Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
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...
(The entire section contains 83904 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181
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
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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 “Who's Who” inform us, “always a writer.” He was born in 1878 of Welsh parentage. His family traditions kept him a little distinct from the South England of his boyhood, and that in turn preserved him from the folly of “Celtic movements.” He was a free spirit.
Even in his undergraduate days at Lincoln College, Oxford, Thomas made something of a name for himself by his mastery of a delicate prose style and by his gift of quick appreciation. After Oxford, he seems to have accepted without hesitation the calling of a writer. He established himself as a reviewer and wrote books that publishers wanted, doing work to please himself when he could. From the bonds thus easily assumed, however, it was not easy to free himself for original writing, for he early gave hostages to fortune and had a growing family to support. To the end of his life he was obliged to perform a large amount of taskwork such as his biography of Marlborough. He performed it with the sincerity of a trained craftsman; the larger sincerity of an artist was not to be expected.
As a reviewer Thomas at first succeeded brilliantly. He had a knack to know poets, and an enthusiasm for helping them to be known and to be worth knowing. How unflaggingly and successfully he wrought to gain a hearing and to build up a reputation for one poet and another has never been adequately acknowledged. The bards, as he tolerantly called the tribe of poets, often had short memories. But publishers were quick to recognize the authority of Thomas's judgment. For a time hardly a book of poetry was launched without a word of approval from him. Even from notices meant to be unfavorable press-agents would wrest noncommittal phrases that could be used—with Thomas's name, of course—to puff their wares. Inevitably he came to perceive with ironic amusement that reviews were valued chiefly for their commercial usefulness, and with the perception it became impossible for him to write them with the innocent ardor that had made his earlier impressions delightful. So he was saved from a lifetime of book notices.
Besides periodical articles and reviews, Thomas wrote critical biographies of Jefferies, Maeterlinck, Swinburne, Pater, Borrow, Keats, and Hearn, most of them at the urge of some publisher, though the “Jefferies” surely because his heart was in the work. It is as sincere as the best autobiography might be, full of sympathy and understanding. The other biographies show workmanlike qualities: prodigious care in the collection of materials and conscientious originality in the forming of opinions. Scattered through them is some fine critical writing. But the conditions of the work were unfavorable; the books had to be of a certain length, and the publishers took care to get good measure. To one manuscript, returned as lacking one thousand words of the quantity contracted for, Thomas in sublime defiance added the requisite verbiage straight on from the end. In dealing with some of the writers assigned to him, too, he could not let slip opportunities for drolling. The book on Swinburne, for instance, is full of oblique lights, roguishly exposing aspects of his poetry ordinarily not revealed by the rose-colored glow in which it must be viewed to be appreciated. True Swinburnians were maddened, bystanders amused; and the book did Thomas no service in public esteem.
His really memorable writing is contained chiefly in the two volumes of collected sketches called Rest and Unrest and Light and Twilight, in his outdoor books like The Icknield Way and In Pursuit of Spring, in the nondescript sketch-novel The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans, and in the thin sheaf of Poems that forms the aftermath to his most genuine prose. He had hardly found himself in poetry, however, when the war closed in upon him. Most of his poems were written while he was waiting to enlist, while he was in training camp, and while he was at the front from which he never returned. At Vimy Ridge on Easter Sunday, 1917, he narrowly escaped death. “You would have laughed to see us dodging shells to-day,” he wrote to his wife. The next day he was killed outright by a stray shell, but not before he knew that a great victory had been won.
Though the promise of his life was never completely fulfilled, he has left us a considerable body of work instinct with his rare personality. Its merit may best be described in words that he used in paying tribute to Richard Jefferies, the genius nearest akin to his own among English writers. The words are equally true of Thomas himself:
He is on the side of health, of beauty, of strength, of truth, of improvement in life to be wrought by increasing honesty, subtlety, tenderness, courage, and foresight. His own character, and the characters of his men and women, fortify us in our intention to live. Nature, as he thought of it, and as his books present it, is a great flood of physical and spiritual sanity, ‘of pure ablution round earth's human shores,’ to which he bids us resort.
Two master impulses successively may be traced in Thomas's original prose: first, the young desire to comprehend the world's beauty; then, the maturer resolve to know the fullness of its reality.
The first impulse is responsible for the carefully mannered prose of his earliest work. In alliance with the fancifulness often attributed to Celtic blood, it showed itself later in the record of the sweeter sensations of nature, woodland notes, glorious cloud pictures, colors of water; in fairy tales of sombre castles rising amid enchanted foam; in the children's stories of Four and Twenty Blackbirds. The sign of its excess may be detected in a sketch called “The Flower-Gatherer” in Light and Twilight. The drowning of a child there pictured as part of the great, calm, lovely order of nature suggests unpleasantly the taint of nerveless aestheticism. It recalls Mallock's satire of Pater as Mr. Rose, “walking by the river-side and longing for the infinity of emotions which would arise from seeing some unfortunate drown herself.” Though true to a passing mood, it is not characteristic of Thomas. He, like Marlowe, felt the virile compulsion to subdue as well as to conceive that beauty
With whose instinct the soul of man is touched.
Dreams, indeed, never deserted him. Fancies were ready to his hand, but in the service of the higher will to master the actualities of life. He learned gradually that beauty is but a part of truth.
The alternative conviction that truth clearly seen might be found to be all beauty dominates his later books. Under its influence his style underwent a transformation, discarding all pretty tricks for the sake of severe simplicity. One thing, however, must be said of the simplicity that Thomas set himself to achieve; coming as it does from utter weariness of sophistication and conscious of the thing from which it departs, it could never become the inevitable simplicity of unconscious naturalness. The successive stages towards a natural simplicity—never quite attained—may be traced by anyone who glances through Thomas's writings from the delicately artificial Rose Acre Papers, through the well-controlled sophistication of Rest and Unrest and Light and Twilight, through the struggle for simplicity in The Icknield Way, to its freer enjoyment in The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans and In Pursuit of Spring. The changes may be likened to the changing sensations of a man coming from a stifling room into the fresh air—his first gasps of relief, his conscious revelling in the air's limpid purity, and his gradual acceptance of it as the normal element of his being. There is always a slight exuberance in Thomas's simplicity that suggests the prison-house of conscious artistry from which he came.
In viewing the world of experience with utter frankness, with a fidelity to eye and ear as fervent as a scholar's devotion to documents, Thomas acknowledged the obligation to show life in its monotony as well as in its charm. Consequently his outdoor books can be appreciated only in the large. They have what he prized in the work of others, the solidity of an old stone wall. The Icknield Way, especially, is full of unwearied observation and records of detail so profuse as to tax to the utmost the reader's patience even while it convinces him of the writer's sincerity. As a reward for such faithful monotony of background, however, little episodes, whimsical remarks, glimpses of beauty, emerge with thrilling unexpectedness. But these, like the stones and shells at the sea's edge, cannot be detached from their surroundings without losing their lustre. Like the incidental joys of living, they can only be known to those who love life with a great zest. Thomas's country books are not for readers who would escape from reality to a premeditated paradise.
It is only lovers of life, too, who can adore Thomas's sweet and noble acceptance of the conditions of living as he found them. Keenly as he noted with a walker's relish every incident of natural loveliness along his road, he is no less observant and patient when he encounters the waste and litter of cheap suburban “improvements.” Eagerly as his spirit craved the purity and freshness of nature, he does not blink the uglier human facts. He let his eye linger equally on things goodly and dear to him, on the straggle of wayside undergrowth and spreading trees, on the pattern of sheep on the downs, on curious weather-vanes or quaint tombstones, and on the smoke, filth, and misery of factory villages among the Welsh mountains, on the beggar shuffling like a grim antimasque through the pageant of London shoppers, on the abject refuse of humanity snoozing on public benches or lying diseased and verminous on the flagstones of an abandoned barn. “I knew a parish,” he says, “of 10,397 souls, of which 10,000 were pheasants and the rest human beings, so miserable—except seventeen of them at the big house and rectory—that they were not even worth shooting or, as far as was known, eating.” Repulsive as these things must have been to his quick sensibilities, he never looked to the cure of them by any easy antidote. He was not, like his social reformer, “trying to alter the conditions of other men's lives because he could not himself have endured them, because it would have been unpleasant to him to be like them in their hideous pleasure, hideous suffering, hideous indifference.” Rather he regarded these hideous things as but the scum and wreckage on the deep and inscrutable tides of human affairs. And even when humanity appeared to him as a demon of most squat and loathsome aspect, he could only re-affirm his conviction of its mystical identity with the clear stream, the bird's song, the night air, and the stars.
Secondary men sometimes achieve a mystical sense of the unity of nature and man or of man and God by virtue of the weakness of their hold on reality. They rise on flighty imaginations. Thomas was a mystic of another order. He never lost his stalwart grip on reality. And further, he held as only rarer spirits dare to hold, that there is no inherent antithesis between reality and the imagination. “The intellect,” he once wrote, “and the perpetually decaying frame speak aloud in tones which mean that death comes soon and death ends all; that when the breath is out of our bodies all is over; and the visible world of men and women and nature and art is no more to us than, in a few days, we are to them. But imagination stops our ears against the song of the cold sirens on the rocks, and helps us to go on living as if forever, to do and to be the greatest and most god-like things, making nothing of time or death. Thus, the contrast is not between imagination and reality, but between imagination and death; it is better to say between love and death, for imagination is the most sacred child of love.”
A peculiar interest attaches to those crusaders of our time, mystics like Wordsworth, Richard Jefferies, and Edward Thomas, who are able to hold a strong front for the imagination after the steady advance of reason has severed its lines of communication with its basic faith. Whence do they derive the resources that maintain their spiritual forces against the perils of material comforts and intellectual despairs? The source of their strength seems to lie in the fullness of their physical contact with nature. With them the senses, the old enemies of the soul, have become its ally. Their close and delicate perceptions minister to the spirit's needs, just as refinements of the intellect, now forever shattered by science, used to minister to the souls of older mystics. It is only when the great reservoirs of faith run dry that men refresh their souls with the spiritual sanity that, like dew, lies on the little things of earth, on grass and stone, tree and flower. But to such sources men of our time who cannot live solely on the physical or intellectual planes must turn with Edward Thomas to find the living water of the imagination and the spirit.
The need of imaginative life is always a strong incentive to individuality, and in this age more than in an age of faith Thomas was set apart by it. Communal efforts of the imagination, “movements,” Celtic or otherwise, he derided. The right of self-determination of individuals was a favorite theme with him; the horrors of domestic tyranny enforced by repressive discipline are vividly pictured in “Sunday Afternoon.” The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans will seem to many a defense of domestic anarchy. The little Morgans, their mother effaced by the robustness of their father and he indifferent to them, bring themselves up, running wild in the wilderness of a suburban garden with only the gnomic wisdom of their old Welsh servant Ann to guide them. The older boys remain healthy animals, absorbed in their dogs and horses and women. But David grows up with a saint's yearning to spend himself for human good, and Jessie blooms with the wild sweet purity of a woodland thing. None of the family has “accomplishments”; they have personality instead. But the family, like Thomas himself, are isolated and strange in a world where the rarer and sweeter aspects of personality are valued only by the rare and sweet. The book ends with the poignancy of a flower fading.
An aroma of delicate melancholy is in fact sometimes perceptible when Thomas writes of the things nearest his heart. And it well might be so, for the man who builds his hopes upon the gradual refinement of the human spirit cannot command the brazen optimism of the sponsor of “practical” remedies. Nor was there much assurance of refinement in the England of “unrivalled prosperity” before the great war. But melancholy is not the prevailing mood with Thomas. It does not distract him from life. He is not ready with W. H. Hudson to retreat to the everlasting arms of nature, despairing of men. The firmer texture of his character shows itself in his willingness to fall in love even
… with pain, With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth, With things that have an end, with life and earth,
as long as the spirit moves in them. “Things will happen,” he wrote, “which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity.”
Much that has been said of Thomas's later prose applies also to the poems, published under the name of “Edward Eastaway,” whose authorship the shock of his sudden death revealed. They are sincere, passionately sincere in the avoidance of every device of artistry. Their method is the very antithesis of Swinburne's. Regular and even consistent form seldom appears; the measures vary from short staccato verses to crowded blank or rhymed pentameters, but always move as the inner light shapes them. Rhymes are homely, casual, often merely suggested. Even the titles, when no title came spontaneously into its place, are made from the first two or three words of the poem, though the result be “When First” or “It Was Upon.” The whole style, as he said of Jefferies's prose, seems as though it “grew to his use like the handle of a walking-stick.”
They are as intimate as sincere. Perhaps only two or three in the volume could conceivably have been written by another hand. Of the rest some are based on flashes of introspective insight, others on minute observation of English countryside in all weathers, but even the most objective poems have been so impressed by his imagination that they bear the stamp of no other personality. The eye sees and the mind broods over the observation till it has vitalized it with its own warmth, as he has himself admirably described:
There are at least four ways of looking at visible things. Take, for example, a rough, thistly meadow at night.
One man sees a multitude of tall, pale thistles in a field of gray moonlight, knows them to be thistles, acknowledges the fact, and passes on without pause.
One is startled by their appearance. They are unlike thistles or any plant as seen by day, and he has never seen them so before. He stops to make sure what they are, and at last remembers seeing them in a commonplace light by day, and he allows the first impression to die away.
Another sees them, and is startled, utterly forgetful that there was anything there when he passed before. He cannot reason about them, is too lazy or excited to go over and touch and see; he returns home with a tale of the unusual moonlight growth in the field at the edge of the wood. In an earlier age he might have reported the seeing of a mushroom flourishing of fairies.
Another sees them with a rapt placidity as something beautiful and new, and his recollection or discovery that they are thistles does not disturb his enjoyment. His eye and heart feed together upon their strangeness and beauty. He has really captured one of the visions which clear eyes and an untarnished soul are summoning continually from unexhaustible and eternal nature.
Such intimate communion with nature cannot be held by one who rides the traditional high horse of poetry. Thomas's imagination was winged for no towering sweep, but to move in short goldfinch flights close to the earth and grass, feeding upon their beauty and lending them its own. The most prosaic things—a heap of turnips in a field—it could quicken into loveliness:
They have taken the gable from the roof of clay On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds Unsunned. It is a sight more tender-gorgeous At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings, A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh's tomb And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy, God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase, Blue pottery, alabaster and gold.
But dreamless long-dead Amen-hotep lies. This is a dream of Winter, sweet as Spring.
The gentle pure gravity of this poem is characteristic of all. None are gay, save perhaps one or two that echo the wild charm of old songs such as Thomas liked to sing on his long walking trips. The more introspective poems often incline to melancholy, the melancholy of a man to whom life had as yet offered no task noble enough to outweigh the sweeter promises of oblivion.
But strength and exultation are there likewise ready to answer to the call. The solitude of his musing is pierced by a note like the faint echo of a clarion—“The Trumpet,” he called it—that bites to the very core of his being. His words shout in response:
Forget, men, everything Upon this earth newborn, Except that it is lovelier Than any mysteries. Open your eyes to the air That has washed the eyes of the stars Through all the dewy night; Up with the light, To the old wars; Arise, arise!
The old wars so terribly renewed brought to Thomas a quickening of the spirit. Not that he lost himself, like many troubled souls, in action. On the contrary, he became more himself like a man roused by a great love. And truly, for the war touched the soundest and deepest strain in Thomas's nature, his rooted love of England, of the very touch of her soil. In giving his life for that cause he chiefly lived.
So deep, so much a part of his nature was his devotion to all that makes England England that his expression of it is unconscious. It runs through the inner veins of his poetry, only rarely perceptible on the surface. It is most evident perhaps in his description of young English soldiers changing guard on an April morning; as a subtler essence it pervades his pictures of “The Manor Farm” and “Haymaking” and the longest of his poems, a whimsical sketch of the very earth-spirit of England, “Lob.” It is the breath of the trumpet call at the beginning of the volume, and the pulsebeat of his joy in English words—
Young as our streams After rain; And as dear As the earth which you prove That we love—
at the close. The names of English places were poetry to his ear.
Almost his last work was an anthology embodying the soul of England as he knew it in every byway of “her sweet three corners,” in the great names of her past, and in every unspoiled legend, song, and custom of her common people. This England is a lover's book; perhaps the most intimate book of all that Thomas wrote. He unlocks the lips of her poets to speak the dearness of his country, and wakens her chroniclers to attest the stout hearts of her sons. His sense of the loveliness of her autumn skies speaks in the voice of Keats; his love of individual freedom, hating “chartered streets,” in the voice of Blake.
As champion of the poor he is Robin Hood; as champion of the sacred spirit of England against “these wild boars that have broke into thy vineyard, and left the print of their polluting hoofs on the souls of thy servants” he is Milton. Like Wordsworth he frees the moral elevation of England from whatever would clog or debase it. The brave stand of one Englishman against a host of Spanish captors is more to him than the defeat of the Armada. This England, in short, is a picture of England's spiritual greatness in which her dead, her living, and her unborn share; of that purer national soul, more precious than her dominions, which Edward Thomas revered in her, died for, and left to others to perpetuate when England's battles are dimly remembered,
And other men through other flowers In those fields under the same moon Go talking and have easy hours.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2393
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 a palimpsest over which in our hours of exaltation and bitterness more resonant, yet less enduring, words were inscribed; or they will be like a phial discovered in the ashes of what was once a mighty city. There will be the triumphal arch standing proudly; the very tombs of the dead will seem to share its monumental magnificence. Yet we will turn from them all, from the victory and sorrow alike, to this faintly gleaming bubble of glass that will hold captive the phantasm of a fragrance of the soul. By it some dumb and doubtful knowledge will be evoked to tremble on the edge of our minds. We shall reach back, under its spell, beyond the larger impulses of a resolution and a resignation which will have become a part of history, to something less solid and more permanent over which they passed and which they could not disturb.
Our consciousness will have its record. The tradition of England in battle has its testimony; our less traditional despairs will be compassed about by a crowd of witnesses. But it might so nearly have been in vain that we should seek an echo of that which smiled at the conclusions of our consciousness. The subtler faiths might so easily have fled through our harsh fingers. When the sound of the bugles died, having crowned reveillé with the equal challenge of the last post, how easily we might have been persuaded that there was a silence, if there had not been one whose voice rose only so little above that of the winds and trees and the life of undertone we share with them as to make us first doubt the silence and then lend an ear to the incessant pulses of which it is composed. The infinite and infinitesimal vague happinesses and immaterial alarms, terrors and beauties scared by the sound of speech, memories and forgettings that the touch of memory itself crumbles into dust—this very texture of the life of the soul might have been a gray background over which tumultuous existence passed unheeding had not Edward Thomas so painfully sought the angle from which it appears, to the eye of eternity, as the enduring warp of the more gorgeous woof.
The emphasis sinks; the stresses droop away. To exacter knowledge less charted and less conquerable certainties succeed; truths that somehow we cannot make into truths, and that have therefore some strange mastery over us; laws of our common substance which we cannot make human but only humanise; loyalties we do not recognise and dare not disregard; beauties which deny communion with our beautiful, and yet compel our souls. So the sedge-warbler's
Song that lacks all words, all melody, All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
Not that the unheard melodies were sweeter than the heard to this dead poet. We should be less confident of his quality if he had not been, both in his knowledge and his hesitations, the child of his age. Because he was this, the melodies were heard; but they were not sweet. They made the soul sensible of attachments deeper than the conscious mind's ideals, whether of beauty or goodness. Not to something above but to something beyond are we chained, for all that we forget our fetters, or by some queer trick of self-hallucination turn them into golden crowns. But perhaps the finer task of our humanity is to turn our eyes calmly into ‘the dark backward and abysm’ not of time, but of the eternal present on whose pinnacle we stand.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember. No garden appears, no path, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless without end.
So, it seems, a hundred years have found us out. We come no longer trailing clouds of glory. We are that which we are, less and more than our strong ancestors; less, in that our heritage does not descend from on high, more, in that we know ourselves for less. Yet our chosen spirit is not wholly secure in his courage. He longs not merely to know in what undifferentiated oneness his roots are fixed, but to discover it beautiful. Not even yet is it sufficient to have a premonition of the truth; the truth must wear a familiar colour.
This heart, some fraction of me, happily Floats through the window even now to a tree Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale, Not like a peewit that returns to wail For something it has lost, but like a dove That slants unswerving to its home and love. There I find my rest, and through the dark air Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.
Beauty, yes, perhaps; but beautiful by virtue of its coincidence with the truth, as there is beauty in those lines securer and stronger far than the melody of their cadence, because they tell of a loyalty of man's being which, being once made sensible of it, he cannot gainsay. Whence we all come, whither we must all make our journey, there is home indeed. But necessity, not remembered delights, draws us thither. That which we must obey is our father if we will; but let us not delude ourselves into the expectation of kindness and the fatted calf, any more than we dare believe that the love which moves the sun and the other stars has in it any charity. We may be, we are, the children of the universe; but we have ‘neither father nor mother nor any playmate.’
And Edward Thomas knew this. The knowledge should be the common property of the poetry of our time, marking it off from what went before and from what will come after. We believe that it will be found to be so; and that the presence of this knowledge, and the quality which this knowledge imparts, makes Edward Thomas more than one among his contemporaries. He is their chief. He challenges other regions in the hinterland of our souls. Yet how shall we describe the narrowness of the line which divides his province from theirs, or the only half-conscious subtlety of the gesture with which he beckons us aside from trodden and familiar paths? The difference, the sense of departure, is perhaps most apparent in this, that he knows his beauty is not beautiful, and his home no home at all.
This is my grief. That land, My home, I have never seen. No traveller tells of it, However far he has been.
And could I discover it I fear my happiness there, Or my pain, might be dreams of return To the things that were.
Great poetry stands in this, that it expresses man's allegiance to his destiny. In every age the great poet triumphs in all that he knows of necessity; thus he is the world made vocal. Other generations of men may know more, but their increased knowledge will not diminish from the magnificence of the music which he has made for the spheres. The known truth alters from age to age; but the thrill of the recognition of the truth stands fast for all our human eternity. Year by year the universe grows vaster, and man, by virtue of the growing brightness of his little lamp, sees himself more and more as a child born in the midst of a dark forest, and finds himself less able to claim the obeisance of the all. Yet if he would be a poet, and not a harper of threadbare tunes, he must at each step in the downward passing from his sovereignty, recognise what is and celebrate it as what must be. Thus he regains, by another path, the supremacy which he has forsaken.
Edward Thomas's poetry has the virtue of this recognition. It may be said that his universe was not vaster but smaller than the universe of the past, for its bounds were largely those of his own self. It is, even in material fact, but half true. None more closely than he regarded the living things of earth in all their quarters. ‘After Rain’ is, for instance, a very catalogue of the texture of nature's visible garment, freshly put on, down to the little ash-leaves
… thinly spread In the road, like little black fish, inlaid As if they played.
But it is true that these objects of vision were but the occasion of the more profound discoveries within the region of his own soul. There he discovered vastness and illimitable vistas; found himself to be an eddy in the universal flux, driven whence and whither he knew not, conscious of perpetual instability, the meeting place of mighty impacts of which only the farthest ripple agitates the steady moonbeam of the waking mind. In a sense he did no more than to state what he found, sometimes in the more familiar language of beauties lost, mourned for lost, and irrecoverable.
The simple lack Of her is more to me Than other's presence, Whether life splendid be Or utter black.
I have not seen, I have no news of her; I can tell only She is not here, but there She might have been.
She is to be kissed Only perhaps by me; She may be seeking Me and no other; she May not exist.
That search lies nearer to the norm of poetry. We might register its wistfulness, praise the appealing nakedness of its diction and pass on. If that were indeed the culmination of Edward Thomas's poetical quest, he would stand securely enough with others of his time. But he reaches further. In the verses on his ‘home,’ which we have already quoted, he passes beyond these limits. He has still more to tell of the experience of the soul fronting its own infinity:—
So memory made Parting to-day a double pain: First because it was parting; next Because the ill it ended vexed And mocked me from the past again. Not as what had been remedied Had I gone on,—not that, ah no! But as itself no longer woe.
There speaks a deep desire born only of deep knowledge. Only those who have been struck to the heart by a sudden awareness of the incessant not-being which is all we hold of being, know the longing to arrest the movement even at the price of the perpetuation of their pain. So it was that the moments which seemed to come to him free from the infirmity of becoming haunted and held him most.
Often I had gone this way before, But now it seemed I never could be And never had been anywhere else.
To cheat the course of time, which is only the name with which we strive to cheat the flux of things, and to anchor the soul to something that was not instantly engulfed—
In the undefiled Abyss of what can never be again.
Sometimes he looked within himself for the monition which men have felt as the voice of the eternal memory; sometimes, like Keats, but with none of the intoxication of Keats's sense of a sharing in victory, he grasped at the recurrence of natural things, ‘the pure thrush word,’ repeated every spring, the law of wheeling rooks, or to the wind ‘that was old when the gods were young,’ as in this profoundly typical sensing of ‘A New House.’
All was foretold me; naught Could I foresee; But I learned how the wind would sound After these things should be.
But he could not rest even there. There was, indeed, no anchorage in the enduring to be found by one so keenly aware of the flux within the soul itself. The most powerful, the most austerely imagined poem in this book is that entitled ‘The Other,’ which, apart from its intrinsic appeal, shows that Edward Thomas had something at least of the power to create the myth which is the poet's essential means of triangulating the unknown of his emotion. Had he lived to perfect himself in the use of this instrument, he might have been a great poet indeed. ‘The Other’ tells of his pursuit of himself, and how he overtook his soul.
And now I dare not follow after Too close. I try to keep in sight, Dreading his frown and worse his laughter, I steal out of the wood to light; I see the swift shoot from the rafter By the window: ere I alight I wait and hear the starlings wheeze And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight. He goes: I follow: no release Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.
No; not a great poet, will be the final sentence, when the palimpsest is read with the calm and undivided attention that is its due, but one who had many (and among them the chief) of the qualities of a great poet. Edward Thomas was like a musician who noted down themes that summon up forgotten expectations. Whether the genius to work them out to the limits of their scope and implication was in him we do not know. The life of literature was a hard master to him; and perhaps the opportunity he would eagerly have grasped was denied him by circumstance. But, if his compositions do not, his themes will never fail—of so much we are sure—to awaken unsuspected echoes even in unsuspecting minds.
Last Poems. By Edward Thomas. (Selwyn & Blount.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2140
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 artist, a wise man; you feel superbly, you are plastic; that is, when you describe a thing you see it and touch it with your hands.” The natural world created in Edward Thomas not a rich Lawrentian ecstasy nor a tortured mysticism like that of Richard Jefferies but a profound tranquillity of soul, a “stability without regret or fear”; and the writing of Edward Thomas, whether in prose or in poetry and whatever its subject, is the work of a man who touched, who was tender, who was simple, as Tchehov and (at times) Gorki were tender and simple.
After a brief attempt to write poetry in his boyhood, under the influence of Shelley and Keats, Thomas, as is well-known, did not turn to poetry until his middle thirties; nor was it of his own initiative that he attempted the writing of poetry in later years but at the suggestion of a friend. It was Robert Frost, the American poet, who urged him to attempt verse form: and it was an Army life which brought to Thomas freedom from hack-work, and, with its regularity and activity, improved health and a mind less harassed by despair. All his poems were written in the last two and a half years of his life and a collection of them was in the press when he was killed instantaneously in 1917.
When Robert Frost made the suggestion to Thomas he pointed out passages in Thomas's book, In Pursuit of Spring, and advised him to use the cadence of those passages in his verse form. “Right at that moment he was writing as good poetry as anybody alive, but in prose form where it did not declare itself and gain him recognition.”1 Likely guesses can be made as to the particularity of those passages, and the following may have been one of them:
The night was wild, and on the morrow the earth lay sleeping a sweet, quiet sleep of recovery from the wind's rage. The robin could be heard as often as the missel-thrush. The sleep lasted through a morning of frost and haze into a clear day, gentle but bright, and another and another of cloudy brightness, brightened cloudiness, rounded off between half-past five and half-past six by blackbirds singing. The nights were strange children for such days, nights of frantic wind and rain, threatening to undo all the sweet work in a swift, howling revolution. Trees were thrown down, branches broken, but the buds remained.
The quietness, or the flow of lengthy stretches of syllables over which the stress is almost equal, is typical; a gentle quickening of the pace by phrases between commas, repetition of syllables or words and alliteration—these are also readily noticeable, although less typical. On the basis of form some distinction between prose and poetry can be elaborated but this distinction is of a limited nature. Poetry, in the sense of poetic content, is a matter of degree, and is not confined to verse form; and it is a truism that no strict boundary line can possibly be made so far as poetic content is concerned. It is thus essential in a consideration of the poetry of Edward Thomas to have in mind his prose, or at any rate certain moods of his prose; although, as de la Mare suggested in the Warton Lecture, “Poetry in Prose,” the problems of poetry and prose poetry in a sense begin at opposite poles, for what is overt in the one is hidden in the other, prose poetry being the art of perpetual narrow evasion. Imperfections in the poetry of Edward Thomas are sometimes ultimately referred to his brief use of a new form. But, for certain of these imperfections, it is more exact to attribute them to an apprenticeship of prose poetry. A poem might possess both uncertainty of technique and an incomplete transcendence of prose but the former by no means necessarily implies the latter.
In many of Thomas's poems, and such poems are usually of the kind which might conveniently be called nature poems, the advance in poetic statement is seen chiefly in the economy which is inevitable in verse form. There has been little tightening of loose prose rhythms; and rhyme, if present, is often faulty or an eye-rhyme only—a rhyme “at any price”:
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most: As well as any bloom upon a flower I like the dust on the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
Or again, the opening lines of “The Sign-Post”:
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy, And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry, Rough, long grasses keep white with frost At the hilltop by the finger-post; The smoke of the traveller's-joy is puffed Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft …
In the absence of rhyme there may be an even greater freedom or lack of form:
The rock-like mud unfroze a little and rills Ran and sparkled down each side of the road Under the catkins wagging in the hedge. But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun; Nor did I value that thin gilding beam More than a pretty February thing Till I came down to the old Manor Farm, And church and yew-tree opposite, in age Its equals and in size. The church and yew And farmhouse slept in a Sunday silentness. The air raised not a straw. …
Yet this freedom of form can yield:
They have taken the gable from the roof of clay On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds Unsunned. It is a sight more tender-gorgeous At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings, A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh's tomb And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy, God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase, Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.
But dreamless long-dead Amen-hotep lies. This is a dream of Winter, sweet as Spring.
But the degree of essentiality of this “perpetual evasion” must be judged poem by poem; examples, although varying in pattern, only repeat a number of elements.
Edward Thomas's apprehension of objectivity was the apprehension of a long mature imagination; and his nature was above all contemplative. The still clarity of the vision of such an imagination has its attendant risk of failure; for too keen a sense of eternity may hold back creation. Although it is impossible to trace this metaphysical difficulty with any definiteness in the poems it is possible it was affective in the expression of his vision. Perhaps too, his remarkable power of observation and care in recording were, paradoxically, a source of difficulty in transcending prose intensity and form.
This took me over broad and almost hedgeless fields, and through a short disconnected fragment of an avenue of mossy-rooted beeches, to West Dean Farm. Nothing lay between the houseless road and the hillside, which is thick here with yew, except two broad arable fields, with a square or two given to mustard flowers and sheep, and West Dean Farm itself. It is a house of dirty white colour, and amidst numerous and roomy outbuildings, thatched and mellow-tiled, set in a circle of tall beeches. The road bends round the farm group and goes straight to the foot of the hill, and then along it.
Running along a bank, a parapet That saves from the precipitous wood below The level road, there is a path. It serves Children for looking down the long smooth steep, Between the legs of beech and yew, to where A fallen tree checks the sight. …
The eye which missed nothing and saw each thing as part of a whole is also in the poetry; but such detailed uniformly focussed attention belongs more properly to prose.
In some of his poems, a conversational, seemingly casual diction is used. In “The Child on the Cliff” it is used with beautiful urgency:
Mother, the root of this little yellow flower Among the stones has the taste of quinine. Things are strange to-day on the cliff. The sun shines so bright, And the grasshopper works at his sewing-machine So hard. Here's one on my hand, mother, look; I lie so still. There's one on your book. …
It is, however, the poems of a less static, less detailed mood—the poems of a more lyrical mood—by which Thomas is chiefly known:
Out of us all That make rhymes, Will you choose Sometimes— As the winds use A crack in the wall Or a drain, Their joy or their pain To whistle through— Choose me, You English words?
And in these poems, the poems of love and the poems less tied to particularity of occasion or scene, he found poetic freedom before he died: a low singing, rarely lovely freedom, which was for the most part a vital refinement of his soft prose rhythms. He found freedom in “The Unknown,” “No One So Much As You,” in “Words,” “Some Eyes Condemn,” “After You Speak,” the well-known “Roads,” “Lights Out,” “Out In the Dark,” and others:
Out in the dark over the snow The fallow fawns invisible go With the fallow doe; And the winds blow Fast as the stars are slow.
Stealthily the dark haunts round And, when the lamp goes, without sound At a swifter bound Than the swiftest hound, Arrives, and all else is drowned; …
Yet when these poems are read aloud one thing needs particular attention, it has been found; the following may be of some general validity. In certain lines and passages—and these are often at the end of a poem—there is a disagreement between the structural pace, and the pace demanded by the meaning of the whole poem, or the imaginative awareness which produced the poem and the emotion accompanying that awareness. When, for instance, “Out In the Dark” is read, the pace of utterance has deliberately to be held back because this is not sufficiently controlled by the structure: throughout the poem, and especially in the last verse, and the break too, between the third and last verse has to be controlled with some care. Or, as another example, “No One So Much as You,” where the short lines, so easily read with eye and voice, are perhaps too swift for the extreme tenderness they would express:
No one so much as you Loves this my clay, Or would lament as you Its dying day.
You know me through and through Though I have not told, And though with what you know You are not bold.
None ever was so fair As I thought you: Not a word can I bear, Spoken against you …
Thomas did not achieve a high poetic compulsion. For such a compulsion his nature may have been too gentle, too contemplative; and we cannot be sure that a further development of technique would have been of the same order as his sincerity. His poetical history, it must be remembered, shows no stubborn impulse to write poetry. Surely it is significant that the early attempt at poetry was soon abandoned and that it was only at the suggestion of another that he turned to verse form in later years? For a full reading of his poetry there must be brought to it something of his own tenderness, his own tranquillity and simplicity of soul. His simplicity and love were those of greatness. But only by something of that simple love can the full measure of his worth be known.
O dear my loves, O faithless, once again This one last gift I give: that after men Shall know, and later lovers, far-removed, Praise you, “All these were lovely”; say, “He loved.”
For this quotation and certain of the facts in this and the preceding paragraph I am indebted to Mr. Robert Eckert's Edward Thomas: a Biography and a Bibliography [Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1978].
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7030
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.]
I remember in 1927, my last year at Oxford, drawing up with W. H. Auden a conspectus of twentieth century poets. There were three columns. The left-hand column contained a list of poets whom we already excelled: it was a long list. The centre column exhibited the names of those whom we should one day excel. In the right-hand column—an extremely short one—were the contemporary poets whom we had little or no hope of ever equalling. Amongst their names was that of Edward Thomas. I will say no more about such conspectuses than to express a fervent hope that young poets still have the nerve to compile them. What seems interesting now is that we, who at this time had little use for ‘nature poetry’ and even less for the Georgians, should have felt such respect for Edward Thomas, who was then commonly ranked as a Georgian nature-poet. Anyway, after a quarter of a century I can go back to Edward Thomas and he is still very much there—solid, serious, satisfying: time has not attenuated his work, nor have changing fashions in verse put it, even temporarily, on the shelf.
Thomas was in the Georgian movement, as a critic, rather than of it. He did not begin to write verse till he was over thirty-five years old. ‘If I am consciously doing anything’, he wrote then, ‘I am trying to get rid of the last rags of rhetoric and formality which left my prose so often with a dead rhythm’. The Georgians, too, were in revolt against the rhetorical, the hectic, the grandiose, the bardic. Too often, though, this revolt produced a flat, trivial kind of poetry no more distinguished than that which they set out to supplant. What separates Edward Thomas from the ruck of his contemporaries is not so much his keen observation and familiar knowledge of nature as his attitude towards it—an attitude which expresses itself in a certain tone of voice and justifies itself by the hard core we feel in his poems.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most: As well as any bloom upon a flower I like the dust on the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
That is as good a poem as any to start with. The colloquial phrasing, the speaking cadences, the epithets few and unshowy; the quiet, almost diffident approach which unexpectedly, in the epigrammatic last two lines, without any raising of the voice, takes on a note of authority. ‘I like the dust on the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower’—nothing could be farther from the public epigram, nothing could sound less like an effort made to impress the company at large. It is more like a man privately ruminating, for whom—to his own surprise—remembered sensations dovetail into a thought, a discovery. Edward Thomas's verse is full of such discoveries. This one was made because he really did love derelict corners of farmyards, and showers, and nettles, and the dust on nettles: such things fulfilled a need in him. Life gave him a pretty dusty answer, and it was not till the last few years of it that the sweetening shower came—the power to write poetry.
This poetry, when at last it got written, turned out to be an extraordinarily honest kind of poetry. It has both the awkwardness and the irresistibleness of absolute sincerity. It is very much in character; for Thomas was a shy, reticent man, with great personal charm and an honesty that could at times be ruthless. In his poetry he made a virtue—you could almost say a virtuosity—of this reticence and diffidence. It is what we call personal poetry; yet we find no emotionalism in it, and little laying bare of the writer's soul—only a hint here and there of that incubus of melancholy which had so oppressed him since he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Mr. de la Mare has recorded what style there was in Edward Thomas's talk: and equally there was talk in his style; his poetic language is based on the idioms and cadences of the voice talking—a technique he developed, as we shall see, from Robert Frost's. Reviewing Frost's first book of poems, Thomas said, ‘He has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply.’ It seems a variant of the old Wordsworthian fallacy; but Thomas, like Robert Frost, had the courage of this conviction and the skill to justify it.
When I look at photographs of Edward Thomas—that fine, stubborn, too sensitive face—there is one question above all others I ask it: why did you wait so long? Here was a man with the nature of a poet. As a boy he was moody, observant, loved solitude, cherished an imaginary companion he called ‘Philip’: he had moreover, we are told, the ‘marvellous gift of inattention’, so necessary to budding poets for self-protection. With other men, so he said, ‘Either I remain sullenly self-centred or I lose myself on the stream of their usually stronger or more active character’: there is an echo of Keats's famous comments on the poet's Negative Capability. One of his biographers, Robert Eckert, tells us that ‘There were always in him two incompatible desires: the one for going on and on; the other to settle for ever.’ This is another common manifestation of the poetic temperament, in which ‘the desire going forth meets the desire returning’. Yet, with such a nature, with a passionate and fastidious feeling for poetry (he became an exceptionally good critic of verse), the young Edward Thomas confined himself to prose. Mr. Eckert says that ‘He attempted verse … and then abandoned it for nearly twenty years.’ But, writing to W. H. Hudson after he had started composing poetry, Thomas said, ‘I had done no verses before, and did not expect to, and merely became nervous when I thought of beginning.’ Mrs. Thomas confirms that he wrote no verse till after the outbreak of the 1914 war.
Instead, he laboured at prose—articles, essays, reviews, books about nature, books about books, some of them written out of love, many of them pot-boilers—scribbling away year after year, driven desperate at times by the need to support his family, a delicate belle-lettrist, a literary hack, a poet stubbornly refusing to recognize his vocation. It is one of the oddest stories in literature. Did he never have an inkling, when those black melancholy fits sent him flinging out of the house to tramp the countryside all night, what his daemon was so furiously demanding of him? Apparently not. Apparently it never occurred to him that his malaise was the consequence of denying his nature, of not writing poetry; or at least that it could be cured by writing poetry. The riddle is worth pondering. No doubt Thomas's great mistrust of himself had something to do with it; and I think his scrupulousness, his moral fastidiousness, may also have been involved: the sort of things he had to say in verse could not be said, would be falsified if they were said, in the kinds of poetic language employed by his contemporaries: and he was not the original poet who can work out a new poetic language for himself. It was Robert Frost who found Edward Thomas's tongue for him. So, at last, Thomas the Doubter became Thomas the Rhymer.
They met in 1913, a few months before Frost's first book of verse was published in England—no American publisher would accept it. Thomas was at the nadir of despair. Robert Frost wrote later, ‘I referred him to paragraphs in his book The Pursuit of Spring and told him to write it in verse form in exactly the same cadences. That's all there was to it.’ To Edward Thomas, Frost's poems came as a revelation of his own latent genius: he wrote of them, ‘These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation. … Many, if not most, of the separate lines and separate sentences are plain and in themselves nothing. But they are bound together and made elements of beauty by a calm eagerness of emotion.’ That phrase, ‘a calm eagerness of emotion’, fits Edward Thomas's verse almost equally well.
André Malraux has said, ‘Tous les artistes de génie commencent par en copier d'autres, non par “représenter la nature”.’ This is certainly how Edward Thomas began, and it is no disparagement of his verse to point out its affinities with Frost's. Sometimes there are close verbal echoes: in Thomas's ‘The Manor Farm’ we have ‘up and down the roof white pigeons nestled. There was never a sound but one’: Frost's ‘Mowing’ begins, ‘There was never a sound beside the wood but one’. The resemblances, however, go deeper than such verbal echoes: they spring from a special tone of voice—musing, tentative, often faintly ironic—and from a certain leisurely deployment of the material. Listen first to these extracts from Edward Thomas's poetry:
Next Spring A blackbird or a robin will nest there, Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain Whatever is for ever to a bird …
The rock-like mud unfroze a little and rills Ran and sparkled down each side of the road Under the catkins wagging in the hedge. But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun …
Then the hills of the horizon— That is how I should make hills had I to show One who would never see them what hills were like’ …
I did not know it was the earth I loved Until I tried to live there in the clouds And the earth turned to cloud.’ ‘You had a garden Of flint and clay, too.’ ‘True; that was real enough. The flint was the one crop that never failed’ …
Compare that idiom with the idiom of such a poem as Robert Frost's ‘The Oven Bird’ and you get a clue to the stylistic affinity between Frost and Thomas: a manner without rhetoric, without poetic gestures; a conversational rather than a lyrical manner. Their style has a twinkle behind its gravity: at any moment fancifulness may bubble up, but it is saved nearly always from archness by the dry tone, by a touch of irony. ‘What to make of a diminished thing’: de la Mare said of Thomas's poems, ‘They 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’. That is equally true of Frost's poetry. One may say that the dialectic in it is more highly organized than in Edward Thomas. But it is the same kind of dialectic—a poetic argument formed deep within the experience and articulating it; a good bony structure. Both poets make frequent use of parenthesis, modification, double negatives; the syntax of their verse is often elaborate, more like that of prose, with much variety and complexity of phrasing. Rhythmically, Thomas is the more interesting of the two: he takes greater liberties with the five-stress line, produces more variation of tempo from it; and he was learning—de la Mare influenced him here, I imagine—how to give a delicate and subtle movement to shorter-lined poems: we can hear it in ‘Snow’, for instance, and ‘The Hollow Wood’ and ‘Out in the Dark’.
With Thomas, as with Frost, we are aware of pattern. This pattern, I have suggested, is created by a dialectic—a dialectic, if you like, of the commonplace, never imposed upon the theme but worked out in consultation with it. They are both honest craftsmen, who allow the grain of an experience to have a say in the shape of the final product. They take advice from their material. This act of submission, which means closely following the outline of an experience, diligently studying its surface, also helps to produce the hard core we feel in their best poems. There is nearly always—we can hardly call it a ‘moral’—let us say a moral truth at the centre of them. Every good poem has a truth in it, no doubt: but Frost's and Thomas's poems give most singularly the impression of not having searched for truth—of having hit upon it, rather, as a mower might light upon a rare orchis while wholeheartedly engaged with the common grass.
Compared with Frost, the farmer, Edward Thomas is only an amateur of nature. But he avoids both the gush and the ‘literary’ touch which often betray such amateurs. ‘But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun’: ‘Whatever is for ever to a bird’: ‘The flint was the one crop that never failed’: lines like these have the countryman's humour, homeliness, pithiness: there is a smack of folk-lore about them, but no earnest, bespectacled folksiness. Thomas could strike out a brilliant poetic image from his observation of nature:
The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow As if the bow had flown off with the arrow.
The children wear it. They have flattened the bank On top, and silvered it between the moss With the current of their feet, year after year.
the meadow grass That leans and scurries in the wind …
The periwinkle crawls With flowers in its hair into the wood.
But such images are relatively rare; and there is still a down-to-earthness in the phrasing of them; and they grow naturally out of their contexts.
Writing of the countryman's work, Robert Frost said, ‘The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows’. Edward Thomas in his verse seldom lost touch with the countryman's attitude to nature as a series of facts—often very hard facts. These facts he may seem to be allowing to speak for themselves. But it is not as simple as that: his poems are not purely descriptive—if indeed there can be such a thing as a purely descriptive poem. He asks nature a question, or some fact of nature puts a question to him; and a sort of chain-reaction is set up which, though it does not get out of control, extends far wider than the original fact might have appeared to warrant. It extends thus, one question touching off another, because, behind the natural scene and the human faces, Thomas was conscious of a mystery—‘The eternal question’, as Hardy puts it, ‘of what Life was, And why we were there, and by whose strange laws That which mattered most could not be.’
There are times when he despairs of matching earth's beauty with anything in himself:
Shall I now this day Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell, Wisdom or strength to match this beauty, start And tread the pale dust pitted with small dark drops, In hope to find whatever it is I seek, Hearkening to short-lived happy-seeming things That we know naught of, in the hazel copse? Or must I be content with discontent As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?
There are other times when he accepts his own nature, and makes poetry of its inner necessity:
Over all sorts of weather, men and times, Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
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.
You will have noticed, in those characteristically low-toned passages, how object and subject interpenetrate, how fact and mood are composed into a whole where neither predominates: the glorious morning, the aspen trees grieving, carry equal weight with the moods of the man responding to them. In the first passage the poet does not know the answers, and it is out of not knowing them that he makes the poem. ‘Shall I now this day Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell’: but he hardly knows even what he is looking for—‘In hope to find whatever it is I seek’. The alternative is to ‘be content with discontent’; and the value of this alternative is itself gently, ironically questioned by the word ‘perhaps’ in the next line—‘As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings’. Here is the technique I mentioned earlier, the technique of making a virtuosity of diffidence. In both poems, ‘The Glory’ and ‘Aspens’, the poet has the courage of his lack of conviction. He refuses to try to put anything over on us, or on himself: the aspens have to shake, and he has to sing; but none need listen. Nothing could be farther from singing robes or careless rapture. But the honesty behind this refusal to make claims, to pretend to certainty, has its reward: Edward Thomas accepts the melancholy in his own nature: ‘all right,’ he says, ‘it is unreasonable, I am like the aspen “that ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves”’—and then quietly turns the tables on us with ‘Or so men think who like a different tree’.
I have referred to Thomas's skill in creating variations on the pentameter norm. That second extract offers us an example of it. An extra syllable added to the line compels the speaking voice to give ‘whatéver’ an upward inflexion—‘Whatever wind blóws, while théy and Í have léaves’; and this inflexion stresses, so to say, the whatever-ness of the ‘whatever’, as one would stress it in using the phrase conversationally, and thus drives home the point of the line. Conversely, there is a line in ‘October’ where a syllable, or rather a stress, seems to have been left out. The poem is in five-stress lines, till we come to this—‘The góssamers wánder at their o´wn wíll’, which may sound at first like fourstress. But in fact we are intended to accent the last syllable of ‘gossamers’; and if we do so, we get a sort of airy sustaining of the word, and a movement in the whole line which remarkably suggests the light, erratic, wayward flight of gossamers, changing speed at the slightest variation of the wind's force—‘The góssamérs wánder at their ówn wíll’.
Such naturalistic effects, however, are rare in Edward Thomas's verse. His handling of metre is usually concerned to follow the rhythms of the speaking voice and to point the sense. We find this happening, not only in the conversational five-stress metre, but in lyrical metres too. His poem ‘Lights Out’ is in six-line stanzas, all but the last line of each carrying three stresses—‘I have cóme to the bórders of sléep’. The second stanza runs like this:
Many a road and track That, since the dawn's first crack, Up to the forest brink, Deceived the travellers, Suddenly now blurs, And in they sink.
The two consecutive stresses at ‘Súddenly nów blúrs’ produce a clogging effect—the travellers are suddenly slowed up, bogged down; they can get no farther—which anticipates ‘And in they sink’. And the first line of the next stanza, with its three consecutive stresses, drives home this sense of finality—‘Hére lóve énds’. It is the sleep of death, of course, not living sleep, which is the poet's theme: he did not expect to return from the Western Front alive.
On leaving for France Edward Thomas gave his wife a new poem, telling her not to read it till he had gone. It was the poem called ‘No One So Much As You’, and it is an extraordinary poem for more reasons than one. It has an honesty which is painful, and almost cruel as well. Written at so great a crisis of his life—a parting over which he had forebodings that it would be for ever—it nevertheless stubbornly refuses to say more than the bare truth, as he then felt it, about his married relationship. Well, aren't all men—even those notorious deceivers, the poets—compelled to honesty when the great crisis comes? No, they are not. Many of us still take refuge in self-deception: the crisis only gives our self-deception greater urgency, greater authority, a more persuasive air of truth; and particularly so if the real truth would be intolerable not only to ourselves but to someone we loved. Here are the last four stanzas of ‘No One So Much As You’:
For I at most accept Your love, regretting That is all: I have kept Only a fretting
That I could not return All that you gave And could not ever burn With the love you have,
Till sometimes it did seem Better it were Never to see you more Than linger here
With only gratitude Instead of love— A pine in solitude Cradling a dove.
Clinched by that austere and poignant image in the last two lines, the naked simplicity of this poem makes it hard to criticize. It is worth pointing out, however, that its simplicity is verbal only: the state of mind it expresses is neither simple nor conventional. If we read Edward Thomas's book, Feminine Influence on the Poets, we see that his predilection in love poetry was for the purely lyrical—‘O westron wind’, or the songs of Burns—not for the emotionally complicated, still less for the formal and conceited. He liked the cri-de-cœur. But the sincerity of ‘No One So Much As You’ is something quite different from the purity of ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ or ‘Bonnie Lesley’: we could put it into other words, into prose even, without losing much of its appeal, which we certainly could not do with Burns's songs. What this seems to suggest is that Edward Thomas's habit of sincerity, his refusal to let himself be carried away farther than the emotional facts warranted—his refusal, if you like, to tell lies for the sake of poetry—would always have prevented him from writing the kind of lyric verse he most admired. Introspectiveness, self-consciousness about one's emotions, is fatal to such poetry.
Edward Thomas was self-conscious and introspective. But very rarely does he become so explicit as in that poem, ‘No One So Much As You’. Normally, he reveals himself by glimpses only: though the first-person pronoun appears often enough, he seems so absorbed in his subject-matter that his personality is absorbed into the poems, giving us just now and then a veiled, abstracted glance which we must interpret as best we may. Typical of this is the poem called ‘Old Man’. We all know how a smell can bring a memory, or the sense that there is a memory attached to it. Here is Edward Thomas talking to himself about this common, and often sentimentalized, experience:
Old Man, or Lad's-Love,—in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man, The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree, Growing with rosemary and lavender. Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is: At least, what that is clings not to the names In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain I love it, as some day the child will love it Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush Whenever she goes in or out of the house. Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling The shreds at last on to the path, Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still But half as tall as she, though it is as old; So well she clips it. Not a word she says; And I can only wonder how much hereafter She will remember, with that bitter scent, Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door, A low thick bush beside the door, and me Forbidding her to pick. As for myself, Where first I met the bitter scent is lost. I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain. I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
On a first reading we might accept that poem at its face value, as straight description of a homely experience. We should allow that Thomas's rangy, flexible construction, with its qualifications, hesitations, digressions and repetitions, is well adapted to the kind of thinking aloud which is going on here; and that the poem's subject—the attempt to recapture an evasive memory—is well served by this groping manner of his. But closer attention discovers, behind the properties of the poem—the herb, the child, the garden—a moralizing element none the less tenacious for being subdued to the material in which it is working. ‘Old Man, or Lad's-love,—in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man’: he is playing possum here, at the start: whether we know the herb or not, we must be struck by the way its two names contradict each other; and this paradox (Old Man—Lad's-love) emblematically and obliquely introduces the first theme—the theme of age trying to recall something out of its youth. Another hint follows immediately: ‘Growing with rosemary and lavender’ brings up the association of ‘rosemary for remembrance’. Then the poet admits that ‘Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is’: there is some enigma behind the herb and its names; and indeed, behind his response to them. ‘And yet I like the names’, he says; then moves on to another paradox, ‘The herb itself I like not, but for certain I love it.’
This introduces the second, and major, theme of the poem. Just as there is a contradiction in the herb's names, so there is an apparent contradiction in his feelings for it. Later, the theme emerges less equivocally—‘I cannot like the scent Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one’. We realize now that the particular memory for which he is unsuccessfully groping does not matter so very much: it is only a pretext, or rather a context, for saying something about the difference between liking and loving: the quality of the experience he is trying to recall, like the scent of the herb, though bitter, is something he would not and could not do without, for it has meaning. Here is the poem's moral. That loving is more important, more significant than liking, is not, if we put it so baldly, a very dazzling discovery: but Edward Thomas has not put it baldly: it carries conviction because, so far from being imposed upon the experience, it has grown organically out of it—grown up with the growth of the poem itself, inseparable from it.
It has done so partly by reason of the diversion that precedes it. The poet could have treated this passage in terms of his own childhood. Instead, he gives us a picture of his little daughter plucking a leaf and sniffing her fingers: he himself does not appear, except in ‘And I can only wonder how much hereafter She will remember, with that bitter scent.’ This treatment has the dual effect of de-personalizing the affair and universalizing it: it is now not the poet himself, not even his daughter, but every child gathering another shred of experience, to be remembered one day perhaps, or lost beyond recall, but in any case making its ineradicable mark upon the mind.
The poem ends on a note of dubiety, of mystery. The poet seems to be
lying in wait For what I should, yet never can remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
We may compare it, perhaps, with such a poem as Hood's ‘I remember, I remember’—a poem with an equal melancholy behind it, but on the surface happier, more affirming in the felt detail of its memories. By contrast, the Thomas poem takes its course from his not being able to remember: and, as in so many of his poems, we are made gradually aware that the offered mystery—the Old Man or Lad's-love, and what it signifies, for example—is only a tributary, leading on to and swelling the mysterious river of existence itself. ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’: it is a sombre line: an avenue, by definition, must be leading to something: but an avenue without end—what is that leading to? So the poem closes on the greatest of its paradoxes, the darkest mystery of all.
Sometimes Edward Thomas gives us a scene or tells us a story without even the sparing amount of comment that we get in ‘Old Man’. Such a poem is ‘The Hollow Wood’: but here too, deep below the surface, something moves—some fragment of the mystery, with a message for us which, like the inner meaning of a parable, we can take or leave.
Out in the sun the goldfinch flits Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits Above the hollow wood Where birds swim like fish— Fish that laugh and shriek— To and fro, far below In the pale hollow wood.
Lichen, ivy, and moss Keep evergreen the trees That stand half-flayed and dying, And the dead trees on their knees In dog's-mercury and moss: And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.
From outside, we see that as a precise, factual description of a decaying wood. But, if we venture nearer the heart of this hollow wood, we find it a very disquieting place: the contrast between the goldfinch in the sun outside and the goings-on within is sinister: there is something wrong with a wood ‘Where birds swim like fish—Fish that laugh and shriek’, and where dead or dying trees are kept evergreen by lichen, ivy, and moss—the hosts given a semblance, a mockery of life, by their parasites. The way he talks about them—‘half-flayed and dying’, ‘the dead trees on their knees’—they might almost be people. What makes this little poem so disturbing is that, from its description of natural processes, there arises a sense of something against nature. No doubt, if we were flying above that wood, like the goldfinch, the birds within it might seem to be moving in a different element, swimming like fish: and birds do ‘laugh and shriek’. But, by a telescoping of the two facts, the natural is made unnatural—‘Where birds swim like fish—Fish that laugh and shriek’. Similarly, in the second stanza an image of dying trees is warped by giving an ironic twist to the meaning of ‘evergreen’ and by showing them to us ‘on their knees In dog's-mercury and moss’.
To analyse a poem thus is not to interpret it. Nor indeed should the critic set up to interpret: a good poet is ‘his own interpreter’. And the critic should avoid that other arrogance—of claiming that analysis broadens or deepens our response to a poem: it seldom does: it explains and defines our response, which is a very different matter. We respond to ‘The Hollow Wood’, finally, in so far as its symbolic values come home to us. The poem makes us aware of two worlds—in the poet, in ourselves, in the world about us: that of the goldfinch, whose careless, heartless quality is stressed by those pebbly i-sounds (‘the goldfinch flits Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits’), and that of the decaying wood. Sun without, gloom within. There, free flight; here, a furtive movement (birds swimming like fish), good growth strangled, the parasite triumphant. And the poem also seems to be saying, of these two worlds, that ‘never the twain shall meet,’: as he writes in another poem, ‘The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite Outside is gold and white, Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet The others, day or night’. I have little doubt that the poem's source was Edward Thomas's melancholy, his sense of frustration: the ‘pale hollow wood’ was his own heart, aware of itself dying by inches, and ‘the bright twit of the goldfinch’, dropping into it from outside, is its only link with that other gay, superficial mode of existence. But the meaning of the poem extends beyond its source: once again, it flows into the main stream, the mystery of life's transience and nature's inexorable laws.
In one of his Last Poems, A. E. Housman wrote,
For nature, heartless, witless nature, Will neither care nor know What stranger's feet may find the meadow And trespass there and go, Nor ask amid the dews of morning If they are mine or no.
Edward Thomas's attitude to nature was very much the same; but it comes out less explicitly, more obliquely. Also, he seldom protests against the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspect of nature. ‘That is the way things are,’ his poems say, ‘and there's nothing we can do about it.’ Listen to the first stanza of ‘The Gallows’, with its Beddoes-like movement:
There was a weasel lived in the sun With all his family, Till a keeper shot him with his gun And hung him up on a tree, Where he swings in the wind and rain, In the sun and in the snow, Without pleasure, without pain, On the dead oak tree bough.
The most he will allow himself by way of comment can be seen in such a poem as ‘The Combe’. This combe, he says, was always a dark, ancient place, difficult to get at, unvisited even by any birds ‘Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper.’ The poem ends,
But far more ancient and dark The Combe looks since they killed the badger there, Dug him out and gave him to the hounds, That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
The protest is extremely muted. ‘Far more ancient and dark’—just a hint there of the feeling we get in Meredith's ‘the world forgot Looked wicked as some old dull murder-spot’. A rather stronger hint in the last line, ‘That most ancient Briton of English beasts’, which implies that the badger was the natural lord of this old combe, and that to kill him in his own sanctuary was not only murder but a sort of sacrilege as well. The ancient-Briton metaphor derives added colour, it may be, from the badger's head—white, with a black streak on either side—which, if we substitute for black the dark blue of woad, gives us an association with the woad-streaked white faces of ancient Britons.
The essence of Edward Thomas's attitude to nature lies in the interplay between natural and human: his poems have meanings which carry over into the human situation. They may do this directly, as when he writes of the owl's cry,
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill, No merry note, nor cause of merriment, But one telling me plain what I escaped And others could not, that night, as in I went.
But more often the reference, as I have tried to show, is oblique, glancing, implicit in the facts of nature themselves. Thomas said somewhere, ‘We stand ever at the edge of Eternity and fall in many times before we die.’ The thing he was searching for all his life—his inevitable failure to find it deepened his melancholy and self-distrust—was perfection; a love of perfection, he suggests in his poem ‘Rain’, means love of death:
Like me who have no love which this wild rain Has not dissolved except the love of death, If love it be for what is perfect and Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Edward Thomas, lacking religious belief, could not direct this search toward its traditional objective: he can only accept, stoically and resignedly, the gulf between things as they are and things as they might be. The pattern repeats itself; rooks and gulls go on following the plough, men go on fighting; ‘And God still sits aloft in the array That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.’
But his poetry, for all its sombre cast and its reticence, for all the qualifications it puts even upon human love, is life-enhancing: it does not reject life, even though death be the only thing that ‘cannot disappoint’. It takes comfort wherever it can, and sometimes in unexpected ways—‘the past is the only dead thing that smells sweet, The only sweet thing that is not also fleet’. The poet knows that perfection can only be seen, darkly, in the glass of imperfection; and so
I still am half in love with pain, With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth, With things that have an end, with life and earth, And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
As we read through his poems, we realize how accurate that ‘half in love’ is. Though he found nothing that was not imperfect and transient, he could never give himself fully to ‘things that have an end’; nor could he lie to himself about them, any more than he could pretend a greater love than he felt for the woman he loved best:
My eyes scarce dare meet you Lest they should prove I but respond to you And do not love.
This lack of wholeheartedness—of passion, if you like—is what chiefly limited him and kept him a minor poet, just as it is this honesty which makes him such a good poet.
Even in the countrysides he most loved, we do not feel him to be quite at home—not all of him all the time. Part of him is chafing to be off, somewhere else: but where?
This is my grief. That land, My home, I have never seen; No traveller tells of it, However far he has been.
And could I discover it, I fear my happiness there, Or my pain, might be dreams of return Here to these things that were.
And in another poem, also called ‘Home’, the ambivalence of his mind is explored farther. He is walking, with some companions, through a winter landscape: they are enjoying the snow and one another's company: they are walking fast, although ‘There is nothing to return for, except need.’ Then the word ‘home’ is uttered, and at that word
We were divided and looked strangely each At the other, and we knew we were not friends But fellows in a union that ends With the necessity for it, as it ought.
Never a word was spoken, not a thought Was thought, of what the look meant with the word ‘Home’ as we walked and watched the sunset blurred. And then to me the word, only the word, ‘Homesick’, as it were playfully occurred: No more.
If I should ever more admit Than the mere word I could not endure it For a day longer: this captivity Must somehow come to an end, else I should be Another man, as often now I seem, Or this life be only an evil dream.
It is clear at last what he was chafing at—the limitations of life itself; and it was this chafing which prevented him from putting roots down permanently anywhere, from committing himself absolutely to any one place, or any one person. Nothing less than God, we might say, could have given that kind of peace to that kind of man; but with God he did not feel himself in touch. So, for him, it was a matter of ‘what to make of a diminished thing’. Just now and then, as often as most poets, he found the answer and communicates to us—those of us who will listen to his shy, intimate, simple yet almost secretive language—the sense of a discovery made, a fulfilment reached. In a poem called ‘I never saw that land before’, he tells how, seeing a certain landscape, new to him yet at once familiar, his heart opened to it. The poem ends
I neither expected anything Nor yet remembered: but some goal I touched then; and if I could sing What would not even whisper my soul As I went on my journeying,
I should use, as the trees and birds did, A language not to be betrayed; And what was hid should still be hid Excepting from those like me made Who answer when such whispers bid.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4381
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 literature—service which, alas, was all too often indistinguishable from servitude. He died untimely; nevertheless, time was granted him to pay his tribute of delight to the England which lay at the very core of his being. It can, indeed, be asserted without exaggeration that no greater lover of England has existed than this London-born Welshman who was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917 at the age of thirty-nine.
But no man could have been less addicted to conventional patriotism than he:
I hate not Germans, nor grow hot With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers. Beside my hate for one fat patriot My hatred of the Kaiser is love true …
He was no chauvinist. He cared nothing for ‘The Flag’, for the Empire, for politics of any colour whatsoever. In a vividly significant passage in the first volume of her Memoirs,1 Miss Eleanor Farjeon relates: ‘It might have been next year when we were walking in the country that I asked him the question his friends had asked him when he joined up, but I put it differently. “Do you know what you are fighting for?” He stopped, and picked up a pinch of earth. “Literally, for this.” He crumbled it between finger and thumb, and let it fall.’
He spoke truly: it was England herself whom he loved, with a passion as ardent as it was reticent, particularly southern England—the England of the chalk counties, of which Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, and Wiltshire claimed his most constant affection. He loved the people of this sweet and circumscribed England, the more so when they were individual, eccentric even, with a touch of wildness about them—tramps, poachers, gipsies, and the like—a breed of folk epitomized in David Uzzell, an old countryman living in Wiltshire whom Thomas regarded with almost filial devotion. He loved small market towns and secluded villages, the woods, thickets, fields, hills, and streams of his chosen countryside; he loved its songs, its speech, its customs, its traditions. His was the England of Defoe, Cobbett, Gilbert White, of W. H. Hudson and Thomas Hardy; the England of such painters as Constable, Morland, and Crome: simple, hearty, bawdy England untouched by ‘Progress’, with her immemorial history and her heartbreaking beauty. Minutiæ fascinated him: such tiny matters as raindrops pendant from a hedgerow twig—the sound of rain is a perpetual leit motif in his writings; he was a man who lived by the weather—diminutive wild flowers, weeds—apt in a lover of ‘the lovely that is not beloved’—small birds, such as the willow warbler and the wren; mud, dust, pebbles, flints—the very substance of his English earth. These things never failed to beguile him. They bore no metaphysical implications for him; their mere existence sufficed: ‘To say “God bless it” was all that I could do.’ Thus in “Tall Nettles”:
This corner of the farmyard I like most: As well as any bloom upon a flower I like the dust on the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
He loved all these things ardently—as he loved any manifestation of the England of his choice—but he was no sentimentalist; not even a romantic. Though writing beautifully, he wrote with a dispassionate accuracy of observation which lent exactness and validity to his work. In the best sense of the word he was a professional writer: this accomplishment, begotten of necessity, served him in inestimable stead when he turned poet—together with the fact that he was the best critic of poetry of his generation. His ardour shone rather than glowed; however much the subject of a poem attracted him, his pen was always under control, as was his directing brain. It was highly characteristic of him that he chose ‘like’ rather than ‘love’ in describing his reaction to the farmyard nettles. When he did use ‘love’, he did so temperately, frugally, thereby enhancing its emotional value. Words had long been the tools of his trade; he respected them like the good workman he was, giving a word no heavier a responsibility than it could appropriately bear. This precision and verbal sobriety go far towards giving Edward Thomas's verse its individual flavour; so, too, does an underlying melancholy—wistful and occasionally poignant—which, an integral part of the man, impregnated his work: he was not a Celt for nothing. In his verse this melancholy may be pervasive or concentrated: a musing, prophetic melancholy, as in the final stanza of “Old Man”:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Edward Thomas was not a philosopher; he was not, in any technical sense, a mystic. His poetry is nevertheless stepped in a kind of mysticism which is as easy to recognize as it is impossible to define. It is closely interlinked with his melancholy, veiled in darkness, instinct with an apprehension of the unknown:
I have come to the borders of sleep, The unfathomable deep Forest where all must lose Their way, however straight, Or winding, soon or late; They cannot choose. …
There is not any book Or face of dearest look That I would not turn from now To go into the unknown I must enter, and leave, alone, I know not how.
The tall forest towers; Its cloudy foliage lowers Ahead, shelf upon shelf; In silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.
Here his particular brand of mysticism is explicit; more often it but lightly overshadows a single stanza or a mere phrase. It may have been atavistic in its origin, but it was undoubtedly intensified by an intimation of mortality. Such was its effect upon those who loved and understood him best. Miss Farjeon (who acted as his amanuensis) recalls elsewhere than in her Memoir the chill that struck her heart when the poem just quoted first confronted her in typescript.
There is, however, another side to the picture. Helen Thomas in her writings and conversation has insisted upon the joyful element in her husband's character. He was fully capable of happiness. How, indeed, could happiness be absent from one who found such perpetual refreshment and delight in the English countryside? Happiness constantly illuminated his poetry—happiness amounting to ecstasy—as the poem fitly entitled “The Glory” clearly shows:
The glory of the beauty of the morning— The cuckoo crying over the untouched dew; The blackbird that has found it, and the dove That tempts me on to something sweeter than love; White clouds ranged even and fair as newmown hay; The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart …
His mood changes; but in these lines and some that follow there is ecstasy indisputable. In “Home” the same note is struck:
Fair was the morning, fair our tempers, and We had seen nothing fairer than that land, Though strange, and the untrodden snow that made Wild of the tame, casting out all that was Not wild and rustic and old; and we were glad.
How Edward Thomas turned from being a poet manqué—one who, in W. H. Hudson's view, had lost his way—into one who became articulate and progressively acknowledged and admired by his peers and the poetry-reading public is an oft-told tale. Miss Farjeon, in telling it afresh, revitalizes it. The first mention of Robert Frost, who was to play so crucial a part in the transformation, comes in a letter from Edward dated 5 October 1913: ‘Will you forgive me if I do not turn up to-morrow? I have an appointment of uncertain time with an American just before & may not be able to come.’ So the seed was sown; yet a few days later Miss Farjeon asked him whether he had ever written poetry. ‘“Me?” He uttered a short, self-scornful laugh. “I couldn't write a poem to save my life.”’
A year later all was changed. Robert Frost, now America's most distinguished poet but then virtually unknown, had written one volume of verse and had another entitled North of Boston in preparation. In this Edward made what Miss Farjeon calls ‘the find of a lifetime’. Robert Frost quickly made the acquaintance of many English poets and men of letters, including Edward Thomas, and from being acquaintances they swiftly became friends—such intimate friends, in fact, that when the Frosts returned to America in February 1915 Edward thought seriously of accompanying them. He remained in England, however, perplexed in the extreme. On account of war having broken out, his career as a professional writer was at a standstill. He longed to serve his country, but was undecided how best to do so. All that he could do was to fulfil a few outstanding commissions and write poetry, having followed Robert Frost's precept and example. He had made this exciting new departure in November 1914, keeping it a secret shared only with a few intimates. Not until well into the following year did he venture to show his poems to critics outside this restricted circle and send them to editors under the pseudonym of ‘Edward Eastaway’—a disastrous enterprise, since every poem he submitted was rejected. Nevertheless, he continued to write on with increasing confidence and facility—‘I can hardly wait to light my fire’, he wrote to Miss Farjeon in the ardour of new creation.
Not only did Robert Frost provide the initial impetus for him to turn to verse as a medium for self-expression; he also supplied him with a ready-wrought technique, as an examination of two characteristic poems by Robert Frost—Mending Wall and The Death of the Hired Man—readily proves. When North of Boston was published, Edward wrote of his friend as a poet in terms closely applicable to himself:
He will be accused of keeping monotonously at a low level, because his characters are quiet people, and he has chosen the unresisting medium of blank verse. I will only remark that he would lose far less than most modern writers by being printed as prose. If his work were so printed, it would have little in common with the kind of prose that runs to blank verse: in fact, it would turn out to be closer knit and more intimate than the finest prose is except in its finest passages. It is poetry because it is better than prose.
As well as ‘the unresisting medium of blank verse’, Edward Thomas used rhyme freely, but the resemblance between his work and that of Robert Frost within the context of the foregoing notice still stands. The lightly stressed iambic lines of “The Glory” and “Home” are entirely characteristic of his verse as a whole, giving as they do an impression of self-communing reverie or quiet colloquy. As Walter de la Mare remarked, there is nothing precious, elaborate, brilliant, esoteric, or obscure in his poetry. His vocabulary was completely adequate to his needs, but is of the utmost simplicity. Not that his work lacks magic; not the magic of the miraculous phrase, but the magic ensuing on his power to re-create a country scene and a country atmosphere in a few words:
There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots That once were underwood of hazel and ash In Jenny Pinks's Copse. Now, by the hedge Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone Can creep through with the mouse and wren …
It requires time and patience to appreciate these poems as they deserve to be appreciated. Once this occurs, however, they take unobtrusive but tenacious hold on the hearts and minds of their readers and never grow stale. Edward Thomas was not an ‘occasional’ poet, but one who—once he had discovered that he could write verse—was supplied with a steady flow of inspiration. When it is remembered that all his poetry was achieved within a period of just over two years, during which he was training hard to become an efficient soldier, his output was considerable. His poetry was a necessity of his nature; it was nothing less than his spiritual daily bread. The stored impressions of a singularly observant eye and retentive memory found full and rich harvesting in his work; between the covers of his volume of Collected Poems there is nothing false or forced in a single line.
Thomas, unlike some of his contemporaries, was not a ‘week-end’ countryman, but a countryman to the bone; a countryman by adoption, it is true, but nevertheless an authentic one. He had several homes; but one always thinks of him as living at Steep, a hamlet near Petersfield on the Sussex-Hampshire border. From this or another retreat he would come to London in quest of work; yet although no stranger to ‘the Great Wen’, he was always an alien there. ‘Gulliver himself’, wrote Walter de la Mare, ‘could hardly have looked a stranger phenomenon in Lilliput than he appeared in Real-Turtle-Soup-Land—his clothes, his gait, his face, his bearing.’ Of her first impression of him, Miss Farjeon recalls his tall easy figure, his tawny colour, the grave pleasant tones of his voice, and a swift sidelong glance from keen eyes on being introduced. To add to this impression, mention must be made of his powerful, bony hands, which had cradled so many wild birds' eggs and were familiar with every flower in the southern counties, and of his countryman's walk, described by Miss Farjeon as ‘a negligent lope, half-stride, half-lounge, which carried him faster, while he seemed to walk more leisurely than anybody else’. So he travelled by field-path and hill-track and winding country lane, avoiding main roads whenever possible, carrying map and walking-stick (invariably cut by himself; he declared that he would rather be seen dead than walking with a stick he hadn't cut himself) until the hour came for England to claim him no more.
From the appearance of his first book of verse in 1917—a slim wartime production by the firm of Selwyn & Blount, embellished by a fine photograph of himself in profile—Edward Thomas's poems have never lacked admirers, and they can now be assured of a modest immortality. With his prose, the position is completely different. Of his thirty-odd books, the writing of which occupied the greater part of his adult life, none remains in print nor does there appear to be any likelihood of their being reissued. The toil involved in this task was the price of his freedom. Rebelling against the advice of his father—with whom he was never in sympathy—to play for safety on coming down from Oxford, preferably by obtaining a post in the Civil Service, he resolved to become a literary freelance. This entailed his writing articles for such journals as would accept them, as well as the writing of books for a succession of publishers. (When asked for his address, ‘Every publisher in London has it’ came a friend's swift reply.) Had he been content to write quickly and carelessly, he would doubtless have been able to earn a reasonable living without difficulty. Unfortunately for his financial comfort, he was a scrupulous literary artist, taking infinite pains over his work, fretting lest he should be writing below his best. The situation was exacerbated by his having frequently to write against time and for derisory rates of pay. In consequence, his brain grew tired and his nerves strained beyond endurance. Even when dealing with such congenial places as Oxford or Wales, or with such congenial people as George Borrow or Richard Jefferies, he not infrequently sickened of his subject, so that his letters to certain friends were dark with melancholy and sometimes black with despair. On passing the proofs of one of his painfully achieved books, he wrote: ‘O if I were not poor, I would burn it all and laugh at the publisher. It is neither good hackwork nor good Edward Thomas. It will hurt me very much to see it in print. Day after day I had to excite myself and write what I could; and of course I shall be judged as if I had chosen the subject freely and had done my best at it. It has left me dried up, and I feel that I shall never do good, slow, leisurely work again.’ Worse still, commissions for books were not easily forthcoming, and he had a wife and family to support. To a literary agent he wrote on one occasion: ‘Is a book on Dryden possible? Or on Evelyn the diarist? Or on England (I mean particularly the rural parts, but also the country as a whole) as seen in literature, both native and foreign? Or on Lord Jeffrey? … I should like Cowper better than any …’
What is remarkable about Edward Thomas's prose, when one bears in mind the conditions under which so much of it was written, is its uniformly high quality. No uninitiated reader would imagine for a moment that it was anything but ‘good, slow, leisurely work’. His study of Oxford, for instance, one of his earliest books and over which he agonized, is written in a style which recalls that of Walter Pater, who was the dominant literary influence when Edward was reading History at Exeter College—rhythmical, lapidary, of a classical calm. In a description of a gentle scholar of the University there occurs the following passage:
He was, despite features which the dull might call plain, remarkably, and I had almost said physically, beautiful, because of the clear shining of his character. The tender motives that often moulded his lips, the purity and grace that found expression in his eyes, and the fluctuation of the lines of the face in thought which is almost light and shade, wrought an immortal beauty out of Nature's poor endowment. … His smile, on opening Plutarch, was as if he blessed and was blessed, and restored the beholder to the age of the first revival of learning.
With an increasing mastery of his craft, his style became less and less elaborate, and his last book—an evocation of his childhood—is of a moving simplicity, art very effectively concealing art. Engrossed though he necessarily was in producing books and journalism for profit, his writing life was not entirely empty of consolations. On account of his having won the reputation of being the best contemporary critic of verse, he was able to draw the public's attention to the merits of certain poets—W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, and Robert Frost were three—who were struggling for recognition. Nor was the writing of books invariably an intolerably exacting task. At intervals he forgot publishers and public and wrote slender volumes of essays for his own satisfaction to which he gave such titles as Rose Acre Papers, Rest and Unrest, and Light and Twilight. These essays foreshadow his poems, as can be seen from the following quotation from ‘The Stile’, one of the essays in Light and Twilight (a book which has a further extrinsic interest, in that it was the first of Edward Thomas's writings that Miss Farjeon read and which prompted her to ask whether he had written poetry):
Three roads meet in the midst of a little green without a house or the sign of one, and at one edge there is an oak copse of untrimmed hedges. One road goes east, another west, and the other north; southward goes a path known chiefly to lovers, and the stile which transfers them to it from the rushy turf is at a corner of the copse.
The country is low, rich in grass and small streams, mazily subdivided by crooked hedgerows, with here and there tall oaks in broken line, or round the farmhouse, in musing protective clusters. It is walled in by hills on every side, the higher ones bare, the lower furred with trees, and so nearly level is it that, from any part of it, all these walls of hills and their attendant clouds can be seen.
The discriminating observation of this passage, its pre-Raphaelite colour and precision, and the author's instinct for pictorial effect are all typical of Edward Thomas's prose work at its best—innumerable examples of which can be found not only in the volumes of essays referred to above, but in such longer books as The Heart of England, The Icknield Way, and The South Country. He also excelled in another form of prose writing—critical biography. His studies of Richard Jefferies and George Borrow and his Introduction to Cobbett's Rural Rides are marked by their justice, insight, and wisdom, for all that they were written hastily and for bread. Even his book on so uncongenial a subject as Maurice Maeterlinck, whose crepuscular effects were diametrically opposed to those achieved by his biographer, is an admirably balanced and illuminating piece of work. It seems more than regrettable that his prose should have dwindled into neglect; yet it is not so tragic a matter as it would have been had he not written his poems, since the essence of his talent can be found in these; in writing his poems he was wholly and completely himself.
What was this self? What of his character and personality? How did he strike a contemporary? While their friendship was still new, he and Miss Farjeon were discussing Shakespeare. ‘I suppose’, he remarked, ‘every man thinks that Hamlet was written for him, but I know he was written for me.’ He was certainly Hamlet-like in his moods of introspection, and, as Miss Farjeon writes: ‘His world of brooding thoughts and tormented sensibilities—and the fineness of the thought and the sensibility—must have brought his self-communings very near Hamlet's.’ To his sessions of melancholy reference has already been made—to what Miss Farjeon calls his ‘grey moods’: melancholy amounting at times to melancholia, to cure which he had recourse to physicians, but without success. ‘My wife would be the happiest woman on earth, if I would let her’, he said on one occasion. Miss Farjeon adds the affectionate comment: ‘The truth is, Helen was oftener and more fully happy than any wife I knew. Her happiness was an inexhaustible well; its zest enhanced the good days, and was her source of power against the dark ones. If Edward knew that Hamlet was written for him, he knew too that Helen was no Ophelia, and whatever he was and did she would not drown.’ Had things been different—had his wife been a second Jane Welsh Carlyle, for instance—one scarcely dares speculate what Edward's fate might have been. He was extraordinarily fortunate in having such a wife and such a friend. He realized as much, and this knowledge not infrequently intensified his distress. Apart from his inherent nervous disability, the incessant strain attendant on his work—self-chosen though it was—and the constant disappointments and the no less constant humiliations he endured at the hands of editors and publishers would have gone far to break the heart of any but a completely insensitive man—and no insensitive man could have written as Edward Thomas wrote. How remorseless was the tyranny to which he was subjected can be gauged by the fact that soldiering seemed to him closely to resemble freedom. Disillusionment, bitterness, even cynicism were some of the bitter fruits of his experience of life; so, too, was a paralysing self-consciousness, which, again, was relieved, if not entirely cured, by his army life.
To dwell exclusively on this side of Edward Thomas's character, however, is to give a distorted account of him. Not only was he capable of frequent happiness; he was capable also of sheer high-spirited fun. Many of the letters he wrote to Miss Farjeon (and by inference to other of his friends) are full of this redeeming quality; moreover, his wife has insisted on his delight in his children and in herself, and on the gaiety he brought into his home. He was an adept at making quaint, ingenious toys for his children, and loved both singing and playing games with them. With his friends, as a rule, he was less exuberant; he was, in fact, a man who was more than commonly reticent in expressing the very real affection he bore them. It was characteristic of him that even with so intimate a friend as Miss Farjeon—although he addressed her as ‘My dear Eleanor’—he never signed his letters with his Christian name merely. Only once did he convey to her what she meant to him—and then only obliquely. This was when, in a letter he sent her a few days before his death, he referred to the impending battle. ‘What is coming is to be worse than anything I know so far’, he wrote. ‘It is worse for you and Helen and Mother, I know.’ That was all; but it was enough, meaning far more than if more had been said.
He had only a few intimate friends; only a few to whom he could unburden himself completely. There were many, nevertheless, whom he greatly liked, and by whom he was beloved. ‘Even to think of him makes him as present as if he were entering the room’, wrote Walter de la Mare in 1953; adding, says Miss Farjeon, ‘like a sigh, “How I wish he were”.’
Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years. By Eleanor Farjeon (Oxford), 1958.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8783
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 whiteness of benighted snow With no expression, nothing to express.
—Robert Frost, Desert Places
What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease, No man, woman, or child alive could please Me now.
This is a characteristic mood—some would say the characteristic mood—of Edward Thomas's poetry. It varies in intensity of expression, ranging from a diffused brooding sadness to a sharp articulation of despair; the restless discontent of these lines comes somewhere between the two. Whether or not it is his principal poetic concern, it is certainly a major concern; any admirer of Thomas who thinks that his poetic work amounts to a more valuable achievement than a preoccupation with such a mood and subject-matter would normally permit must try to explain why. It will not do to say that the best poems are those that have no connection with this area of feeling, for this is not so. Nor will an invocation of Coleridge's name protect Thomas from the charge of expressing a limited range and an unfruitful kind of feeling. There is only one ‘Dejection Ode.’ It would be better to recall Coleridge's remark, founded on bitter experience, that ‘When a Man is unhappy, he writes damned bad Poetry.’ In this connection it is pertinent to note that in most instances Thomas's is a remembered or recreated depression.
Though we associate depression—to give it a general name—with Thomas's poetry, ‘Beauty’ is exceptional in displaying it as nakedly as this. I take it as my starting-point, however, because we sense that some such combination of feelings underlies, perhaps initiates, many poems that are less direct in method. This poem is unusual, too, in the outright challenge of its question, yet, plainly, a question of this order, albeit unformulated, guides the poet's exploration of his experience in a large number of his poems. Of course, to ask what a state of mind means is almost to ensure that the question cannot be answered; there are too many contexts within which the state of mind might be considered. Evidently Thomas knows this and no direct answer is attempted.
This is not to say, however, as critics have said, that Thomas, lacking the detachment—and the freedom—of complete self-knowledge, ever presents himself as merely the victim of his temperament. An understanding of the personal condition which prompted the question is implicit, with different emphases and varying degrees of fullness, in most of the poems affected by it. This is true even of the poem ominously entitled ‘Melancholy,’ one of the very few unsatisfactory poems in Thomas's work, which softens the reality of what it depicts (though, no doubt, this has secured it its place in the anthologies). It induces and condones more than it presents and analyses the ‘strange sweetness’ of abandoning oneself to despair. ‘Melancholy / Wrought magic,’ he confesses, and the poem is partly caught in its spell, but only partly; some of the facts of his condition are clear enough:
So that if I feared the solitude Far more I feared all company: too sharp, too rude, Had been the wisest or the dearest human voice. What I desired I knew not, but whate'er my choice Vain it must be, I knew.
He knows something if not everything, and the sharp distinctions and firm rhythm of these lines, if not of the whole poem, contain a clear recognition of what it is. ‘Wind and Mist’ is a much surer achievement, and is therefore more representative of the self-knowledge that informs all his poetry. It is one of several poems in which Thomas or a character representing him talks to a stranger. The Thomas character, here recalling his unhappiness in a house built for him and his family by Geoffrey Lupton, a handsome building on high land with a fine view over a valley of hedged fields, tells a casually encountered sightseer of the mists—at once real mist and the grey mental world (‘like chaos surging back’) of depression—that in fact continually obscured the view. The perceptions dramatized in this meeting inside the gateway of the house between its erstwhile inhabitant, living in cloud and mist, and the appreciative but ingenuous stranger, who has ‘always lived on the firm ground,’ are, though subtle, also clear and unwavering, and combine with a large measure of self-mockery sufficient self-respect—expressed wryly and sardonically, however—to save it from the complacency of indiscriminately dismissive self-contempt. The poet's understanding of the situation has a moral dimension. Choice of this site for a house, isolated, aloof, perched ‘on a cliff's edge almost,’ is made to yield a psychological significance, one hinting at the solitary's pride and a dreamer's idealism:
I did not know it was the earth I loved Until I tried to live there in the clouds And the earth turned to cloud.
There was a garden to be worked and a child was born in the gable room: ‘“But flint and clay and childbirth were too real / For this cloud-castle.”’
It is another kind of understanding that, discerning more in his melancholy than a peculiarity of temperament, attaches it to a larger context. True, when he looks back at life in ‘the long small room,’ his study, in another house, he sees himself as sharing the helplessness of ‘moon, sparrow, and mouse,’ involuntary observers ‘That witnessed what they could never understand / Or alter or prevent in the dark house.’ No moral perspective ever leads him to challenge the fatalism of this assertion. Nevertheless his sufferings gain an objective reality from being connected with his professional circumstances, the doom of the literary hack and journalist, whose right hand must continue to crawl
crab-like over the clean white page, Resting awhile each morning on the pillow, Then once more starting to crawl on towards age.
(‘The Long Small Room’)
And their significance grows momentous when we notice how the shape of the room resembles a coffin (it ‘Narrowed up to the end the fireplace filled, / Although not wide’) and how the ‘dark house’ has become in consequence the close container of a mortal existence. It is not unusual in Thomas's poems for the personal mood to lead to an awareness of the general human condition. ‘Rain,’ his most direct and painful expression of despair, rapidly in the first three lines moves out and beyond the personal without losing anything of the personal anguish:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me Remembering again that I shall die …
At this point, lying awake in the army hut, he ceases to be a lonely individual and becomes all men suddenly remembering that they will die. The circle of meaning continues to expand, rippling out from this centre of disturbance to the last line.
Depression in the extreme forms that he knew in his life rarely enters Thomas's poems with this kind of force; usually it has been tempered with reflection before the poetic imagination has gone to work on it. But an unassuaged mild discontent or melancholy seems to be the medium through which most of his experiences, even the happiest of them, are received. His memory of the ‘three lovely notes’ sung by ‘the unknown bird,’ in the poem of that title, is certainly a happy memory, yet at first he judges the song to have been ‘sad more than joyful.’ The paradox bears witness to a strange blend of feelings, characteristic of Thomas. The strangeness is intensified but the paradox is dissolved by another distinction: ‘but if sad / ‘Twas sad only with joy too, too far off / For me to taste it.’ The lovely, unidentifiable song of an unseen bird that sometimes came near but sounded ‘distant still’ is emblematic of Thomas's dissociation from general living: he recognizes and yearns for a vigour he cannot enjoy or cannot fully enjoy.
At the back of the general melancholy and the attacks of depression is this impregnable isolation. The plangent intonings of despair in the opening lines of ‘Rain’ reach their logical climax with the stark declaration, ‘I was born into this solitude.’ Nearly always uncomfortable with other people, rarely able to break through his self-consciousness, he confessed to Gordon Bottomley in 1904 that for him ‘social intercourse is only an intense form of solitude.’ It is the given element, assumed if not stated, of each human situation presented in the poetry. Almost any poem could illustrate this. It is as much part of the in some ways peaceful experience of ‘It Rains’ as it is of ‘The New House,’ where it constitutes the very essence of his misery. ‘It Rains’ characteristically, then, begins with the poet alone, his isolation emphasized by the rain and the stillness of the scene. It is characteristic too in showing the poet searching an orchard, now neglected and overgrown, where he had once courted Helen, thinking ‘of two walking, kissing there’—stirring memories, in a scene where ‘nothing stirs,’ of one moment when he had managed to forget his solitude. ‘It Rains’ describes feelings that nevertheless almost anyone might have. ‘The New House’ indicates feelings peculiar to Thomas. It is strange but distinctively expressive of his sensibility that on first entering a new house, the house at Wick Green also recalled in ‘Wind and Mist,’ he should feel not hope but ‘dread’ and find there nothing but a new confirmation of an old familiar solitude. ‘I was alone / In the house’ is his first thought, from which follows inevitably for Thomas anticipation of
Nights of storm, days of mist, without end; Sad days when the sun Shone in vain: old griefs and griefs Not yet begun.
(‘The New House’)
In this house Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown: ‘the sun / Shone in vain’ indeed. ‘Whate'er my choice / Vain it must be, I knew,’ he writes in the lines of ‘Melancholy’ already quoted; the word or the phrase runs like a refrain through the poems of this mood. In ‘It Rains,’ too, the poet is ‘nearly as happy as possible / To search the wilderness in vain though well’—a phrase which, with a scrupulous detachment, measures the immeasurable, the degree of acceptance of and resistance to an inescapable condition. Solitude and depression are recognized as permanencies in his existence.
Although this is so, and although an always unsocial and sometimes melancholy temperament is the dark lens through which he perceives the world, this is not to say that it controls the viewpoint. Poems may start there, literally or in the sense that it is a precondition of their coming into being, but they do not end there. Even in poems most burdened with the poet's hopeless sense of his isolation the poetic impulse is something more than the simple need to record and brood upon the isolation and the burden of it. Self-understanding in Thomas's poems is not a passive or merely clinical process; as my mention of the moral tenor of the characterization in ‘Wind and Mist’ has implied, the viewpoint is, where criticism is appropriate, a critical one. This is no less true of ‘Beauty,’ the poem with which I chose to open this discussion of Thomas's depressive temperament and its effect on his poetry.
My contention is that, when the limitations of his personality, his melancholy or his solitary disposition, are the theme of his poems, not only is the poetic temper critical but the poet's critical frame of reference is wider than the man's—wider, that is, than one conceivably available to the solitary or melancholic himself. Before proceeding to illustrate this I must, first, make a further distinction and an exception. The frame of reference sometimes includes more than the human values that the word ‘critical’ normally denotes. A judicative approach suits those poems in which, say, Thomas's melancholy is presented as that and nothing more. It is less appropriate to those poems that treat the mood as a matching response to a suprapersonal condition. ‘The Long Small Room,’ as we have seen, offers a view not so much of the (limited) personality as of a human destiny. ‘Rain,’ too, which carries more personal anguish than perhaps any other poem by Thomas, is nevertheless a meditation on the relationship of love and death, the human and the non-human; where ‘Beauty’ depicts his inability to love as personal failure, here it is neither criticized nor, we must add, condoned but merely stated; in the wildness of that ‘wild rain’ are forces beyond human control and judgment.
The critical method ranges from straightforward statement to the dramatic mode of ‘Wind and Mist’ and ‘The Chalk Pit.’ A typical direct critical statement is this from ‘There Was a Time’: ‘I never would acknowledge my own glee / Because it was less mighty than my mind / Had dreamed of.’ Inordinacy of expectation—perfectionism—is the verdict pronounced on Thomas's chronic discontent in these lines, as it is in part the charge laid against the solitary in ‘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.
This is Thomas's image of himself as ‘an isolated selfconsidering brain’ (his phrase for the ‘disease’ of ‘self-consciousness’ as he described it to Eleanor Farjeon in 1913).2 Anyone who has experienced prolonged depression would take it to be a metaphor for that kind of isolation in particular. Few sufferers, however, would, as Thomas does, claim moral responsibility for the condition. The language recalls his account in the essay ‘How I Began’ of how in his precocious youth he built himself a house of style based on literary models with no materials from spoken idiom; we know that it took him at least a decade to dismantle that imposing edifice. The image, I think, includes all this. The ascribing of his insulation from the general life to a form of pride is a critical interpretation of his disposition frequent in the poems. I have noted it in ‘Wind and Mist’: the wincing of a past self from the rigours of physical existence is complemented by the desire to be separate and aloof, the building of cloud-castles. The nature of the accusation in that poem is clear enough; the moral grounds for it are perhaps not so clear: despite the uncompromisingly scornful, self-castigating tone of Thomas's persona, we are left, nevertheless, wondering—intentionally, it seems—whether he can be held altogether responsible for his condition. We are allowed to have no such doubts concerning ‘A Lofty Sky’ and ‘Ambition.’ In both poems an ecstasy of Sehnsucht is presented with full intensity and irony combined. The same image—a skyward aspiration spurning earth, the flight of the eye upward—an obsessive one in Thomas's writing, dominates them:
Today I want the sky, The tops of the high hills, Above the last man's house, … The desire of the eye For sky, nothing but sky.
I sicken of the woods And all the multitudes Of hedge-trees.
(‘The Lofty Sky’)
Idealism—yearning for the infinite, singleness and sameness of being, free of the tangle and variety of finite life—entails misanthropy; ‘multitudes’ joins weariness of earth to weariness of people. The same flight of the eye upward and a similar desire to still the movement and dissolve the body and multiplicity of life into smoke and cloud inform these lines from ‘Ambition’:
And through the valley where all the folk astir Made only plumes of pearly smoke to tower Over dark trees and white meadows … A train that roared along raised after it And carried with it a motionless white bower Of purest cloud …
It is possible, I suppose, to read these poems as neutral renderings of Sehnsucht, but when in ‘The Lofty Sky’ Thomas compares the air to a river and himself to a fish swimming in it I cannot hear the last lines, mimicking as they do the grandiose gesture of Yeats's ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ as other than self-parody: ‘and I / Would arise and go far / To where the lilies are.’ I think the jackdaw in ‘Ambition’ ‘racing straight and high / Alone, shouting like a black warrior / Challenges and menaces to the wide sky’ likewise caricatures with its mad truculence the egoism of the poet's ‘ambition.’ But ambition for what? he asks, and claims he does not know. As often with Thomas, however, the poem knows more than the poet will admit:
Time Was powerless while that lasted. I could sit And think I had made the loveliness of prime, Breathed its life into it and were its lord, And no mind lived save this ‘twixt clouds and rime. Omnipotent I was …
This is, surely, a Lucifer's dream of usurpation, the pride that comes before a fall, the Fall (‘But the end fell like a bell. / The Bower was scattered; far off the train roared’). This Lucifer, besides, is a Romantic poet, blurring distinctions between perception and conception, imagining that his work reproduces the act of Creation. It is not the only passage in Thomas's poetry to present the Wordsworthian unitary view—mind and object dissolved into each other—as a delusion, and a seductive one for the solitary who seeks compensation for his impotence in the vicarious power exercised through the mastery of words. ‘Yes. Sixty miles of South Downs at one glance,’ says the former occupant of the house in the clouds in ‘Wind and Mist,’ ‘Sometimes a man feels proud of them, as if / He had just created them with one mighty thought.’ Sometimes a man has the illusion of possessing the ‘mighty’ power that the perfectionist young Thomas of ‘There Was a Time’ only ‘dreamed of’; the title phrase, echoed from both Wordsworth's ‘Immortality Ode’ and Coleridge's ‘Dejection Ode,’ gives the aspiration its literary source and links this poem with ‘Wind and Mist,’ ‘Ambition,’ and ‘The Lofty Sky’ in being an exposure of the pride and delusion of Wordsworthian Romanticism. One is tempted, turning back again to those lines in ‘Ambition,’ to find a pun in ‘rime,’ an alternative spelling of rhyme and a rhyme word here. It would be the most apposite criticism of Thomas's romantic self, living in his cloud-castle, half believing that his mind had swallowed the solid world and that no contrary reality obstructed free communication between dream and verse.
At the other end of the critical scale from the straightforward statement of such poems as ‘I Built Myself a House of Glass’ are the dramatizations of ‘Wind and Mist’ and, more elaborately, ‘The Chalk Pit.’ In the latter Thomas splits himself into two characters, a romantic and a realistic self, and the poem is a conversation between them. The abandoned chalk pit has a fascination for both of them, though the realist is reluctant to admit it; it is the romantic who sees it as ‘strangely dark, / And vacant of a life but just withdrawn.’ He carries about with him a memory of the place visited two or three times before, which may, however, be partly imaginary, ‘For another place, / Real or painted, may have combined with it’—a composite image, then—and it is clear that the ‘emptiness and silence / And stillness’ of such scenes haunt him because they externalize, as they correspond to, an inner vacancy. The scene is one of several images in Thomas's poetry of, so to speak, posthumous living: the ghost self that continually in his isolation he feels himself to be. Whereas the realist in speculating about the chalk pit's history would ‘prefer the truth / Or nothing’ and answers his companion's enquiries with facts—‘It is called the Dell. / They have not dug chalk here for a century. / That was the ash trees' age’—the romantic would rather find in its desolation some ‘tragical’ significance and ‘make a tale’ of it. But the point of the dialogue form is not that the realist should win all the tricks; the critical direction is not all one way, and the advantage of a dramatic invention is that it encourages flexibility. Maybe this is, as Edna Longley persuasively suggests, ‘a portrait of the divided artist,’ the self-consciously literary, ‘fanciful’ writer of the early prose, less visible in the later work, confronted by a Thomas who ever since the Jefferies book (1909) has been learning to submit ‘his imagination to the actualities of a situation.’ Yet to make this a dialogue simply between an earlier and a later and therefore ‘truer self’—in fact, Mrs Longley, though ‘truer self’ is her phrase, is careful not to do this—would be to misrepresent, if only slightly, the total effect of the poem. The proximity of life and death, the human and the non-human, represented concretely in such scenes, intimates real mysteries, to which neither speaker makes a commensurate response. The realist, giving the lie to the other's histrionic mystifications and voicing a ‘healthier’ attitude, tries at first, with a story of a man who looked for birds' nests not mysteries in the chalk pit, and generally by a breezy matter-of-factness, to empty mystery out of the scene—‘Here, in fact, is nothing at all’—only to be betrayed by his own plainness of language into a truer and indeed more haunting representation of what it is, yet without quite realizing that he has done so:
Except a silent place that once rang loud, And trees and us—imperfect friends, we men And trees since time began; and nevertheless Between us still we breed a mystery.
The romantic glamorizes and trivializes the mystery by making something too personal of it, but at least draws our attention to its existence. His fault, in the critical perspective of the poem, is not that he finds his psyche reflected in the chalk pit (which seems to be the chief cause of the realist's impatience with him) but that he finds only that and closes his eyes to the impersonal dimension of the mystery which the realist stumbles on, the larger implications of the scene, which have to do with that close conjunction of life and death first noticed by the romantic.
Introducing my discussion of the critical orientation of these poems I said that if they begin in moods of anger or discontent or dejection they do not end there; it was at that stage of my argument a way of indicating the measure of self-detachment revealed by a critical approach to experience. But it implies a larger claim, and now is the time to go further in the direction signposted by that remark. Self-criticism plays an important part in ‘Beauty’ but is barely perceptible in ‘Rain’; yet in their plots—the graph of thought and feeling traced by each poem—they are interestingly similar, and in this respect exemplify another characteristic of Thomas's poetry. ‘Rain’ moves quickly out from and then gradually curves back to the despair dramatized in the desolate scene of the first three lines. In its outward curve, however, the poem not only universalizes the personal mood (‘Remembering again that I shall die … Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’), demonstrating an expansion of self that I noted in my earlier discussion of it, but at its peak, for a moment, releases the poet into a new area of selflessness:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved Is dying tonight or lying still awake Solitary, listening to the rain …
At the same time as he is declaring roundly that he has ‘no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved except the love of death’ he is displaying the very feeling for others that he says he lacks. This does not so much contradict the dominant emotion as locate it on a map of evaluated experience, placing it in relation to a positive movement of feeling by reference to which its limitations can be defined. ‘Beauty,’ too, after its opening description of the poet, ‘tired, angry, and ill at ease,’ moves away from that mood. Beginning in dejection it does not, like ‘Rain,’ however, curve out and back but continues to expand, culminating in its antithesis, the heart's imaginary enjoyment of what it lacks, a ‘home and love.’ Yet if this should suggest a facile, sentimental process, it gives a wrong impression of the poem. Even the opening lines read, with the forthright naming and curt tone, more like an accusation than a complaint, and in the next few lines the implied accusation develops into a morally incisive self-dissection:
And yet I almost dare to laugh Because I sit and frame an epitaph— ‘Here lies all that no one loved of him And that loved no one’. Then in a trice that whim Has wearied.
The suspended bitter laughter and the epitaph are judgments on the poet's lovelessness, yet they are framed with a self-contempt that is but the obverse of self-pity, and the last sentence, with its shrug of dismissal, turning from the covert gratifications of self-chastisement, opens the way for a more profound image of his condition. The movement is from an ‘angry’ mood through an angry rejection of it to a natural image that, in its turn, makes possible, if for a moment only, an experience in imagination of the love that fails to sustain him in his life:
But, though I am like a river At fall of evening while it seems that never Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while Cross breezes cut the surface to a file, This heart, some fraction of me, happily Floats through the window even now to a tree Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale, Not like a pewit that returns to wail For something it has lost, but like a dove That slants unswerving to its home and love. There I find my rest, and through the dusk air Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.
These poems illustrate the two principal ways in which the positive nature of the creative impulse expresses itself in Thomas's poetry: on the one hand, by an appeal to values as criteria for measuring his insufficiency and incompleteness; on the other, in the transcendence of personal inadequacy by an act of imagination.
In poems as rooted in personal misery as these are it is notable that the main focus is not on the texture of the experience, rendered vividly though this is in the opening of ‘Rain’ and in the river image of ‘Beauty,’ but on the experience as an index of emotional and spiritual incapacity in the poet. His condition is perceived less in terms of itself than of the personal and social qualities seen to be lacking, and what is lacking sets the standards by which he comprehends the character and judges the extent of his failure as a human being. Few poems are as close to his suffering as these but many touch lightly on it or, as it were, parenthetically. Several contain images of the poet or his state of mind which present him as in some way disablingly incomplete, insubstantial, or enervated. In ‘Two Pewits’ we see him as a ‘ghost,’ who watches the sport of the two birds and ‘wonders why / So merrily they cry and fly, / Nor choose ‘twixt earth and sky’; a ghost, that is, in lacking the spontaneity, immediacy, and wholeness of being which constitute their vitality. Thomas is nearly always a divided person having to make a choice between the real and the ideal (earth and sky) or struggling to compose their differences. The exhausted or unworked chalk pit, whose emptiness seemingly expects a ghost-life and corresponds, I have suggested, to the psychic vacancy—the ‘absent-spiritedness’ (to adopt a word coined by Frost to describe the same state in ‘Desert Places’)—of the first speaker in that poem, has a parallel in ‘The Hollow Wood,’ in which the hollowness also bespeaks an absence of something. Neither poem gives the image of emptiness an overtly personal significance, but the latent human analogy which the mere fascination exercised by the chalk pit on the two characters discovers for us also makes itself felt strongly in the language of ‘The Hollow Wood.’ ‘In the pale hollow wood,’ deprived of sun, ‘birds swim like fish’ and trees live a tortured half-life: ‘Lichen, ivy, and moss / Keep evergreen the trees / That stand half-flayed and dying.’
The criteria of living by which Thomas measures his inadequacy in these poems—spontaneous delight and energy, untrammelled expression of one's nature (birds that do not swim but fly), and undivided sensibility—are psychological; I mean simply that they refer to forces within the personality. A label of this kind is a matter of convenience; it assumes a no doubt inadmissible division between inner and outer: a personality is partly, perhaps very largely, constituted by the kinds of relationships it makes or is able to make with the outside world. Personal well-being is also social and ‘natural’ well-being, and Thomas the ‘born’ solitary was acutely aware of this. The values invoked in his poems are more frequently social and natural—connection with others and otherness—than, in the narrow sense, personal. I have mentioned the charge of lovelessness in ‘Beauty’ and the image of love with which the poem ends. This account of the poem needs expanding. The heart released from its sullen prison, and drawn to a particular tree in the vale below, finds there not one thing but two things, ‘its home and love,’ and ‘home’ itself is not a simple concept. The two words concentrate the feelings associated with the description of the chill, shadowed, sharply rippled river and the contrasting image of the far off tree in the soft ‘misting’ light of the valley. We have a constellation of related values: natural warmth of feeling (sun-lit water)—a giving and a receiving of love—to set against the crossness of the ‘cross breezes,’ a pun to suggest with unobtrusive precision that his malaise, too, has both inner and outer causes (both crossness and being crossed); home, both as rootedness, the nature from which natural feeling derives some of its sustenance, and as the proper setting for love, the only soil indeed in which whatever is living, since to be alive emotionally is to love, can achieve fullness of growth. This natural world is the central value in ‘Wind and Mist.’ From the winds of uncontrollable violent feeling, the mists of neurotic dissociation from reality, and the cloud-castles of idealism Thomas appeals to the world outside the enclosed self, the visible and tangible earth and rural England, though less the English landscape than an England conceived as the larger unity of which our individual lives are part:
The fields beyond that league close in together And merge, even as our days into the past, Into one wood that has a shining pane Of water.
These values are hedged around, however, with appropriate scepticisms. The lines are spoken not by Thomas's (neurotic) persona but by the (normal) sightseeing stranger who listens uncomprehendingly but kindly and courteously to his tale; they are part of a conventionally patriotic speech, the exaggerated enthusiasm of which is rendered with a certain good-humoured irony. Even in the lines quoted we are meant to separate the serious idea of England as an all-encompassing impersonal reality from the dreamy nostalgia of its expression. The invocation of earth as a standard of sane living is also qualified. ‘I did not know it was the earth I loved,’ confesses the neurotic, but earth is not always easy to love: solid is also hard, and the solid earth, though ‘real enough,’ is painfully real when it means working ‘a garden / Of flint and clay,’ and the life of earth is ‘too real’ when it includes the groans of a woman during a difficult childbirth ‘while the wind chilled a summer dawn.’ And since our simple patriot is the sole representative offered by Thomas of ‘Those who have always lived on the firm ground,’ being realistic can also connote being unimaginative. Again we are invited by the poem to discriminate kinds of reality and degrees of realism.
The sharply self-critical eye that Thomas turns upon his experience and the characteristic movement of poems outward and away from the originating personal conditions of enervation and isolation show that their imaginative centre is not in the personal situation but in the positive emotions the lack of which defines that situation. This is the case I have been arguing. Not only are these positives present as moral landmarks from which the poems take their bearings but also, almost invariably, they are realized in the texture of the verse: sound, rhythm, and tone express attitudes and a temper that implicitly reveal the capacities supposedly lacking. Edna Longley points out that the opening confession of numbness in ‘Tears’ (‘It seems I have no tears left’) is belied by the poem itself, which manifests—Mrs Longley says ‘explores’—a ‘process of emotional and imaginative thaw.’3 The poem seems to acquire energy as it gathers momentum. The evidence of positive feeling in a poem is frequently more pervasive than that. The normative values of ‘Wind and Mist,’ the common life of earth and, further off, of social relationships (life in common), which are established directly by statement—‘the visible earth / Lay too far off beneath and like a cloud’—and dramatically in the neurotic speaker's mode of address, also invigorate the self-mocking language and fortify the resilience made explicit in its conclusion:
I want to admit That I would try the house once more, if I could; As I should like to try being young again.
The tone and language I have in mind are well illustrated by this exchange:
You had a garden Of flint and clay, too.’ ‘True; that was real enough. The flint was the one crop that never failed. The clay first broke my heart, and then my back; And the back heals not.
‘October’ hesitates to label as ‘melancholy’ the mood associated in the poet's mind with the near-suspense of autumn's descent into winter by a spring-like day, but anyone who remembers his first reading of that poem, a reading that failed perhaps to note certain unobtrusive signs, will remember his surprise that the word occurs at all in a poem which registers with such delicate appreciation the fresh life of the scene. The poet's fullness of response does not, in this instance, contradict so much as blend with the discord between him and the natural cycle also reported in the poem. Feeling, toughness, and responsiveness are the qualities resurrected in these three poems. The verse in ‘And You, Helen’ displays a different kind of quality, one rarely remarked in Thomas's poetry yet frequently to be found in it: poise. Poise it is that balances the bantering charm of the conception and the light intimate tone—‘If I could choose / Freely in that great treasure-house / Anything from the shelf’—with the darker implications of what follows, ‘I would give you back yourself,’ and what precedes, ‘all you have lost / Upon the travelling waters tossed, / Or given to me,’ and what the poem ends with:
And myself, too, if I could find Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.
For the light touch with which he handles a subject painful to him and his wife—his own suffering and consequent unkindness to her—is the outward expression of an achieved inner proportion between acknowledgment of and remorse for the wrong inflicted. It is at once the lightness of an accurate mind, which, as it reviews its contemplated gifts, calculates possibilities and measures distinctions, and of a sweet, unselfconscious generosity. I am saying that the light tone and movement reveal not whimsical evasion but a healthy imagination, tempered rather than weakened by its frequent immersions in the cold waters of misery and conflict.
So far I have spoken of Thomas's melancholy and sense of isolation as ever-present ingredients in the mixture of feelings, attitudes, and thoughts of which the poems are composed: they are an important part—I have suggested that they form something like the substructure—of the mind that creates. I am sure that Thomas, too, knew them to be constants of his personality, and yet frequently the situation in a poem is so focused that what we see, or what we see first, is not lack—inadequacy, emotional impoverishment, or the general negative realities of transience and non-existence—but loss. The condition has been given a pseudo-historical or mythic status: something has ‘happened’ to dispossess the poet of emotions and relationships he feels he once had, the loss of which has diminished his humanity. A Thomas poem is often a search or depicts a search for that lost place or state of being or simply, as in ‘And You, Helen,’ his lost self; other poems record ‘moments of everlastingness,’4 which restore to the poet the home, the mental and emotional powers, and the connections with life that cannot be discovered by conscious seeking.
He is intermittently aware that by translating lack into loss he is making a myth of his condition, and is sometimes critical of this activity. The realist in ‘The Chalk Pit,’ impatient with the histrionic fancy of his companion, who would ‘prefer to make a tale’ of the deserted scene and is obliged to imagine dark events to account for its desolation, is there an agent of the author's scepticism. But most of the poems ‘translate’ without apology. Half metaphor, half belief, the myth of dispossession is a way of conveying what is mysteriously inexplicable in Thomas's sense of a personal void, and perhaps could not, otherwise, be expressed. In ‘These Things that Poets Said,’ for example, he wonders whether he has ever loved at all, for now he knows, what as a young man he did not know, that he has never experienced the love described by poets. He may, though, have experienced another kind of love:
Only, that once I loved By this one argument Is very plainly proved: I, loving not, am different.
The mock-logic of this is like the negative proof of God. Being without love, and feeling the pain or dullness of that condition (the understatement echoes Wordsworth's ‘But oh! / The difference to me’), proves its existence; and how can you feel its absence and know it exists unless you have already experienced it? Ergo his lovelessness is a love lost. He does not apologize for such logic, but the almost impudent assurance of manner (‘very plainly’), an assurance that brooks no contradiction, deftly exposes the unwarrantedness of such confidence. Between the condition and its expression lies the mystery of what it is and what has caused it. Thomas makes use of a similar disparity in ‘When We Two Walked.’ The memory of happiness that fills the present void might be a genuine recollection:
And we that were wise live free To recall our happiness then.
But an examination of the preceding stanzas suggests that it equally might not. Here is the first stanza and the beginning of the second:
When we two walked in Lent We imagined that happiness Was something different And this was something less.
But happy were we to hide Our happiness …
With a characteristic teasing of the sense this word-play opens a gap in the logic that admits doubt. It is still not certain that, except by contrast with the present, the early period was a happy one; only that a present unhappiness has called up its opposite and given it a body, a time, and a place. The same process is enacted on a larger scale in ‘Up in the Wind.’ Fragments of information offered piecemeal by the publican's daughter, joined to the poet's speculations, hint a whole representative social history of diminishing community life, to ‘explain,’ we infer, the disconnected living of the present.
The translation of lack into loss is a way of presenting not merely personal and social incapacities but the mystery of existence itself. For this purpose the archetypal myth of dispossession is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which in Jewish and Christian tradition constitutes the Fall of Man and ‘explains’ his condition; a version of it plays its part in ‘Old Man.’ But making a story of it is not the only way: ‘The Chalk Pit’ historicizes the condition but ‘The Hollow Wood,’ while using very similar imagery, does not. Earlier, in pointing to the analogy with a personal barrenness in the descriptions of the two places, I was drawing attention to a latent or concealed significance common to them; I take them to be related images for the ‘desert places’ of the soul. But primarily and overtly these places of half-life or from which life has gone represent something less easy to name: not a personal or human void, though that is included, but a non-life at the core of life, or the non-being that precedes and concludes but underlies and may indeed irrupt into the realm of being. As it were, minute disjunctions in the flow of time, unoccupied spaces within the territory of human activity, where a man may lose himself for a while, they are yet part of the texture of existence, like the spaces between molecules in the composition of matter. Thus the smothered life of ‘dead trees on their knees / In dog's-mercury and moss’ and of ‘ash trees standing ankle-deep in briar / And bramble,’ the remote submerged life of the hollow wood on the one hand, and the ‘emptiness and silence / And stillness’ of the chalk pit on the other, exist apart from the poet, who nevertheless is drawn to the wood's horrors (‘Fish that laugh and shriek,’ ‘trees / That stand half-flayed and dying’) with a shudder of intimate knowledge and in the person of the romantic is ‘haunted’ by the chalk pit because he feels he has been there before and it has some elusive meaning for him. Even the comparison of the poet's feelings, in ‘Beauty,’ to ‘a river / At fall of evening while it seems that never / Has the sun lighted it or warmed it,’ though in form analogical, in effect assigns the human mood to a non-human source, to a dark sunken area of being, eternally unvisited by the sun.
A sense of loss principally motivates the exploration undertaken in ‘Old Man’; it is, since Leavis wrote about it in New Bearings in English Poetry, Thomas's best-known as well as most far-reaching treatment of that theme. Moving from reflections on the herb and its names, Old Man and Lad's-love, to a description of his daughter plucking feathers of it from the door-side bush and absent-mindedly sniffing her fingers, the poem reaches its experiential centre with the admission, ‘As for myself, / Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.’ The loss is a failure of memory. Its significance is first of all personal:
I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one.
Where an act of memory recovers meaning, meaning is the restoration of continuity between present and past selves and the self-understanding that accrues; the drive to remember is the drive to integrate personal experience. But why should this particular scent, the ‘bitter’ scent of this particular herb with these names, rather than another, be the one to compel this irresistible, all-expectant curiosity? The plant itself—the bitterness of its scent and the contradiction of its names—not merely the memories it stirs, is the meaning. A search with such slight promptings, the failure of which, nevertheless, leads to ‘an avenue, dark, nameless, without end,’ hopes to discover more than a personal continuity. ‘Wind and Mist’ gives a hint of what this might be. ‘My past and the past of the world were in the wind,’ says the former occupant of the unhappy house at Wick Green, trying to convey the absoluteness of the wind's rule, the winds of violent impulse that seized his mind. The ‘past of the world’ is also in the scent of Old Man (or Lad's-love). The question is not merely ‘what in my past does this scent recall?’ but ‘what in the world's past does the unlikeable but haunting bitterness of this herb's scent evoke?’ Like its names, Thomas's description of it—‘The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree’—makes it both old and young at once: hoary with age, green with fresh, eager, delicate youth. It is the bitter essence of life itself. But its significance extends even further than that. Thomas is not ‘playing possum,’ as C. Day Lewis suggests, when he says that ‘the names / Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is’ and ‘what that is clings not to the names’; the ‘thing it is’ includes all life in time and, insofar as it does that, is reflected in the names, but expands beyond it. ‘In the name there's nothing’—so the first line ends; the eye and the voice hesitate for a fraction of a second before continuing into the next—‘To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man.’ ‘Nothing’ is repeated another three times: the child shredding the tips of the herb on to the path is ‘perhaps / Thinking, perhaps of nothing,’ and the last eight lines, beginning with two more ‘nothing's, form a crescendo of negatives:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
At each repetition the word becomes more absolute; ‘nothing’ grows substantial as nothingness, and after the barrage of ‘no's, ‘neither,’ and ‘nor's, the last line, without them, though defining a negative condition, also seems to present us with something paradoxically substantial. In the Lord's Prayer God the Father reigns ‘for ever and ever, world without end’ in a positive eternity; there seems no other way of identifying the state conjured by Thomas than as a negative eternity (‘nothing … without end’). Here lack almost discards its negative implications. Failure to identify an elusive sensation is, finally, a minor episode in a poem of larger ambition and achievement. A pursuit that brings the poet to the threshold of the inexpressible can be labelled neither failure nor success; the divisions between them collapse. Though nothing is found and the journey ends in darkness, for once it was not ‘in vain’ (though he says it was); for the darkness is also the source of being where life and non-life dissolve into each other.
Although the poem opens with some tentatively exploratory general remarks about the herb and its names, the immediate stimulus for the self-examination and the metaphysical ponderings of the last fifteen lines is not that but the sight of his daughter picking flowers of it from the door-side bush. Without the child's presence and the poet's attempt to penetrate her mind the poem would lack a perspective. We half perceive the experience through her eyes before we see it through his. In prospective imagination we follow the track of her adult memory back to its source in the scene that we are actually witnessing:
Not a word she says; And I can only wonder how much hereafter She will remember, with that bitter scent, Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door, A low thick bush beside the door, and me Forbidding her to pick.
Our eyes first take in the general view, pause at the damson trees that mark the boundaries of the garden, then travel in from the garden hedge, curving along the path, to the door and, reaching their destination, the bush of Old Man beside the door, with a motion and a syntax that mimics the homing of memory on what it seeks. Whether the child will, in fact, remember nothing or something or all of this scene, the poet apparently holds the ‘key’ he claims he has ‘mislaid,’ the key that by pinpointing time and place unlocks the ‘meaning’ of the scent. For if some such episode will explain whatever puzzlement lingers in the mind of his daughter as years hence she reminates the associations of the herb's scent, conceivably then, as he could provide the key for her, so some other person similarly placed could remove the darkness from his own memory. Such logic, by confining meaning to the personal and draining all metaphysical significance out of the poem, would, of course, make nonsense of it. Yet, since the accounts are made parallel to invite comparison, the logic would be unavoidable if indeed they were comparable only at the level of personal memory. But they are not. I omitted from my paraphrase the very last item in the list, the father ‘Forbidding her to pick,’ which is the ultimate destination of the mind's journey back towards the source of memory. Even without this feature the selection and composition of the other features persuade us to see more here than a cottage garden: not only the arrangement but certain words and phrases such as ‘ancient’ and ‘bent path,’ and the way each item—an effect of rhythm, I think—slots into place, in combination, evoke a pastoral archetype, the sort that might have been the subject of a Samuel Palmer etching. The unexpected appearance at the end, however, of the poet as a harsh, admonitory father figure gives a jolt to the pieces of the picture, which then reform as a primal scene, recalling in particular the Garden of Eden, God's prohibition, and the picking of the forbidden fruit in Genesis. The arrival at a definite place and the discovery of a name for what memory has been seeking, the Fall, though it is a racial rather than a personal memory, may still seem a flat contradiction of the negative eternity that opens out before the poet's own search for a meaning. But this is not so. There is a darkness implicit in the mythical scene too; it stretches behind the father, the ‘me’ that stands sentry at the end of that line blocking passage to what is beyond. The mystery of the prohibition is untouched, the meaning and origin of a bitterness already there in the Garden still unknown. The myth makes a story of us—gives expression to the mixed emotions, the wonder and the fear, that we feel about our ‘fallen’ condition, but does not ‘explain’ it. What we finally remember is that the child, as she sniffs, perhaps thinks of nothing (already) and may years later merely repeat that experience; in this, like her father, she would ‘see and … hear nothing,’ glimpsing the same endless inhuman void.
It is but a short step from this presentment of lack that has ceased to indicate personal limitation to a poem like ‘Lights Out,’ that welcomes, or accepts, its dominion. Where ‘the unknown’ commands and ‘all must lose / Their way … soon or late,’ it behoves the individual to go out and meet it. The self he has lost and would, if found, give to Helen (‘And You, Helen’) he now seeks to lose.
There is not any book Or face of dearest look That I would not turn from now To go into the unknown … Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.
All quotations are from Poems and Last Poems, ed. Edna Longley (London: Collins 1973). This is a chronological re-arrangement of Poems (1917) and Last Poems (1918), omitting the six poems that were collected later. It is an excellent edition, comprehensively and interestingly annotated.
Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (London: Oxford University Press 1958), p. 13.
Poems and Last Poems, p. 189.
The phrase is from ‘The Other,’ stanza 9.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4442
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 immediately in terms of style, but with a similar sense of the organic process that makes death and life seem inherent in all seasons, Thomas also suggests Keats when in ‘The Thrush’, for example, the bird's song heard in November prompts reflections on its associations with April. The bird loses itself in the unconscious spontaneity of the present season, but the poet must recognise, and accept, the complexity of change:
But I know the months all, And their sweet names, April, May and June and October, As you call and call
I must remember What died into April And consider what will be born Of a fair November;
And April I love for what It was born of, and November For what it will die in, What they are and what they are not.
The kinship with Hardy is obvious in the sonnet, ‘February Afternoon’, which broods on both the permanent rhythms of nature and the incorrigible human appetite for war, and ends with a very Hardyan divine indifference:
And God still sits aloft in the array That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.
And in ‘The New House’ Hardy's sense of the interaction of past, present and future is echoed when the new occupier enters his dwelling and immediately hears the moaning of the wind, which foretells
Nights of storm, days of mist, without end; Sad days when the sun Shone in vain: old griefs, and griefs Not yet begun.
Yet Thomas has his own voice. Both sets of echoes combine in him to reinforce that distinctive self-consciousness which is both a torment to him and the source of his own peculiarly tentative awareness of the tragic. The melancholy which is so persistent a feature of his poetry has the lush quality of Keats', and the bleak disillusion of Hardy's, but it is constantly undermined by self-analysis and self-doubt which make him question its validity. He shares their vision, but distrusts the rhetorical means that are available to him to express it. In particular, he is aware of himself as an alien (and here he may owe something to the Hardy of ‘In Tenebris ii’) in a society that welcomes extrovert energy and success, but has little time for the ‘unreasonable’ despondency of a sensitivity such as his. He is unable, however, to respond to hostility with hostility. The openness of his mind makes him half-concede the criticism directed against him—indeed, it is criticism which originates as much from within as from without. At the same time his alternative vision is unremittingly present to his imagination, and insists on creating its own world. The only way to resolve his problem, therefore, is to include the terms of his dilemma within the poetry itself, reconciling denial and affirmation in a form that allows both.
This is what he does in ‘Aspens’. It is a poem about the nature of his own imagination. The aspens are himself, as he confirms in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon: ‘About “Aspens” you missed just the turn that I thought essential. I was the aspen. “We” meant the trees and I with my dejected shyness.’2 The aspens at the crossroads ‘talk together / Of rain’, their soft, insistent whispering sound, suggestive of the insidious gossip of village women, in seemingly timorous contrast to the ringing, roaring noise of smithy and inn, which represents the boisterous, busy life of the community. But for all the loudness of this competition, ‘The whisper of the aspens is not drowned’. It has power to call up a ghostly alternative, ‘silent’ smithy and inn; and in certain conditions of darkness and mystery (that, again, have Keatsian overtones)—
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom, In tempest or the night of nightingales—
it can turn even the crossroads ‘to a ghostly room’. As he makes this claim, which is an affirmation of the introspective poet's vision of a shadow side which social man prefers to ignore, his belief gathers strength, and leads, in the fifth stanza, to a seemingly confident assertion of creative power:
And it would be the same were no house near. Over all sorts of weather, men, and times, Aspens must shake their leaves.
Characteristically, however, Thomas seems to become diffident in mid-sentence, and withdraws authority from the aspens, concluding with
and men may hear But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
The final stanza continues this undercutting:
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.
This seems to reduce the poet's vision to a compulsively irrational melancholy that can, after all, be dismissed by the more commonsense, daylight mind; but there is yet again a check in the closing line. ‘Or so men think who like a different tree’ reopens the possibility that the aspen vision may be valid, and even hints that rejection on the ground that its grief is unreasonable may itself be the product of fearful clinging to the social world of inn and smithy lest the ‘ghostly’ alternative take hold.
The fluctuating syntax of ‘Aspens’ thus has the effect of conceding the doubtful status of the poet's vision without yielding to the opposition it encounters. The melancholy menace of the aspens still persists in its disturbing challenge, but allowance is made for the possibility that it may be, as the remark to Eleanor Farjeon suggests, the consequence only of ‘dejected shyness’. Such hesitancy is inseparable from the honesty with which Thomas tries to face his experience. He does not, of course, always achieve it. He sometimes slips into a sentimental view of death, as in ‘The Child on the Cliff’; and sometimes he reverts, impressively, but archaically, to a more traditionally tragic-rhetorical posture, as in ‘The Gallows’. But these are exceptional in their lack of self-critical tentativeness. More often, even when his mood is bleakly pessimistic, he discounts his own attitude, or introduces some other view to balance it. In ‘Digging [I]’, for example, where the major theme is the deathliness of autumn scents, he also includes a bonfire which
burns The dead, the waste, the dangerous, And all to sweetness turns—
as well as a robin singing ‘Sad songs of Autumn mirth’. In ‘The Owl’ also, though the bird's ‘most melancholy cry’ echoes the poet's hunger and weariness after a day straining against a cold North wind, it heightens his enjoyment of food and rest, and deepens his feeling for those who suffer more than he—a double effect which is concentrated in the double meaning of ‘salted’:
And salted was my food, and my repose, Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice Speaking for all who lay under the stars, Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
It is this more complex, mixed state of consciousness that gives Thomas' tragic lyrics their distinctive quality. It is present even in a poem like ‘Rain’, which, in its opening lines, seems to evoke complete despair:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me Remembering again that I shall die.
By itself this is a powerful, but narrowly exclusive beginning, over-insistent on the dark, wild downpour of rain and the isolated self-consciousness of the poet. However, to separate this from what follows is to distort the poem—though in a way that the verse seems to dictate, since the third line has the air of completing a statement and a cadence that falls to rest on the final ‘die’ (intensified by its internal rhyme with ‘I’). But the sentence is not in fact complete. ‘I’ is also the subject in the next line of the verbs ‘hear’ and ‘give’, and the sentence gains a new momentum which carries it through to the end of the sixth line:
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks For washing me cleaner than I have been Since I was born into this solitude.
The brooding awareness of mortality continues with the negativing of these verbs; the poet is conscious that the time will inevitably come when he will not hear and not be able to give thanks. But simultaneously he suggests that in the present he does hear and does give thanks for a kind of purification that he receives from the rain. Moreover, the ultimate completion of the sentence by the word ‘solitude’ has the effect of qualifying the isolation which that word had conveyed in line 2. It seems a wiser, perhaps less lonely, form of solitude than it was before. At the very least, something has happened to mitigate its bleakness. This change makes the next line, which might otherwise seem a totally unjustified leap, more acceptable. Rain, the purifying agent, rather than the obliterating downpour, is, presumably, the force warranting the beatitude of ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’; and the sense of ‘cleaner’ (in ‘washing me cleaner’) perhaps carries over to the dead also, suggesting that they are washed free of guilt. On the other hand, their condition of blessedness may be simply their unconsciousness, which allows the rain merely to rain upon them without the tragic overtones it has for the poet in the opening lines. The tragic state is essentially one of consciousness of suffering, with which the poet identifies himself as if it were his own, but which also transcends the personal to become a sense of the human condition. With Thomas, in this poem, it takes the form of a recognition of the cleanness and simplicity of the dead, balanced, however, by a prayer that none whom he once loved may experience the same lacerating solitude. His own anguish is the means by which he enters the tragic state; but it remains a private state in that it is achieved through identification with others who are linked to him by personal feeling:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved Is dying tonight or lying still awake Solitary, listening to the rain, Either in pain or thus in sympathy Helpless among the living and the dead.
Again, the pause at ‘dead’ creates an illusion of completion, which, however, is only temporary, for the sentence continues with two comparisons which first generalise, and then once more personalise, the experience. The first of these reaches tragic impersonality by imaging the consciousness of destroyed lives in a chillingly immediate form which also makes it part of the natural landscape:
Like a cold water among broken reeds, Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff.
The second seems to maintain the generalised momentum by using the same formula, ‘Like’, but swings back to the poet and his initial emphasis on the desolating rain:
Like me who have no love which this wild rain Has not dissolved except the love of death, If love it be towards what is perfect and Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Death unmitigated by any Christian or other religious consolation has a finality which in the absolute, tragic state of ‘the tempest’ is both end and consummation. It is the only ultimately illusion-free release, and Thomas seems to be accepting this with stoic resignation. There remains, however, the final addition to the sentence, in the clause beginning ‘If’. This also recognises the coldness of such perfection and its incompatibility with the personal anguish and sympathy evoked in the body of the poem. It thus keeps another kind of feeling alive; without explicitly contradicting the poet's claim that he has no love which the wild rain has not dissolved, the final clause qualifies its title to the word ‘love’, and so tacitly pleads the case for a warmer, more human, kind of love.
Such love is always focussed on the imperfect. It is aroused by suffering and the desolating feeling that the consciousness of mortality entails, but it cannot be satisfied with the exclusiveness of tragedy. Thus in ‘Liberty’ Thomas entertains the idea of a freedom from blighting self-consciousness, only to reject it in favour of a Keatsian preference for ‘pain’ (in the process somewhat altering the import of the phrase he borrows from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’); but then modifies ‘pain’ still further to include ‘both tears and mirth’:
And yet I still am half in love with pain, With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth, With things that have an end, with life and earth, And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
Above all, love rejects the superficiality that goes with mere liking. If it goes beyond tragedy, it is not because it refuses the dark, lacerating involvement, but because it follows the lead of a wider commitment. In ‘Roads’, for example, Thomas begins by saying ‘I love roads’, and he recognises that, in the tragic time of war in which he is writing, ‘all roads lead to France / And heavy is the tread / Of the living’. Yet the roads pre-exist, and outlast, the individual man's consciousness, and maintain a life for the dead which enables them to keep the poet company and populate his solitude. The men ‘who like a different tree’ in ‘Aspens’ may have reason on their side, but they would be incapable of such a vision.
In ‘Old Man’ this distinction between liking and loving is of crucial importance. Artemisia abrotanum, or southernwood, has various names including those with which the poem opens, ‘Old Man, or Lad's-love’, and these names the poet says, ‘I like’; and yet, paradoxically,
The herb itself I like not, but for certain I love it, as some day the child will love it Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
The whole poem is one which involves a process of meditative discrimination, rather than logical distinction, between what is loved and what is merely liked. The child's ‘snipping the tips and shrivelling / The shreds’ of the shrub—which she does in an absent-minded way that the drifting syntax admirably echoes—releases the ‘bitter scent’; and, as attention passes back from the child to the adult, it is this ‘bitter scent’ which provides a teasing continuity:
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain.
Although memory is defeated, the impulse given by the ‘bitter scent’ is so strong that the discrimination previously made between liking and loving swells up again in another shape:
I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one.
Liking appears to be superseded by the deeper compulsion of love, which has already been declared in the second paragraph, and which the child is subconsciously in the process of acquiring; and it is this compulsion that takes over in the final paragraph, immersing the poet in an overwhelming sense of loss:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
If what is lost were more precisely identified, the poem might well be less hauntingly resonant than it is. This is the shadow side of consciousness hinted at in ‘Aspens’, where liking and reasonableness are irrelevant. It is a submerged area where the sharpest anguish has its source, and approachable not by will, but only by the groping, half-baffled pursuit of the ‘bitter scent’, which is the compulsive effect of love.
The goal to which love finally draws the poet in ‘Old Man’ is a dark, negative, but inexplicably potent, world; and in many of Thomas' poems there is a similar dark world complementary to, and often quietly dominating, consciousness. His most frequent symbol for this is the forest. In ‘The Green Roads’ it is the forest in which the green roads end, and where one dead oak ‘in the middle deep’ seems to brood over the rest of the trees. In ‘The Dark Forest’ it is almost ‘a too obvious metaphor’, as Thomas himself realised,3 making the opposition between the flowers of the forest and those of ‘outside’ uncharacteristically rigid:
Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet The others, day or night.
More typical is his use of the forest in ‘The Other’. It begins: ‘The forest ended.’ The speaker, emerging from the forest, is happy to reach the light and hear bees, and smell grass
because I had come To an end of forest, and because Here was both road and inn, the sum Of what's not forest.
But he immediately encounters people who ask if he passed that way the day before, and the refreshing sense of release expressed in the opening lines gives way to huddled cross-questioning (‘“Not you? Queer.” / “Who then? and slept here?”’) which ends abruptly with: ‘I felt fear.’ From here on, as Andrew Motion comments, ‘Thomas reverses the roles usually allotted to self and image’, acting as ‘the pursuer rather than the pursued’,4 until his search for the man resembling himself leads to his entering an inn where the man loudly asks for him. For a moment their roles seem to revert to their traditional order, as the speaker is reproached by his quarry, but says nothing, and slips away. The previous pursuit is renewed in the final lines, but with the speaker now more cautious: ‘I steal out of the wood to light’; and the final state of the relationship is summed up in an abrupt, uneasy closing couplet:
He goes: I follow: no release Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.
The speaker's initial emergence from the wood, when looked at retrospectively from the end of the poem, is recognised as misguidedly ‘glad’. The darkness cannot be escaped; it must either pursue, or be pursued, in a continuous process that can only end with death. This clearly gives scope for a Jungian interpretation in terms of the interdependence of self and shadow-self; but, as so often with Thomas, the poem resists any one meaning. Its wandering search and awkward, almost unsociable, social encounters enact the tormented uncertainty of the speaker with regard to his relationship with his other self, and that in turn is reflected in his feelings towards darkness and the wood. There is one particularly powerful section (lines 61-90), just before his encounter with his ‘man’ at the inn, which seems to offer reassurance and serenity:
I stood serene, And with a solemn quiet mirth, An old inhabitant of earth.
With an echo of Vaughan, he says that such times once seemed to him ‘Moments of everlastingness’, as if he had recovered a lost paradise of integrated consciousness. But they were essentially unstable, dependent on a spontaneity that had to be unaware of itself:
And fortunate my search was then While what I sought, nevertheless, That I was seeking, I did not guess.
The very awkwardness of the syntax brings them down to earth, and in the next paragraph the speaker is back to what is the norm for this poem—the baffling search, which, even when it leads to a meeting, ends in nothing but reversal of roles and inarticulacy:
what had I got to say? I said nothing. I slipped away.
‘The Other’ is concerned with the inherent instability of consciousness. The only real release from it is death: ‘no release / Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.’ In the most tragic of Thomas' poems, ‘Lights Out’, that release becomes the central issue. He no longer vacillates. The forest is not an ambiguous alternative to daylight consciousness, but the final extinction of consciousness which is universal and inevitable:
I have come to the borders of sleep, The unfathomable deep Forest, where all must lose Their way, however straight Or winding, soon or late; They can not choose.
It is the end of deception and of love, and of the opposites of despair and ambition, pleasure and trouble, whether ‘sweet or bitter’. The speaker is willing to give up what is dearest to him for the sake of it; and, finally, he welcomes its obliteration of his self-consciousness.
‘Lights Out’ is thus one of the most direct of Thomas' poems, presenting the dark of the forest as a welcome relief from the uncertainties which torment him. It may easily be mistaken for the expression of a suicidal death-wish, but its date, November 1916, and its title remind us—though it must be admitted that there is nothing in the text that otherwise would tell us—that this is a war poem. The death he accepts is not to be self-inflicted. He does not mention fighting, much less his reasons for taking part in it (though that is done in one of the most thoughtful of poems to come out of the First World War, ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’). The poem simply takes the necessity for it, and its inevitable consequence, as granted, fusing his private situation with the universal inevitability of death. In this way what is a usually evaded reality is faced, and not only accepted in the knowledge that there is no alternative, but also embraced for what it can, and will, give. The strength of the poem is that, without undervaluing in a contemptus mundi spirit the things it recognises as bound to be lost, it can contemplate their loss in a positive manner. In an age of faith his acceptance might well have taken the form of accepting death as God's will; but for Thomas this becomes the secularised, though still religiously charged, image of the ‘tall forest’, of whose ominous dominion he can say:
Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.
This echoes the first stanza, but with a difference. There losing one's way was part of a stoical acceptance of death; here obedience to the forest's commanding silence is accepted as a means to the end of losing both ‘my way’ and ‘myself’. Loss is envisaged as potential gain. There is a sense of direction rather than mere capitulation. But, equally, there is no triumph, or even consolation as such. Death remains a form of losing.
In the best known of Thomas' war poems, ‘As the team's head brass’, there is more willingness to balance loss and gain; and the symbol of the wood is still further varied in meaning. At the beginning a pair of lovers disappear into the wood, and they reappear four lines from the end. In between the plough moves rhythmically back and forth from the wood, thus associated with love and creativity, to the lonely and more ominous figure of the soldier-poet sitting on a fallen elm, ‘by a woodpecker's round hole’. Each time the ploughman reaches the poet's end of the field he pauses for conversation—starting with the elm which was blown down in a blizzard and is not likely to be moved till the war is over; next touching on the poet's own chances of being killed or wounded, and mentioning the death of the ploughman's mate in France, ‘back in March, / The very night of the blizzard’; and finally commenting that all would have been different were it not for the war.
The scene and the dialogue are ordinary and familiar, almost to the point of banality, and yet they slowly build up a counterpoint of creation and destruction. For example, though the poet sits in its ‘crest’, the tree is dead, and the ‘blizzard’ which felled it is also equated with the war that killed the ploughman's mate. It thus contrasts with the wood of the lovers; but also, because of the woodpecker's hole, it has a kind of link with them. The very movement of the plough further echoes this suggestion of sexual procreation; while its ‘narrowing a yellow square / Of charlock’, together with the flashing of the brass, have both positive and negative implications.
Thomas himself is more detached in this poem that in ‘Lights Out’—more able to balance the continuity of life against the discontinuity of war, and even ready to joke about his own chances of survival:
I could spare an arm. I shouldn't want to lose A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so, I should want nothing more.
And there is even the muted optimism of the ploughman's ‘If we could see all all might seem good’ (though it is only thrown in as a concession to conventional wisdom, which itself seems to be under threat). To this extent, ‘As the team's head brass’ is not a tragic poem, but a poem which sets tragedy in the wider context of nature's continual destruction and renewal. What it does not do, however, is to offer the prospect of renewal as an ultimate answer to destruction. The two processes seem to go on side by side, as they do in the final lines of the poem, where the lovers come out of the wood, and the horses begin their last stumbling movement along the furrows. They are held together in the poet's consciousness, but are not seen as parts of a meaningful overall design that reconciles him to his condition. If anything, the continuity of nature heightens his sense of isolation; the fact that the lovers move in and out of the wood so easily becomes merely an ironic comment on his own vulnerability as he sits ‘among the boughs of the fallen elm’. His only resource is the creation of the poem itself, with its honest recognition of both the tragic and non-tragic elements in his situation. In this way he achieves a view that is free from the narrowness of self-consciousness, but also does justice to the pain which self-consciousness unavoidably generates.
All quotations from Thomas' poems are from The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, ed. R. George Thomas (Oxford, 1978).
Quoted ibid., p. 402.
Ibid., p. 417.
Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas (London, 1980) p. 39.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6894
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 with the Georgians, whom Leavis viewed as backward-looking. Thomas, it was argued, was ‘a very original poet who devoted great technical subtlety to the expression of a distinctively modern sensibility.’1 The specific comparison Leavis suggested was with Hardy. The latter, according to Leavis in 1932, ‘is now seen to be truly a Victorian—a Victorian in his very pessimism, which implies positives and assurances that have vanished. He inhabits a solid world, with the earth firm under his feet.’2 Thomas, by contrast, is concerned with ‘the finer texture of living, the here and now, the ordinary moments, in which for him the “meaning” (if any) resides. It is as if he were trying to catch some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly.’3 Hardy had not ‘impinged’ upon the poetic situation of his day, Leavis argued, because ‘the stresses incident to the most sensitive and aware had shifted and altered’ from those which Hardy records to those by which Thomas gave voice to ‘the modern disintegration, the sense of directionlessness.’4 Thus Thomas was said to be ‘exquisitely sincere and sensitive, and … succeeded in expressing in poetry a representative modern sensibility.’5 It was with respect to this, Thomas's modernity, that my supervisor disagreed with Leavis. As far as he was concerned, Thomas was merely another Georgian.
Leavis had concluded his few paragraphs on Thomas by saying that he was a poet who had not yet received his due. At that time, this was true. Thomas was not, for example, one of the poets listed by Graves in Goodbye to All That as significant losses in the War.6 Graves, associated as he was with Sir Edward Marsh's anthologies of Georgian Poetry, must certainly have known of Thomas's existence. His implied critical judgment is all the more curious if one considers the way in which Thomas's reputation has grown since his death. The effort that virtually all Thomas's admirers have put forth on his behalf has consisted in large part in distinguishing him from the Georgians—much as Graves himself has downplayed his own Georgian involvement. Leavis, for example, said that ‘only a superficial classification could associate him with Mr Blunden, or with the Georgians at all.’7 Similarly, R. S. Thomas: ‘Much of his surface material is the same as the Georgians; but his treatment of it was different.’8
Despite the fact that none of his poems appeared in any of the five volumes of Georgian Poetry published between 1912 and 1922, Thomas was closely associated with the Georgian movement. To say this is not only to note (‘superficial classification’) that he was on terms of friendship with Abercrombie, Bottomley, and W. H. Davies, all of whom were repeatedly represented in Marsh's selections of new verse, but also to suggest that his poetry is deeply involved with the ideals and attitudes of at least some of the Georgian poets. R. George Thomas, who has provided the authoritative text of the poems, comments in his Introduction that the ‘urgency’ of the later poems ‘reflects the fierce honesty with which he used verse writing to uncover the doubts as well as the certainties in his make-up.’9 It is not a quibble to question R. George Thomas's use of words here. While all readers of the poems would agree that the word ‘honesty’ points to a quality that is essential to Thomas's work, to call the poems ‘urgent’ or ‘fierce’ is misleading. Among the Georgians, Lawrence, Bottomley, or Abercrombie would far more accurately be described by these terms. Thomas's editor has not described the poetry in this way mistakenly or from simple critical naïvety. Rather, he uses these terms to pre-empt the charge that Thomas was in some sense a ‘weak’ character. He wishes, that is, to insist that his poet possesses a hard centre. But however much one may sympathize with this desire to free Thomas from the charge of ‘weakness,’ one cannot help thinking that his editor has gone about it in the wrong way. Thomas is neither ‘urgent’ nor ‘fierce’: it is precisely because he is not that his poetry stands out from that of several of the other Georgians. It is the qualities of tentativeness and hesitation that both make his poetry ‘modern’ in Leavis's sense of the word and also make us want to call it ‘honest.’ These qualities, once fully recognized, put Thomas, moreover, in a line of poetic endeavour that includes not only Frost and the later ‘Horatian’ Auden, but also Charles Tomlinson and, in America, George Oppen and Elizabeth Bishop. What ought to be striking about all these poets is that they challenge the critical presupposition that would make ‘fierceness’ and ‘urgency’ categories which necessarily measure excellence in poetry.
There is likely to be some confusion here. The word ‘Georgian’ in literary criticism usually means something different from the shocking realism of Abercrombie and Bottomley, the psychological adventuring of Lawrence, and the satiric war poems of Graves and Sassoon. All these poets might, in their various ways, be called ‘fierce’ and ‘urgent,’ and it is these poets whose work is most striking in the first two volumes of Georgian Poetry. In using the word ‘Georgian,’ however, most literary criticism ignores this element of the group in favour of the limp, sentimental pastoral that gives the impression of having been composed by an urban dweller inspired by his weekend in the countryside. This kind of poetry is to be found in all of the anthologies, but comes to dominate only in the last two, post-war volumes. It is in this woolly pastoral that we find Thomas's beginnings.
One of the recurring motifs in Georgian poetry that manifests sentimental pastoralizing is the figure of what we might call the countryman, though not the countryman as we find him in Hardy. Tramps, gypsies, and wayfarers who serve as images of a way of life attractive to the Georgian poet but, equally, a way of life which the poet does not himself lead are characteristic of one strand of Georgianism. These figures are treated typically with just that idealizing sentimentality that the word ‘Georgian’ has come to denote. Here is a representative example by Ralph Hodgson.
‘Come, try your skill, kind gentlemen, A penny for three tries!’ Some threw and lost, some threw and won A ten-a-penny prize.
She was a tawny gipsy girl, A girl of twenty years, I liked her for the lumps of gold That jingled from her ears;
I liked the flaring yellow scarf Bound loose about her throat, I liked her showy purple gown And flashy velvet coat.
A man came up, too loose of tongue, And said no good to her; She did not blush as Saxons do, Or turn upon the cur;
She fawned and whined ‘Sweet gentleman, A penny for three tries!’ —But oh, the den of wild things in The darkness of her eyes!(10)
Such idealized country figures are also to be found in some of Thomas's poems. ‘The Gypsy,’ for example, tells of a meeting with a gypsy woman who begs from the poet a pipeful of tobacco. He is moved by this woman's ‘grace / And impudence in rags,’ and wishes that he had been able to reimburse her for these qualities more adequately before she went off. Thomas's tone here incorporates a humorous element which initially suggests a level of self-consciousness alien to Hodgson's poem. When, for example, the woman first begs of him ‘Give a penny / For the baby's sake,’ Thomas's reply echoes a familiar children's song: ‘Indeed I have not any. …’ This element is not sustained, however, as he continues:
And I paid nothing then, As I pay nothing now with the dipping of my pen For her brother's music when he drummed the tambourine And stamped his feet, which made the workmen passing grin, While his mouth-organ changed to a rascally Bacchanal dance ‘Over the hills and far away’. This and his glance Outlasted all the fair, farmer and auctioneer, Cheap-jack, balloon-man, drover with crooked stick, and steer.
(CP [Collected Poems], 99)
The crucial image here, as in a number of Thomas's poems, is presented without comment. The gypsy's music and glance are clearly significant, constituting the climax of the poem, if a style so understated can be said to have climaxes. This presentation of meaning through implication and intuition is characteristic of Thomas. ‘The Unknown Bird’ (CP, 85) treats bird song in a similar manner. ‘Head and Bottle’ (CP, 175) presents another version of a gypsy, as does ‘The Huxter’ (CP, 183):
… the huxter has a bottle of beer; He drives his cart and his wife sits near Who does not heed his lack or his hump; And they laugh as down the lane they bump This fine May morning.
‘The Penny Whistle’ (CP, 65) is another instance.
The charcoal-burners are black, but their linen Blows white on the line; And white the letter the girl is reading Under that crescent fine;
And her brother who hides apart in a thicket, Slowly and surely playing On a whistle an olden nursery melody, Says far more than I am saying.
Although none of the above-quoted poems can be claimed to be among Thomas's best, the method they employ does on occasion produce great poetry. ‘Old Man’ (CP, 19) clearly justifies Thomas's indirect approach. But in the above poems, granting the more engaging form of address, the subject matter is the same as that which we find in Georgian poems. Rural characters are presented who stand over against deadening urban and commercial values. Setting Thomas's ‘The Gypsy’ beside Hodgson's ‘The Gipsy Girl’ makes clear that Thomas is much the better poet even in his weaker poems. It is, for example, difficult to imagine him writing ‘I liked her for the lumps of gold / That jingled from her ears.’ Nonetheless, the relationship between both poets and their subjects is strikingly similar. Both poets, in their respective poems, are tellingly addressed by the gypsy women as ‘gentlemen,’ marking the social distinction and pointing the distance between the persona and his subject. This distance is one which encourages sentimentality: a one-dimensional view of such rural characters as ‘impudent,’ ‘graceful,’ ‘rascally’ is given that is incommensurate with the emotions these characters are employed to evoke in the poems. That Hodgson's gypsy is beyond his reach is clear, if not from the emotional tenor of his poem as a whole, then certainly from the final two lines, a banal echoing of the conclusion of Wordsworth's ‘She Dwelt among Untrodden Ways.’ The conclusion of Thomas's poem is altogether more dense and mysterious.
Not even the kneeling ox had eyes like the Romany. That night he peopled for me the hollow wooded land, More dark and wild than stormiest heavens, that I searched and scanned Like a ghost new-arrived. The gradations of the dark Were like an underworld of death, but for the spark In the Gypsy boy's black eyes as he played and stamped his tune, ‘Over the hills and far away’, and a crescent moon.
This is a level of writing we should not expect from many of the Georgian pastoralists; and yet we also see within the more dense and suggestive atmosphere of Thomas's poems that his gypsy, his huxter, or his charcoal burners possess a creative vitality that the poet himself lacks. The gypsy ‘peopled’ the ‘hollow wood’ where the poet stands like a ‘ghost new-arrived.’ The gypsy ‘played and stamped’ with easy spontaneity while the poet ‘searched and scanned.’ Both Thomas and Hodgson, it is pertinent to note, attempt to convey what the gypsies mean to them by referring to their eyes, the traditional doorway to the soul. But in both cases, the gypsies are presented with insufficient complexity to make this reference more than a gesture towards mystery. In his better poems, Thomas presents his rural characters with greater precision to serve more complex ends. They cease to be external figures embodying unconventional vitality as they are transformed by Thomas's bringing to bear upon them a broader range of emotion and intellect so that they become not merely external figures observed by the poet but part of the inner landscape of Thomas's poetic reality. In his weaker poems, Thomas is a spectator of his images of rural life. Such observation from a distance of carefree rural characters containing within themselves the essential spark of life, seen and appreciated but not possessed by the poet, is characteristic of Georgian pastoral.11 Thomas's gypsies and his huxter stand outside and over against the inner landscape of the poet just as Hodgson's gypsy does. This is decidely not the case with the ambiguously reverberating image in ‘Old Man’ of the bitter odour of the herb. For all its mystery and its untranslatable reality, we share in the poet's emotion as we do not in ‘The Huxter.’ The melodies of Thomas's gypsies, by comparison, are, because external, too easily offered: they are sentimental counters of the carefree life ‘wild and free,’ as Thomas puts it elsewhere, used to indicate the poet's consciousness of his own nullity in relation to his own pastoral ideal. These poems are interesting chiefly because they help to fill in the background to the better poems. They show us, that is, the kind of difficulties that Thomas overcame in his best poetry by indicating the degree to which he was drawn to the ultimately disengaged pastoral of escape commonly taken to be the sum total of Georgian poetics.
In his better poems centring on rural characters, Thomas wrestles with two versions of life in the countryside: the life of the solitary, on the one hand, and a life governed by social values and attitudes, on the other. This second version of life in the countryside sometimes enters the poems because, for Thomas, this was the form his understanding of the national character took. To assure ourselves of this we need only look at ‘Lob’ (CP, 159), a much-anthologized poem. ‘Lob’ is remarkable as an evocation of rural England and the culture that produced wonderfully suggestive names for common plants, place names, and adages such as are catalogued in the poem. As an evocation of an aspect of the rural past, this poem is satisfactory. But it is not an altogether characteristic Thomas poem—which, one suspects, is the reason for its being so often anthologized. The poem begins by placing us in an atmosphere similar to that which we find in ‘Old Man’:
At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling In search of something chance would never bring, An old man's face, by life and weather cut And coloured,—rough, brown, sweet as any nut,— A land face, sea-blue-eyed,—hung in my mind When I had left him many a mile behind.
Searching for the once known is a posture Thomas often adopts, and we feel the hauntedness of this stance in many other poems. Here the poem seems promising because the owner of this particular remembered face does not appear to be an idealized countryman, a gypsy or huxter, but their irascible cousin who has little patience for the melancholy persona of the poem.
All he said was: ‘Nobody can't stop 'ee. It's A footpath, right enough. You see those bits Of mounds—that's where they opened up the barrows Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows. They thought as there was something to find there, But couldn't find it, by digging, anywhere.’
This old man's apparently disdainful attitude towards efforts to rediscover the past ‘by digging’ ironically questions the persona's present quest to rediscover the old man himself, as both poet and persona realize. ‘To turn back then and seek him, where was the use?’ the poet has his persona ask.
The promise given in the beginning of the poem, however, is not made good by what follows: for the squire's son, whose speech constitutes the greater part of the poem, is a character who only becomes interesting in his own right near the end of the poem, by which time our interest has been diverted by the endlessly detailed folk-tale versions of Lob that have been offered. The squire's son is, of course, another embodiment of the Lob figure epitomizing essential Englishness. Thus, once he has finished his speech,
… he disappeared In hazel and thorn tangled with old-man's-beard. But one glimpse of his back, as there he stood, Choosing his way, proved him of old Jack's blood, Young Jack perhaps, and now a Wiltshireman As he has oft been since his days began.
The difficulty the persona had at the beginning of the poem, his doubts as to whether he could find the old man for whom he was searching and, if he could, whether it would be of any use, are dispelled in the end by a warm assurance that the type lives on. The idealizing of the Lob figure, the catalogue that constitutes the middle part of the poem which leads to the persona's reassurance, and that reassurance itself make this poem characteristically Georgian in its overall effect. For the essence of Georgian pastoral, abetted by the posture of spectatorship adopted, is just this sense of reassurance—that ‘out there,’ in the countryside, a life less constrained, more spontaneous and vital than the life that the reader of Georgian poetry experiences, is still available. Thus John Drinkwater wrote ‘Of Greatham (To those who live there),’ as he himself did not, telling what it is that he responds to in the countryside.
For peace, than knowledge more desirable, Into your Sussex quietness I came. When summer's green and gold and azure fell Over the world in flame.
And peace upon your pasture lands I found, Where grazing flocks drift on continually, As little clouds that travel with no sound Across a windless sky.(12)
This poem is unreservedly idyllic in its pastoralism. To the extent that Thomas, in ‘Lob,’ introduces a persona who is conscious of difficulty in gaining anything significant from his search, his poem avoids the obvious pitfalls evident in Drinkwater's piece. But, although it is evident that Thomas is a more considerable poet than Drinkwater, he succumbs in ‘Lob’ to a similar weakness of easy certainty. In ‘Lob,’ after the first forty-two lines, all sense of uncertainty and difficulty evaporate. The atmosphere of crisis and tension that gives Thomas's better poems their subtle power is here, ultimately, absent. The ‘modern disintegration’ to which Leavis points, although present in the poem's beginning, disappears after the squire's son arrives on the scene. The relative demerit of this poem can be gauged by setting it beside other poems that make use of similar figures.
One of the most successful of these is ‘May 23’ (CP, 111). This poem begins by fixing the reader firmly in the temporal universe and, at the same time, suggesting that the moment about which Thomas is writing constitutes one of those ‘spots of time’ that transcend the limitations of temporality.
There never was a finer day And never will be while May is May,— The third, and not the last of its kind; But though fair and clear the two behind Seemed pursued by tempests overpast; And the morrow with fear it could not last Was spoiled. Today ere the stones were warmed Five minutes of thunderstorm Dashed it with rain, as if to secure By one tear, its beauty the luck to endure.
The compression here is very great, though Thomas's prosy surface may lead one to fail to recognize this. Past and future are both evoked as inferior to this one present day. The first two days mentioned were blighted by the intangible presence of ‘tempests overpast.’ The final word here, ‘overpast,’ echoes strangely. Tempests that are now past and over are suggested, though it is precisely the fact that they are not so finally done with as the word suggests that mars the persona's memory of those days. ‘Overpast’ also suggests, however, not time but space, in the sense that the storms have passed over and, though no longer present, are still in existence and may return. The ‘morrow,’ on the other hand, is spoiled by fear that the present moment will not last. And yet the quality of the present is itself highly ambiguous. Its beauty is ‘secured’ by ‘luck,’ by rain that is likened to ‘tears.’ The chain of qualification registered by ‘as if to secure … the luck to endure’ makes for an extremely hesitant affirmation of the lasting quality of the day.
Into this day, Old Jack Noman appears. That he is an idealized character, and known to be such by the poet, is sufficiently conveyed by his surname. He is another version of the huxter, the gypsy, the tramp. He is ‘jaunty and old, crooked and tall’; he has ‘a cowslip bunch in his button-hole.’ He has, too, the huxter's joie de vivre: ‘Who could say if his roll / Came from flints in the road, the weather or ale?’ He is also closely identified with the natural world, as Lob had been. He was ‘welcome as the nightingale,’ and one upon whom ‘not an hour of the sun had been wasted.’ Apart from his cowslip decoration, he is tanned ‘like the leaf and bur / That clung to his coat from last night's bed, / Like the ploughland crumbling red.’ Just as there ‘never was a finer day,’ so of Jack's flowers we are told that ‘Fairer flowers were none on the earth.’ He is, in short, an anthropomorphic embodiment of Spring itself. Where Lob had been a version of rural Englishness, Jack Noman is wholly natural. When he ‘appeared again,’ it was because Spring had appeared again. He is, in short, a figure not of national character but natural character.
At the same time, Jack Noman does partake of the folk tradition Thomas conjures with in ‘Lob.’ ‘Don't ask it,’ he replies to a question about the cresses he carries, ‘and you'll be told no lies.’ This piece of traditional ‘wisdom’ aligns Jack with Lob. Further, his relative indifference to commercial values (‘I don't want to sell. / Take them and these flowers too, free.’) identifies Jack both with the natural bountifulness of Spring and with Thomas's gypsies and other characters who exist on the edges of commercial society. Although Jack Noman is more closely identified with nature than nation, he must be distinguished from Lob, paradoxically, on account of his greater transience. Where the persona had difficulty initially in finding Lob, he does find him and finds him in a way that assures his continuing existence. Jack, however, disappears with a firm, if understated, finality at the end of this poem.
'Twas the first day that the midges bit; But though they bit me, I was glad of it: Of the dust in my face, too, I was glad. Spring could do nothing to make me sad.
Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse, The elm seeds lay in the road like hops, That fine day, May the twenty-third, The day Jack Noman disappeared.
Although the repetition of ‘I was glad’ conveys the persona's emotion, the inclusion of biting midges in the scene introduces a countercurrent that calls into question the efficacy of the ‘luck’ referred to in the first stanza. The midges are, on the one hand, an imperfection, a sacrifice as the early rain had been. But the reference to midges is followed by ‘the dust in my face,’ which suggests mortality and hence the passage of time working against ‘the luck to endure.’ The persona's gladness begins to seem to be based on an illusion. ‘Bluebells hid all the ruts in the copse, / The elm seeds lay in the road like hops.’ In these lines there is more than a suggestion that Spring is deceptive. The ‘ruts’ worn by time are hidden. The road leading to the future, as Thomas's roads invariably do, is disguised.
Jack Noman's final disappearance completes and intensifies this countercurrent. The poem finely and surely generates the persona's appreciation and enjoyment of the day, but equally undercuts the ‘luck to endure’ so tentatively posited in the first stanza. Originally, Thomas had concluded this poem:
A fine day was May the twentieth The day of old Jack Noman's death.
Had he left the poem's conclusion at that, there would still have been finality about Jack's departure. But with Thomas's preferred conclusion, the ambiguity is more striking. It might be argued that this conclusion is ambiguous because disappearance is less final than death. But since the whole poem is composed in the past tense, presumably after other Mays had come and gone, Jack's disappearance is more mysterious, given his association with the season, but no less final than his death might have been. We do not get the sense here that the poet expects Jack to reappear. He is simply gone. In so far as Jack represents traditional rural England, his disappearance is at one and the same time more disturbing, because more mysterious, than Lob's at the end of the poem in which he appears, and also does greater justice to historical reality. But in so far as Jack Noman represents Spring itself, his disappearance is far more than disturbing: it is a natural catastrophe. The disappearance of rural figures like Jack, this poem suggests, is tantamount to a loss of nature itself. The appreciation of the past and past ways of living that is everywhere evident in Thomas's poems, combined with this recognition that the past is irrevocably past, is an advance upon the earlier poems. It entails a more complex emotional response and a greater use of intelligence. To pretend that Lob represented the essential and continuing English character, even before the 1914-18 war, was fatuous. It is Thomas's recognition of this that distinguishes him from the Georgian pastoralists. His ‘sense of loss’ involves more than a pleasant melancholy: it implies a profound disaster.
Another poem in which the rural past is evoked without the sentimentality of ‘Lob’ or ‘The Huxter’ is ‘Under the Wood’ (CP, 223). There is a countryman figure in this poem, though here he is suggested rather than explicitly presented. The poem opens by both setting the scene and introducing Thomas's characteristic concern with temporality.
When these old woods were young The thrushes' ancestors As sweetly sung In the old years.
Thrushes singing in combination with an implied awareness of the passage of time in the mention of ‘old woods’ and the thrushes' ‘ancestors’ in the ‘old years’ remind us of Hardy's ‘The Darkling Thrush.’ But Thomas's intention was evidently not merely to rejuvenate an old theme. In his second stanza, he expands the thematic scope of his poem with a series of images taut with implication.
There was no garden here, Apples nor mistletoe; No children dear Ran to and fro.
This description of what the now old woods were like when they were young constitutes a masterful example of Thomas's laconic but poetic method. On the one hand, we may take these lines to be no more than at first glance they claim to be: a simple statement of fact. And yet, the series in the descriptive list suggests more than this. The progression from ‘garden’ to ‘apples’ to ‘mistletoe’ to ‘children’ evokes a number of related responses. ‘Mistletoe,’ an ancient symbol of fertility which still survives as a relict in Christmas decorations, clearly points forward to ‘children.’ The mythic significance of mistletoe ramifies back upon ‘apples’ and ‘garden,’ which together suggest Eden and the Fall. The Garden of Eden, however, is not meant to be our first or only association with these lines. For although, like this wood, Eden had no children, and because Adam and Eve were innocent neither did it need mistletoe for kissing under, it did not have a ‘garden’ in the primary sense in which Thomas is using the word here. Adam and Eve were not gardeners in the sense that they grew their own food. The wood Thomas is revealing in his first two stanzas, then, is both like and unlike Eden. It was characterized by sweet birdsong, it was virgin and innocent, but it was not paradise. The second stanza, that is, suggests through mythic association Edenic overtones, but simultaneously denies these. We are told only what the wood did not possess. It is described ambiguously in terms of deprivation.
In the third stanza, Thomas recommences. The ‘new’ versus ‘old’ motif is picked up again from the first stanza.
New then was this thatched cot, But the keeper was old, And he had not Much lead or gold.
Here a human presence enters the poem in the form of a gamekeeper. When the wood was young, this keeper was old, though his cottage was newly built. How ‘new,’ ‘young,’ and ‘old’ are used in this poem in each instance is perhaps not so important as the sheer number of uses. The reverberating atmosphere of temporal existence is created: that in itself is surely the point. But we are told something of the gamekeeper besides his age. ‘He had not / Much lead or gold.’ He is placed outside the world of getting and spending and is to this extent like Thomas's gypsies and his huxter. Unlike these earlier and more purely attractive figures, however, the keeper is a solitary. For if we cannot associate him with economic life, we cannot either associate him with other kinds of human endeavour. The ‘no garden … Apples nor mistletoe … No children’ is also part of our understanding of this particular rural character. He possesses in one sense the characteristics of the squire's son in ‘Lob’ who refused to move his house nearer the road, and of Jack Noman whose existence is not primarily social. But he does not have their energy or attractiveness.
Thomas's response to this figure and scene becomes more complex as the poem progresses. The fourth stanza, which is acoustically brilliant, fully reveals his mixed feelings towards his subject. It opens in a moving tone of cathedral-like quiet, but through a rearrangement of normal word order, and the suspension this causes as we wait for the clinching verb at the very end of the stanza, an atmosphere of deadness is also generated.
Most silent beech and yew: As he went round about The woods to view Seldom he shot.
The emphasis forced upon ‘round about,’ ‘to view,’ and ‘seldom’ finely conveys Thomas's sense of the gamekeeper as one who is apart from life, one who views but does not act. It is important to note, in this connection, that the first line of this stanza not only creates an impressive tone, but in doing so separates the gamekeeper from the attractive aspects of nature evoked earlier in the poem. The gamekeeper, that is, not only failed to cultivate his natural environment (‘no garden’) and to populate it (‘no children’), but the very birds stop singing as he makes his rounds. Thus, the words ‘round about’ take on a sense not just descriptive of the gamekeeper's regular activities, but suggestive of the closed and pointless circles of his life. This gamekeeper has been a spectator of, not a participant in, life.
As the poem concludes, the crucial details planted in the opening stanzas take on added meaning: the generations of thrushes, the generation of children, and the gamekeeper's exclusion from these lead to an abrupt and damning conclusion. Because he had no children, nothing remains of the gamekeeper, not even a memory, except one gruesomely detailed and sterile symbol.
But now that he is gone Out of most memories, Still lingers on A stoat of his,
But one, shrivelled and green, And with no scent at all, And barely seen On this shed wall.
The painfulness that makes ‘May 23’ a more interesting and disturbingly complex poem than ‘Lob’ in ‘Under the Wood’ grows acute. The Georgian countryman living a life of uncomplicated freedom in a natural world is here transformed into an image of impotent spectatorship. The solitary, and in a very large number of Thomas's poems he present himself as just such a solitary spectator, is here condemned to nullity for his failure to participate in the social living, the domestic life, that creates gardens and children.
There is in Thomas's poetry an ever-present tension between what we might term solitary and social values. The former is perhaps not an altogether satisfactory term since it must cover Thomas's appreciation of natural beauty, the spontaneous freedom of his country figures, and the search, carried out in a number of poems, for self-definition. The gypsy is a particularly interesting example of this tension since, while in one sense he is a social being in that he is a member of his itinerant clan, the clan itself exists on the periphery of the larger society of which the poet is a member. What Thomas sees as valuable in these figures is not only their spontaneity and freedom from social constraints, but also their closeness to the natural world. His rural figures in general, in being cut off from the mainstream of society, are therefore closer to the natural world. They do not even participate in the social world of rural England, but exist on the edges of that society which itself was fast slipping into marginality in the national life as the centre of economic and political power and cultural activity shifted to the city. We are presented with the squire's son in ‘Lob’ who steadfastly refuses to move his house nearer the road, with Jack Noman who appears infrequently and alone only to disappear, with a huxter who is itinerant, and, resembling these figures and throwing doubt over their attraction, with a gamekeeper who totters on the edge of oblivion. Moreover, we are presented with Thomas himself, the most frequently met solitary in his poems. When he does come into contact with others, he cannot establish easy intercourse with them. In ‘The Other’ (CP, 27), he is unable even to make contact with himself. Perhaps the most interesting in this regard are the ‘Household Poems’ (CP, 291-9). Those to his children are delightful in a straightforward way. The poem to his wife Helen is much darker, the poet's dissatisfaction with himself, his inability to identify himself, being explicitly stated. Similarly ‘P.H.T.’ (CP, 273), addressed to his father, registers a fractured, strained relationship. These poems all represent social uneasiness. They might be taken to represent the world from which Thomas turned to nature for solace. But the poems which present isolated or socially anachronistic figures living in close contact with nature are scarcely any consolation for the kinds of social uneasiness we find in Thomas's poems. The solitary rural life is not offered as a compensation for the stress and difficulty of social living in Thomas's best poems.
‘Bob's Lane’ (CP, 339) is one of the most successful poems to deal with this dilemma between Thomas's appreciation of an existence close to nature and his desire to participate in the human world.
Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob, Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he Loved horses. He himself was like a cob, And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.
For the life in them he loved most living things, But a tree chiefly. All along the lane He planted elms where now the stormcock sings That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.
Till then the track had never had a name For all its thickets and the nightingales That should have earned it. No one was to blame. To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.
Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now None passes there because the mist and the rain Out of the elms have turned the land to slough And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob's Lane.
Bob is initially characterized with great energy. He is ‘shovel-bearded’ and, like the horses which he ‘loved,’ is ‘leather-coloured’ much as Jack Noman had taken on the colouring of his surroundings. The biting irony of the poem's conclusion, however, must make us question our first impression of Bob Hayward. Clearly we cannot condemn him as we might the gamekeeper in ‘Under the Wood.’ That Bob failed to name his lane is no one's fault. The irony that has robbed him of an appropriate memorial appears at first blush to be cosmic, beyond reach or remedy of human action. The fact that Bob is associated with horses while travellers now go past on the ‘slow-climbing train’ is undoubtedly significant. It implies that Bob has been a casualty of historical advance. But even so, it is an unaccountable result that his memory should have turned to ‘slough and gloom.’ The passage to a modern, mechanized world does not demand this. That this poem was written less than a month after ‘As the Team's Head Brass’ (CP, 325) in which a fallen elm is used as a symbol for England at war, however, does suggest that the state of the nation is also being addressed in this poem. Bob's Lane, that is, could be taken to represent the condition of the country.
The first stanza, though, by this reading alone, becomes irrelevant. We might take it simply as an image of the past vitality of rural England which, with modernization and the War (which perhaps lies behind the ‘storm cock’ in the second stanza) has become only an ironic memory. But this leaves unaccounted for a crucial detail in the first stanza: the distinction drawn between liking and loving. The position of the word ‘loved’ in the third line is emphatic, and the word is repeated twice in the following two lines. There can be no doubt that, unlike the gamekeeper, Bob Hayward led an engaged and active life. But this vehemence serves to undercut the emphatic statement which began the poem. ‘Women he liked’ appears at first a vigorous characteristic in the old farmer. But once the distinction between liking and loving has been introduced, this response to women appears at best lukewarm. Bob Hayward is, on closer inspection, a more complex instance of the gamekeeper in ‘Under the Wood.’ He is vigorous in his participation, as the gamekeeper had not been, but his participation is most intense with the non-human world. Bob Hayward's more vivid response to the natural world goes hand in hand with a greater respect paid him by Thomas, but like the gamekeeper he survives, ultimately, in a depressing image of marginality which can be accounted for through the farmer's relative indifference to human society.
The figure of the countryman in Thomas's poetry is not a straightforward one. Although at times it is similar to that which we find in Georgian poetry, Thomas goes beyond Georgian celebration and Georgian melancholy. But his going beyond does not consist in a greater fierceness or urgency. Rather it is a greater emotional complexity and a degree of intellectual comprehensiveness that result in ambivalences and hesitations that are quite unlike the other Georgians. Thomas's mind, as it is revealed in his poetry, is impressive not because it has the emphasis and power of a Lawrence, but because it is subtle and complex. R. George Thomas's categories of critical approval are designed to appeal to readers whose taste, even if the fact is not acknowledged, has been formed in an atmosphere in which Lawrence rates highly. That Leavis, who did so much to make Lawrentian values current, praised Thomas in terms that are strikingly un-Lawrentian is testimony to, if nothing else, the breadth of that critic's own literary understanding. Thomas is a valuable poet not because he is fierce and urgent, but because he is not. His poetry is quiet and unemphatic, but wrestles with difficulties none the less. His is a poetry which aims not so much at personal affirmation as at reconciliation. To reconcile the past and the present, the non-human and the human, individual integrity and social existence is not, it may be, the distinctively modern undertaking that Leavis would have us believe it to be. But the sense of brokenness and alienation from self and from society and from nature that underlies Thomas's best poetry surely is.
F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972), p 55.
Ibid, p 47.
Ibid, p 55.
Ibid, p 57.
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929; rev ed 1957; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1960), p 141.
Leavis, New Bearings, p 55.
R. S. Thomas, Introduction to Selected Poems (London: Faber 1964), p 21.
R. George Thomas, ed, The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1978), p xviii. Hereafter cited in text as CP.
Ralph Hodgson, ‘The Gipsy Girl,’ Georgian Poetry: 1916-1917 (London: Poetry Bookshop 1917), p 97.
For other examples see: W. W. Gibson, ‘The Hare,’ Georgian Poetry: 1911-1912 (London: Poetry Bookshop 1912), p 93; J. C. Squire, ‘The Indian,’ Georgian Poetry: 1917-1918 (London: Poetry Bookshop 1920), p 173.
John Drinkwater, ‘Of Greatham,’ Georgian Poetry: 1913-1915 (London: Poetry Bookshop 1915), p 90.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4209
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 individual's self-expression.]
The issues of Edward Thomas's patriotism and his decisions to enlist and fight for his country remain, despite much critical thought, apparently insoluble unless one is to avoid the latent subtleties of Thomas's work and brutally enforce upon it certainties in meaning where there are none. Thomas provides many questions but very few answers. How could a man who had written (in The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans) in the year before the war broke out that ‘the true spirit of patriotism’ was ‘exulting without self-glorification or any other form of brutality’, declare in a poem written late in 1915 of ‘England’: ‘as we love ourselves we hate her foe’. Indeed, what did Thomas mean by ‘England’? As we shall see, Thomas was only too aware that ‘England’ could mean a number of places, or even no place at all, during the war years. And who was the ‘foe’ he had in mind? Just prior to writing the poem ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’ which this line is taken from, Thomas described a growing argument with his father thus:
My father is so rampant in his cheery patriotism that I become pro-German every evening.
Perhaps the contradiction which is the most difficult to resolve, however, is this: Thomas's reputation is that of a man who had an intense empathy with the natural, living landscape, an empathy which he endeavoured to form into language; why should he go to France as an artillery officer pledged to contribute to the devastation of the, albeit French, countryside? Thomas himself was under no illusions regarding the results of his activities at the front; in his ‘war diary’ he describes a naturalist's nightmare in which there is to be ‘no more singing for the birds’. Thomas's poetry admires and celebrates such song as the perfect language of self-expression; how could he record so easily its extinction towards the close of his own life? We should not forget, either, that Thomas was not obliged to fight. He was thirty-seven years old and had a large family when he enlisted. If ‘England’ had been his cause in any conventional sense he could, without qualm, have accepted the safe job as a propagandist found for him by his friends early on in the war.
I am intrigued by the ambiguities and paradoxes in Thomas's attitude to the war, and I do not accept that the old argument, that Thomas acquired a sort of transcendental patriotism in the war years, sufficiently explains these away. Rather, I intend to argue that Thomas's writings during and about the war evince, not a certainty as to what it meant to be English in the teens of this century, but profound uncertainty regarding what it means to possess any, not just a national, kind of human identity. As I have already suggested in my opening remarks, this uncertainty is elaborated in Thomas's poetry by unresolved investigations into how nationality, language and patriarchy control an individual's self-expression; these investigations are what I shall explore.
It is a commonplace critical note by now that Thomas's bitter quarrels with his father, a sometime radical Liberal politician, inform two key poems written by Thomas between his enlistment as a soldier and his decision to go to France as an artillery officer. The first of these is ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, the poem which deals most explicitly with Thomas's feelings about the war. It deals explicitly but not clearly. Thomas does refuse to assume popular or official attitudes to the war:
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.
However, rather than using this critical detachment to reflect pragmatically upon the causes and implications of the war, Thomas somewhat obstinately seems determined to confuse himself into an ahistorical and entirely personal view of the war:
Little I know or care if, being dull, I shall miss something that historians Can rake out of the ashes …
But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save England … She is all we know and live by, and we trust She is good and must endure, loving her so: And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.
It is an intriguing muddle; but why does it happen?
In much of his work, and especially in poems like ‘I never saw that land before’ which I will discuss more fully shortly, Thomas is preoccupied with locating, or inventing, an identity enclosed in a lost or mythical ideal of what it meant to be English. The lines above evince this overwhelming preoccupation. The last three lines especially remark how the war gave to men like Thomas (those whom he himself described as ‘superfluous’ to the new century) a chance to stand up for what was not really themselves, but what they might have been in a very different and, perhaps, mythical context.
The second poem inspired by Thomas's refutation of his father's jingoism is ‘P.H.T.’, apparently a highly personal attack upon the elder Thomas written in February 1916. This poem laments that the dull formulations which are the opinions of the father have rendered him a distant and hollow figure; the apparent strength and authority of the patriarch are dismissed as merely ‘impotence’ which the poet has been forced to share:
I may come near to loving you When you are dead And there is nothing to do And much to be said
I shall be sorry for Your impotence: You can do and undo no more When you go hence
But not so long as you live Can I love you at all.
Not surprisingly, other members of the Thomas family have been disturbed by the burden of this poem. However, what such reaction fails to take into account is that ‘P.H.T.’ is directed not only against Philip Thomas, but also against the contradictions in the ideology of paternalistic liberalism for which he stood. ‘P.H.T.’ is part of an implicit critique of the historical and political context in which England went to war. It is expressive of Thomas's concern at a terrible split in the contemporary notions of what it meant to be English. This schizophrenia was certainly present before the war broke out, but it was brought sharply into focus by the propagandas necessary to sustain the climate of war.
What did it mean to be English in the early twentieth century? In E. M. Forster's Howard's End (1910), the heroine Margaret, in a fashion very like that of characters in poems by Thomas such as ‘As the Team's Head-Brass’, contemplates a landscape quintessentially English and comments:
Left to itself … this county would vote Liberal.
Her sentiment highlights an ideal version of the English character, a character whose qualities were implicitly defined as deriving from a Liberalism both political and humanist, a character possessing those qualities which Margaret herself personifies: free-mindedness; a tolerance of attitudes foreign; respect for the ambitions and limitations of all social classes; and an ultimate belief in something potentially fine but indefinable in both humanity and nature.
And yet it was in the Georgian period that political Liberalism and such an ideal of Englishness were becoming obviously divorced. In his The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), George Dangerfield describes a Georgian England, and its Liberal government, besieged by varieties of social disorder. Thomas certainly felt that the modern England was to be no longer a haven for his fine, if earthy, variety of patriotism. ‘The Combe’, a poem of late 1914, presents this feeling in allegorical form. The murder of the badger represents the negation of something older and of greater integrity in the meaning of the word ‘English’ by the new values of the age:
But far more ancient and dark The Combe looks since they killed the badger there, Dug him out and gave him to the hounds, That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
So it was with a Liberal government which found it could not always be a benevolent stepfather to various radical political movements inspired by feminism, socialism and Irish Nationalism, but which had to crush these with some violence. And, of course, this was the same government which sent its sons to war in defence not of an ancient ideal, but of imperialistic and economic ambitions.
Thomas would have seen the breakdown in the liberal English character manifest in his father's opinions. Most especially he had before him an exponent of an idealogy which preached concern for all the English, and yet could quite joyfully cull the youth of the land. Thomas's ‘P.H.T.’ is not simply a personal poem, but is typical of Thomas's conflation of the problems of his age with his own dilemmas.
And yet despite his reaction against his father's views, Thomas accepted, seemingly, that ‘all roads’ did ‘lead to France’, and went to war without, apparently, having reconciled the contradictions in his own position regarding the war. To understand why, we have to examine closely Thomas's ideas about what human identity is, and how language, and again fatherhood/patriarchy, contribute to the assumption of identity. For the war was to provide a simple, if fatal, solution to the difficulties Thomas found in trying to define his own identity within these terms.
An early poem, ‘The Other’, is Thomas's most obvious statement that one desire enshrined in his poetry is to achieve a truly whole, self-satisfied and yet socially acceptable self. The poem begins with a birth-like event in which the protagonist experiences, at first, complete happiness in his total, sensual identification with his ‘mother Earth’ surroundings:
The forest ended. Glad I was To feel the light, and hear the hum Of bees, and smell the drying grass And the sweet mint …
The evocation is very much of a lost Eden, or of lost innocence, familiar from several of Thomas's other poems, such as ‘Old Man’, and from pieces of prose such as the very opening of his The Childhood of Edward Thomas written just a year before he began to write poetry in earnest:
When I penetrate backwards into my childhood I come perhaps sooner than many people to impassable night. A sweet darkness enfolds with a sweet blessing my life up to the age of about four. The task of attempting stubbornly to break up that darkness is one I have never proposed to myself, but I have many times gone up to the edge of it peering, listening, stretching out my hands …
The theme of the loss of primitive early identity is treated with an intensity which is due in no small part to Thomas's habits of close, semi-therapeutic introspection. These habits he acquired from the vigorous self-analysis which was the treatment prescribed to Thomas for his depressions between 1912 and 1914 by the Freudian Godwin Baynes. Indeed, in 1913 Thomas wrote an unpublished article on connections between mental disorder and creativity. The least that can be said is that Thomas was writing about and making psychoanalytical explorations via language.
If the beginning of ‘The Other’ figures the birth of its subject, it is surely the case that his blissful sense of full and harmonious identity is ruptured the first time that he speaks; the first time he uses language to become only a fragment of the mass of human society:
But 'twas here They asked me if I did not pass Yesterday this way? ‘Not you? Queer.’ ‘Who then? and slept here?’ I felt fear.
The protagonist is informed that he is mirrored by what proves to be an elusive and much more socially successful self. He resolves to pursue this ‘Other’, but when he sights him he finds that they share no common language which will heal the division between them:
Loudly he asked for me, began To speak … … What had I got to say? I said nothing. I slipped away.
The brashness of the ‘Other’ reinforces the subject's sense that although he is somehow dependent upon the society of ‘dull boors’ which the ‘Other’ belongs to and is arch representative of, he himself is somehow excluded; he is trapped in an alienated existence, slipping meaninglessly beneath the surface of human society and the language it uses. The protagonist has been split, not made whole, by his acquisition of language. In his conscious world, he is now a creature made from language, but that language, like the word ‘I’ which slips away, lends his life no real substance, is no true substitute for that wholeness which he experienced at the beginning of the poem. But he still also retains a kind of subconscious recollection of his earlier happiness. Like many of Thomas's poems ‘The Other’ has as its centre of epiphany, a timeless moment of full but fleeting understanding. Such moments tend to occur in Thomas's poetry when conventional meaning itself is suspended, generally because extraordinary natural phenomena break down and rebalance the distinctions which afford meaning. The epiphany in ‘The Other’ is a dream of a world in which the protagonist is once more freed of the bindings of usual language use:
And all was earth's, or all was sky's; No difference endured between The two … … I stood serene, And with a solemn quiet mirth, An old inhabitant of earth.
The problem that Thomas sets himself throughout his poetry is how the two worlds, conscious and subconscious, can be reconciled; how he is to achieve with his protagonists that ‘language not to be betrayed’ of ‘I never saw that land before’.
Of course, particularly according to one of Freud's postulations, a means by which the two worlds might regain wholeness is in the ultimate unconsciousness of death. Thomas recognises that this might be so in ‘The Other’. In the last line the protagonist contemplates the only rest he is ever to have with the ‘Other’:
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.
Given such a reading, death in France would not terrify a poet who was notoriously ill at ease with what it meant to possess self. We could see the road to France mentioned in the poem ‘Roads’ as being a track back to something like the forest of preconsciousness lost at the beginning of ‘The Other’. Poems written late in 1916, not long before Thomas embarked for France, much as ‘Out in the Dark’—and, most remarkably, ‘Lights Out’, suggest this:
The tall forest towers; Its cloudy foliage lowers Ahead, shelf above shelf; Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.
However, this vision is not necessarily nihilistic; Thomas's poetry does seem to hold out an alternative possibility that somewhere along its road Thomas might find another more personal and natural language and with it another self.
Let us think of the epiphany of ‘The Other’ again. It exhibits Thomas's favourite device of subverting differences and oppositions, so that he can suggest or claim some indefinable area, neither ‘earth’, nor ‘sky’, neither ‘solemn’ nor with ‘mirth’. Thomas's ideal seems to be, to pastiche two other poems, an identification with that which is ‘fixed and free’, ‘Without pleasure, without pain’. The epiphany, the place where there is a much greater sense of meaningful life, is where opposite words cease to mean opposite things; a quite revolutionary and anarchic version of what human existence might be.
Thomas comes closest to expressing what his alternative language might be like in ‘I never saw that land before’. In this poem he discovers, or recovers, a quintessentially English landscape wherein he might feel entirely at home. It is simultaneously a landscape where he almost physically contacts a language personal yet sufficient, a language which arises from integration with, rather than separation from, one's surroundings:
… some goal I touched then; and if I could sing What would not even whisper my soul As I went on my journeying,
I should use, as the trees and birds did, A language not to be betrayed.
This language seems to embrace both the superhuman—the ‘soul’—and the subhuman, shared as it is with trees, birds, the landscape itself.
Two questions present themselves. Does one have to resign common humanity to begin to use such a language; die, or resort to some form of atavism? Or is there in the act of writing poetry itself expression unconventional enough for it to be like ‘the breeze / That hinted all and nothing spoke’, for it to be the medium through which the poet might revalue himself? This second question leads us back, rather ironically, to the issue of fatherhood.
In another early poem, ‘Old Man’ (1914), Thomas depicts a father figure who imposes his will upon his small daughter, preventing her access to the ‘Old Man’, a plant which seems to be the key to a childish bliss. However, with a kind of justice the father seems to have inadvertently prohibited himself from this bliss too, much to his mounting horror:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
The poem charts a willed regression back to the father's, back to Thomas's own, innocent memory or understanding of what the scent suggests. This regression is to a point where opposites or differences again collapse; to a point where the child could not make the sexual distinction between its father and mother. However, what the daughter still silently knows is now beyond her father.
This loss, this profound absence, is a tremendous irony given the enormous symbolic significance of the father, most obviously God the father, in Western culture. As has been observed by several critics, ‘Old Man’ draws upon the idea of a father God, a guardian of both an Eden and a sort of tree of knowledge. However, in this poem it is the Eve who remains enviably and paradoxically both innocent and knowledgeable, whilst the forbidding father loses all. Thomas thus implicitly overturns ancient and conventional assumptions of patriarchy and the language with which it speaks.
For ‘Old Man’ is another poem about what is gained and what lost in the acquisition of identity; in this instance not only human, but also sexual identity. The father realises that ‘father’ and ‘mother’ were not always absolutes. And his daughter is learning that, in the human world of 1914, power was with old men and what they said, and not with little girls and their silences. Again Thomas's key concern is that human identity is consequent upon the formations of language. The father's prohibition defines the child's actions whilst yoking the father in a position not as easy or certain as it first appears to be. It was from this word-imposed straitjacket that Thomas was trying to escape.
By 1989, thinkers like Jacques Lacan, Helen Cixous and Julia Kristeva have informed the literary critic that gender, that sexual differences, are given to a child when s/he is given, learns, a language made sexist by the historical dominance of woman by man. For the child learns a language where the oppositions, the differences between words which allow them to mean, are so frequently masculine versus feminine. Thomas seems to have realised this implicitly; and, as he seems so often intent upon collapsing his actual and historical identity via his poetry, so he seems to have been also intent upon collapsing the inherent sexism of the language in which that identity was expressed. He confuses what might be deemed traditionally masculine and feminine words in phrases like ‘roaring peace’, ‘Despair, ambition’, and a host of other paradoxes that can be pulled from his poems quite at random. In his poetry at least, Thomas seems to have been fleeing a patriarchal or scientific certainty about existence. Little surprise, then, that in 1912 Thomas had written in the significantly entitled The Feminine Influence Upon the Poets:
Words never consent to correspond exactly to any object unless, like scientific terms, they are first killed. Hence the curious life of words in the hands of those who love life so well that they do not kill even the slender words but let them play on; and such are poets.
This might sound like lighthearted whimsy, a whimsy of words ‘light as dreams / Tough as oak’, as the poem ‘Words’ has it. However, to dismiss Thomas's theory as such is entirely to disregard the extraordinary use that such ‘words’ might be put to:
Poetry is and must be apparently revolutionary if active, anarchic if passive.
Thomas saw, and used, poetry during the war years as an anarchic and liberating alternative to the parochial attitudes of people like his father. Poetry represented freedom from the authoritarian and propagandist language of such fathers, and this is one reason why Thomas began seriously to write poetry in 1914. And (like Julia Kristeva, who was to discuss the revolutionary potentials of literary texts much later in the twentieth century) Thomas seems to have believed that a transforming language might be inspired by his drawing on nearly subconscious memories of very early childhood; memories of a time when relationships with women were much more important than those with men. In The Childhood of Edward Thomas Thomas recalls the full happiness of an infancy spent listening to the threatless, kind, and entirely pleasurable communications of his mother and aunt:
I was … a very still listener whom the music flowed through and filled to the exclusion of all thought and of all sensation except of blissful easy fullness, so that too early or too sudden ceasing would have meant pangs of expectant happiness.
Through his poetry Thomas was trying to recapture such ‘fullness’. Particularly in the poem ‘The Ash Grove’ he suggests that he might be able to do this via the intercession of women closely associated with an English landscape and the tradition of folk lyric it had long given rise to. The conclusion of ‘The Ash Grove’ is unusual in the nearness the poet approaches to finding that so elusive lost bliss:
I wander a ghost With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed, And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost, But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.
Here Thomas so nearly finds a road that would lead him not to self-destruction, but to something like the happy identity he describes in the early part of his Childhood. He does this by putting himself into contact with an essentially ‘feminine’ aspect of his character.
But where has this led us?
If the peaceful, though quietly anarchic, influences of women, poetry, folk song and an ancient English landscape were the sources of the language, nationality and identity that Thomas would have preferred, why did he, like an obedient son of the modern age, opt for the most aggressively masculine of roles and go to be a soldier?
Thomas said this about life at the front in a letter to Robert Frost:
I am in a way at home here … The life here is so strange that I am only half myself and the half that knows England and you is obediently asleep for a while … It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make the life endurable—more than endurable—really enjoyable in a way.
This odd enjoyment is the key to the riddle. It arises not from the assumption of a positive identity as a soldier, as critics and biographers have suggested, but from the abandonment of the burden of being responsible for any identity at all. The war, in the end, merely provided Thomas with an opportunity to place the necessarily unresolved enquiries into the state of humanity in a dangerous suspension. In the same letter to Frost he wrote:
I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live, but I know as much about my chances in either case.
In his poetry, Thomas chose not to know, or to doubt, as a means of subtly dispelling the profound negativity of even a destination such as:
An avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
His refusal to wake to his chances of survival at the front, however, did render that avenue a good deal less poetic.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8915
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 Thomas is apt to be praised in a subordinate clause; if the speaker has mastered the tone of patronage appropriate to a survey, the clause may well be: “though an interesting secondary figure, Thomas. … “Interesting in this case admits the integrity of a style which though never consciously modernist still does not feel archaic, sixty years later. In America Thomas is of course mentioned now and then in connection with Frost; but his poems are not read; few scholars of poetry could give the titles of five of them. In England, where both the poems and “writings on the English countryside” are more familiar, Thomas is seen as expressing unassimilable tendencies. Critics in search of his tradition have placed him with Clare and Crabbe for the poetry, and with Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson for the prose; Thomas is accordingly cherished as a writer of insular concerns, who worked in a genre now all the more appealing for being almost extinct. Different as the results are, Thomas has been poorly served by his reputation in both countries. The truth is that one cannot read widely in his work, including the criticism, reviews, and sketches of daily life, without growing convinced of his importance in the early history of modernism. He not only pointed the way for others, he himself exemplified the value of pursuing it. A great part of the change of mood, with the testing of a new eloquence, which is commonly associated with Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, he helped to create. His manner was calmer than theirs but not less decisive.
Edna Longley's anthology of Thomas's prose, A Language Not to Be Betrayed, reprints many of the articles he wrote after 1902 for the Daily Chronicle, where he took Lionel Johnson's place as regular reviewer. Here he soon established the continuity between Johnson and himself by an unstinting admiration for Hardy's poems: “The moan of his verse rouses an echo that is as brave as a trumpet.” Here too, he considered volumes by Frost, Pound, de la Mare and the lesser Georgians, as they first appeared. These reviews, with their incidental statements of creed, are not otherwise available in permanent form, so that in one respect the anthology is a meticulous work of restoration. But the editor's feeling for what is essential in Thomas, in a discussion of Keat's odes, or of prose writers like Borrow and Cobbett with whom he felt an affinity, comprehends all his more substantial writings as well; and with twenty years' labor in prose so finely represented, it will no longer be plausible to regard Thomas as a man whose moment arrived quite suddenly with the war and passed as suddenly. Indeed, Edna Longley's selections after 1913 suggest that for Thomas the war was simply a large public event in which he could not help being interested, because it happened while he was alive. More grandly than that he never saw it. He wrote frank descriptions of the patriotic mood, of which he was critical, as a native may be critical; and when he came to write the poem that begins, “This is no case of petty right and wrong,” he justified his decision to enlist by the sentiment of a place and not a generation: it was a confession of his attachment to home in the largest sense. Soldiers mattered to Thomas, hardly in a personal way, as part of the humanity he counted as his audience, and therefore part of his subject beyond war. He cared, not so much for writers who contributed to a public record, as for those who were or might become individual voices, and in the end he aimed to be known as such a voice. I will be quoting disproportionately from Thomas's criticism because it seems to me the least understood area of his achievement; but for readers who know his poetry, a tone it shares with the criticism may be worth keeping in mind from the start. In both, a certain reticence guards the stronger sentiments, and at the same time announces them more firmly than any imaginable emphasis. The result is a kind of writing in which sincerity becomes a well-defined term of praise.
The advance signalled by the criticism of T. E. Hulme, and of Eliot and Pound when they wrote as his disciples, might be reduced to a single perception. These critics saw that the language of the third and fourth generations of Romantic poets had been refined beyond the service of a living speech: by the twentieth century, it had become a machine for poem-making. Much of their polemic was anticipated in Ruskin's criticism of the pathetic fallacy, and yet the new school had the wit to make theirs a battle not merely of practices but of personalities. Swinburne was only one, though perhaps the typical, object of routine derision, and it may seem in retrospect that the profuse monotony of his eloquence fostered bad habits of dismissal in those who had tired of it. Still, Hulme, Eliot, and Pound were admired by their contemporaries for the simple daring of having sought to dislodge a great reputation of the 1880s and 1890s, a name sacred to The Education of Henry Adams. The spirit of exclusion, which served at first to weaken the shadow of those decades, was eventually carried backward into the nineteenth century, and a sustained movement of intellectual history, in which poetry had been among the larger powers, was dismissed as the consequence of a wrong turn—with what success may be judged by Pound's triumphant allusions to the bankrupt firm of “Kelly, Sheats & Co.” At this point, Hulme and the others lose credit with us, now that their daring has ceased to be appreciable, but the only alternative to faith in the modernist rewriting of history has often seemed to be an imputation of roughly the same blindness to all the more original minds of the period. In the name of a tolerant historicism, one may reason that some things are invisible to those who invent, and who are as happy to believe lies as they are to sell them if it means more life for themselves. But, after all, an intolerant historicism is more interesting, and the very existence of a critic like Thomas helps to justify it. In his observations on the language of poetry he looks forward to most of the better-known modernist strictures, without their anti-Romantic bias, and his polemic is much finer in its gradations.
It begins in his reviews of contemporary critics but emerges as a consistent argument where one might expect it, in Algernon Charles Swinburne (1912), with remarks like this: “Other poets tend towards a grace and glory of words as a human speech perfected and made divine, Swinburne towards a musical jargon that includes human snatches, but is not and never could be speech.” By the time he started rereading Swinburne, Thomas had already proposed to himself two maxims: that poetry is what cannot be translated, and that it ought to be at least as well written as prose. The book is a closely illustrated attempt to persuade his readers of the soundness of both. One can see them working together when Thomas observes of some characteristic lines that they “can be translated into prose, and have possibly been translated out of it—not into poetry.” But he points out, as a more pervasive fault in Swinburne, a defect of imagination which cannot be blamed on the diction of an age or a century:
He can astonish and melt but seldom thrill, and when he does it is not by any felicity of as it were God-given inevitable words. He has to depend on sound and an atmosphere of words which is now and then concentrated and crystallized into an intensity of effect which is almost magical, perhaps never quite magical.
Throughout the book Thomas is disposed to recognize the many poems in which Swinburne's ends claim only as much as his means respect, above all “The Forsaken Garden” and “Ave Atque Vale.” But the concern with expressive “magic” reveals Thomas's deeper allegiance to Shelley, of whose prophecy he treats Swinburne as an imperfectly satisfying fulfillment. The poetry is deficient not because it is sensational, or republican, or subjective in a style neither hard nor dry, but because the poet has used words as counters, even if not as counters of sense. In a passage of very delicate irony, we are invited to accept Swinburne's lack of valor with words as a cause also of the charm by which he subdues them without protest.
Perhaps the greatest of his triumphs is in keeping up a stately solemn play of words not unrelated to the object suggested by his title and commencement but more closely related to rhymes, and yet in the end giving a compact and powerful impression. The play of words often on the very marge of nonsense has acted as an incantation, partly by pure force of cadence and kiss of rhymes, partly by the accumulative force of words in the right key though otherwise lightly used.
When he looked at Swinburne lowering his immense press of words onto a half-formed intuition of a subject, Thomas did not say, “This is wrong because some way back the history of poetry went wrong.” It was a matter of individual strengths and weaknesses. Thus he supposed that Tennyson no less than Swinburne, though more quietly with his “voluptuous avoidance of excess,” had failed to make any but the “entirely personal impression, far different from Wordsworth's, which made of nature a neighbour commonwealth to our own.” Yet from the poetry of his youth Thomas turned not to the sixteenth century but back to the first generation of Romantics. In this he resembled Yeats, and the parallel is worth drawing out for contrast.
Symbolism gave Yeats a name for the elements of Romantic practice that he wished to recover, together with a ready-made fellowship of collaborators. But it was Pater's prose that had shown him how the symbolic ramifications of an image could be almost infinite and yet be controlled by the forethought of the writer. A “marmoreal muse” left with each of the words of a Paterian sentence some reminiscence of the pains that had gone to form them. To Yeats this was treating words the opposite of lightly; but Thomas, when he read even the paragraphs of exposition in Pater's lectures, was impressed by a finish like Swinburne's. His objection to such writing was that it could not serve naturally as discourse: in Pater's biographical sketches, there would be times when it aimed to do so and could not, because its success had placed it at too secure a distance from conversational disciplines. Walter Pater (1913), generally the most appreciative of Thomas's full-length studies, isolates many sentences like the following, for an exqisiteness that has pared away any suggestion of purpose: “And who that has rested a hand on the glittering silex of a vineyard slope in August, where the pale globes of sweetness are lying, does not feel this?” Here, says Thomas, “The words ‘pale globes of sweetness’ remind us that grapes are pale, globular, and sweet; they do not vividly suggest or represent grapes, but rather the mind of a man who has pondered the subject of the relation between things and words, and has come to no inspiring conclusion.”
Thomas also sees a connection between such traits of style and the special conditions of Pater's solitude. A professor and official mentor to the young, his sense of duty is visible in the mostly somber, but at times arbitrarily heightened, coloring of his style. He writes like a man who must be sure every moment of “professing frankly”—that is, with careful ingenuousness and a careful decorum.
The most and the greatest of man's powers are as yet little known to him, and are scarcely more under his control than the weather: he cannot keep a shop without trusting somewhat to his unknown powers, nor can he write books except such as are no books. It appears to have been Pater's chief fault, or the cause of his faults, that he trusted those powers too little. The alternative supposition is that he did not carry his self-conscious labours far enough. On almost every page of his writing words are to be seen sticking out, like the raisins that will get burnt on an ill-made cake. It is clear that they have been carefully chosen as the right and effective words, but they stick out because the labour of composition has become so self-conscious and mechanical that cohesion and perfect consistency are impossible. The words have only an isolated value; they are labels; they are shorthand: they are anything but living and social words.
Clearly as Pater may have displayed his convictions, a tutorial relation to his listeners bound him to write English as if it were a dead language. That his words are not fine enough is a criticism Thomas does not make; he argues rather that words used for their “living and social” value feel plain to the writer in that they feel inevitable. This effortless authority was the single grace of style denied to Pater.
Yet the living and social word alone has the effect of somehow modifying the reader's imagination. It can do so because it seems to have claimed the writer's recognition intimately from his life, temperament, and circumstances, and because it commands in turn the reader's own recognition as something more than the name of an object: something his life, temperament, and circumstances have to translate. A word of this sort is always mysterious to the reader to the extent that it was familiar to the writer, and nothing is gained by calling it either literal or figurative. Thomas writes of its effect in one of his happiest statements of vocation, “The Word”; the poem describes a spring sound which “Though 'tis an empty thingless name” the poet cannot forget, since
Spring after Spring Some thrushes learn to say it as they sing. There is always one at midday saying it clear And tart—the name, only the name I hear.
Frost gave a lovely echo of this in “The Oven Bird”; but of the birds which these poems offer as figures of poetic speech, Thomas's is the less flatly antirhetorical: its song is closer to the “tone of meaning” Frost speaks of in another sonnet. The reader who does not know how much a tone can mean will misremember the poem's title as “The Thrush,” and that is part of the poem's teaching. Such a reader thinks the word's work is done when the associated object has appeared. But for Thomas the wonder of “the word” that poetry can discover or revive is that it makes all substitutions a matter of question-begging:
The name suddenly is cried out to me From somewhere in the bushes by a bird Over and over again, a pure thrush word.
It is not quite the same as a pure thrush's word; indeed, the poem suggests a definition of a poet as someone for whom words and objects have mingled inseparably. By listening for the word a writer joins his names with ours; and we go on reading him because his society affords as much hope of renewal as a season.
Yeats for a time considered the Image a fair exchange for words like this, and he would probably have approved, for he sometimes imitated the passage about grapes which Thomas quotes as stilted. Imagism in general codified the practice of isolating such passages as the essence of poetry. I think Thomas would have been inclined to reject the movement on the ground that it was doctrinally unequipped to notice the poetry of “No motion but the moving tide, a breeze, / Or merely silent Nature's breathing life,” poetry not written and not to be valued as naturalistic transcription. But here his graver opinions can only be surmised: all his criticism of the Imagists he contracted into a joke, with the suggestion that the movement's real source lay less in classical authors than in classical editions. “The chief influence appears to have been the ordinary prose translation of the classics—in short, the crib. Burlesqued this had been already by Mr. A. E. Housman and others. The Imagist poets must have the credit of being the first to go to it for serious inspiration.”
Imagism and Symbolism as Thomas understands them have much in common: by both movements poetry is identified not with the animating passion of words but with the ideal distillation they achieve on the page. Some such effect was Yeats's design when he broke the as-clauses of Pater's Mona Lisa into separate lines of free verse. The editor's creation of discretely vivid pictures, out of a purposeful series interlinked in prose, made symbolic images of what earlier readers had encountered as allegory. The referent of each clause was expected in consequence to emerge reliably line by line. But why should the symbolist concern himself with reference at all? “It is a little unkind to words,” writes Thomas, “to suppose that they can be bounded by their meaning, but apparently the symbolist must insist that his words are not only not so bounded, but have a further significance which is quite precise; otherwise there were no differences between the old and the new.” The old reader whom Thomas has in mind did not assume words were bounded by their meanings, but rather that everyone interpreted them from a modest consensus about kinds of meaning, after which everyone built for himself and within his imaginative powers. The symbolist on the contrary grants an independence to words which they already enjoy, and then returns to guide their interpretation with a new control. Thomas cites as an example Yeats's conscientious notes to The Wind among the Reeds for the help they bring to the poem entitled “Mongan laments the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved.” Perhaps “a day will come when the force of Mr. Yeats's genius will have added to common culture the special knowledge through which alone the poem is intelligible. At present [its language] is dead or merely private, and the note, so far from helping the poem, attracts attention exclusively to itself.” The poem most fortunate from the symbolist point of view is most opaque to the common culture of meaning.
Poetic language in Thomas's view is everything that may disclose a mind in motion, or a mind occupied with what most concerns it.
In the mainly instinctive use of [language] the words will all support one another, and, if the writing is good, the result of this support is that each word is living its intensest life. … Whatever be the subject, the poem must not depend for its main effect upon anything outside itself except the humanity of the reader.
One may read these sentences, along with Thomas's more straightforward acts of homage to Wordsworth, as a record of how much survived in him of the spirit of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in spite of the many features of its program he seems to have discarded. There is no claim for purity of diction, only for dramatic propriety. There is none either for the repose of large feelings in rural places, and the poet's difference from other men is no longer measured by degrees of imagination. The difference now comes from an understanding of the conditions of language which the poet alone employs actively and continuously. He is one more person who knows English words. And yet, by picking out an emphasis among the words we use, he touches our habits of thinking and feeling. This he does in a way so commonplace as to be unmeasurable, and in this sense the language of poets is the second nature of men.
According to high-modernist precept, a modern style requires, apart from imponderables like genius, the omission of certain untimely artifices. Syntactical inversions are among these, as well as words of quaint pedigree, “casement” for windows or “lamp” for star; but if one looks for tokens of this sort in Thomas's poetry, he will seem far from sufficiently modern. He appears never to have developed a simple distaste for inversions, and his poems are unsuperstitiously free even with Miltonic orderings of adjective-noun-adjective (“stony square unlit”), or by extension adverb-verb-adverb (“wisely reiterating endlessly”). These were conscious practices, and not the lapses of an unguarded mood; for Thomas supposed that being modern was a matter of escaping the belief that there was one preeminently poetic attitude. Some of his changes of heart about other poets can be traced to his refusal to be charmed when an attitude that once seemed natural became a self-regarding manner. A 1912 review of Rupert Brooke's Poems is quick to detect the process well advanced by then in the work of a youthful poet:
He writes of Helen, of London, of afternoon tea, of sleeping out, of seasickness. He experiments in choriambics. He is full of revolt, contempt, self-contempt, and yet of arrogance too. He reveals chiefly what he desires to be and to be thought. Now and then he gives himself away, as when, in three poems close together, he speaks of the scent of warm clover. Copies should be bought by everyone over forty who has never been under forty.
There is nothing to prevent a poet of whatever age from addressing the characteristic emotions of readers under forty and producing poems as lasting as Housman's. But a poet like Brooke, with his pet words and scenes, wrote partly from sheer irritability at those whom he did not care to have as readers. Thomas replies by advising them to use the book as a kind of instruction manual on how to become Brooke's readers: the understatement here, which turns an ordinary offense into a splendid curiosity, is a critical tactic both rarer than irony and more versatile. Thomas shows the same tact for managing imperfect sympathies in his reviews of Pound.
As a fashioner of dramatic speech, Pound had gone further than anyone of the age except Yeats in his plays, and Thomas's first impulse as a reviewer was to report the cheering news. Of Personae he writes in 1909: “Carelessness of sweet sound and of all the old tricks makes Mr. Pound's book rather prickly to handle at first. It was practically nothing but this prickliness that incited us to read the book through a second time. We read it a third time … because it was good the second.” Pound's approximation of personality by an unconnected series of negative gestures would later dictate the structure of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” with its undertone of self-congratulation, its overtones of revolt, contempt, self-contempt, and the ad hoc satire of its portraits giving an appearance of consistency to the whole. Even at this early stage, however, Thomas was annoyed by the cageyness of a poet who never materialized among his own personae. The steady vehemence of some poems made the unsteady shifts of voice all the more troubling. But in 1909 Thomas preferred to think that “The disdain is the other side of a powerful love for something else.”
Yet he came back to Personae in a second review, and added several qualifications withheld from the first. “Let us straightway acknowledge the faults; the signs of conflict; the old and foreign words and old spellings that stand doubtless for much that the ordinary reader is not privileged to detect; the tricky use of inverted commas; the rhythms at one time so free as not to be distinguishable at first from prose, at another time so stiff that ‘evanescent’ becomes ‘evan'scent’; the gobbets of Browningesque.” Innovation, in which Pound's work is certainly rich, does not impress Thomas as a sign of genuine invention. He had said earlier, in a neutral tone, that Pound seemed to have “practically no extravagance.” As he followed Pound's career this began to emerge as a defect. For without natural extravagance, Pound was forced to rely on an unlimited number of mannerisms. And a poet who says of all his devices, “these are provisionally mine and yet not me,” may end in a condition of moral weightlessness. Thomas saw this as a danger for Pound, and in a review of Exultations later the same year he delivered his warning straightforwardly.
When he writes in the first person he is so obscure as to give some excuse for finding him incapable of self-expression. And both in personal and detached poems he is, as a rule, so pestered with possible ways of saying a thing that at present we must be content to pronounce his condition still interesting—perhaps promising—certainly distressing. If he is not careful he will take to meaning what he says instead of saying what he means.
The reader of our age, who has lived past the first decade of cantos, the tracts against usury, the broadcasts for Mussolini, the harangue of Pound's speeches and the harangue of his silence, will be equipped to appreciate the depth of the critic who in 1909 found little gravity in a mind so “pestered with possible ways of saying a thing.”
Nor can it be objected that Thomas had really failed to comprehend the modernist idea of masks—that he cherished an anachronistic fondness for personality-as-such. He knew the idea very well, not as a modern discovery but from its sources in Keats, and he observed in praise of de la Mare that though his “personal quality is intense and consistent … it has no obvious egotism, no significant first person singular, no confession, defiance, lament, or hinted mystery. Mr. de la Mare's work is, in fact, the perfection of personality, and in an impersonal way, without deliberation or obtrusiveness.” In the end he saw de la Mare as a personal poet without egotism, and Pound as an egotist without personality, or with one that “rises to the appearance of being positive only by contradiction.” His comments on de la Mare bring to mind Eliot's observation a few years later in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the aim of poetry is a continual extinction of personality, though only those who have it know what it means to escape from it. If Thomas made his remark more in passing, this was because he took it to express an elementary truth. Poetry since Wordsworth had been the projection of a few intense personal interests as “a neighbour commonwealth to our own.” The reader feels at home there because his interests, and for that matter his intellectual activity, are not different in kind from the writer's.
I suspect that what first drew Thomas to the poetry of Frost was its explicit concern with reading. “This,” he began his review of North of Boston, “is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the least aggressive.” The language “is free from the poetical words and forms that are the chief material of secondary poets”—here he seems to be thinking of the Georgian movement as a general tendency. As for the rhythms, they avoid “not only the old-fashioned pomp and sweetness, but the later fashion also of discord and fuss”—here unquestionably he has Pound still in view. The sentences that follow are worth pausing over:
Almost all these poems are beautiful. They depend not at all on objects commonly admitted to be beautiful. Neither have they merely a homely beauty, but are often grand, sometimes magical. Many, if not most, of the separate lines and separate sentences are plain and, in themselves, nothing. But they are bound together and made elements of beauty by a calm eagerness of emotion.
When one considers the range of Frost's tones, from poems like “The Vantage Point” to poems occasional and even ceremonial, like “The Master Speed,” that phrase of Thomas's about “a calm eagerness of emotion” seems marvelously precise. But as with Personae, he reviewed North of Boston more than once, and here again the second article repeats hardly anything from the first. One passage, however, which Thomas does return to is the conclusion of “The Wood Pile”: “I thought that only / Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks / Could so forget his handiwork. …” One may recall the self-forgetting that Thomas had missed in Pater, and these lines were probably in his mind when he summed up his estimate of Frost:
Mr. Frost has, in fact, gone back, as Whitman and as Wordsworth went back, through the paraphernalia of poetry into poetry again. With a confidence like genius, he has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other.
“With a confidence like genius” expresses a great deal that is finely and not obviously true about Frost's character as a poet. It does not pamper the author's self-esteem, but says: this poetry has the kind of intimacy we are used to seeing earned by genius alone; yet it is remarkable for a conscious self-trust which genius has not often been known to display; indeed it steals a march on our deliberations over merit. The most impressive fact about Thomas's advocacy of Frost, as even a brief excerpt shows, is the decency of its reticence. By its refusal of hyperbole, of historical comparisons that merely flatter, of the invention of a new category in which the poet because he stands alone will stand highest, it leaves the reader to think further for himself.
About the time Thomas was writing these reviews Frost was telling friends he had invented a theory of “sentence sounds” which Thomas would some day expound in an article. As it happened Thomas knew better than to call it a theory or attribute it to Frost. He quotes the good terse phrases, “Pressed into service means pressed out of shape” and “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build,” but he gives them not as instances of a language now forgotten except by Frost, but to remind us that this is the healthy employment of English words in common exchange. Before he saw North of Boston Thomas had written: “Men understand now the impossibility of speaking aloud all that is within them, and if they do not speak it, they cannot write as they speak. The most they can do is write as they would speak in a less solitary world.” Frost's sentence sounds made the world less solitary. But their importance for all writing had been a leading emphasis of Thomas's criticism for a decade before he met Frost. He would I think have been willing to accept a generous definition of poetry as anything that created such sounds by design. The point, at any rate, is that between Frost and Thomas the friendship that grew was reciprocal, and included critical thinking no less than poetic practice. Of the temperamental differences that seem to have kept them interested in each other the most vivid evidence is Thomas's reaction to “The Road Not Taken.” The poem, as is now generally known, was meant by Frost as a gentle reproof of Thomas's study of self-regret. Yet Thomas failed to see that there was mockery in it; he liked it simply as a Shelleyan poem by Frost and was struck by the pathos of “I shall be telling this with a sigh.” When Frost protested against the misreading, Thomas pronounced himself content with the poem as he had loved it first, and ready to forgive but not credit Frost's insistence on a contrary intention. One might turn this into a parable for interpreters, with the moral, “Parody no Excuse for Eloquence.”
The story is immediately helpful for what it shows of the more trusting mood in which Thomas as a poet is likely to manage a subject he shares with Frost. He makes a softer approach to the emotions of a poem, or is longer in testing their resonance. The effect in either case is of words used not lightly but seldom quite as emphatically as they are by Frost. The quick pace varied by fluent metrical deviations has its part too in the reader's sense of a decisive voice telling of things not yet decided. Frost conveys the opposite impression, even where his words are most tentative, his step most held by voluntary pauses. He wrote “Spring Pools” with the confidence Thomas knew how to praise as an unconfiding strength, and one wants it nearby to compare with “Tall Nettles,” a poem by Thomas similar in theme and movement.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
The grammatical complication of the first line and a half is like that of “These pools that, though in forests, still reflect / The total sky”—yet here it brings to the utterance an air of leisure that Frost excludes from the start. This feeling in Thomas, of having always time enough to voice the human sense of a thing, is a poetic trait one has to go a long way back to match, possibly as far back as Cowper. It is what allows him to introduce himself into the second stanza so quietly that we do not notice the change. Whereas the “I” of Frost's poem is all the more powerfully present for being withheld: “The trees that have it in their pent-up buds / To darken nature and be summer woods / Let them think twice.” The reflections Thomas cares for are not displaced to the landscape but claimed by the speaker in an unexceptional way: his one imperfect rhyme, most-lost, and his eye for “the nettles” in the seventh line, though they cost him an extra syllable, are proof against any charge of obliqueness or cunning. Of the two poems Thomas's is the more modest, and yet it asks no less tact of the reader than Frost's. “Only the elm butt tops the nettles now” is as measured in its bluntness as “These flowery waters and these watery flowers” is measured in its grace.
Thomas's description of Frost as “one of the least aggressive poets” is a curious and revealing testimony to set alongside the anecdotes about Frost at other periods and in other companies. But if one reads these poets together for any length of time one may feel that Thomas after all was describing himself. What is sometimes vulnerable in his poems—to the point of stopping them short of a promised expression—is the poet's conviction of an infinite debt to a nature that was here before him. In A Literary Pilgrim in England (1917) the debt was recorded in other writers' names, the study's premise being that imagined landscapes are finer when their prototypes can be traced in nature. It is a scholarly book and a beautiful one, but it goes to extremes: Shelley's childhood haunts are combed for possible clues to “Alastor”; and Thomas suspects that the “deep romantic chasm” of “Kubla Khan” connects it, though tenuously, with the neighborhood of Somerset. He was able to contemplate a nature altogether prior to man and greater by itself, as others have only pretended to contemplate it. So in reading him, and especially his early prose, one now and then enters a realm of primary natural sensibility, without selfish thoughts or fears, which regards nature unaccompanied, not as a nightmare of the earth closing like a dent in dough, but as what “I like most.” The result from a human point of view is oddly unreviving. A wise passiveness rewards him with intervals of simple repose; yet these intervals have their own nightmares of listlessness. And Thomas is committed to record in words whole passages of time in which neither mood has quite set, when he stays “listening, lying in wait / For what I should, you never can, remember”—and still more often, the sense of revelations that have passed as if in his absence, when he was offered “truths I had not dreamed, / And have forgotten since their beauty passed.” These last are not Wordsworthian epiphanies of “A motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought,” but rather ecstasies of the knowledge of intellectual beauty, in a severer tradition: “Sudden, thy shadow fell on me.” When he writes of such moments, Thomas as a rule communicates less than he wishes. No reader will doubt the fact of the experience who has not a dogmatic contempt for some part of experience itself. But with Thomas, the report that he has been changed by what happened remains only a report. He is writing in an elegiac mode without any representation of that time from which the singer has fallen away. The poems therefore that continue long in this mode, from Thomas's identification with a power beside which he himself is nothing, mark a limit of the uses of sincerity.
His great poems also describe a situation of listening or lying in wait, though in many instances they follow the action to a further stage, when the revelation has come, or when its results are connected with the fate of other men by the poet's conversion to social speech. I will be discussing “Liberty,” “I never saw that land before,” and “The Owl,” with parts of some others, and it is worth stressing that these are composed in the same register as the slighter pieces; what sets them apart, along with “Rain,” “Roads,” “The Gallows,” and “Lights Out,” is the ease and distinctness with which they figure the poet himself. Thomas speaks in one poem of his interest in “the ghost / That in the echo lives and with the echo dies,” and it has to be said that his poems harbor their echoes with as little worry as any written in this century. The poet's affinities are understood to be a large part of his personal identity: he discloses them with the pride of memory rather than of possession, and quotations are never used as a signal. Since Thomas wrote all his poems in the last three years of his life, the Keatsian echoes of “Liberty” in particular have a special weight with the reader.
The last light has gone out of the world, except This moonlight lying on the grass like frost Beyond the brink of the tall elm's shadow. It is as if everything else had slept Many an age, unforgotten and lost, The men that were, the things done, long ago, All I have thought; and but the moon and I Live yet and here stand idle over the grave Where all is buried. Both have liberty To dream what we could do if we were free To do some thing we had desired long, The moon and I. There's none less free than who Does nothing and has nothing else to do, Being free only for what is not to his mind, And nothing is to his mind. If every hour Like this one passing that I have spent among The wiser others when I have forgot To wonder whether I was free or not, Were piled before me, and not lost behind, And I could take and carry them away I should be rich; or if I had the power To wipe out every one and not again Regret, I should be rich to be so poor. And yet I still am half in love with pain, With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth, With things that have an end, with life and earth, And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
It is a poem of intense consciousness, with the check of irony in the halts and false drifts of its many double negatives. “Unforgotten” in the fifth line for example, and “what is not to his mind” in the fourteenth, resist comprehension even after several readings, and half-sentences are in places so loaded with doubt that any affirmation they end in seems intransitive. Yet for all that, it survives as a poem of hope—one of the very few that do not fake a victory—and its success is probably owing to the invention of the moon as a companion. Here one sees the consolation Thomas's naturalism could bring when its subject was not nature. The moon is a circle of light, barely personified, yet for him this little is enough. He speaks from an indecision that to other minds would appear as acedia, but with no prospect of advancing he is cheerful to a degree, for his dread vanishes at the thought of “The moon and I.” By remaining in the door, he commits himself neither to suffering nor patience but to a state in which everything once experienced will be known without exemption. Thus the entire poem protracts a mood Keats reserved for the penultimate stanzas of the “Ode to a Nightingale.” The mirth-earth rhyme belongs to Keats only less notably than “I still am half in love with pain”: Thomas, however, had used the rhyme elsewhere with such a range of effects that it joins his melody almost as an impersonal refrain. As a whole the poem feels composed in a single breath. Its uninterrupted lyrical phrases, “Beyond the brink of the tall elm's shadow” and the last line most prominently, break free for only as long as the conditional cast of other phrases permits. Yet it is modern in effect for no technical reason, but because its doubts, connected alike with the poet's circumstances and his period, have refused admittance to a phrase like “pleasant pain.” What may be most unusual about “Liberty,” and this links it with Owen's “Strange Meeting,” is the clarity with which the poet's sense of his vocation pledges him to a life of thoughts.
There are poems in which Thomas comes to the brink of self-pity, and one test of his mastery is our certainty that the risk has never been accidental. He writes in his letters of being afflicted with a self-consciousness as far beyond mere selfishness as selfishness is beyond sympathy. This was a subject for poetry. So an autumn poem that begins conventionally, “Gone, gone again / May, June, July,” recalls other autumns and alludes to them in a phrase of extraordinary vehemence, as a time before “the war began / To turn young men to dung.” Only with this do we realize Thomas's thoughts of autumn have been thoughts of himself; this, and the image of a house, “Outmoded, dignified / Dark and untenanted”:
I am something like that; Only I am not dead, Still breathing and interested In the house that is not dark:—
I am something like that: Not one pane to reflect the sun, For the schoolboys to throw at— They have broken every one.
In a poem entitled “Blenheim Oranges,” with as solemn a progression as this has, the view of himself makes a delicately controlled ending. “I am something like that” seems the farthest reach of eloquence that his circumstances will allow. As for the poem's originality with a landscape so traditional, the last line is the only one that would have been recognized as poetry a generation earlier.
Extravagance like this is a matter of surprise. The house, as a feature of the setting, is withheld until the middle of the poem; the poet is compared to it only at the very end; and the oranges we were shown at first, lying fallen in the autumn rains, are touched in retrospect by the poignance of these things. But Thomas is remarkable for surprise of another sort in poems more predictably organized. “Celandine” recounts a story that reminds one in most details of “Surprised by Joy.” In that story the poem turns to share a pleasure, and realizes that the person he would have shared it with is gone forever. Yet as the poem begins Thomas has been tranquilly resigned to his loss, until “I saw the sun on the celandines lie / Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame, / A living thing,” and the natural vision enchants him. By this confusion he is enticed to pick the flowers, and the reminiscence of death, which he feels in his own gesture, breaks the spell a second time.
But this was a dream: the flowers were not true Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there One of five petals and I smelt the juice Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more, Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.
A visible object both represents the woman he loved and consoles the loss of her: the transition is hardly announced, and yet we share its feeling. Thomas seems to have believed more effortlessly than Wordsworth that death and life inhabit each other through the intercessions of memory and imagination, and the belief gives his last line a quality remote from anything one may have expected of an elegy.
The untitled poem that begins “I never saw that land before” describes a comparable episode of second sight, with objects more nearly consequential for the poet himself. A landscape of great beauty, one of many others as the poet walked in the country, comes back to him in memory with all its constituents, “The cattle, the grass, the bare ash trees, / The chickens from the farmsteads, all / Elm-hidden, and the tributaries / Descending at equal interval,” made keener by “the breeze / That hinted all and nothing spoke”—and he recognizes too late that this place possessed him even before he saw it.
I neither expected anything Nor yet remembered: but some goal I touched then; and if I could sing What would not even whisper my soul As I went on my journeying.
I would use, as the trees and birds did, A language not to be betrayed; And what was hid should still be hid Excepting from those like me made Who answer when such whispers bid.
“A language not to be betrayed” is a language that both ought not to be betrayed and that cannot be. But this central phrase holds another secret. For “betrayed” has two, almost antithetical, senses, and may suggest revealed as much as given away. The poem in fact protects the very meanings it affects to disclose.
All this, which baffles a reader or at least halts his progress, affords Thomas himself perfect satisfaction. He has composed what turns out to be a scene of election or self-discovery, and in such scenes cause and effect—voice and inspiration, the poet and the situation with which his poetry is associated—cannot be extricated from each other: if they could, we would know just what to make of the words, and they would cease to be poetry. The poem does not say and we cannot tell whether Thomas only gives the response to “such whispers,” or has provoked their “bidding” by his own act of memory. The last stanza of Crane's “Voyages” is so close to the last stanza of Thomas's poem that it seems a natural part of any commentary.
The imaged Word, it is, that holds Hushed willows anchored in its glow; It is the unbetrayable reply Whose accent no farewell can know.
The syntax of the final line repeats the strangeness of Thomas's “whisper my soul,” where the soul may be either giving or receiving. Here the ambiguity of cause and effect, or finder and found, makes two readings equally inevitable: an accent (poetic Word) that can know no farewell because it stays forever; and a farewell (elegiac landscape) that can know no accent because it is imaged only by the Word. There is also the same nearpun on “betray.” Crane in his letters mentions Thomas as one of the few modern poets he has read with interest, and this passage feels like one result of his reading.
Such uncanny recognitions by the poet of the place-meant-for-him-alone are interesting to all who believe poetry is the most important fact about the world. But few can hold steadily to that belief, and everything Thomas says about language seems intended to convince us that the poet's situation is less special than we ordinarily suppose. Why then should we grant the significance he claims to the search for “a language not to be betrayed”? An answer in keeping with his criticism would be that to grant it, we need think of the poet as nothing more special than a representative of a community of speech, who sometimes recovers a knowledge others repress in order to live. They forget, and he sometimes remembers with a shock, how far we are modified by what we have made, and how far therefore we are at once servants and masters of language. This sort of knowledge is possible to someone for whom words are always both figurative and literal, as they were for Thomas in “The Word,” and to someone aware of precisely what is to be defended and what may be betrayed, as Thomas was aware in his writings on Swinburne, Pater, Pound, and Frost. To read “I never saw that land before” with this in mind is of course to read parabolically. But Thomas warns us he is speaking in parable when he refers to those outside, to whom the poet's task must remain unknown: what was hid will still be hid from them.
The gravity with which Thomas accepts his vocation makes him the most satisfying English poet to carry the intelligence of Romanticism into the modern age. In a sentence of prose that recalls the “Defence of Poetry,” he speaks of his writing as a pursuit “not of wisdom, but of one whom to pursue is never to capture,” an other he may glimpse but not name. It was a generous credo, and he followed it where it led. Often he described what he pursued as a spirit of place, or as a lover. But increasingly in his last years, Thomas seems to have meant by “the other” the interests of other men. For this reason “The Owl” may make the fittest conclusion to a summary essay.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved; Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at an inn I had food, fire, and rest, Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I. All of the night was quite barred out except An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill, No merry note, nor cause of merriment, But one telling me plain what I escaped And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose, Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice Speaking for all who lay under the stars, Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
A very unaccustomed weight falls on the plain phrase “And others could not,” and on the plain word “unable.” The gesture of sympathy that opens up after the owl's cry has been heard is larger than in “This is no case of petty right and wrong.” Yet the unobtrusiveness of the confession (“and sobered, too”) serves as assurance that the poet's words are a bearing of witness, and not a declaration of the aim to do so. It is impossible to read “The Owl” for its place in Thomas's career, without thinking of the poetry he might have written after the war in a style like this, “Shaken out long and clear upon the hill.” The future of any career that was cut short is of course an idle problem and usually explored in idleness. But in Thomas's case the speculation can have a more specific character. He was the poet of the early moderns who gave some promise of including those unable to rejoice in the words of poetry, and making its words again available to them. He was not likely to succeed altogether, any more than Wordsworth did, but he would not have reversed direction and accused history itself of betrayal. What we made of it always depended for him on how soberly we came to know ourselves in our repose.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12077
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.]
Modernism and Marxism fetishize the city, but in different ways. The one neglects “nature poetry” as having refused a cognitive and aesthetic revolution; the other criticizes “pastoral” as repressing the exploitation not only of urban workers in the present but of rural workers in the past. For example, the unreal city of American poetic modernism—cosmopolitan London or Paris refracted through “the simultaneity of the ambient”—does not meet the political demands that Raymond Williams (in The Country and the City) sees cities as making on the literary imagination. To Williams, T. S. Eliot's urban impressions appear “as relentless and as conventional as pastoral … neo-urban imagery, of the same literary kind as the isolated neo-pastoral … [mediating] a general despair in the isolated observer.”1 Ultimately he diagnoses a continuing, and perhaps necessary, conflict between modernist urban myth making (best represented by the related but disconnected consciousness streams of Ulysses) and the collectivist “social ideas and movements” also produced by the modern city. This dialectical model, with its 1930s aura, still excludes most twentieth-century rural writing in the British Isles. Although Williams finds among the texts of that tradition occasional resistance to an “elegiac, neo-pastoral mode,” nonetheless “[t]he underlying pattern is … clear. A critique of a whole dimension of modern life, and with it many necessary general questions, was expressed but also reduced to a convention, which took the form of a detailed version of a part-imagined, part-observed rural England … [a] strange formation in which observation, myth, record and half-history are … deeply entwined.”2
These remarks follow an analysis of Edward Thomas's poetry in which Williams discerns a few unpastoral sparks, but which he accuses of falling back on “inexpressible alienation.” Thomas has often been squeezed by a pincer movement of modernist and Marxist preconceptions—not that this has put off his many “common readers.” I want to change the perceptual ground by looking at his “alienation” in the light of contemporary environmental theory, an approach that also reinserts him into the Edwardian period. Formerly I have suggested that various factors prevented Thomas (1878-1917) from becoming a poet of 1900, that he became inevitably a poet of 1914. But the late twentieth century may both reopen some of Thomas's Edwardian contexts and link his “critique of a whole dimension of modern life” (Williams) with issues now on the global political agenda. Perhaps Edward Thomas is, in fact, a poet of the year 2000. Perhaps his symbolic “warning” looks much farther ahead than Wilfred Owen's, just as it had a deeper hinterland. His sonnet “February Afternoon,” which thrice repeats the phrase “a thousand years,” suggests how readily Thomas himself could think in terms of millennia—although the cumulative effect is hardly millenarian:
Men heard this roar of parleying starlings, saw, A thousand years ago, even as now, Black rooks with white gulls following the plough So that the first are last until a caw Commands that last are first again,—a law That was of old when one, like me, dreamed how A thousand years might dust lie on his brow Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.
Time swims before me, making as a day A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak Roars mill-like and men strike and bear the stroke Of war as ever, audacious or resigned, And God still sits aloft in the array That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.(3)
Williams finds here “a tension between [a] sense of timelessness and the sense of war in which, in a different sense ‘Time swims before me.’”4 But “February Afternoon” (to be discussed later) may, in fact, introduce a third perspective whereby human actors and constructs share in a larger earthly drama. This perspective defines Thomas's ecocentric sense of history.
In her book Environmentalism and Political Theory (1992) Robyn Eckersley sums up ecocentrism as follows: “Ecocentrism is based on a … philosophy of internal relatedness, according to which all organisms are not simply interrelated with their environment but also constituted by those very environmental interrelationships.” Ecocentrism perceives the world as “an intrinsically dynamic interconnected web … in which there are no absolutely discrete entities and no absolute dividing lines between … the animate and the inanimate, or the human and the nonhuman.”5 Or, as Edward Thomas put it more monosyllabically and musically in 1915:
There's nothing like the sun as the year dies, Kind as it can be, this world being made so, To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies, To all things that it touches except snow, Whether on mountain side or street of town …
The irony that touches the leveling third line, with its regular iambics, denies humanity a primary or Promethean role in “this world” and its making. I argue, first, that Edward Thomas is a prophet of ecocentrism (cognate terms are biocentrism and geocentrism) not only conceptually but also in terms of poetic structure; and second, that to read his poetry (and prose) in this light is to vindicate its Green politics/poetics against criticism from precisely those theoretical quarters that, for Eckersley, fall short of an ecocentric vision. Thus she finds that the “orthodox eco-Marxist approach turned out to be the most active kind of discrimination against the nonhuman world.” This is because of its anthropocentric “focus on the relations of production at the expense of the forces of production, and its uncritical acceptance of industrial technology and instrumental reason.”6 Eckersley also analyzes revisionist forms of eco-Marxism as modified by humanism and eco-socialism. Although she discovers more common ground here with the ecocentric perspective, her conclusion is that anthropocentrism keeps sneaking back in, whether as a benign domestication of nature or as the recruitment of Green politics for an anticapitalist agenda. Ultimately, the need for a paradigm shift that would reorient humanity's relation to the rest of nature is not accepted even by the most heretical Marxist thinkers.
Some of Eckersley's arguments have a literary-critical counterpart in Jonathan Bate's innovative Romantic Ecology (1991) and a geographic counterpart in Anne Buttimer's Geography and the Human Spirit (1993). Bate says in his introduction:
The 1960s gave us an idealist reading of Romanticism which was implicitly bourgeois in its privileging of the individual imagination; the 1980s gave us a post-Althusserian Marxist critique of Romanticism. The first of these readings assumed that the human mind is superior to nature; the second assumed that the economy of human society is more important than … the economy of nature. It is precisely these assumptions that are now being questioned by green politics.7
In arguing that “there is not an opposition but a continuity between [Wordsworth's] ‘love of nature’ and his revolutionary politics,” Bate several times relies on the insights of Edward Thomas. But he limits Thomas's ecocentric radicalism, his metaphysical and political leaps beyond Wordsworth, by highlighting only his “localism” and concern with place names. These emphases should be construed as strands of a larger web which amounts to more than “connecting the self to the environment.”8 Also, no writer more profoundly tested the romantic poets' legacy to modernity than did Thomas in his criticism and poetry—even testing it to destruction. One problem with Bate's tentatively proposed “ecocriticism” might be the soft streak in English readings of the English “nature” tradition. Here a merely personal subjectivity is the anthropocentrism that keeps sneaking back in. Nor should every nature or country poem be identified with the Green revolution—or all versified Green propaganda with poetry. Such traps were latent and occasionally articulated in a “Green” issue of Poetry Review (London) that appeared in 1990. Yet something more is required than the editor's reassurance that poets “have remained animists … [exploring] the mini-Gaia of our daily life” or a reviewer's dismissal of “telling one another how much we care in the worn-out words of greenspeak and sociobabble.”9 The absent element might be historical and critical feeling for where (and how) poetry has pioneered Green themes. Otherwise it will lack the means to carry these themes further.
In her introduction to Geography and the Human Spirit, Anne Buttimer calls for freedom from academic and ideological “Faustian frames … which are no longer appropriate for the challenge of understanding humanity and earth.” She also states (her findings stem from the International Dialogue Project, 1978-88): “Proclamations about the meaning of humanness … make little sense geographically until they are orchestrated with the more basic nature of dwelling. … Neither humanism nor geography can be regarded as an autonomous field of enquiry. … The common concern is terrestial dwelling; humanus literally means ‘earth dweller.’”10 Earth, man, and home are crucial and interactive terms in the poetry Edward Thomas wrote from his particular “temporal, geographic and cultural setting” (Buttimer's phrase). By persistently asking what it is to be an “inhabitant of earth” (“The Other”), he anticipates the eco-humanism for which various theorists are arguing today. In “The New Year” he takes a fresh look at the sphinx's riddle, at man the earth dweller:
Fifty yards off, I could not tell how much Of the strange tripod was a man. His body, Bowed horizontal, was supported equally By legs at one end, by a rake at the other: Thus he rested, far less like a man than His wheel-barrow in profile was like a pig.
Thomas's historical position and cultural coordinates place him at a nodal point in relation to current ecological issues and their intellectual repercussions. “Mainly Welsh” but brought up in London, he moved physically and imaginatively from city to country, from metropolis to region, border and rural parish, from built to natural environments. He walked all over the south of England at a time when its suburbanization, behind which lay agricultural depression, marked a new frontier, and perhaps limit, of the industrial revolution. The rapid erosion of rural England had no counterpart in any other European country. Thomas saw himself as a product of the London suburbs which had mushroomed without being conceptualized or imagined. One of his personae speaks of “belonging to no class or race and having no traditions” and calls people of the suburbs “a muddy, confused, hesitating mass.”11 This is not just alienation that might have been voiced at any time since industrialization or since the always-lost “golden age.” It belongs specifically and oppositionally to Edwardian England. Jose Harris, in Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain, 1870-1914 (1993) emphasizes how between 1871 and 1881 “the population of the most heavily urbanised counties increased by 75 per cent—the fastest decade of urban growth for the whole of the nineteenth century.” Consequently, the “prolonged building boom of the 1870s and 1880s encircled all towns and cities with the middle- and working-class red or yellow brick suburbs, which remain the most enduring physical monument of the late Victorian age.”12 Thomas's irritation with the title of Edward Marsh's “Georgian” anthologies (“Not a few of these [poets] had attained their qualities under Victoria and Edward”) might have extended to his own posthumous periodization in such terms.13
Edward Thomas's career as a writer, including its poetic apotheosis from December 1914 until his death, coincides with the trajectory traced by Samuel Hynes in The Edwardian Turn of Mind: “[T]o think of Edwardian England as a peaceful, opulent world before the flood is to misread the age and to misunderstand the changes that were dramatised by the First World War.” At the same time, Hynes exhibits a certain (possibly American, metropolitan, and postmodernist) impatience toward those who failed to swim with tidal waves of social transformation. For example, he criticizes C. F. G. Masterman's literary rural nostalgia—such as his regard for W. H. Davies's Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (also promoted by Thomas)—and Masterman's “problem of accepting the idea of a twentieth-century, urban, industrial England.”14 This was not necessarily an idea, a cultural or imaginative accommodation, that could be made overnight. The “shock of the new,” as an aesthetic thrill, may bypass culture shocks which literature needs time to absorb. The 1930s, when English society had supposedly got used to the city, saw a back-to-nature movement as striking as that of the 1900s—Louis MacNeice's “hiking cockney lovers.” The scenario detailed by Private Lives, Public Spirit makes more room for Masterman's hankerings and for Thomas's disquiet with the suburbs. Throughout her study Harris stresses not a Victorian national solidarity beginning to crumble after near-defeat in the Boer War, but a more volcanic and more variegated historical, temporal, and spatial picture. She concludes by underlining “the varying pace of time, the idiosyncrasy of local habits and the frequent conjunction of quite dissimilar or contradictory social structures,” and continues:
Yet my overall point—that the true watershed came at the beginning  rather than the end of the period … can be supported on many levels. The shift to a “modern” demographic structure began in the 1870s, and in the eyes of many contemporaries was already alarmingly advanced by 1914. The structural and qualitative transformation of cities did not come with the Industrial Revolution but with the arrival of public utilities and municipal socialism after 1867. … It was not the early nineteenth-century factory system, but the onset of mass-production and the retailing and financial revolutions of the 1880s that created the distinctive class, status, and consumer groups that were to characterise British society for much of the twentieth century.15
As a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle (from 1901) and the Morning Post—this was also the period when mass newspapers proliferated—and in his other literary criticism, Thomas was explicit about contemporary instabilities and the challenges they posed to poetry in particular. In 1905, reviewing a book by the feminist Frances Power Cobbe, he describes the present as “an age of doubt and balancing and testing—of distrusting the old and not very confidently expecting the new.” In the same year, reviewing new verse, he rebukes both literary arcadianism and arcadian literariness:
[A] country life is neither more easy nor more simple than a city life. If it were, the world would now be ruled by the brewers, bankers, and journalists who are now taking the place of hops in Kent. And just as, in thinking about life, we cry out for a return to Nature and her beneficent simplicity, so we are apt to cry out for a return to simplicity in literature. … A critic has lately spoken of Tom Jones and Pendennis as unrolling “the infinite variety of human nature before us,” and has compared Mr Meredith most unfavourably with them. They are simpler, and they do not disturb. Nothing could be more false than this attitude. If it were also strong, it might endanger much that is most characteristic of our age. … Here, before us, are many views which would seem to have been inspired by a cunning search for simplicity. These men are trying to write as if there were no such thing as a Tube, Grape Nuts, love of Nature, a Fabian Society, A Bill for the reform of the Marriage Laws; nor do they show that they are in possession of any grace or virtue which can be set up against those wonders of our age.16
Evidently, however, this is no straightforward hurrah for modernity. Thomas's allusions to economic and demographic change and to “wonders of our age” are as ironic as “cunning search for simplicity.” As for the political reformism also glanced at, it featured in his disagreements with his father, and his reaction to the Bedales intelligentsia again suggests dissidence from its ethos, if not its aims. Bedales was the progressive school in Hampshire near which Thomas and his family lived from December 1906. Although Helen Thomas, who taught in the kindergarten, was inspired by the school's staff, she records, “[Edward] frankly did not like them, and to them he was an enigma—a solitary wandering creature … who had no political beliefs or social theories, and who was not impressed by the school or its ideals. … [T]hey could not like him or rope him in at all.”17
Helen Thomas may take her husband's lack of politics too literally; but there might be good warrant for a writer's not being impressed by any school and its ideals: Samuel Hynes quotes Beatrice Webb's admission “without apparent regret, that she was ‘poetry-blind.’”18 Yet Thomas then faced the task of developing a literary mode, and perhaps an alternative politics, which would at once interpret what was happening to Kent, remember that Grape Nuts could not be uninvented, and go beyond the false simplicities of the poets under review. It has to be said that it took him nearly ten more years, in the course of which his own “love of Nature” (there is self-irony in the review, too) still perpetrated cunning simplicities: “But at morning twilight I see the moon low in the west like a broken and dinted shield of silver hanging long forgotten outside the tent of a great knight in a wood. …”19 Thomas himself mocked “my soarings & flutterings”20 over The South Country (1909), from which that sentence comes. Yet some parts of the book organize his perceptions in a way that would eventually help to recharge the “nature poem,” while other chapters contain literary-critical, sociological, and ecological thinking that tends in the same direction. The literary-critical dimension matters: the Green movement does not always acknowledge its literary origins. Thomas returned to origins (early English and Welsh transactions with nature); read not only all nature poetry up to its romantic apotheosis, but the entire tradition of “country books” culminating in Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson: and asked questions about the meaning of this literature in irretrievably complex times.21 His study Richard Jefferies (1909) charts Jefferies's discontent “to some purpose … with modernity” and hard-won holistic awareness of “the diverse life of the world, in man, in beast, in tree, in earth and sky, and sea, and stars.”22 Thomas looked for contemporary works “which really show, in verse or prose, the inseparableness of Nature and Man” and approved a modern “diminution of man's importance in the landscape.” At the same time, he savaged the “chattering” nature-trash he received for review, and (prefiguring Romantic Ecology) regretted the scientific and literary specialization that seemed to “make impossible a grand concerted advance like that which accompanied the French Revolution.”23
On the sociological front, Thomas's prose abounds in semidocumentary portraits of obsolescent, displaced, or potentially displaced country people. These figures flesh out Jose Harris's representation of “a society in which rootlessness was endemic and in which people felt themselves to be living in many different layers of historic time.” What Harris terms “a lurking grief at the memory of a lost domain” (also a feature of Irish cultural nationalism) is, of course, partly Thomas's own grief coloring the canvas. But he does not merely foist his feelings on to real casualties of “the 1880s when, alone among European countries, Britain chose not to protect home producers against American wheat, with a consequent collapse of archaic rural communities, an explosion of migration to great cities. …”24 His father's more upwardly mobile migration from Wales enabled Thomas to connect an autobiographical deracination with the wider forces whereby the countryman was “sinking before the Daily Mail like a savage before pox or whisky.”25 Childhood holidays in Wales and Wiltshire had indelibly, if precariously, reconstituted the lost domain. A central trope in The South Country, as in Thomas's other prose, is a passage from country to city; then, usually by a second generation, from city to country in an attempted retrieval of loss. This reflexive narrative occupies Chapter 6, “A Return to Nature,” which concludes with a last glimpse of “the man from Caermarthenshire,” back once more in London “ill-dressed” and “thin,” amid a pathetic march of the unemployed: “Comfortable clerks and others of the servile realised that here were the unemployed about whom the newspapers had said this and that … and they repeated the word ‘Socialism’ and smiled at the bare legs of the son of man and the yellow boots of the orator.”26
In Edward Thomas (1986) Stan Smith stresses “A Return to Nature” in his interesting analysis of Thomas's situation as “a superfluous man,” a term that Thomas himself borrowed from Turgenev. But while Smith highlights the depopulation of the countryside, arguing that some of the natural beauties of Thomas's England depended on dereliction and that Thomas was responsibly aware of this, he may point his sense of superfluousness too much toward class, too little toward the lost domain with its cultural as well as aesthetic pull. For example, he identifies “the crisis of a generation,” which Thomas's writings enact, as “the dilemma of a middle-class liberal individualism under strain, faced with the prospect of its own redundancy in the changed world of a new era, and struggling, with remarkable intensity and integrity, to understand the flux in which it is to go down.”27 First, it is not clear that the Edwardian period was such a bad time for middle-class liberalism. Second, even if there never has been a golden age but only “an imaginary plenitude, a utopian land of lost content which is precisely nowhere,”28 Harris's study suggests that Thomas internalized a “crisis” which can be seen as major historical watershed—and not only in the context of England. What Smith perceives as Thomas's symptomatic political paralysis, his deadlock between resignation and revolution, may be a search for other parameters in addition to class politics. His ultimate discovery of those parameters coincided with his discovery of distinctive poetic forms, and with the impact of the war on his existing sense of crisis.
Thomas's prose is undeniably romantic about “children of earth,” about men “five generations thick,” about the innocence or earth-motherhood of rural women.29 Yet his empathy with the London unemployed, which includes their pre-London history, questions whether socialism is the only answer, and whether even rural poverty might not have harbored valuable communal and local meanings now dispersed. (This is not the same as claiming “organicism” for any community: the clearances in the Soviet Union were to prove as socially disastrous as those in the Scottish Highlands.) Similarly, he says of Gypsies: “They belong to the little roads that are dying out.”30 One aspect of Thomas's thought, his inner western rather than southern landscape, understands depopulation, change, obsolescence, dereliction, though not with a consoling nuance: Cornwall's “deserted mines are frozen cries of despair, as if they had perished in conflict with the waste.” On a longer time scale the mines consort with “cromlech, camp, circle, hut and tumulus of the unwritten years … a silent Bedlam of history, a senseless cemetery or museum, amidst which we walk as animals must do when they see those valleys full of skeletons where their kind are said to go punctually to die.” Yet the very intensity of this reaction suggests that Thomas sees the current transformations as uniquely ominous for man. The peril is exemplified by the situation of an old man, living in a London suburb where once his father farmed, and mourning the final loss of elm trees which “had come unconsciously to be part of the real religion of men in that neighbourhood … and helped to build and keep firm that sanctuary of beauty to which we must be able to retire if we are to be more than eaters and drinkers and newspaper readers.”31 Today's deep ecologists would endorse that interconnectedness, rephrased in “The Chalk Pit”: “imperfect friends, we men / And trees since time began; and nevertheless / Between us still we breed a mystery.”
Thomas's prose writings criticize “the parochialism of humanity” with respect to larger evolutionary processes.32 This critique, which chimes with the Green stress on the short-termism of our species, comes to a head in The South Country, where he exclaims: “How little do we know of the business of the earth, not to speak of the universe; of time, not to speak of eternity.”33 Or, as Edward O. Wilson puts it in The Diversity of Life (1992): “The biosphere … remains obscure.”34 “Earth” in Thomas's poetry is not only a spatial but also a temporal domain. Although (or because) he was a historian himself by academic training, The South Country attacks the tunnel vision of orthodox historians, comparing them to “a child planting flowers severed from their stalks and roots, expecting them to grow.”35 This covers not only “the unwritten years” but also the excluded species and ignorance of how our own has survived. Similarly, Wilson observes:
Humanity is part of nature. … The human heritage does not go back only for the conventionally recognised 8,000 years or so of recorded history, but for at least 2 million years. … Across thousands of generations, the emergence of culture must have been profoundly influenced by simultaneous events in genetic evolution … [and] genetic evolution by the kinds of selection arising within culture. Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world.36
Thomas understands this delusion when he says, “We are not merely twentieth-century Londoners or Kentish men or Welshmen,” or appeals for a holistic approach to human and natural history. The would show us “in animals, in plants … what life is, how our own is related to theirs … in fact, our position, responsibilities and debts among the other inhabitants of the earth.”37 “Digging” is both an eco-historical poem (like “February Afternoon”) and a symbolic model for eco-historical research:
What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth, Letting down two clay pipes into the earth? The one I smoked, the other a soldier Of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet Perhaps. The dead man's immortality Lies represented lightly with my own, A yard or two nearer the living air Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see Almighty God erect the mastodon, Once laughed, or wept, in this same light of day.
Thomas's eco-history provides a tough and agnostic basis for his ecocentric philosophy. He anticipated (by eighty years) Andrew Dobson's précis: “The science of ecology teaches us that we are part of a system that stretches back into an unfathomable past and reaches forward into an incalculable future. …”38 Thomas writes in the chapter of The South Country called “History and the Parish”: In some places history has wrought like an earthquake, in others like an ant or mole; everywhere, permanently; so that if we but knew or cared, every swelling of the grass, every wavering line of hedge or path or road were an inscription, brief as an epitaph, in many languages and characters. But most of us know only a few of these unspoken languages of the past. …”39 The text of the earth remains to be read, and not all its inscriptions are human. In “November” the speaker exclaims:
the prettiest thing on ground are the paths With morning and evening hobnails dinted, With foot and wing-tip overprinted Or separately charactered, Of little beast and little bird.
It is often claimed that any such long-term view is merely a device for discouraging political action and protest. Here I want to bring together Thomas's historical situation and his ecocentrism, at their wartime crisis point, as a preliminary to exploring some of their structural and epistemological consequences in his poetry. Just as Raymond Williams sees “February Afternoon” as simply opposing a sense of timelessness to a sense of war, so Robert Wells has criticized Thomas for being philosophically “unable to protest; not against the destruction of [English rural] culture nor against the mass slaughter of the men who embodied the culture.”40 It all depends on what you mean by “protest.” In “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)” Thomas does not minimize a catastrophe when, rather than comparing the dead to flowers, or ridiculing that comparison, he points to a socio-ecological alteration:
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood This eastertide call into mind the men, Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should, Have gathered them and will do never again.
Similarly, “February Afternoon” and “Digging” are not really saying it will be or was “all the same in a thousand years” or several thousand years. Both poems are partly framed as ironical questions to human powers-that-be—political and religious—in the context of an ecosystem to which they belong and from which they might learn. Anger works through perspectives such as “The dead man's immortality / Lies represented lightly with my own,” with the ambiguity of “immortality” (as in “Haymaking,” quoted later) and the oxymoronic pun on “represented lightly.” Here, you might say, war recruits achieve solidarity beyond the parochialism of the contemporary. Also, “living air” and “light of day” seem ecological accusations. They contrast with the (self-sponsored) reduction of the human element to dead “matter” and the doubt as to whom it matters in another sense. Indeed, “the living air,” the biosphere, questions the binary opposition of “tears or mirth.” One sign of such questioning is that “Digging” (the first poem Thomas wrote after his enlistment) is a revision of an earlier poem of the same title. Initially he picks up on its final rhyme, given more emphasis and some irony by a rhyming couplet. Thus the rhyme sequence from poem to poem runs as follows: earth, mirth, mirth, earth. “Earth,” the key word in common and enclosing term of the chiasmus, shifts in meaning from soil, humus, to more global suggestions. The disturbing archaeology of “Digging” [II] upsets a harmony, above ground, in “Digging” [I], whereby “It is enough / To smell, to crumble the dark earth, / While the robin sings over again / Sad songs of Autumn mirth.” Here the robin's song is said to integrate what the later poem perceives as a split in (or owing to) human consciousness: we laugh or weep. “February Afternoon” also inquires into the oppositional habits that produce wars in which “men” can be only “audacious or resigned.” The sonnet incorporates a political bird fable in its use of a starlings' parliament, perhaps in democratic contrast to imagery of gulls led by rooks. But if the natural world is competitive, too, it seems better regulated. Men who plow (or dig) contribute to the system. Men at war become unable to see or hear what the animal or vegetable creation might be suggesting. This blindness and deafness is totalized in a patriarchal Judaeo-Christian God “aloft,” transcendental, out of touch with the earth: “And God still sits aloft in the array / That we have wrought him. …” “Array” hits at religious forms lacking the substance that a genuine “humanus” might have put there. (“Almighty God” in “Digging” is a similar construct on the part of our inability to read an evolutionary environment in which we have survived the mastodon.) When “the broad ploughland oak / Roars mill-like” with starlings, like the mastodon it is both an emblem of earth at war and a reminder of older “laws.” Thomas's historical sense in the poem functions in the same microcosmic way as his spatial sense. If he uses millennia to get into focus one day in 1916, one day in 1916 also focuses millennia.
Thomas's eco-history is equal to interpreting briefer timespans and individual lifespans. “Man and Dog” and “A Private” complement each other as concentrations of Thomas's earlier rural biographies, which themselves culminated in several articles about rural and urban England preparing or unprepared for war: “I shall write down, as nearly as possible, what I saw and heard, hoping not to offend too much those who had ready-made notions as to how an Imperial people should or would behave in time of war, of such a war. …”41 Robert Wells cites “Man and Dog” when he faults Thomas for merely elegizing a culture, thereby assenting in its “general will to die.” This political and critical naïveté suggests that Wells, rather than Thomas, has succumbed to fatalism and “shows little sense of the common tragedy in which Europe was caught by the war.”42 England was a window for Thomas, not an insular limit, and “elegy” is a wide-ranging genre, not an invariably passive lament.
“'Twill take some getting.” “Sir, I think 'twill so.” The old man stared up at the mistletoe That hung too high in the poplar's nest for plunder Of any climber, though not for kissing under: Then he went on against the north-east wind— Straight but lame, leaning on a staff new-skinned, Carrying a brolly, flag-basket, and old coat,— Towards Alton, ten miles off. And he had not Done less from Chilgrove where he pulled up docks …
At certain historical junctures the artist's most useful action may be to point the camera. But there is analysis and criticism in this subtly blended elegy. As the speaker attends to oral history stemming from the last third of the nineteenth century, we learn in a seemingly incidental phrase that the man's “sons, three sons, were fighting.” This information takes its place in a shifting history of hard work, hardship, and environmental change. Industrial casual labor has encroached on farm laboring, itself grown casual, and the old man, too, has been a soldier:
His mind was running on the work he had done Since he left Christchurch in the New Forest, one Spring in the 'seventies,—navvying on dock and line From Southampton to Newcastle-on-Tyne. In 'seventy-four a year of soldiering With the Berkshires,—hoeing and harvesting In half the shires where corn and couch will grow.
If the close of the poem moves with an autumnal rhythm, it simultaneously condemns the exploitative ethic that has led to the war and the man's obsolescence:
“Many a man sleeps worse tonight Than I shall.” “In the trenches.” “Yes, that's right. But they'll be out of that—I hope they be— This weather, marching after the enemy.” “And so I hope. Good luck.” And there I nodded “Good-night. You keep straight on.” Stiffly he plodded; And at his heels the crisp leaves scurried fast, And the leaf-coloured robin watched, They passed, The robin till next day, the man for good, Together in the twilight of the wood.
This counterpoints the histories of man, robin, and trees. All the life in the poem belongs in different but interconnected ways to what is “passing,” to the business of the earth. There is, however, an implied question about the accelerating human impact on natural systems and cycles. The old man's relationship to the earth, on balance—and in balance—positive, is becoming a thing of the past. And yet, within the politics of this scenario, the nonhuman creation is shown to resist subjugation: mistletoe plays hard to get; couch grass grows with corn; the man can skin a staff but has been lamed by a fall from a tree; the robin appears noncommittal; the leaves “scurry” as if speeding a departure. Meanwhile, humanity's self-destructive tendencies are accelerating too: “shires” have become regiments. Thus the poem's valedictory vista disturbingly implicates all its readers (“the man for good”). According to eco-history, human endings matter but are not all that matter. As the conclusion of another poem, “The Mountain Chapel,” reminds us: “When gods were young / This wind was old.”
The old man's passing, individually if not culturally, might be seen as a fitting evolutionary return to the earth (compare the death of Lok in William Golding's novel The Inheritors). But this does not apply to the swifter recycling implied by “Digging” or grimly encapsulated in Thomas's lines “when the war began / To turn young men to dung” (“Gone, Gone Again”). The death of “A Private” covers the intolerable plight of the old man's sons:
This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors Many a frozen night, and merrily Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores: “At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush,” said he, “I slept.” None knew which bush. Above the town, Beyond “The Drover,” a hundred spot the down In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps More sound in France—that, too, he secret keeps.
The war has prematurely violated the ploughman/private's bonds with “Mrs Greenland”—a joke that anticipates Gaia. And his riddle about where he sleeps, together with the poem's own ironic, riddling play on “privacy” and secrecy, further accuses human agencies of usurping earth-mysteries. When Thomas himself got to the front (in January 1917), it is not incongruous that his “War Diary” should have intermingled nature notes and battle log, thus conveying a whole environment under bombardment. The second-to-last entry (April 7) reads: “A cold bright day of continuous shelling. … Larks, partridges, hedgesparrows, magpies by O[bservation] P[ost]. A great burst in red brick building in N. Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.”43
Thomas's poems are usually spoken by a first-person singular, and both text and author are, of course, inescapably human, inescapably “cultured.” Nonetheless, their procedures do much to renew the root meaning of humanus—to reinforce “the inseparableness of Nature and Man,” to diminish “man's importance in the landscape,” and to subvert anthropocentric authority. Thus, David Gervais in Literary Englands (1993) misses a fundamental point when he says that “the typical Thomas poem takes place outside human settlement,” or exclaims: “How different it is from the England of the novelists! There are no steam trains [wrong] or ocean liners, telephones or suffragettes, garden cities or Labour MPs.”44 In fact, most of Thomas's poems allude to settlement in one way or another; but his margins are, rather, a vantage point from which to criticize “the England of the novelists” and examine earthly tenancies. “Up in the Wind,” the first poem he wrote in December 1914, includes the lines:
Her cockney accent Made her and the house seem wilder by calling up— Only to be subdued at once by wildness— The idea of London there in that forest parlour …
Keeping Jefferies's After London in his sights, Thomas strategically deflects “the roar of towns / And their brief multitude” (“Roads”). Nor, as we have seen, does he suppress what John Barrell (in his study of English painting 1730-1840) terms “the dark side of the landscape”—the condition of rural England further darkened by war.45
Contemporary theory of landscape painting argues that landscape is never “natural,” being always viewed through cultural lenses even before its reproduction; that its “prospects” may be complicit with imperialism; and that the forward movement of the colonizing eye, in the words of W. J. T. Mitchell's introduction to Landscape and Power (1994), “is not confined to the external, foreign fields toward which the empire directs itself; it is typically accompanied by a renewed interest in the re-presentation of the home landscape, the ‘nature’ of the imperial center.”46 Thomas was an anti-imperialist: he desired to rescue “the home landscape” from “Great Britain, the British Empire, Britons, Britishers, and the English-speaking world” and from a centralizing metropolis.47 But the imperialism against which he fought aesthetically was the imperialism of the human, rather than the capitalist, prospect (though the former may beget the latter). His poem “The Watchers” contrasts a carter “[w]atching the water press in swathes about his horse's chest” with “one [who] watches, too, / In the room for visitors / That has no fire, but a view / And many cases of stuffed fish, vermin and kingfishers.” That such a detached, prospecting eye implicates a death-dealing human imperium is central to the thrust of the poem. So is progressive self-insulation from the pressure and fire of the nonhuman creation.
“Haymaking” and “The Brook” indicate Thomas's awareness and wariness of the visual arts landscape tradition. The scene in “Haymaking” is very deliberately a scene, one that underlines the specific—radical and demotic—varieties of pastoral to which it subscribes:
The men leaned on their rakes, about to begin, But still. And all were silent. All was old, This morning time, with a great age untold, Older than Clare and Cobbett, Morland and Crome, Than, at the field's far edge, the farmer's home, A white house crouched at the foot of a great tree.
Although this freeze-frame suggests the spirit of which Thomas had earlier wished to make “a graven image,” “Haymaking” is also self-referentially conscious of frames within frames; and, like most other poems quoted here, moves between “different layers of historical time” (Harris). “Under the heavens that know not what years be,” Thomas lays out a vista of beginnings (the moment when agriculture starts), long eco-history (the “great tree”), literary and artistic traditions (agriculture becomes culture), and possible endings. Indeed, the poem ends by enclosing itself within a receding and ambiguous wartime frame: “The men, the beasts, the trees, the implements / Uttered even what they will in times far hence—/ All of us gone out of the reach of change—/ Immortal in a picture of an old grange.” If “Haymaking” ultimately stresses the visual, its collective earthly “utterance” also depends on other kinds of sense impression (“shrill shrieked … / The swift,” “the scent of woodbine and hay new-mown”). Similarly, “The Brook,” written two days later, starts with the speaker “watching a child / Chiefly that paddled,” then takes in birdsong and “a scent like honeycomb / From mugwort dull.” Yet “The Brook” dramatizes, rather than assumes, the primal epistemology of “gathering sight and sound,” and the speaker's peaceable sensory kingdom of birds, flowers, and insects is allied to the “motion, and the voices, of the stream” as well as to the focal stillness of “Haymaking.” And this scene edges the human presence to its margin: a butterfly behaves “as if I were the last of men / And he the first of insects to have earth / And sun together and to know their worth.”
Several of Thomas's poems establish a working relation between the “natural” and the “human,” in which the senses, together or separately, constitute the basis for an “interconnected web” (Eckersley). “Digging” [I] begins: “Today I think / Only with scents.” In this present-tense scenario an inseparable “Nature and Man” ecologically cooperate as “a bonfire burns / The dead, the waste, the dangerous, / And all to sweetness turns.” Elsewhere, the “otherness” of species and natural phenomena can prove challenging. The rain is not always “[w]indless and light, / Half a kiss, half a tear, / Saying good-night” (“Sowing”). Or, if the pathetic fallacy is inevitable, Thomas imprints nature not only with human unhappiness but also with human extinctions. In “Rain” the speaker has “no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved except the love of death.” “The Mill-Water” ends with “water falling / Changelessly calling, / Where once men had a work-place and a home.” Here local economic change brings the “Bedlam of history” into focus. The voices he assigns to water and wind often appear adverse or inaccessible to consciousness. Similarly, birdsong and human language converge in “March” (“Something they knew—I also, while they sang”); diverge in “If I Were To Own” (the thrush's “proverbs untranslatable”). Sometimes concentration on natural sounds is correlated with a salutary loss of human memory. In “The Word” the speaker's obsession with “a pure thrush word,” “an empty thingless name,” downgrades anthropocentric history: “I have forgot … names of the mighty men / That fought and lost or won in the old wars.” Thomas's protagonist frequently fails to translate, construe, or utter the earthly text that matters more than those ironically lost “mighty men,” or he finds that his eye fails him. In “Birds' Nests” winter trees expose what he has missed, but this does not mitigate the failure: “Since there's no need of eyes to see them with.” Chastened and educated, he goes on to discover natural microsystems “deep-hid.” In the paradoxically named “First Known When Lost,” bearings have to be revised after a woodman fells a copse: “And now I see as I look / That the small winding brook, / A tributary's tributary, rises there.” To “see as I look” humbles the prospecting human eye, and true observation socializes the “isolated observer” (Williams) as an inhabitant of earth. John Barrell's essay “Being Is Perceiving” contrasts John Clare's subjectivity, constituted by a “complex manifold of simultaneous impressions,” with James Thomson's “subject … which needed to announce itself as autonomous, as freeing itself from the determination of the objects it perceived.”48
Thomas's syntax, more sophisticated than Clare's, takes the reader on destabilizing mystery tours that give the “complex manifold” or interconnected web dimensions in time as well as space. His syntactical maneuvers, allied to changes of angle and vantage point, help to alter power relations between the human element and other perceivers. Take, for example, “Thaw”:
Over the land freckled with snow half thawed The speculating rooks at their nests cawed And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass, What we below could not see, Winter pass.
“The Path” plays on the constrictions of human sight, human engineering, and, indeed, literary pastoral, as it lures the reader along unbeaten tracks:
the eye Has but the road, the wood that overhangs And underyawns it, and the path that looks As if it led on to some legendary Or fancied place where men have wished to go And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends.
“Fifty Faggots” is a temporal microcosm in which seasonal change interacts with less predictable historical forces set in motion by human beings. It begins with a statement about visual, tangible present-tense presence: “There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots,” but then introduces history: “That once were underwood of hazel and ash / In Jenny Pinks's copse.” The poem continues with a set of variables that will determine relations between present and future:
Now, by the hedge Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone Can creep through with the mouse and wren. Next Spring A blackbird or a robin will nest there, Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain Whatever is for ever to a bird: This Spring it is too late; the swift has come …
Although bird and animal habitats have been influenced by human actions, the speaker/author is equally subject to the incalculable: “Before they are done / The war will have ended, many other things / Have ended, maybe, that I can no more / Foresee or more control than robin and wren.” In the course of the poem, the same (or almost the same) object is consigned to a corresponding range of linguistic variables: faggots/underwood/thicket.
Foresight and control are also problematic when it comes to more elaborate edifices. Settlement, in Thomas's poetry, hovers on the verge of unsettlement: “Where once men had a work-place and a home.” The rare “Manor Farm,” conjuring “a season of bliss unchangeable,” is far outnumbered by precariously placed or ominous dwellings. Thomas's “houses” include: “that forest parlour,” “A white house crouched at the foot of a great tree,” “road and inn, the sum / Of what's not forest,” “the woodman's cot / By the ivied trees,” “Chapel and gravestones, old and few,” the “fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath.” It is striking how many houses are situated close to the mystery of men and trees, with trees as the dominant presence. Ideally this situation should foster the reciprocities latent in the human/animal words “crouched” and “foot” applied to house and tree in “Haymaking.” But “The Barn” begins: “They should never have built a barn there, at all—/ Drip, drip, drip!—under that elm tree.” The barn undergoes what from the viewpoint of agribusiness would be degradation: “Built to keep corn for rats and men / Now there's fowls on the roof, pigs on the floor.” (“Rats and men” seems pointed.) From a more holistic angle, the barn's decline has restored it biodegradably to nature. First, “Starlings used to sit there with bubbling throats”:
But now they cannot find a place, Among all those holes, for a nest any more. It's the turn of lesser things, I suppose. Once I fancied 'twas starlings they built it for.
Thomas's forest fixation does not only reflect the tree-covered Hampshire hangers or mourn obsolescent wood trades such as charcoal burning or imply the wilderness of the individual unconscious. Ultimately it symbolizes an evolutionary and eco-historical perspective (the unconscious of the species perhaps) within which all human settlement appears vulnerable. “The Green Roads” outlines this perspective almost diagramatically by layering the lifespans of different species and their individual members:
The green roads that end in the forest Are strewn with white goose feathers this June,
Like marks left behind by someone gone to the forest To show his track. But he has never come back.
Down each green road a cottage looks at the forest. Round one the nettle towers; two are bathed in flowers.
An old man along the green road to the forest Strays from one, from another a child alone.
The diagram includes an “old” thrush, “young” trees, a dead oak that “saw the ages pass in the forest,” and the poet-historian's accurate, foreboding footnote: “all things forget the forest / Excepting perhaps me. …” Yet, as in “The Mill-Water” and “Tall Nettles,” Thomas may partly relish the power reversal whereby nettles come to “tower,” “reign,” or “cover up.” In “The Green Roads” the cottages, with subtextual anxiety, “look at” the forest. In “House and Man” the trees “look upon” a house “from every side.” On Thomas's time scales this isolated wood dweller, paranoid about “forest silence and forest murmur,” represents more than “an image of poverty”49 or the disappearance of rural England: “One hour: as dim he and his house now look / As a reflection in a rippling brook. …” In “The Long Small Room,” one of Thomas's last poems, the house metaphor overtly merges into all earth-dwelling. An earlier poem, “The Other,” arrives at a brief moment of poise in which the divided protagonist internalizes “one star, one lamp, one peace / Held on an everlasting lease” and feels himself to be “[a]n old inhabitant of earth.” But “The Long Small Room” is spoken retrospectively by a less secure leaseholder, who also speaks on behalf of other natural phenomena:
When I look back, I am like moon, sparrow and mouse That witnessed what they could never understand Or alter or prevent in the dark house. One thing remains the same—this my right hand
Crawling crab-like over the clean white page …
Here the activity of writing figures at a distance from the possibility of deciphering or controlling the earthly text. “Crab-like” further subverts the anthropocentric arrogance of Homo faber as author and artist. Thomas's doubts about human constructs extend to the architectural model of the artist (a contrast with some of Yeats's emphases). It is not only “superfluous men,” to quote Stan Smith, who “do not own [the house] or share in its significances.”50 Man, in a more generic sense, may be superfluous. And “ownership” here has to do with deeper eco-nomics. In other poems, however, the earth offers its own kind of access to “significances.” Raymond Williams gets it exactly wrong when he praises the opening lines of “Swedes” (“They have taken the gable from the roof of clay / On the long swede pile. They have let in the sun / To the white and gold and purple of curled fronds / Unsunned”), but objects to a comparison between this revelation and “going down into an Egyptian tomb.”51 The point is that the artifacts bearing witness to the pharaoh's glory—“God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase, / Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold”—are deathly, unnatural, unrenewable. Like the voyeuristic art associated with the “watcher” in the inn, they contrast with what an ecocentric aesthetic might have to offer: “But dreamless long-dead Amen-hotep lies. / This is a dream of Winter, sweet as Spring.” The post-Darwinian conjunction “God and monkey” satirizes the link between art and the transcendental, immortalizing claims of religion. The trenches did not make Thomas less atheistic: “Rubin … believes in God and tackles me about atheism—thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.”52
Yet Thomas does not entirely give up on the capacity of humanity to “build” as well as “see”: to mediate or inhabit the environment in more ecocentric ways. The interconnected webs of his poetry are sometimes reflexively adduced as evidence that the earth cannot dispense with the spider of human consciousness. Thus, in “Roads,” “The hill road wet with rain / In the sun would not gleam / Like a winding stream / If we trod it not again.” Only imagination can establish the interconnections of metaphor. Similarly, “The Thrush” updates Keats's nightingale by probing the bird's limitations in the cognitive business of “reading,” “knowing,” naming, and remembering: “Or is all your lore / not to call November November, / And April April. … But I know the months all, / and their sweet names. …” This replies dialectically to the “pure thrush word” by valuing the human mind's interconnections with “[a]ll that's ahead and behind.” Thomas applies the word “roar” to any unmediated noise—whether of towns, machines, trees, or artillery. “Good-night,” a rare effort to connect explicitly with man-made London, is plotted in terms of changing sounds and moves in a (historical?) direction opposite to the usual Thomas trajectory: from skylarks “over the down” to “suburb nightingales” to a city center “noise of man and beast and machine” which submerges birdsong/poetry. But the urban sounds include streets made “homely” by the echo of his childhood in “the call of children … Sweet as the voice of nightingale or lark,” and the poem itself creates a fleeting community: “homeless, I am not lost … it is All Friends' Night, a traveller's good night.” This provisional accommodation neither surrenders to nor evades the city. It still insists that the streets are the “strangest thing in the world”53 because they have yet to be imagined as earth-dwellings, their roar assimilated, even if the poem's own naming begins the process.
Thomas's versions of the artist involve not the builder or maker but the listener, the seeker, the traveler, the receiver of signals from the environment, the apprentice to natural language, the medium of human language: “Will you … Choose me, / You English words?” (“Words”). Obviously this receptivity, too, is a strategic construct, though the poetry does not impute invariable success to its self-images. In “Aspens” Thomas elaborates his ecological aesthetic, defining it as a voice intermediary between earth and human beings:
All day and night, save winter, every weather, Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop, The aspens at the cross-roads talk together Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing Of hammer, shoe, and anvil; out of the inn The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing— The sounds that for these fifty years have been.
Stan Smith emphasizes “dereliction” and the speaker's own “redundancy like that threatening the blacksmith,”54 but Thomas again seems to move from a particular historical context to a longer eco-historical perspective, one that includes literary history. The “inn, the smithy, and the shop” represent three perennial kinds of man-made “house”: society, manufacture, and commerce. The poem erases these houses in what might be night, war, or a proleptic absence:
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned, And over lightless pane and footless road, Empty as sky, with every other sound Not ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom, In tempest or the night of nightingales, To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
Yet this also suggests that the sounds associated with the trees (talk, whisper, call) are more durable, mindful, and meaningful than the mechanistic noise of the smithy or the sublinguistic and “random” sounds attached to the social inn. The poem's own aspen-imitative music obliquely disparages the chime of “ringing”/“random singing,” which implies an incoherent or simplistic relation between society and (literary) expression. Once more a third force has entered the arena, and its urgent if disregarded “talk of rain” combines longer historical perspectives with a deeper aesthetic. “Aspens” was written in 1915, so “these fifty years” begin in 1865 and denote not old England but the modern “cross-roads”: the period of unprecedented change and now of war. Yet this half-century is itself a blip:
And it would be the same were no house near. Over all sorts of weather, men, and times, Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
Evidently Thomas is making Cassandra-like claims for his own “marginal” poetry. “Aspens” aligns it with the tree rather than the house, declares its grief more than personal, and insists on a necessary reciprocity between poetry and earth. Inseparable from “all sorts of weather,” the aspens—traditionally the trees with tongues—also symbolize earth's concern that mankind should tune in to its transmissions:
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.
Ecology, like economy, derives from the Greek oikos, home. “Home” is a key word in Thomas's meditation on England (as is “England” in his meditation on home), a much-canvassed topic, to which David Gervais has made a contribution. Gervais stresses the “partial, private,” and provisional nature of Thomas's England, criticizes any attempt to recruit his poetry for a pure elixir of Englishness, and says: “We rarely find [Hardy's] shared meaning in the rural life Thomas writes about. … Thomas did not come to his England from a position sufficiently inside and of it to think of it as more than special and local. He was reticent when it came to investing it with any significance beyond itself (as later readers have been tempted to do).”55 Hardy's kind of “shared meaning” may still be accessible in “the inn, the smithy, and the shop,” but the aspen-poet listens to other winds. If Thomas sought and found Englishness most persuasively in particulars, localities, and momentary epiphanies, this in itself deconstructs the totalizing, centralizing propensities that “Great Britain” was beginning to assume in the Edwardian era, and which were eventually to culminate in the Thatcherite project. Commentators such as John Lucas in England and Englishness (1990), who maintain that “rootedness is always something wished on others,”56 unwittingly testify to the success of that century-long hegemonic trend. Thomas's local emphases, including his interest in dialect and folk song, can also be seen as intelligently conservationist. Jose Harris writes: “[An] intense and variegated local and provincial culture was still a major strand in British social life between 1870 and 1914 … [although] the late Victorian period saw a subterranean shift in the balance of social life away from the locality to the metropolis and the nation. The elements in this shift were complex and only partly visible to contemporaries. …”57 Evidently they were visible to Edward Thomas, and he looked for countervailing elements in communities farther from the metropolis. Hence his alertness to the literature of “intimate reality” inspired by Ireland as contrasted with Britannia—“a frigid personification.”58Beautiful Wales (1905) devotes half a page of its first chapter to reciting the names of places visited, and attributes extreme and holistic local loyalties to some of the people met. Of course, as Beautiful Wales indicates, the suburbs had reached Wales, too, though change was slower there. Thomas's Anglo-Welshness may or may not have involved “contradictions.”59 It certainly gave him insights that dramatized the conflict, throughout the British Isles, between modernization and traditional kinds of communal self-understanding, a conflict that is not quite over yet. I have already argued that, for Thomas, “shared meaning” requires participation in a wider web than the social nexus Gervais finds lacking in his work.
Thomas wrote three poems called “Home,” and two of them are unhappy. The first (February 1915) begins “Not the end: but there's nothing more,” and turns on an unresolved tension between utopian or arcadian possibility (“That land, / My home, I have never seen”) and the “fear [that] my happiness there, / Or my pain, might be dreams of return / Here, to the things that were.” On its social level, this parable sticks with the present while registering the lost domain. The third in the series, written in March 1916, after his enlistment, has a more exclusively cultural focus. The title is given in quotation marks, and the poem concerns a walk taken by three soldiers over “untrodden snow” in the “strange” countryside around their training camp:
The word “home” raised a smile in us all three, And one repeated it, smiling just so That all knew what he meant and none would say. Between three counties far apart that lay We were divided and looked strangely each At the other, and we knew we were not friends But fellows in a union that ends With the necessity for it, as it ought …
In this poem of division and estrangement, “shared meaning” is precluded because the meaning shared is that “home” means different things, different places, different perceptions. The men have been constrained into a military, and perhaps national, “union” that overrides local particularisms. Thomas's poetry is shaped by the antinomies: familiar/strange; known/unknown or unknowable; solitude/society. These antinomies raise overlapping questions about psychic, cultural, and ecological belonging which are most affirmatively answered in the second “Home” poem (April 1915). Here, to quote Robyn Eckersley, the various “organisms” are harmoniously “constituted by environmental interrelationships,” while psychology and culture also achieve equilibrium:
Often I had gone this way before: But now it seemed I never could be And never had been anywhere else; 'Twas home; one nationality We had, I and the birds that sang, One memory.
They welcomed me. I had come back That eve somehow from somewhere far: The April mist, the chill, the calm, Meant the same thing familiar And pleasant to us, and strange too, Yet with no bar.
The extension of “nationality,” historical “memory,” and shared meaning to birds is a subversive stroke in 1915. It sharpens the similar transferrals, in Thomas's prose, of sociopolitical vocabulary to “this commonwealth of things that live in the sun, the air, the earth, the sea, now and through all time.” That phrase occurs in his meditation on “the business of the earth” and on the reality that the “rumour of much toil and scheming and triumph may never reach the stars. … We know not by what we survive.”60 The poem ends by including in its local ecosystem a laborer who “went along, his tread / Slow, half with weariness, half with ease,” and the “sound of [his] sawing” is given the last word. This construction of “Home” partly endorses, partly qualifies, Thomas's wartime redefinition of “England” as “a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home.”61 Its ecosystem is not necessarily a national microcosm but cognitively self-sufficient. Thus the centrifugal implications converge on those of “Home” in quotation marks. “England,” as well as “Great Britain,” has to be broken down. Thomas's originality in reimagining the “knowable community,” however, is to fuse ecology and sociality, to unite environmental and local/regional priorities against the metropolis. Yet, as a poet concerned about the condition of England, Thomas sometimes insinuates that its “system of vast circumferences” becomes the interconnected web of his own poems, which might have various local meanings. In the camp, talking to fellow recruits about England, he was pleased to find “There isn't a man I don't share some part with.”62
Thomas's poetry destabilizes authority, perception, and time in a spirit often regarded as peculiar to modernist aesthetics. It does so with precise reference to environmental and epistemological issues latent in his immediate historical context. And it exhibits a kind of historical imagination usually precluded by the premises of American and Irish modernism. His antinomial landscape is also compounded of presence and absence: a matter not of theoretical protocols but of lost domains, senseless cemeteries, and human departures—the “flowers left thick at nightfall,” “two clay pipes,” “a ghostly room.” Stan Smith has demonstrated that the “ghost is one of the commonest tropes in Thomas's poetry.”63 But absence in Thomas not only laments or prophesies loss but also marks what ought to be there. The poet returns from the margin, “comes back … from somewhere far,” with meanings for community.
Thomas is as occupied with meaning and language as modernist writing is supposed to be, and often more disturbingly. “I read the sign. Which way shall I go?” says “The Signpost,” one of his first poems, and the poetry that follows reads many ambiguous natural and cultural signs that are missed by contemporary theorists (Robyn Eckersley attacks “The Failed Promise of Critical Theory” from an ecocentric viewpoint).64 Indeed, Thomas's interest in language pivots on relations between nature and culture: not just the anthropocentric question whether culture seeks to “naturalize” itself for suspect political reasons, but the ecocentric question whether human languages remain in touch with their environmental origins. “The Combe” begins, “The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark. / Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar.” If this suggests the impenetrability of some earth languages, the poem goes on to find the Combe's stopped mouth less dismaying than an ecological violence that bears on England at war, not only with Germany but with itself:
But far more ancient and dark The Combe looks since they killed the badger there, Dug him out and gave him to the hounds, That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
Thomas's humanizing language for the badger (which invokes Celtic rather than imperial Britain) tries to heal a split in home and in natural man. In “Words” Thomas celebrates the English language for being “as dear / As the earth which you prove / That we love.” Language, too, has a long eco-history, being “[a]s our hills are, old.” Similarly, the elusive “Lob” represents one language's evolutionary fitness in speech and writing: “Calling the wild cherry tree the merry tree.” In this positive linguistic scenario, it is not that “word” exactly or referentially reproduces “thing,” but that the associations of words, in an ecological sense, testify to the development of language (and literature) as a function of bodily, sensory, local, and earthly existence. The likeness/difference of bird language is not just a sentimentality on Thomas's part. Humanity kept itself in the text through language. And our ability to ensure that language is “Worn new / Again and again” (“Words”) depends on recognizing the “lost homes” it harbors.
But the dark alternative is that man's textual inscriptions may wear thin or lose touch. Two of Thomas's first poems, “March” and “Old Man,” written on consecutive days, stand in an antinomial symbolic relation to each other. In “March” Thomas identifies his own artistic release with thrushes imposing their song after bad weather has “kept them quiet as the primroses” and postponed spring: “So they could keep off silence / And night, they cared not what they sang or screamed.” At the end of “March” there is a sense that the linked vocal efforts of poet and birds have been productive. “Old Man” begins by holding the human and nonhuman creation in a precarious balance:
Old Man, or Lad's love,—in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man, The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree, Growing with rosemary and lavender. Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is: At least, what that is clings not to the names In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
Certainly this does not subscribe to a correspondence theory of language, or suggest that any single verbal formula can get at “the thing it is.” The contradictory names of the plant, and the speaker's liking for them, however, belong to a history of proximate if not shared meanings. In contrast, the end of “Old Man” unravels the interconnected web (“I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray / And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing”) to open up a vista devoid of human presence, history, memory, meaning, and language: “Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.” Nonhuman creatures can cope with nameless things, or speak “thingless names,” but not mankind. This ultimate or original absence is not the silence and night that Thomas sometimes welcomes as an earthly requiescat. It forebodes the premature encroachment of “nothingness” if we “mislay the key” to the domain, if we cease desiring to be “not a transitory member of a parochial species, but a citizen of the Earth.”65
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London, 1973), p. 240.
Ibid., pp. 245-46, 256, 261.
Citations of Edward Thomas's poetry are from The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, ed. R. George Thomas (Oxford, 1978).
Williams, The Country and the City, p. 260.
Robyn Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach (London, 1992), p. 49.
Ibid., pp. 182, 86.
Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London, 1991), p. 9.
Ibid., pp. 10, 11.
Poetry Review 80, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 3, 41.
Anne Buttimer, Geography and the Human Spirit (Baltimore, 1993), pp. 8, 2-3.
Edward Thomas, The South Country (1909; rpt. London, 1993), p. 65.
Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain, 1870-1914 (1993; rpt. London, 1994), p. 42.
Edward Thomas, review of Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912, by Edward Marsh, Daily Chronicle, January 14, 1913; reprinted in Edna Longley, ed., A Language Not To Be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas (Manchester, 1981), pp. 112-13.
Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968: rpt. London, 1991), pp. 5, 63.
Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, p. 252.
Daily Chronicle, August 14, 1905, and August 30, 1905; excerpted in Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed, pp. 201-2.
Helen Thomas, As It Was and World Without End (London, 1956), p. 115.
Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, p. 126.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 43.
Letter of August 20, 1908, in Letters from Gordon Bottomley to Edward Thomas, ed. R. George Thomas (London, 1968), p. 167.
See introduction to Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed.
Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (1909; rpt. London, 1978), p. 294.
Edward Thomas, “Some Country Books,” in British Country Life in Autumn and Winter: The Book of the Open Air, ed. Edward Thomas (London, 1908); reprinted in Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed, pp. 162-65 (quote p. 164).
Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, pp. 5, 36.
Edward Thomas, The Country (London, 1913), p. 21.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 71.
Stan Smith, Edward Thomas (London, 1986), pp. 18-19.
Ibid., p. 19.
Chapter 12 of The South Country is called “Children of Earth”; see also p. 161 and pp. 18, 131-34, 148.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 164.
Ibid., pp. 121-22, 50.
Ibid., p. 26.
Ibid., p. 19.
Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (1993; rpt. London, 1994), p. 330.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 20.
Wilson, The Diversity of Life, pp. 332-33.
Thomas, The South Country, pp. 116, 110.
Andrew Dobson, ed., The Green Reader (London, 1991), p. 8.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 115.
Robert Wells, “Edward Thomas and England,” in The Art of Edward Thomas, ed. Jonathan Barker (Bridgend, 1987), p. 71.
Edward Thomas, “Tipperary,” from The Last Sheaf (London, 1928); reprinted in Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed, pp. 231-40 (quote p. 232).
Wells, “Edward Thomas and England,” pp. 72, 66.
Entry of April 7, 1917, “Diary of Edward Thomas,” January 1-April 8, 1917, Appendix C, in The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, p. 481.
David Gervais, Literary Englands: Versions of “Englishness” in Modern Writing (Cambridge, 1993), p. 41.
John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730-1840 (Cambridge, 1980).
W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., Landscape and Power (Chicago, 1994), p. 17.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 55.
John Barrell, “Being Is Perceiving,” in Poetry, Language, and Politics (Manchester, 1988), pp. 126-27.
Smith, Edward Thomas, p. 67.
Ibid., p. 44.
Williams, The Country and the City, p. 259.
Entry of March 23, 1917, in “Diary of Edward Thomas,” p. 478.
Edward Thomas, The Heart of England (London, 1906), p. 4.
Smith, Edward Thomas, p. 84.
Gervais, Literary Englands, p. 43.
John Lucas, England and Englishness (London, 1990), p. 6.
Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, pp. 18-19.
Edward Thomas, review of John Cooke, ed., The Dublin Book of Irish Verse, in Morning Post, January 6, 1910.
“That he could himself embrace his Welshness and yet at the same time not feel the strain of reconciling it with his idea of England testifies to the power of ideology to contain contradictions.” Smith, Edward Thomas, p. 15.
Thomas, The South Country, p. 19.
Edward Thomas, “England,” in The Last Sheaf (London, 1928); reprinted in Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed, pp. 222-31 (quote p. 231).
Letter of February 11, 1916, in Letters from Gordon Bottomley, p. 259.
Smith, Edward Thomas, p. 66.
Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory, pp. 97-117.
Edward Thomas, “George Meredith,” in A Literary Pilgrim in England (London, 1917); excerpted in Longley, A Language Not To Be Betrayed, pp. 36-37 (quote p. 37).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3812
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 up, almost overnight, when Edward VII ascended the throne’, preferring instead the work of Thomas Traherne (1637-74), ‘of a past generation, out of place in the company of modern social theory’. Writing in 1936-7, at the height of the Popular Front, Eckert assumed that ‘modern social theory’ was a front organisation for communism. Certainly, Thomas was never a ‘party politician’—his phrase in the introduction to Richard Jefferies' The Hills and the Vale (1909) to contrast with Jefferies' ‘revolutionary’ commitment to the rural poor. He professed in The South Country the same year that ‘Politics … reforms and preservations … I cannot grasp; my mind refuses to deal with them’. But he also numbered himself in The Country (1913) among those ‘not indifferent to movements affecting multitudes’, who ‘may even have become entangled in one or another kind of social net’, and the circles in which he moved at Bedales school, where his wife Helen taught, were socialist, feminist and libertarian in a distinctively Georgian mode.
Newly discovered in the 1900s, and edited from the original manuscripts by Bertram Dobell, Traherne's writings were reviewed by Thomas as they appeared1. They found a ready place alongside Blake, Whitman and William Morris in that amalgam of political, sexual libertarian and theosophical speculation that passed for avant-garde thinking in the decade before the War. For all his quietism during the Commonwealth, Traherne's thought had clearly been influenced by the antinomianism of its radical sects. What excited Thomas was not the outdatedness but the contemporaneity of Traherne's ideas: in particular a social phenomenology that reconciled individual consciousness with the community of other minds, through a shared material world, in a kind of visionary communism. In Oxford (1903) Thomas wrote of Traherne's ‘characteristic ecstasy at the sight of common things’, citing the passage about the corn as ‘orient and immortal wheat which … I thought … had stood from everlasting to everlasting’. ‘Common things’ is a recurrent usage of Thomas's, suffusing the merely commonplace with an exalted sense of the commonalty of experience and of things seen and held in common. Traherne's conviction that “‘men and women are, when well understood, a principal part of our true felicity’”, and his delight ‘That he was “concerned in all the world”’, are expounded in a chapter of The South Country largely devoted to his ideas. Thomas discerns a fruitful paradox at the centre of Traherne's ‘social mysticism’: that each individual consciousness is “‘the sole heir of the whole world’” precisely because each contains all the others, mutually:
And our inheritance is more than the world, ‘because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you’. It is a social mysticism. ‘The world,’ he says in another place, ‘does serve you, not only as it is the place and receptacle of all your joys, but as it is a great obligation laid upon all mankind, and upon every person in all ages, to love you as himself; as it also magnifieth all your companions’. His is the true ‘public mind’ as he calls it.
Traherne thus connects with Whitman, he suggests, ‘whom some have blamed for making the word “divine” of no value because he would apply it to all, whereas to do so is no more than to lay down that rule of veneration for men—and the other animals—which has produced and will produce the greatest revolutions’. Traherne's metaphysics of intersubjectivity sees the material world as a shared ‘commonwealth’:
It is this love by which alone the commonwealth of all forms of life can be truly known … His feeling of the interdependence of all the world is thus inseparable from his doctrine of love … ‘He that is in all and with all can never be desolate’.
Thomas, who had read History at Oxford under G. M. Trevelyan, knew the full seventeenth-century resonance of this word: if individuals are interdependent, mutually sustaining, on the ground of a nature which is a ‘common’, shared wealth, then ‘inheritance’ has theologicolegal implications. For Traherne, private property relations are a consequence of the Fall, relived for each subject in the expulsion from a childhood ‘Estate of Innocence’—that prelapsarian primitive communism where (in Thomas's quotation from the Centuries):
All things were spotless and glorious; yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious. I knew not then there were any sins or complaints or laws … I knew nothing of sickness or death or rents or exaction, either for tribute or bread.
Wordsworth's ‘Immortality’ Ode, Thomas adds, may recall a childhood where every common sight was “‘apparell'd in celestial light,’” but ‘it is a tree, a single field, a flower, that reminds [Wordsworth] of his loss’. Traherne, by contrast, ‘is remarkable … for nothing more than for his mingling of man and nature in the celestial light of infancy’. Though he begins with the corn, ‘he goes on to the dust and stones and gates of the town’, and then to its inhabitants. A richly furnished room he finds wearisome, ‘because it was dead, and had no motion. A little afterwards he saw it “full of lords and ladies and music and dancing,” and now pleasure took the place of tediousness’. In this, Thomas says, Traherne ‘anticipated Blake's Auguries of Innocence. He seems to see the patterns which all living things are for ever weaving’.
In a 1910 review of, jointly, Traherne's Poems of Felicity and a reissue of Blake's work, Thomas stresses Traherne's continuity with Romantic idealism, picking out ‘The dejection … expressing his “lack of blessedness” in the presence of beautiful things, complaining, in something like the tone of Coleridge's Ode, that external things alone are impotent’. Traherne's poems, he says, are a ‘subtle pleading for two worlds, or rather for one, the world of thoughts—“Thoughts are real things / From whence all joy, from whence all sorrow springs”’. In an earlier review Thomas had observed that Coleridge's Biographia Literaria contains ‘the most profound literary criticism … written in English … chiefly … on imagination’, and had quoted Coleridge's famous definition of the ‘primary imagination’ as ‘the living power and prime agent of all human perception’ (Daily Chronicle, 8.vi.08). In this later review, as in The South Country, he reinterprets Traherne by means of a concept of ‘imagination, the greatest power of the mind by which not only poets live and have their being’, which runs from Coleridge to Jefferies:
Jefferies prayed that his soul ‘might be more than the cosmos of life’. The soul is greater than the whole world because it is capable of apprehending the whole world, because it is spiritual, and the spiritual nature is infinite. Thus Traherne was led to the splendid error of making the sun ‘a poor little dead thing’ …
‘For God,’ says he, ‘hath made you able to create worlds in your own minds which are far more precious unto Him than those which He created … That power to create worlds in the mind is the imagination and is the proof that the creature liveth and is divine’.
‘Imagination’, in this strong, Coleridgean sense, is the keynote in Thomas's Richard Jefferies (1909), which twice draws analogies between Jefferies and Traherne, and sees Jefferies turning from ‘lonely ecstasy in the downs’ to a vision which ‘will distribute the same force and balm among the cities of men below’, seeking not ‘an unsocial virtue’ but ‘one that touches all men; his aim the ultimate one of joy’.
Thomas's attitude towards this ‘social mysticism’ is always sobered by a sense of the problematic nature of actual relationships, as in his reservation to the comment on Wordsworth quoted above: ‘Perhaps many people's memories in this kind are of Nature rather than man … for in becoming, permanently or temporarily, part of a community, the spirit makes some sacrifice’. Similarly, imagination's power to encompass the perceptual world is thwarted, in Thomas's poetry, by a finite, earthbound body, as in his Whitmanesque poem ‘Health’, which opens with the eye travelling with ease and delight ‘Four miles at a leap, over the dark hollow land’, recalling both Traherne and Coleridge, only to end in a corporeal fallenness: ‘Though scarce this Spring could my body leap four yards’.
This characteristically ‘modern’ stress always qualifies, for Thomas, the Trahernian delight to which he is nonetheless drawn. In a 1913 review, he acknowledged, for example, that Rousseau's ‘profound gladness at being himself’ was in reality an historical and social construct, with political implications:
He felt his own solitariness, believing himself to be unique, and all his life was an effort to construct a society into which he could have fitted. He could not forget that he was most himself when he was alone and out of doors … The whole social achievement of man seemed in vain to him. Perhaps he might have realized that he himself was part of that achievement … He liked to lose himself, if at all, in infinity, not in a suburb, a congregation, or a political or social gathering.
(Daily Chronicle, 14.ii,13)
A series of reviews about Blake throughout the 1900s chart Thomas's shifting sense of the relation between individual and social being. In 1904, he envisages poetry as contestation with the allegedly ‘real’, in a cosmic perspective coloured by Yeatsian Symbolisme:
[Blake] had the supreme imagination … which most effectively sets poets against the world; they see the world, as it were, from among the stars, while those who see it from the elevation of five or six feet, see it distorted and not as it really is. The microscope is a toy compared with his vision. He made human the stars and the seasons, and he made starry the flowers and grass.
(Daily Chronicle, 11.i,04)
Two years later, he inverts the optical metaphor to define a specifically social and historical obfuscation of authentic seeing. Blake's purpose
is to urge one or two here and there in each of these fettered generations to stand aside, as he did, and to see how the world looks, without the prodigious telescope of tradition, or worse still, the glass of fashion streaming and obscured with the vapour of a multitude's breath, through one or other of which we usually look out. Yet no man could have cared less for proselytizing. He asks to be understood, not that those who understand may follow him, but that they may follow no man.
(Daily Chronicle, 31.iii,06)
Against ‘the visions of common day’ Blake represents a ‘simplicity mingled with subtlety which has prophetic power, and augurs a world in which the vision of the few has encompassed the many’:
He sees ‘Pancrass and Kentish-town repose among her golden pillars high’ in Jerusalem. And he sees them all with that direct and joyous communion which we can sometimes have with the eyes of a child. His work persuades us to this communion. His message seems to be—character, which either disregards or overthrows all barriers between desire and the desirable. He says to us: He who knows what he desires shall achieve. That is why his appeal is so small, and may one day be universal. For the world is made up of the many who have suffocated or perverted desire, and the few who are in some prison of spirit or stone for the imperishableness of their desire. But as the individual lives on the hope of restoring or setting free his desire, so the aim of the race is that desire shall be unfettered, the desirable unforbidden in a marriage of heaven and earth [sic]. And of that hope Blake is the prophet, of that the pledge.
(Daily Chronicle, 31.iii,06))
In the joint review of Traherne and Blake in 1910, Thomas's millenarianism appears unabashed:
[C]ertain it is that in Blake's opinion life should be a poem: should be a free and astonishing thing. The innocence of life he loved; everything that was done and said at liberty from the mere reason, or from the self-conscious, ‘self-righteous virtues’, as he considered them, of pagans, deists, and agnostics. And his own life and work proclaim that he enjoyed a great measure of this innocence.
The extensive social unrest of the decade's close produced a striking correlation of poetry and revolution in Feminine Influence on the Poets (1910), which presents poetry as the archetype of the free and fulfilled existence in which, in the millenarian terms of Blake or Traherne, the forms of experience are transformed:
[P]oets are not merely writing figuratively when they say ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ … [T]hey are to be taken more literally than they commonly are … What they say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification. If this is not so … then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty. But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death. Poetry is and must always be apparently revolutionary if active, anarchic if passive. It is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of ‘this world’ are parochial.
A similar chiliasm had informed much of The South Country a year earlier. Awoken to the ‘parochialism of humanity’, ‘made free citizens of eternity’, in ‘The End of Winter’, Thomas quotes Blake's Milton to evoke the visionary mood after a rain-storm. The subsequent chapter (‘Spring’) effects a Blakean catharsis of the senses, and imagines a collective transfiguration of subject and object worlds:
The rain seems not only to have brightened what is to be seen but the eye that sees and the mind that knows … and all the joys of life that come through the nostrils from the dark, not understood world which is unbolted for us by the delicate and savage fragrances of leaf and flower and grass and clod, of the plumage of birds and fur of animals and breath and hair of women and children.
How can our thoughts, the movements of our bodies, our human kindnesses, ever fit themselves with this blithe world? Is it but vain remorse at what is lost, or is it not rather a token of what may yet be achieved, that makes these images blind us … some solemn-thoughtful, some wholly gay, suddenly revealed to us in brilliant light after the night wind and rain?
‘Joy’ and ‘gay’ link Blake and Traherne to a more recent influence. Thomas wrote to Gordon Bottomley in December 1907: ‘Isn't Nietzsche magnificent? & so necessary these days? Yet he damns me to deeper perdition than I have yet bestowed myself. I am glad to hear I was enjoying life. Perhaps my melancholy is a delusion of the surface’. A more negative Nietzschean note is struck in The Icknield Way (1913). Here a nocturnal rainstorm almost engulfs a morbid and self-lacerating subject unworthy of a universe where the rain ‘alone is great and strong … alone knows joy … chants monotonous praise of the order of nature, which I have disobeyed or slipped out of’. Yeats and Nietzsche jostle in the command to ‘Stretch out yourself like foam on a wave, and think no more of good and evil. There was no good and no evil. There was life and there was death, and you chose. Now there is neither life nor death, but only the rain … The truth is that the rain falls for ever and I am melting into it’.
Such psychic apocalypses recur throughout Thomas's writings, reaching back, through Blake and Coleridge's ‘Dejection’ Ode, to the dialectic of desolation and ‘joyous knowing’ in Traherne. At his most euphoric, Thomas can envisage, prefiguring D. H. Lawrence, an apocalyptic transformation of consciousness, at once restoration and transcendence: ‘We find ourselves dreaming that we recover the lost senses or the sealed chambers of our present senses, which the older races enjoyed; for each man of us is as ancient and complicated, as lofty-spired and as deep-vaulted as the oldest cathedrals' (Daily Chronicle, 6.vi,07). Thomas's notebook for the never-completed monograph Ecstasy, undertaken and rapidly abandoned during the second half of 1913, and now in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, the most extreme instance of such eschatological aspirations, hints at their source in a fin de siècle reading of Joachim of Floris:
That it can be made enduring … that our life is … wholly ecstasy, that we can still one day live entirely in that third form of consciousness, cosmic consciousness, which is entered now only for brief moments of ecstasy, some religiously believe and argue. Civilisation, elaborated by the product of the second form, self-consciousness, a purely human civilisation isolating man in [illegible] of the world would disappear.
Our bodies would be healed and doubtless changed. We should live as angels did or as Blake did (Death could have no sting) who lived in poverty, drank porter, hated reason, saw visions, feared no man, and was a great prophet [poet deleted]. Our lives would be poems. Each one of our acts would express and represent all that we were, beyond the dreams of Poe or Pater.
‘Cosmic consciousness’ was currently fashionable. Thomas cites Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1905) in the introduction to The Hills and the Vale. In Richard Jefferies he compares Jefferies' ‘brief momentary ravishments of … daily life’ to Edward Carpenter's ‘universal or cosmic consciousness’. Behind both attributions stands William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which Thomas cites in the former and draws on without acknowledgment in the latter for a pot-pourri of visionary anecdotes. The manuscript of Ecstasy links Coleridge's ‘Dejection’ Ode with Traherne's assertion that ‘You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your Veins’ as similar ‘moments of self-surrender’. The sequence concludes with a cryptic note: ‘It implies an intuition of the “absolute balance”’ and the first edition of The Varieties of Religious Experience quotes Whitman's ‘chronic mystical perception’: ‘an intuition of the absolute balance, in time and space, of all this multifariousness … a soul sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds together the whole congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous’, and thus provides ‘a root-centre for the mind’.
Thomas's poem ‘The Other’ describes one such ‘absolute balance’: a marriage of heaven and earth ‘Held on an everlasting lease’, in a cosmic harmony in which the self ‘stood serene … / An old inhabitant of earth’. The oxymoron, ‘everlasting lease’, both reinstates and cancels the idea of property, recalling that Trahernian wheat standing ‘from everlasting to everlasting’, echoed in a subsequent stanza:
Once the name I gave to hours Like this was melancholy, when It was not happiness and powers Coming like exiles home again, And weaknesses quitting their bowers, Smiled and enjoyed, far off from men, Moments of everlastingness.
Exiled powers return home, yet they smile and enjoy ‘far off from men’. A social alienation, the poem suggests, underlies the metaphysical estrangement here briefly overcome. In a portrait of William Morris in The Bookman in 1911, Thomas commended his ‘faithful Socialist’ pursuit of a ‘social and not isolated’ existence, ‘not an individual but a corporate view of life’, and singled out his poem ‘The Message of the March Wind’ for its ‘beautiful union between love of one woman and of the world’.
Thomas's love poems, in their own quiet way, seek a similar resolution. The modest carnality of ‘Like the Touch of Rain’ deploys tactile and kinetic metaphors to emphasise the bodiliness of lovers, in Trahernian terms, ‘concerned in all the world’, for whom the other is a principal part of one's true felicity. The sexual relation then mediates, as in Morris, internal and external worlds:
Like the touch of rain she was On a man's flesh and hair and eyes When the joy of walking thus Has taken him by surprise:
With the love of the storm he burns, He sings, he laughs, well I know how, But forgets when he returns As I shall not forget her ‘Go now’.
Those two words shut a door Between me and the blessed rain That was never shut before And will not open again.
The rain remains ‘blessed’; the self, however, experiences a ‘lack of blessedness’ in the lover's absence, for ‘external things alone are impotent’. Rain in Thomas's writings can be a comforting or an alienating force. Here the image is complicated by the transferred epithet. The Icknield Way episode closes with the words of the Anglican burial service, ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on’, words also invoked in that poem of solitude and desolation, ‘Rain’, only to be rescinded in a prayer that reaches out in ‘sympathy’ to bless all the absent selves ‘whom once I loved’. ‘Like the Touch of Rain’ emphasises not visual but tactile apprehension (even the eyes register rain and woman as touch) and a sensuous, kinetic ‘joy’. The speaker, like that beloved subject whose fiat cast him from Eden, is not a detached voyeur but a corporeal creature walking a material world. His emotional agitation is expressed as bodily sensation and act (burns, sings, laughs), spontaneous outbursts, akin to the disturbance of the storm, which leave him ‘taken … by surprise’, in a quasi-sexual ‘taking’ close to delirium. The woman's command has kinetic force, like a slamming door, shutting him out from the ‘blessed rain’ into an unforgetting lack felt as bodily mortification. Like Rousseau, Thomas ‘felt his own solitariness’. Like Traherne, Blake and Morris, he also saw its social causes, and could imagine, at the heart of loss, that utopian creaturely ‘community’ he wrote of in the essay, ‘The Friend of the Blackbird’, in which ‘All these things are mine. They are me. And that is not all. I am them. We are one. We are organs and instruments of one another’. It is, one might say, a social mysticism, expressing the true public mind.
See The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, Daily Chronicle, 7.iv.03; iv.04; 15.viii.06; Centuries of Meditations, Morning Post, 31.viii.08; Daily Chronicle, 5.iii.09; Poems of Felicity, Daily Chronicle, 9.xii.10
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5727
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 and schematic thesis. It runs as follows: in English poetry the major tradition embodies ‘a version of empiricism’ in its poetic practice, an empiricism radically challenged by Modernism in the persons of Pound and Eliot whose true heirs are poets like J. H. Prynne and Tom Raworth. Heaney's poetry fails because, unlike theirs, it fails to face the challenge of Modernism. Instead, it continues to affirm the basic propositions of ‘empiricism’ which are ‘(1) that the subject is coherent and autonomous, (2) that discourse is in principle transparent, and (3) that the real can be experienced directly’. In consequence, Easthope brands Heaney a ‘backward-looking Georgian poet’, one who has been made over into an ‘honorary Briton’ in order to bolster up the reactionary supporters of the ‘empiricist’ view in current English poetry.
It is, therefore, no accident that in order to demonstrate what he means by the poetic embodiment of ‘empiricism’ Easthope chooses to discuss a poem by the ‘Georgian’ writer Edward Thomas (Thomas never in fact appeared in the Georgian Anthology). He contrasts Thomas's ‘Adlestrop’, a poem celebrated for its Englishness and therefore highly likely in Easthope's eyes to reflect ‘empiricism’, with the ‘Unreal city’ paragraph from the first part of The Waste Land. After an excursus on the way in which ‘empiricism’ fought back against Modernism in the fifties and after, Easthope turns his attention to Heaney, and in particular to Heaney's poem ‘The Grauballe Man’, which he is satisfied is ‘empiricist’ in tendency. He then goes on to reflect on the backward-looking nature of Heaney's interest in pastoral and briefly deals with passages from another two Heaney poems in order to reach his negative conclusion that Heaney is not very good at all.
Easthope nonchalantly disregards the bulk of writing about Heaney1. His pastoralism has been matter for controversy already, but to Easthope it is all new. He takes the philosophic content of poetry as the primary index of value, but seems to have no understanding of philosophy. His lack of interest in other aspects of poetry may explain his failure to grasp that the poems he discusses are no more ‘empiricist’ by his own rules than The Waste Land or The Cantos. What is more problematic is Easthope's success in getting himself a reputation that is something more than notoriety. In this essay I shall reconsider the two poems by Thomas and Heaney so that they can be seen a little more clearly for what they are, and will conclude by some reflections on Easthope's critical style.
Thomas's ‘Adlestrop’ is, or used to be, a favourite anthology piece and perhaps for this reason, made suspect by its popularity, it has not been written about much by recent critics. It is, for all that, a good poem whose significant features Easthope manages to deface almost without exception. A first hint of the quality of his reading comes when, having quoted the poem, he observes that ‘the regular metre (iambic tetrameter) claims a place for the poem in relation to the main English tradition’. This comment should be read in association with the similar remarks about the versification of the Waste Land passage (‘written in loose iambic pentameter tending towards free verse’), and that of Heaney's ‘Grauballe Man’ (‘organised in loose two- and three-beat lines never far from the iambic norm and carefully arranged into four-line unrhymed stanzas to recall a traditional poem’). Easthope's descriptions ally the very forms of Thomas and Heaney with ‘tradition’, whilst the passage from Eliot is said to tend towards free verse and therefore away from ‘tradition’. It is made to sound simple, and even the absence of prosodic analysis works rhetorically in Easthope's favour, suggesting that his account is obviously true. Yet a little reflection shows that the matter is not at all as simple as all that, since both Eliot and Heaney write in ‘loose’ lines though only Eliot ‘tends towards free verse’. This could well be the case, but it is not a case that can be allowed to go by default as it does in Easthope's article. Thomas's ‘regular metre’ is, in a similar manner, taken for granted. Yet the very first line of ‘Adlestrop’ is difficult to scan, since it requires a decision on the part of the reader as to how much stress its first syllable should take: ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop—’ Does ‘Yes’ defer to the pronoun, affirming the dominance of the subject (and hence its likely ‘coherence and autonomy’) or does it confirm the memory rather than the subject remembering, thereby marginalizing that subject and rendering it inert? The question is an important one for Easthope, since it bears directly on his notionof the poem's ‘empiricist’ base as well as on that of traditional ‘regularity’. But it goes unasked.
Easthope's account of form is too brief and too arbitrary to be helpful. Even if it were true that Thomas is metrically ‘regular’ and Eliot metrically ‘free’, any inclination to conclude that Thomas's form is comfortable in some inauthentic fashion ought to be checked by a consideration of the way he uses his lines, stretching sentences over them in a manner far more disquieting than in many passages of Eliot.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop— The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June.
The keynote of this stanza is imbalance, most obviously the imbalance of length between the first sentence and the second, but also that between lineation and sentence-structure. Thomas builds his sentences not in accord with lineation but against it. Typically, his second line needs the third line and the first word of the fourth to make sense. It would be possible to lineate the passage so that syntax is accommodated more comfortably, but such relineation would obscure the rhyme and the gesture towards order that it constitutes:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop—the name, Because, one afternoon of heat, The express train drew up there unwontedly. It was late June.
The effect of this relineaton is to flatten Thomas's original effect, but not to remove it entirely, because the inequality of length in the line is still an audible feature of the verse. But the tension between the more or less equal line-lengths with their rhyme and the lop-sided sentences of the original is not felt in the same way.
Thomas maintains this sort of imbalance all the way through the poem, most notably in the way the last sentence of the second stanza carries over into the third and is only completed at its end. It is an effect not much found in stanzaic poems before the beginning of the century, particularly not where the lines are as short as they are in ‘Adlestrop’, short lines making the simulated quarrel with syntax more emphatic and challenging than would otherwise be the case. It follows that Thomas's use of form here can hardly be described as ‘traditional’, as Easthope would have it.
His main point about ‘Adlestrop’ is that it is part of English poetry's commitment to ‘empiricism’ prior to the arrival of Modernism. There is, he thinks, nothing problematic about the subject who speaks in the poem or about the world he perceives or about the language he uses. Easthope allows that at the beginning of the poem ‘the speaker feels a little crisis of subjectivity’ but in his reading (p. 24) of the poem
that crisis is overcome when he is caught up in an experience of the landscape as united with his own feelings, perceiving willows, grass and meadows as:
No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
This restores ‘correspondence between subject and object’. But does it? Does Easthope's reading attend to Thomas's writing any more carefully here than in his remarks on form? What Thomas says is
What I saw Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb and grass And meadow-sweet, and haycocks dry, No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
After Thomas has told us what he saw, it remains a question, after all, what he did see. He saw ‘Adlestrop’, but ‘only the name’. In which case he did not see Adlestrop. Perhaps he imagined ‘willows, willow-herb and grass’, saw them, that is, with the mind's eye, but perhaps they really were within sight of the rural station; in which case, they may or may not have been ‘Adlestrop’. To argue like this is to be vulnerable to the criticism that language is being treated as though it were transparent, but the criticism does not really stick; the language constructs a ‘world’ whose ‘reality’ is questionable in the way I have suggested, and it is the questionableness of that ‘world’ that is foregrounded rather than its represented reality. The willows take their place in a sequence of nouns joined by and ‘And willows, willow-herb and grass, And meadow-sweet, and haycocks dry’, the upshot of which is to make it unclear whether what is seen is seen instantaneously, as it might be, or successively, as the separation into discrete units by the conjunction suggests. The list leads to a comparison, cautiously expressed in the negative, ‘No whit less’, with ‘high cloudlets in the sky’, a comparison that tends to diminish the possibility that willows and willow-herb were ‘really’ seen in a ‘real’ landscape because of the remote and insubstantial nature of the clouds. The note of these lines, in other words, is the note of Eliot's lines in The Waste Land as described by Easthope: ‘The text effaces any firm distinction between external and internal’ (p. 26).
As for Easthope's claim that here ‘the speaker is caught up in an experience of the landscape as united with his own feelings’, there is little sign of experiential unity at all in these lines, but rather a scattering of perceptions tenuously linked to ‘Adlestrop—only the name’. Easthope has to introduce the simple-minded yet self-deceiving concept of unity that he associates with ‘tradition’ and ‘empiricism’ by a trick, attaching to the word ‘his’ in the phrase ‘as though meaning has dropped out of his world’ the following note: ‘This kind of would-be masterful and observing gaze is typically masculine, as Laura Mulvey argues in her well-known essay …’ The idea of the speaker's would-be masterfulness is introduced into the account of the poem in this way without any reference to the text—unless all acts of seeing (‘observing’) are judged to be ‘would-be masterful’ until found not guilty of the charge. Thomas's speaker only does two things; he remembers and he sees. This is a slender basis on which to accuse him of wanting to rule the world.
The speaker in Easthope's account, having recovered from his ‘little crisis of subjectivity’, then
accedes to a special understanding of ‘Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’, presided over by the song of a blackbird, a metaphorical object whose ‘song’ effects a synthesis of natural and human, external and internal.
Easthope does not say what the bird is a metaphor of, but there is no indication in the poem that it is a metaphor at all.
And for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
According to Easthope, this is a ‘moment of transcendent insight’ whose ‘imaginary plenitude’ makes up for the ‘moment of loss’ at the beginning of the poem. There is certainly a contrast with the perhaps imagined willows and willow-herb; the poet could not be blunter; the blackbird did sing. But the point of the stanza seems to lie in a dissipation of effect not unlike that in the previous sentence. The conjunction and recurs, this time with a suggestion of widening focus, from the bird to ‘round him’, from ‘round him’ ‘Farther and farther’ which then turns out to be as far as the boundaries of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. The poem begins with a name, dwells on a name and ends with names. The ‘imaginary plenitude’ of the birdsong turns out to be contained by names, which is to say not contained at all. If the birds are all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, they might also be birds of Wiltshire and Berkshire. The names stand for counties, human institutions of little relevance to birds and of no more consequence—and no less—to this experience than the name ‘Adlestrop’ itself. Easthope says that
though the language of the poem is elaborate at certain points … this does not interfere with the overall clarity of the statement—initial hesitations and hiatuses are overcome in the fluent syntax and confident tone of the ending.
His reading certainly conforms to that of other critics of Thomas who associate ‘Adlestrop’ with Thomas's cult of Englishness and turn the poem into a piece of poetic patriotism2. It is more interesting than that. Thomas's cult of England had about it something paradoxical as his occasional inclusion among the Anglo-Welsh writers suggests. The mistiness of ‘Adlestrop’'s last stanza has to my mind quite a lot to do with Thomas's uncertainties about himself which, as Stan Smith, for example, has shown, are related to his sense of competing loyalties to England and to Wales3. The relation between mist and personal insecurity features, for example, in ‘Wind and Mist’:
I did not know it was earth I loved Until I tried to live there in the clouds And the earth turned to cloud.
‘Adlestrop’'s birdsong is, with its mistiness, at least ambiguous, as much a denial as an affirmation of personal identity. Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire may define who Thomas is in so far as he is English, but in being only names and names without relevance to the birds who sing in and across them they remove substance from his world and from his sense of himself in it. Among other things, the conclusion of ‘Adlestrop’ exemplifies the sublime as Burke understood it, an abasement before what is vast and infinite, productive in the poem's reader, as in its speaker, of a tension that is also delight. This sublime, however, is not a transcendent sublime for the very reason that it does constitute a tension.
There is little ‘clarity of statement’ in ‘Adlestrop’, despite the apparent simplicity of its form. Its ‘confidence’ is that of an artist whose subject is precisely that collapsing of inner and outer worlds which Easthope believes to characterize the Modernist poem, but whose talent is equal to the task of expression imposed on him by his subject-matter. In the poem both language itself and the world to which it refers are problematic, and the self attenuated to the point of mere existence, present only in the two moments of remembering and seeing. Certainly, the poem is not out of sympathy with Wordsworth, the poet who spoke of ‘Fallings from us, vanishings; / Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized …’, but it is not out of tune, either, with Eliot and his ‘Unreal city’. Easthope's distinction between traditional ‘empiricist’ poetry and Modernist poetry cannot be sustained by an account of ‘Adlestrop’ that pays full attention to its determining features. Useful discussion of ‘Adlestrop’ begins only after some such process of interpretation as that offered here.
‘THE GRAUBALLE MAN’
The argument about Heaney centres on the accusation that his poetry is more concerned with the recuperation of the self (in the case of ‘The Grauballe Man’ via a transcendent moment) than with its problematisation. Heaney's poem is said to have ‘the same three-part movement’ as ‘Adlestrop’. The Grauballe man, according to Easthope, starts by being entirely outside and alien to the perceiving self, but this ‘outward perception’ is made over into ‘inward experience’ which, in its turn leads to a ‘moment of transcendent understanding’, just as in ‘Adlestrop’ the little crisis of subjectivity was supposed to lead to a union of exterior and interior and finally to the transcendent song of the blackbird. In other words, Easthope thinks that Heaney's poem is evasive of reality and self-comforting by means of its evasiveness.
The evasiveness is focused in Heaney's fostering the illusion of a stable self: ‘The poem is constructed to give the effect of an experiencing ego as its source and speaker’ (p. 32). Easthope is able to write this even though the first-person singular appears in Heaney's poem only at the end of the eighth stanza (there are twelve stanzas in all). At its opening the poem concentrates on the figure of the Grauballe man without drawing attention to a speaker—‘As if he had been poured / in tar, he lies …’ There is no means of telling whether he is being perceived by a her, them, you, us or me. ‘I’, that is, emerges in the poem only late on, and with no sense of inevitability. The first pronoun to figure in the poem apart from the ‘he’ which refers to the Grauballe man is the interrogative of ‘Who will say “corpse” / to his vivid cast?’ It is only after this question has been asked, from a place and person undefined by the poem, that the poet/speaker speaks in his own person. What he says both is and is not an answer to the question asked: ‘I first saw his twisted face // in a photograph … // but now he lies / perfected in my memory’. This allows a certain life to the body of the man, since he has moved from his case in the museum, from his photograph in Glob's book, The Bog People, into the poet's mind. There is no suggestion, however, of an appropriative move on the part of the poet/speaker, and the manner in which the man gets from museum to memory is mysterious, the mystery being underlined by the repetition of the phrase, replete with passivity, ‘he lies’. First he lies in the museum, then he lies in the poet's memory.
In his rush to expose Heaney as an ‘English High Anti-Modernist’ Easthope pays scant attention to the basic structure of relationships in the poem or to the dramatically late arrival in the poem of the first person singular. He writes of ‘a consistently developing “I” who “speaks” to us in fluent and sustained syntax across the twelve verses’, when the self portrayed in the poem is in fact represented as tentative, by virtue of its late arrival and weak emphasis—it is only present in two phrases, ‘I saw’ and ‘my memory’. The self is not, as Easthope suggests, confidently assertive, but effaced, obscured or denied by the bulk of the poem.
For Easthope, of course, the poem ends in a ‘moment of transcendent understanding’, presenting the reader with
a truth about the human being as victim, a truth eternally the same whether as the primitive suffering of a Bog person, of ‘the Dying Gaul’, or of someone assassinated in the Bogside.
This is, of course, a ‘truth’ that Easthope denies, but of a kind that he associates with ‘empiricism’'s desperate attempt to keep alive the notion of a unitary self. Yet in its last stanzas Heaney's poem makes no claims for truth in the sense which Easthope imputes to it. The Grauballe man ‘lies / perfected in my memory …’
hung in the scales with beauty and atrocity: with the Dying Gaul too strictly compassed
on his shield, with the actual weight of each hooded victim, slashed and dumped.
The note of the poem's last sentence is suspense, not affirmation, and the suspense is both literal, the hanging in the scales of the final metaphor, and analogical, since the last six lines ‘depend’ syntactically from the single phrase ‘with beauty and atrocity’. These lines are peculiarly uncomfortable because the idea of suspense is compromised by the logical necessity of there being two sets of scales in question—one in which the Grauballe man is balanced against the beauty of the ‘Dying Gaul’ and another in which a contemporary ‘hooded victim’ occupies the other pan. And indeed the poem ends more effectively for this, its air of irresolution enhanced by the subliminal and ‘impossible’ image of the Grauballe man swinging in two sets of scales simultaneously. There is no readily seized ‘truth’ here, but an abiding question about the beauty and horror of sacrifice, a question given point for Heaney by his understanding of ‘the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’ (‘Punishment’) that issues in atrocity and victimage.
In its relation to ‘reality’, then, ‘The Grauballe Man’ is profoundly sceptical. Its keynote is suspense, but not balance; there is nothing in the least consolatory about the poem's conclusion, and Easthope's suggestion that in some way the poem seeks to rise above the scene of atrocity it depicts is plainly wrong. This is a poem which functions dramatically, and its speaker's attempt to naturalize and heroize the Grauballe man (and in that way to achieve a sort of transcendence) is frustrated by the language he uses which in the words ‘vent’ and ‘cured’ turns against him.
The Grauballe man at the opening of the poem is associated with the natural world. Not only does he lie on ‘a pillow of turf’ but parts of his body are likened variously to ‘bog oak’, ‘a basalt egg’, ‘a swan's foot’, ‘a wet swamp root’, ‘the ridge and purse of a mussel’ and ‘an eel’. This looks like the pastoral self-deception to which Easthope is evidently opposed and which he is angling at in calling Heaney a ‘Neo-Georgian’. The Grauballe man's apparent weeping of himself, on his reading, would then, from the poet's point of view, be appeased in an assimilation to natural force. Such a reading would, I think, underrate the power of the whole phrase, ‘seems to weep // the black river of himself’, but might be thought to be licensed by the ambiguousness of ‘seems’. But then:
The head lifts, the chin is a visor raised above the vent of his slashed throat
that has tanned and toughened.
The man is brought to doubtful life by the verb ‘lifts’. and then becomes both a knight in armour and the armour itself. The Grauballe man, that is, is represented here as both warrior and warrior-victim. The point of their meeting is in the word ‘vent’, literally an outlet, the place where the blood ran out of his throat, but also (by extension from ‘visor’) a ventail, the protective neckpiece of a helmet beneath the visor. The effect is that of one image, that of the victimiser, superimposed on another, that of the victim. The Grauballe man is associated with both the hardness of armament (an association continued in ‘tanned and toughened’) and the vulnerability of the flesh. This radical ambiguity, so closely related to the unresolved question of the conclusion, continues in the following lines:
The cured wound opens inward to a dark elderberry place.
Here ‘cured’ has the basic sense of ‘tanned’, as in leather, but also, as Neil Corcoran has noted4, that of ‘healed’, suggested by the association with ‘wound’. These conflicting meanings reflect back on and question the assimilation to nature implicit in the earlier imagery. The point is made by the different feeling of ‘elderberry’ here; it is not cushioned by a protective preposition, ‘like’ or ‘as’, and its association is not purely physical, as is the case with ‘like a basalt egg’, but connects with the fateful nature of the elder tree in folklore, suggesting a ‘nature’ that is disquietingly capable of being at the same time a ‘supernature’, something beyond the control of ‘art’. The impulse to beautify is confronted by the poet's own awareness that life and death are more complicated than that allows for. The idea recurs in the reference to the ‘Dying Gaul’ at the poem's end. It is, after all, ‘a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze’, the work of a triumphant imperial power depicting a representative of one of those nations it had made subject. David Jones enthuses about this heroic image, but for Heaney it is ‘too strictly compassed // on his shield’, that is, too beautifully composed to reflect adequately the reality of suffering and defeat which underlies it. In ‘The Grauballe Man’ Heaney represents the struggle to get beyond prettification and rhetorical falsification. Easthope travesties the poem:
In the bardic, uplifted tone of every line Heaney's writing proclaims that poetry matters and that it can hearten its reader with a vision and an understanding beyond the ordinary.
EASTHOPE AND MODERNISM
The question arises how it is that someone whose reading of poetry is so entirely insensitive can nevertheless pontificate about it at length. Easthope's willingness to conform to the requirements of ‘scholarship’ bears fruit in forty-eight endnotes, many of which could have been incorporated in the text. There, however, the testimony to learning would have been less eloquent. It suggests not merely that the author has familiarity with a respectable number of literary texts, but that he has been conscientious in researching his essay. Indeed, in his discussion of the poem by Heaney Easthope does cite major work by Blake Morrison, Neil Corcoran and Bernard O'Donoghue. But just as he fails to take into account the essential features of Heaney's poem itself, so with these critics. The crucial ambiguity of ‘cured’, for example, is remarked on by Corcoran in his 1986 discussion of ‘The Grauballe Man’ but contributes nothing to Easthope's pages on the poem. His endnotes function rhetorically in the piece, creating the appearance of openmindedness and conscientious literary research; this appearance is not borne out by an independent consideration of the texts involved.
There is no doubt that at a certain level Easthope is a competent rhetorician. ‘How Good is Seamus Heaney?’ reads well. Its argument is presented in bite-size pieces and with a directness which makes misunderstanding very difficult. The logical structure (difference between empiricist and Modernist art, history of anti-Modernist movement, Heaney as anti-Modernist) gives the piece a dynamic which discourages any questioning of the perfunctory handling of the texts involved. This strong structure is enabled partly by the simplicity of the terms which it uses, a binary opposition between ‘empiricism’ and Modernism. The first of these two terms is pulled out of the air in the very first sentence of Easthope's article, and defined in the second:
Not to be confused with ‘the factual’ or ‘the empirical’ empiricism is the belief that the real can be experienced and understood more or less directly by the unprejudiced observer.
Easthope's definition may one day find its way into the O.E.D. [Oxford English Dictionary] but it has not arrived there yet, so it would have been appropriate to use one of those forty-eight endnotes here to tell the reader where this definition of a crucial term comes from. But there is no endnote. The simplicity of the opposed terms is in this way enhanced by the straightforward way in which they are produced. Forty-eight endnotes do not mean that the reader is not to take Easthope's unsupported word for anything. As I have shown, his unsupported word goes a long way. Even were ‘empiricism’ (‘Not to be confused with the “factual” or “the empirical”—perhaps a different name would have been advisable, then) rooted firmly in philosophical language and practice, its opposition to Modernism would look insufficient as the basis for a mapping of the whole of twentieth-century poetry. But it has the charm and power of simple ideas. This empiricist-Modernist opposition is rather like Tillyard's Elizabethan world picture in its misleading clarity—except that Tillyard had a modicum of evidence to back him.
Scholarly apparatus, strong structure, attractively simple governing thesis—these in part explain the success of a piece such as ‘How Good is Seamus Heaney?’. But above all it is a matter of tone; Easthope assures the reader from the start that the argument is in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing. ‘For the purposes of my argument I shall proceed on the assumption that …’ Certainly the argument would not get far if, as can be done easily enough, the assumption is rejected. But Easthope's very frankness is a kind of blessing, coercing the reader to accept the wooliness of ‘understood more or less directly’ in the sentence that follows. In a matter of such moment as ‘empiricism’, which flaws the entire English poetic tradition, one would have preferred to be told at least what the disallowable forms of indirection might be. Easthope's easy, confident style, however, makes it difficult to formulate the necessary objection. It depends, in fact, on an old-fashioned assumption of authority at odds with the supposed strength of his argument and his denial of a unitary self.
Because he uses it in his very first sentence, the first person singular is noticeable in Easthope's article. He uses it seven times in all, which is more than either Heaney or Thomas does. And this first person is endowed with great solidity: ‘Critics less attuned to the consequences of Modernism and more sympathetic to Heaney than I am …’ The phrase is an overt appeal to the reader's confidence in an expertise that is merely asserted and certainly not demonstrated. (If Easthope makes such a hash of Thomas and Heaney, what can he make of Prynne and Raworth whom he says he admires?5) The question is, then, why Easthope should allow himself a freedom that he does not allow the authors he discusses; and the answer seems to lie in a deep nostalgia for simpler times that suffuses his piece. I have already suggested that there is a likeness to Tillyard in him, but his use of the words ‘tradition’ and ‘value’ aligns him unmistakably with the Leavis of New Bearings and Revaluation. He is attempting a redrawing of the lines of English literature as radical as Leavis's appeared in the thirties, substituting for Leavis's long view of tradition a short view based on modernism with Eliot and Pound as founding fathers. It is in this cause that an indefensible line is drawn between the rhythms of Heaney and Eliot; the new modernist ‘tradition’ serves as a rallying-call but has little underlying rationality. The over-simplified picture of what has been happening in British poetry since 1900 does not have anything to do with rationality but ministers to a need for certainty in a world where it is believed no longer to be true that ‘the real can be experienced directly’. In such a world ideas of truth are hard to sustain; they become malleable. At one level, Easthope's argument is that a good poetry is truthful, depicting a world without unitary subjects and so on; at another level there is no argument because the attachment to Eliot, Pound, Prynne and Raworth is a matter of emotion only. The arguments are self-confirming, since there is no serious attempt to base them on criteria which could claim a degree of generality. Such criteria are hard to find in a world so difficult of access as the one Easthope depicts. What he does feel able to defer to is fashion. When he comes to dismiss Heaney it is on the grounds that his ‘deeper structures repeat outmoded forms’ and that the pleasures he affords are ‘long familiar’ ones. There is the ghost of an argument here, that poetry must define itself in relation to the temper of its age or that it must conform to the taste of its readers, but Easthope wants the patience to enter these dark woods of radical controversy. The question ‘How good is Antony Easthope?’ is an impertinent one, though no more so than his own question about Heaney. It is impertinent because it implies a possibility of absoluteness which not only his opposition to empiricism would deny. This despite the fact that the question is congruent with Easthope's critical rhetoric. A better question would be ‘What would make Antony Easthope a better critic?’ and there the answer is clear: a more scrupulous regard for the text. Readers might reasonably ask this since Easthope has had time to mature his views; this is not the first time he has produced his opinions on ‘The Grauballe Man’ for inspection6. An adequate account of Heaney's poem and of ‘Adlestrop’ viewed in the light of ‘The Waste Land’ would attempt to evaluate in relation to the modernism they share the different hesitancies and imponderabilities of their endings. Such an evaluation might have lent support to Easthope's own arguments; it would certainly have complicated them to the benefit of criticism.
Stan Smith discusses the relation of Seamus Heaney to Edward Thomas in Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry, Dublin, 1982, 4-5. Helen Vendler's account of ‘The Grauballe Man’ in The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, would have given Easthope much to think about, as would her essays on the poet in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poet, Critics, Cambridge, Mass., 1988, and Soul Says: On Recent Poetry, Cambridge, Mass., 1995.
E.g. William Cooke, Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography, London, 1970, 220.
Stan Smith, Edward Thomas, London, 1986, 11-58.
Seamus Heaney, London, 1986, 115.
The answer may be found, in part, in the account of Raworth's ‘Shoes’ in Easthope's Englishness and National Culture, London, 1999, 198-9.
See Easthope, ‘Why Most Contemporary Poetry is So Bad, and How Post-structuralism May be Able to Help’, PN Review, 48, 1985, 36-8. ‘How Good is Seamus Heaney?’ is reprinted in modified—but, alas, not significantly modified—form in Easthope's Englishness and National Culture, 1999.
Editorial Note: This article was written and accepted for publication before Antony Easthope's death in December 1999. His essay on Seamus Heaney was designed to create controversy and he hoped to provoke a response from admirers of Heaney. Almost certainly he would have replied to Martin Dodsworth's article and would have relished the opportunity to engage in debate over the issues raised. Martin Dodsworth and I both regret that that forthright reply will no longer be forthcoming. KMN [Ken M. Newton]
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6404
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 extraordinary achievements.’ The following month his review of the book appeared:
Carelessness of sweet sound and of all the old tricks makes Mr Pound's book rather prickly to handle at first … For brusque intensity of effect we can hardly compare [his poems] with any other work. Of course, this is partly due to his faults and to his pride in revolt, to his lack of all mere amiability, to his austerity, to his abruptness as of a swift beetle that suddenly strikes your cheek and falls stunned with its own force, to his use of a number of archaisms in the midst of a chaste and simple vocabulary.
The faults, he goes on to say, ‘have the same origin as his virtues’; Pound is ‘possessed by his own strong conceptions’, by his loves and by contempt for the opposite of his loves.
It is the old miracle that cannot be defined, nothing more than a subtle entanglement of words, so that they rise out of their graves and sing. And part of our pleasure in reading the book has been the belief, in which we are confident, that the writer is only just getting under sail, that he will reach we know not where; nor does he, but somewhere far away in the unexplored.
It is the sort of review that most young writers dream and despair of getting, its enthusiasm founded on close and accurate reading, its occasional severities balanced by deep sympathy. Indeed, I am tempted to ask if anyone, even critics of Pound's circle, ever caught the feel of his work as precisely as Thomas does here. That abrupt beetle, for instance: could anything be more memorably true to the experience of reading Pound—of reading anything in Pound, even the last books?
Yet on 12 June, six weeks after sending the book to Bottomley and only five days after the review appeared, Thomas wrote to his friend again in a different frame of mind:
Oh I do humble myself over Ezra Pound. He is not & cannot ever be very good. Certainly he is not what I mesmerized myself—out of pure love of praising the new poetry!—into saying he was & I am very much ashamed & only hope I shall never meet the man. My greatest humiliation is due to regret for cheapening praise & using the same words about such a man as about, say, Sturge Moore, though of course I did indicate the chaos of his work.
Most readers of twentieth-century poetry will be struck by this curious episode in one of two ways. Admirers of Pound in particular and of Modernism in general will be impressed by the review and saddened by an inglorious retreat; it may seem to them all too typical of the response of mainstream English culture to the challenge of international Modernism. The surprisingly large contingent of those who still find Pound and his influence disastrous will locate Thomas's wisdom in his second thoughts. I am not sure such readers are still enthusiasts for the work of T. Sturge Moore, but their view is as strongly felt today as it has ever been. For many of them, Thomas is a key figure in what has been described as the native tradition of modern English poetry—a tradition that by-passes the Modernists and manifests itself in such contrasting later poets as Robert Graves and Philip Larkin. Those of us who hold the other view, who consider that Pound for all his faults was the great poet of his day, the man who made the poetry of his century, may be more impressed by how Thomas, even in his recantation, puts his finger on Pound's real characteristics. Pound's unequalled capacity to renovate language is there in the notion of words that ‘rise out of their graves and sing’. There is the extraordinary intimation of Pound's thematic range: the recognition that he writes out of his loves and that the scope of his poetry is ‘the unexplored’—in such expressions one can almost see the shadow of the Cantos. This connects, surely, with Thomas's recoil from ‘the chaos of his work’, as if he had recognised that Pound's ambition was to take on a range of matter he would not be able finally to control. In any event, these observations of Thomas's perhaps give us insight into the kind of poetry he himself might one day have attempted. That he never did is partly due to the war and his early death, but may also be laid at the door of a timid and anxious literary culture that would refuse him sustenance.
For we must ask ourselves what it was that made Thomas recant so quickly, having perceived and understood so very much. Was it the response of Bottomley and others in the Georgian circle, most of whom lacked the range and imagination to give even temporary mental lodging to such a poet as Pound? Did Thomas need their approval for his judgements? How timid was Thomas himself? Certainly Pound was to describe him later as a person with ‘no vinegar in his veins’. Many of Thomas's finest poems fear for the loss of English rural life and English continuities. Perhaps he associated Pound's challenge with other threats to gradual organic growth. This would be understandable enough, but I cannot help thinking that Thomas might have gained from holding to his earlier insight and that his endeavour, long and painful, to modernise himself is what accounts for that first perceptiveness. Thomas is a deeply English poet, whose love of his native scenes is at its most intense when the way of life that belongs to them is most under threat, yet it is also possible to say that his Englishness is most moving when he is least aware of it.
It seems to me not unlikely that Pound's brusqueness and directness, his cultivation of a new music (involving ‘Carelessness of sweet sound’) and the sense of daring his poetry conveys all chimed with aspirations in Thomas that as someone not yet writing poetry, he was not wholly aware of. There is every indication in the review from which I have quoted, as well as in another piece written almost directly afterwards, that Thomas saw that Pound was taking risks. He himself was troubled by anxiety and this anxiety was probably encouraged by his friends, all of whom had at this time achieved much more in literary terms than he had. As the war approached and as Thomas began belatedly to write his own poems, the anxiety intensified but did so now to his literary advantage. Put simply, it seems to me that Thomas was caught, perhaps unconsciously, between apparently conflicting intuitions. On the one hand he believed in a perennial Englishness, a permanent truth about the land and the people, embodied for instance in the figure of Lob. This is not a nationalistic conception but a romantic one, deeply nostalgic and with a strong tinge of anarchism. On the other hand he had begun to feel that England was changing—fundamentally and beyond recall. In a number of poems (‘As the Team's Head Brass’, ‘Fifty Faggots’ and others), he seems to admit that, because of the war, the country will never be the same again. But though the war is the immediate cause, there is also the implication that it is only the most important of many causes—perhaps even that the war is itself a symptom of modernity. The most obvious source for his elegiac Englishness is Arnold's ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, a poem that memorably speaks of ‘the strange disease of modern life’ and regards the modern world as unprecedented. That assumption is at the root of Modernism, though for Pound and his associates, it was not just England that had changed but the whole world. They forged a new kind of poetry to embody the new conditions. Thomas, perhaps less consciously, was doing something similar, though from time to time he was tempted to turn away from his insight.
Until recently Edward Thomas was associated with the poets who, between 1912 and 1922, were published in the Georgian anthologies. The association is not surprising. He was friendly with many of the Georgians, admired their poetry and wrote on similar themes. That he never appeared in the anthologies himself was probably due to the fact that he began writing late—in 1913, when he was 35—and soon afterwards was killed in battle. In the familiar distorting glass of literary history, such poets as Bottomley, de la Mare and Drinkwater have come to be seen as implacable foes of Modernism, but things were not always so simple. It is perfectly true that de la Mare once wrote that modern poets ought not to make ‘common speech into some sort of idol … it would be very difficult, for instance, to use the word “bicycle” in poetry’. This now sounds very foolish, but we should recognise that it arises in an advocacy of common speech as the proper language for poetry. As that suggests, the Georgians were seeking to revive Wordsworthian values, tastefully modernised, in an era which had been dominated by Aestheticism and the heirs of Tennyson. Even Pound in the book that Thomas had praised, Personae, was influenced by Swinburne and William Morris. In many ways, the Georgians prepared the ground for Modernism by lightening and freshening poetic language and drawing directly from nature, as it were, en plein air. It was these characteristics that attracted Thomas and, with him, the American friend, Robert Frost, who managed to persuade him he was a poet. The argument about an English tradition includes the suggestion that, left to their own devices and preserved from the war, Thomas and his associates might have created an English brand of Modernism, a brand which, like those of Hungary, Greece and Spain, would have maintained continuity with its own native sources. Pound and Eliot, by contrast, it is argued, were cosmopolitan Americans seeking to create a new and international kind of literature, the strength and value of which would be that it is more appropriate to the rootless and fluid condition of twentieth-century life.
This can never be a simple matter of truth and falsehood. As far as Thomas is concerned, however, the historical facts are suggestive. Between 1897 (when he was nineteen) and his enlistment in 1915, he published nearly thirty books—topography, biography and literary criticism—as well as earning his day-to-day living as a hack reviewer. (At one time he was reading about thirteen books a week in the latter capacity.) In the interstices of this grindingly busy life, Thomas travelled all over England on foot, for love of the English countryside and the way of life that was soon to fade from it had become the central obsession of his existence. But in the course of all this reading, writing and walking, he never attempted a poem. Indeed, it seems not to have occurred to him that he might actually be a poet until the start of his friendship with Robert Frost. What Frost saw was that, for years, Thomas had been writing prose that was crying out to be made into poetry, but that too many of Thomas's early assumptions about poetry had prevented him from seeing this possibility. I think it should now be argued that these assumptions were not just Thomas's own but the assumptions of English literary culture at that time. In his prose style and in the critical attitudes he took to contemporary poetry, Thomas had already prepared himself for Frost's surprising insight. Might it not be argued, indeed, that precisely the frame of mind that initially drew him to Pound discouraged him from writing verse in the more conventional manner of his day?
Even more surprising than the discovery, so late in life, of a talent for poetry is the instant assurance of Thomas's technique. As far as we know, the earliest of his poems is one of the finest and most characteristic, ‘Old Man’:
Old Man, or Lad's-love,—in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man, The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree, Growing with rosemary and lavender. Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is: At least, what that is clings not to the names In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain I love it, as some day the child will love it Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush Whenever she goes in or out of the house. Often she waits there, snipping the tips and-shrivelling The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still But half as tall as she, though it is as old; So well she clips it. Not a word she says; And I can only wonder how much hereafter She will remember, with that bitter scent, Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door, A low thick bush beside the door, and me Forbidding her to pick. As for myself, Where first I met the bitter scent is lost. I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain. I cannot like the scent, Yet I would rather give up others more sweet, With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Like many of Thomas's poems, especially the early ones, ‘Old Man’ was originally a piece of prose, possibly one of the pieces identified by Frost as having poetic potential. As it happens, the prose survives:
Just as she is turning in to the cott house door or leaving it, the baby Myfanwy Thomas plucks a feather of old man's beard. Its The bush grows beside the just across the path from the door. Sometimes she stands by it squeezing off tip after tip from the bush branches and shrivelling them between her fingers on to the path in grey-green shreds. So the bush is still no taller than only half as tall as she is, though it is the same age. She never talks of it, but I wonder how much of the garden she will remember, the hedge with the old damson trees topping it, the vegetable rows, the path bending to round the house corner, the old man's beard opposite the door, and me sometimes forbidding her to touch it, if she lives to my years. As for myself I cannot remember when I first smelt that green bitterness. I, too, often gather a sprig from the bush and sniff it, and roll it between my fingers and sniff again and think, trying to remember discover what it is that I am remembering. but in vain I do not wholly like the smell, yet per? would rather lose many meaningless sweeter ones than this bitter unintelligible one of which I have mislaid the key. As I hold the sprig to my nose and slowly withdraw it, I think of nothing, I see, I hear nothing, yet I seem too to be listening, as I hold the sprig to my nose, and withdraw it, lying in wait for whatever it is I ought to remember but never do. No garden comes back to me, no hedge or path, no grey green bush called old man's beard or lad's love, no figure of mother or father or chil playmate, only an a endless dark avenue without an end.
This is not especially interesting as prose and yet it is surprisingly close to the poem. In terms of subject-matter they cover more or less the same ground, and even in diction they are pretty close—which is to say that the language of ‘Old Man’ is quite prosaic. What seizes us in it, I think, is the verse movement and the part played in that movement by hypnotic repetition. The medium, as Thomas said of Frost's poems, ‘is common speech and decasyllables’, a combination which accounts for the traditionalism of Thomas's work as well as its modernity. One hears the pentameter as a firm foundation and one hears five spoken accents to each line, but there seems a slight, and expressive, disjunction between the two. The secret of this highly attractive effect has something to do with Thomas allowing the movement of his prose to have some effect on the movement of his verse. We should remember that even Pound had only just relinquished the bejewelled and archaic diction of fin de siècle poetry and that few other poets had achieved a comparable plainness. ‘I like not’ (as opposed to ‘I don't like’) is perhaps the only relic of the kind of poetry that cannot speak of bicycles.
But the virtue of the style is more than a matter of plainness or rugged movement. It is also to be found in the basic, crude, unstudied physicality of the language. Here the word ‘sniffs’ stands out and is echoed in sound and feeling by ‘clips’, ‘snipping’ and maybe ‘shrivel’ and ‘shred’. As a prose writer, Thomas was for long under the spell of Walter Pater, the most self-consciously musical of Victorian prose-stylists. In the course of his career he came to believe that language so precisely studied in effect must eventually kill its subject-matter, since it draws attention to itself and away from things. The power of literature to move us, Thomas argued, derives from the presence in it of the human voice:
Literature is not for connoisseurs … It is the last thing that many writers would think of, to write as they speak … Literature is further divided in outward seeming from speech by what helps to make it in fact more than ever an equivalent of speech. It has to make words of such a spirit, and arrange them in such a manner, that they will do all that a speaker can do by innumerable gestures and their innumerable shades, by tone and pitch of voice, by speed, by pauses, by all that he is and all that he will become.
And as he said elsewhere, ‘Words exist in the mouth, not in books.’ It must be said that there is a weakness in all this, and it is one that English poetry in our time has for the most part taken uncritically on board with Thomas as the most visible of its sources. This is the idea that all a poem has to do is effect the transfer of a distinctive tone of speech from the mouth to the page. It is usually discussed in terms of ‘finding one's own voice’ and accounts for the narrowness and provinciality of too much recent work—the failure of the contemporary poet to rise above the level of particular experience and concrete imagery. We shall see how in important matters this could affect Thomas's judgement.
Nevertheless, in Thomas himself, as in Frost, it is a breakthrough: achieved against the grain of the times (as they then seemed) and his own early training. First achieved in prose, its appearance in verse must have seemed, to those who understood, almost magical. But this is to labour the point about speech rhythms; we should also look at how, in detail, those rhythms and words are used. If we turn back to the poem, we are immediately struck by the way the first paragraph seems to hover inconclusively over a limited set of words. We notice, for instance, how the names of the flower in the first line—Thomas greatly valued such names, belonging as they do to peasant speech—lead us immediately back to themselves in the second. And following that, there is the reiteration of the very word ‘names’ three times in two sentences. This sort of repetition is characteristic, but the point of it here is clearer than elsewhere. Thomas is concerned with both the closeness of word to thing and the ultimate inability of the word to render ‘the thing it is’. This is, of course, a classic modern dilemma and part of the movement of philosophy away from realism and towards nominalism and relativism. For the nominalist, language merely traces patterns that pre-exist in the mind and therefore provides no direct access to truth. Truth being unknowable, we have only a variety of perspectives on to reality. It is worth mentioning that Thomas, unusually for a man of his class and time, had been brought up without religion, and it could be argued that the experience of landscape his poems evoke has something of the quality of a surrogate religion, notable for its mysteries and consolations. But if that is so, it is a religion without theology—without any of the explanatory or intellectual apparatus that might have helped him to understand experience. What he discovers at the end of ‘Old Man’ is that he has no key to the feeling the herb has awakened. Emotion is aroused, associations stirred, but in the end ‘I see and I hear nothing’, just as in the first line, as we hover at the enjambment before being led to the flower, we appear to be told that ‘in the name there's nothing’. As it happens, the flower is then evoked, though all the evocation does is isolate the flower, drawing poet and reader obsessively back to it, until it finally opens a perspective not on to the world but on to extinction, death and nothingness: ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.’
It is remarkable how often these thoughtful, sensitive, observant, exploratory poems culminate in thoughtlessness: absence of thought or the inability to think, forgetfulness, blankness, disappearance, aphasia. In a number of poems, notably the pair called ‘The Path’ and ‘The Lane’, the poet embarks on a journey that ends with the end of the path, much as the language of ‘Old Man’ arrives at the names of things and then turns back on itself with nothing reached that might be called a meaning. Dick Davis has written well of this aspect of Thomas's work:
Again and again in his poems he traces a sensation, a line of thought, back to a point where he can no longer articulate what it is he is following … This awareness of the hidden origins of what haunts and moves him is beautifully presented in the last stanza of his poem ‘It Rains’:
on its fine stalk Twilight has fined to naught, the parsley flower Figures, suspended still and ghostly white, The past hovering as it revisits the light.
The image was obviously important to him … The impulse is the same as in the best of his critical writing—the parsley-flower is the work the poet leaves behind him and which we can read, it is ‘The past hovering as it revisits the light’, but the invisible stalk on which the flower rests is what intrigues Thomas.
Davis is there talking of Thomas as literary critic, but what he says is also true of the poems. This is especially so if we take the flower to stand for the particulars of experience and the stalk for the lines of cause-and-effect and meaning. For what moves us to read Thomas at all is his talent for particularity: the thinginess of things in a landscape, a slight oddness of movement that gives individuality to rhythm, a love of words that are local and ungeneralised. These things loom in the atmosphere of the poems as if they were symbolic—and indeed they sometimes are—but the meanings that connect them remain unexpressed, though it is clear that it was Thomas's preoccupation with the meanings (with root and stem) that caused him to write the poems. The reader might expect Thomas's quiddities to be comforting, which they sometimes are, though more often than not they turn out to be disturbing.
This is, of course, a very modern experience. There is a sense in which it is more purely expressed in Thomas's work than in that of more ambitious contemporaries, for all their interest in the detailed experience of modern life, which Thomas for the most part ignores. This is because Thomas is to a large extent the victim of his experience. As evidence of a peculiar sort of modern consciousness perfectly registered in words, the poems are fascinating, but they become quite troubling when the poet tries to account for his feelings of patriotism in time of war. Thomas's love of England, it seems to me, brings out both the best and worst in him. He disliked hysterical flag-wagging and set his face against the mindless hatred of Germans which possessed his compatriots during the Great War. What he loved was the local, the particular again, the patch of earth we inherit and have our roots in. It is the intensity of this emotion—not for the political entity Britain but for the physical place—that gives his particulars their charge of feeling. It is the same feeling, barely conscious perhaps, that makes many of his poems on country life—‘Haymaking’, ‘May the 23rd’, ‘The Manor Farm’—elegies, in effect, for a world that was to pass with the end of the war he died in. His emphasis on the timelessness of rural patterns paradoxically provokes a note of pathos, which alerts the reader to their actual mutability. In one poem, ‘Fifty Faggots’, he even alludes to his own predicament in this regard. The store of faggots chopped from the underwood reminds us of soldiers shot down and broader kinds of discontinuity, yet they also ‘make a thicket fancy alone / Can creep through’. ‘Next Spring,’ he continues,
A blackbird or a robin will nest there, Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain Whatever is for ever to a bird.
This in fact registers the tragic limitations of fancy, imagination and the strength of custom, and the end of the poem links the loss specifically to the war. Before the faggots have all been burnt, he concludes,
The war will have ended, many other things Have ended, maybe, that I can no more Foresee or more control than robin or wren.
Given his predilections, there is something courageous about the articulation of this alarming insight. Yet it is also depressingly typical of him that he is willing to admit defeat, to forego the opportunity of grasping the causes of his historical situation. One is reminded of the timidity—if that is what it was—that caused him to turn away from Ezra Pound.
It is Thomas's concessions to anti-intellectualism that convert his love of country, occasionally, into what is little more than prejudice, not hugely different from the jingoism he usually despised. The long poem ‘Lob’, of which he was very proud, is a depressing instance of this. The poem is a pseudo-mystical catalogue of supposedly English virtues as embodied in an archetypal vagabond who, rather like Arnold's gipsy, appears and disappears in different parts of England at different moments of her history. On the one hand Lob is the spirit of whom it is asked, ‘Does he keep clear old paths that no one uses?’—the embodiment, that is, of what binds together a people and a country—and on the other, he stands for the wilfully narrow image of England that is found in imperialistic history-books: ‘he was seen dying at Waterloo, / Hastings, Agincourt, and Sedgemoor too’. Much the same attitude, more plausibly expressed, is behind one of Thomas's poems about the war:
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. Beside my hate for one fat patriot My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:- A kind of god he is, banging a gong. But I have not to choose between the two, Or between justice and injustice. Dinned With war and argument I read no more Than in the storm smoking along the wind Athwart the wood. Two witches' cauldrons roar. From one the weather shall rise clear and gay; Out of the other an England beautiful And like her mother that died yesterday. Little I know or care if, being dull, I shall miss something that historians Can rake out of the ashes when perchance The phoenix broods serene above their ken. But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save England, lest We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed. The ages made her that made us from dust: She is all we know and live by, and we trust She is good and must endure, loving her so: And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.
That Thomas should begin a poem on such a subject by dismissing moral distinctions as merely ‘petty’ is lamentable enough. Even worse, though, is the way he systematically denies himself the intellectual tools that might have helped him make some sense of the war—history, for instance. As a result, to quote Robert Wells, ‘By the end of the poem his attitude is indistinguishable from that of the “fat patriot” whom he despises, and since argument has been disowned his own arguments have an air of special pleading.’
Yet Thomas also wrote well about the war in poems as searching and moving in their way as Owen's or Rosenberg's. But their way is very different, for Thomas, though he died in action, never wrote as a combatant. The war of his poems comes across as a consummation devoutly to be wished, the fulfilment of a long-awaited fate. This is most evident from such meditations on the darkness as ‘Out of the Dark’ and ‘Lights Out’:
The tall forest towers; Its cloudy foliage lowers Ahead, shelf above shelf; Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself.
For most of his life, Thomas suffered from attacks of severe depression and even at one stage thought of shooting himself. His period as a soldier, paradoxically, not only coincides with his few years of poetic creativity, but was the only time in his life in which, with the threat to his survival ever present, he was free of depressive feelings. But the poems are not merely personal. Thomas's achievement, whatever its limitations, is noteworthy for his evident skill at converting private obsession into something more than itself. For instance:
As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn The lovers disappeared into the wood. I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm That strewed the angle of the fallow, and Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square Of charlock. Every time the horses turned Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned Upon the handles to say or ask a word, About the weather, next about the war. Scraping the share he faced towards the wood, And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed Once more. The blizzard felled the elm whose crest I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole, The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away?’ ‘When the war's over,’ So the talk began— One minute and an interval of ten, A minute more and the same interval. ‘Have you been out?’ ‘No.’ ‘And don't want to, perhaps?’ ‘If I could only come back again, I should. I could spare an arm. I shouldn't want to lose A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so, I should want nothing more … Have many gone From here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost?’ ‘Yes, a good few. Only two teams work on the farm this year. One of my mates is dead. The second day In France they killed him. It was back in March, The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’ ‘And I should not have sat here. Everything Would have been different. For it would have been Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then The lovers came out of the wood again: The horses started and for the last time I watched the clods crumble and topple over After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
To me this poem exemplifies all that is best in Thomas. As in ‘Fifty Faggots’ and ‘This is no case of petty right and wrong’ one feels the individual's powerlessness to affect the course of history or even to foresee such good or ill as may befall. But here there is no suspicion that Thomas has wilfully embraced his incapacity. On the contrary, the imagery of the poem sets the poet, the ruminative observer, at the heart of a process that, once initiated, is tragically too powerful to control. Indeed, much of the time—to borrow a crucial word from the last line—the poem seems dangerously close to stumbling, a process to which our attention is drawn at the outset by the end-word of the first line, turn. This is surely meant to translate the Latin versus, which means both a ploughed furrow and a line of verse: in either case, a straight path defined by the turn at the end of it. Almost scholastically, Thomas drives the point home by placing the word at the point of turning, the enjambment. It is characteristic of this strikingly original blank verse that the sense is often precariously suspended at the line-end: for example, ‘I shouldn't want to lose’—what exactly?—‘A leg’, though the reader has perhaps, by this time, imagined a worse loss. This precariousness is there from the start. In the opening lines the plough-team, itself an image of the rural life so soon to disappear, evokes for a moment the destructive splendour of cavalry, so that the disappearance of the lovers becomes for that moment an effect of the cavalry action, the fallen elm suggesting the fallen soldier and the yellow square a platoon under attack. Similar suggestions run all through the poem, so that the fate of this particular field is woven into the fate of the great nations irrevocably locked in suicidal conflict. In that context, such a remark as ‘If I should lose my head, why, so, / I should want nothing more’ takes on a range of alternative meanings: ‘If I should go mad’, for instance, or ‘I should want nothing more than to lose my head’.
The opening lines are re-evoked by the ending, this time from a perspective—reinforced by such words as ‘crumble’, ‘topple’ and ‘stumbling’ and the awkward, bumpy rhythm they promote—that sees a cavalry charge gone out of control, moved by forces beyond it and, indeed, beyond understanding. In this context, the lovers return: to start a new world presumably, though good or bad it is impossible to say. There is an obvious allusion, here, to a poem written not two years before this one: Thomas Hardy's ‘In Time of “the Breaking of Nations”’. There Hardy insists that love and the rural life ‘will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass’. Thomas seems to imply that, yes, they will, but so altered as to be unrecognisable. Here, even more bluntly than in ‘Fifty Faggots’, he is acknowledging that nothing is permanent, that the struggle to save English earth may in fact cause its destruction.
The suggestiveness of ‘As the team's head-brass’ and the symbolic potency of Thomas's imagery in general remind us that he, as much as Yeats or Eliot, had attended to French Symbolist poetry, the chief well-spring of what we now call Modernism. If the word means anything—and it is undoubtedly vague—‘As the team's head-brass’ is every bit as Modernist as those early poems by Pound about which Thomas was so uncertain. His more general modernity is undeniably restricted by the restrictions of his subject-matter and his ambivalent attachment to a narrow ‘Englishness’, which cut him off from many recognitions that should have seemed inescapable. On the other hand, there is something remarkably innovative and renovative in both his style and sensibility. This perhaps has something to do with the use he made of prose. The language is notably spare and plain and the rhythms have been determined by the movement of common speech underpinned by metrical norms and not vice versa. Moreover, as Andrew Motion has written, ‘As he struggles to bring himself as close as is possible to the grain and texture of experience, he is aware that the words he employs establish a difference between themselves and their object.’ This sense of language existing as a separate world reinforces Thomas's awareness of a reality that invites interpretation but fails to yield it, a mysterious universe from which the poet, while observing the rootedness of others, is fundamentally removed. One possible reaction to such removal is a willed and therefore factitious rootedness, which in Thomas's case is the ‘Englishness’ of Lob. It is not, however, his invariable reaction. It is when, like Pound, he risks a little chaos, harshness, brusqueness, that he feels most modern and also, ironically, most English too: most in touch with the England he knew, loved and feared for, an England which necessarily includes the present as well as the past—and perhaps something timeless and permanent too.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359
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.
Biography emphasizes Thomas's literary friendships and provides a publication history for each of Thomas's works.
Marsh, Jan. Edward Thomas: A Poet for His Country. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978, 225 p.
Biocritical study attempts to define where Thomas's work belongs in the English literary tradition, arguing the poet's work is closest in spirit to Thomas Hardy.
Thomas, Helen. World without End. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1931, 218 p.
Semifictional account of Helen and Edward Thomas's love affair and subsequent marriage.
Bayley, John. “The Self in the Poem.” In The Art of Edward Thomas, edited by Jonathan Barker, pp. 37-48. Mid Glamorgan, Wales, United Kingdom: Poetry Wales Press, 1987.
Provides close readings of poems such as “Adelstrop,” “Tall Nettles,” “It Rains,” and “Lights Out,” among others, suggesting that Thomas's poetry has a “haunting quality, an elusive sense of personality fulfilled and come to fruition at last in its own disappearance.”
Braybrooke, Neville. “Edward Thomas (1878-1917).” Queen's Quarterly 74, no. 3 (autumn 1967): 506-08.
Discusses the poems “October” and “Fifty Faggots” in a brief tribute to Thomas on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
Breen, Jennifer. “Representations of ‘Feminine’ in First World War Poetry.” Critical Survey 2, no. 2 (1990): 169-75.
Examines representations of women and “the feminine” in the poetry of three First World War poets, David Jones, Isaac Rosenberg, and Thomas.
Brown, Mark William. “Ivor Gurney and Edward Thomas: A Distinction.” PN Review 106, 22, no. 2 (November/December 1995): 44-8.
Argues that although Igor Gurney's poetry resembles Thomas's thematically and stylistically, Gurney was not explicitly influenced by Thomas.
Bullough, Geoffrey. “Georgian Poetry.” In The Trends of Modern Poetry, pp. 44-63. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1934.
Mentions Thomas's technical versatility in a short essay concerning the merits of Georgian poetry.
Burrow, John. “Keats and Edward Thomas.” Essays in Criticism 7, no. 4 (October 1957): 404-15.
Essay argues that Thomas and Keats shared “a fidelity of observation and to feeling” and “a concreteness in the presentation of their close interaction.”
Cooke, William. Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography, 1878-1917. London: Faber and Faber, 1970, 292 p.
Cooke argues that Thomas had independently arrived at many of the poetic theories he discussed with Robert Frost long before he met the American poet.
Coombes, Harry. “Two Books About Edward Thomas.” The Southern Review (new series) 7, no. 2 (April 1971): 616-34.
Review of critical biographies by William Cooke and R. G. Thomas provides a brief summary of Thomas's life.
Cox, C. B., and A. E. Dyson. “‘The Sign Post’ by Edward Thomas.” In Modern Poetry: Studies in Practical Criticism, pp. 48-51. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1963.
Brief essay explores the tension between lyricism and irony in Thomas's “The Sign Post.”
Coxe, Louis. “Edward Thomas and the Real World.” In Enabling Acts: Selected Essays in Criticism, pp. 88-95. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1976.
Critical study focusing on Thomas's use of metaphor.
Cubeta, Paul M. “Robert Frost and Edward Thomas: Two Soldier Poets.” The New England Quarterly 52, no. 2 (June 1979): 147-76.
Presents an interesting argument concerning Frost's influence on Thomas which runs contrary to the opinion held by most contemporary critics.
Danby, John F. “Edward Thomas.” Critical Quarterly 1, no. 4 (winter 1959): 308-17.
Argues that Thomas's handling of language and theme is “more complex” than that of the Georgian poets.
Davie, Donald. “‘Lessons in Honesty.’” The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4001 (November 23, 1979): 21-2.
Praises Thomas's technical abilities but maintains that Thomas's poetry is flawed because he lacked a modern poet's vocabulary and erudition.
Dollimore, Jonathan. “The Poetry of Hardy and Edward Thomas.” The Critical Quarterly 17, no. 3 (autumn 1975): 203-15.
Compares the ways in which Hardy and Thomas grapple with complexity and uncertainty, and examines how their differences might be understood through their use of nature.
Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. “More Mavericks.” Religious Trends in Modern English Poetry, 1880-1920: Gods of a Changing Poetry, Vol. V (1962): 296-346.
Discussion of the humanitarian aspects of Thomas's poetry.
Godshalk, W. L. “The Great Gatsby and Edward Thomas's ‘Rain.’” English Language Notes 32, no. 4 (June 1995): 75-8.
Explores the meaning of “rain” in the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and a poem by Thomas.
Gray, Piers. “The Childhood of Edward Thomas.” Critical Quarterly 28, no. 3 (autumn 1986): 51-67.
Analyzes Thomas's autobiographical work, The Childhood of Edward Thomas.
Harding, Joan. “Dylan Thomas and Edward Thomas.” Contemporary Review, no. 1101 (September 1957): 150-54.
Discusses the two Welsh poets with more emphasis on their differences than their similarities.
Hoffpauir, Richard. “Edward Thomas and the Georgians.” In The Art of Restraint: English Poetry from Hardy to Larkin, pp. 60-86. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1991.
Provides an extensive overview of the tastes and fashions of the Georgian poets, the salient features of Georgian verse, modernist criticism of Georgian worldview and poetry, and Thomas's ambivalent relationship to the Georgian and modern eras.
Johnson, Anthony L. “The Poetry of Suggestion: W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas.” Poetics Today 8, no. 1 (1987): 85-104.
Compares the use of indirect statement—or suggestion—in several poems by Thomas and Yeats.
Kertzer, Jonathan. “Edward Thomas.” In Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry, pp. 78-100. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queens University Press, 1988.
Presents an overview of the life and work of Thomas.
Kirkham, Michael. “Naturalism.” In The Imagination of Edward Thomas, pp. 89-101. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Considers Thomas as a nature poet and a naturalist.
Levi, Peter. “Notes on Edward Thomas.” In The Art of Edward Thomas, edited by Jonathan Barker, pp. 23-36. Mid Glamorgan, Wales, United Kingdom: Poetry Wales Press, 1987.
Discusses Thomas's relationship to the late Victorians and early modernists, arguing that Thomas developed a “more interesting solution” to the inadequacies of language to describe the world than did his contemporaries.
Longley, Edna. “Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.” In Poetry in the Wars, pp. 107-31. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1987.
Examines “the cross-fertilization” between Thomas and the poet Robert Frost.
McDonald, Peter. “Rhyme and Determination in Hopkins and Edward Thomas.” Essays in Criticism 43, no. 3 (July 1993): 228-46.
Structural and thematic comparison of the poetry of Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Moore, T. Sturge. “Edward Thomas.” In Some Soldier Poets, pp. 77-85. London: Grant Richards, 1919.
Praises Thomas's poetry for the “complex and subtle” moods it evokes, but finds fault with the poet for what Moore describes as “a greater preoccupation with manner than with matter.”
Norris, Leslie. “A Land Without a Name.” Poetry Wales 13, no. 4 (spring 1978): 89-101.
Contemplates the importance of the Welsh landscape, place names, and attitudes in Thomas's poems, including poems such as “If I Should Ever By Chance” and “If I Were To Own.”
Parker, David. “Edward Thomas and Tasting Deep the Hour.” Critical Review 22 (1980): 44-55.
Essay argues that Thomas's poetry exudes a sort of “hunger for experience itself” and analyzes how “Adelstrop,” “Tall Nettles,” and “Fifty Faggots” capture fleeting moments of experience.
Pikoulis, John. “On Editing Edward Thomas.” PN Review 103, 21, no. 5 (May/June 1995): 52-6.
Expresses dissatisfaction with previous editions of Thomas's poetry and prose.
Underhill, Hugh. “The ‘Poetical Character’ of Edward Thomas.” In The Problem of Consciousness in Modern Poetry, pp. 89-121. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Essay uses biographical information to explore how Thomas's temperament affected and was expressed in his writings.
Ward, J. P. “The Solitary Note: Edward Thomas and Modernism.” In The Art of Edward Thomas, edited by Jonathan Barker, pp. 49-60. Mid Glamorgan, Wales, United Kingdom: Poetry Wales Press, 1987.
Contemplating Thomas's relationship to modernisms, declaring that Thomas had more in common with the existentialists of the twentieth century than with his imagist and symbolist contemporaries.
Additional coverage of Thomas's life and career is contained in the following sources published the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 6; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 153; Contemporary Authors—Brief Entry, Vol. 106; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 19, 98, 156, 216; Discovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 10.