A Folio Society limited edition
Introduced by Andrew Motion
With original lithographs by David Gentleman
A new limited edition to commemorate the poet's death in April 1917. Published in series with Rupert Brooke: Selected Poems and designed to emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century.
Long regarded as a ‘poet’s poet’, Edward Thomas is now
acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the English
countryside, his verse grounded in a pastoral patriotism that
makes him unique among the poets of the First World War.
Born in Lambeth, London, in 1878, Thomas studied at Lincoln College, Oxford, before moving in 1901 to Kent and later Hampshire with his wife, Helen. An admirer of Richard Jefferies, he began writing topographical prose whilst still at school, but financial pressures would later force him to lay aside his literary ambitions to pursue the ‘painful business’ of reviewing and writing books on commission.
A gifted critic, particularly of poetry, Thomas was quick to praise the brilliance of W. H. Davies, Ezra Pound and Robert Frost. It was Frost, whom Thomas met in 1913, who first recognised the latent poetry in Thomas’s nature writing, and urged him to try his hand at verse. The result was spectacular. Frost had opened a floodgate of creativity, and in less than three years Thomas wrote no fewer than 144 poems of extraordinary maturity of style and lyrical intensity.
He joined the Artists Rifles in July 1915, his anti-nationalism finally overcome by a need to protect the land he loved and by reading ‘The Road Not Taken’, a poem Frost wrote about him. Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday 1917, while the first edition of his Poems was being prepared for press.
Poised between Georgian lyricism and stark modernism,
Edward Thomas’s verse consistently defies classification. Like
his Victorian and Georgian counterparts, he was a celebrant of
the profound beauty to be found in the natural world, but his
faith in the plain rhythms of speech and his intensity of vision
mark him out as an influential precursor of W. H. Auden and
Ted Hughes, who referred to him as ‘the father of us all’. One of
Britain’s most important poets, Thomas represents, as former
Poet Laureate Andrew Motion astutely observes in his introduction
to this volume, ‘a kind of hinge, connecting British
poetry with its tradition while swinging it forward to feed our
Thomas’s eye for the English landscape was unrivalled, and his loving attention to moments of distilled beauty – the ‘thin gilding beam’ of a February sun, ‘waters running frizzled over gravel’, the ‘roar of parleying starlings’ – infuses his poetry. Many such details have their roots in his earlier prose writings, or the notebook jottings made on his many walks in the country. But his poems, were all composed in ‘a hurry and a whirl’ in the last two years of his life, while he was preoccupied with the war in Europe and plagued with indecision about whether to enlist. In his verse his appreciation of the richness and beauty of the natural world is ‘salted and sobered’, tinged by an awareness of its potential loss.
In his bleak and oblique ruminations, images of light and darkness, life and death contend as Thomas uses the natural landscape to point to the unnatural war: a ‘fallen elm’ stands in for a fallen man in ‘As the team’s head-brass’, the strewn blossoms in ‘The Cherry Trees’ are a reminder of a wedding ‘when there is none to wed’, and in ‘Rain’ ‘Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff ’ are likened to the dead, and the living, in France. As Motion writes, Thomas’s poems, unusual in their approach to the conflict, ‘experience the war as an organic event, a tremor through nature’.
But Thomas’s poetry is also concerned with the individual, and in particular the poet’s own feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. Poems rarely resolve, and the dual perspectives in verses such as ‘The Other’ and ‘The Signpost’ suggest a mind that is still deliberating, still ‘Wondering where he shall journey’. Elsewhere, as in his most famous poem, ‘Adlestrop’, or the softly powerful ‘Old Man’, there is a notion that knowledge is ungraspable, or lost. The poet has ‘mislaid the key’, and sees ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’. This selection closes with a draft poem, ‘The sorrow of true love’, and a handful of notes from Thomas’s war diary. The latter, breaking off in mid-sentence, are a poignant reminder that, at the time of his death, Edward Thomas was a poet who had only just found his voice.
Hand-patterned paste-papers, valued for their durability and
beauty, have a long tradition as a material for bookbinding. In a
process that has seen little change in the hundreds of years since
it was first used, sheets of paper, after being dampened and left
a short while to rest, are brushed with a coloured starch paste
produced by cooking a combination of flours. A pattern is then
worked into the paste, using a variety of handmade tools and
combs. The papers, at their most fragile at this stage, are put aside
to air-dry for several hours before being pressed and patterned
again. Once dry, they are flattened in a cast-iron standing press.
For this volume, Victoria Hall has drawn inspiration from the landscape that inspired Thomas’s poetry. Experimenting with several textures and various shades of green, she developed an organic design, embodying natural rather than geometric forms. The result is wonderfully redolent – in texture and colour – of the grass and moss of the English countryside. Each paper is unique, mirroring in design and form the endless complexity to be found in nature.
The distinctive qualities of letterpress have long been appreciated by lovers and collectors of fine books. Like poetry itself, letterpress editions appeal to the senses: the smell of the ink on the page, the feel of the grain in the paper and the slight impression left by the hot-metal type. The simple elegance of a letterpress page belies the skill that the medium demands. A labour-intensive process, the task of setting and printing this edition fell to Stan Lane, a master compositor with 60 years’ experience of the craft. Printed on a classic mould-made paper, the text has been generously set, allowing the poetry room to breathe, and providing a clarity and intensity of line perfectly at one with Thomas’s verse.
David Gentleman’s work as an artist and illustrator, spanning a
career of more than 60 years, is rooted in the English artistic
tradition. Born in 1930, he studied illustration under Edward
Bawden and John Nash at the Royal College of Art, a time that
instilled an appreciation for craft, design and the pastoral that is
everywhere evident in Gentleman’s art. He has worked across
an exceptionably wide range of formats: his wood engravings
have appeared on the covers of numerous Penguin editions
as well as a 100-metre-long mural at Charing Cross London
Underground station; he is the designer of more than 100
stamps for the British Post Office; and his watercolours and
lithographs feature in countless publications.
Like Thomas, Gentleman has a particular talent for capturing the spirit of a place, and much of his creative output springs from his close observation of the natural world made on his own country walks, particularly around his house in Suffolk. His work for Edward Thomas: Selected Poems prompted him to tread in Thomas’s footsteps, travelling to Steep in Hampshire to sketch the house Thomas describes in ‘The Manor Farm’. Gentleman’s beeches are based on those on the hillside behind the farm, while the trees for his ‘In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)’ lithograph are portraits of ‘old friends in Suffolk’.
As Gentleman himself acknowledges, poetry offers an artist a specific challenge; artwork should accompany rather than illustrate verse, reflecting tone and atmosphere without ‘stepping on the toes of the poem’. Gentleman’s lithographs, quietly fresh and intricately detailed, do just this, while the gently recurring imagery of pathways and trails are evocative of the roads taken – and not taken – that were such a dominant feature of Thomas’s life and work.
The printing process of lithography (literally, drawing on
stone) was invented in 1796, and quickly became recognised as
the best method of reproducing works of art and other images
in colour. Highly skilled craftsmen would interpret an original
image by eye, drawing separations of different colours which
were then re-combined on the printing press to create a faithful
reproduction of the original.
In the early 20th century a number of artists in Europe and America began to experiment with producing their own colour separations, creating in the process a new artistic medium, in which translucent colours could be overprinted to striking effect. Thus autolithography was born; its practitioners in Britain included Eric Ravilious, Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and – technically the finest of all – Barnett Freedman. When making a lithograph, the artist works directly on the printing medium (be it stone, zinc plate or film) and therefore every image is an original print, not a reproduction of a pre-existing work. This gives lithographs – and books containing them – a particularly strong appeal to collectors, especially when signed by the artist as this one is.
David Gentleman is a central figure in the British tradition of autolithography. Among his earliest work was a contribution to the Lyons lithographs series, alongside Edward Bawden, John Piper and others, and he has continued to return to this medium throughout his long creative life.
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Review by Blackie on 24th Mar 2018
"This book of poems is as excellent as the first of Rupert Brooke. The covers are quite different but I am hard pressed to say that one is preferable to the other. This ones soft green and very texture..." [read more]
Review by davidjbrown10 on 8th Apr 2017
"This second in the WW1 poets LE series forms an intriguing contrast with the first, devoted to Rupert Brooke. To start with the slipcase, this time the design eschews the small pasted lithograph in fa..." [read more]