Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"And Myself, Too, If I Could Find Where It Lay Hidden And It Proved Kind"

I would like to stay with the subject of love a moment longer.  I have been thinking about a couple of things written by Edward Thomas.  In February of 1916, Thomas was in the army, but he was still stationed in England. He periodically sent drafts of his poems to his wife Helen.  He sent her some poems which mentioned love, and she expressed concern that the poems were about another woman.  On February 24, Thomas wrote to her:

"As to the other verses about love you know that my usual belief is that I don't and can't love and haven't done for something near 20 years.  You know too that you don't think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical.  You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I?  That is if you count love as any one feeling and not something varying infinitely with the variety of people."

R. George Thomas (editor), Edward Thomas: Selected Letters (1995), page 119.

Of course, this must have been a difficult passage for Helen Thomas to read.  But it would have been out-of-character for Thomas to have written anything but the truth to her.

                              Kenneth Macqueen, "Waves and Reef" (1945)

On April 9, 1916 -- exactly a year prior to his death at the battle of Arras -- Thomas wrote the following untitled poem:

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose.  I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me.  If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (2008).

The final two lines are classic Thomas, and are an excellent instance of something that I have remarked upon before in connection with his poetry (and that of Frost and Larkin):  the giving and then the taking away. Or, to use Larkin's fine observation about Thomas's poetry (which, again, I have mentioned before):  "The poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."

                               Kenneth Macqueen, "Summer Sky" (c. 1935)


S R Plant said...

To my, no doubt overly cynical eye, the letter, apart from the first sentence, reads like the dissembling of an obviously decent man, especially the final flourish.
All of which (if true!) probably fuelled his beautiful poetry...

zmkc said...

Thank you - your reading of the poem adds so much to its enjoyment for me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Plant: I can see what you are saying -- there does seem to be a bit of scrambling going on. And I agree on this as well: he was a decent (and tortured) man.

As always, it is a pleasure to have you stop by. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

zmkc: thank you for visiting again, and for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

A garden of eternal delights; nay,
Eden, Arcadia, Hesperidia, Sissinghurst, Devachan;
Nymphs, Naiads, Ambrosia,
Rapture, rhapsody, melancholia,
Mirth, mystery, Larksong.
Golden hair that lightly binds,
Slender limbs and retrousse noses.
Red Roses, Sunshine.
No serendipitous discovery,
But heaven lit,
For the chosen.


Anonymous said...

If there was another woman, as Helen Thomas suspected, she's likely to have been the artist Edna Clarke Hall, who died in 1979. If Thomas had lived to the same age, he'd have died only the year before – an odd thought, like seeing a photograph of a decrepit Keats or a wizened Shelley, though perhaps no odder than to think of the headstones of Graves, Blunden and Sassoon in Flanders.

Stephen Pentz said...

Hari: thank you very much for visiting again, and for the thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

Yes, I understand that Matthew Hollis makes that suggestion in his new biography of Thomas. Who knows? Perhaps I'm credulous, but I'll take Thomas on his word.

Thanks again.

Kinna said...

But love varies infinitely with people as Thomas himself suggests. I wager that he loved her and loved her deeply. Else how could he have written this poem? Thanks again and all the best.

Stephen Pentz said...

Kinna: thank you very much for stopping by again. I'm in agreement with you on Thomas's love for Helen. The entire poem, and the final two lines in particular, show the depth of his understanding of what she went through in loving him, as well as his sorrow in not being able to respond more fully. (But I am letting too much amateur psychoanalysis creep in! The poem says what it says.)

Thank you again.

Rags and Paper said...

Edward Thomas drives me crazy! Wonderful poetry but not a great guy! The more I learn about him, the more he seems to have been a man who knew what decent behavior was, couldn't bring himself to act decently, and so behaved worse out of guilt and despising himself.

Apparently he kept every letter his wife wrote him, reread them, praised them to friends. That must have meant something! But he was very unkind to her and worse, unkind to his children. This poem to Helen seems like a list of her shortcomings -- he'll give her "youth", "truth", "loveliness" things that in his opinion she's in need of. He manages a sort-of apology for his behavior along the way until the last two lines, when he twists the knife.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson is said to be writing a new biography of Thomas and according to George Simmers is finding Thomas "difficult to like." But she also refers to Helen's memoir as "fiction" so maybe with corrections to Helen's account of him, I can have a better opinion of Edward Thomas -- I really want to!

I started reading your blog after Tim Kendall mentioned you, maybe in 2010? Anyway, I've taken on the task of re-reading it from the beginning, hence the very late comment. Such a pleasure! Thanks!

Stephen Pentz said...

Rags and Paper: thank you very much for visiting, and for your kind words about the blog.

I understand your feelings about Thomas's treatment of Helen, and I think that you have described his overall character fairly well. I'm no psychiatrist, but it seems likely that he was clinically depressed most of his life. I don't offer this as an excuse for his behavior, but it may help to put things into perspective.

On a more general note (and, again, not to excuse his behavior), it is often the people who are closest to us that we hurt the most, isn't it?

All of these biographical writings about him are making me feel a bit queasy. Although I liked Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Siegfried Sassoon, I shudder to think what she is going to come up with. These literary biographies tend to distort and/or swallow up the poetry.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for stopping by. I hope to hear from you again.