[Philip] Edward Thomas grew up in London, his parents having migrated there from Wales. His father was a clerk at the Board of Trade, and an active member of the Liberal Party. Thomas attended several schools, ending up at St Paul’s. In 1898 he won a history scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford. Thomas’s Welsh and southwest English ancestral horizons fostered the attraction to the natural world that was to dominate his literary life. He disliked London, except for its commons, and relished family holidays in Wales and Wiltshire. In Wiltshire he met the old countryman David ‘Dad’ Uzzell: a source for the spirit of Englishness personified in Thomas’s patriotic poem ‘Lob’ (1915). The formative influence of the Wiltshire writer Richard Jefferies also explains why ‘Lob’ is linked with Wiltshire.
But at the end of the nineteenth century Thomas had a long way to go before he could write ‘Lob’ or indeed any poem. In 1899 he married Helen Noble, daughter of the author James Ashcroft Noble (d. 1896) who had encouraged his literary talent. This early marriage (opposed by Helen’s mother) and Thomas’s desire to be a writer (opposed by his worldly father) meant that the couple lived precariously in rural southern England. Between 1900 and 1910 they had three children. From 1906 they rented houses in Steep, near Petersfield in Hampshire. A commemorative stone to Edward Thomas now stands on one of the local hills or ‘hangers’, and devotees annually walk from Steep to Selborne around the time of his birthday (3 March). The walk is symbolically apt since Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne is the founding text of English Nature writing: a tradition that his poetry and prose has deeply absorbed. His response to rapid economic and social change in rural England, and to the environmental and cultural shock of urban modernity – a shock later compounded by war – made Thomas an ecological thinker before his time.
With The Woodland Life (1897) Thomas began his demanding career as a writer of country books, biography (including biographies of Jefferies and George Borrow), meditative essays, and criticism. He also became a busy reviewer, specialising in poetry. Because his livelihood depended on commissions, the quality of Thomas’s prose varies greatly. In his important correspondence with the poet Gordon Bottomely, Thomas lacerates himself as a hack writer, a ‘hurried and harried prose man’, and obsessively analyses his psychological state. He complains that exhaustion makes his brain ‘wild’ and that ‘there is no form that suits’ him. In 1911 Thomas had a severe breakdown, and even contemplated suicide. He seems to have suffered from depressive illness aggravated by repressed creativity and creative frustration. He did not start writing poetry till December 1914, when a remarkable transformation occurred.
This was most directly due to his friend the American poet Robert Frost, whose poetry Thomas had perceptively and influentially reviewed. Frost suggested that some passages from Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring might be turned into poems. As a result, Thomas brought a new imaginative intensity to his accumulated writings and experiences. He calls his poems ‘quintessences of the best parts of my prose books’. Thomas’s creative release was also a psychological release. However bleak the psychic landscape of his poems may often be, his ability to write them was itself therapeutic. His poetry takes shape as a twisting journey into the ‘unknown’ of the self, Nature, and the universe. Thomas wrote over 140 poems in the time that remained before he was killed by shell-blast at Arras in April 1917.
Frost’s suggestion was not the only factor in making Thomas a poet or revealing that he was one. The close observation in works such as The South Country (1909), The Icknield Way (1913) and In Pursuit of Spring (1914) led to poetry. So did Thomas’s desire to purge ‘rhetoric’ from his prose style. He was pleased with the ‘leanness’ of his brief autobiography The Childhood of Edward Thomas (unpublished till 1938). His critical acumen counted too. Thomas was then the best poetry critic in England, and his emerging ideas about the relation between speech and literature, rhythm and form (expressed in critiques of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1912) and Walter Pater ), agreed with those of Frost. Frost’s practical example, their shared theory, and Thomas’s hinterland of writing, all played a part in Thomas’s metamorphosis.
Yet the most profound catalyst or Muse may have been the Great War. It’s no coincidence that Thomas began writing poetry in December 1914. It’s also relevant that, although overage, he joined up in July 1915 (the Artist’s Rifles), and in December 1916 volunteered for service overseas (with the Royal Artillery). But Thomas is not a war poet in the sense of being a ‘trench poet’: he wrote only one poem – not a trench poem – after reaching France. Nevertheless, the war is a context or subtext for all his poetry, which can be called a poetry of the ‘Home Front’ (in the full sense of both words), complementing that of Owen and Sassoon. The Great War concentrated complex feelings about the English countryside, culture, literature and language dispersed throughout Thomas’s prose. In his essay ‘This England’ he says: ‘Something, I felt, had to be done before I could again look composedly at English landscape’. So he did not enlist for orthodox reasons, as ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’ stresses: ‘I hate not Germans nor grow hot/ With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers’. He called Rupert Brooke ‘a rhetorician’, and criticised Brooke’s 1914 sonnets as an ‘attempt to connect with himself the very widespread idea that self sacrifice is the highest self indulgence’.
Thomas’s poetry obliquely connects the Great War with broader questions of human existence, survival, memory, and ‘home’ – which accounts for its continuing influence today. The poetry’s positive images are countered by images of deserted houses, darkness, and encroaching forest. Thomas’s best-known poem ‘Old Man’, in which the speaker fails to pin down an elusive memory, ends: ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’. But ‘As the team’s head brass’, a dialogue between a soldier and a ploughman, leaves the future open.
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 an 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
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.
Collected Poems, new edition, including his ‘War Diary’ (Faber, 2004)
As It Was and World Without End, by Helen Thomas (Faber, 1956)
Edward Thomas: A Portrait, by R. George Thomas, (Oxford University Press, 1985)
Edward Thomas: Selected Letters edited by R. George Thomas (Oxford University Press, 1995)
The Poetry of Edward Thomas, by Andrew Motion (Routledge, 1980)
A Language Not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas , edited by Edna Longley (Carcanet Press, 1981)
Edna Longley, February 2005
Edward Thomas Fellowship: www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk
Past Conference: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry. Oxford, England: Saturday 12th March 2005
Archives and Library Collections:
UK National Register of Archives directory (coverage is international)