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. George Thomas’s admirably detailed biography, and duplicated on the cover, shows his handsome half-profile and fine eyes set in a concentration of misery so deep as to be almost frightening, as it must have frightened whoever held the camera. Who was it? The picture seems posed, the sitter not entirely indifferent to the portrait he made, and yet sunk beyond any ordinary comfortable sort of conceit; though one notices he always turned the same right profile to the camera in all the photos reproduced. The one of him in despair makes a striking contrast with a photograph of the young Robert Frost, just after he had arrived in England.
With A Boy’s Will and North of Boston already behind him Frost looks entirely pleased with himself, his poetry, his status, and his future. He was the opposite kind of poet, who had found himself early and completely. It used to be debated whether he received more from Thomas than he gave, in poetic imponderables. Thomas’s biographer, who has also done a superlative edition of his poems, makes it clear, I think, and with all the unassuming authority of his scholarship, that the debt was wholly on Thomas’s side. It was no Wordsworth-and-Coleridge relationship. Thomas found he could unburden himself entirely to Frost, whose sympathy and intuition were amazing (he later offered to take Thomas’s son Merfyn, with whom his father had been unable to get on, back to America with him). Apart from this service to morale Frost showed Thomas what he could do with his feeling for locality, a feeling which up till then had only found a fairly commonplace Georgian utterance in essays, descriptive sketches, a biography of Richard Jefferies. But “A Nature Note” could become something else, something which a trick of eye or of style could turn into a new sort of poetry. Thomas, already a thorough professional and craftsman, was well aware of this, as a letter to Frost shows.
Sometimes brief unstrained impressions of things lately seen, like a drover with six newly shorn sheep in a line across a cool woody road on a market morning and me looking back to envy him and him looking back at me for some reason which I can’t speculate on. Is this North of Bostonism?
It was, in a sense; but Thomas was to use it much more diffidently and intimately, to discover the inscape of a self previously unexpressed—on the verge of, but prevented from, inventing itself in art—rather than to bring an already confident self to the shaping of new perceptions. Thomas was to write some poems, like “Up in the Wind,” which are almost imitations of Frost stories, but one cannot imagine him striking that exquisitely comfortable Frost note of self-assurance which is so memorable in swinging the birches, or stopping by woods on a snowy evening, or seeing a crow shake snow off a branch, or having a lover’s quarrel with the world. Thomas is more like Housman in discovering an idiom of reticence to reveal himself completely.
It is the reticence that gives interest to what is revealed: that, and the reader’s awareness that it could only have been done in this new-found poetry, poetry which “began to run,” in R. George Thomas’s felicitous phrase, specifically for this purpose. Thomas had always been a direct and sensitive critic of his contemporaries’ poetry, on which he had written innumerable newspaper reviews, but there is a new note of eagerness and excitement in what he wrote in July 1914 about the English edition of North of Boston. He calls it “one of the most revolutionary books of modern times,” and after praising especially “The Wood Pile” and “The Death of the Hired Man” ends with the deceptively simple comment that this “is poetry because it is better than prose,” a phrase which exactly describes what he wanted from the poetry that he himself was on the verge of writing.
Frost is the greater poet, as Thomas himself would have been the first to recognize. Had he survived the war, instead of being killed by a shell at Arras in 1917, Thomas would have written more no doubt, but would not have increased his reputation, might even have diminished it. Frost had inspired him, by making the critic in him see what the poet might do. But the best of his poems are quite unlike Frost’s, and there are not many of them: indeed to revisit his collected poems is to be aware of a sense of disappointment that they are so few. Those that depend too much on “A Nature Note,” and Frost’s own rhythms, have not worn well. The war itself was the more potent factor in bringing the true Thomas into being. It sharpened and distanced the material he used, and gave him, as it gave so many others, a new and decisive role to play in life. The photograph of him as a gunner officer, about to leave for France, shows a new and mature man who has found himself, and revisits only in his poetry the days when he contemplated suicide, despaired of his future, strove to escape the bonds of his family.
A soldierly personality embodied the Housman side of Thomas. It is instructive to learn, too, that while he was an undergraduate and his wife was expecting their first child, he fell in love with a handsome fellow student. “And all this,” his notebook records, “about a boy—with abundant black hair, pale, clear face, piercing and frank grey eyes, red lips and a boyish voice! Some people made indecent suggestions to explain my liking, suggestions which I trust he will never hear.”
The reader of Thomas’s poetry was never to hear it either, except very obscurely, in the depth of his most individual poetic effect, his sense of obscure guilt, and of a yearning for distance, silence, and oblivion. This haunting quality, an elusive sense of personality fulfilled in its own disappearance, is Thomas’s special trademark. We hear it in poems like “It rains” and “Tall Nettles” (nettles are another Housman motif) and in “Lights Out”:
The tall forest towers:
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf:
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
“Old Man” is one of the few poems in which the Frost manner and meter are used with complete individuality by Thomas, a strange poem about “The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,” known as Old Man or Lad’s love. The poet sniffs its elusive scent and can think of nothing it reminds him of.
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
The same poetry of longings and extinctions, a theme that was as traditional to Shelley or to Hardy as it would be to Larkin, makes an incongruous appearance even in the famous “Adlestrop.”
Yes, I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
All too famous anthology piece as it is, it illustrates better than any other poem the way in which Thomas used and transformed, to his own obscure purpose, the comfortable archness of the Georgians, their often self-congratulatory rural reveries, and the meditative phonetic skills of Robert Frost, who in a letter to a friend had written: “I give you a new definition of a sentence…. It is a sound in itself.” The sentences of the poem illustrate this, from “the sound in itself” of the first word. The third stanza with its pseudoarchaism (“No whit less still”) might have been written by any Georgian poet among Thomas’s friends, but it serves perfectly to set off the mysterious ending, the bird song receding, as it were, into Thomas’s own being, and “farther and farther” into the dark perspective in which so many of his best poems end, the unknown counties of his mind. It is a very secret poem, masquerading as a very simple and open one, a combination somehow typical of Thomas’s brief and new-found personality as a poet.
But of course it is also a very sober and exact poem. Thomas, like Hardy, was a man “who used to notice such things”—in this case the phenomenon of a bird singing in a sudden man-made silence, and the effect of receding part song as each bird strikes up to vie with others closer or farther off. He used to notice things, too, in his capacity as reviewer. The mostly short pieces in A Language Not to be Betrayed (the phrase is Thomas’s own) show what a good critic he was, though they have dated as his poetry has not. To earn his living Thomas deliberately subdued his hand to the idiom of the age, and wrote as other reviewers did. Edna Longley has arranged the extracts well, and has made a telling connection by putting a review of the Imagists’ anthology, containing poems by Pound, Joyce, HD, Richard Aldington, and Ford Madox Ford, next to the pieces on Frost.
The result shows that there were two distinct new techniques, around 1914, for writing poetry that was “better than prose”—a phrase that Pound himself might have used—and that the Imagist way preferred, as Thomas put it, to avoid “the commonplaces of verse” by sounding like a translation. “Mr. Pound, again, has seldom done better than here under the restraint imposed by Chinese originals or models.” Thomas had found a different way of avoiding the commonplace: by becoming in his poetry the sort of man he really was.