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His Father’s Sword

Review: Jean Moorcroft Wilson, 'Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras'

Edward Thomas
Credit: Gary Locke
• September 18, 2015 5:01 am

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"If it bleeds, it leads" is not a maxim one typically associates with literary biography, but it vey much applies to Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Edward Thomas. Wilson opens with her discovery of evidence confirming that the death of the English poet—one of the forerunners of modernism, a friend of Frost, and an influence on Auden, Larkin, and many more—at the Battle of Arras in 1917 could not possibly have occurred in the absurd manner that had long been believed: his body found intact and unblemished after the battle, as though the spirit had been knocked out of him by the percussive shock of an explosion. More gruesomely, and far more plausibly, it now appears that Thomas had been "shot clean through the chest" by a medium-size piece of ordnance during the very first moments of the fighting, only ten weeks after having arrived in France.

It is hard to imagine an unlikelier soldier. But apparently Thomas—painfully shy, suffering from what would surely be diagnosed today as clinical depression, and ancient in his late thirties compared to the other officers of his artillery battery—did quite well in the Army, was efficient and appreciated by his fellow troops, and found ways of appreciating most of them in return. Prior to the war, the last evidence Wilson documents of any interest in military matters is when the nine year old Thomas, inspired by the poetry of Sir Walter Scott, tried to impress a girl in his south London neighborhood by wearing a miniature sword in her presence. It is a testament to the tortured nature of his life up to the age of 37—a miserable marriage, a string of breakdowns and suicide attempts, and a moderately successful career as a critic and hack-for-hire purchased at the stunning pace of one million words of book reviews over fourteen years, or a review roughly every three days—that it took the Western Front to cheer him up.

Encouraged to join the civil service by his father Philip—an outgoing, ambitious, and liberal man of affairs much devoted to the progress of the civilization that would self-immolate in 1914—Thomas had begun to disappoint early, demonstrating a literary bent and a horror of politics and the active life. His intellect took him to Lincoln College, Oxford, where friends thought their tall, handsome friend was likely to end up a don, but the double blow of impregnating his girlfriend Helen and (subsequently) contracting gonorrhea from a prostitute in the middle of his exams led to Thomas achieving only a second class degree, thus barring the path to a university career. In such disgrace as this, what other option could there have been for the young Edward but to go into journalism?

Wilson, a distinguished scholar with biographies of Sassoon, Rosenberg, and Sorley already to her name, recounts all this with able judgment and a keen eye for the telling document, but in prose that sometimes displays more enthusiasm than precision. Pronouns have a habit of losing their antecedents in the excitement, explanatory but unnecessary parentheticals intrude into block quotes, and the odd typo—"In Memorian (Easter 1915)"—makes one wonder if Wilson’s editors were asleep on their watch, or maybe too intimidated to say anything. Reading the book feels a bit like sitting down with a somewhat breathless Wilson, fresh from her day’s research and in a hurry to explain what she has learned, sometimes assuming in you more detailed prior knowledge of Thomas than a non-specialist is likely to have. The overall effect is not unpleasant.

Having at one point in her career written a "biography of place" for Virginia Woolf, Wilson is especially well attuned to the abiding love of Thomas’ life, which was for the English countryside. Raised in the city, Thomas came of age at a time and in a family where to "love the countryside" was already a somewhat self-conscious act of will. Thomas’ topographical passions tended to focus west, in the direction of Wales, where his family came from. Wilson quotes him recalling singing Thomas Moore’s ‘Minstrel Boy’ as a child, having mistaken it for a Welsh (rather than an Irish) ode:

I knew only of Welsh harps. I supposed the minstrel boy with his wild harp slung behind him was Welsh and as I sang the song I melted and trembled with a kind of gloomy pleasure in being about to die for Wales, Arthur’s and Llewelyn’s Wales, the ‘land of song.’ While I shivered with exaltation repeating his words:

Though each man else betrays thee
One sword at least thy rights shall guard,
One harp at least shall praise thee,

It might have been my harp and my sword.

It is remarkable to imagine a man who achieved such an influential lyric style of restraint and ambiguity—memorably described by F.R. Leavis as "trying to catch some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly"—as having such Victorian fantasies in his youth, and indeed Thomas the journalist struggled to emerge from the influence of Pater and the dying gasps of 19th century romanticism.

This struggle was chiefly apparent in the long essays Thomas invested his best efforts in: meandering literary affairs that sometimes could earn him money serving as text for books of photographs with titles like Beautiful Wales. Only occasionally praised, noticed, or purchased at the time, after the halo of martyrdom had been bestowed upon Thomas critics praised their disjointed, collage-like approach to narrative, their lack of proper names, beginnings, middles, and ends, as foreshadowing important aspects of modernism. Considering the record assembled by Wilson showing the extent to which these essays were cobbled together from recycled bits of text in order to meet the demands of a publisher’s word count, this critical consensus says much more about modernism than it does about Thomas.

It was Robert Frost, of all people, who saw the potential. Spending time wandering the countryside with Thomas during the impossibly beautiful summer of 1914—weather as though God, a poet, had a distinct sense of pathos—Frost told Thomas that he was writing the best poetry around, except that it was trapped in the prose of these essays. The events of that year—profound doubts about his own human value, the onset of the war, the continuing emotional crater of his marriage (to Helen—still together after all those years), the false jingoism of the first wave of war poetry—inspired the 36 year old Thomas to sit down in December 1914 and begin to write verse.

The results are astonishing. Reading his early efforts in order (Thomas was turning out about a poem a day) is like watching a man who sits down to play the piano for the first time in his life on Monday, and is banging out Rachmaninoff by Wednesday. Among his very first mature efforts is "November," which reads like the work of a precocious beginner practicing his scales with charming fluency:

But of all the months when earth is greener
Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.
Clean and clear and sweet and cold,
They shine above the earth so old…

It is astonishing to record that just a few days later Thomas composed "Old Man," a masterpiece. Its conceit, like those of many of Thomas’ best poems, is repurposed from an earlier essay—in this case, it involves Thomas watching the pretty scene of his daughter taking delight in the bitter herb in their garden, and wondering if and what she might remember of the experience in the future. Thomas then turns to a reflection of how, when he smells the herb as an adult:

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost…

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

The ironic rejection of the kind of conceit employed by Proust with his madeleine, the subtle way the blank verse—even still in 2015—reads as a man’s natural speech, the bleak moral vision tempered by mystery: If ever there was a case in poetry of Athena popping out fully formed, the head belonged to Edward Thomas.

More poems that have established themselves in the English canon—"Adlestrop," "The sun used to shine," "October"—were to follow. The turn to verse and the decision to enlist in the summer of 1915 seem to have been linked for Thomas. Both were tied to a sense of having been inadequate as an artist and as a man to that point in his life. In his poems he discovered a way to talk about both the English countryside and the war in France that avoided bombast and romance, but still managed to evince a quiet love for the English earth, a love by which Thomas justified his own decision to fight. He still couldn’t stand what he considered to be the obnoxious, unreflective patriotism of many in his circle, and especially of his father—about whom Thomas said that sharing a dinner was enough to make him pro-German for the night.

"The sun used to shine," which depicts a walk shared one evening by Thomas and Frost, is Thomas’ new voice in full flourishing:

                                     …The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes

Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fades
Like the brook’s water glittering

Under the moonlight—like those walks
Now—like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences—like memory’s sand

When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.

Once he enlisted, Thomas made a series of decisions that ensured, despite his age, talents, and the availability of any number of posts in England or well behind the lines, he would find himself under fire. In Wilson’s telling, these decisions seem very much like the manifestation of a death wish, especially the final one to volunteer for immediate posting to France. In Frost’s later opinion, enlisting had a lot to do with getting away from Helen, but Helen had not been the only cause of Thomas’ trouble, and the existence of the war seemed somehow inseparably linked to his new creativity. Thomas is like some sort of pathetic organism condemned to remain in a grim chrysalis most of its life, then have a brief, stunningly colorful period of flourishing in the light—only then to deliberately fly into that light.

On their last meeting before his departure for the war, ever the disappointed and monstrous father, Philip told Edward, "I wish you had more belief in your cause to support you." Around the same time, when asked by a more sympathetic companion what he thought he was fighting for, the friend later recorded: "[Thomas] stopped and picked up a pinch or earth. ‘Literally, for this.’

"He crumbled it between his finger and thumb and let it fall."

Published under: Book reviews