an extended metaphor, that of sleep compared to death. It appears throughout the poem with each reference to sleep also implicitly referring to death.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “forest” and “foliage” in stanza five and “dawn” and “Deceived” in stanza two.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transitions between lines three and four of the first stanza and three and four of the fourth stanza.
Analysis of Lights Out
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
In the first stanza of ‘Lights Out,’ the speaker begins by describing the process of entering into sleep. This unknown world, which is represented by the “unfathomable deep / Forest” also stands as a symbol of death. He is on the brink of it and once he crosses over he’s going to lose his way just as everyone else does. It’s impossible, he adds, for anyone to maintain control over where they go or where their “way” ends up. It could be winding or straight but they “cannot choose”. The perfect rhyme scheme in these lines has a soothing effect. The poet does not depict sleep/death as something to be feared, it is just another step and one must embrace the lack of control that comes with it.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn’s first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
In the second stanza of ‘Lights Out,’ he goes on to add that since the beginning of time there have been innumerable paths that have suggested a way through death. These represent all the attempts made by people throughout time to outwit death, find some way to avoid or circumvent it, at least for a time. These attempts are futile and everyone always sends up at the edge of the forest and “in they sink”. The word “sink” connects back to the “unfathomable deep” in the first stanza. This presents death/sleep as not only the dark forest but also as a bottomless ocean.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
When the path terminates at the edge of the forest and one has to step into its darkness everything comes to an end. There is no more pleasure or trouble, all the sweetness and bitterness of life ceases. Although it is clear that the speaker is referring to death at this point the extended metaphor is maintained and the speaker mentions sleep once more.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Lights Out,’ the speaker tells the reader, using first-person pronouns, that when he is there at the edge of sleep/death he knows that it is the only option. In fact, it is the ideal option. There is nothing that could take him away from the forest, not a book or the face of someone he loves. The speaker uses a confident and determined tone to state that this is the only choice there is and the only one that he really wants to make.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
In the final stanza of ‘Lights Out’ the speaker goes on, using imagery to depict the forest as an incredible, multilayered place that must be obeyed. The silence comes from within, towered over by foliage that appears like clouds. He obeys its call and enters, prepared to lose his way and himself. The use of enjambment at the end of this stanza is quite effective.