by Emily Cersonsky
Though an active literary critic for most of his life, Edward Thomas did not write his first poem until late in 1914, and proceeded to produce his entire oeuvre (over 100 poems, most published posthumously in the collections Poems and Last Poems) before his death in 1917 at the Battle of Arras.
Thomas was first incited to poetry by Robert Frost, who so associated his friend with their shared country walks that in 1915 he sent him the poem inspired by these journeys, “The Road Not Taken,” in an otherwise empty envelope, without further explanation (Elected, 49n.). Thomas’ reply to the poem left this implied connection unaddressed, instead reading Frost’s poem as a foil to his own nascent poetic ideal. While Thomas speaks in contingencies that wax self-effacing – “perhaps I had always missed what made poetry poetry if it was here” – he also paints an incisively clear picture of what he expects from poetry – and how his own poetry will depart from Frost’s. Wrapped in these equivocations, he criticizes Frost’s “lack of stops” and unclear verses, his meaning which arrives “somewhat apart from the words,” his “simple words and unemphatic rhythms,” which were not those from which “I was accustomed to expected great things, things I like.” In addition, Thomas corrects Frost’s ambulatory theme itself: “I don’t pretend not to have a regular road & footpath system as well as doing some trespassing…It is all very well for you poets in a wood to say you choose, but you don’t. If you do, ergo I am no poet” (61-64).
But Thomas was, indeed, a poet. As is implied by these criticisms, the poetry that Thomas would proceed to write is sympathetic to Frost’s aims yet diverges from his practice, combining a less romantic, more experiential and specific concept of walking and discovery with a more precise attention to how poetic rhythm and diction might not only present but reflect and embed this pace. His poetry is marked by an intense attention to sound, as can be seen even in the title of his 1916 poem “As the Team’s Head-Brass” (Collected Poems 300), which continues in a lush running rhythm and complex assonance reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
As Lucy Newlyn has shown, Thomas applies this sonic precision in order to textualize the combined activity of walking, thinking, and observing. Thomas’ poetry can thus be read as a taxonomy of the experience of country strolls. Unlike William Carlos Williams’ later section in Paterson, which analyzes the vigorous trochee, “Walking –,” through a series of tongue-in-cheek physiological descriptions (43ff.), Thomas differentiates pace more subtly, applying different modes of movement in various poems. In “Over the Hills,” for instance, the pace of exploration through overgrown “half-gaps that were stiles once in the hedge” becomes the half-gasps of the poem’s caesurae and enjambments:
Often and often it came back again
To mind, the day I passed the horizon ridge
To a new country, the path I had to find…
By contrast, “The Lofty Sky” represents an easy, sightseeing jaunt along familiar lanes by way of short lines and an alternation of high/low vowel-sounds which follow the speaker’s glances from sky to ground:
Today I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills
Above the last man’s house….
Past all trees, past furze
And thorn, where naught deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky.
Still another pace can be seen in “Health,” where the bed-bound speaker imagines his untaken strides in long, leisurely, uninterrupted lines, a marked contrast to the reality in which he could “scarce…leap four yards”:
Maybe I should not count it anything
To leap these four miles with the eye
And either I should not be filled almost to bursting with desire,
Or with my power desire would still keep pace.
Thomas’ retracing of steps often serves as a means for regaining lost memory and time; yet the boundaries of recreating movement in verse also impinge the capabilities of mental recall. The frustrated “half-gap” pace of “Over the Hills” thus carries into the inability to return to the inn where
all were kind,
All were strangers. I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line. It became
Almost a habit through the year for me To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night.
“Recall | Was vain,” and the lines’ fractured steps cannot retrace a path back to the half-remembered inn. The wholeness of the inn’s “all” errs into its sonic and semantic reversal, “loss,” and breaks into a multitude of half-echoes, including the near-achieved “almost” and, later in the poem, the dispersed droplets of the “waterfall” and the “hollow” emptiness of a lake’s “collar-bone.” Words can express this verbal mutation, but their mimicry of a stride or experience cannot fully regain its memory, as in another poem, “Old Man,” the speaker tries “Once more to think what it is I am remembering, | Always in vain,” as he chews the leaves of a bitter plant, whose double name (“Old Man” and “Lad’s Love”) purports to combine the extremes of the human lifespan – much like memory itself.
The centrality of walking rhythm in Thomas’ poetry also fosters an ethics of rediscovery and redefinition. Thomas holds that the translation of memory or natural objects into language is impossible, since multiple visual facets “obliterate one another” (Heart4), and that it is the poet’s duty not to “kill even the slender words” by their objectification (Feminine 85). Many poems read as riddles that employ the changing perspectives of the journey in order to forefront these constraints and the concomitant act of continual reinterpretation. Such is the case particularly in “The Barn and the Down,” which begins with a reference to an indefinite focal-point, “It stood in the sunset sky,” then wavers through various clues as to whether “it” is the barn or the down, such as “So huge and dark that it seemed | It was the hill | Till the gable’s precipice proved | It impossible.” This reinterpretation is driven by the speaker’s movement in relation to the two objects, first noticing that “the barn fell to a barn | Or even less,” then rethinking his “disdain” for “what seemed the barn” once “a few steps changed | It past all doubt to the down.” The change of perspective is mirrored, too, in the path that may be taken through these two words’ multiple meanings: “down” may, of course, also be a spatial orientation (itself a vantage), while “barn,” in Thomas’ ancestral Welsh, means “opinion, judgment, view, verdict, or estimation” (Geiriadur). Thus, even the words themselves defy the clichéd “past all doubt” of the poem’s last lines, the “mere dictionary value” which Thomas eschewed (Pater 97).
The danger of Thomas’ strict adherence to a rule of errancy and redefinition is of perpetual movement without achievement. As he wrote in a letter, “I crawl along on the very edge of life, wondering why I don’t get over the edge” (Longley 139). The misery of such peripatetic stasis is reflected in the Dostoevskian character of the public-house girl in Thomas’ first poem, “Up in the Wind,” a work whose title itself implies a centripetal stasis through its feminine rhyme and trochee-iamb pairing. While the girl grows “wilder” with her declaration that she must move to London, this “wildness” (and her resolution) is subsumed by the whirl of the “wind,” as it is, too, by paired prepositions which pull in opposite directions:
Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away…
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.
The bottoms of the charcoal-burners’ fires –
We plough one up at times.
Through a monologue comprised mainly of displaced attention, unanswered protestations (“‘But can that empty frame be any use?…But would you like to hear it swing all night | And all day?’”), and half-hearted resolutions (“I reckon I shall stay,” “She thought she’d scrub again”), the girl leads the speaker, too, to join this indecision: he (and the poem) muses, “I might have mused…” By the end, girl, public house, and speaker all find themselves in a mezzo del cammin, “midway between two railway lines,” yet still peripheral, “merely on the border of a waste.” The place is an empty signifier, marked by the “post and empty frame” of the house’s lost signboard. Unlike Thomas’ poem “The Signpost,” in which he asks, “I read the sign. Which way shall I go?,” or “Adlestrop,” whose train passes through the place which is “only the name,” or even Frost’s “two roads,” the speaker in “Up in the Wind” wanders in no-place and to no end.
The endless indeterminacy of this and Thomas’ later poems may well reflect his own irresolution first in leaving his family to join the army, then in transferring to active duty. His main reason for doing so – that “Something…had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape” (Elected 35) – directly links his poems’ countryside wanderings with the war. While Thomas’ poetry avoids the direct thematization of war made famous by contemporaries like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, a 1918 review in Poetry casts his works distinctly as “war poetry”:
Although the war is barely mentioned, one is conscious of it perpetually as a part of the background, as we fancy the author was…The war is there. It can not be escaped. Statistics and world politics mean nothing to poetry…Nature and love and friendship are indeed the soul of poetry, and war’s greatest wrong is against these. (H. 102)
This opinion rings true when we read Thomas’ faint allusions to war in conjunction with his constant portrayals of the violence of nature, as in “The Team’s Head-Brass” the ploughman stops “to say or ask a word, | About the weather, next about the war.” Word, weather, and war are in sonic and thematic union, as they are, too, in the fallen elm on which the speaker sits. “The blizzard felled the elm,” but “‘When will they take it away?’ | ‘When the war’s over.’” The ploughman explains further,
‘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.’
Word, war, and weather are again intertwined in the sonic violence of “blizzard” and “killed.”
The connection of poetry, nature, and wartime also leads to a continuity between home and abroad: “Now all roads lead to France,” and Thomas turns his ear toward the pace upon them, “heavy is the tread | Of the living: but the dead | Returning lightly dance” (“Roads”). If Thomas’ poetry often appears to be concerned mainly with English “hills” or “downs,” it is always also about his sense of duty in going abroad to defend these, or as he explained to Eleanor Farjeon while stooping to grasp a handful of English dirt, to fight “Literally for this” (280). While a poet like Isaac Rosenberg might have begun with visions of war and elaborated them by natural imagery, Thomas instead reverses this focus, turning to his familiar natural world and walks as a template for comprehending the random violence of combat. In inscribing his soldierly purpose into the ground, and the earth into his poetry, Thomas’ works may well merit the description he offered to another poet’s words: they are “sentences that are like acts – like blows or strides” (Borrow 48).
Farjeon, Eleanor. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years. Rev. edn. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1997.
Frost, Robert and Edward Thomas. Elected Friends: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas to One Another. Ed. Matthew Spencer. New York: Handsel Books, 2003.
Geiriadur ar-lein: Welsh-English/English-Welsh Online Dictionary. Department of Welsh, University of Wales, Lampeter , 2003. Web. Jan. 2009. <http://www.geiriadur.net/>.
H[enderson]., A[lice].C[orbin]. “The Late Edward Thomas” [Review of Thomas’ Poems]. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Ed. Harriet Monroe. 12.3 (June 1918): 102-5.
Longley, Edna. “From Prose to Poetry.” Edward Thomas: Poems and Last Poems. Ed. Longley. London: Collins, 1973. 136-45.
Newlyn, Lucy. “‘Having no particular home’: Edward Thomas and sauntering.” Dymock Poets and Friends. 5 (2006): 19-31.
Thomas, Edward. George Borrow: The Man and His Books. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
—. Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems. Ed. Edna Longley. Highgreen, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2008.
—. The Feminine Influence on the Poets. New York: John Lane, 1911. —
—. The Heart of England. London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1906.
—. The Last Sheaf. 1928. Excerpted in A Language Not to Be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas. Ed. Edna Longley. New York: Persea, 1981. 222-31.
—. Walter Pater: A Critical Study. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913. Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. 1946. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. Rev. edn. New York: New Directions, 1992.
Scanned first-edition copies and typescripts of Thomas’ works can be found at The Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, including:
Last Poems. London: Selwyn & Blount, 1918. <http://www.archive.org/details/lastpoems00thomuoft> or <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/22732>.
A wealth of manuscript and early-edition images can be found in “The Edward Thomas Collection.” The First World War Digital Archive. University of Oxford. <http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/thomas>.