A unique poetic vision of the English landscape
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 own time’.
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.