There’s a “moreness” to a good poem that exhausts our ability to contain it with concepts. This surplus can go unexperienced — for it has “meaning” too — if we don’t rise to the occasion as readers. Edward Thomas’s “Out in the Dark,” written Christmas Eve, 1916, as he waited to ship out to the front, is one of those poems that cunningly engages the “moreness” that characterizes awareness that has escaped the frames of conventional concepts.
The boxes or frames that govern the poem are excruciatingly strict; it’s as if the rhyme scheme is a sign of the determinism of the vision. The poem seems to frame all existence in “light” of the dark. It echoes Hardy — or, as Edna Longley points out in her notes to her edition of The Annotated Collected Poems, we can’t be sure between Thomas and Hardy which one influenced the other.
This scholarly puzzle is not unlike the surplus of meaning towards which the poem directs us. Through the finesse of the syntax, Thomas moves us to a position “outside” the conventions we necessarily feel control our response to the poem. But the “dark” doesn’t quite cover all. The fallow deer move silently in the darkness. The stars, too, are in the dark (but they are stars). Along with the wind and the deer and the poet, the stars comprise a community in the dark.
The mortal frailty of all things is the great theme. Our love for life — for the deer, the wind, the stars — is nothing compared to the surrounding dark. Yet this stoic vision is not water-tight. The final line opens a hypothetical perspective that seems to come from outside the elegantly phrased frames and narratives that control the meaning of the poem. Suddenly we are confronted by a possibility that one can love the dark. The relative weakness of the light must now be considered in terms of the open frame of possibility we call love. Thus an even greater theme overshadows — not the right word! — the nihilistic theme.
Longley’s notes include a story that suggests that part of Thomas loved the utter blackness of the dark. The poem suggests why. There is so much life going on there! Thomas thought beyond the concepts of nihilism. The final emotion of the poem suggests a mindfulness that sees “through” the dark into the vital community of all mortal things. Is our love of life capable of taking in the dark? Where does this love come from? It embraces not only the loved mortal things — deer and star — but even the dark.
In its supple syntax and strict rhyme scheme, the poem enacts the act of awareness of the “more” that haunts human consciousness. This poem is one of those that points beyond the conceptual world of systematic philosophy, which, even at its most rewarding, must stick with its plan to explain the mystery. The poem reverses the age old dependence of poetry on philosophy.
Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.
Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when the lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;
And star and I and wind and deer,
Are in the dark together,—near,
Yet far,—and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.
How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.