Thomas’s Four Hats

Patricia Beer

  • The Poetry of Edward Thomas by Andrew Motion
    Routledge, 193 pp, £8.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0471 0

The publishers say that The Poetry of Edward Thomas is the first full-length study to deal exclusively with Thomas’s poetry (in Britain, they must mean). On the face of it, a six-decade gap of this sort shows a strange failure in critical husbandry. Yet it is not really so surprising.

In the first place, who would the readers have been? Who are they now? Edward Thomas is a poet with the kind of accessibility that one does not expect to be increased by prolonged exposition: on the contrary perhaps. I myself was certainly afraid that this book was going to tell me more about Edward Thomas than I wanted to be told, except by Thomas. He is neither easy nor difficult, in the accepted sense. He is like Wordsworth in that if one shares or even sees his poetic point of view no commentary is necessary (though it could still be enjoyable), and if one does not, no commentary is of the slightest use.

Confident readers would go, as they have always gone, straight to the poetry itself, while the diffident ones would nowadays turn to something briefer and more selective, such as either of R. George Thomas’s introductions to the Collected Works, and preferably the one in paperback that came out earlier this year[*]; or Vernon Scannell’s pamphlet written for the British Council in 1963. In any case, one always wonders about the readership of a work that started life as an academic thesis, once it has gone beyond the supervisor, the examiners and the people on the list of acknowledgements.

But there is another reason for anticipatory anxiety. It is not just that Edward Thomas appears not to need critical attention: he seems positively to defeat it. He can have a most unfortunate effect on the style of even eminent critics: for example, F.R. Leavis, who praises him in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932). Having spoken cogently and authoritatively of Yeats, De la Mare and Blunden, in the chapter ‘The Situation at the End of the First World War’, he becomes almost schoolgirlish (A-level and well-taught) when he gets to Edward Thomas: ‘He was a very original poet who devoted great technical subtlety to the expression of a distinctly modern sensibility.’ He cannot get over the idea of Thomas’s modern sensibility (whatever that may be exactly) and uses the phrase three times more in the same chapter. And his language becomes positively untrained: Thomas is ‘exquisitely sincere and sensitive’; his poems ‘seem to happen’. Yet as soon as he gets on to the Sitwells the cogency and authority return, and he can utter the immortal comment that they ‘belong to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’.

One does not, of course, disagree with the enthusiasm Leavis expresses; it is welcome and engaging. It is just that such a strange collapse of stylistic fibre must indicate something, and presumably that something is an innate recalcitrance in Thomas’s work that resists scholarly handling. The idea is borne out by the very real underestimation of his poetry in earlier years on the part of the critics. He has never lacked actual readers.

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[*] Oxford, 198 pp., £2.95, 15 January, 0 19 281288 2