Saturday, April 8, 2017

For Edward Thomas

Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas at the Battle of Arras.  In 1917, April 9 fell on Easter Monday.

Thomas wrote the following poem on April 6, 1915:  two days after Easter Sunday.  He enlisted three months later.

               In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

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

At times, Thomas's poetry sounds like an anticipatory, exploratory elegy for himself.  Which is not to say that his poetry is "confessional" or self-obsessed.  Rather, it is simply the case that he had an elegiac view of the World:  he was always  aware that he was a small part of a World that is ceaselessly passing and vanishing.  He was forever saying farewell.

             How at Once

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
Suddenly
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.

This is a variation upon "First Known When Lost," which he wrote a year and a half earlier:  "I never had noticed it until/'Twas gone . . ."

John Nash (1893-1977), "A Gloucestershire Landscape" (1914)

I suspect that more poems have been written about Edward Thomas than about any other English poet.  Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas (compiled by Anne Harvey) (Enitharmon Press 1991) collects 80 poems about him by 69 different poets.  As one might expect, the most affecting of these poems were written by those who knew him.

                    To E. T.: 1917

You sleep too well -- too far away,
     For sorrowing word to soothe or wound;
Your very quiet seems to say
     How longed-for a peace you have found.

Else, had not death so lured you on,
     You would have grieved -- 'twixt joy and fear --
To know how my small loving son
     Had wept for you, my dear.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (Constable 1918).

Thomas and de la Mare were close friends.  I find this poem to be particularly moving and beautiful because it poignantly conveys, in a short space, both the intense grief felt by de la Mare (and his family) at the loss of Thomas and the essence of Thomas:  that combination of melancholy, sensitivity, kindness, charm, and unbridgeable solitariness.

Also quite revealing is this:  "had not death so lured you on."  De la Mare knew Thomas well.

            Out in the Dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Than the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned;

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

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

"Out in the Dark" is Thomas's penultimate poem.  He wrote it on Christmas Eve, 1916.  He departed for France on January 29, 1917.

John Nash, "Ripe Corn" (1946)

Like many people, I came to know Edward Thomas through "Adlestrop," which I happened upon in an anthology in the early 1980s.  "Adlestrop" is wonderful, of course.  (It is one of those poems you know by heart after reading it two or three times, without setting out to memorize it.)  However, the poem that made me realize I had found an essential companion for life was this:

            The New House

Now first, as I shut the door,
I was alone
In the new house; and the wind
Began to moan.

Old at once was the house,
And I was old;
My ears were teased with the dread
Of what was foretold,

Nights of storm, days of mist, without end;
Sad days when the sun
Shone in vain:  old griefs, and griefs
Not yet begun.

All was foretold me; naught
Could I foresee;
But I learnt how the wind would sound
After these things should be.

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

As I noted in my March 12 post on E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, the realization that one is in the presence of unforgettable beauty is, for me at least, accompanied by physical and emotional reactions:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in one's chair, and, finally, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight.  This is what happened to me the first time I read "The New House."  And it still happens each time I read it.

John Nash, "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

When one becomes acquainted with the poetry and prose of Edward Thomas, it is natural to feel affection for him as a person, and to grieve at the tragedy of his death at too young an age.  It is thus understandable that a great deal of biographical attention has been paid to him in recent years. However, I fear that a preoccupation with the particulars of his life may carry us away from his writing, which ought to be our primary focus.

It is a difficult balance to strike, for, as John Bayley observes in the following passage, the relationship between Thomas's life and his writing is significant:

"The poet who adds a new world to our experience -- as Auden does, as Larkin does -- is for that reason the kind of poet who really counts.  Such a poet is naturally unaware of what he is doing because he is becoming himself in his poetry, his true and involuntary self, not making and remaking himself, by the poetic will, as Yeats did, and as Frost did.  Yeats and Frost are great poets of course, but their greatness is of a quite different kind.  They do not bring a new sort of poetic world, the world of themselves, involuntarily into being."

John Bayley, "The Self in the Poem," in Jonathan Barker (editor), The Art of Edward Thomas (Poetry Wales Press 1987), page 40.

The intertwining of Thomas's life and poetry, and how that intertwining affects us, is captured in this lovely poem by W. H. Auden.

                                        To E. T.

Those thick walls never shake beneath the rumbling wheel
     No scratch of mole nor lisping worm you feel
          So surely do those windows seal.

But here and there your music and your words are read
     And someone learns what elm and badger said
          To you who loved them and are dead.

So when the blackbird tries his cadences anew
     There kindles still in eyes you never knew
          The light that would have shone in you.

W. H. Auden, Juvenilia: Poems, 1922-1928 (edited by Katherine Bucknell) (Princeton University Press 1994).  The poem, in Auden's handwriting, is found on "the blank leaf facing the last poem" in Auden's copy of the 1920 edition of Thomas's Collected Poems.  Ibid, page 100.  It was likely written in the summer of 1925, when Auden was 18 years old.  Ibid.

John Nash, "The Cornfield" (1918)

21 comments:

bravuogn said...

For me, "As The Team's Head Brass..." is as great a poem about WW1 as any by Owen or Sassoon...

Deb said...

One of the most compelling personalities I've ever come across. Even his faults and flaws are completely understandable and lovable.

Thank you for the reminder of the anniversary. It is the 9th here today, and I almost missed it, as I am rarely aware of what date it is...

More Fire, More Ice said...

Thanks for reminding us.

Stephen Pentz said...

bravuogn: Yes, it is a wonderful poem: understated, but very moving in its presentation of the impact of the War on so many people, in so many different ways. The touch of the lovers disappearing into the wood at the beginning of the poem, and emerging out of it at the end of the poem, is lovely. It brings to mind Hardy's "in Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": "Yonder a maid and her wight/Come whispering by:/War's annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die."

Thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I'm happy to hear from you again. I agree that he is a "compelling personalit[y]." This has become even more evident to me in recent years, when I have been concentrating on reading his prose, much of which I had failed to explore sufficiently. (And I have a lot more to go.) The essence of the personality one finds in the prose does not differ from the personality one finds in the poetry, but, for me at least, reading the prose adds a deeper layer -- it seems to me that he expresses his feelings in a sharper, more direct manner (at times).

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. Please return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

More Fire, More Ice: You're welcome. It's a sad anniversary to observe, but he deserves to be remembered. As do all the others.

Thank you for stopping by.

Bovey Belle said...

Thank you, for the words and poems I have not had time to write in praise of a man whose poetry means so much to me. Walter de la Mare's poem choked me and summoned tears. He was much loved, and much missed and never did a man truly die for his country as he chose to do. "For this" . . . a handful of English soil . . .

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I'm delighted to hear from you again. I know from reading Codlins and Cream that you have been quite busy in recent months, but I was hoping you might see this post, given how I know you feel about Edward Thomas.

Yes, de la Mare's poem pierces the heart, doesn't it? Regarding E. T.'s choice to die for his country: it truly was his choice, wasn't it? He could have stayed in England as a map instructor, but he volunteered for the Royal Artillery. Once in the Artillery, he asked for an overseas posting -- i.e., France. He knew exactly what he wanted to do.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope that all is well with you and your family.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, if memory serves I think I first stumbled upon the poetry of Edward Thomas in the mid-1970’s . Two of the earliest poems I recall reading, apart from “Adlestrop”, were “Tall Nettles” and Digging”.

You are right there are certain poems that find an everlasting place deep inside us without any conscious effort made to memorize them.
“ Sowing” is another such for me, the first verse almost instantly remembered;

“It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust”.

Or equally these exquisite lines from “October”;

…“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

I have always found the De La Mare poem deeply moving, and thank you for the Auden too which I didn’t know.I have always liked this poem by Alun Lewis. I am sure you are familiar with it.


To Edward Thomas

(On visiting the memorial stone above Steep in Hampshire)

I

On the way up from Sheet I met some children
Filling a pram with brushwood; higher still
Beside Steep church an old man pointed out
A rough white stone upon a flinty spur
Projecting from the high autumnal woods...
I doubt if much has changed since you came here
On your last leave; except the stone; it bears
Your name and trade: 'To Edward Thomas, Poet.'

II

Climbing the steep path through the copse I knew
My cares weighed heavily as yours, my gift
Much less, my hope
No more than yours.
And like you I felt sensitive and somehow apart,
Lonely and exalted by the friendship of the wind
And the placid afternoon enfolding
The dangerous future and the smile.

III

I sat and watched the dusky berried ridge
Of yew-trees, deepened by oblique dark shafts,
Throw back the flame of red and gold and russet
That leapt from beech and ash to birch and chestnut
Along the downward arc of the hill's shoulder,
And sunlight with discerning fingers
Softly explore the distant wooded acres,
Touching the farmsteads one by one with lightness
Until it reached the Downs, whose soft green pastures
Went slanting sea- and skywards to the limits
Where sight surrenders and the mind alone
Can find the sheeps' tracks and the grazing.
And for the moment Life appeared
As gentle as the view I gazed upon.

IV

Later, a whole day later, I remembered
This war and yours and your weary
Circle of failure and your striving
To make articulate the groping voices
Of snow and rain and dripping branches
And love that ailing in itself cried out
About the straggling eaves and ringed the candle
With shadows slouching round your buried head;
And in the lonely house there was no ease
For you, or Helen, or those small perplexed
Children of yours who only wished to please.
Divining this, I knew the voice that called you
Was soft and neutral as the sky
Breathing on the grey horizon, stronger
Than night's immediate grasp, the limbs of mercy
Oblivious as the blood; and growing clearer,
More urgent as all else dissolved away,
--Projected books, half-thoughts, the children's birthdays,
And wedding anniversaries as cold
As dates in history--the dream
Emerging from the fact that folds a dream,
The endless rides of stormy-branched dark
Whose fibres are a thread within the hand--
Till suddenly, at Arras, you possessed that hinted land.

James said...

Your blog brings me back to what is missing in my life. I am ashamed to say Edward Thomas I didn’t know until now. And I go to ‘Bovey Belle’s sites and her images of the countryside and again find- well I was about to say a shrine to Edward Thomas but it isn’t that at all. Something much more and much less.. just simple appreciation. Not a small thing at all.

I am reminded too of much we take for granted. Just the fact we value- everyone that drops into your site- we find something wonderful in all these words- that we can follow Edward Thomas and yes we get it and he turned our attention to something… we could have overlooked.

Now something in us echoes and way out here we hear him and what he says and are amazed. Not a little thing these days… really more important than I can even put in words. I think sometimes we overlook that echo in ourselves and that not everyone hears such things. We are preserving something quite wordless in words. Anyway after all that… thanks!

Bovey Belle said...

Ah, but it is WHY he chose to do that that still puzzles so many of us, but I think guilt played a large part.

I recently took a local walk along the Towy Valley, which I know he would have taken - imagine my pricked up ears when I read a few years back (sorry, mixed metaphors!) in his History of Wales that Nantgaredig was a place he knew - he would have gotten off the train there. I passed the little churchyard where one of his Martinez "cousins" is buried - not sure quite why she was parcelled off to this little village, but she was and spent most of her life here - and I felt so close to him. I saw flowers that must have gladdened his eye, and cottages he knew, and the mounting block by the church he may have sat on and certainly knew, with its warty old tree beside it.

I was born (years later) on the day he died so he is always in my thoughts then.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about Thomas. Naturally, each of us feels a connection with the poets who most strongly resonate with us, but it seems that, for many people, there is a bit of added emotion and affection when it comes to Thomas. Which is unexplainable and best left unexplained. But it shows in which lines of his become favorites for each of us.

Thank you for sharing Lewis's poem, which is lovely. It appears in the Elected Friends volume that I mentioned in the post (along with another poem by him you no doubt know: "All Day It Has Rained"), and I read it long ago when I purchased the book, so I appreciate your posting it here. The final line ("that hinted land") makes me think of de la Mare's "had not death so lured you on."

It is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Bovey Belle said...

Mr Pentz. http://dustonthenettles.blogspot.co.uk/ I disremembered the name yesterday! Here is a post which may interest you personally.

Stephen Pentz said...

James: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts. I completely agree with you that there is so much that "we take for granted." My humble goal each day (and each day I fail, in small ways and in large ways) is to be grateful for everything that the World freely gives us. As you say, it is a matter of "turn[ing] our attention to something we could have overlooked." I think this is one of the reasons (perhaps the main reason) I love poetry so much. This blog represents my own effort to compel myself to pay attention to what is truly important. I fail, and fail again, but we each have to make the effort.

Finally: there is absolutely NO reason for you to feel "ashamed" for not knowing of Edward Thomas until now! I am in my sixth decade on Earth, and I am still discovering new poets and writers who are important to me. This is a case in which the old saw applies: "Better late than never." Consider this: Edward Thomas wrote all of his poems in a period of roughly two years. Think of how much we can learn, and accomplish, in even a day. I am grateful that, by pure chance, I was able to be the avenue by which you met Thomas. From this point forward, I hope that he will enrich your life, as he has mine.

Again, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, and for visiting. Please return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for your follow-up comments, and for the link to your E.T. blog. I have visited there in the past, and your lovely photographs have helped me to get a better feeling for the places he spent time in.

As for "why" he went. As I'm sure you know, some have argued that the incident he and Frost had with the gamekeeper may have played a part. (See, for example, John Evangelist Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (1988), pages 199-202.) I once read an article that claimed that Frost's depiction of Thomas in "The Road Not Taken" is what provoked him to enlist.

However, I think de la Mare suggests something in his phrase: "had not death so lured you on." In this regard, I think of something that Frost is quoted as saying (although we must take into account that Frost was often guilty of making offhand statements that have an element of insensitivity, even cruelty, to them): "I had a friend who died in the First World War -- a poet, he went out to die -- left his family and all that, children and all, and went out to die." Ibid, page 204.

But we'll never know.

Thanks again for the additional thoughts.

Denise Hay said...

Such wonderful poetry Stephen. Thank you so much. Like John Ashton I know Thomas primarily through the poem 'Sowing'. We had to learn poetry by heart in my school days. Children no longer do so and are the poorer for it. Some fifty years later I still can recite 'sowing' and other poems too including a wonderful poem called, I think, 'Foxgloves'. It began 'how they were magical, those early days, when as in a dream we wandered down the wood's noon candled ways and came across you, haunting a warm stream.' I have forgotten the author and hoped you might know? Your wonderful posts are very precious to me.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you liked the poems.

Yes, it is unfortunate that learning poetry by heart has (to my knowledge) virtually disappeared from schools. As for "Foxgloves," it is new to me, and I don't know who wrote it. However, I did a bit of internet research, and found it in an anthology titled A Book of Pleasures, which was edited by John Hadfield, and published in the UK in 1960. The book is available on the Internet Archive, and the poem can be found on page 54. Unfortunately, unlike the other selections in the anthology, no author is identified for the poem.

Thank you for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Denise Hay said...

Thank you Stephen! I have found it on the archive. I do in fact have A Book of Love and a Book of Beauty. They are wonderful books and I was unaware of the others. I remember the poem 'Foxgloves' word for word. Curious the author is not named.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: I'm impressed that you still remember the poem! By the way, after posting my initial response to your first comment, I did further research on John Hadfield, and discovered that he was the long-time editor of "The Saturday Book." This helps to explain his penchant for putting together anthologies -- it was his line of work.

So, the author of "Foxgloves" remains "Anonymous" for now. Which is perfectly fine: some of my favorite poems from English poetry prior to the 18th century are by "Anonymous." As I am wont to say: "It is the poem that matters, not the poet."

Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking much about Edward Thomas since the 9th. It is also our first week of spring in New York City.
I was aware of Thomas since childhood, also from "Adlestrop". A close friend gave me "The Poems of Edward Thomas" when it was published by Handsel Books in 2003. It has a fine introduction by Peter Sacks -- I wonder if you have read it? I'm now rereading the introduction, then turning to each poem Sacks mentions. Today I read "Words". I didn't remember it, but now I will. Have you ever written about "Words" in First Known? It might be a good poem of his to write about someday.
Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your thoughts on Edward Thomas. I haven't seen Sacks's edition of Thomas's poems, so I haven't seen the introduction. Thank you for the recommendation -- I'll try to track it down.

Searching back, I cannot find any posting (or discussion) of "Words" here. It is lovely, isn't it? As I'm sure you've noticed, it is followed immediately by "The Word": "Words" was written on June 26-28, 1915; "The Word" was written a week later on July 5. Hence, I've always associated the last phrase in "The Word" -- "a pure thrush word" -- with his contemplation in "Words." Thomas was, as you know, always in search of something just beyond his reach (aren't we all?). In this connection, "The Unknown Bird" comes to mind as well.

As always, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that all is well, and that you are enjoying the spring.