England and Other Women

Edna Longley

The structural ironies of Edward Thomas’s life still condition his reputation. Just as he made a late poetic start, so criticism has been slow to gather momentum. Even the recent spate of studies – by Michael Kirkham, Stan Smith, and the contributors to Jonathan Barker’s Art of Edward Thomas – seems more fortuitous than co-ordinated. Thomas, as Robert Frost reminded him, ‘knew the worth of [his] bays’. However, it is unwise to die in war when a hegemonic project like Modernism is getting under way. Frost’s reputation survived because, feigning simplicity, he appealed to the people, to readers, over the head of ‘the Pound-Eliot-Richards gang’. Frost initially marketed Thomas as well as himself in the US (‘I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him’): but this return for Thomas’s influential promotion of North of Boston lapsed after the latter’s death. The separation of Thomas and Frost along an Anglo-American dotted line distorts perspectives on early 20th-century poetry. A history so specific to poetry has been additionally marginalised by the Modernist convergence of literary modes. Thus Frost, and Thomas, can be omitted from poetry courses in American universities where Modernist orthodoxy prevails. Their combined critical as well as creative forces might dent this orthodoxy. Thomas’s review of Exultations (1909), no snap judgment, anticipated the direction of Pound’s career: ‘both in personal and detached poems he is, as a rule, so pestered with possible ways of saying a thing that at present we must be content to pronounce his condition still interesting – perhaps promising – certainly distressing. If he is not careful he will take to meaning what he says instead of saying what he means.’ As if in revenge, the hard-faced men who have done well out of Modernism either ignore Thomas’s poetry or patronise some fancied resemblance to Imagism – a movement he shrewdly criticised. The tendency to exclude Thomas from general discussion of modern poetry (panoptic views favour Modernism) not only severs his vital tie with Frost, but obscures his different affiliations to Yeats and Hardy. A few essays in The Art of Edward Thomas open out the issues, but a whiff of poet’s corner lingers on. Pace Peter Levi, it is not quite enough to celebrate Thomas as ‘certainly genuine, authentic, a true poet’.

Under Storm’s Wing is a welcome reprint of Helen Thomas’s As it was and World without End, first published in 1926 and 1931. It also contains a selection from further reminiscences by Helen and her daughter Myfanwy, and six letters from Frost to Thomas. Helen Thomas’s vivid recall has led many, myself included, to her husband’s poetry. But being essentially Helen’s story, or side of the story, her memoirs again sequester the Thomas shrine or can encourage merely sentimental pilgrimage. In fact, she records Edward’s life as split, psychologically and physically, between home and absence. Besides ‘dark days when his brooding melancholy shut me out in a lonely exile’, there were periods during which he sought work from London editors and publishers, wrote or researched on his own, kept in touch with literary friends. The split was far from absolute, and Thomas’s behaviour had its origins in what Professor R. George Thomas terms the ‘two demands he made upon his wife and himself: his ideal wish to unite workplace and family home, and his fanatical dedication to the perfection of his craft’ (Edward Thomas: A Portrait). Nevertheless, in 1908 Helen wrote angrily:

You go away here and there, on work and pleasure, meeting people of all kinds ... There are huge slices of your life that I never know of, I am quite shut out of ... Some who know you are married guess that as I never appear I’m in my true place the HOME. But now these people knew me before they ever saw you ... They’d like to see me again, I to see them, and be seen with you, your wife, not only your nurse, housekeeper etc heard of in a dim way.

(Incidentally, World without End defends ‘women’s work in the home’ against ‘a lot of the clap-trap of feminism’.) This angry note is muted or transmuted in the memoirs. Helen admits a recurrent jealous sense of inferiority and exclusion, but it feeds her reclamation of Edward for home and for a ‘love’ which was ‘always the firm ground on which we stood secure and that no storm ever swept away’. Under Storm’s Wing should be read alongside Thomas’s insecure Letters to Gordon Bottomley – just as his poetry requires its full literary-historical context.

Last year the Thomas marriage suffered trial by LRB letter-page. John Pikoulis accused Jonathan Barker of editorially fudging his contentions that ‘the breach between [Helen] and Edward was final,’ and that he effectively deserted her for the muse of war. Pikoulis rested his case on an assertion by Lawrance Thompson, Frost’s biographer: ‘in the spring of 1913 Thomas became obsessed with the notion that he should divorce his wife.’ Barker and Peter Hill, citing Thompson’s full text and Thomas’s wartime letters, more convincingly argued that Thomas equally wished to preserve his marriage, and that self-blame (as ever) dominated his state of mind. Edward Thomas’s obsessions were rarely monorail: they exhausted all the possibilities and exhausted him. Frost conceived ‘The Road Not Taken’ as a satire on his friend’s scrupulosity about the ramifications of choice. Also, a pattern of reconciliation and advance on clearer terms seems to have followed any 1913 crisis, as it did the 1908 crisis. Yet Pikoulis, who refers to ‘the romanticising, self-deluding (though at the same time powerfully persuasive) views of As it was and World without End’, needs further answer. He is right, I think, to insist that ‘No one so much as you’ addresses Helen:

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

For I at most accept
Your love, regretting
That is all: I have kept
Only a fretting

That I could not return
All that you gave
And could not ever burn
With the love you have ...

The word ‘respond’ connects the poem with Helen. Eighteen days before (24 January 1916) Thomas had written à propos ‘The clouds that are so light’:

Oh, you needn’t think of another lady. There would have to be 2 to make a love affair and I am only one. Nobody but you would ever be likely to respond as I wished. I don’t like to think anybody but I could respond to you. If you turned to anybody else I should come to an end immediately.

The poem seems to recycle and redirect the letter’s phrasing. I formerly accepted Professor Thomas’s assurance, as he accepted Helen’s, that ‘No one so much as you’ concerns Thomas’s mother. In the Collected Poems Professor Thomas gives it the title ‘M.E.T.’ to match ‘P.H.T.’, a hate-poem to Thomas’s father. I notice, however, that he neither attributes nor mentions the poem in Edward Thomas: A Portrait. And Helen Thomas herself stresses the lifelong bond between Edward and his mother. Nevertheless, ‘No one so much as you’ need not be a literal agenda:

Till sometimes it did seem
Better it were
Never to see you more
Than linger here

With only gratitude
Instead of love –
A pine in solitude
Cradling a dove.

Thomas keeps a complex psychological scenario in dramatic suspension by taking all the syntactical roads, and by finally turning the incongruous and ambiguous into the emblematic. Nor does Thomas’s poetic psychodrama only articulate present emotion: it draws on the deep strata of his whole experience. ‘No one so much as you’ belongs to a sequence of poems about loving, not loving, and poetry: ‘The clouds ...’, ‘P.H.T.’, ‘These things that poets said’, ‘The Unknown’, ‘Celandine’. It was immediately followed by ‘The Unknown’, a Muse-poem:

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other: she
May not exist.

Thomas’s dialectic swings between flawed relationship with a fully existing woman, and the distracting ideal who ‘lures a poet’; between domestic compromise and the promiscuous imagination.

Thomas’s prose features some disconcertingly ideal ‘maidens’ (one re-surfaces in ‘Celandine’), with ‘pale glorious faces’ or ‘the power to wield universal harmonies’. In Feminine Influence on the Poets he expounds his Romantic understanding of the Muse: ‘the figure of a woman is introduced unwittingly as a symbol of they know not what, perhaps only of desire.’ But desire sometimes look flesh. The quarrel in 1908 concerned a 17-year-old girl over whom Thomas rhapsodised to Gordon Bottomley: ‘two long plaits of brown hair and the richest grey eyes ... I liked her for her perfect wild youthfulness and remoteness from myself.’ But he made Helen his confidante too, and she corresponded with the girl partly as a pre-emptive strike, partly out of profounder alarm. She asked Edward: ‘Is it to be the friendship of a middle-aged man, a man of letters etc etc, and of a simple schoolgirl, the sort of idyllic affair that your biographers will dote on – a passionless, innocent, intimate, uncleish, loverish affair ... Or is she meant to slip unconsciously into something more?’ World without End covers the episode less frankly, as it does Helen’s similar intervention in Edward’s budding relationship with Eleanor Farjeon: ‘“Kiss Eleanor too,” I say. And he kisses her, and she him. And we return to the house.’ Of which Frost said caustically: ‘She pretends to think that is large and lovely but I happen to know it was a dose she was giving him and rubbing in.’ Overall we get an impression of Helen fighting off jealousy, Edward finding inspiration in occasional lusts and fancies, and a controlling marital collusion.

Frost thought that Helen’s writings over-extended her control: ‘I wondered if she wasn’t in danger of making E.T. look ridiculous in the innocence she credited him with. Mightn’t men laugh a manly laugh?’ Myfanwy Thomas’s preface to Under Storm’s Wing questions ‘such a conventional notion of manliness’. But in speaking up for Thomas the man’s man; Frost speaks as Helen’s rival and lodges his own claim. Even his beautiful letter to her after Edward’s death employs the language of disputed possession: ‘I know he has done this all for you: he is all yours. But you must let me cry my cry for him as if he were almost all mine too.’ Helen’s paragraph on Frost gives him full credit, yet its brevity implies an area beyond her control: ‘He believed in Edward and loved him, understanding, as no other man had ever understood, his strange, complex temperament ... There began during that holiday [at Ledington in August 1914] a kind of spiritual and intellectual fulfilment.’ Surely she accents ‘man’. In a later recollection of the holiday she acknowledges: ‘I never became close to Robert as Edward was. To Edward he was an inspiration.’ Besides the coincidence between Frost’s and Thomas’s ideas about speech and poetry, there was the match between two ‘complex temperaments’ aggravated by difficult marriages. Thus they brought to its highest pitch the potential intensity of all poets’ friendships. Frost’s poem ‘Iris by Night – The Malverns’ evokes ‘elected friends’ encircled by a rainbow; Thomas’s parallel tribute to Ledington, ‘The sun used to shine while we two walked’, is, unhappily for Helen, his most fulfilled and affirmative ‘love poem’. The letters from Frost in Under Storm’s Wing suggest once again the urgent creative reciprocity which survives in their work: ‘I have reached a point this evening where no letter to or from you will take the place of seeing you.’ ‘My whole nature simply leaps at times to cross the ocean to see you for one good talk.’

The letters also confirm that Frost and poetry alone gave Thomas much to live for:

I don’t want you to die (I confess I wanted you to face the possibility of death). I want you to live to come over here and begin all the life we had in [England] ... If you can be more useful living than dying I don’t see that you have to go behind that. Don’t be run away with by your nonsense.

Yet here Frost too recognises a rival – the human and artistic imperative which Louis MacNeice defined during the Second World War: ‘Death is the opposite of decay: a stimulus, a necessary horizon.’ Thomas at the Front ‘doubted if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet ... loves it more’. He did not have to go to war, nor to its most dangerous zone. Yet given the former, the ‘culmination of a long series of moods and thoughts’, the latter follows. A sonnet written at the time of his enlistment recounts a dream in which fascination with ‘a strange stream’ divides him from Frost:

                      So by the roar and hiss
And by the mighty motion of the abyss
I was bemused, that I forgot my friend
And neither saw nor sought him till the end.
When I awoke from waters unto men
Saying: ‘I shall be here some day again.’

Thomas’s ‘nonsense’ is not Pikoulis’s ‘drift to the end’ and ‘grim recoil from people’, although both positions figure in his psychodrama. The angled syntax of ‘Rain’ rebounds towards imperfect and disappointing life:

Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Thomas’s poetry encompasses not only ‘the love of death’ but the fear and knowledge of it. And his ‘bemusement’ by the abyss has a philosophical as well as a psychological dimension. ‘The Green Roads’, like ‘Old Man’, looks down a long vista ultimately governed by time and natural forces. The metrical contrast within each couplet, and the different stations of old man, child, goose feathers and thrush-poet, set up a counterpoint between necessity and room for manoeuvre:

The oak saw the ages pass in the forest:
They were a host, but their memories are lost,

For the tree is dead: all things forget the forest
Excepting perhaps me, when now I see
The old man, the child, the goose feathers at the edge of the forest,
And hear all day long the thrush repeat his song.

His ‘long series of moods and thoughts’ enabled Thomas to imagine the death of England as well as personal and universal death. It is a sign of the times, perhaps a hopeful one, that Thomas’s England is coming under scrutiny. Stan Smith, in ‘Unnatural Relations’ (Poetry Review, Vol. 76, No 1/2, June 1986), emphasises the ‘countervailing’ influences of his Welshness, comparative radicalism, and perception that England is a subjective ‘system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home’. Nevertheless, he feels that Thomas has given some hostages to the propagandist ‘discourse of Englishness’ (as when Kenneth Baker, introducing his anthology of English History in Verse, pronounces that ‘the two glories of this country are the English landscape and English literature’). Robert Wells’s essay ‘Edward Thomas and England’ (in The Art of Edward Thomas) is less worried about Thomas mistaking an ideological construct for ‘nature and inevitability’ than about his provincialism and ‘insularity’: ‘Thomas’s sense of English tradition is weighed against the intellectual and cosmopolitan ... there is a vein of wilful insularity in his work which makes the cult that has grown up around him very suspect.’ To simplify: Thomas’s England either eases the path of multi-national capital, or puts up tariff-barriers against the multi-national poem. His attitude to the Bedales intelligentsia, as described by Helen, may be relevant: ‘Edward frankly did not like them, and to them he was an enigma – a solitary wandering creature ... who had no political beliefs or social theories, and who was not inspired by the school and its ideals.’

Hence perhaps the originality of his cultural thinking. Thomas’s England pioneers the break-up of Britain that Smith, after Tom Nairn, desiderates. It is devolutionary, regional, local, ecological: a challenge to ‘the word Imperialism’. When he declined to aim This England, his wartime anthology, ‘at what a committee from Great Britain and Ireland might call complete’, he shrank rather than aggrandised England (Baker’s forthcoming anthology can hardly be said to follow his example). Thomas was impressed by the internal self-definition of the Irish Literary Revival, and rejected ‘Rule Britannia’ (he called Britannia ‘a frigid personification’) in favour of ‘Land of my Fathers’: ‘exulting without self-glorification or any other form of brutality’, it ‘might well be the national anthem of any nation that knows, and would not rashly destroy, the bonds distinguishing it from the rest of the world without isolating it’. Nor does Thomas, his reading as wide as Pound’s, replace an abstract imperialism with an abstract internationalism. In his poetry England denotes, and is denoted by, specificity: ‘minute neighbouring points’, exact alignments of word and thing. A poem or a community cannot know everything. It needs to know itself. Helen Thomas’s style occasionally sweetens Thomas’s England, or reproduces the England of his prose, just as the annual cultic walk from Steep to Selborne takes only one of his roads. But his poetry of the road to France is overwhelmingly nomadic, metamorphic, invaded by the wind and rain of change. (For all the talk of ‘history’, few poets have Thomas’s grasp of historical process.) Rather than England as Nature, we get wild Nature as England: ‘On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.’ World without End unbearably breaks off at Edward Thomas’s final absence: ‘nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.’ Throughout his poetry absence dissolves home, the unknown the known. He pushes England and the English language towards new interior frontiers: ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’.