Edward Thomas 1878-1917
(Full name: Philip Edward Thomas) Late nineteenth— and early twentieth-century British poet, essayist, literary critic, and biographer.
The following entry provides information on Thomas's life and works from 1920 through 2001.
Although he wrote fewer than 150 poems in his lifetime before being killed in World War I, Thomas's slender body of poetry has come to be seen as occupying an important position in twentieth-century British poetry. Written in a colloquial style that rejects both the flowery rhetoric of late-Victorian poetry and the self-consciousness of the Imagists, Thomas's poems are informed by a distinctly modern vision of doubt, alienation, and human limitation. Although he shares a love of nature expressed with the Georgian poets and the topic of war with poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas's poems are known for their willingness to grapple with difficulty and uncertainty.
The eldest of six sons, Thomas was born on March 3, 1878, to Welsh parents in the London suburb of Lambeth. Young Thomas frequently visited relatives in rural Wales and Swindon, where he developed a love of nature. At age fifteen, Thomas began writing accounts of his country walks. A reformed poacher named David “Dad” Uzzell, taught Thomas about nature and served as a model for Thomas's poem “Lob.” In 1895 Thomas met critic and writer James Ashcroft Noble, who encouraged him to publish his essays in London periodicals. Thomas published his first book, The Woodland Life (1897), at eighteen. Although he was determined to be a professional writer, his father insisted Thomas secure a position in the civil service. Instead Thomas went to Oxford in 1897, winning a history scholarship to Lincoln College in 1898. He'd fallen in love with Noble's daughter, Helen, and after she became pregnant, they married in June 1899. Thomas received a second-class degree in history not long after the birth of their son. For the next twenty years, Thomas worked as a professional essayist and journalist, writing commissioned biographies, literary criticism, essays, stories, natural history and book reviews. From 1910 through 1912 Thomas wrote twelve books. The family of five struggled financially, moving frequently from one country cottage to another, and emotionally, as Thomas suffered depression for most his life. In 1913 his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas became “conscious of a possible perfection as I never was in prose.” As World War I raged, Thomas—along with others of his social class—concluded, in his words, that England “was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die.” In June 1915 seven months after he found his voice as a poet, Thomas enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. He volunteered for overseas duty and sailed for France in January 1917. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras, only eight of his fewer than 150 poems having been published in his lifetime.
The author of more than thirty books, Thomas came to poetry late, which accounts for the small body of work he left behind. Written in a colloquial style, Thomas's poetry is influenced by Frost but is more intense, meditative, and melancholy. Although Thomas's poetry concerns war, it does not directly address his experiences in the trenches or display patriotic fervor. The thoughtfulness and ambivalence of his poetry is evident in one of his most anthologized poems, “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong,” which begins “This is no case of petty right or wrong / That politicians or philosophers / Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.” Thomas's poetry connects World War I to his prewar feelings that urbanization and industrialization were destroying the countryside and undermining country life and values. Thomas's love of the Earth and the countryside is evident throughout his poems. The ending of “Aspens” demonstrates the sense of despair of ever finding harmony with nature that is present in many of Thomas's poems: “Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves / We cannot other than an aspen be / That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves / Or so men think who like a different tree.” Thomas's colloquial language and penetrating, searching doubt give his poetry a distinctly modern character. Poems such as “The Owl”—in which the owl's cry reminds the speaker, a traveler, of “all who lay under the stars, / soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice”—and “Rain”—in which the speaker, listening to the rain, remembers “again that I shall die / And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks / For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude”—are early expressions of the alienation articulated by twentieth century writers. And yet his poetry can also express joy in language, as in “Words”: “Let me sometimes dance / With you, / Or climb / Or stand perchance / In ecstasy, / Fixed and free / In a rhyme, / As poets do.”
Thomas, who only published eight poems during his lifetime, did not receive much attention until after his death. In an early comment, Frost praised his treatment of nature, writing “His concern to the last was what it had always been, to touch earthly things and to come as near to them in words as words would come.” Walter de la Mare remarked that Thomas's poems “tell us … not so much of rare, exalted, chosen moments, of fleeting, inexplicable intuitions, but of Thomas's daily, and one might say, common, experience.” As young poets, wrote Cecil Day Lewis in 1956, he and W. H. Auden considered Thomas a poet they had “little or no hope of ever equaling.” Despite the praise of a few, until 1932, when literary critic F. R. Leavis singled him out as “an original poet of rare quality” and suggested that he, in “record[ing] the modern disintegration … succeeded in expressing in poetry a representative modern sensibility,” Thomas had been generally dismissed as a Georgian nature poet (a category that referred to the generally romantic, sentimental poems published in five anthologies between 1911 and 1912; it included Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, and Walter de la Mare), or a poet of World War I, along with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. While agreeing with Leavis that Thomas's poetry contains modern qualities, mid-century critics often concluded that the slimness of Thomas's output and the deeply personal nature of his poetry rendered him a minor figure. In 1970, H. Coombes concluded that Thomas's verse is “a poetry that lacks the strength of tragedy—it is not impersonal enough to achieve that kind of strength.” In 1959, John Danby, noting that Thomas had “neither the benefit of the intellectual certainty of the universally known, nor the enfolding comfort (a paradoxical consolation) of the settled romantic melancholy,” praised as Thomas's strength “his adequacy to what others would find overwhelmingly debilitating.” In 1987, J. P. Ward called him a “twentieth-century existentialist” who “is concerned with poetry's and language's difficulty.” Contemporary critics generally hold that Thomas is an important transitional figure whose work thematically and structurally straddles the Victorian and Modernist eras.
Six Poems [as Edward Eastaway] 1916
Poems [as Edward Eastaway] 1917
Last Poems 1918
Collected Poems 1920
Two Poems 1927
The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas [edited by R. George Thomas] 1978
Edward Thomas: A Mirror of England [edited by Elaine Wilson] 1985
The Woodland Life (essays and diary) 1897
Oxford (prose) 1903
Rose Acre Papers (prose) 1904
Beautiful Wales (essays) 1905
The Heart of England (essays) 1906
Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work (criticism) 1909
The South Country (essays) 1909
The Feminine Influence on the Poets (criticism) 1910
Rest and Unrest (essays) 1910
Light and Twilight (essays) 1911
Maurice Maeterlinck (criticism) 1911
Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Critical Study (criticism) 1912
George Borrow: The Man and His Books (criticism) 1912
The Country (prose) 1913
The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (novel) 1913
The Icknield Way (prose) 1913
Walter Pater: A Critical Study (criticism) 1913
In Pursuit of Spring (prose) 1914
This England: An Anthology from Her Writers [editor and contributor] (anthology) 1915
Keats (criticism) 1916
A Literary Pilgrim in England (criticism) 1917
The Last Sheaf (essays) 1928
The Childhood of Edward Thomas (autobiography) 1938
The Friend of the Blackbird (prose) 1938
The Prose of Edward Thomas [edited by Roland Gant] (collected prose) 1948
Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley [edited by R. George Thomas] (letters) 1968
George F. Whicher (essay date April 1920)
SOURCE: Whicher, George F. “Edward Thomas.” The Yale Review 9, no. 3 (April 1920): 556-67.
[In the following essay, written just three years after Thomas's death, the author focuses on the intimacy and sincerity of Thomas's poems, which, the author argues, reflect a “desire to comprehend the world's beauty” along with a “resolve to know the fullness of its reality.”]
So many recent English poets, especially those whose lives have been sealed perfect in the war, have been youthful men that it is a surprise to learn that Edward Thomas, a poet of two years' standing, was thirty-eight when he died in action, and had been, as his three words of autobiography in...
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J. Middleton Murry (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: Murry, J. Middleton. “The Poetry of Edward Thomas.” In Aspects of Literature, pp. 29-38. London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1920.
[In the following essay, the author, a British literary critic and editor of Rhyme magazine, concludes that Thomas is “not a great poet,” but nevertheless praises the search for truth in Thomas's poetry, comparing him favorably to Keats.]
We believe that when we are old and we turn back to look among the ruins with which our memory will be strewn for the evidence of life which disaster could not kill, we shall find it in the poems of Edward Thomas.1 They will appear like the faint, indelible writing of...
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Theresa Ashton (essay date November-December 1937)
SOURCE: Ashton, Theresa. “Edward Thomas: From Prose to Poetry.” The Poetry Review 28 (November-December 1937): 449-55.
[In the following essay, Ashton examines the poetic qualities in Thomas's prose and traces his development as a poet.]
The commemorative stone has been duly unveiled on the Shoulder of Mutton Hill in Hampshire and the tablet has been placed on Berryfield Cottage at the foot of the hill: but every memorial is also a memorial to the inadequacy of the heart of man—as doubly significant as the neat signpost of the National Trust set up in the England Edward Thomas loved so faithfully.
Tchehov once wrote to Gorki: “You are an...
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Cecil Day Lewis (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: Day Lewis, Cecil. “The Poetry of Edward Thomas.” In Essays by Divers Hands, edited by Angela Thirkell, pp. 75-92. London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1956.
[In the following essay, first delivered as a lecture in July 1954, Day Lewis, once the Poet Laureate of Great Britain from 1968 to 1972, states that as young man, he and the poet W. H. Auden considered Thomas a poet “whom we had little or no hope of ever equaling.” What separates Thomas from his contemporaries, the author argues, are Thomas's keen powers of observation, familiar knowledge of nature, and colloquial, authoritative manner imbued with sincerity and honesty.]
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Ralph Lawrence (review date summer 1959)
SOURCE: Lawrence, Ralph. “Edward Thomas in Perspective.” English 12, no. 71 (summer 1959): 177-83.
[In the following book review of Eleanor Farjeon's biography of Thomas, the author explores Thomas's “unconventional patriotism” in poems such as “Old Man,” “The Glory,” and “Home.”]
When Edward Thomas was killed in Flanders, a mirror of England was shattered of so pure and true a crystal that a clearer and tenderer reflection of it can be found no other where than in these poems.’ So wrote Walter de la Mare, referring to the late harvest of verse which formed the culmination and crown of Edward Thomas's lifelong service to English...
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Michael Kirkham (essay date summer 1979)
SOURCE: Kirkham, Michael. “The ‘Desert Places’ in Edward Thomas's Poetry.” University of Toronto Quarterly 48, no. 4 (summer 1979): 283-302.
[In the following essay, Kirkham provides close readings of such poems as “Beauty,” “Melancholy,” “Ambition,” and “Wind and Mist,” among others, to explore how Thomas uses landscapes and nature to express depression and melancholic sentiment.]
The woods around it have it—it is theirs. All animals are smothered in their lairs. I am too absent-spirited to count; The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness Will be more lonely ere it will be less— A blanker...
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R. P. Draper (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Draper, R. P. “Edward Thomas: The Unreasonable Grief.” In Lyric Tragedy, pp. 131-43. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Draper considers Thomas as a writer of “lyric tragedy,” comparing him to Keats and Hardy, with special attention to Thomas's treatment of nature, war, and mortality.]
Edward Thomas is strongly reminiscent of both Keats and Hardy. Keats is recalled in ‘Blenheim Oranges’ by the ambivalent image of apples that ‘Fall grubby from the trees’, and in ‘The sun used to shine’ by the mixture of ripeness and rottenness in ‘the yellow flavorous coat / Of an apple wasps had undermined’.1 Less...
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Peter Mitchell (essay date summer 1986)
SOURCE: Mitchell, Peter. “Edward Thomas and the Georgians.” University of Toronto Quarterly 55, no. 4 (summer 1986): 359-74.
[In the following essay, the author examines Thomas's relationship to the Georgian poets, considering Thomas's depiction of nostalgia, pastoralism, and class relations in such poems as “The Gypsy,” “Old Man,” and “Lob.”]
Leavis was wrong about Edward Thomas. This judgment was put to me during a typically uneasy supervision with an eminent scholar. Leavis had used Thomas in the second chapter of New Bearings to announce the shift from a Victorian to a Modern point of view. In Thomas we had a poet who could not be associated...
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Stephen McKenzie (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: McKenzie, Stephen. “‘Only an Avenue, Dark, Nameless, without End’: Edward Thomas's Road to France.” Critical Survey 2, no. 2 (1990): 160-68.
[In the following essay, the author argues that Thomas's writings during and about the war evince “a profound uncertainty” regarding what it meant to be “English” and what it meant to have any kind of identity during the 1910s. Through providing close readings of poems such as “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong,” “I Never Saw That Land Before,” and others, the author suggests that Thomas's uncertainty is elaborated in his poetry by unresolved investigations into how nationality, language, and patriarchy control an...
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David Bromwich (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Bromwich, David. “Edward Thomas and Modernism.” In Raritan Reading, edited by Richard Poirier, pp. 26-46. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Bromwich uses Edward Thomas's literary criticism of early modernists such as Ezra Pound and his rejection of the Symbolist movement, along with his friendship with Robert Frost, to explain how Thomas developed his own literary style, as evidenced in the poems “Tall Nettles,” “Liberty,” and “Blenheim Oranges.” The essay also contains an amusing anecdote about Thomas's misreading of Frost's poem, “The Road Not Taken.”]
In any discussion of modern poetry Edward...
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Edna Longley (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Longley, Edna. “The Business of the Earth: Edward Thomas and Ecocentrism.” In High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, 1889-1939, edited by Maria DiBattista and Lucy McDiarmid, pp. 107-29. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Longley argues that Thomas's poetry destabilizes authority, perception, and time in a way that is foreign to modernist aesthetics. Relying on theories by Raymond Williams and Robyn Eckerley, the author provides close readings of three Thomas poems entitled “Home” to demonstrate that Thomas's poetry fuses ecological and environmental concerns with local or regional concerns.]
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Stan Smith (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Smith, Stan. “The Public Mind: Edward Thomas's Social Mysticism.” Critical Survey 11, no. 3 (1999): 67-76.
[In the following essay, the author examines critical writings and poetry by Thomas to suggest that poems like Thomas's “The Other” and “Like the Touch of Rain” were influenced by the mysticism of the seventeenth-century figure, Thomas Trahane. The author argues that Thomas was struck by Traherne's “ecstasy at the sight of common things” and Traherne's notion that each individual consciousness contains all the others.]
According to his biographer R. P. Eckert, Edward Thomas was unaffected by the ‘social changes that seemed to have sprung...
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Martin Dodsworth (essay date summer 2000)
SOURCE: Dodsworth, Martin. “Edward Thomas, Seamus Heaney and Modernity: A Reply to Antony Easthope.” English 49, no. 194 (summer 2000): 143-54.
[In the following essay, the author disagrees with Antony Easthope's dismissal of Thomas's poem “Adelstrop” as metrically regular and “comfortable” in an unchallenging way. The author discusses the structural complexities of “Adelstrop” structural complexities in comparison with Seamus Heaney's “The Graubelle Man,” and argues for a more nuanced understanding of modernist poetry.]
In his article ‘How Good is Seamus Heaney?’ (English 46.184, Spring 1997, 21-36) Antony Easthope elaborates a simple...
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Clive Wilmer (essay date March-April 2001)
SOURCE: Wilmer, Clive. “Edward Thomas: Englishness and Modernity.” PN Review 138, 27, no. 4 (March-April, 2001): 59-64.
[In the following essay, Wilmer, a poet himself, reads several poems by Thomas to argue that poems such as “Old Man,” “Lob,” and “Fifty Faggots” wrestle with Thomas's complex and sometimes contradictory understanding of Englishness, patriotism, and nostalgia.]
On 1 May 1909, Edward Thomas sent a book he was reviewing to his friend Gordon Bottomley. ‘Here,’ he says in an accompanying letter, ‘is Ezra Pound & I think he has very great things in him & love poems & the “Famam librosque”—in fact nearly all—are...
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Adcock, A. St. John. “Lieutenant Edward Thomas, Royal Garrison Artillery.” In For Remembrance: Some Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War, pp. 96-111. London, New York, and Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918.
Brief eulogistic portrait of Thomas.
Bushnell, Athalie. “Edward Thomas.” The Poetry Review 38, no. 4 (1947): 241-52.
Biographical essay discusses the influences of familial and professional relationships on Thomas's development as a poet.
Eckert, Robert P. Edward Thomas: A Biography and a Bibliography. New York: Dutton and Co., 1937, 328 p.
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