Sunday, December 11, 2016

more / Lovely than things that were not / Lovely before - an Edward Thomas calendar

The Edward Thomas collection I read – The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008) – ignores the original publication of the pieces in Poems (1917) and Last Poems (1918) and so on and puts them all in the order in which they were written.  There are a few poems in December 1914, close to two-thirds of the total in 1915, a third in 1916, and a few in January 1917.  Thomas is killed in April, 1917.

In effect, the poems are written over the course of two years.  Because Thomas is a kind of nature poet – a rural poet – the sequence becomes that of a calendar.  Months, holidays, seasons, agricultural activity, the movement of birds, the life-cycle of plants – that covers a lot of the poetry.  The repetition of the sequence is especially interesting, as Thomas returns to a poem from a year ago, or for all I know completely forgets the earlier poem but returns to the same seasonal inspiration.  I showed an example yesterday, two four-line poems written a year apart.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I had taken the notes needed to pursue this idea?

All right, let’s just rummage.  Every poem is good.  Thomas’s signature line resembles Frost, a ragged blank verse, but then again plenty of poems are something else entirely:

The Wasp Trap

This moonlight makes
The lovely lovelier
Than ever before lakes
And meadows were.

And yet they are not,
Though their hour is, more
Lovely than things that were not
Lovely before.

Nothing on earth,
And in the heavens no star,
For pure brightness is worth,
More than that jar,

For wasps meant, now
A star – long may it swing
From the dead apple-bough,
So glistening.  (March, 1915)

What a tangle up there, especially in the second stanza.  The poet sees a jar hanging in a tree, used to trap and kill wasps, and thinks something like “Gee whiz, that jar is pretty in the moonlight,” and this chain of thought eventually comes forth.  The jar is a thing of ugliness, a utilitarian death trap, but for a moment it is not just beautiful but “worth” more than anything on earth, or any star!

A little more than a year later, Thomas, in one of his grimmest poems, returned to one of the lines of this poem in a way that darkens the entire poem:

from The Gallows

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.  (1st stanza, July 1916)

In each of the three subsequent stanzas, the keeper hangs more animals from the “dead oak tree bough”.  Each stanza ends with that line.  The jar, so beautiful a year ago, returns to its role as a death trap, the wasps joining the weasels, crows, and “many other beasts” hanged from a tree branch.  One may wonder if “The Gallows” is also a war poem.  I wonder.


  1. I am partial to More's Utopia, but I will jump ahead to Captain John Smith's A Description of New England (a good example of public relations literature, encouraging colonization, and where would we all be if the English had not made the great emigration from there to here). Now I jump ahead to 1916 an nominate Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger, a mysterious tale too seldom read except by Twain fanatics.

  2. Which Mysterious Stranger text do you prefer? I haven't read any of them.

    I see that the John Smith book, like Jonson's First Folio, is full of poems. Public relations literature today has sadly lost its poetic touch.

  3. All right; that's a good one to put on the schedule for the new year.