‘Old Man’ is a less-commonly read Edward Thomas poem but one that contains many of the themes and images that readers can find in his other works. This includes a discussion of life, death, childhood, home, and memory. Throughout this piece, the speaker alludes to memories of the past that he can’t quite pin down. Despite the seemingly pointless mental search he’s engaged in, he continues to smell the “old man” plant hoping that the bitter scent will resurrect what he’s lost.
Old Man Edward Thomas Old Man, or Lad's-love,—in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man, The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree, Growing with rosemary and lavender. Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is: At least, what that is clings not to the names In spite of time. And yet I like the names. The herb itself I like not, but for certain I love it, as some day the child will love it Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush Whenever she goes in or out of the house. Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still But half as tall as she, though it is as old; So well she clips it. Not a word she says; And I can only wonder how much hereafter She will remember, with that bitter scent, Of garden rows, and ancient damson-trees Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door, A low thick bush beside the door, and me Forbidding her to pick. As for myself, Where first I met the bitter scent is lost. I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain. I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one. I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Explore Old Man
‘Old Man’ by Edward Thomas is a thoughtful poem that describes a speaker’s contrasting views and memories of a specific plant.
The first part of the poem is dedicated to a description of the plant and a discussion of its name. It is called both “old man” and “lad’s-love.” These juxtaposed names are symbolic of the speaker’s confused opinion. He likes the plant and its smell but doesn’t actually enjoy it. He brings in images of his daughter and her experiences with the feathery herb.
This leads to a discussion of his own memories of the plant and how, despite his best attempts, he can’t remember the connection he has with the plant from his youth. When he tries to dig into his memory, there’s nothing there except “an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.”
Throughout this poem, Thomas engages with two primary themes: nature and memories/the past.
- Nature: within this fairly short poem, Thomas explores his connection with the “old man” or “lad’s love” plant. He speaks about the plant’s unusual names and how, as a young person, he believes he treated the plant in the same way that the young girl in the poem does now. But, as he smells its bitter scent, he’s unable to recall exactly where he was when he first encountered it. His connection to this specific experience with nature is incredibly meaningful to him, and despite feeling helpless in pursuit of his memories, he continues to go back to the plant’s smell and what it may represent.
- Memories/The Past: throughout ‘Old Man,’ Thomas’ speaker, who is likely the poet himself, attempts to recall where he was and how old he was when he first smelt the bitter scent of a specific plant. Despite many attempts to remember, his attachment to the plant is not defined by any specific image (such as that of a father, garden, doorway, or friend). He feels lost in his pursuit of memory and alludes to the emotional turmoil this fact causes him.
Structure and Form
‘Old Man’ by Edward Thomas is a four-stanza poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. The first stanza contains eight lines, the second: sixteen, the third: eight, and the fourth: eight.
The poem does not follow a structured rhyme scheme. But, there are examples of rhymes throughout. For instance, “names” is repeated twice at the end of lines seven and eight of the first stanza. This is known as an exact rhyme. “Damson-trees” and “me” in stanza two is an examples of a half-rhyme.
The majority of the lines in this piece are in iambic pentameter. This means that they contain a total of ten syllables that can be divided into five sets of two. These sets of two beats contain one unstressed and one stressed syllable. For example, in the second line of the poem (the stressed syllables are in bold):
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” in stanza two.
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that should inspire the readers to visualize them. For example, “Of garden rows, and ancient damson-trees / Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door, / A low thick bush beside the door, and me.”
- Caesura: a pause the writer inserts into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is.”
- Juxtaposition: seen through the intentional contrast of two elements of the poem. In this case, the names for the plant Thomas is interested in— “Old Man” and “Lad’s-love.”
Old Man, or Lad’s-love,—in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,
The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by referring to the two names used for a specific plant he focuses on throughout— Old Man and Lad’s-love. These two contrasting names immediately allude to the plant’s usual nature. The narrator has difficulty defining and describing the poem throughout the four stanzas, and the name is only part of the issue.
He notes immediately that there is “nothing” in the name. So, one should disregard the name when trying to analyze and understand the plant. This statement feels somewhat over the top and even hyperbolic. It may suggest that the speaker is frustrated by the juxtaposed nature of the names and the plant’s contrasting features.
The speaker notes that for someone who has no prior knowledge of the plant, it appears like a feathery herb or even “almost a tree.” It’s likely to look like it’s growing with “rosemary and lavender.” But, for someone like the speaker who knows the plant well, the knowledge of the plants contrasting names “half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is.”
The names confuse the plant and one’s attempts to understand its nature. But, Thomas’ speaker admits that he’s not too bothered by that fact. He notes that he “likes the names.” The speaker is at once confused by the names, and he enjoys them. This is seen through his depiction in the first seven lines and then the use of the word “And” after the caesura in line eight.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps
Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson-trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
The speaker expands on his feelings about the plant in the second stanza. He doesn’t like the herb itself, he adds, but he certainly feels an amount of love for it. He doesn’t appreciate it for its utility but for its presence and how it might fit into one’s day-to-day routine.
Thomas uses a simile in these lines, comparing his appreciation for the plant to the same appreciation a child who “Plucks a feather” from a bush beside her door appreciates the plant. It’s clear that the speaker sees the plant as an integral part of childhood. Perhaps, he is remembering how it influenced his own childhood and imbuing another child’s future with the same series of interactions. He associates the smell of the plant, something he describes as “bitter,” with being a child and running free on the land around one’s home.
He believes that “she,” the child in these lines, is going to remember the scene and the “ancient damson-trees” as well as the “bent path to a door” and the “low thick bush beside the door.” He concludes the stanza by bringing himself into the image, nothing that he will be there forbidding her from picking feathers off the plant. With this information, the poet suggests that the male speaker who has thus far carried the poem is the child’s father. Or at least a guardian who is looking after her.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
The speaker turns from his consideration of a young girl, who is likely his daughter, to himself. He doesn’t remember where he “first…met” the bitter scent of the plant.” But, he remembers he also tore the feathers to pieces as the young girl will or does. He still picks parts of the plant off and smells them trying to remember the first place or time he encountered the Old Man or Lad’s-love.
In the middle of this stanza, the speaker brings in another contradiction regarding his feelings about the plant. Despite smelling it all the time and desperately trying to place where he first encountered it, he doesn’t like the smell. It’s not pleasant. But, he’d give up many other more pleasant smells than never encounter the bitter smell of this particular plant again. This reminds the reader that the speaker has a personal attachment to the plant and regards it as an important part of his life and memories.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
The speaker describes mislaying the key to his memories in the final fourth stanza. He no longer has access to the images he wants to remember from his youth. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying.
When he stops to smell the plant, it transports him. But, he hears nothing and sees nothing. It is simultaneously “listening, lying in wait / For what I should, yet never can remember.” This is a somewhat desperate and sorrowful image. It suggests a very specific type of emotional turmoil. The speaker has lost access to memories that he feels are quite important and despite the search feeling purposeless, he continues to try to remember what he’s lost.
When searching his memory, nothing like a “garden,” “path,” or “hoar-green bush” appears. He has no images in his mind of where he first encountered this plant nor of any “father or mother” beside him. When he tries to look back into his past as it relates to this plant (and perhaps more generally), all he encounters is “an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.”
These lines suggest that he is missing something integral to his past or is experiencing a disconnection from it. There is a feeling of loss in these lines that is further emphasized through the speaker’s continual search for memories.
The purpose is to explore how smells, specifically the smell of a plant, can become integrally connected to memories of one’s youth (or the past more generally). The speaker continually returns to the “old man” plant hoping that one day the bitter scent will help him remember the first time he smelled it and the connected memories.
The message is that particular objects, smells, sights, and incidents from one’s past can become symbols for what’s been lost. In this case, the speaker’s connection to the “old man” or “lad’s-love” plant. He appreciates the bitter smell of the plant, but when he smells it, he can’t pin down how it is connected to his past. All that’s there is darkness.
The poem is about a speaker’s opinion of and connection to a specific type of plant. By returning to the plant repeatedly, the speaker tries to come to terms with what it represents and how exactly he’s connected to it.
Thomas wrote his famous poem, ‘Aspens,’ in July of 1915. This was the same year that he enlisted in the army and two years before he lost his life. The poem was included in a letter he sent to his friend and fellow poet Robert Frost.
Edward Thomas died in the First World War in the Battle of Arras in 1917. He had only been in France for a short period of time before he lost his life. He was thirty-nine.
‘Old Man‘ speaks on many themes commonly associated with Thomas’s poems, including memory, the past, loss, family, and nature.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Edward Thomas poems. For example:
- ‘Adlestrop’ – describes an occasion when the poet was taking the train from Oxfordshire to Gloucestershire, and it had to make an unscheduled stop.
- ‘Aspens’ – speaks on the nature of grief and how poets play a role in the preservation of memory.
- ‘Beauty’ – contains the poet’s definition of what beauty is and how he encounters and experiences it in his life.