4

Than in the storm smoking along the wind

Athwart the wood. Two witches' cauldrons roar.

From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;

Out of the other an England beautiful

And like her mother that died yesterday.
Full poem

I am just getting to know this poem; I think I understand the emotional turns, but these lines are confusing me. He has just said that the choices are not between "justice and injustice" -- so the image in these lines seems to represent the true choices.

Are they supposed to sound indistinguishable? One one hand we have "clear and gay" weather, and on the other we have "an England beautiful". Is Thomas trying to say that it doesn't matter?

And who is England's mother, and why did she die yesterday? (Would this be a reference that was clear to readers at the time?)

2

I've found a few possible interpretations of these lines, each of which could make sense in the wider context of the whole poem and the emotions and attitudes behind it.

Background information

After war broke out, Edward Thomas spent a long time agonising over whether he should join the armed forces or emigrate with his family to the relative safety of America. Eventually, in July 1915, he joined the army (where he was later killed). This poem was written in December 1915, supposedly immediately after a heated argument with his father, who was more aggressively patriotic and demonised the Germans.

We can see the emotions from that argument spilling over into the poem itself: Thomas clearly rejects the conventional patriotic instincts of hating Germans and "grow[ing] hot / With love of Englishmen", which he sees as being a farce "to please newspapers". Some have even interpreted the "fat patriot" line as referring to his own father. He is distancing himself from these zealous patriots, although by the end of the poem he has established his own, different, brand of patriotism.

The choice between the cauldrons

This is a tricky one. One possible reading is that the decision is, as you guessed, between two more or less equivalent choices - that choosing between two equally attractive cauldrons is similar to choosing between two equally unattractive patriots from different countries. This is the interpretation espoused by Martyn Crucefix's analysis:

The irony is though that what emerges from these apparent alternatives (Thomas again using contrasting terms in this poem) is similar. The adjectives “clear and gay” and “beautiful” suggest that there is little to choose between these alternatives, echoing line 8 with its phrase “I have not to choose”.

An entirely different reading is that the two cauldrons symbolise the two types of English patriotism which Thomas is contemplating: the one pure and unadulterated by propaganda, the other obsessed with the country itself and opposed to all other countries. This is the interpretation espoused by Sandra Gisbert Sánchez's analysis:

He compares, in a metaphor of witches’ cauldrons, his feelings of patriotism and other patriot’s feelings. Outside one cauldron, there is his patriotism which goes beyond this hatred, so he loves the English countryside with a weather that “shall rise clear and gay”. On the other cauldron there are other traditional patriots like his father, who love England as newspapers write, also hating Germans because of the war conflict.

Honestly, neither of these interpretations is enough to properly convince me, so I lay them both before you for consideration; take or leave each one as you will.

England and her mother

Taken in the context of the rest of the poem, it seems this may be a reference to a sort of reincarnation, and that the "mother" is in fact just England herself, or an older version of the same country. Notice the reference to a "phoenix" a few lines later. If the phoenix is England, then symbolically the country is rising out of the ashes of its mother's pyre. This interpretation fits with the line that you're puzzled about, and is espoused by this blog:

Despite his distaste for discussing it, Thomas hopes for an end to the war from which ‘an England beautiful and like her mother that died yesterday’ may rise.

Another reviewer has similar thoughts about this line, as well as interpreting Thomas as one so undecided that he has no interest in picking a side (which would fit with the first interpretation mentioned above of the lines about the cauldrons):

For Thomas, England is still the mother of the land where he is from, and subsequently fights for, regardless of the careless politicians at the top, who he criticises heavily. England gives meaning to a wandering soul, lost in conflict.

References

I read several reviews and analyses of the poem before writing this answer:

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  • Thanks, I didn't think this was going to get answered! 1) I appreciate that you confess neither of the interpretations convince you (I feel the same way). 2) Though I didn't see it at first, you've convinced me that "her mother" is just the previous England. – Eli Rose -- REINSTATE MONICA Aug 20 '17 at 21:51
1

Given the following:

  1. that cauldrons are were strongly associated with fertility and regeneration in ancient Celtic religion;
  2. that the king of Prussia in 1915 when this poem was written, was Wilhelm II, eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria;
  3. that the King of England in 1915 was George V, also a grandchild of Queen Victoria, who retained his German surname Saxe-Coburg-Gotha until 1917 when he changed it to Windsor as a result of anti-German sentiment caused by WW1;
  4. that the phoenix is also linked to regeneration,

I think we should consider the possibility of the two cauldrons representing England and Germany, the two "witches" being the mothers of George (England) and Wilhelm (Germany) respectively (Not negative, merely owners of cauldrons), and the "mother who died yesterday" being Victoria. The point is that the offspring of both 'cauldrons' resembles the mother: Germany and England are not only similar, but are actually family. What then does that make patriotism? It certainly suggests great irony to the line 'as we love ourselves, we hate our foe', because our 'foe' is actually ourselves, our family.

Just a thought, because I cannot quite get my head around Edward Thomas' viewpoints here. Yet I cannot shake the opinion that these facts must matter in any interpretation.

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