Loose Woven

Peter Howarth

The blurb on this excellent new and expanded edition of Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems tells you that Thomas was ‘one of the great English poets of the 20th century’, which is true, and that he was not really a ‘war poet’ but a lonely nature poet, which is slightly less true. The First World War is tacitly present in all the poems here, not only colouring their characteristic attitude towards nature and solitude, but as the condition for their being written at all. Thomas, who was killed at Arras in 1917, didn’t write any poems until the autumn of 1914. Thinking over their genesis afterwards, his friend Robert Frost commented that ‘the decision he made in going into the army helped him make the other decision in form.’ This is both a simple material explanation and perhaps also a piece of soul-searching. Frost knew that the more Thomas believed he could write poetry, the more he would lose interest in his literary journalism, the less he would earn from it, and the more inevitable it would be that he would have to enlist in order to support his family. But as the person whose chivvying, confidence and encouragement had done most to help Thomas make that decision ‘in form’, Frost also knew he had been part of the complex and tangled relation of circumstances which had put Thomas on the road to France as well as to poetry, and this knowledge tinges the poem he sent to Thomas about a month before the latter enlisted in July 1915:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Teasing Thomas about his hesitations between poetry and prose becomes in retrospect a rather darker meditation on choice and its consequences for both poets. Thomas, however, felt that Frost had missed the point entirely:

It’s all very well for you poets in a yellow wood to say you choose, but you don’t. If you do, ergo I am no poet. I didn’t choose my sex yet I was simpler then. And so I can’t leave off going in after myself tho’ some day I may. I didn’t know after I left you at Newent I was going to begin to write poetry.

This is not really fair to Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’ doesn’t treat choice as straightforwardly as Thomas claims, and it’s certainly not the hymn to self-reliance that patriotic Emersonians have sometimes wished it to be. According to the poem’s logic, the choices are as good as each other, and so taking the road more travelled would also have made all the difference. But for Thomas, the issue was not the reasons for his choice, but rather whether poetry and the life it represented really had anything to do with freedom of choice at all. If one could choose to be a poet, then Thomas felt that a good deal of what was new and distinctive about his own poetry would be in vain. Like ‘Adlestrop’, many of Thomas’s poems are about times that could not be chosen or anticipated, or moments of being caught off guard and carried away – by the surprise of his own poems, by birdsong or silence, by his own black and squally depressions – and behind them all is the poet who knew he had no future that could be secured. This sense of self-dispossession makes Thomas the nature poet and Thomas the soldier poet the same person, and links them both to Thomas the 20th-century poet.

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