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"The Seed-Merchant's Son" is a poem by Agnes Grozier Herbertson, often included in collections of WWI poetry. It doesn't go into the details of the war, like some other WWI poems; in fact, the war is only mentioned once in the poem, which mainly focuses on the father's reaction to his son's death:

The Seed-Merchant has lost his son,
His dear, his loved, his only one.

[...]

The Seed-Merchant goes on his way:
I saw him out on his land today;

[...]

Oh, never a soul could understand
Why he looked at the earth, and the seed in his hand,

As he had never before seen seed or sod:
I heard him murmur: ‘Thank God, thank God!’

The poem ends on this somewhat ambiguous note, which I'm not sure how to interpret. Perhaps it's dangerous even to try, when the poem itself says "never a soul could understand", but warnings like that shouldn't always be taken literally, so let's pose the question.

Why did the Seed-Merchant thank God?

It's definitely a significant part of the poem, being literally the final line, and it must say something about the Seed-Merchant's reaction to his son's death, though I'm not sure exactly what.

2

I read the thanking of God in a few ways. I think it's helpful to look at the final four stanzas one by one:

So still he was that the birds flew round / The grey of his head without a sound,

Leading up to the end of the poem, the Seed-Merchant is at peace within the natural world, exemplified by his stillness. I see a contrast here between the machination of warfare, especially chemical (viz. "unnatural") warfare, and the serenity of the natural world. Nature provides a place of solace in the midst of the violent, destructive consequences of war.

Careless and tranquil in the air, / As if naught human were standing there.

The stillness of the man affects the natural world: the birds are "[c]areless and tranquil." There is no divide between man and nature. Instead, it is as if no human were even there. If this were the throes of war, the birds would certainly not feel that tranquility. Given the spiritual implications of the final lines, I cannot help but imagine St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds (source).

Oh, never a soul could understand / Why he looked at the earth, and the seed in his hand, /

The idea that "never a soul could understand" the Seed-Merchant's actions has to do with the idea that his act of faith, or piety even, goes beyond the logic and the rational. In a world torn apart by war, of course this does not make sense. However, I contend that the fault is in the on-looker, not the Seed-Merchant. To him, his actions make perfect sense and culminate in the final lines, but to a world that just fought what was supposed to be the war to end all wars, it does not. It's our souls that are at fault, not the Seed-Merchant's. Indeed, the world is so affected by war that even at the level of individual souls, people cannot recognize simple acts of faith for what they are. The world has been corrupted -- body and soul -- by the violence of war.

As he had never before seen seed or sod: / I heard him murmur: ‘Thank God, thank God!’

The seed, a metaphor for new life, new beginnings, possibly resurrection, evokes a fresh awareness of the beauty and power of the natural world. The humble seed (possibly an allusion to having faith the size of a mustard seed?) keeps this man going because in it lies the hope of creation. Again, the natural world -- this time a tiny seed -- contrasts with war. Despite all the human-created weapons that seek to wipe out life, the seed exists to create life anew. Compare the seed to artillery: it is almost absurd how such a small thing creates life after such massive forces work to wipe it out. Yet, thankfully, the world can go on, can be re-created, because of something as simple as a seed. The Seed-Merchant knows the promise of life contained within each seed he plants.

And so he thanks God: it is through the seed that the world can continue, that nature can thrive again, that all life does not end because of war. There is suffering and death, but there is also resurrection and new life.

  • OMG, this is a really good answer. By your careful examination and analysis of the preceding lines, you've quite convinced me of this interpretation. Thank you. – Rand al'Thor Jun 29 '17 at 10:00
0

I can't say whether this is a thing in Christian theology as well (I assume the Seed-Merchant was Christian), but the Jewish faith requires one to bless God for things that appear to be bad, as well as for good things. (Although the blessing said is phrased differently from one that's said after something obviously good happens.)

חַיָּב אָדָם לְבָרֵךְ עַל הָרָעָה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא מְבָרֵךְ עַל הַטּוֹבָה

A person is obligated to bless upon the bad just as he blesses upon the good.

(Mishna, Brachos 9:5)

Now, I don't think that the Seed-Merchant is practicing this exact form of blessing, but my understanding of his statement, stemming from that background, is that the Seed-Merchant will thank God for anything that happens. His belief is that "whatever God does is for the best," and this is his way of expressing that.

  • This answer would be improved by incorporating close reading. – user111 Jun 30 '17 at 1:47
  • I'll see what I can do, @Hamlet. Thanks for the constructive criticism :) – Shokhet Jun 30 '17 at 15:37
-1

I know that I already wrote an answer to this question, but I just had another thought that I thought was different enough to require another post.

Another interpretation of this passage is that the grief of losing a son made the Seed-Merchant lose the edge of his touch on reality:

Oh, never a soul could understand
Why he looked at the earth, and the seed in his hand,

As he had never before seen seed or sod:

He's having some trouble coming to terms with his loss, and has difficulty going about his daily tasks. Things that once came easily to him are now more difficult, and objects that were once familiar to him now seem alien.

And then he murmurs to himself "Thank God, thank God!" It's unclear, but he may be talking to himself, imagining a conversation with another where he responds to "How are you?" with the standard, meaningless ‘Thank God, thank God!’ that doesn't actually reflect his inner feelings, as he must have many times since the news of his son's death hit the town. This may have become a habit after responding in this way many times, or he may be preparing himself to respond in this fashion the next time a townsperson approaches and asks after his well-being.

  • 1
    I hope the downvote on this answer wasn't just because it's the second answer by the same user. It's fine to post more than one answer to the same question, if they're drawing very different conclusions. – Rand al'Thor May 29 '17 at 22:59
  • Thanks for standing up for me, @Randal'Thor :) ...I'm just taking this as confirmation that the system is working ;-) – Shokhet May 29 '17 at 23:05
  • Argh, mixing nosed and noseless smilies! :-[ – Rand al'Thor May 29 '17 at 23:07
  • Hey, I didn't say I wasn't grumpy about the DV :P – Shokhet May 29 '17 at 23:08
  • I downvoted this answer, and I'm trying to decide whether to downvote the other answer as well. The answer just cherry picks one action from the character that seems illogical, and then shoehorns a frankly unimaginative interpretation on top of it: that the character lost touch on reality. This answer would be improved if you could do a close reading of the poem and find evidence that the character is insane, rather than just one instance where the character does something illogical. – user111 May 30 '17 at 16:22

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