Edward Thomas: Welsh poet, English traditions

Wednesday 28 March 2012, 11:15

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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When you think of Welsh poets, English language Welsh poets that is, your mind invariably turns to Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas. Possibly you might consider Alun Lewis, W H Davies or even Dannie Abse. But rarely do people think of Edward Thomas, a man who was born in London but who was, all his life, inordinately proud of his Welsh heritage.

War graves in Belgium

Edward Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras

Despite identifying so closely to Wales - he was, he said, five eighths Welsh, along with a small percentage that was Spanish and a tiny smattering of Wiltshire - Edward Thomas celebrated the English countryside so successfully that he is seen by many as the quintessential English nature poet.

More importantly he was also perhaps the most powerful of all the Great War poets - powerful not because he wrote about the war and the battles, but because his technique of consigning the momentous happenings in France to the fringes of his poems enables the reader to relate to the tragedy of the war as seen through the eyes and the emotions of the ordinary people left behind.

In the same way that Philip Larkin in his poem 1914 writes about gardens left tidy before the men enlist, Thomas' subject is the nettles covering the corner of the farm yard, the farm work left undone, the rusty plough and the men bemoaning their comrades lost in France. It is a hugely evocative and dramatic way to look at the effects of the war.

Edward Thomas was born on 3 March 1878 in the southern suburbs of London. His father, Philip Henry Thomas, was a Welsh speaker from Tredegar, a man with family connections right across south Wales. He had done well and risen in the ranks of the civil service but remained in close touch with his Welsh roots. The young Edward consequently spent many of his childhood holidays with family in various parts of Glamorganshire and the western counties.

The scenery of Wales and the legends of the country affected Thomas deeply. He wrote about them in various letters and in prose books such as Beautiful Wales and in his sole attempt at fiction, The Happy Go-Lucky Morgans. He would often sing to his children and to writer friends such as Eleanor Farjeon, old Welsh folk songs and was deeply conscious of the cadences of Welsh words. As he wrote:

"Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings."

After marrying Helen Noble and settling down to a difficult and often parlous life as a reviewer and hack writer, Thomas took the Welsh connection a stage further by naming his children Mervyn, Myfanwy and Bronwen.

Edward Thomas was a troubled and difficult man, a depressive who hated the thought of producing books to suit the whims of publishers and yet could really think of nothing else he would rather do. His wife and children suffered dreadfully, not knowing when Edward's moods would life him up into the emotional heights or plunge him deep into the depths of despair. Their life together was marked by rows, suicide attempts and long absences, yet they loved each other.

He came to poetry late, under the combined influences of American poet Robert Frost, the looming threat of war and a desire to achieve something in the world of literature before it was too late.

Nearly all of his poems were written in the three years between 1914 and his death in 1917. Sixteen of the 60-odd poems that later made up his collected works were produced in an incredible burst of creativity in just 20 days in January 1915.

Under the influence of war, of the threat of all he had ever loved and known being smashed away by the conflict, Edward Thomas became increasingly conscious of his Englishness. It was the word he used - perhaps, these days, we would say Britishness but then English and England were used to represent the whole of the British Isles. He never lost his affinity with Wales but he suddenly felt as if England was under threat and, despite being considerably older than many of his peers, felt that he had to enlist in the army.

Commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to France, Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell on the opening morning of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. The poems that had finally given him creative fulfillment were just beginning to appear in literary journals - under the pen name Edward Eastaway.

Edward Thomas is, perhaps, the poet's poet. Both RS Thomas and Alun Lewis were influenced by his work and even Dylan Thomas chose to read some of his poems whenever he gave a public reading. He remains a passionate Welshman but one who was able to look beyond the confines of his nationality and see life as it truly was.

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    Comment number 1.

    John Wain wrote a very interesting article in PLANET years ago, in which he argued that, despite Helen Thomas's profound love for Edward, he never really returned the affection and that much of his depression stemmed from the fact that he, a man of deep scruple, tormented himself with guilt on this count.
    He really is a poet's poet and understandably - I can think of few images of the countryside as resonant as some of Thomas's, like the 'roar of parleying starlings' in "February Afternoon".

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    Comment number 2.

    I love the poetry of Edward Thomas but don't pretend to be a great expert on his life. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some truth in John Wain's comments. Thomas certainly put Helen (and the children) through an "emotional wringer" and the marriage only survived because of his long absences and her obvious adoration of him. He was loved - and may well have loved in return - two other women, the writer Eleanor Farjeon and artist Edna Clarke Hall. But how much of this was Thomas yearning for things he could not have will, I guess, never be truly known.

 

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