Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
Perhaps the most notable feature of Edward Thomas’s poetry, which strikes the reader immediately, is its characteristic quietness of tone and its unassertive, gentle quality. He is primarily a poet of the country, but through his descriptions of the English landscape, impressionistic and minutely observed, he also attempts to delineate...
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- Critical Essays
Perhaps the most notable feature of Edward Thomas’s poetry, which strikes the reader immediately, is its characteristic quietness of tone and its unassertive, gentle quality. He is primarily a poet of the country, but through his descriptions of the English landscape, impressionistic and minutely observed, he also attempts to delineate some of the features of his own inner landscape.
As may be seen from the titles of the many books of prose that he wrote before beginning to write poetry at the behest of Frost, he was always deeply interested in nature and the land. Many of the fleeting observations in his poetry are drawn from his notebooks, in which he recorded such things as the first appearance of a spring blossom and the first sightings of various species of birds. In his prose, as opposed to the notebooks, his style was highly rhetorical, so that the keen observations that make his poetry so effective are lost in a plethora of adjectival excess. In one of his reviews, he wrote that “The important thing is not that a thing should be small, but that it should be intense and capable of unconsciously symbolic significance.” In his poetry, by the acuity of his observation and the spareness and tautness of his language, he certainly achieves remarkable—if low-key—intensity. He also achieves, in his best work, an unforced symbolic resonance.
“As the Team’s Head-Brass”
“As the Team’s Head-Brass” is one of Thomas’s most impressive achievements; at first reading, it may appear to be only an account of a rural dialogue between the poet and a man plowing a field. It begins with a reference to the plowman, and to some lovers who are seen disappearing into the wood behind the field being plowed. The lovers are not directly relevant to the substance of the poem, but they are an important detail. The poem begins and ends with a reference to them, and although they are in no sense representative of a Lawrentian “life-force,” their presence in the poem does suggest the triumph of life and love over death and destruction. The very mention of the lovers reinforces the image of the plow horses “narrowing a yellow square of charlock”—that is, destroying the (living) weeds, that better life may grow.
“If we could see all all might seem good” says the plowman, and this seems to be Thomas’s contention in this poem. The writing throughout is highly controlled, the structure of the poem reinforced with alliteration and internal rhyme—seeming to owe something to Gerard Manley Hopkins and ultimately even to the Welsh cynghanedd form, with the use of “fallen/fallow/plough/narrowing/yellow/charlock” all in four lines, and then later in the same opening section, “word/weather/war/scraping/share/screwed/furrow.” Leavis observes that “we become aware of the inner life which the sensory impressions are notation for.” This is particularly true of “As the Team’s Head-Brass.” The closing lines bring the whole poem together most succinctly—the lovers, forgotten since the opening lines, emerge from the wood; the horses begin to plow a new furrow; “for the last time I watched” says Thomas, and the reader must pause here to ask whether he means “for the last time on this particular occasion” or “for the last time ever.” All the conversation in the poem has been about war, and in the last two lines come the words “crumble/topple/stumble,” which, although used ostensibly with reference to the horses and the soil, may equally be taken to refer back to the fallen tree on which the poet is sitting, the plowman’s workmate who has been killed in the war, the changing state of society, and the relentless passage of time.
“As the Team’s Head-Brass” is not typical of Thomas’s work, however, for it is longer and much more detailed and elaborate than most of his poems. More typical of his work are poems such as “Tall Nettles” and “Adlestrop,” which evoke the moment without attempting to do more than capture the unique quality of one particular place or one particular moment in time. “Adlestrop” is a poem much anthologized and much appreciated by those who love the English countryside. It has been described as the most famous of modern “place” poems, and yet it also seems to conjure up an almost sexual tension (perhaps by the use of the words “lonely fair”?) of a kind that is often implicit in such hot summer days. This is a sense of the poem that the contemporary poet Dannie Abse has obviously found, for he has written a poem titled “Not Adlestrop,” in which the unspecified lady actually makes an appearance in a train going in the opposite direction. Abse’s poem is something of a literary joke, but it does pinpoint an element of unresolved sexual tension in several of Thomas’s poems. “Some Eyes Condemn,” “Celandine,” and “The Unknown” all seem to be worlds away in mood from “And You, Helen,” a poem written for his wife.
“No One So Much as You”
The poignant “No One So Much as You,” a kind of apologia for an imperfectly reciprocated love, was written for Mary Elizabeth Thomas, the poet’s mother, although it has often been mistaken for a love poem to his wife. In either case it would seem that familiarity did not necessarily increase Thomas’s love for his family—in fact, it was obvious, both from his despairing reaction to the news of his wife’s second pregnancy and from his well-documented impatience with domestic life—that distance and mystery were important elements of attraction for him. Perhaps fortunately for all concerned, Thomas’s dissatisfactions and unfulfilled longings seem to have made up only a very small part of his nature. Having come to poetry late, he wastes little time in cataloging regrets for what he might have been and concentrates mainly on what he was able to do best—that is, to capture his own impressions of English rural life and country landscapes and combine them in poetry with various insights into his own personality.
Affinity for country life
It would not be possible to offer a succinct analysis of Thomas’s poetry without referring to his deeply felt patriotism. In Edward Thomas: A Poet for His Country (1978), Jan Marsh describes an incident that occurred soon after Thomas enlisted in the British army, although he was in fact over the usual age limit for enlistment. A friend asked the poet what he thought he was fighting for; Thomas bent down and picked up a pinch of earth and, letting it crumble through his fingers, answered, “Literally, for this.”
This is the predominant impression that the reader carries away from an encounter with Thomas’s poetry, for here is a sensitive, educated man who, despite his cultivation, is deeply attuned to the land. This affinity is particularly clear in the country people who inhabit Thomas’s poetry, for they are always portrayed as being part of a long and noble tradition of rural life. Thomas does not romanticize his vision: He portrays the cruelties of nature as well as its beauties. A recurring image in his poetry is that of the gamekeeper’s board, hung with trophies in an attempt to discourage other predators. Perhaps because he makes an honest attempt to describe the reality of country life without attempting to gloss over or soften its less attractive aspects, he succeeds superbly. Since his life, when his poetry was scarcely known, Thomas’s work has become steadily more popular, so that he has become known as one of England’s finest nature poets.