I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
'Beneath it all desire for oblivion runs', wrote Larkin in 'Wants', repeating that line as frame for his second verse. And it does, nor do we resist it, least of all when falling asleep, or at times when we are just exhausted or out of hope.
The great trick is not to sound self-pitying. Then the just as great trick of dramatising that desire without the poem itself sounding lethargic. There is a remarkable stroke in this poem by Thomas, probably greatest writer of melancholy in England in the twentieth century. We think we are getting an even-paced Georgian poem with a few necessary graces but line three drops away from us, vanishes from under our feet, through the simple device of an enjambment. So 'deep' appears at the end of one line, and its partner 'forest' at the beginning of the next. It is the forest floor that gives way. After this our sleep will never be untroubled. The next enjambment of lose / Their is gentler by comparison: it is a shock to fall through but the landing appears relatively soft. For now.
And now that we are at this level we seem to go on, moving on relatively firm ground (though we can never forget how far, how deep, we have fallen and might fall again) so we move, even then, with some trepidation through the next verse until the last line - And in they sink - where we imagine we have two simple iambs, as in And in they sink, which is slightly disconcerting because of the implied internal rhyme, that slight grunt of in, sink, but then there is the odd sense that it isn't two iambs after all, but the triple thump of spondees: And in they sink.
We are stumbling again, tumbling down a little Lethean slope. And the next verse is no more reassuring. We have got used to the first two lines of each verse rhyming with each other. Here, instead of a rhyme, we get the same word ends. Love, despair and ambition all end. The insistence of ending takes precedence over rhyme. This ending is too insistent, too urgent. The slight Georgianism of Then tasks most noble, a conventional phrase with a nagging archaic inversion, is a period grace, a potential weakness that the poem can afford, because whatever reassurance such a phrase might offer has long been undermined.
The forest is dark. The desire in the fourth verse is plain enough. The voice wants sleep, oblivion, more than it wants what it most loves. There, beside us, is our lover, our partner, the dearest presence, but that's not what we want here. It is sleep, but sleep of the fallen through, oblivious kind, a self-vanishing. And we don't need to spell that out, do we?
Now the forest is huge, merging with clouds and that simple towers / lowers rhyme is again tripped up by a strong enjambment : lowers / ahead, the sound of ahead another grunt, a double grunt. Then comes a double hush, shelf upon shelf.
The end of this sleep is the losing of oneself. I don't think this feeling is unfamiliar to us. Larkin's sense of the same moment is blunter, less subtle, but of unmistakeably of our time:
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff—
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.
We know about Edward Thomas's oblivion in the First World War, so his poem strikes us as foreknowledge, the nerves creeping under the stream of time and language, letting Lethe or Acheron, whichever dark river runs through that forest, chill it most. He lets his hand trail in it, the hand turning colder the longer he trails it.