Weasel, Magpie, Crow

Mark Ford

  • Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems edited by Edna Longley
    Bloodaxe, 335 pp, £12.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 1 85224 746 1

‘Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!’ Verlaine resonantly, and eloquently, declared in his ‘Art poétique’ of 1874. The line must have lodged in Edward Thomas’s mind: in May 1914, some six months before his late efflorescence into verse at the age of 36, he wrote to Robert Frost of his longing to ‘wring all the necks of my rhetoric – the geese’. He was referring to the over-elaborate style of some of his prose writings, but his first poem, ‘Up in the Wind’, composed on 3 December 1914, opens with a version of the same violent image: ‘I could wring the old thing’s neck that put it here!’

This isn’t Thomas himself speaking, but the unhappy daughter of the landlord of The White Horse, a pub not far from Steep in Hampshire, where Thomas and his family had settled seven years earlier. Like a number of Thomas’s earliest poems, ‘Up in the Wind’ began life as a prose sketch of the kind that feature in his numerous travel books, and its poetic effectiveness owes much to its closeness to prosaic description:

The clock ticked, and the bi
g saucepan lid
Heaved as the cabbage bubbled, and the girl
Questioned the fire and spoke: ‘My father, he
Took to the land … ’

This was Thomas’s first, unashamedly Frost-inspired attempt to wring the neck of poetic rhetoric. Once inspiration began to ‘run’, to use his own term, it ran fast, and over the next two and a bit years he wrote 144 poems that proved as ‘revolutionary’ in their way as he had declared those of Frost to be in a review of North of Boston published in July 1914. ‘These poems,’ he wrote, ‘are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation.’ As a prolific reviewer of contemporary verse, Thomas knew all too well the exaggerations of rhetoric that dominated turn-of-the-century English poetry, and which generated both his and Frost’s quiet revolution, and the more aggressive one masterminded by Eliot and Pound.

In his lifetime Thomas published only a handful of poems, which came out under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway in An Annual of New Poetry in the spring of 1917, shortly before his death. His contribution attracted the censure of an anonymous reviewer in the Times, who argued that these vignettes of rural England were an ‘absurdity’ in the context of ‘the tremendous life of the last three years’, but also elicited the first of several fine appreciations from Walter de la Mare, who was not only aware of Eastaway’s real identity, but knew of his death just three weeks earlier. De la Mare described the poems as ‘final and isolated’, while also pinpointing ‘a kind of endlessness in the experience they tell of’. This ‘endlessness’ emerges most strikingly in the concluding lines of many Thomas poems, which often present the poet himself at his most ‘final and isolated’:

        I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

(‘Old Man’)

It is odd, as John Bayley noted in an essay two decades ago, how frequently the poetry conveys its most potent sense of Thomas’s elusive selfhood at the very moment that self nears the brink of dissolution. This dissolution is far from the ‘extinction of personality’ recommended by Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which came out two years after ‘Old Man’ appeared in An Annual of New Poetry. Eliot argued that the ‘process of depersonalisation’ was vital because it allowed poetry to aspire to the ‘condition of science’, and at the conclusion of his famous analogy between writing poetry and inserting a bit of platinum into a chamber of oxygen and sulphur dioxide, he insisted that the coolly self-conscious poet’s mind should remain ‘inert, neutral and unchanged’, like the bit of platinum, by whatever experiments it had been involved in.

There is little that is deliberate or scientific or programmatic in the self-evacuation Thomas’s poems enact, and the poet’s mind seems not just changed by the act of writing the poem, but on the threshold of disappearing for ever: ‘Its silence I hear and obey/That I may lose my way/And myself’ is how he describes the process in ‘Lights Out’, one of his last poems. For Thomas, as Bayley observed, the need to be a poet was closely related to, and at times almost indistinguishable from, the need for oblivion. In this he seems the antithesis both of Eliot and of his friend and ‘onlie begetter’, Frost, whose oeuvre opens with a poem, ‘Into My Own’, in which he defiantly announces his immutable selfhood: ‘They would not find me changed from him they knew – /Only more sure of all I thought was true.’ Both Eliot and Frost, in their vastly different fashions, found ways of translating the urge to write verse into financially rewarding careers. Though a (moderately) successful professional prose writer, and a prolific poet during his two and a bit years of poethood, Thomas was surely right in questioning his ability to metamorphose into a professional poet – that is, one capable of marketing a distinctive and assertive poetic persona. And by the time ‘Lights Out’ was composed in November 1916, poetry was on the verge of losing out for ever to his other recently adopted career: he had now been in the army for 17 months, and was about to volunteer, despite his advanced age, for service overseas.

‘Last week,’ he wrote to Frost on 11 July 1915, ‘I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.’ The previous month Frost had sent him an early version of ‘The Road Not Taken’, a poem partly inspired by Thomas’s habit of regretting, in the course of the walks they took together around Dymock the previous summer, that they hadn’t chosen a different footpath. Thomas was famous for his indecisiveness, and Frost’s poem registers a slightly mocking fascination with a character so different from his own:

        long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

Whereas quandaries and self-questioning are almost invariably resolved in Thomas’s poems by a compulsive surrender to forces beyond his control – the blank loss of memory of ‘Old Man’, the irresistible tempest and love of death of ‘Rain’, the mistily choiring birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire of ‘Adlestrop’ – the persona of Frost’s poem inevitably concludes by proclaiming his singular individuality:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Clever Frost is here both guying and gratifying his fellow countrymen’s propensity to declare, in the words of the Paul Anka song popularised by Frank Sinatra, ‘I did it my way.’ Thomas, however, construed these lines personally, as a challenge not only to his dithering, but also to his involuntary sense of poethood, in which choice, he insisted, played no part. ‘It is all very well,’ he wrote back,

for you poets in a wood to say you choose, but you don’t. If you do, ergo I am no poet. I didn’t choose my sex yet I was simpler then. And so I can’t ‘leave off’ going in after myself tho some day I may. I didn’t know when I left you at Newent that I was going to begin trying to write poetry.

And if writing poetry for Thomas was a compulsive ‘going in after [him]self’, the self discovered was not one ever able to look back with a sigh of satisfaction over the road travelled and the self-knowledge won. In another of his December 1914 poems, ‘The Signpost’, he presents himself in a state of uncertainty similar to that confronting the speaker of ‘The Road Not Taken’; coming to a fingerpost on a hilltop, he wonders, ‘Which way shall I go?’ One inner voice answers, ‘You would not have doubted so/At twenty,’ but an answering one points out, first, that ‘At twenty you wished you had never been born,’ and second, ‘Whatever happens, it must befall,/A mouthful of earth to remedy all/Regrets and wishes shall freely be given.’

The streak of fatalism that so pervades Thomas’s poetry has none of Hardy’s grim relish of life’s little ironies. Thomas’s settled melancholy, which on occasion would tip into severe bouts of depression, and in 1908 and 1913 almost drove him to suicide, undoubtedly found a release in the outbreak of war, which – along with the encouragements and advice of Frost – was the major catalyst for his late turn to poetry. A key aspect of his gift was his ability to develop narratives or evolve landscapes in which his acute, normally troubled, but sometimes exuberant self-consciousness either loses itself in or finds itself overtaken by what Pound satirically called (in ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’) ‘the march of events’. ‘Roads’, for instance, written in January 1916, suddenly modulates from a hymn to the highways he spent much of his early career tramping, in search of material for his travel books, to a vision of the inexorable toll of the war:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.

The ghosts of these dead, the poem’s final two stanzas suggest, are more present to the poet, and offer more ‘company’, than the living, who are viewed from a vast distance, as if Thomas were already a ghost himself:

Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

Ghosts don’t have to make choices, which may be one reason Thomas imagines them lightly dancing. The characteristic spring in the step of his own best poetry, even when it’s exploring states bordering on despair, seems connected to the aura of the posthumous that his poems often radiate.

In this they resemble the weasel, crow, magpie and other beasts that are ‘taken from their feasts’ and strung up from a tree by the gamekeeper in ‘The Gallows’, where they

swing and have endless leisure
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pain, without pleasure,
On the dead oak tree bough.

The relationship between their light dancing in the wind and the dead oak tree bough on which they’ve been hung is interestingly mirrored in the poem that is Thomas’s fullest attempt at a Verlainean art poétique, ‘Words’. Here he asks English words to choose him,

As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through.

This might be described, particularly in the context of Georgian assumptions about poetry, as wringing the neck of rhetoric with a vengeance, but it also implies that for Thomas’s poetry to ‘run’ he almost had to wring his own neck too, or at least to reduce himself to a lifeless crack or a drain. And the vivacity of the poetic dance figured in the last stanza of ‘Words’ is little removed from that of the dead lightly returning from France in ‘Roads’, or of the swinging corpses of ‘The Gallows’; in all three, freedom is shown to depend on its opposite, fixity:

Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

Frost, for one, was convinced that Thomas’s military and poetic careers were part of the same process. Four years after his friend’s death he wrote that ‘the decision he made in going into the army helped him make the other decision in form’ (i.e. in turning from prose to poetry). He even suggested Thomas’s collected poems ought to be titled ‘Roads to France’. This may seem to brush over the fact that his friend had been writing poetry for more than six months before he finally decided to enlist, but Thomas had begun brooding on the possibility as early as October 1914: ‘I have just made myself almost ill with thinking hard for an hour,’ he wrote to Frost that month, ‘that I ought to enlist next week in town.’ Certainly the war instantly galvanised his sense of the nation both in its collective present, and in its historic and mythic past: within weeks of the commencement of hostilities he had arranged to write a series of articles for the English Review on the impact the conflict was having on different parts of the country: ‘To the tune of “It’s a long long way to Tipperary”,’ he wrote in the first of these, ‘I have just travelled through England, from Swindon to Newcastle-on-Tyne, listening to people in railway carriages, trams, taverns and public places, talking about the war and the effects of it.’ He also signed up to edit an anthology called This England, which he hoped would be ‘a book as full of English character and country as an egg is of meat’. ‘I am slowly,’ he remarked to his friend Jesse Berridge in September 1914, ‘growing into a conscious Englishman.’ At the same time the bellicose mood sweeping the country severely restricted demand for the kinds of literary journalism with which he’d supported himself and Helen and their growing family for the previous 14 years.

Events in Flanders permeate Thomas’s vision of ‘this England’ in a range of ways. On the most primary level, he notes the effects of the absence of young men on the look of the countryside:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them, and will do never again.

In ‘As the team’s head-brass’ he sits down to rest in the boughs of a fallen elm, and learns from the ploughman working in the adjacent field that the tree was brought down by a blizzard on the very day his mate on the farm died in the trenches:

         ‘The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’

The conversation between uniformed soldier and working ploughman is framed by a pair of lovers, who disappear into the wood at the beginning of the poem, and emerge from it at its conclusion. The momentary freedom of all three parties is subsumed into the elegiac turn taken in the poem’s final lines, which allow the murderousness of no man’s land to invade the very heart of pastoral England:

            Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

The image of crumbled clods inevitably also calls to mind Thomas’s famous response to Eleanor Farjeon, when she asked him: ‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ ‘He stooped, and picked up a pinch of earth. “Literally for this.”’

‘As the team’s head-brass’ was composed in May 1916, by which time, as Edna Longley points out in a note in this compendious new edition of his work, Thomas was growing increasingly frustrated with his duties as a map-reading instructor at a military camp in Essex. His determination to seek frontline action surfaces in many of his letters of the period, and motivated his application for a commission in the Royal Artillery the following month. ‘The waiting troubles me,’ he wrote to Frost in August, ‘I really want to be out.’ To de la Mare he confessed he longed for ‘a far greater change than I have had so far’. He was pleased when at a visit to the theatre in his newly acquired corporal’s uniform, ‘with hair cropped close and carrying a thin little swagger cane’, he went unrecognised by erstwhile literary associates such as Eddie Marsh, T. Sturge Moore and R.C. Trevelyan, though they stood only a yard away.

Yet Thomas was in no way in thrall to the image of the soldier-poet, and was scornful of Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets, which he thought over-rhetorical, ‘dressing things up better than they needed’. His own poetic foray into the politics of the war, ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong,’ was inspired by a furious quarrel with his jingoistic father, and strives bravely, at least at the outset, to maintain its distance from patriotic hysteria:

I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true.

The poem’s sudden switch from this cool, quizzical tone for some Henry V-ish rhetoric (‘But with the best and meanest Englishmen/I am one in crying God save England’) is deeply disappointing, but is also consonant with Thomas’s habit of abandoning thought for ‘something that overpowered thought’, as he put it in an article of November 1914, also called ‘This England’, in which he explored the emotions that finally drove him to enlist:

All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically, like a slave, not having realised that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die rather than leave it as Belgian women and old men and children had left their country. Something I had omitted. Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape.

The irrational element in Thomas’s patriotism has disturbed a number of his admirers; even Longley, who makes the most exalted claims for the value of his work, concedes that ‘This is no case … ’ ‘strays into Rupert Brooke territory’. There are a handful of other poems, too, that render a little too explicit the ideology underpinning their nationalism. ‘Lob’, ‘The Manor Farm’ and ‘Haymaking’ all offer somewhat pat and heritage-style celebrations of the ‘bliss unchangeable’ that has lain, as ‘The Manor Farm’ puts it, ‘Safe under tile and thatch for ages since/This England, Old already, was called Merry’.

Thomas’s great popularity (there are now Everyman, Wordsworth, Faber and Bloodaxe editions on the market) has always owed something to this strand in his work, but it’s important also to keep in mind his influence on poets of the 1930s, and in particular on a young Auden who prided himself on his scathing debunkings of England’s delusions of grandeur, as well as his appeal to the fiercely critical F.R. Leavis of New Bearings in English Poetry (1932). It was for long customary to categorise his work as an important link in the chain of English poets that stretched from Hardy through to Larkin and Hughes, and to Hughes’s successor as poet laureate, Andrew Motion, whose first critical book was a study of Thomas (though this genealogy had to overlook his Welsh ancestry, and the fact that it took an American’s urgings and practice to get him writing poetry at all). Longley grumbles about the ‘neglect’ Thomas has suffered in the academy, and it’s true his work has generated only a fraction of the critical attention bestowed on Eliot or Pound. Her introduction and copious notes tend to present this as the result of a sinister pro-Difficult-Poetry conspiracy, though she is eager to point out Thomas’s understanding of what the early Pound was up to, and to delineate the ways he engaged ‘in critical dialogue with emergent “modernism”’.

Over the years, editions of Thomas have slowly been getting fatter, and this is the fattest yet. Longley’s introduction and apparatus take up more than twice as many pages as the poems themselves, whose texts have been re-edited and so differ somewhat from those presented by R. George Thomas in his 1978 Oxford edition. A number of the endnotes almost amount to mini-essays on the poem under scrutiny: they situate each one in the context of Thomas’s life, and include illuminating passages from his relevant prose writings and extracts from letters of the time; they point out echoes and allusions, even far distant ones, furnish botanical information and historical references, and urge us to savour stylistic nuances. They often reprise the approaches and perceptions of earlier critics, before developing their own new interpretations. They are, in short, a treasure-trove of information and speculation for Thomas enthusiasts, and while I don’t really like being pushed by notes in a critical edition to read a poem in a particular way, this book will undoubtedly facilitate seminar-room discussion of Thomas’s work, and so help a little, at least, in the struggle Longley would like to foment in university English departments between her reticent hero and the giants of Modernism.

‘Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had,’ Frost wrote shortly after hearing of his friend’s death at Arras. Frost composed a number of poems in memory of Thomas, though none that rivals either ‘The Road Not Taken’ or Thomas’s own celebration of their times together, ‘The sun used to shine’. ‘The war,’ that poem remembers,

Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fades …

There was nothing faint or fading or mistily historic about Thomas as a soldier when he finally reached the trenches in February 1917; there he was remembered for his professionalism and devotion to duty. On 8 April, Easter Sunday, a 5.9 missile landed two yards from him, but failed to go off. Despite this good omen, the following day a stray shell struck the Beaurains observation post, where he was stationed for the Arras offensive, and he was killed instantly. On a loose piece of paper found in the notebook he was carrying were a few lines, the last of which seems to allude to the poem in which the dead are imagined lightly dancing on their return from France: ‘Roads shining like river up hill after rain’.