(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1287 words.)