Vol 1 No 10
Content with Discontent: A note on Edward Thomas
The position of Edward Thomas among the poets of this century is a curious and rather uncertain one. He is often referred to as unjustly neglected, yet his Collected Poems have been continuously in print since 1920; most of the anthologies covering his period contain specimens of his work and he has received a good deal more critical and biographical attention than, for instance, Wilfred Owen who has been poorly served in this respect.
It is perhaps because Edward Thomas’s name is often linked with the Poetry Bookshop Group, evoking its images of tweeds and pipes and Poetry Lovers’ Circles, that some readers who are too young to feel tolerant or nostalgic affection for the period consider him not worth their attention; but I have known intelligent and sensitive students of poetry who have evidently made an attempt to read the poems critically and yet found them trivial and dull. Here, I suspect that prejudices of a different kind obscure their view, that their training and acquired or natural tastes have conditioned them to expect from poetry a kind of intellectual challenge that is almost wholly absent from his work. Thomas is unquestionably a limited poet. I can think of few of his poems of which a schoolboy could not paraphrase the bare prose sense, but no adolescent could respond fully to the formidable demands he makes upon the sensuous imagination, or with sympathy to his sad and truthful vision. That he is a difficult poet to place in any convenient category or group may also account for something of the unease a new reader may feel when he has learnt that he must not dismiss Thomas as a hiking clerk with peanut-butter sandwiches and a rhyming dictionary in his haversack. The only poets I can think of with whom he shares affinities are Clare, Hardy, Housman and, of course, Robert Frost: all poets who resist being labelled and shelved.
It is common knowledge that Edward Thomas did not write any poetry until he was in his mid-thirties when he met Frost who was staying for a time in England, and it was at the American poet’s suggestion that he began to produce verse. Thomas’s late start and its circumstances demand some explanation. Here was a young man, a professional writer, sensitive, bookish, immensely responsive to natural beauty, a reader and critic of poetry, who seemed to possess all the endowments that the popular imagination considers to be the equipment of a poet, yet who had never written a line until he reached an age when quite a few poets have exhausted their gift. Why hadn’t he begun earlier? Why did he begin then? The answers to these questions are to be found, I think, in a comparative reading of his work and Frost’s.
We should be grateful, as no doubt Edward Thomas was, to Robert Frost for putting the spark to the tinder of his creative potential. But how much more did the American poet give than encouragement and advice? To what extent in fact, is Thomas’s poetry dependent upon and even imitative of Frost’s?
At first sight the similarity between their work is striking: they both use effectively the rhythms of common speech within a flexible metrical frame- work; they both show a marked predilection for words of Anglo-Saxon origin; their imagery and themes have their roots in rural landscapes; the wind and rain blow through their lines and one meets, in both of their worlds, rustic characters, tramps, solitaries and originals. The titles of many of their poems could have been chosen by either poet: Birches, The Axe-Helve, After Apple Picking (Frost), Aspens, The Wasp Trap, Digging (Thomas). But a closer look at their work shows that, whatever Thomas learnt from his friend, his idiom and vision are peculiarly his own. The movement of Frost’s lines is more confident, smoother, less hesitant and exploratory than the Englishman’s, and this is not merely evidence of greater expertise. It is an indication of their basic difference, a difference of temperament, sensibility, background, belief and intention. Frost’s poetry is informed by his robust and puritan attitudes, his irony and strong moral sense; he is essentially optimistic and religious, and his observant selection of and commentary on detail is always related, more or less explicitly, to some wider issue. In the poem, Bereft, for instance (which also illustrates the metrical smoothness alien to Thomas) he finishes as the English-man never would. Having described the minatory roar of an autumn gale as night approaches, he goes on:
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in my house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.
The Almighty would not have turned up at the end of the last line if Edward Thomas as had written it. When Thomas relates events to a wider context of experience no edifying or consolatory viewpoint emerges, for his mind is brooding and melancholy, he feels a constant nostalgia for an idealized personal and historic past. To him, happiness cannot be recognized at the time of its visitation but only in retrospect when, paradoxically, the sense of loss and the imaginative re-creation of the experience which engendered the lost happiness induce a state which is part sadness and part joy.
. . . Then
As now that la-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other . . .
(The Unknown Bird)
His melancholia was the source of his poetry and as such he valued it:
. . . Shall I now this day
Begin to seek as far as heaven, as hell,
Wisdom or strength to match this beauty, start
And tread the pale dust pitted with small dark drops,
In hope to find whatever it is I seek,
Harkening to short-lived happy-seeming things
That we know naught of, in the hazel copse?
Or must I be content with discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?
Basically his themes are concerned with the two great themes of romantic literature, Love and Death, the first illuminated yet shadowed by the second; and the difficulty of reconciling them is resolved in the way that so many romantics have chosen, by directing them towards each other, by falling at least half in love with easeful death. This becomes explicit in the fine poem Rain which ends:
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me which have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
His few personal love poems have a sad, brooding honesty which is perfectly illustrated in No One So Much As You, a statement of love which is, at the same time, a lament for his incapacity for loving. This sell-doubt and self-contempt is forgotten when love is generalized into an impersonal compassion, as in The Owl which ends:
And salted was my food and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
The owl’s cry grieves, lonely in the cold night, and the poet pities those who do not share his own warmth and comfort, but he is too honest to deny that his knowledge of the privations of others adds to his own pleasure and contentment. This honesty is one of his great strengths; it toughens the war poem, This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong, and adds a sardonic flavouring to many pieces which might otherwise invite charges of sentimentality. But it is his love for natural phenomena, the seasons’ vagaries, birds, flowers, trees and landscapes, which finds purest expression; and his gift for communicating sensuous experience of these things is, in his own subtle way, equal to that of Keats or Clare. In his poems one touches, smells and tastes real things, the more poignantly since one has been lent more delicate equipment to employ; and one sees: .... dust on the nettles, never lost/Except to prove the sweetness of a shower’, or ‘The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow/As if the bow had flown off with the arrow’.
What I have been trying to suggest is that Thomas did not write poetry when he was younger because his poetic personality was of a kind which had to have time in which to mature. The shadow of that personality — melancholy, humorous, tender, introspective, stoical, preoccupied with mortality and suffused with nostalgia, hovers over every poem he wrote, and it could not have been the personality of a youth. Evidence of its growth is to be found in his prose writings which at their best—in The Heart of England and Richard Jefferies — clearly demonstrate the qualities that, disciplined and distilled, were to give his poetry its unique flavour. The poet was born when the man had endured the long gestation period and, providentially, Robert Frost was at hand to facilitate the delivery. No more skilful and sympathetic nurse could be imagined; but the child was soon pursuing a sturdy and independent existence and growing with extraordinary speed to maturity.
There are, of course, faults in his work. A few of the poems appear to proceed from no centre of compulsion and they read like formal exercises, which is probably what they were. There are one or two others, where he seems to have attempted to impose an arbitrarily chosen form on an idea which simply refuses to submit, as in the poem beginning, ‘When first I came here I had hope’, where the sense units and the stanzaic pattern bear not the slightest relation to each other. The younger reader whose ear is attuned to the post-Eliot idiom will probably take exception to the quaint and often metrically unnecessary ‘twases, ‘twifls and ‘twoulds, but he should not allow them to deceive him into thinking that Thomas was working in a spent verbal tradition: in fact this poet showed great subtlety and resourcefulness in adapting the rhythms of contemporary speech to traditional metres and this accomplishment has had an unobtrusive but unmistakable influence on the work of a poet as different as, for instance, Louis MacNeice. Compare these lines from MacNeice’s Wessex Guidebook with the quotation given from Rain:
As scornful of the tractor and the jet
As of the Roman road, or axe of flint,
Forgotten by the mass of human beings
Whom they, the Seasons, need not even forget
Since, though they fostered man, they never loved him.
It is interesting to speculate on what direction Thomas’s poetry would have taken if he had not been killed at Arras in 1917. Certainly he would have remained outside the coteries and it is likely that he would have developed the narrative gift shown in those rarely anthologized and very impressive poems Lob, Up in the Wind, Wind and Mist, and The Other.
In Lob, which is the gayest of his poems, with only the gentlest of nostalgic overtones, Thomas celebrates in easy conversational rhymed couplets the robust and poetic naming spirit which is part of the heritage of rural England, the creator of place names such as The Hog’s Back and Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, fairy stories, legends, jokes, and the pet names for wild flowers and birds.
Both Wind and Mist and Up in the Wind are tougher, bleaker pieces of work, laced by stoical courage and sardonic humour, which demonstrate his skill in using the pentameter as a base for blank verse which is neither prosy nor strained. But the most interesting of these poems (and in many ways the most interesting in his Collected Poems) is The Other, in which this self-searching and generally self-effacing writer externalizes the inner conflict which was central to his doubting, lonely personality.
Using a four stress line and a fairly exacting rhyme scheme in controlling ten line stanzas he shows great technical assurance and invention, and an intensely subjective poem is objectivized and presented with narrative pace and drama. The haunting, allegorical Doppelgänger theme never slips over into fantasy because of the poet’s honesty and seriousness of purpose and because the imagery is rooted firmly in the earth and is relayed accurately through the physical senses.
The forest ended. Glad I was
To feel the light, and hear the hum
Of bees, and smell the drying grass
And the sweet mint, because I had come
To the end of the forest, and because
Here was both road and inn, the sum
Of what’s not forest ...
The forest is a real forest and the smells of the drying grass and the sweet mint can be felt in the nostrils. But as the poem moves forward we are left in no doubt that it is also the forest of uncertainty and self-doubt from which he emerges into brief but illusory clearing where, almost at once, unrest is caused by his being asked at the inn if he had not passed that way on the previous day. Fearful, yet driven out by an obsessive compulsion, he sets out in pursuit of the Other:
I travelled fast, in hopes I should
Outrun that other. What to do
When caught, I planned not. I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew.
Self-knowledge, then, is the goal of the human spirit and discontent is its condition. The questing mind of the poet, despite occasional and ultimately ineffective distractions, moves after its quarry through a landscape which is at once symbolic and concrete:
I sought them in solitude.
The wind had fallen with the night; as still
The roads lay as the ploughland rude,
Dark and naked, on the hill.
Had there been ever any feud
‘Twixt earth and sky, a mighty will
Closed it: the crocketed dark trees,
A dark-house, dark impossible
Cloud-towers, one star, one lamp, one peace
Held on an everlasting lease. . .
But when at last he does succeed in catching up with the Other in an inn his Doppelgänger is inveighing against him bitterly:
Oh how I thought and dreamed and ran
After him thus, day after day:
He lived as one under a ban
For this: what had I got to say?
I said nothing. I slipped away.
The knowing sell and the elusive Other which demands to be known should not meet face to face for the two are eternally hostile to one another and the inevitable judgements which each must pass on the other are intolerable to both for they are wholly without love or compassion. The poem ends:
And now I dare not follow after
Too close. I try to keep in sight,
Dreading his frown and worse his laughter.
I steal out of the wood to light;
I see the swift shoot from the rafter
By the inn door; ere I alight
I wait and hear the starlings wheeze
And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight.
He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.
Doubtless the psychologist would find this poem of clinical interest, but, while it is true that the ethos and furnishings of the poet’s world have their origin in the dark workshops of the psyche, it is only with the end products that the reader should be concerned. The world of Edward Thomas is a strange and paradoxical place where melancholy and muted gaiety are inextricably mixed, a place peopled by characters half real, half mythical, who are never still, always passing out of the poet’s orbit, a world where a fresh and unsentimental wind of irony blows away the maudlin and the false; and the reader who finds that he is barred from entering that world because of his training, prejudices and critical preconceptions concerning the nature of poetry would do well to re-think the principles on which his judgements are based. The reader who is barred by defects of sensibility must accept the fact that he is deaf and blind to one of the richest elements of English lyric poetry, though Thomas himself, in Aspens, faces the probability of such neglect or lack of sympathy with humility and resignation:
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, any more than to my rhymes.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The