Private Thomas

Andrew Motion

  • Edward Thomas: A Portrait by R. George Thomas
    Oxford, 331 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 19 818527 8

R. George Thomas is a cautious man. His life of Edward Thomas (no relation) is ‘a portrait’ not ‘a biography’. Maybe this is just as well. The poet was a cautious man too. He was also a scrupulous one, and when we read in the first few pages that research for this book began ‘in the early 1960s’, we are encouraged to feel that author and subject are kindred spirits. Our expectations are raised still further by discovering that ‘some years before her death’ Edward Thomas’s ‘widow Helen gave her friend George Thomas open access to all her papers which included some eighteen hundred letters’. Here at last, we are made to think, is the definitive account of one of the century’s most important writers: important for his intrinsic qualities, and because his work illuminates the motives of the first great Modernists, as well as the treatment they have received from subsequent generations of English poets. Anyone contemplating the life of Edward Thomas has the chance to tell a human story of great fascination and poignancy, and simultaneously to characterise a literary climate which profoundly affects our own. Edward Thomas was a man in whom an enormous number of conflicting compulsions – personal as well as artistic – met, were recognised, and were robed as destinies.

R. George Thomas’s book wastes or misses nearly every opportunity to explain and elucidate: it is a dutiful factual account, and little more. He has had the privilege of allowing Edward Thomas’s and Helen’s correspondence to constitute the foundation of his work, but – engrossing though the letters are – he is coy about the marriage itself, and is never adequately curious about the ways in which intensely private and domestic tensions provided the dynamic for the necessarily more public work. Furthermore, he smothers, in his courteous way, other existing accounts of the relationship between private and public worlds. He refuses, for instance, to examine Helen’s own memoirs of her husband. We are told that ‘her two books are irreplaceable,’ and, as if it followed naturally, that ‘no attempt has been made here to paraphrase them.’ (Edward Thomas’s own fragment of autobiography, ‘The Childhood’, is given longer shrift, but its scope, as the Portrait admits, is ‘severely limited’.) R. George Thomas’s biographical method combines a misplaced tactfulness (he doesn’t want to violate the privacy of private lives); an assumption that his readers have greater knowledge than it is reasonable to suppose (he has, after all, already edited – very well – Thomas’s poems and his letters to Gordon Bottomley); a damaging possessiveness of his subject; and a consequent inability to express it. When R. George Thomas essays criticism he waffles (‘Thomas’s best prose could stand on its own without much support from narrative or argument’); and when he tries descriptive evocation he gets in a fangle (‘the oak timbers and the furnishings of the new house creaked and groaned in the excessively wind-exposed site’).

Still, at least the Portrait gives us a more factually detailed version of Thomas’s life than any other available, even if it does not flesh it out, clothe it, and make it live. And while these facts don’t include any new and surprising revelations, they reinforce the impression – already given in biographies by R.P. Eckert and William Cooke – of a character of great complexity. Thomas, the eldest of six boys, was born in Lambeth 107 years ago, and was brought up to feel ‘proud of thinking that both Father and Mother came from Wales.’ The remark implies displacement as well as pleasure, and in doing so registers the first of a series of ambivalences which shaped his character. The (partially) Welsh boy who loved and lived in England grew into a reserved outsider who felt compelled to establish an adequate society, a natural countryman who had to admit his dependence on metropolitan culture, and a patient witness of the here-and-now with half a mind to prefer ‘a Something “beyond these voices” ’.

These tensions, playing upon a temperament which liked to take refuge from conflict in melancholy, made him interestingly exasperating to his parents. One of the few strengths of the Portrait is to show that his father – who had previously had a bad press on the basis of Thomas’s vindictive poem ‘P.H.T.’ – charitably strove to understand his son’s moods. P.H. Thomas was a clerk at the Board of Trade, an active Liberal, and – latterly – an equally active Positivist; for him, learning in general and writing in particular were pre-eminently means of social advancement. But when Edward Thomas became a pupil at St Paul’s School, and precociously began publishing ‘Nature’ essays and ‘Field Notes’ in magazines such as the New Age, the Speaker and the Globe, it was clear that the opportunities he intended to create with his pen were of a more rhapsodical and isolated kind.

Thomas felt lucky to get a smell of printer’s ink so young, but his success proved to be a mixed blessing. It instantly typecast him as ‘a country writer’, and discouraged attempts he might otherwise have made to conform more closely to his father’s model. When he went from St Paul’s to Oxford in 1897 – as a non-collegiate student for his first year – he already felt set in writerly ways he believed were full of integrity, but which his father considered lacking in practical usefulness. In more intimate terms, too, he had designed for himself a life which concentrated on intense private reflections rather than public actions: he had fallen in love with Helen, the daughter of his mentor the journalist James Ashcroft Noble. Thomas’s devotion to Helen was fuelled by his wish for independence from his family, and by his hopes of cutting a dash with his contemporaries, but it rapidly brought him responsibilities of a more constricting kind. Although he and Helen campaigned for each other’s affections on a Shelleyan platform – vowing complete openness with each other and showing it on several occasions, as, for instance, when Edward developed a crush on one of his fellow undergraduates – their freedom was drastically narrowed when Helen had their first child in 1900. When Thomas left Oxford later the same year, the ambivalent attitudes which had developed in him as a child – and which had been agitated by his father’s demands – were tilted towards private musings, introspection, and a doubtful pursuit of the numinous. The languid undergraduate, lolling in the college arch in his Torpids photograph, and known to his friends as a companionable drinker (he had debts of £50 for wine when he went down), became a harassed young father, passionate but puritanical with his wife, and determined to extract from his friends the last drop of their pity for the precarious life he had chosen.

Up to now, too little has been made of the published letters and reminiscences which show that Edward Thomas was an entertaining and (sometimes) even flamboyant undergraduate. The Portrait does well to remind us that ‘until he became a soldier’, in 1915, ‘it was the only sustained period in which he had to come to terms with the demands of a society that held strong attitudes incompatible with his private world.’ It is tempting to think that critics and commentators who have failed to make this point have been inspired by more than a misunderstanding of Thomas’s nature: that they have wanted to protect the ‘English line’ with which Thomas’s poetry is associated by making it seem suffering and put-upon, as it struggled to resist and then to assimilate the revolutionary poetics of the foreign Modernists. The same motive – and a similar distortion – is evident in the popularly received impression of Thomas’s career between leaving Oxford and joining the Army. Thomas himself is largely to blame for this. His letters habitually make the worst of a really perfectly decent job: he repeatedly calls his rapid rate of production (thirty-odd books in fifteen years) soul-destroying; he tirelessly accuses his work as a reviewer of turning him into a ‘miserable sinner’ in journalism; he complains about his nomadic life (he decided to move house five times between 1900 and 1906); and he airs his melancholy as if his life depended on it. Letter after letter refers to some version of feeling ‘unaccountably nervous and anxious, as if something were going to happen’. He is continually at pains, in fact, to develop the need for internal conflict once he had elected to avoid conflict with the external world of public circumstances.

The best that can be said of the Portrait is that while permitting Thomas’s gloom to remain substantial, it also suggests that it wasn’t easily or entirely justified. Thomas had to drive himself hard, but not intolerably; he was never short of ideas or commissions for books; he easily reached the financial targets he set himself (£250 a year by 1907, £400 a year by 1909); and his domestic arrangements, although restless, allowed him to live where and as he wanted. Even more importantly, he never had the slightest doubt about Helen’s devotion to him – not that this stopped him from belly-aching about his marriage as about everything else. According to Helen’s letters, the only sins of which she was guilty were occasional and very mild fits of improvidence, and of trying to love him too well. In the correspondence (as, we suppose, in life) she comes across as selfless, big-hearted and motherly. In the motherliness, at least, we can detect the potential for domestic stifling which Thomas feared. He knew that he needed her (even when toying with the idea of suicide, he realised that he would be more likely to have tea with her than set out to meet his Maker), but he was loath to relinquish the Shelleyan ideals they had shared in their courtship. His marriage to Helen, the letters show, became the theatre in which his addiction to contrary impulses could be most readily indulged. Because Helen was so long-suffering, their marriage could be relied on to inflict an engrossingly pitiable distress without, he hoped, actually producing a rupture.

Poor Helen. As early as 1902 she wrote to a friend that Edward

cannot love ... he cannot respond to my love ... I have prayed that I and my baby may die, but we shall not, though this would free [him]. I am as strong as ever. I pile work on work till my body can scarce move for weariness, but nothing lifts the darkness from my soul.

By 1911 the dangerous game that Thomas played with Helen had produced and endured so many crises that it seemed a solution could only be produced by disaster or ‘a miracle’. Of the two, disaster seemed the more likely. The language Thomas used to discuss his moods had developed steadily from the terms of familiar-sounding Romantic paradox to those of quasi-clinical analysis: he speaks of himself as someone suspected of being schizophrenic. But the following year, at precisely the moment when his distress seemed bound to snap Helen’s patience and his own resolve, he began – more by judgment than luck – to save his life.

The ease and decisiveness of the process make it impossible not to suspect an even larger element of posing in Thomas’s behaviour than his already published letters have allowed us to detect. While this deals a hefty blow to our sympathy for him, it does nothing to diminish the fascination of the turn-around. R. George Thomas does not venture at all deeply into the psychological causes or their attendant cultural circumstances, but the facts, as ever, are plain enough. After 1912, without compromising his identity as a solitary tramper and self-communer, he developed a circle of new friends who helped him to make the most of his personality rather than sorrowfully submitting to the miseries it produced. With Clifford Bax he rediscovered some of his undergraduate jauntiness; in Eleanor Farjeon he found a doting admirer whose ethereal intelligence complemented Helen’s earthy devotion; and from the doctor Godwin Baynes (a disciple of Jung’s) he learnt to take the heat out of his unhappiness. The very existence of these companions, let alone the practical advice they gave him, provided him with enough self-confidence to believe that his preferred subject – himself – was more worthy of meeting the public gaze than he had previously supposed.

The effect on his writing was powerful and instantaneous. In a novel he began at the time (‘The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans’), in a book on Swinburne, and in the study of Walter Pater that he published in 1913, Thomas made a grim effort to ‘wring the neck’ of the rhetoric which had clogged much of his early writing. By the time his now famous friendship with Robert Frost began late in 1913, the stage was set for him to begin the work on which his reputation mainly rests. Frost’s bullish example convinced him to trust his instincts so absolutely that within a matter of months prose seemed an inadequate vehicle for soul-searching, and he turned instead to the lyric. Between December 1914 and his death at Arras in April 1917 he wrote over 140 poems. The Portrait gives Frost a good deal of credit for releasing this flood, but is properly careful to point out that the influence was matched and focused by another, with which it coincided: the war. By threatening his country – the subject which, next to himself, had been his constant obsession – the war made it seem especially ‘dear’ to Thomas. Although his poems only rarely address the circumstances of battle at all openly, every one is instinct with a sense of potential loss. For the first time, he was able to find a public reference for his internal state, and the result was a body of poetry which seems increasingly subtle and nourishing the longer we live with it.

Once Thomas had enlisted in 1915, he found that the ambivalences which he had mastered in his writing were similarly but more suddenly controlled in his daily life. His letters to Frost and Helen from training camps are stalwart, optimistic and self-possessed, and admit that these qualities are not the fruits of a well-argued and deeply-felt resolution, but of a decisive transformation: ‘I am now Private P.E. Thomas 4229.’ The final tragedy of his life was that this change meant the mood in which he originally enlisted – patriotism laced with a residual fatalism – quickly left him. By the time he embarked for France in 1917, he wanted to fight and survive, and return to take up a new life and identity it had taken him nearly forty years to discover. He lasted a matter of weeks.

There is a horrific discrepancy between the tone of his final letters and his appearance in photographs taken of him shortly before embarking. Even allowing for the severity given to his features by a small moustache and a barbaric military haircut, his face looks haggard, exhausted and aghast. The Portrait, for all the painterly connotations of the word, never mentions this, and nowhere gives us an adequate sense of his presence. Once R. George Thomas has slotted the last facts into place, he endeavours to achieve an eminence in his closing chapter, ‘True Thomas’, from which he can survey the life and work: ‘Having lived with his personal papers for so long,’ he says, ‘I must attempt to sum up his special quality for me.’ By the time we encounter this remark, the previous pages have prepared us for the disappointments which duly follow. Even the limited heights to which he aspires are beyond him. ‘Readers of the prose,’ he says, before finally abdicating his role after a dozen pages of well-meaning bluster, ‘as well as the verse, will have learned to create a biography of Thomas for themselves.’ Thanks.