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.

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