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.

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