I fret and fret

Adam Phillips

  • Edward Thomas: From Adelstrop to Arras by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
    Bloomsbury, 480 pp, £25.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 4081 8713 5

Edward Thomas believed that up to about the age of four what he called ‘a sweet darkness’ enfolded him ‘with a faint blessing’. It was, though, a darkness and the blessing was faint. ‘From an early age’, Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes, Thomas ‘felt cursed by a self-consciousness he believed the chief cause of his later problems and depression’. It made him at once shy and withdrawn but also equivocal in his writing, careful to qualify what he said, and wary of self-assertion. A schoolfriend remembered him as ‘exceptionally reserved and quiet’, but he was curious about things, interested in reading and in nature – ‘I like birds more than books,’ he wrote in poor Latin on the flyleaf of one of his algebra books. That he became a writer seems unsurprising.

Childhoods are notoriously difficult for biographers to reconstruct persuasively without making them sound either too eccentric or too predictably the childhood of the adult the child would become. Good biographies of writers resist, or try to resist, the by now familiar and formulaic portrait of the artist as a young child: in Thomas’s case, intimidating, overbearing father, worshipped abject mother and sensitive child who only becomes the best version of himself in his writing. Thomas’s life as a boy was nearly half his life – he was killed at 39 – and Wilson deals well with the (relative) paucity of evidence about his early years, basing much of the story on Thomas’s autobiographical writings. In fact she relies on quotation from Thomas throughout her informative and engaging book, with some filling in of the background but little attitudinising or position-taking. As she points out, there isn’t as yet a complete edition of Thomas’s notebooks, letters, diaries and prose works, but there is plenty of material to be going on with, and it isn’t too difficult now to discern a coherent narrative to his life, despite the warnings in his prose of a hidden part of him that was more real to him than much of what he did. Philip, his fictional alter ego in The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans, Thomas’s only novel, believes as an adolescent that ‘there was something at the back of my mind, not quite hidden from myself and my schoolfellows – a weight, a darkness – which was against intimacy.’ What Thomas couldn’t quite hide was that he couldn’t quite reveal himself. This ‘dark’ something, he wrote, ‘had taken away all [his] irresponsibility’. Inhibition was the thing that kept him writing about the poetry of his contemporaries until he realised that inhibition itself – his ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ – could itself be a subject.

All Thomas’s biographers so far have tended to divide his brief life rather too neatly into three periods: first, 1878-98, his more or less happy childhood and youth spent in South London and Kent, the eldest child in a family of six boys. Then in 1899 he goes to Lincoln College, Oxford, meets and marries his wife Helen, has three children in quick succession, gets to know many of the significant literary figures of the day (Edward Garnett, Rupert Brooke, Joseph Conrad, Lascelles Abercrombie, Hilaire Belloc et al) and becomes an overworked and often desperate, self-hating professional writer of journalism and criticism. ‘I live for an income of £250 & work all day & often from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. It takes me so long because I fret and fret,’ he wrote to his friend the poet Gordon Bottomley in 1906: ‘My self-criticism or rather my studied self-contempt is now nearly a disease.’ Finally in 1913 he meets Robert Frost, newly arrived from America, starts writing poetry and joins the army, to die four years later in combat in France. It is a frantic and harassed life in many ways, but Wilson tells her story at just the right pace, with patience and clarity, though occasionally her irritation with Thomas’s self-indulgent and self-dramatising misery breaks through – ‘The image he projected of an isolated, depressed man is almost comically contradicted by his diary.’ She writes less persuasively about the poetry, though it has to be said that Thomas’s poetry is unusually difficult to write about, partly because he writes in such ordinary language, with unusual tact and no portentousness about the limits of language for feeling. Her best passages are about the years of Thomas’s marriage to the appropriately named Helen Noble, the long-suffering and remarkably astute and committed woman with whom Thomas had a family about which he was always ambivalent. ‘I felt as if I were rather the grub in the apple,’ he wrote to her after one of their many disastrous family holidays. Self-contempt was his chief preoccupation and he was always a bit too keen to complain about his inability to love when what seems to have been at stake was his cruelty, mostly to his wife.

A new biography – especially a biography of someone who is now a canonised figure, ‘the father of us all’, as Ted Hughes rather ambiguously remarked – has to make a case for itself; and there is a degree of special pleading in Wilson’s attempt to persuade us of the need (‘the urgent need’) for a new Life. ‘Myths’, she says, need to be dispelled, and new facts about Thomas’s death need to be clarified (it was a direct hit that killed him, not, as had previously been reported, the blast of a nearby shell). He wasn’t a mere ‘hack’ before he became a poet, as some have suggested (indeed his critical biography of Richard Jefferies, Wilson argues, is ‘a classic of the genre’); nor was he ‘grindingly poor’ (‘his earnings between 1906 and 1912 were about the equivalent of a university professor’s’); but ‘perhaps the most serious distortion of the Thomas story’, in Wilson’s view, concerns his character, and here she does less well.

Wilson never quite makes it clear how seriously – or rather, with what kind of seriousness – we are supposed to take his suffering. ‘Mild despair’, we are told, was, as he described it, his ‘favourite vice’. Helen believed, and she was in a position to know, that his troubles were ‘of his own making almost entirely’ – ‘almost entirely’ being a phrase Thomas himself might have used. Wilson speculates about causes and diagnoses, but it is all very inconclusive. ‘No one who tries to understand Thomas can ignore his recurring bouts of melancholy,’ she writes, preferring the old-fashioned word; but then adds by way of warning that ‘nowadays we might be tempted to label him as “bipolar”’ and that this doesn’t fit either. But then neither does what she wants us to settle for. ‘Perhaps in the end,’ she writes, ‘it was simply as he himself described it, his “writer’s melancholy which we must have”.’ Very occasionally he was able to be humorous about his predicament; his main qualification for writing a book on ecstasy, he once wrote, was his ‘intimate and long-standing acquaintance with the opposite of ecstasy’. But although he seems to have spent a great deal of his life complaining, on the run from his family, and doing astounding quantities of literary journalism to keep his family afloat, he did know what ecstasy was, and his best poems would be glimpses of ecstatic experience and of complaints kept at bay. Like the previous modern biographies by R. George Thomas (1985) and William Cooke (1970), but slightly more so, Wilson’s book is really the story, despite her equivocations, of Thomas’s despair; and then of the remarkable and brief late flowering and flaring of his poetry, with his untimely and now famous early death at Arras in 1917; the poetry and the death coming in quick succession, filling the last 118 pages of Wilson’s 400-page biography.

Nothing in Thomas’s documented childhood would have led one to expect the sheer scale of his grievances, which isn’t to say that they weren’t justified. Anyone who complains a lot is complaining about something real that they haven’t been able to locate. But what Thomas’s biographers have to deal with is the fact that he was young for most of his life, and the subject of a biography (or several biographies) only because of a period of less than two years at the end of his life during which he wrote the 108 poems that make up the Collected Poems. (He didn’t live to see the first edition.) Until then he was an intermittently distinguished and sometimes severe reviewer of contemporary poetry – he praised the early Pound and Frost and de la Mare with real acuity – and a good, and sometimes better than good, as Wilson says, journeyman writer of nature and travel books. This makes his childhood and youth of particular importance even by modern standards, obliging the biographer to look for signs of the unusual adult to come.

Thomas ‘adored’ his mother, who, he wrote, was ‘diffident and sad, and not clever’, and was haunted by her ‘uncertainty … her melancholy, unconfident way’. His father, he wrote, ‘was all that his mother was not’ – a comment which cuts both ways. Because so much more is known about Thomas’s father than about his mother – men’s lives being so often better documented – Wilson can make something of interest out of Thomas’s uneasy affinity with his father, an ‘eloquent, confident, black-haired, brown-eyed Welshman’ who, unlike his son, was extroverted and ambitious. Philip Thomas rose from what Wilson calls ‘a humble background’ to become first a teacher, then a successful civil servant working for the Board of Trade. He had all sorts of cultural interests, and when he wasn’t working frequently gave public lectures to an audience of fellow Positivists. He also wrote a book called A Religion of This World, published in 1913. (The last words Edward wrote in his war diary were: ‘I never understood quite what was meant by God.’) Edward, after an apparently pastoral childhood in South London, seemed from the outside to be more like his father than his mother, though his often arrogant self-deprecation suggests more a mixture of the two of them. Good at languages like his father, he would read Greek, Latin and French fluently. The two men ‘shared a love of words’ and his father read to him throughout his childhood. They both loved music and folk-songs, as well as reading, and they were both good with their hands – Edward often made furniture for the many houses he lived in. A man of real drive and achievement, it seems, Thomas’s father was to be confounded by his sensitive son’s lack of worldly ambition. ‘His son’s sense of futility and failure,’ Wilson speculates ominously at the beginning of her account, ‘may have been partly his father’s unintentional doing.’ Thomas was certainly to grow up with very little sense of his own capacity for intentional doing of any sort at all.

Wilson makes it plain that Thomas got a great deal from his father, the great deal he must have got from his mother being left, as it often is, to one side. What he didn’t get from either of his parents was any real, lasting pleasure in life. By the time he was in his early thirties he was convinced that there was something really wrong with him, ‘something at the very centre’, he wrote to de la Mare in 1911, ‘which nothing deliberate can put right’. If nothing deliberate could put him right, then everyone’s desire to help him, and there were many who wanted to, was irrelevant; one of the remarkable things about him was the devotion he inspired in his friends, and the women who loved him. Yet ‘deliberate’ suggests that there might be something that could be done, but not by him, or anyone too certain of what to do. It was a characteristically helpless and hopeless and tantalising thing to believe. What Wilson calls Thomas’s ‘feelings of being either dispensable … or superfluous’ never let up. Soon after they became friends, Frost helped to liberate him from ‘poetic’ prose into writing poetry, but, Frost later wrote, ‘he was always sorry he didn’t go the other way’ – whatever the other way was. (Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ was written with Thomas in mind.) He was always looking for ways to reduce his options, to cultivate his regret and to try to evade it.

One way he did go was to marry Helen Noble. It was to be a gruelling marriage for him, though he was unequivocally the love of Helen’s life. Wilson writes with impressive even-handedness of Helen’s fortitude and good-heartedness in the face of Thomas’s sadistic ‘doubts’ about his ability to love and his habit of blaming Helen above all for her understanding and generosity. Her ‘enthusiasm and optimism irritated Thomas’, Frost wrote after spending time with them. ‘It is really the kind Helen … who makes life almost impossible,’ he wrote. Punishing people for their virtues is a way to drive them mad, and the story of Thomas’s marriage is both dispiriting and alarming. Helen would always be the person who, as Wilson puts it, Thomas ‘could not leave’ however difficult he found it to be with her for any sustained time. ‘My usual belief,’ he told her ‘categorically’ (Wilson’s word), ‘is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near twenty years’ – that is, for virtually their entire marriage. From Wilson’s account, Thomas wanted Helen to make him behave better by being harder on him.

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Thomas enlisted, in Frost’s view, to prove his masculinity – ‘to prove his courage, by going into danger’, as Thomas put it – and to get away from Helen. Despite some psychoanalysis in 1912 with the maverick Jungian therapist Godwin Baynes which initially, like many therapies, looked promising – Baynes, he told Bottomley, was ‘working magic with my disordered intellects’ – Thomas tired of it. When he first saw Baynes, Thomas told Eleanor Farjeon, ‘he made me feel that I was the most important person in the world to him. As I came to know his world I found he gave the same impression to everybody – and I don’t like being one of a crowd.’ Whatever this says about Baynes, it is also true that Thomas was persecuted by the thought of his anonymity, by the fear that because he was nothing special he was nothing. Wilson takes Matthew Hollis to task for suggesting, in what is certainly the best book about Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France (2011), that Baynes, in Hollis’s words, ‘opened the way for a more self-examined life’ for Thomas through his treatment and so contributed both to Thomas’ s autobiographical prose and to his poetry. Thomas’s ‘problem’, Wilson remarks a bit too acerbically, ‘was not lack of self-examination but an excess of it’. It may be truer to say that he never found a form of self-examination that got him the life he wanted.

Yet despite Thomas’s addiction to regret, and to dismay about his life, he was not an enemy of promise, either his own or other people’s. He was an eloquent and tenacious backer of the poets he valued, and didn’t believe that disappointment was always the end of the story. He also knew other people could release him into a sense of his own possibility. In his adolescence, as Wilson shows, there were several inspirational figures, writers and countrymen he was drawn to, not the least of whom was his future wife’s father, the essayist James Ashcroft Noble. Later on his friendship with other writers and editors, which Wilson vividly evokes, both inspired his own writing and gave him some sense of a shared project. His brief and passionate friendship with Frost was, among many other things, a testament to his capacity for collaboration. He called Frost the ‘only begetter’ of his poetry, and Wilson’s compelling account of their relationship suggests that it was the extraordinary quality of Frost’s attention that was transformative for Thomas. ‘What we had in common we had from before we were born,’ Frost told a friend; and then added: ‘make as much of that as you will but don’t tell anyone we gave each other anything but a boost.’ Mutual recognition made all the difference to both of them. Frost’s canniness is everywhere in Thomas’s poetry, as are Thomas’s subtle amazements everywhere in Frost’s. Wilson defends her man from the charge that all his best ideas about sound and sense and poetry and prose and spoken language really came from Frost, while being duly impressed by Frost’s extraordinary, apparently self-invented intelligence, and its effect on Thomas. Thomas often used the company he craved to hide in. With Frost he had, possibly for the first time, an appetite to be seen.

‘I hate crowds,’ Thomas wrote in 1916, ‘I hate uncertainty. So naturally I hate the idea of being in the army in any capacity.’ Yet enlisting worked for him – once he passed his medical all his ‘self-torment had gone out of him’, Eleanor Farjeon wrote – because it provided him with companionship without too many choices. His ‘preference for hard plain living’, Wilson writes, ‘would serve Thomas well at the front’. His friend the writer Henry Nevinson said that Thomas had gained ‘incredibly in health and stature and confidence’ during the war. But Paul Nash, who said that during the war he had witnessed one of ‘the happiest bits’ of Thomas’s life, added that he ‘always seems to have been oppressed by some load of sadness and pessimism’. The war eased things for him, but it couldn’t cure him.

Unlike many of his modernist contemporaries, Thomas didn’t crave epiphanies, but, at least in his poetry, he could take his chances. ‘Adelstrop’ is after all about the extraordinary things that can happen when it doesn’t occur to you to expect anything, when the express train draws up somewhere ‘unwontedly’, and a vision suddenly unfolds. Thomas’s more nature-oriented prose often has the fluency of pastiche with its echoes of Keats, Wordsworth and Richard Jefferies, but then there is always something that stands out, some habit of thinking of his own. ‘The hare in his form rises slowly bit by bit,’ Thomas writes in A Diary in English Fields and Woods, ‘and returns, as carefully, after a stretch of his hind legs, or a reconnoitre.’ This particular pattern – a thing leaving and then returning – recurs often in his writing. But it was confinement and camouflage that interested him most. He sought out entrapment, and craved the reassurance of knowing he could release himself. Indeed one way of reading Thomas’s life is in terms of his three fateful decisions: his decision to marry and immediately have a family, when he was still only 19, his decision to write poetry, and his signing up to go to war. He needed to cramp his own style in order to find it. Not quite a hunger-artist, he could only live on as little as possible.