EDWARD THOMAS: SOME THINKING THROUGH
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.
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
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.
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.
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.