‘The Dark Forest’ is a multi-layered poem that uses an extended metaphor to depict life and death. Forests are familiar images in Thomas’ poetry. They sometimes exist as simple symbols of nature while at other times they are something more. In this case, he uses the forest to represent death and everything outside the “deep” dark forest to represent life. Despite this, it is possible to read the poem at its surface level as several memorable stanzas about the forest.
Explore The Dark Forest
Summary of The Dark Forest
Through the image of the forest, and all that which resides within and around it, Thomas depicts the gulf that separates the living from the dead. One group, the living, picks marguerite flowers in the light/day while the others pick purple foxglove in the deep, darkness of the forest. The separation of life and death is also seen through the pinpoints of light, the stars, in the sky.
Themes in The Dark Forest
The themes at play in ‘The Dark Forest’ are life, death, light, and darkness. Thomas was interested, a time of great upheaval in his world and around the world, in depicting how separate the living are from the dead. But, also the ways that life in the dark forest mirrors life in the light. He emphasizes the “multitudes” on both sides and their inability to reach across or enter into the side they don’t belong to. Originally, this poem had four stanzas. The final four lines were cut and this three-stanza version has become the standard. But, the final four lines did have something interesting to offer. In them, Thomas refers to “lovers” and “mothers” as well as partners and children. Here, the themes of love and loss come into the poem much more obviously. It is perhaps for this reason that this final stanza was cut. He chose to focus completely on the tactical and ephemeral worlds of life and death.
Structure and Form
‘The Dark Forest’ by Edward Thomas is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF. The meter is also quite regular, although the stresses change locations. The even-numbered lines are visually and metrically longer than the odd-numbered lines. The first and third line of each stanza contains a total of ten syllables while the second and fourth lines have either five or six syllables per line.
Thomas makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Dark Forest’. These include but are not limited to examples of enjambment, similes, alliteration, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important poetic devices used in ‘The Dark Forest’. Without it, Thomas would not have been able to craft the clear and haunting lines that he did. One of the most evocative is “The forest foxglove is purple, the Marguerite / Outside is gold and white”.
Alliteration and enjambment are formal devices that poets use in order to create the feeling of rhyme and rhythm in lines. The latter is also effective when the content is suspenseful. Enjambment is concerned with the transitions between lines and where the writer chose to put line breaks. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza as well as lines three and four of the first stanza. Alliteration refers to the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of a word. For example, “Dark” and “deep” in line one of the first stanza and “mighty multitudes” in line one of the second stanza.
There is a good example of a simile in the first and second lines of the first stanza. Here, Thomas compares the stars in the night sky to “seeds of light”.
Analysis of The Dark Forest
Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead
Hang stars like seeds of light
In vain, though not since they were sown was bred
Anything more bright.
In the first stanza of ‘The Dark Forest,’ the poet begins by restating the title. His speaker uses slightly confusing syntax to say “Dark is the forest”. He adds that it is also “deep”. Already, the poet’s images are at the forefront of the poem. It is quite easy to imagine every element of this poem as the come together, one line at a time. He adds to his already vibrant depiction in the next line. The stars, the speaker says, are like “seeds of light” in the sky. This is a great example of a simile. The stars are distant, tiny, specks of life and light.
From this line, the poet expands into line three saying that the seeds were “sown” in vain because nothing brighter or more lively has been born since they were planted. Nothing “more bright” has been born from the stars.
And evermore mighty multitudes ride
About, nor enter in;
Of the other multitudes that dwell inside
Never yet was one seen.
It is in the next lines of ‘The Dark Forest,’ that it becomes clear that the forest is a metaphor for death. Its darkness is impenetrable, as death is, and the “mighty multitudes ride” about it but can’t see inside the woods. It is likely that Thomas was thinking about, as he often did, the First World War while writing. Although it is not mentioned clearly, the “mighty multitudes” is perhaps a reference to the enormous toll the war took on the populations of countries around the world.
He goes on to refer to the “multitudes that dwell inside” the forest. There is another interesting example of altered syntax in the last line of the second stanza. Rather than saying “One was never seen” the poet wrote, “Never yet was one seen”. This refers to those who have entered into the woods, or death, and are never seen again by those outside.
The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite
Outside is gold and white,
Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet
The others, day or night.
The third stanza of ‘The Dark Forest,’ brings back in some of the more traditional nature imagery. Outside the forest, there are “gold and white” marguerite flowers while inside there is purple foxglove. The two worlds exist next to one another, with reflective similarities, but they are unable to cross over. Just as one flower can’t grow on the side it doesn’t belong to, people can’t greet “The others, day or night”. The living and the dead remain separate.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Dark Forest’ should also consider reading the poems on our list of 10 of the Best Poems About Darkness. These ten poems, of which ‘The Dark Forest’ is one, are all beautifully composed. Additionally, Thomas’ other poems might be of interest. For example, ‘The Chalk Pit,’ which is quite similar to ‘The Dark Forest,’ as well as ‘Haymaking,’ and ‘The Sign-Post’. Other interesting poems about death include ‘Death, be not Proud’ by John Donne and ‘Death and the Moon’ by Carol Ann Duffy.