Sunday, October 10, 2010

"October": Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas being who he was, it is not surprising that, in a poem of his about autumn, melancholy makes an appearance.  At the same time, it is likewise not surprising that Thomas's melancholy goes hand-in-hand with beauty.  This combination occurs often in his poetry.  (And beauty was absolutely real for Thomas -- it was not a poetic conceit.)  But enough.  Here is the poem.             


The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, --
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds' the squirrels scold.

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, -- who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

                                  Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1919)


Eric Thomson said...

You're very adroit in choosing your illustrations. I wonder if you knew that poet and painter used to visit inns together?
When Thomas was killed, Nash was only fifty miles away at Ypres. The two had met and become good friends in May 1916 when Nash became a map-reading instructor with the Artists’ Rifles at Hare Hall Camp in Romford, Essex. Thomas had just been promoted to full corporal: ‘Nobody recognises me now. Sturge Moore, E. Marsh, & R. C. Trevelyan stood a yard off & I didn’t trouble to awake them to stupid recognition. Bottomley & his wife I just had a word with. I was with a young artist named Paul Nash who has just joined us as a map reader. He is a change from the 2 schoolmasters I see most of. He is wonderful at finding birds’ nests.’ (letter to Robert Frost, 21st May 1916). A week later Thomas wrote his great phoughshares-into-swords poem ‘As the team’s head-brass’. According to Nash’s wife, Margaret, Thomas and Nash ‘enjoyed the exciting experience of night route marching, and during their spare hours in the day they would go for long walks in the country, stopping at the local pubs from time to time, where Edward Thomas would always ask the lady of the house if she could give them ... some apple pie.’

Thomas appears a number of times in Nash’s letters to their mutual friend, Gordon Bottomley: ‘Do you know what is become of Thomas, as he has passed from my ken - dear old Thomas. I was sorry to part from him, he was a great companion. (PN TO GB, 1st January 1917).

‘Two griefs have come to us and we feel they have impaired and impoverished our lives for good; first the death of our friend Hay last October, ... and then the death of Thomas on Easter Monday at an artillery observation post near Arras. They were both men of sweet and noble nature: Thomas was here on his long leave just before he was gazetted, and he was more than ever like a a hero out of a saga. We spoke of you after you left Romford.’ (GB to PN, 26th August 1917)

‘most tragic & wasteful death - Thomas tho', poor fellow always seems to have been oppressed by some load of sadness & pessimism. I believe I saw one of the happiest bits of his life while we were in the Artists - he was always humorous interesting and entirely lovable but others who knew him speak of him as the most depressed man they ever met. I wish now I had written to him after I left, I shall always regret it' (PN to GB, 4th September 1917)

‘I, too, am happy that E.T. had two years of poetry to shew us all himself in. I feel he was so purely lyrical, in his instinct of form as well as in his ideas, and his lyrics bring him most vividly to me; yet his blank verse flashes phrases of his daily being at me so constantly that it also is dear to me. I miss him a good deal, and I am going to miss him more and more.’ (PN to GB, 12th September 1919)
Soon after Nash’s death, another poet was to write of him: ‘Paul, in a way, most of all - we became very close during the last ten years, though latterly we seldom wrote and in the war years of course didn’t see each other - but I think our visions, whatever one means by that, corresponded, so that I was, a very little, the poet in him, he a very great deal, the painter in me. He was the most English genius and the genius most conscious of English landscape painting, with all of its moods and tenses miraculously and calligraphically and lovingly caught by that all-seeing hawk’s eye of his. I loved him and I miss him dreadfully; for without him England doesn’t seem to me quite itself.' (Conrad Aiken, letter to John Gould Fletcher, 6th December 1946)

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Thomson: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting again. I greatly appreciate your kind words about me being "adroit" in selecting the illustrations to my posts. It is very generous of you to say so.

However, when it comes to pairing Thomas and Nash I must confess that the pairing was based solely upon how I feel about their work: for me, they somehow go together. Therefore, I am absolutely delighted to discover the connection between the two that you have provided in your comment. Thank you very much!

The excerpts that you provide from Nash's letters are wonderful. Thank you indeed. Nash certainly was a perceptive judge of Thomas. The thought of the two of them walking the countryside, discovering birds' nests, is beautiful (and sad as well). Again, another reminder of what was lost in the War.

I like Thomas's comment about people not recognizing him. The first time that I saw the photograph of Thomas that appears to have been taken just before he was posted to France (he is wearing a cap, but his hair is shaved at the sides, and he seems to have a moustache) I was shocked -- he looks like a completely different man (whereas, in the early Army photographs, he looks much the same as in pre-War photographs).

Thank you also for the letter by Conrad Aiken. I was not aware that he was a friend of Nash's. His comments about Nash being "the most English genius" and about his relationship to English landscape painting are perfect.

Again, thank you very much.