Whether I am destined to lie under a foreign clod – the life and poetry of Edward Thomas
This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the death at Arras on the Western Front of the poet Edward Thomas. Seen as one of the “war poets” although he did not actually write any poems at the front, he was killed on Easter Monday, April 9th 1917 at Arras. His poetry has a unique and very distinctive quality deeply grounded in his love of the countryside and a melancholic voice which draws from his personal experience of depression. He has become one of my very favourite writers.
Thomas was born in 1879 in Battersea. He was the son of a self-made Welshman Philip Thomas, a welsh speaker originally from Tredegar, who moved to Swindon and then London in furtherance of his civil service career. Later to stand as a Liberal candidate in the 1918 Election, Thomas’ father did literally know Lloyd George. His relationship with his father, while a source of inspiration in his intellectual development, was a major source of distress to Thomas as he declares very honestly in a poem “I may come near loving you when you are dead.”
Thomas’s father tried to translate his own ambition onto his son and pushed him through a series of schools and onto Jesus College Oxford where he studied history. Ignoring his father’s pressure to follow him into the civil service, Thomas embarked on a penurious career as a writer but, until 1914, one which was confined to writing prose.
His transition to becoming a poet owes much to his celebrated friendship with the American poet Robert Frost with whom he spent much time in 1914 and 1915. Thomas as a reviewer did much to further Frost’s career and, in his turn, Frost inspired his friend to become a poet. Thomas is the intended recipient of Frosts famous poem “The road less taken”.
Thomas married young. His relationship with his wife and family, though very important to him, was difficult, exacerbated by the impact of his mental health problems and he spent a considerable amount of time away from them. His mixed feelings are perhaps summed up by the last lines of a poem “And you, Helen” where he promises to give “Myself too, if I could find where it lay hidden and it proved kind.”
In 1915 Thomas enlists in the Artists’ Rifles, later transferring to the Royal Artillery with whom he served in France. There is a very considerable ambiguity in his decision to fight. He is no simple patriot and is openly contemptuous of narrow jingoism. As again he writes in one his poems the war “Is no case of petty right or wrong that politicians or philosophers can judge”. As the lines which I have used as a title of his blog he contrasts his decision with the overstated rhetoric of his famous fellow poet Rupert Brooke who famous lines about “a corner of a foreign field which is forever England” are so often quoted.
But behind the decision to enlist is a profound sense that there is something deep to fight for and that something is grounded deeply in his profound love of the English countryside. As he wrote All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically like a slave, not having realized that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die rather than leave it as Belgian women and old men and children had left their country.”
It is this profound attachment to the countryside of England and Wales, and in particular it’s quiet and lonely places where Thomas’s quality as poet is most clearly demonstrated. Whether in “Up in the Wind” his first mature poem describing an isolated inn on the top of the Downs; the “The Mountain Chapel” with his invocation of the ancientness of the landscape “When gods were young this wind was old”; the beautiful moment of a summer’s day before the War which he captures in “Adelstrop” or the eerie description of a deserted mill he gives in “The Mill-Water” this is a man who has a deep feeling for the look, sound, shape and feel of the countryside. He is a Romantic poet in the tradition of Wordsworth at his best.
His depression, who led him on several occasions to try to take his own life, also shapes his verse and he is rarely distant from a sense of his own mortality and the grey boundary between the pain of life and the painless and pleasureless peace of death.
Last summer on my cycle along the Western Front I visited his grave. It is a most peaceful place, now surrounded by housing and allotments. I read to myself one of his last poems “Lights Out” in which imagines his own departure from life. He finishes with words of eerie beauty: