Edward Thomas: Selected Poems
Illustrated by David Gentleman
Introduced by Andrew Motion
Limited to 1,250 hand-numbered copies each signed by David Gentleman
A limited edition published to commemorate the poet’s death in April 1917 and designed to emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century. In series with Selected Poems Rupert Brooke and Selected Poems Wilfred Owen.
A selection of Edward Thomas’s poems presented in a limited edition to mark the centenary of his death. This book has been designed to reflect the values of the fine press movement of the early 20th century. The text, printed letterpress, is illustrated with original lithographs and quarter-bound in leather with paste-paper sides hand-made by Victoria Hall.
Edward Thomas only began writing poetry two years before he was killed in action at Arras in 1917. Long regarded as a ‘poet’s poet’, he 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.
Limited to 1,250 hand-numbered copies each numbered and signed by David Gentleman
Quater-bound in Indian Goatskin with paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall
Set in hot metal in Monotype Bembo
9 original lithographs and 9 letterpress vignettes
Paper-covered slipcase, blocked in gold on both sides
Coloured top edge
Signed by the artist, David Gentleman
9¾˝ x 7˝
Edward Thomas and Robert Frost
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.
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.
About Andrew Motion
Andrew Motion is an English poet, novelist and biographer who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 – 2009; the first to retire from the post. He spent two years studying Thomas at Oxford and has published a collection of poetry drawing on soldiers’ experiences from the First and Second World wars through to more recent conflicts involving British forces. Motion is, therefore, admirably qualified to write on the re-evaluation of a poet whom he cites as an abiding influence. In the specially commissioned introduction to Selected Poems, he describes the emergence of Thomas from relative obscurity to his rightful place as a poet of the first importance, a crucial bridge between the tradition of English pastoral and the innovations of Modernism.
Hand-crafted paper by Victoria Hall
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 Art of Letterpress printing
About David Gentleman
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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