Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Edward Thomas In Heaven"

On this date 96 years ago Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras. In 1917, April 9th fell on Easter Monday.

Laura Knight, "Cornfield" (c. 1953)

               Edward Thomas in Heaven

Edward, with thinning hair and hooded eyes
Walking in England, haversack sagging, emptied of lies,
Snuffing and rubbing Old Man in the palm of your hand
You smelled an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

In France, supposing the shell that missed
You and sucked your breath out as it passed
Released your soul according to the doctrine
You disbelieved and were brought up in,
From slaughtered fields to Christian purgatory?
(Assuming your working life, the sad history
You sweated through, and marvellous middens of rural stuff
You piled together were not purgatory enough?)
Are you now a changed person, gay and certain?
Your eyes unhooded, bland windows without a curtain?
Then it would not be heaven.  It would be mere loss
To be welcomed in by an assured Edward Thomas.
There must be doubt in heaven, to accommodate him
And others we listen for daily, who were human,
Snuffing and puzzling, which is why we listen.
How shall we recognise the ones we love
If next we see them fitting round God's finger like a glove?
While close-by round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
And angels of Breconshire and Hereford
Sing for them, and unimaginable Edward?

P. J. Kavanagh, Edward Thomas in Heaven (1974).

Laura Knight, "Wheatfield" (c. 1953)

Line 3 is an allusion to Thomas's poem "Old Man," which contains these lines:

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain.

There are a number of poems by Thomas to which line 4 ("an avenue, dark, nameless, without end") may allude, given the fact that he so often wrote about roads and paths.  Perhaps Kavanagh has in mind either "After Rain" ("The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed/Are thinly spread/In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,/As if they played") or "Interval" ("Where the firm soaked road/Mounts and is lost/In the high beech-wood/It shines almost").  Other candidates might be "The Other," "The Path," "Roads," "The Green Roads," and "The Lane."

And, finally, "Adlestrop" is the source of the last five lines of the poem:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Laura Knight, "A Valley at Evening"


Doug Miller said...

Thank you for explaining the allusions (or possible allusions). The actual manner of Thomas' death reminds me of the phrase you used in the previous post: I think you said that, in surviving lung cancer, Patrick Kavanaugh had "dodged a bullet." I was reading that post quickly, and thought you were speaking literally, not metaphorically. It is our loss (as well as his) that Thomas himself was not able to dodge the bullet.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Miller: Thomas's death was very strange: there was not a mark on his body. The artillery shell passing by apparently stopped his heart or somehow or other sucked the life out of him. The pocket watch that he carried stopped at the exact moment that the shell passed: around 8:30 a.m., as I recall.

Yes, a huge loss all around.

Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for your thoughts.

Bovey Belle said...

Indeed, the notebook he carried on him was curiously creased by the shockwave from the bursting shell and his pipe unbroken . . . Helen gave it to Merfyn.

Wonderful post - I had not come across that tribute to Edwy before. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for reminding me of that. As I recall, the Oxford First World War Poetry Digital Archive contains photos of the covers of the notebook, together with the pages of the notebook.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. It's good to hear from you.