Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Although Edward Thomas is remembered today as a poet, throughout his working life, he supported himself and his family by writing various sorts of prose. He always considered himself to be a writer, and the lasting tragedy of his life was that he never seemed able, until the outbreak of World War I, to buy enough time to devote himself to the art of writing as he obviously wished to do. Ironically, the war in which he died also provided him with the structured, organized environment and the freedom from financial anxiety that enabled him to produce the work which has secured his reputation.
His entire prose opus runs to nearly forty volumes, most of which were published during his lifetime. The titles cover a variety of subjects. It is also possible to see what a remarkable volume of work he produced in the years 1911 to 1912, a productivity that culminated, after nine published works, in a breakdown in 1912. Although the prose work of Thomas is often dismissed as being unimportant, it is obvious from merely reading the titles where his main interests lay. Themes of nature and of the British countryside predominate, together with literary criticism.
In fact, Thomas was a remarkably perceptive literary critic. He was among the first reviewers to appreciate the work of Robert Frost, and he also recognized Ezra Pound’s achievement in Personae (1909), which he reviewed in its first year of publication. When he began to write, he was heavily influenced by Walter Pater’s code of aesthetics, his love of rhetoric, and his formality. He was later to have to work hard to rid his prose of those features, which he recognized as being alien to his own poetic voice.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
In his poetry, Edward Thomas succeeded in realizing two ambitions, which another poet of nature set out as his aims more than a century earlier. In the preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798), William Wordsworth stated that his intent in writing poetry was “to exalt and transfigure the natural and the common” and also to redefine the status of the poet so that he would become “a man speaking to men.” Wordsworth’s poetry received both acclaim and abuse when it first appeared and formed an expectation of poetry that continued until the end of the nineteenth century. By that time, the aesthetic movement had come to the fore, and poetry was well on its way, at the outbreak of World War I, toward suffocating itself with overblown rhetoric.
Thomas is not generally regarded as a war poet, being discussed more often in conjunction with Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare than with Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg. By combining his acute perceptions of both nature and political events, however, Thomas produced poetry in which evocations of place and detailed descriptions of nature become a metaphor for humanity’s spiritual state. F. R. Leavis, writing in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) made this observation: “He was exquisitely sincere and sensitive, and he succeeded in expressing in poetry a representative modern sensibility. It was an achievement of a very rare order, and he has not yet had the recognition he deserves.” Thomas’s poetry has become widely known, and he has become almost an establishment figure in the literature of the early twentieth century. It is a measure of his achievement that in returning to his slender Collected Poems, it is always possible to be stimulated and surprised by his work.
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Cuthbertson, Guy, and Lucy Newlyn, eds. Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 2007. Contains essays on Thomas and poems by him and the poets he influenced.
Emeny, Richard, comp. Edward Thomas, 1878-1917: Towards a Complete Checklist of His Publications. Edited by Jeff Cooper. Blackburn, Lancashire, England: White Sheep Press, 2004. A bibliography of Thomas’s numerous publications, from the poetry to the many prose writings.
Farjeon, Eleanor. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years. Rev. ed. Foreword by P. J. Kavanagh. Edited by Anne Harvey. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2007. A double memoir that uses Thomas’s letters and Farjeon’s diaries to provide a candid account of their developing friendship. Offers a unique account of Thomas’s development as a poet, including his meeting Robert Frost, whose encouragement led to Thomas’s first poems. Thomas’s letters describe his family, his friendships with other writers, and provides a detailed account of his experiences in World War I.
Frost, Robert, and Edward Thomas. Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another. Edited by Matthew Spencer. New York: Handsel Books, 2003. Contains the letters and poems that Frost and Thomas wrote to each other. Frost’s influence helped...
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