Having fought and died as a soldier in World War I, Edward Thomas is known as a ‘war poet’. He is famous for his works such as ‘Beauty’, ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’, ‘October’ and more. However, this assumption reflects the style of his poetry that uses unassuming, colloquial vocabulary when underneath lies layers of meaning and message. Thomas was plagued with self doubt about his poetry and even suffered bouts of depression which hides within his poetry. He blends themes of war and the countryside using a lucid style, precision of speech and intelligent observations. The remarkable delicacy with which he writes makes it all the more endearing. One can also find that with Thomas, what is unsaid is more important than what is said. ‘The Signpost’ consists of Thomas’ deliberations on the kinds important junctions one encounters throughout life as well as the illusion of choice in such instances.
Using pathetic fallacy, the poet includes pale, unpromising imagery for the dark themes to come. Everything is dull; the ‘dim sea glints chill, ‘white sun is shy’ by a hilltop of frosty grasses and ‘skeleton weeds’. We even find that the ‘hawthorn berry and hazel tuft’ later ominously lose their leaves.
The poet comes across a signpost at the hilltop initially with a ‘traveller’s joy’ and reads the sign. Trying to make a choice, a voice in his mind tells him that as a twenty year old he ‘would not have doubted so’. ‘Another voice reminds him of his suicidal thoughts at that age. The two voices of hindsight begin to have a conversation of their own, distancing the poet from himself.
The first voice wonders what decision he would make ‘to be sixty by this same post’. With a sinister laugh, the other suggests that he shall soon see, implying that death is near. This is all the more tragic because Thomas sensed his own death and never lived to see sixty. He joins the laughter of the voices for he knows the joke, like death is on him.
The voice assures ‘either before or after’, death ‘must befall’. All shall eventually be buried with ‘a mouthful of earth’. Death is in fact a ‘remedy’ that shall take people to a heavenly place where ‘regrets and wishes shall freely be given’. The only wish that shall not be given is to return to earth. The voices of depression taunt and haunt Thomas. They suggest such a morbid that even heaven is not free from flaw. ‘No matter what the weather’ or age ‘between death and birth’, he shall never revisit. Heaven is just as much a trap as earth. It is depicted as a restricting place of afterlife that only deprives people. It deprives one from ever seeing ‘day or night’, ‘sun and frost’, ‘land and the sea’ or any of the seasons. Yet it is inescapable to any man be him a prince or a pauper. The signpost of death is but a dead end ‘standing upright’ against any stunted idea of choice in the matter.
It is interesting to note that for a man with suicidal thoughts, Thomas loves life and earth. His detailed description of nature’s wonderful elements proves desperation to cling onto it. This is similar to how he finds refuge in the beauty of nature in other poems such as ‘Beauty’. His zest for life comes from nature making him just as much a nature poet than Wordsworth. However, he does leave us with a thought-provoking cliff hanger. If death is so unavoidable, why does man continue ‘wondering where he shall journey, O where?’
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