Friday, December 9, 2016

"Everything would have been different" - reading Edward Thomas

As far as I can remember I had never read an Edward Thomas poem until recently.  How sad for me.  What a fine poet.  What a sad story.

Thomas worked as a hack writer – for example, “from 1900 to 1914 Thomas wrote ‘just over a million words about 1,200 books’” (Introduction, p. 12).  Yee-ikes.  His nature writing, or more accurately rural writing, is something well beyond hackwork.  I read Thomas in The Annotated Collected Poems (ed. Edna Longley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008) where the annotations dwarf the hundred pages of poems, mainly because of the long samples of Thomas’s good prose.

By good luck, Thomas became friends with Robert Frost just as North of Boston (1914) was published, and something in his creative organ was set off.  He began writing poems, lots of them, a couple a week in 1915, then maybe one a week in 1916.  For reasons that are a mystery, Thomas, at age 38 and this late in the war, volunteered to fight in France, where he was killed within a few months.  His first book, Poems (1917), was in press when he died.  His second was thus titled Last Poems (1918).

Strictly speaking, he is not a war poet – not a trench poet – since he did not write any poems while serving in France and only rarely addressed the war directly while in England.  The war is mostly a source of absence, the reason there are no young men in his countryside.  Sometimes he is explicit, as in this little poem:

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

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 never do again.

A year later he writes another version:

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

In another poem from 1916, “At the team’s head-brass,” the poet talks to a ploughman, first “About the weather, next about the war” and then about the fallen elm on which Thomas is sitting.  Why has it not been removed – it is an obstacle for the plow:

‘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 would have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here.  Everything
Would have been different.’

In a few early poems, Thomas sounds like Frost, but he soon only resembles Frost conceptually, both poets writing dialogue poems and poems about the woods and so on, both, to me, looking like modern children of Wordsworth, like a century of poetry had been leaped.

I will do another day of browsing through Thomas, just fir the excuse to quote more poems.


  1. Oh! I read some about him in a couple of places this year. He was very depressive, and was perfectly awful to his wife who loved him anyway. Eleanor Farjeon was deeply in love with him too. He must have been a charismatic fellow. I think Frost blamed himself for Thomas' enlistment, thinking that something he said might have sparked it, but who knows.

  2. Not to overdo this kind of thing, but Thomas seems like a manic depressive to me.

    The editor of this edition definitely does not blame Frost for Thomas's decision to enlist - multiple causes, some of them mysteries.