Obstacles

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Edward Thomas: Selected Letters edited by R. George Thomas
    Oxford, 192 pp, £30.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 818562 6

It would be quite possible to read about Edward Thomas and wonder how it was that so many people made such allowances for him. A man who had a house built for himself and then refused to live in it, he tormented his wife and children with his restlessness – he calculated he was never happy for more than a quarter of an hour in the day. Two women, his wife Helen and the good-hearted but overwhelming Eleanor Farjeon, spoiled him as much as they dared. He couldn’t get on with his son and was sometimes ruthless with his friends – ‘people soon bore him’ said Walter de la Mare sadly – although most of them were called on to help him in his struggle with depression. But Edward Thomas was, and is, greatly loved. His scholarly biographer, George Thomas, irritated as he is by what he calls the ‘dithering’ of Edward Thomas’s early life, treats him not only with respect but with love.

Thomas saw himself with bitter clarity. ‘I suppose one does get help to some extent by being helpless, but when one doesn’t – it’s as if one had no pride at all.’ In October 1907 he wrote: ‘I went out and thought what effects my suicide would have. I don’t think I mind them ... W.H. Davies would suffer a little, Helen and the children less in reality than they do now, from my accursed temper and moodiness.’ Even so, it might be true of him, as Ian Hamilton wrote of Robert Frost, that ‘he knew his own failings, knew what the world would think of him if it found out, and yet believed the world was wrong.’

In this short selection of Edward Thomas’s letters George Thomas has aimed, he says, at reflecting the entire writing life while using, as far as possible, unpublished material. To do this he has examined, or re-examined, nearly three thousand autograph letters – including the new acquisitions of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth – of which 126 are included in this collection. The book is meant, I think, not so much to illustrate his 1985 biography but rather as a possible first introduction to Edward Thomas. For this reason George Thomas includes a note (although a late one), written to Dad Uzzell, the Wiltshire gamekeeper, poacher and Salvation Army convert, who taught the very young Edward Thomas about ‘twig, leaf, flint, thorn, straw, feather’, how to read the weather, skin moles and so forth. After this he has to show, and does show, the teenager eagerly approaching a distinguished man of letters, James Ashcroft Noble (‘my note-book would show you that I am not wasting my time out of doors at least’), his dissipations at Oxford, the complexity, beauty and bloody-mindedness of his love for Helen Noble, the disheartening untidiness of life in a cottage with three children, the wearisome search for work and commissions for ‘open air’ books, for which his enthusiasms often faded some way before the last chapter. This was an excellent time for open air and open road (‘going one knows not where’) literature of all kinds: in the summer of 1907 Elizabeth von Arnim took a large party, including E.M. Forster, through Sussex by caravan, while the Neo-Pagans were camping out in the New Forest. Even so, with the rent of his cottage ‘a quarterly worry’, Edward Thomas had to make ends meet with the reviewing he hated. It became an effort for him, by 1911, not to look on a new book as an enemy.

Sympathetic understanding kept him in more or less perilous balance, and nearly three-quarters of the letters here are to friends. George Thomas says that ‘each was chosen for particular needs.’ Harry Hooton, who was something in the City and married to an old school friend of Helen’s, was consulted about the difficulties of the marriage. Walter de la Mare, Edward Garnett and the dramatist Gordon Bottomley were ready to give literary advice and criticism and to send ‘suggestions, warnings etc as they come to mind’. ‘Perhaps I am not quite just to myself,’ Thomas wrote to Bottomley in December 1909, ‘in finding myself very much on an ordinary everyday level except when in a mood of exaltation usually connected with nature and solitude. By comparison with others that I know – like de la Mare – I seem essentially like the other men in the train and I should like not to be.’

No way seemed open, however, and Thomas was on the verge of having to write a tourist’s guidebook to Hampshire and Wiltshire. Meanwhile he gave generously, as well as took. It’s a pity it wasn’t possible to include any letters to W.H. Davies; there is nothing, therefore, to show his generosity in encouraging Davies to write and in getting him a grant for a decent wooden leg. Thomas believed, and told Helen more than once, that his own nature was incompatible with love, and that he was never quite at ease in the company of two or more people. But his salvation, he said as early as 1906, would depend on the one right person.

In 1913 Robert Frost arrived with his family from New Hampshire, unsuccessful as a farmer and not well known as a poet. George Thomas includes some of the first notes between them (‘My dear Frost – I wish you were nearer so that we could see one another easily with our children’) and after that, Frost said, ‘1914 was our year. I never had, I never shall have, such a year of friendship.’ Thomas took his family to stay near Ledington, on the Gloucester-Herefordshire border, two fields away from the Frosts. The meadows were full of windfalls from the old cider apple trees, and at every gate and stile they paused and talked ‘of flowers, childhood, Shakespeare, women, England, the war, or looked at a far horizon, which some gap or dip occasionally disclosed’. Possibly they also talked about alienation, loneliness, self-disgust and self-forgiveness, since both of them were something other, or more, than the bird-and-weather writers their readers knew.

In May 1914 Thomas tells Frost that he ought to get started on a book about speech and literature, ‘or you will find me mistaking your ideas for mine and doing it myself’. He has been reading Frost’s North of Boston, abstemiously, only one poem an evening, and now, halfway through the letter, he asks: ‘I wonder whether you can imagine me taking to verse. If you can I might get over the feeling that it is impossible – which at once obliges your good nature to say “I can.”’

He began to write poetry in December 1914, and all his poems were written by December 1916. Credit for this is usually given to Frost, certainly by Thomas himself, although Frost declared that ‘all he ever got was an admiration for the poet in him before he had written a line.’ Certainly they were agreed at once on the relationship between traditional metre and the tones and half-tones of the spoken voice, a kind of counterpoint. But Frost’s practical advice to his friend in 1914 was to look at certain passages in his latest book, The Pursuit of Spring, and to write them again in verse form, but with exactly the same cadence. It seems unusual advice, not quite using words ‘as poets do’, and Thomas sometimes tried it the other way round, turning poems back into prose, though he did describe this as ‘unprofitable’. The mystery of his transformation remains, although George Thomas himself doesn’t hold with the idea of a significant division in Edward Thomas’s inner life. Despite his ‘immense prose output and the later flowering of his verse’, he says, ‘the name and nature of poetry was his dominant lifelong concern.’

His poetry is a question of fine apprehensions, ‘intuition on the edge of consciousness’, Leavis wrote, ‘which would disappear if looked at directly’. He is listening, ‘lying in wait for what I should, yet never can remember’; he cannot bite the day to the core. Now that the war has begun ‘to turn young men to dung’, he sees himself as a ‘half-ruined house’

I am something like that
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at –
They have broken every one.

In 1915 he had been considering whether he should follow the Frosts to America. He was 37. In July he resolved his own perplexities and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles (later he transferred to the Artillery because they allowed a better pension to widows). He expected his friends to forget him, knowing that his appearance was completely changed by his first army ‘shortcut’, when he lost his longish hair, described as dull gold. ‘Nobody recognises me now,’ he wrote to Frost in May 1916, ‘Sturge Moore, E. Marsh and R.C. Trevelyan stood a yard off and I didn’t trouble to awake them to stupid recognition.’ But Helen divined that what she called (in her memoir As It Was) ‘his old periods of dark agony’ had gone forever. Among the memoirs included at the end of this book is one written by an old friend, R.A. Scott-James, who was at training camp with Thomas and found him ‘scarcely recognisable for the same man’. As a sergeant instructor, it turned out that he was not only a good soldier but a good teacher of soldiers, and surely no siege battery can ever have had an observation officer better suited to his job. Thomas himself put this another way, writing to his parents: ‘I have done all the things so far asked of me, without making any mess.’

His last letters are to Helen. ‘Still not a thrush – but many blackbirds,’ he wrote to her, a few days before the battle of Arras.

My dear, you must not ask me to say much more. I know that you must say much more because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just as it were tunnelling underground and something in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun. At the end of the tunnel there is the sun.

The first publisher of Edward Thomas’s poetry was James Guthrie of the Pear Tree Press, who in 1916 published six poems under Thomas’s pen name, Edward Eastaway. Otherwise Thomas was not fortunate. An introduction to Edward Marsh was a failure, and Marsh did not include him in any of the five volumes of Georgian Poets. Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop, a friend, also rejected Edward Eastaway. ‘Many thanks for saying it,’ Thomas wrote to him. ‘I am sorry because I feel utterly sure they are me. I expect obstacles and I get them.’ Professor Thomas might perhaps have explained that the enemy was not Monro himself so much as his highly-strung partner, Alida Klementawski. She associated Thomas with Frost, whom she detested. ‘I could have pulled that Frost man down the stairs by his coat when he said he was going up to see you,’ she told Monro. In this way Monro, a deeply harassed man who missed many opportunities, missed one of the greatest of all.