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.

But anxiety about the need for such a book as Andrew Motion’s and the advisability of writing it at all is eased by the finished product. The recalcitrance of the subject remains; it is there from start to finish and is particularly obvious in the chapter ‘Double Vision’, where Motion wrestles with the poem ‘The Other’ for much too long and without marked result. But the research has been scrupulously done and the presentation of facts and suggestions is lucid if not rhetorically persuasive; the book would not convince anybody of anything, but as there seems to be no central argument in the polemical sense, that hardly matters. And Motion has added to the body of his readers by providing comments that will be of immense interest to a group of people who rarely come across anything helpful or relevant to their work: that is, poets.

Few writers have been able to discuss Thomas’s work without pronouncing as to whether or not he was one of the Georgian poets. If it matters, it is indeed a tricky question, Thomas himself tended to identify with their poetic intentions, though he remained cautious and was quite capable of praising the fruits of Modernism. Some of his best friends were Georgians and they behaved in friendly fashion, doing what they could to promote his work. He was not included in any of Edward Marsh’s volumes of Georgian Poetry, but this is not as significant as it may sound. It would have been a difficult waggon for him to climb on to; he was ineligible for the early collections as he had not started writing poetry and for the latest because he was dead, and the rule was that no posthumous work could be accepted unless the poet had previously appeared in the series.

Motion deals with the question of Thomas’s Georgianism in his introduction, perfunctorily and rightly so, for the matter seem entirely subjective and is usually spoken of in something like racist terms: if one despises the Georgians yet admires the work of Edward Thomas, one can only say that Thomas is good enough to be a non-Georgian, and this is in fact what most critics do say.

He is fairly perfunctory in the biographical chapter, too, and again this seems sensible. The only facts that advance any real understanding of Thomas’s poetry are, first, that he had only three years to write it in, before he was killed at Arras in 1917 at the age of 39, and, secondly, that he had served a long and arduous apprenticeship in writing prose before he turned to poetry. Motion tells us much more than this, of course, but he does not make the mistake of smothering his narrative with lengthy statements by the two women who loved Thomas. He does quote from their writings, but discreetly. In the case of Eleanor Farjeon’s Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years there is actually little danger, for her self-effacing tone, though pointedly, is not disruptively so; her story, especially towards the end, becomes a vehicle for Thomas’s letters, and it is in fact from these that Motion quotes. Helen Thomas’s books – As it was, World without End and Time and Again – are quite a different matter. They are single-minded and positive, and should perhaps be read for their own sake and not by anyone discussing a poet whose great strength was to be multiple-minded and negative.

Edward Thomas has sometimes been represented as a hack who turned into a thoroughbred when Robert Frost waved a magic wand. Neither part of this concept is quite true, as Andrew Motion shows. In the first place, Thomas was not a hack in any pejorative sense of the word. True, he worked hard when he did not feel like it at jobs he would not have chosen in order to fulfil his domestic responsibilities, but this applies to a wide range of writers, past and present, whom nobody would dream of calling hacks. Nor were the results deplorable. Such books as Richard Jefferies have received the accolade from notoriously captious critics. He sometimes referred to himself as a hack, but in the spirit of certain characters in Cold Comfort Farm who defined themselves as used rinds, gourds and wounded maggots, but meant it passionately rather than precisely.

It is offensive, I know, to count somebody else’s blessings, but it does seem likely that Thomas’s long (relatively to his life as a whole) career of journalism, reviewing and commissioned writing may actually have helped his poetry. Particularly the reviewing, which not only forced him to an informed appraisal of the theory and practice of the rival schools of poetry in his time, but which gave him the confidence that comes from having to state a personal opinion, often of a disobliging nature, in print – a confidence that could have enabled him to take risks in his own poetry. We know from the graver days of his career as a soldier how gesture – that is, a decision made visible and openly imparted – was one of the ways by which he went forward.

All the same, he did need rescuing. Robert Frost, on a visit to England, saw this and rightly took the credit for being the chief rescuer: ‘I dragged him out from under the heap of his own work in prose he was buried under.’ Other friends had tried to drag Thomas out of prose and into poetry, but they were not practitioners of the kind he needed: they could advise but they could not demonstrate. In the chapter ‘The Sound of Sense’ Motion gives as definitive an account as is possible of the literary relationship between the two men, meticulously attempting to assess the debt of each to the other. Thomas himself was content to describe the obligation as one-sided, though of course he knew better: ‘I won’t begin thanking you just yet, though if you like I will put it down now that you are the only begetter right enough.’ Frost, when speaking carefully, never failed to stress that Thomas’s poetry was already there, needing only to be put ‘in a form that declared itself’, and both men must have realised that their thoughts about poetic technique had been travelling in the same direction for years.

When Frost said that Thomas’s poetry was already there, he meant that it was present in his prose, and that the course of action he should therefore take was to recast his prose as poetry. These comments need a considerable gloss: first, because a poet as great as Frost could at no stage of his career have meant that poetry was to be found ‘in’ anything as though it were an ingredient in a recipe, neither could he have thought that prose could ever ‘become’ poetry; secondly, because so many passages of Thomas’s prose, in spite of his dubiety about style in the Pateresque sense, are no more than respectable exercises in 19th-century fine writing, and one wonders what it was that Frost saw that made him give such a confident – and correct – prediction as to Thomas’s poetic gifts. These matters Andrew Motion elucidates, to my entire, though delayed, satisfaction; I found this chapter difficult, though correspondingly worthwhile.

It is without doubt the most important chapter, not because the question of Frost’s influence is of prime significance in itself but because the nature of it involves a discussion of poetic technique which is of the utmost relevance – to Frost, to Thomas and to 20th-century poetry. The remaining two chapters, in spite of the intrinsic strength of their subject-matter, are comparatively easygoing. The argument about whether or not Thomas was a war poet comes out of the same file as the argument about his Georgianism, with the additional factor that it is the sort of question that is answered by time. One of the noises of the Second World War was the querulous complaint: ‘Where are the War Poets?’ This sounds like nonsense after forty years, and after sixty years the comment that Edward Thomas did not really write about the First World War sounds like dangerous nonsense.

Andrew Motion firmly takes the line that Thomas must have been a war poet because he had no opportunity to be a peace poet, and that, in fact, ‘behind every line, whether mentioned or not, lies imminent danger and disruption.’ He quotes Philip Larkin’s comment in his review of Wilfred Owen’s Collected Poems in 1963: ‘A “war poet” is not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate a war, but one who reacts against having a war thrust on him,’ and this certainly applies to Thomas. There is a snag, however, for Larkin goes on to say that in such a case, however good the poetry, ‘there is still a tendency for us to withhold our highest praise on the grounds that a poet’s choice of subject should seem an action, not a reaction.’ Motion very naturally cannot bear that the highest praise should not be accorded to Thomas, so he develops Larkin’s intriguing axiom with a view to showing that with Thomas action and reaction were one.

The headings of the two final chapters suggest that Andrew Motion sees Edward Thomas as a man with four hats hanging up in his hall, appropriate to, severally, a war poet, a patriot, a friend and a countryman. But the text depicts a realistic confusion among the various aspects of the poet’s life and character. The patriot and the countryman, for example: though Thomas picked up a handful of earth to demonstrate to Eleanor Farjeon what he was fighting for, he could hardly have considered himself – born in Lambeth and brought up in Wandsworth – as being anything but a mere adopted son of the soil, or, in religious terms, anything but an insecure and sometimes terrified convert. Furthermore, he knew and had written so much about the changes that were threatening rural life at the beginning of the century that he could not possibly feel that winning the war would be a way of preserving intact the land he loved.

These chapters tend to wander. Perhaps, ironically, a brisker style with more pace is necessary when dealing with the work of a man who frequently presents his vision as that of someone rambling in the dictionary sense of walking by choice without a definite route. Nevertheless, Motion makes some good points. In one interesting matter he joins, or rather edges towards, what I would think was the right side, the question being the identity of the person to whom ‘No one so much as you’ was written.

Scarce my eyes dare meet you
Lest they should prove
I but respond to you
And do not love.

This is the honesty of someone who is not sorry to inflict hurt. No one has ever doubted, I think, that the poem was addressed to a specific, living woman: she was once assumed (by Vernon Scannell, for example) to be Helen Thomas, but R. George Thomas in the Collected Works of 1978 entitles the poem [M.E.T.] giving as his authority the assertion of Helen Thomas that it was about her husband’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Thomas. My own reaction is that, faced by such a bitterly humiliating statement as the poem unequivocally makes, any woman would persuade herself and tell others that it was about her mother-in-law. Andrew Motion is judicious, demonstrating by the internal evidence of a comparison with ‘And you, Helen’ that the wife ‘might be a more likely candidate’.

Andrew Motion ends his long labour of, presumably, love with a foregone conclusion: that Edward Thomas is entitled ‘to a prominent and permanent place in the history of 20th-century literature’. Etonnez-moi. I prefer the sort of conclusion that Philip Hobsbaum draws in his article ‘The Road not Taken’, published in the Listener in 1961. The argument is mild enough, but it leads to the astonishing deduction that had Edward Thomas lived, not only would he have been permanent and prominent in the poetry of this century but that, together with Owen and Rosenberg, he would have radically changed its nature. He would have given poets a viable and inspiring alternative both to Modernism and to Georgianism. I cannot altogether accept this: after all, at least three good poets did survive the First World War without creating any such upheaval. But the disturbing nature of the idea does acknowledge the deeply disturbing quality of Edward Thomas’s poetry.

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