‘I built myself a house of glass’

I built myself a house of glass:

It took me years to make it:

And I was proud. But now, alas!

Would God someone would break it.

 

But it looks too magnificent.

No neighbour casts a stone

From where he dwells, in tenement

Or palace of glass, alone.

 

Edward Thomas

 

In the notes to the latest Faber and Faber edition of Edward Thomas’s poems, the editor quotes childhood memoir for a quote with some relevance to the poem:

I discovered the joy of throwing stones over into the depths of a great garden and hearing the glass-house break.

For Thomas then, the idea of breaking glass evokes childhood, the feeling of being an adventurous young boy in a grand world. I don’t think I ever deliberately broke glass when I was young, though I certainly smashed a pane of glass or two by accident – with a football rather than a stone. Mind, I did use to go to the local park with a friend of mine and we’d bash a golf ball about with a couple of his dad’s golf clubs. One day, he teed a series of balls across from the local tennis centre, which had recently put its prices up, out of the range of youngsters like ourselves, and he aimed them at the high windows of the building, breaking a couple before we scarpered into the nearby woods. I know what some of you are thinking: I should have stopped him – but it honestly never crossed my mind. If I heard of kids doing this to a local building nowadays, I’d probably mutter ‘mindless thuggery’ or something of the kind; and yet, thinking back on it, it’s a vaguely happy memory, and I don’t feel particularly bad about it.

Funny that. But little, you may think, to do with the poem, which seems to have its roots in the old English proverb ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. This is itself a close cousin, I suppose, of the Biblical injunction ‘Let he who is without sin be the first to cast a stone’, Jesus’ words to a group of men ready to condemn an adulterous woman. This is an essentially moral injunction, both an implicit condemnation of the men’s hypocrisy and a reminder to the men that the right to condemn a man’s soul belongs to God and not to man. The English proverb is more ambiguous, still a warning about hypocrisy, but less a moral imperative and more a social one – a reminder to those with their own vulnerabilities that in criticising other’s faults one is risking damage to oneself – either materially, or to one’s pride.

And pride, certainly, is the subject of this poem. Thomas laments having allowed his pride to grow to such an extent that he is insulated not only from the criticisms of other men, but from their warmth and from their company. This is one interpretation, at least, of this epigrammatic poem. It seems to express a yearning for the uninhibited feelings of his youth, free from the strain of reputation and responsibility.

So perhaps that pricey tennis centre should have felt thankful towards my golf ball driving, window shattering friend, that his well-aimed pot shots should have reminded the well-heeled tennis players inside that there was a community of people outside their air-conditioned tennis courts and saloons… or perhaps not. But if you think I’m projecting an unnecessary class connotation on the idea of glass houses, look again at those last two lines – what does Thomas mean by talking about neighbours both in tenements and ‘palaces of glass’? There is an interesting essay here, that reflects on these class implications in the poem and their relation to a fable Thomas once wrote in prose.

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2 Comments

Filed under Literature, Poetry

2 responses to “‘I built myself a house of glass’

  1. That last “alone” opens the poem out to questions. I wonder about the poet’s own consternation at the mutual alienation of tenement people and palace people…and himself as not belonging to either class. I like Thomas’simplicity of diction and the cadence. The latter reminds me of Robert Frost. I know little about Thomas, but I have read that he and Frost were good friends. Frost believed that rhythm, especially that of ordinary speech, was more important in poetry than rhyme or the counting of metric feet. I think Thomas even contemplated emigrating here, to New Hampshire (I live not far from the Frost place) but finally opted to stay and fight for England in WWI.
    About smashing glass….maybe it’s an instinctive urge.
    (Do the Greeks have to replace their dinnerware after every bash?) My glass smashing anecdote: as a very small child I accompanied my mother to the grocery store and would cling to her skirts in great fear of a gentleman with a wooden leg who was often there. One day a bottle of vinegar fell from a shelf to the stone-tiled floor and broke to smithereens. I laughed in great delight. Seeing this, old Peg Leg clomped over to that shelf, picked up another bottle and smashed it. More laughter. Then he gave me a bottle to smash….and another, and another. Both of us hilarious, we became fast friends. Of course mother and the grocer were in shock. But the gentleman with the wooden leg paid for all the vinegar and saw to the clean-up, I was told in later years.

    • Perhaps there are a lot of respectable people out there repressing this desire to smash things, with only the eccentric or mildly sociopathic occasionally indulging their desires. And perhaps, as with Thomas, this represents a desire to break out of the stifling strictures of bourgeois life… or perhaps they just really like breaking stuff.
      That’s a great story, anyway. The stereotypical (and probably dated) image most people have of of New England is as a place of uptight yankee puritans, repectable, polite and judgemental (and perhaps – as in Ethan Frome – somewhat repressed), but your story suggests there are a few eccentrics around to lighten the mood…
      Does anyone else have any good breaking stuff stories?

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