‘The New Year’ by Edward Thomas is a twenty line poem that is contained within one block of text. Thomas did not choose to structure this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme. Instead, the text is unified through the tone and the clear narrative progression. In regards to the meter, there is no set metrical pattern either. The lines are of similar lengths though, ranging from around nine to twelve syllables each.
Another element of ‘The New Year’ that helps to create connections is the holiday season. From the title one is immediately aware that the scene is taking place on New Year’s Day. By the end, one is reminded of this fact as the speaker and the mysterious man bid one another a “Happy New Year.” The characters are united by the day and their unspoken independent goals in the woods.
In contrast to the connections one can make between the characters, there is an overarching feeling of mystery about the piece. This is mostly due to the fact that neither the speaker nor the reader knows who the “one man” is or what exactly he is doing “in the woods.”
Summary of The New Year
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he came upon a single man as he walked in the woods. It is never made clear who this man is or what he’s doing. At the same time, a reader is never told who the speaker is either. Or what his task is in the woods that morning.
The speaker describes, in a mysterious tone, how he saw the “tripod man.” He was leaning over a rake and working on the leaves newly fallen from the trees. When the speaker approached they greeted one another and the man went back to raking. The reader is left with a number of unanswered questions about who the two characters are and why the man wanted the New Year to come “fastish.”
Analysis of The New Year
He was the one man I met up in the woods
That stormy New Year’s morning; and at first sight,
Fifty yards off, I could not tell how much
Of the strange tripod was a man. His body,
Bowed horizontal, was supported equally
By legs at one end, by a rake at the other:
In the first set of lines, the speaker begins by describing how he came across the main character of the poem. He found “one man” as he was walking in the woods. The fact that there was anyone in the woods at all was strange to him. It should also make a reader question why the speaker was there as well.
It was a “stormy…morning” and the man was hard to make out. The air was obscured by the weather and likely the density of the forest. His presence on this morning was particularly strange as it was New Years’. One should also note the importance of the fact that the year is beginning this way— with storms and strange men in the woods. What could it portend for the rest of the year? Or even just the rest of the poem?
From where the speaker is, he initially cannot,
[…] tell how much
Of the strange tripod was a man.
He is only able to see shadows. There is enough visual information to register the shape as a man, but there is still something strange about it. He takes note of the fact that the man is in a “tripod” shape. He is holding something else, perhaps supporting himself on it or utilizing it in some other way.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how the man is bent “horizontal.” This detail informs the reader that the man is struggling with something. It turns out in line six that the third leg was a “rake.” A few connections are made at this point. The man is in the woods, it’s storming, so leaves are probably blowing, and he’s raking them. As a simple phrase, this makes sense but the time of day and his place in the woods is inherently strange. The speaker realizes this and continues to give the few details he can take in on his approach.
Thus he rested, far less like a man than
His wheel-barrow in profile was like a pig.
But when I saw it was an old man bent,
At the same moment came into my mind
The games at which boys bend thus, High-Cockalorum,
Or Fly-the-garter, and Leap-frog. At the sound
Of footsteps he began to straighten himself;
In the next set of lines of ‘The New Year’, the speaker tells of how unman-like the man is. When he was leaning over the rake, he did not quite appear as he should. The silhouette was all wrong In contrast, the speaker is able, with ease, to connect the shadow of his “wheel-barrow in profile” to a “pig.” This line is added in order to give the reader some idea of how unlike a man this person appears to be. It also increases the mysterious feeling of the scene.
One might assume that the speaker became cautious after all these strange signs, but he continued on. Instead of growing fearful, he relates the shape of the bent man, after he realizes what he’s looking at, to childhood games. He lists out three different games a boy might play which would require him to bend in such a way. This lightens the mood slightly.
His head rolled under his cape like a tortoise’s;
He took an unlit pipe out of his mouth
Politely ere I wished him “A Happy New Year,”
And with his head cast upward sideways Muttered–
So far as I could hear through the trees’ roar–
“Happy New Year, and may it come fastish, too,”
While I strode by and he turned to raking leaves.
When the raking man heard footsteps in the woods, he stood up straighter. This movement leads the speaker to a number of other similes and metaphors. First, he notes the path of the man’s head. It does not move like a human’s. Instead, it rolls upon his neck and,
[…] under his cape like a tortoises’s;
This person is unperturbed, at least outwardly by the appearance of a stranger. He is holding a pipe in his mouth and takes it out so that he might be ready to speak if the need arises.
As the speaker passed the man he “wished him “A Happy New Year.”’ This standard greeting is used as a way to span the distance between the two and perhaps soothe any apprehensive feelings they share. The speaker got a reply from the man, albeit a strange one. He lifts his head to the trees and tilts it to the side and reciprocates the greeting.
The man adds though, “‘may it come fastish, too.”’ This is an interesting thing to say in this moment and it is unclear what exactly the man was referring to. Was he wishing the new year to come to an end quickly? Or for the “happy” part of it to begin as soon as possible?
He does not explain his statement, turning instead back to the leaves he has been raking. This is the final line of the poem and it leaves the reader with a number of unanswered questions. One can assume the speaker is in the same situation. It was Thomas’ goal to complete the poem without a clear ending. He wanted a reader to be left with a number of curious thoughts about what the holiday could possibly mean to either man in the woods.