Monday, 25 November 2013


I began by reading some poems which give a view of what sort of a poet Edward Thomas is. 

In the first session we looked at personal poems which showed the way in which Thomas looks at at nature but at the same time into himself,  poems in which looking stopping at Adlestrop and hearing the birds,  or  reflecting on the smell of a plant,  give rise to an epiphany, a moment of insight.   Often these moments move beyond what we can easily capture in an explicit summary, and that’s exactly the idea the poems convey.   Often it seems, also, as if what Thomas perceives is something to do with poetic insight as such.    The Aspens become the poet.

In the second session we looked at some more philosophical poems in which Thomas investigates.  In The Other he begins a quest for who is other self is,  or is it his ‘real’ self, and finds again the other is elusive, as elusive as the ‘meaning’ of the scent of Old Man or the station name, Adlestrop.     In The Other we see a darker side of Thomas,  what he calls his ‘melancholy’ and yet in the central section of The Other when he is out on the road in the dark,  he finds a kind of solace in that melancholy, a harmony also with the natural world around him.   In Lob there is a parallel search, but this time looking outwards and backwards to the ‘Englishness’ he finds around him, and in which his quest for himself is resolved by being dissolved into the landscape and its mythologies themselves.

Then in the third session we looked at some poems which are more directly show Thomas’s thoughts about the war, although of course the war looms in the background of all his poems, and it’s often possible see war anxieties in poems which on the surface having nothing to do with the war.  We can see Adlestrop, for example, as the savouring of English countryside by someone about the risk his life.   In this poems impinging on war, we see a relatively more open structure at least to some of the poems.   This is no Case of Petty Right and Wrong is even polemic, and the narrative shape of As the Team’s Brass ends with an implied sense of the end of an ear, a way of life, with the mechanistic implements of death and the future just across the Channel.   Then with The Rain we get a return to the ‘melancholy’ of The Other but now written from inside an army hut,  and contemplating not only lovelessness, but also death.   

In Bob’s Lane, there’s the sense of the English landscape, and at the same time  a return to a concern with names,  the name being all that’s left to celebrate the man,  and his life shown as in a sense self-destructive, and at the same time loving of women, horses, whatever’s alive.   It’s not difficult to see the wan lane title as a kind of epitaph for Bob not altogether unlike a memorial.   And Tall Nettles is again mysterious in its celebrating of what to many is plant the least obviously worthy of celebrating.    And in No One So Much as You,   there’s again a kind of celebration, a celebration also  of the poet’s sense of  his own unworthiness, or inability to love, coming back to the melancholy of Rain.   

In the fourth session I’ll try to do two things:  first develop the overall view of Thomas by looking at some poems you’ve asked to discuss;  second – and to some extent at the same time -  look at some more of Thomas’s last poems, written when he had enlisted, particularly poems which assert the idea of poetic insight as both beauty and a kind of joy in being, melancholy as that is.   With both these groups of poems I’ll try to bring out Thomas’s concern with a few, to him, ‘basic’ themes.   These are:

Identity, memory, extinction
England and Nature
Poetry, meaninglessness, beauty
Quests,  journeys, paths and ‘roads’

Manor Farm (1914)
We begin with the season, the unfreezing which releases roadside streams, but immediately this is complicated by personification.  The Earth wants to have her ‘sleep out’.   He’s thinking himself into the earth as a sleeper who doesn’t want to be disturbed by the thaw.   The silence of the stream ‘respects’ the sun’s sleep, and is as it were ignored, just as for the poet it is not valued, even though at the same time he’s noticed its ‘gilding beam’, how it catches the light from that very ignoring sun.  It’s a triviality a ‘pretty February thing’.   Or so it is until he reaches the farm, and here is a traditional English village with church and yew-tree (emblematic of death and graveyards).     But these too sleep and the air ‘raised not a straw’.   As in Adlestrop with the clearing of the throat, the idea of stillness is suggested by the lack of a straw being raised, and in a moment the silence itself by the single swishing tails of the horses to send off the fly.  The quiet of the sun is expressed as entertaining the sun as a welcome visitor.   And then just the horses and the ‘solitary fly’

The idea of the quiet is then personified against as if Winter were a contented drinker, who had ‘drained/ Spring, Summer and Autumn at a draught/And smiled quietly.

But now a turn in the flow of ideas.  Everything has so far been consonant with the quiet of the winter sun.   But, in fact, it’s NOT winter, but ‘bliss unchangeable’ .    Previously all had been in suspension.  We were ready for some sort of normal interruption – a dog’s bark, a door opening, a cart coming – but THAT sort of silence is an image of something deeper and older, the SILENCE of the past,

‘the farm and church where it had lain
Safe under file and thatch for ages since
This England, Old already, was called Merry.’

Merry?   Perhaps because that’s the traditional happy word for it, and also echoing back to the quiet content of the ale quaffing Winter just mentioned.
The England has been safe for ages,  old already,  always been there,  a kind of substratum below any actual winter or sun.

The substratum goes on, has no perceivable time, and by implication outlives the temporary present in which he’s looking at it.   The sense of identity he reaches can be compared to his feeling like ‘an old inhabitant on earth’ in The Other.

The village church and farm (not the in, though, except by implication with Winter’s draft) here emphasise the sense of place which is so strong in Lob

The poetry is the way into understanding this,  the beauty which makes up the imagery of the ‘gilding beam’ and so on, are the alerting through the sense of beauty to something permanent

He is walking or cycling and going along the road, and thus he is led to this place, and hence to his epiphany.   He is led also through time, out of time, reminding us of the memory poems such as Lad’s Love where the eternal was much less comforting

Anything about ‘England’ implies a defence, a set of values, for which Thomas is about to enlist.

Beauty (1915?)
The bitterness brings back Thomas’s melancholy, the sense of lack of love and being able to live we saw in Rain and No One but You and perhaps in another way in The Other.   His epitaph is depressing, cynically satisfying to him.  As in The Other the loss of self love becomes a kind of ‘desire of desire’ itself, perhaps the kind of love that comes with his poetry, the love of saying that.    And something of him, unlike the cold river, ‘floats through a window’.  Whatever that is, not his body to be buried, lifts out of him and ‘There I find my rest’, at dusk.  Is ‘at dusk’ significant.   Beauty is ‘there’, not in him when that floating spirit is.  Beauty is someone an extension of him, almost an alter-ego he can, like a spirit, enter into.   Interesting that he rejects the complaining pewit, but thinks of his spirit as a ‘dove’, as in No One So Much as You, where he feels guilty about that kind of refuge taking.

The spirit goes on another quest and finds its satisfaction in nature.   The date of this poem is not certain, but probably it was written just before his enlistment in July 1916

Roads (1916)
He opens with a declaration of his love for roads.  So many of the poems describe roads or journeys.  But he immediately become mythic, and sees roads as presided over by goddesses.   The theme of extinction comes in the second stanza, the idea of memory we’ve seen in Old Man and other poems.   He personifies the roads as being lonely when men sleep, needing the traveller, the traveller through life, of course, but of course now, the soldier for whom ‘All roads lead to France’, a direct reference to the war, the road

                ‘heavy with the tread
                Of the living;  but the dead
                Returning lightly dance’

The roads are ‘company’ for the poet, and outlive the ‘brief’ multitude’ of the towns.   

So in this poem Thomas combines the theme of roads and travel, of extinction, the English and Welsh landscape.

The Green Roads
Still on the theme of roads, now Thomas moves away from direct concern with the war,  and into a mythical landscape in which the green roads lead into the forest where they end, an image of death and/or memory.   At the centre of the forest is the oak, like a castle keep, which is nevertheless dead, having seen the ages pass, the memories – as so often in Thomas – now lost.    But now, as in Beauty there’s a surprising turn.  He remembers.  How?  Well, perhaps not directly, but through his poet’s sense of the brittle poise of time, of now.  Like the birds of Gloucestershire, the sun in Nothing Like the Sun.   Here it’s the thrush who repeats his song.

The Gallows
This grim poem can obviously be seen as refracting the war atrocities.  In fact it was written for his daughter, Myfanwy.  Indeed it has some of the dream horror of fairy tales, and it reflects Thomas’s concern with the silence of death.   The weasel hangs ‘without pleasure, without pain’,  the crow has ‘no more sins to be sinned’,  the beasts in general ‘swing and have endless leisure’.  It’s easy to see this as both a macabre children’s poem, and a macabre anticipation of war.

Lights Out
This poem is a very frank facing of death, again symbolised by the forest, which is unfathomably deep.   He’s very clear about his lack of choice here, and the way death puts things into perspective

Here love ends –
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter
Here ends, in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble’

Here is where the will lose his way and himself.

Characteristically Thomas doesn’t mention the war explicitly here.  And the war, of course, reinforces and makes more urgent, concerns he seems always to have had.

The Long Small Room

This poem again makes use of rural myth, a house in the woods.    The poem skilfully builds up a sense of things not know, even though witnessed by the mouse and the sparrow – nature.   In the first stanza no-one knows why such a room might have been build.  In the second we cannot know what the sparrows and mouse saw.  In the third stanza he himself becomes these witnesses who have reported nothing,   he know the writer putting this down with his hack’s right hand.   And in fourth stanza we see only the writer’s hand and the empty white page.  It is only in the last line that the poem ‘turns’.    There is a moment of beauty – as if that’s all that really matters of what has been seen, and still can be.  We come back to the theme of poetry and beauty in spite of our loss of the past and ourselves.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


We’ve seen Edward Thomas as lyricist, as in the moment of insight at Adlestrop.  But connected to this is the Edward Thomas of memory – the untraceable scent of Lad’s Love.   In both of these we’ve seen a way of focusing on names, which like the scent are there and yet their meaning is not ‘in’ them.

Connected in turn to this we’ve seen the Edward Thomas of speaking,  the mystical speech of the Aspens implicitly connected to the speech traditionally breathed into the poet by the Muse.

And in all of these, there’s the Edward Thomas of ‘nature’, the English countryside which provides a kind of ‘meaning’ for all the words, though not an easily definable meaning,  a meaning more in the sense of ‘the meaning of life’ than ‘the meaning of the word’.   A meaning always just beyond the words, the senses, the fingertips.

In The Other, the attempt to run down a meaning, in the sense of ‘who am I’, proves ambiguous.   The Other is finally discovered, or rather discovers Thomas, only to reject him, and at the same time confirm Thomas’s dependence on him,  rather as the mind depends upon the brain or the body for its  life.   In this poem Thomas briefly finds a kind of solace in his own solitude, his sense that there is a kind of oneness in nature, in which he can take part, ‘melancholy’ as that is – a mixture of belonging and solitude, which mirrors his relationship to his ‘other’ self.

And then in Lob, he approaches the same theme of belonging of selfhood in a different way, seeing the ‘other’ -  in the form of Lob, who has been left behind and can’t be found again -  as inhabiting earth,   naming the earth, being dissolved in it as he had been in the scent and the endless past in Old Man.
In The Other for a moment he found himself as ‘ an old inhabitant of earth’, now he founds a different kind of alter ego who is an inhabitant of earth too, indeed a part of it,  and a naming of it,  an intuitive even anti-intellectual familiar of the southern English landscape,  a presence with many different names, and who doesn’t exist in ordinary time.    The difference, I see, between The Other and Lob is the relative optimism of the latter.   The Other is lonely, facing the essential solitude of the individual;   Lob is a kind of dispersal of that solitude through a kind of love, what we call ‘love of nature’, and indeed like human love in the same that it involves a loss of the boundaries of ‘I’.

It’s this ‘love’ that Thomas comes to defend in This is no Petty Case of Right and Wrong.   This poem is a departure from what we’ve read before in the sense that it is polemical.   It draws on the feeling for England shown in Lob, Adelstrop, and other poems about landscape and creatures but it focuses on the issue of patriotism,  and what they means to him.  Not flag waving and hatred  of the Kaiser,  and nothing to do with what he sees as empty propaganda which to use might seem ‘tabloid’ in tone.  The arguments anyway don’t mean much more to him that the storm and the wind.   The landscape and history of such as Lob is at risk, perhaps already destroyed and what will rise out of the ashes is unpredictable. 
 ‘I am one crying, God save ~England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust.’

He is in effect defining himself, and himself  within Lob and the birds of Gloucestershire.

Thomas sees the context of this war more thoughtfully in As the Team’s Head-Brass, where he approaches it through narrative and in the dialogue of a farmer and himself agonising as to whether to join the army – which he need not do at the age of 37.   The fallen elm, the shrinking area of crop to be cut, the circling of the  plough and horses,  the anecdote about the dead man, all  suggest ideas of destruction, change, need to make a decision.

This poem is less introspective,  or less directly introspective, than The Other, or Aspens, or Adlestrop, and is a narrative poem in which emotions and thoughts are hinted at rather than explored.  The lovers are there in the poem but without comment.   They may suggest Hardy’s poem about the war, In Times of the Breaking of Nations, where the lovers’ preoccupation are seen as eternal compared to the temporary war.  

And the final line with it’s carefully judge  assonance and consonance may remind us of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Follower, about his relation to his father ploughing.

There’s Nothing Like the Sun and Rain deal with the sense of death.  In Rain , written in an army hut, the focus is on ‘Remembering again that I shall die’,  but  There’s Nothing Like the Sun emphasises both the overall embracing fealty of the sun and at the same time the relative unimportance of human beings, as the list in the third lines shows.  The sun is kind of ‘stones and men and birds and beasts and flies’,   and he goes on to give a sense of the wonder of being alive, the wonder of seeing experience things -  somewhere near Wordsworthian in tone, and yet it homes in on the idea of the finality of death.  He draws on the often express relation between our love of life and awareness of its shortness.

Tall Nettles is a mysterious poem, and in reading it we need to think about its reference to the meaning of the rundown farmyard, which may not be so just because the men have gone off to war.  After all I’s been in this state’ these many springs’.   And Thomas’s love of the nettles ‘as well as any bloom upon a flower’  is connected in his mind with the dust they get covered with, and which the rain removes showing ‘the sweetness of a shower’.
There is perhaps a parallel between his sense of life against death in There’s Nothing Like the Sun, and the way dust on a nettle makes us the more aware of its freshness when washed by rain.


William Shakespeare:  Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.


My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow round the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

ONLY a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013



This is a poem about the poet’s mind, but not ‘the mind of a poet’.   It traces his realisation that he has an alter-ego, which  appears in the communal sphere, mainly to other people.   The poem has two kinds of setting. 

The first is  the natural one exemplified by the forest,  the empty road, and the night landscape in stanza 7.   This is a solitary space where the poet feels both his customary ‘melancholy’ as he calls it, and at the same time a sense of belonging, ‘an old inhabitant of earth’.  

The second setting is the convivial public one of the inn.  This is where he becomes aware that he has a double, and that the double is in the drinkers’ view, preferable to him.   Here he talks to people but can’t communicate sufficiently to get much information about the double except  ‘ he was like me in general’ but ‘He had pleased them less’.

Once he has come out of the forest and into the inn, from private to public,  and discovered his other,  he begins on a quest for him.   The poem as a whole is a quest.   He calls at other inns and gets very little help from people who seem boorish to him, or children who sense ‘I had a purpose’ and because of that clam up.   Eventually, as always in Edward Thomas, ‘I sought then in solitude’.

The presence of the other frightens him, but he has a compulsion to search for him, and from what the inn people have said, ‘I learnt his road’, Thomas says with some ambiguity.  His search is for himself,  ‘to watch until myself I knew’, and he draws on the doppelgänger myth.  There’s a kind of parallel, for example, between this poem’s narrative and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Conrad’s  The Secret Sharer.   After his first realisation at the first inn he reflects in ways which are difficult to follow.  He is following ‘the unseen moving goal’ of his ‘real’ self,  and finds nothing, ‘but remedies/For all desire’.   What would they be.  Possibly suicide.  It seems that he overcomes the desire for suicide by finding another kind of ‘reason for living’, a ‘Desire of desire’.  The obsessiveness of his quest overcomes his melancholy and his despair, and ‘I quite forgot I could forget’, he says, perhaps meaning that his mind was all the more focussed on the quest (thought this passage, I find very difficult to interpret).

He is not pushed further into despair by his lack of success in finding the Other at the second inn mentioned.   It resolves him to search in solitude.

There are three stanzas – 7, 8 and 9 -   where Thomas describes a semi mystical experience of solitary oneness with the dark, of his sense of existence is ‘an everlasting lease’  -   that is  something somehow lent to him at a price for ever -   and mentions his melancholy (depression).   His melancholy although it is at first sight the opposite of happiness, has its own kind of dark joy, perhaps.

Then there’s a crisis in the story when he comes out of his solitude, and actually encounters the Other in an Inn.   Unexpectedly the Other then approaches him and challenges him for running after him all the time as if he were ‘under a ban’.  Poor Thomas is dumbstruck and ‘slipped away’ and the poem ends with his following his Other at a distance, ‘dreading his frown and worse his laughter’. He waits for him at the edge of the wood, waiting for ‘his flight’, then following him.   And he feels that when the Other ceases, so will he – as in other Dopplegänger  tales.

Thomas, at the end, is waiting where he sees ‘the swift shoot from the rafter/by the inn door, and where he can hear ‘the starlings wheeze/And nibble like ducks’.  That is he is neither in the forest where we began, nor in the inn.  And the poem itself is all about uncertainty –uncertainty as to where Thomas feels he belongs, who he is,  what his quest is.

This can be seen as a delineation of his psychology as such, and also as his sense of where a poet lives.   In Aspens he sees the poet as beneath everything else, there and yet not always heard.   In Adelstrop he seems to be carried out of himself into the landscape by the song of the thrush and the ‘unwonted’ stopping – such as poets do.   In Old Man he is somewhere between the future past of the girl, and his own very uncertain memory.   It was Keats who claimed that a poet is someone capable of ‘being in uncertainties’

Keats wrote, in a letter to Dilke about what he called ‘negative capability’
‘that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ and how ‘with a great poem the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consider, or rather obliterates all consideration’.

The Other, perhaps, represents Thomas’s early finding of himself as a poet, finding himself in being a poet, and coming to realise that the essential ‘him’ is not to be found, and indeed for a poet may be a hindrance to the loss of self required to write poetry.  That is why the Other shuns him.  His desire to write cannot be a desire to pin down things, least of all himself, although it is that question (to find how to be a poet) that occupies him.   Perhaps he desires, that is, to be other.[1]

[1] Worth recalling perhaps that Ted Hughes once said that his interest in animals was to do with their being ‘other’.