A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas: A Portrait
Edward Thomas belongs to an odd class of poet—the disappointed, dispossessed ones, who unexpectedly realize their hidden gifts as a result of some external pressure. If A.E. Housman had not fallen in love with a fellow undergraduate called Moses Jackson he would almost certainly never have written the poems that make up A Shropshire Lad; and had he not heard of Jackson’s death many years later the further series called Last Poems would not have poured from his pen. Thomas’s case is not so dramatic as that, but it is recognizably the same.
His true personality and voice were not the ones he supposed he had, even wanted to have. He was born in fairly humble circumstances, the son of a schoolmaster who became a well-known socialist and polemicist. The pair were not at all mutually congenial. Young Thomas was no Jude the Obscure, but he yearned naturally for the kind of new life—the life of cottage culture and emancipated relationships—that seemed to offer itself around 1900 to the idealistic young. A classier version of the same ethos was already being practiced in Bloomsbury. Thomas managed to get to Oxford where he did not do well academically. While still almost a schoolboy he had met Helen Noble, the daughter of family friends, and she began to exercise in his life the kind of influence that Miriam did for young Paul in Sons and Lovers. In the course of an idyllic hike through the Oxfordshire countryside a child was conceived. That was all fine, and in accordance with the middle-class sexual mores of the new century, but Hardy, raised in an epoch of more worldly pessimism, would have smiled grimly at the prospects it implied.
The trouble—ironically enough—was the opposite of that in Jude the Obscure. Helen was the perfect partner for the sort of man Thomas supposed he was, and that she initially supposed he was. In any case she possessed the wonderfully equable temperament that comes serenely through any amount of estrangement on the part of a difficult spouse. As her autobiographical recollections, As It Was and World Without End, make clear, she never faltered either in love or in confidence. Neither did Thomas seem all that difficult: less so, probably, than most young men of his type. They were poor, but he had shown that he could earn their living by journalism and reviewing, comparatively a quite highly paid profession in those days. They seemed set for a tranquil life of domestic order and cottage industry.
Of course it did not work out that way. Thomas worked hard; wrote an immense amount—criticism, essays, hundreds of pieces on the beauty of the English countryside, the subject so fashionable at the time. He earned a respectable amount. They had two nice children. But all this was dust and ashes where the unknown poet in him was concerned. He suffered increasingly from fits of black depression. A grainy photograph reproduced in R …