‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABCB DEFE, alternating end sounds as it progresses. One interesting moment of rhyme is between line three of the first stanza and line one of the second. Both of these lines end with the same word, “rest.”
Additionally, a reader should take note of the way that consonance connects other end words in ‘The Owl.’ For example, all the lines in the fourth stanza end with an “s” or “c” sound. This contributes to the overall rhythm of the poem. Assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, is also present. One example is in line three of the second stanza with the words “night” and “quite,” both using the long “i.”
Another kind of repetition present in ‘The Owl’ is alliteration. This occurs when a letter is repeated at the beginning of multiple words, usually ones which are close together. For example, in the fourth stanza words that start with “s” start three of the four lines. Then, the only outlier, line one, has an “s” starting its second word. In the stanza itself there is also the phrase “Salted and sobered.”
In regards to the meter, the lines do not follow a specific pattern, but range from ten syllables, arranged in iambic pentameter, to eleven or twelve.
Summary of The Owl
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he came upon the inn, and the three things he was most concerned with. Although he wasn’t freezing or starved, he was cold and hungry and in need of rest.
He made it inside and was able to take in all of these things he needed. But then, his rejoicing is sobered by the sound of an owl’s voice outside. It’s call reminds him that there are many more people who are unable to be inside on this cold night.
Analysis of The Owl
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
In the first stanza of ‘The Owl’ the speaker begins by describing his own actions. He was traveling downhill and was feeling hungry. He makes sure to add that although hungry, he was “not starved”. This is followed up by another description of a similar nature. He was cold, “yet had heat within [him].” This heat was a kind of internal protection against the “North wind.”
While these lines do not tell the reader anything specific about the setting, one is able to assume that the speaker has been somewhere where there isn’t much, or any, food. Nor was there anywhere warm to stay, or anywhere that he could rest. He is lucky to have made it inside.
The last lines speak on rest as being the “sweetest thing under a roof.” It seems as though his exhaustion is the most important thing to him at this time.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
In the second stanza, he makes it to the “inn.” There, he is able to get all the things that he was lacking in the first stanza. There is “food, fire and rest.” These three features of the inn are set against the three parts the speaker has shared about himself. That he was “hungry, cold and tired.”
Now, an interesting contrast is presented between the outside world and that which the speaker is able to partake in inside the inn. Outside, one is cold and hungry, but inside one is warm and fed. The less than desirable elements of the night were “barred out” by the walls of the inn and the supplies inside. But, there was one thing which penetrated, “An owl’s cry.”
The sound of the owl is described as being “melancholy.” This fits with the overall tone of the poem so far. The speaker has been reserved in his descriptions and focused on getting inside. There is a calmness to the scene, but also a darkness.
There are a few moments of alliteration in these lines that a reader should notice. Such as that between “most” and “melancholy” and “food, fire.” Additionally, consonance can be seen in the same line with the reception of “cry.” The “c” sound also benefits from the second half of the word “melancholy.”
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
The third stanza continues the dark tone of the piece. The speaker hears the fall of the owl and it lasts “long and clear.” It is coming, he thinks from “upon the hill.” In the first stanza, the speaker mentioned that he was traveling “Downhill.” Perhaps it is in the same place the speaker just left.
He also adds that the “note” was not “merry,” nor did it cause “merriment.” The reflected repletion in this line is interesting as it creates a feeling of unity between the speaker and the owl. They are reflecting one another.
The fact that the speaker made it inside the inn is becoming increasingly important. He describes the sound of the bird as “telling [him] plain” what it was he escaped when he made it inside. The mournful sound is intimately connected with the night and the fate of many others left outdoors.
The speaker notes this fact— that there are “others” who “could not” come inside in the last line of this stanza. He feels truly lucky to have escaped the cold.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
In the last stanza, the speaker goes over the different things he has that separate him from the owl and the night’s cold it is representing. The haunting sounds made him feel “sobered.” His food was “salted” and his repose too. The “voice” of the bird spoiled his physical pleasure at these comforts.
This doesn’t seem to be something he is upset about though. The speaker seems saddened by the state of the rest of the world outside, those he refers to as the “Soldiers and poor.” They are unable to “rejoice” as he is, warm and inside.