Edward Thomas wrote all his poetry in less than three years, between 1914, when he wrote his first, and 1917, when he was killed in the Battle of Arras. Most of his poems were published posthumously; they show sensitive observation of the countryside, combined with a bleak honesty about his sometimes painful doubts and self criticisms, expressed in the language of everyday speech.
Thomas was born in London in 1878 and attended St Paul’s School and Lincoln College, Oxford. Married to Helen while at university, he worked hard to support his family by accepting a wide range of prose commissions; he wrote many volumes of prose and was in demand as a reviewer, a biographer and a topographical writer. Despite his fluency he despised much of this work; his marriage was marred by periodic bouts of depression and his restlessness led him to leave home for periods of several weeks at time.
He befriended and supported the tramp poet, W.H. Davies, and knew several of the poets known as Georgians who took as their subjects the commonplace and everyday. Some of them gathered at a house in Dymock along with the American poet Robert Frost whose friendship was crucial in Thomas’s poetic development: in long walks they discussed a style of writing that avoided pomposity and literary flourish in favour of colloquial directness.
Frost introduced to Thomas his concept of ‘the sound of sense’ (which, incidentally, expresses perfectly what the Poetry Archive as a whole stands to do) using the cadence of speech. Frost persuaded Thomas that he should write poetry and in doing so prompted a remarkable period of creativity for his friend. In June 1914, Thomas was travelling by train and stopped briefly at the now closed station Adelstrop, recording the incident in his notebook. In January 1915, under Frost’s influence, he wrote sixteen poems in twenty days; he looked back at his notebook and came across the Adelstrop entry. With great care and several false starts he hit upon the apparently effortless and now famous opening: “Yes, I remember Adelstrop-”. This magical poem evokes the Summer before the war, a world already lost but still remembered with longing. It is a war poem without mentioning war, as so many of Thomas’s poems are. The short poem ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’, packing so much into four lines, is a further example.
After much doubt and hesitation, Thomas enlisted in July 1915. ‘Rain’ was written early in 1916, in hut 51 at the Hare Hall camp in Romford, once again based on a description in his notebooks, this time of a downpour in 1911 along the Icknield Way. Then, in May he wrote ‘At the Team’s Head-Brass’, partly in response to Frost’s poem ‘The Road not Taken’, which is a teasing play on the need to decide between different paths during the course of a life. In ‘At the Team’s Head-Brass’ Thomas questions the notion that we have choices; we have no idea how the choices we make will affect our future: ‘If we could see all all might seem good’. Thomas is deciding that going to the front is no longer a choice, but inevitable.
Thomas turned down an offer to remain on the permanent staff as an instructor at Hare Hall camp and volunteered for a commission at the front. On Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras Offensive, he paused for a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart; he died without a mark on his body. Or at least, this is what his widow was told at the time and was believed to be true for many years. However, a letter from his commanding officer that was discovered years later revealed that Thomas was actually “shot clean through the chest”.
As well as a choice reading of Thomas’s poems made by the contemporary poets James Fenton and Andrew Motion, the Poetry Archive is fortunate to be able to share a recording made by the poet’s widow, Helen Thomas, shortly before her death. As a dear wife, but also as companion and confidante, Helen appears both as the implied and named addressee in a number of Thomas’s poems. “And you, Helen, what should I give you?” asks the poet in ‘Household Poems’: “So many things I would give you / Had I infinite great store / Offered me and I stood before / To choose”. As such, Helen is perhaps the most apt and sympathetic reader of Thomas’s work – a fact that this thoughtful, measured and tender delivery of the poems demonstrates. In ‘Aspens’, the gently ruminative yet insistent tone of her voice reveals Thomas’s lines to be one of melancholy kinship between poet and tree: “Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear”, after all, but they “need not listen, more than to my rhymes”.
The other poems that feature in the online selection from this recording are among Thomas’s very best. The two sparse quatrains that constitute ‘Tall Nettles’ read as a terse celebration of nature’s ability to reclaim the land from human use and abuse, as the nettles “cover up … the rusty harrow, the plough / Long worn out, and the roller made of stone”. This deceptive simplicity of diction, addressing complex ideas and feelings in everyday language, is also evident in ‘Lights Out’, a poem which Helen introduces as one on whose meaning “Edward never equivocated, and [is] about the sensation of going to sleep”. Nevertheless, her powerful reading goes on to suggest how Thomas’s words illustrates the ways in which death always looms in the apparently ordinary: “The unfathomable deep / Forest, where all must lose / Their way”.
It is in ‘Old Man’, though, that the poet’s quiet genius comes fully to life. Listening to Helen’s reading of this poem, in which a man remembers two strange and different names for a plant, Thomas’s gift for capturing the direct immediacy of speech and thought in reflecting on the peculiarities of language, sensation and experience is everywhere apparent. As the poet Glyn Maxwell has claimed of the poem, “nowhere else do I find such a combination of plain language and complex perception; nowhere do I find time and memory so active.” The same might be said of much of Edward Thomas’s best work, refreshing the formal strictures of the iambic pentameter with vision, subtlety, and genuine feeling.
In Edward Thomas’s memory, the Poetry Archive will donate 60% of the proceeds from sales of these recordings to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.