‘The Sign-Post’ by Edward Thomas is a two stanza poem that is divided into one section of ten lines and another of twenty. Thomas has chosen to imbue this piece with a consistent and structured rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of aabbccdd, and so on, alternating end sounds throughout the text. There are a few moments where the rhymes repeat themselves though. One can see this happen in the couplet around lines 3 and 4, 12 and 13, and 15 and 16 of stanza two. In all three of these instances the word “be” is used alongside either “sea,” “see,” or “me.”
A reader should also take note of the lengths of Thomas’ lines and phrases. They vary greatly from section to section. Some are short, concise phrases while others linger through three or more lines. This is a technique used to keep a reader’s interest. The variety makes reading this piece more enjoyable as one does not know what to expect from the use of enjambment. This occurs when a poet stops a line before or after its natural breaking point. One is forced to jump quickly to the next line in order to conclude the thought.
Summary of The Sign-Post
The poem begins with the speaker describing the scene on top of a hill beside a sign-post. It is cold, and the surrounding plant life is mostly dead. Here the speaker wonders which direction he should travel in and is confronted by two opposing voices, presumably within his own head. One mocks him for not knowing and becoming timid with age. The other reminds him that youth is not the only thing in life to be valued.
The second voice takes control of the narrative in. It describes how one is going to age whether they want to or not. Eventually one will make their way to heaven where they will look down on the hard days on earth and miss them. They will long for the seasons of winter and spring and the uncertainty of daily life.
Analysis of The Sign-Post
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
In the first stanza of ‘The Sign-Post’, the speaker begins with a short statement describing the sea. This is only one element of his immediate surroundings and it is said to be “dim” and “glint” with “chill.” The setting is expanded upon within the next lines as it is made clear that it’s very cold. The sun is “shy,” refusing to come out and there is frost on everything. The weeds are “skelet[al]” and the grasses are “long [and] white with frost.”
This scene is placed at the top of a hill next to the “finger-post,” or sign-post. The environment is not a pleasant one. The images used by Thomas are dreary, cold, and abandoned. The lines also contain the first reference to the title. One can assume this sign is going to be important to the following narrative.
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
In the next six lines, the speaker expands on his surroundings and what they mean to him. He is a traveller who has come across this sign and is now taking his time deciding where to go. The speaker states that around the scene there is the “smoke of the traveller’s-joy…puffed.” It floats over the “hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.” This is the first time that anything remotely joyous has been introduced to the scene.
The narrative which has up until this point been solely descriptive, switches to the first person. This makes it clear that the speaker is in fact the traveller who is relying on the sign to guide him. He wonders to himself, “Which way shall I go?” After posing this question a voice that is presumably inside his head reminds him that he would not have asked this question when he was twenty. He is remembering what his life used to be like, and reprimanding himself for the change. The speaker is not as confident as he used to be. He does not trust his instincts like he did when he was twenty.
In response to the first voice, there is a second, this one replies calmly and”scorn[fully]” to the first. It reminds the speaker that at twenty he “wished” he had “never been born.” Youth does not guarantee that one’s life is better, there is any number of things that can be wrong at any age.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould be
To be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”
He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—
“You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
The second stanza of ‘The Sign-Post’ begins with the speaker removing himself somewhat from the narrative again. Here the lines begin with another allusion to the power and importance of youth. The speaker describes the loss of a golden leaf from a hazel tree and then immediately follows up with a question from the first voice. He asks the second voice what he will be like when he is sixty years old. The second voice now has some authority on the matter having swooped in and reminded the first voice about the nature of being young.
The second voice does not give the first an answer. Instead “He laughed” and told the first voice, “‘You shall see.”’ Time is the only thing that can show one how their life will truly turn out. There can be no accurate or worthwhile predictions. The speaker returns to the piece at this point, adding that he had to join in with the “laughter” of the second voice upon hearing this question.
The second voice goes on to lecture the first on the progression of time. Eventually, everyone is going to have to confront death.
Lines 10 -20
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?”
In the second half of this stanza in ‘The Sign-Post’, the speaker states that heaven is perfect. Although, if it did have a flaw, it would be that one might wish again to feel the pull of age, time, and restraint. One can “wish” as much as they like in heaven and it is likely, the voice says, that “your wish” will be to return to the earth.
One might want to experience again what it is to be between “death and birth” or know “day or night.” Change does not have to be something terrible. Unlike what the first voice proposed at the beginning of the piece. Growing old, changing one’s mind, and taking time in decision-making is not necessarily bad. It is all part of a process that one will miss.
When one, such as the first voice who spoke, gets to heaven, they might also miss the seasons on earth. There will be no “Winter” or “Spring” in heaven. Nor will there be a “poor man” or “a king” to speak with at the sign-post. All will be equal. Heaven will not provide one with the uncertainty that makes life interesting, especially when it is centered around a sign-post on a cold day.