Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Edward Thomas probably wrote more words in his lifetime than any of the other Dymock Poets - or so it seems from his voluminous output. But until November 1914, when he was 36 and a half years old, he was the only Dymock Poet who had not written any poetry. One can’t help wondering if he felt like the odd man out, especially when living near Frost, Gibson and Abercrombie during August 1914.
Thomas was a respected biographer and literary critic at the beginning of the century, but he always complained about the financial pressure he was under to produce a constant stream of books and articles. William Cooke estimates that between 1905 and 1915 “he wrote twenty-two books of prose and more than a million words in articles and reviews.” In a letter to Gordon Bottomley in 1903, complaining about having so much work to do, he tries to make light of it: “Inkitas inkitatum. All is ink.” And in a 1911 letter to Harold Monro he wrote: “I have 3 books in hand to be done before the year’s end, have written 2 short ones already this year, & have just published one & am about to correct the proofs of another.”
Thomas knew, or knew of, all the Dymock Poets before he visited Frost at Leddington for the first time in April 1914. He had reviewed poetry by both Gibson and Abercrombie, and because he was so honest in his criticism, friction occasionally resulted when he did finally meet them. In 1908 Thomas had written that “Gibson long ago swamped his small delightful gift by his abundance.” Four years later Thomas wrote about Gibson’s Fires, Book I : “. . . he has been merely embellishing what would have been more effective as pieces of rough prose, extracts from a diary, or even a newspaper.” Thomas knew and liked Brooke, who visited him at the Thomas home in Steep, Hampshire, a couple of times, and Thomas made a return visit to Cambridge in 1910, staying with Brooke at the Orchard in Grantchester. Thomas was one of the six judges awarding Brooke a prize for the best poem in The Poetry Review in 1912 (although Thomas voted for Ralph Hodgson).
Thomas’s friendship with Frost makes his relationship with the other Dymock Poets pale almost into insignificance. But he was undoubtedly a welcome visitor at The Gallows. Recalling the many times he was in the area, Catherine Abercrombie said: “I think Edward was the most beautiful person I have ever seen. It was quite a shock on first meeting him unless one had been warned.” Elinor Frost, in June 1914, wrote to a friend: “Edward Thomas, who is a very well known critic and prose writer has been here with his two children and he is going to bring his whole family to lodge near us through August. Rob and I think everything of him. He is quite the most admirable and lovable man we have ever known.”
A great deal has been written about the remarkable similarities between Thomas and Frost, the close friendship that sprang up between them, the ideas they shared about language and poetic diction, and most of all Frost’s role in Thomas’s decision to start writing poetry. Here these matters can only be touched on, and interested readers who want to draw their own conclusions are referred to the bibliography.
It can be persuasively argued, for example, that Frost’s long talks with Thomas were instrumental in the latter’s beginning to write poetry at the end of 1914; but it can also be persuasively argued that other key influences were at work which made Thomas finally take the plunge. The war, for example, was important in two ways: there was no longer a market for Thomas’s prose work, which gave him more time and freedom to write what he wanted; and it intensified his love of England, a subject often dealt with in his prose but arguably more suitable to poetry. Gordon Bottomley, Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon had already raised with Thomas the idea of his writing poetry - but he had rejected the suggestion. What Frost seems to have given him was confidence, at just the right time.
There is a great deal of evidence that Thomas, long before he met Frost, had been thinking about the need for a change in poetic diction. Motion claims that “from the outset, his [book] reviews had argued that the language of poetry should be colloquial.” And R. George Thomas says he “had been the champion of ‘speech’ and ‘natural rhythm’ in poetry for over a decade” before meeting Frost. Thomas said as much to Frost, in May 1914, though in his usual self-effacing manner: “you really should start doing a book on speech and literature, or you will find me mistaking your ideas for mine and doing it myself. You can’t prevent me from making use of them; I do so daily. . . . However, my [book about] ‘Pater’ would show you I had got on to the scent already.”
In this same letter Thomas asks “whether you can imagine me taking to verse. If you can I might get over the feeling that it is impossible - which at once obliges your good nature to say ‘I can’.” Frost would have had many opportunities to tell Thomas ‘You can’ when they walked and talked their way around Leddington and Ryton, May Hill and the Malverns, during August 1914. The Thomas family rented rooms with Mr and Mrs Chandler, who lived at Old Fields, a farmhouse just a few meadows away from the Frosts at Little Iddens. Helen Thomas recalled, many years later in The Times , that “They were always together and when not exploring the country they sat in the shade of a tree smoking and talking endlessly of literature and of poetry in particular.” In fact, Thomas’s three reviews of Frost’s North of Boston in 1914 virtually set out a manifesto for contemporary poetry; to Frost it may have seemed only a matter of time until Thomas put some of these ideas into practice himself.
But Thomas didn’t take to verse until the end of the year. He wrote his first five poems between 3-7 December 1914; ‘March’ was one of them. He sent it with eight other poems to Frost, writing: “But I am in it and no mistake. . . . I find myself engrossed and conscious of a possible perfection as I never was in prose. . . . I have been rather pleased with some of the pieces. . . . Still, I won’t begin thanking you just yet, though if you like I will put it down now that you are the only begetter right enough.”
In this poem Thomas certainly paid heed to what Frost told a friend that he had told Thomas: that he was already writing poetry “but in prose form where it did not declare itself and gain him recognition. I referred him to paragraphs in his book In Pursuit of Spring and told him to write it in verse form in exactly the same cadence.” There are passages in the book indicating that Thomas did exactly that. The theme of ‘March’ recurs frequently in Thomas’s poetry: how to discover nature’s secret, and whether there are words adequate to express it.
‘Old Man’ , the fourth poem Thomas produced, was actually written in prose form three weeks earlier - again indicating that Frost’s advice was being taken seriously. Andrew Motion traces prose passages from both Thomas’s autobiography and from childhood memories in The South Country that contain sources for the poem. When Frost sent this and several other poems by Thomas to the editor of an American poetry magazine in January 1917, he wrote: “Here I sit admiring these beautiful poems but not daring to urge them on anyone else for fear I shall be suspected of admiring them for love of their author.” He concluded that “ ‘Old Man’ is the flower of the lot, isn’t it?”
Today critics often remark on how this early poem raises so many typical Thomas themes. “This sense of searching, of having mislaid the key,” says Jan Marsh, “is one of the central themes of Thomas’s life and work.” And Motion notes that “ ‘Old Man’ summarises every theme and technique that Thomas used in his pursuit of wholeness.”
‘The Combe’ , another early poem, has the distinction of being the first Thomas poem to be published. Frost’s talented daughter Lesley (age 14) had been producing a magazine with the help of her siblings. Although contributions were mainly by the children, ‘The Combe’ appeared in The Bouquet in April 1915. Again, Thomas relied on prose for inspiration, this time a passage about “wooded combes” in a book review he had written of Highways and Byways in Hampshire .
Thomas’s best known poem is probably ‘Adlestrop’ , describing those few moments when the train stopped unwontedly at this station in the Cotswolds. But few people realise that the train was taking Thomas to see Robert Frost, now living in a 17th-century cottage at Leddington. ‘Adlestrop’ also stemmed from Thomas’s prose, this time some jottings in the field notebook he always carried. In an entry for 23 June 1914 he noted the willows, the blackbirds’ song and the hiss of the engine when the train stopped at Adlestrop. He also noted the willow herb and meadowsweet when, later, the train stopped near Chipping Campden. For details on the background and subsequent influence of this poem, see Adlestrop Revisited by Anne Harvey.
In October 1914, and after a month of walking and talking with Frost in the Dymock countryside, Thomas wrote ‘This England’ , an essay for The Nation about what England meant to him. In it he expressed his love for his country by describing in some detail a hot summer spent in countryside around Hereford; an unnamed friend [Frost] lived nearby and they frequently went for walks. “If talk dwindled in the traversing of a big field, the pause at gate or stile braced it again. Often we prolonged the pause whether we actually sat or not, and we talked - of flowers, childhood, Shakespeare, women, England, the war. . . ” he wrote in ‘This England’ .
Nine months later ‘This England’ became the basis for his poem, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ . Like the essay, it contrasts a rural idyll with the threat of war and death. Writing to Eleanor Farjeon, who was typing a fair copy of the poem from his written manuscript, Thomas said: “As to Me and Frost, I mixed up 2 forms of the 2nd verse. The 3rd sentence should be: The to be/And the late past we gave small heed.” Perhaps this poem should be officially retitled in future Thomas collections as ‘Me and Frost’ ! More seriously, though, it should be read alongside Frost’s ‘Iris by Night’ which is also about the walks they took together (see the section on Frost). An American professor, Jim Armstrong , has pointed out to me that the phrase “we two” appears at the beginning of both these poems.
Thomas wrote ‘Fifty Faggots’ on 13 May 1915, while doing research at the British Museum for his last book, a biography of Marlborough. This was three weeks after Rupert Brooke’s death. He sent the poem to Frost, explaining in a letter that it was “founded on carrying up 50 bunts (short faggots of thin and thick brushwood mixed) and putting them against our hedge.” He then asked if Frost thought the poem was “north of Boston only?” Thomas often used the title of Frost’s second volume of poetry this way, says R. George Thomas, as “shorthand for poems based on rural incidents presented in simulated colloquial language.” By comparing the poet’s future with that of the wood pile, the poem shows how the war was increasingly worrying Thomas.
In June 1915 Thomas had still not made up his mind whether to enlist (he was 37 years old and there was no pressure on him to do so) or to join Frost in New Hampshire. Merfyn, his teenage son, had gone to America with the Frost family in February 1915 and was still there. On 22 July, writing to tell Frost that he had decided to enlist instead, he said: “A month or two [ago] I dreamt we were walking near Leddington but we lost one another in a strange place and I woke saying to myself ‘Somehow someday I shall be here again’ which I made the last line of some verses.” This was ‘A Dream’ - a poem that he wrote two different versions of in June 1915. Of the 144 poems he wrote, only six are sonnets and only two of those are written in couplets; this is one of them.
Thomas wrote ‘Aspens’ in July 1915 and immediately sent it to Frost, with the letter containing the news that he had enlisted. Frost’s sensitive reply (“You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion.”) ends this way: “Your last poem Aspens seems the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home. I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.”
So subtle, on first reading, is the poet’s identification with the aspens that Eleanor Farjeon didn’t seem to understand what he was saying. He wrote to her, after doing six hours drill: “About ‘Aspens’ you missed just the turn that I thought essential. I was the aspen. ‘We’ meant the trees and I with my dejected shyness. Does that clear it up, or do you think in rereading it that I have not emphasised it enough?” Critics frequently compare the poem with Frost’s treatment of a similar subject in ‘The Sound of Trees’ (see the section on Frost), which Thomas would have seen as it was published in Poetry and Drama in December 1914.
Anyone who has ever tried to write prose or poetry will appreciate the sentiments expressed in Thomas’s lovely poem, ‘Words’ . The original manuscript has no title, but is headed “Hucclecote - on the road from Gloucester to Coventry.” In July 1915 Thomas visited John Haines who lived at Hucclecote, a village just outside Gloucester, before continuing on his journey north. Thomas wrote to Frost that they went “cycling about and talking of you.” Haines also recalled the visit: “A few days before he enlisted we bicycled out to May Hill. . . and all the way he mused, and I could note him musing as he asked me questions of the scarce flowers by the way, and whilst I botanised on the hill slopes he sat on the hill. . . composing the beautiful poem ‘Words’ , which he brought down completed for us at breakfast the next morning.”
As Cooke discusses in detail, Thomas had always been interested in the nature and use of words. This can be traced, for example, in his biographies of Jefferies, Maeterlinck, Swinburne and Pater. There is space here only for one of his more amusing comments, regarding Pater: “On almost every page of his writing words are to be seen sticking out, like the raisins that will get burnt on an ill-made cake. It is clear that they have been carefully chosen as the right and effective words, but they stick out because the labour of composition has become so self-conscious and mechanical. . . . ”
In the summer of 1915 Gordon Bottomley showed Lascelles Abercrombie and R.C. Trevelyan some copies of Thomas’s poems (Bottomley was one of the few people who knew Thomas was writing poetry), as the three of them were planning An Annual of New Poetry for publication. Abercrombie and Trevelyan agreed at once to include them. When Thomas heard that they wanted to publish his poems, he wrote to Bottomley: “I was keeping them rather secret. However I am so pleased at having Abercrombie’s liking that I should not dream of complaining.”
Thomas saw the proofs of this anthology while on military leave in December 1916; eighteen of his poems were being published under the pseudonym - Edward Eastaway - that he insisted on using. The Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book on 29 March 1917, and John Freeman immediately sent the review to him in France. A few days before his death on April 9, he would have read these words about his poetry: “He is a real poet, with the truth in him.”
But he never saw the published book, nor did he see Poems by Edward Eastaway published in July 1917. Thomas had given the completed manuscript for this volume to Roger Ingpen of the publishing firm of Selwyn and Blount. Ingpen was Walter de la Mare’s brother-in-law, and Thomas had met him in August 1916. Eckert, Thomas’s first biographer, says that “Mr Ingpen stated that Thomas gave him the manuscript of these poems just before leaving England for the Front. It is generally said that the book was in the press when Thomas was killed in France, 9 April 1917.” When Poems appeared, there was a dedication after the title page: “To Robert Frost”. This was the first book ever dedicated to him.
This text is from
Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology
by Linda Hart
ISBN 0 9526031 52 - Reprinted in 2011
(£6.95 from the Green Branch Press, Kencot, Gloucestershire, England GL7 3QX).
The book also includes most of the poems mentioned in the text above, a chapter introducing the Dymock Poets, two maps showing the Dymock area, and detailed references to all sources.