- 1 William Cooke (ed.), Edward Thomas, London: Everyman, 2000, xviii.
- 2 J. P. Ward, “The Solitary Note: Edward Thomas and Modernism,” in Jonathan Barker (ed.), The Art of (...)
1Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is, in a sense, a unique poet, both in terms of his poetry and the context in which it was written. He wrote his first poems in 1914, after the outbreak of the Great War, and his poetic output comprises 142 poems, all of them written prior to his military service in France. Among many attempts to delineate Thomas’s poetic legacy, William Cooke’s remark that Thomas “has been variously described as a nature poet, a Georgian, a war poet and a modernist, but no single term seems adequate”1 appears to be most accurate, as Thomas seems to draw on a variety of poetic movements and techniques. Although his poems were not included in Edward Marsh’s anthologies, published between 1912 and 1922, Thomas adopts the Georgian straightforwardness and celebrates the English countryside, but at the same time he evades the mawkish mode of appeasing the readers with poetic pleasantries, a vice which quite often besets Georgian poetry. On the other hand, some of his poems remain precise and evocative, much in the Imagist and Symbolist vein. J. P. Ward goes further and claims that Thomas is “privatised, inner and alienated,”2 a comment which adds a modernist touch to Thomas’s poetic oeuvre.
- 3 Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980, 92. Motion mist (...)
- 4 Bernard Bergonzi, Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, Manchester: Carcane (...)
2As to the war dimension of Thomas’s poetry, one has to admit that explicit reference to the conflict is rare in his poems, but there are numerous arguments in favour of acknowledging his place in the poetic heritage of the 1914-18 years, in which one would most instantly include such icons as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon or Ivor Gurney. Considering Thomas as a war poet would undoubtedly be for different reasons, not least because Thomas never joined the pantheon of the trench poets as he did not write a single poem while on active service. For Andrew Motion, for example, the fact that Thomas wrote his poems after the outbreak of the war, and that the war is present in his poetry is a sufficient reason to grant him the label of a war poet.3 Much in the same vein, Bernard Bergonzi claims that “[t]he war made Thomas a poet and it ended his life, so there are good reasons for regarding him as a war poet.”4
- 5 Desmond Graham, The Truth of War, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984, 18.
- 6 For example, Wiśniewski who, quoting Desmond Graham, writes about the distinction between “poets of (...)
3The problem with categorising Thomas is very much that of finding a proper label for him. Even bearing in mind Desmond Graham’s famous broad definition that a war poet is one who is supposed to “employ his art to convey the truth of war as he […] experienced it,”5 it still remains unclear whether the label war poetry ought to be restricted to a realistic rendering of conflict in order to produce a genuine account of war as such, or be extended to cover a much broader experience of war. To an extent, one cannot escape the feeling that very often this question is merely a matter of a definitional confusion, which remains a domain of literary critics,6 but does not affect the perception or reception of the readers.
- 7 George Parfitt, English Poetry of the First World War: Contexts and Themes, London: Harvester Wheat (...)
- 8 All the poems quoted can be found in Edna Longley (ed.), The Annotated Collected Poems, Tarset: Blo (...)
4For Thomas’s poetry, the phrase proposed by George Parfitt, who refers to him as the poet of “the context of war”7 seems to settle the dispute, both because it is true to Thomas and because the phenomenon of the literature written during the Great War cannot be embraced without acknowledging the fact that war is not limited to the frontline experience and thus that war poetry cannot be restricted to the rendition of battle. In fact, a genuine account of war would arguably be somewhat unbalanced if it was limited to trench poetry only, without presenting various facets of war rendered by those who observe it from other perspectives and whose experience does not necessarily stem from active service. What cannot be denied is that Thomas’s poetic legacy is contextually ingrained within the body of what is generally considered to be the poetry of the Great War. In fact, Thomas has been given full credit for his contribution as his name can be found on the memorial in Westminster Abbey commemorating the poets of the Great War, which is no surprise considering that one of the most cherished poems, often quoted in anthologies of war poetry, is Thomas’s In Memoriam (Easter 1915):8
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. (6 April 1915)
- 9 Edna Longley, “Roads from France,” The Guardian, June 28th 2008.
This epigrammatic poem clearly shows how Thomas can encapsulate the theme of war in one elegiac stanza. It is one of the most poignant war poems, written, as Edna Longley puts it, by a “master of the brief lyric.”9
- 10 Quoted by Peter Buckman & William Fifield, “The Art of Poetry XI: Robert Graves,” in Frank L. Kersn (...)
- 11 Quoted in Fred D. Crawford, British Poets of the Great War, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Pre (...)
- 12 Both poems were written in 1914.
5In Memoriam perfectly epitomises Thomas’s reference to war in his poetry. Obviously, since Thomas did not write his poems on the front line, they are a far cry from the trench reportage, or to use Robert Graves’s expression, they are not “journalistic.”10 However, it is also Thomas’s attitude to the war that makes him something of an outsider. As Thomas’s friend J. W. Haines notes, he “did not embrace it passionately like Rupert Brooke, nor revolt from it as passionately as did Wilfred Owen.”11 Indeed, Thomas’s attitude to the war is devoid not only of Brooke’s heartfelt patriotism, Owen’s bitterness, or Sassoon’s sarcasm, but also of any of the jingoism that pervaded much of doggerel written particularly for the Home Front and that was occasionally present in verse written by established literary figures, such as Robert Bridges in Wake up, England or Rudyard Kipling, who called for struggle and sacrifice in For All We Have and Are.12Thomas’s poetry is grounded on a certain degree of neutrality, free as much of any flag waving as of fervid pacifism. This is particularly visible in This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong:
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. (26 December 1915)
- 13 George R. Thomas, Edward Thomas, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1972, 8.
6However, this objective, detached stance is far from suggesting indifference, but rather follows the line of “muted yet sincere patriotism” as George Thomas calls it in his biography of Edward Thomas.13
I am one in crying, God save England
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate our foe.
Thomas’s patriotism is indeed subdued and of a more introspective nature. His attitude to the war is a far cry from the enthusiasm boosted by the war-mongers, prevalent particularly at the beginning of the Great War and in its initial stages. Thomas does not feed on the general mood, and the war issue for him remains beyond the domain of the national debate: he adopts a stance of his own, which confirms acceptance of the state of affairs without excessive emotional or patriotic commitment.
- 14 Stan Smith, Edward Thomas, London and Boston: Faber and Faber,1986, 167.
- 15 Quoted in Matthew Spencer (ed.), Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another, Ne (...)
- 16 According to one estimate, from 1900 to 1914 Thomas wrote at least 1,200 reviews, mainly for the Da (...)
7Thomas began writing poetry after the outbreak of the war in 1914, a fact which is attributed to the influence of Robert Frost who, as Stan Smith puts it, helped Thomas “to mobilize his own poetic gift.”14 In fact, there was reciprocal support between Frost and Thomas. Frost was indebted to Thomas for favourable reviews of his poetry, a fact to which he refers to in his letter to Grace Walcott Conkling, claiming that Thomas in particular strengthened his status as a poet.15 On the other hand, Frost realised that the only way for Thomas to achieve self-expression was to make a shift from reviewing16 and writing prose in favour of becoming a poet. He states it clearly in a letter to Roy Brennan:
- 17 Quoted in Robert P. Eckert, Edward Thomas: A Biography and a Bibliography, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1 (...)
Edward Thomas had about lost patience with the minor poetry it was his business to review. He was suffering from a life of subordination to his inferiors. 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. I referred him to paragraphs in his book In Pursuit of Spring and told him to write in verse form in exactly the same cadence.17
- 18 This belief was emphasised by Frost in his letter to Helen Thomas (27 April 1917): “I want to tell (...)
The result of the meeting between Frost and Thomas was the mutual appreciation they could offer each other, for much as Thomas valued Frost’s poetic skill, the latter believed in Thomas’s poetic potential.18
- 19 Mostly in The South Country (1909), The Icknield Way (1913) and In Pursuit of Spring (1914).
8In 1915 Thomas decided to enlist, joined the Royal Artillery, and from that point on can be seen as a poet on the way to war, as at least some of his poems seem to pivot around this “road motif.” It is worth noting that the theme and imagery of the road had been of interest to Thomas for a long time, and is present in his poetry, but more so in his prose,19 a good example being his essay On Roads and Footpaths:
Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it. […] It is a silent companion always ready for us, whether it is night or day, wet or fine, whether we are calm or desperate, well or sick. It is always going; it has never gone right away, and no man is too late.
In retrospect, the last sentence in particular sounds somewhat ironic, bearing in mind that the road Thomas took after volunteering led him straight to his death in France.
- 20 Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way, London: Constable, 1913, vii.
9In his prose, Thomas provides details of the time spent on his beloved roads of Southern England. One cannot fail to observe that destinations seem to be irrelevant here, and the focal point is always “the mystery of the road,”20 which Thomas verbalises in a contemplative mood. In Thomas’s poetry, the same theme can be found, for example, in Roads:
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone. (22 January 1916)
- 21 Quoted in Lawrence Thomson (ed.), Selected Letters of Robert Frost, London: Jonathan Cape, 1965.
However, in contrast to his prose, Thomas here makes a direct shift from his reflections on the “mystery” towards a more sinister reference to the journey’s end. It seems that there is a certain premonition here, as the poem evokes the moods and thoughts of a poet on the way to war. In this context, it is hard not to accept Frost’s comment made in a letter to Edward Garnett that Thomas’s poetry “ought to be called Roads to France:”21
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living;
The poem perfectly epitomises the road-bound dimension of Thomas’s poetry and remains in line with Thomas’s attitude to the war, so expressly articulated in This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong. There is no “right or wrong,” for “roads go on” irrespective of anything and anyone. The true value of the poem is that, although it remains low-key, it is extremely telling within the context of his war-related poems, for it seems to establish a clear-cut stance that Thomas sought to adopt in his attitude to the war.
- 22 Anthony Thwaite, Contemporary English Poetry: An Introduction, London: Heinemann, 1964, 49.
10The very same mood is particularly transparent and well-pronounced in a number of poems which have a dialogic character, and which Thwaite refers to as “anecdotes, accounts of incidents;”22 the war in such poems seems to exist on the edge of life and is introduced within the context of a short conversation. The common denominator is the setting: while taking a walk in the countryside, the lyrical ego often holds a short, casual conversation, as in Man and Dog:
‘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; (20 January 1915)
This is indeed how Thomas interweaves war into some of his poems: it seems fragmentary, marginal, as if inserted incidentally and with little weight attached to it; yet, this poetic strategy accentuates the ominous nature of war. What reinforces the mood created in the poem is the alternating reference to the distant reality of the trenches and the proximity of here and now, all in a cursory, yet disquieting manner.
11Another poem written in a similar dialogic, if not narrative, vein is As the Team’s Head-Brass. What Thomas does in the poem is to juxtapose the evil of war with the natural order of the English countryside, so precious to him, which is a recurring image in his poetry:
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. (27 May 1916)
This exposition is characteristic of Thomas’s poems in which he introduces the dialogic mode: an odd question asked almost mechanically triggers an exchange which progressively comes to be dominated by war reference:
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.
The lives of ordinary people become somehow inexorably involved and entangled in the war, even though it seems so distant. In his typical manner, Thomas blends the here and there: the distant war becomes inextricably interwoven with the life of the peaceful countryside. It gradually turns out that almost everyone becomes affected by the war even though it remains remote:
‘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.’
- 23 John Press, Poets of World War I, Windsor: Profile Books, 1983, 30.
12Question after question the conversation builds up into a story in which the war and the serene countryside become almost a system of communicating vessels, as the juxtaposition of everyday life in the English countryside with the disquieting echoes of the war serves the purpose of “showing how a tiny incident in a peaceful countryside may help us to grasp the significance of war.”23Much as in Man and Dog, but to a greater extent, Thomas makes a gradual shift from the serenity of the English countryside and develops the dialogue towards intensifying anxiety and foreboding. The tranquillity of the countryside is disturbed as the war intrudes on the lives of ordinary people. Paradoxically, though, the concluding line is anticlimactic and, much as in his other poems, Thomas retains a certain level of detachment.
13The analogous mode of reference to war, of hovering between the here and there that Thomas uses in As the Team’s Head-Brass can be found in a number of his poems, where the war seems to exist in the background of peaceful countryside, yet it remains disproportionate to its referential marginality. Although mentioned as a distant reality, the war is almost an indispensable part of the world he portrays, virtually omnipresent between the lines, and haunting the lyrical ego. It is, as it were, a tangle of near and far, as in The Sun Used to Shine:
We turned from men or poetry
To rumours of the war remote … (22 May 1916)
14The sudden switch of focus from the familiarity of an everyday chat to the sinister “rumours” brings a dissonance in the poem, a warning of danger lurking somewhere in the background. The word “remote,” contrary to its obvious connotation, foreshadows something imminent and unavoidable. Remote as it is, the war casts a long shadow over the peaceful setting. In Melancholy,Thomas introduces similar pastoral imagery mingled with the echoes of war:
All day long I heard a distant cuckoo calling
And, soft as dulcimers, sounds of near water falling,
And softer, and remote as if in history,
Rumours of what had touched my friends, my foes, or me. (25 April 1915)
Again, the word “rumours” has a haunting, sinister association, particularly so because it is set beside the bucolic tranquillity of the English countryside. More so, because, much as in The Sun Used to Shine, the significance of “rumours,” framed within the context of “softer” and “remote as if in history,” gains weight that goes beyond the word’s semantic boundaries. Here again, the final effect is achieved by foregrounding the distant reality of war, which overshadows the rural serenity.
15The melancholic note permeates a number of Thomas’s poems, in which the lyrical is submerged in ubiquitous foreboding, which somehow seems to mirror the war atmosphere. This is well-illustrated in The Owl:
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice. (24 February 1915)
- 24 J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, London: Routledge, 2001, 247.
The poem is a good example of how Thomas rejects overt verbalisation and of his allusive technique which prefers to reveal the lyrical ego’s frame of mind in a more implicit manner. A simple “owl’s cry” is a springboard from which the lyrical ego dives into a more in-depth mental engagement with the war. The owl may symbolise melancholy, but also numerous moods connected with darkness and, consequently, anything that seems sinister or haunting. More to the point, it may symbolise passivity,24 interpreted as awaiting the war, ominous and inexorable, but also evocative of the very nature of trench warfare. One of the images which Thomas often employs in order to render a similar mood is rain, so profusely used in his poems that, to use Thomas’s own words, his poems are virtually “embedded in rain.” This phrase actually applies to Thomas’s prose as well, but it is in his poemsthat the image is used as a symbolic reference to the war in France (1913: 278). A striking example here is Rain:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain … (7 January 1916)
The image has as an associative function here: the very same rain falls on the trenches in France, where the soldiers might at this very moment be listening to the sound of rain, if not “dying” then “lying still awake.” The rain is synonymous with ubiquitous melancholy and apprehension of the forthcoming future. The lyrical ego’s predicament transpires from the foreboding ingrained within the sound of rain that one day will fall on his grave, which may be somewhere in the trenches in France.Rain frequently functions as an objective correlative in Thomas’s poems, establishing a mood, but is here not just evocative of war but symbolic of death in the trenches.
- 25 Peter Howarth, “Fateful Forms: A. E. Housman, Charlotte Mew, Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas,” in Ne (...)
16One of the most potent poems which perfectly fits the “road” context of Thomas’s poetry is Adlestrop, in which the English countrysideis presented as a fading picture, a precious world turning into a thing of the past. Adlestrop, as Peter Howarth notes, “seems to transfigure Thomas’s own present and future absence from it.”25 Even within the singularly private character of Thomas’s poetry, Adlestrop seems particularly personal, as it portends the farewell to the beloved countryside, so touchingly described or referred to in most of his works:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June. (8 January 1915)
The poem is a very personal reminiscence of a seemingly insignificant episode which Thomas employs to convey a momentous change. Thomas magnifies minute details as if he wanted to retain in memory every single moment of the world from which he is about to depart:
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came.
- 26 Longley (ed.), op. cit., 10.
17Adlestrop is one of those poems in which the reference to war is oblique, yet suggestive enough to leave room for interpretation. It is also a superb example of how Thomas fuses war and poetry in a way which encapsulates his own case, one of a poet whose gift blossomed under the shadow of war. In a way, Adlestrop epitomises“a uniquely intense poetic journey”26 which comprises Thomas the poet and Thomas on the way to war:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas captures the world of rural serenity gradually fading away; hence, the final “farther and farther,” which perfectly fits the closing line. The poem is dense with images and sounds which reinforce the feeling of parting with something invaluable: the “willows, willow-herb, and grass, and meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,” tokens of familiarity, are soon to become as distant as the sounds of the “blackbird” and “all the birds” slowly turning into a quietude which seems pregnant with some imminent danger, almost the lull before the storm.
18A similar mood, one of a poignant leave taking, of parting from the world to which the lyrical ego is attached, is evoked in Lights Out, (one of Thomas’s last poems, written in November 1916):
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.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
The lyrical ego seems to realise that he has approached a point of no return, beyond which there is a path he is destined to follow, and his mental frame is torn between the most precious of worlds which is waning, and the future which is veiled in sinister uncertainty. In Lights Out,the road dimension of Thomas’s poetry seems to reach its climax, as the lyrical ego is finally bracing himself for a war in which he is to take part, and die. Whether the poem is intentionally prophetic may be debatable, but one cannot escape the feeling that between the lines there are undertones of the imminence that haunts a number of Thomas’s poems.
- 27 Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, , 2007, 4.
- 28 This world is touchingly described in As it Was and World Without End by Helen Thomas, London: Fabe (...)
19This seems to be the essence of Thomas’s poetry: the reader is perpetually witnessing a farewell to something vital, which is, in fact, the world of rural beauty. What Thomas expresses in his poems, though fairly implicitly, is, to use Blunden’s words, “the evanescence of England [...] and the imminence of France.“27Thomas achieves this by conveying a sense of anxiety, and juxtaposing the serenity of English countryside with the world reverberating with thoughts of a war taking place in the distance. He pictures the world most precious to him,28 which he captures on the eve of his active participation in war.
20Thomas’s mode of expression hovers between the celebrative and melancholic tones, with the lyrical ego being half-immersed in the now and the moments alone in the country but more and more absorbed by the future and the approaching end of the road. France and the war come increasingly nearer and nearer, and the mood is one of a farewell to Thomas’s beloved countryside.
- 29 The last poem, written on 13 January 1917, was The Sorrow of True Love.
21Lights Out was one of the last poems Edward Thomas wrote before going to war29 – the war which witnessed his birth as a poet, and his death when a stray shell ended his life on 9th April 1917, but established him in the pantheon of war poets.