EDWARD THOMAS: A FEW MORE COMMENTS
The poems on this last handout are all in one way or another ‘intimate’, either addressed to loved ones, or about private feelings, especially about death. Which is not to say, of course, that quite a few of the previous poems we’ve looked at aren’t intimate also,
touches on his sense of ‘nationality’, but it’s a shared nationality with birds. It’s about a sense of belonging the peace of the ordinary. Thomas often shows an affinity, perhaps an empathy, with birds and he does here with the thrushes who aren’t quite sure when the day is done – and we can read other resonances into that. But he ends with an anonymous labourer who comes home only to start working again with his saw. But as often with Thomas opposites have a way of blending. The ‘sound of sawing rounded/All that silence said.’ Perhaps he’s think about how the meaning of things is defined not just by what they are but what they’re not, a point familiar to students of language who are taught that the meaning of the word is how it is NOT all the other words.
The poem in its fellow feeling for birds and labourer conveys a mixture of Thomas’s sense of solitariness and belonging.
In Memoriam (Easter 1915)
Thomas distinguished himself from the modernist ‘imagists’ led by Ezra Pound, yet some of his short poems have an effect similar to imagist poems. This poem is one sentence and one sentiment, but powerfully. The first line is very skilful in its use of ‘thick’ sounds to mime the flowers’ thickness. And although it seems a very straightforward statement at first sight, is very moving in the way it the the lushness of the flowers left ungathered as an image of what has not been done, a negative, to go with the ‘never again’ at the end. Their absence even so, he suggests, is a kind of beauty, ungathered, and so unspoilt.
Another one sentence image poem, again based on a negative – ‘what we below could not see’. The winter is passing, and the snow beginning to disperse – an image of hope, no doubt with the ‘winter’ of war in mind too. The rooks are detached enough to ‘speculate’ (on onomatopoeia too), and like craws associated as death’s black messengers. They can see more than we can, as the gods can. But the poem hangs because there is not indicate of what the rooms in fact see.
This is intimate in that, as it strikes me (and the poem’s not that easy to interpret) it begins with a memory of a person who has attained a mythical status in the child’s now man’s mind. Perhaps also she’s the muse. At first he’s lamenting her loss in the past, his past, and then he realises that she’s till there in the very flowers he associates her with, and so is both lost and found, past and present. He then celebrates the found person associated with, embodied in, the celandines. The idea of her being the muse, poetry itself, is suggested by the phrases ‘nature and name’ which is very like the title of A E Housman’s essay, The Name and Nature of Poetry. The celandine maiden from ‘February’s before’, his sense of sorrow in loss is wiped away; but then he sees his vision as ‘a dream’, ‘the flowers were not true’, perhaps placing them now in his imagination again, but he says they were not true ‘Until U stooped to pluck from the grass there/One of five petals ‘. When he does that, he implies, then they are true. They are true in the smell of the juice, and it’s this that projects back the sad memory that ‘she was no more’. He plays with what is and what is not, and the power now of a trace of then. The imprecision, the name or meaning of the memory is beautifully caught in the last line – ‘Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.’
Thomas is again playing with contraries. The gift he will give is nothing! To be her self is enough. So his gift is appreciation, love for her as she is - ‘her spectacled self with hair uncurled/ Wanting a thousand little things/That time without contentment brings. So he preaches a very old message in our culture, that wanting earthly things is never going to satisfy. Edward Thomas, I feel, didn’t write enough poems to and indirectly to other people.
IS a poem address to someone, to his wife, and at the same time is a confession and apology to her. This is clearest at the end when he offers himself ‘if I could find/Where it lay hidden and it proved kind’. But he also wants to give her the things he feels he has prevented, fulfilments, and abilities he has done something, perhaps, to stunt. He would ‘give you back yourself’ as if he has stolen it from her, as her endless patience suggests he had.
He imagines he has ‘an infinite great stare/Offered me’, that HE has been offered this store, as it were, to dispense. The implication, of course, is that he hasn’t got this store. Another self-criticism comes with his wish to make good
‘all you have lost/Upon the travelling waters tossed,/or given to me’.
The last line takes us back to Thomas’s ‘melancholy, perhaps depression and the unkindness it often expressed, but you also get a sense of his regret about that. It’s not just a wilful cruelty, but a loss of something in himself which ‘if I could find. . .’
He shows his observation here in images like ‘the great diamonds/of rain on the grassblades’ Again he shows this capacity to qualify. He’s not as happy as possible, but ‘nearly as happy as possibly, which is perhaps as far as he’s likely to get. And he’s happy to search. Searching is what matters, not what is found. And the searching, he says, is, ‘in vain’. We never quite get the meaning of the scent, the identity of the other. In the middle of the second stanza he moves into thoughts of ‘two walking’, perhaps himself an Helen, ‘forgetting the kisses of the rain’ in their own. And again there’s the regret about the past, ‘never again’, will he walk in the rain happy ‘unless alone’. Like the muse maiden in Celandine, the parsley flower is seen as a kind of ghost ‘suspended’ both in space and in memory/time, ‘hovering as it revisits the light’, as if it has come back from somewhere. We may remember the French word for ghost, ‘revenant’.
I Never Saw that Land Before
This poem again is about what is lost and then found in being lost. The landscape not visited before sounds like the landscape of early childhood, the one you see for the first time and as new, and this is celebrated. If we were to try to express this, ‘sing’ it as a poet, it would ‘not even whisper my soul,’ he says. And in the last stanza he portrays language (poetry) the non-linguistic sounds of nature. He sees himself as somewhere who can ‘answer’ the whispers of the trees, recalling perhaps the one-one he felt between himself as a poet and the whispers of the aspens.
What will they do?
He sees himself as dispensable. The world can do without him ‘as the rain/Can do without the flowers and the grass’ which it nourishes. He has seen ‘them’ in the street and they’ve passed. He then reverses his image of the rain able to do without the flowers, because he wonders perhaps it’s the rain, in fact, which thirsts ‘for a draught/Which only in the blossom’s chalice lies’.
And then he ends the poem with ‘one’ – one of ‘them’, perhaps’, turning back to laugh lightly, a suitable acknowledgement, perhaps.
Most of these poems are about the past and death, and how these are both in a sense in the present, and that’s what poetry allows us to see. Often his interweaving of ‘dimensions’ can make Thomas a difficult poet to follow – at least in the detailed ins and outs of his language. But he brings out a central idea about poetry and how it seeks to mean, that is, the way in which it both strains at the limits of language and yet does this within the limits of language.
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein talked in way that made me think of Thomas, when he responded to a comment by his friend Engelmann about a poem by Uhland. Wittgenstein write:
‘And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered!’ (Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, p 151)