NOTES ON EDWARD THOMAS 20-11-13
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.
SOME RELATED POEMS
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.
SEAMUS HEANEY: FOLLOWER
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.