Edward Thomas

Distinctively Modern: The Poetry of Edward Thomas

I caught up with Katie Gramich to talk about a conference she is co-organizing to celebrate the life and work of poet Edward Thomas

In April 2017, Cardiff University will be hosting a conference to celebrate the Welsh writer Edward Thomas. Can you say a little bit about the timing of the conference? Do you think it’s time for a revaluation of Thomas’ life and work?

Edward Thomas died in the Battle of Arras at Easter 1917, so the conference at Cardiff University in April 2017 is a centenary conference to commemorate a distinctive and unusual writer whose life was cut short in the First World War. Thomas wrote all of his poetry in the last two years of his life – between December 1914 and December 1916 – prompted to do so partly by his friendship with the American poet, Robert Frost, whom he met in the summer of 1913,  and partly by the new and pressing circumstances of the war. It is so sad to think that only six of his poems were published in his lifetime – a small pamphlet under the pseudonym ‘Edward Eastaway’ in 1916.

“His poetry […] has a haunting, subtle, understated character”

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Edward Thomas in military uniform

Thomas wasn’t a trench poet, like Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon – he didn’t have time to be because he was killed very soon after arriving at the front line. His poetry is very different from theirs and has a haunting, subtle, understated character much admired by many readers, especially by other poets! But in recent years, a great deal more critical attention has been given to the much more substantial body of prose work that Thomas wrote before finding his voice as a poet. He wrote a great variety of books – nature writing, topographical works, travel books, biographies, a novel, literary criticism and history, and many, many book reviews. When he turned to poetry, Thomas tended to repudiate his earlier work in prose, referring disparagingly to it as ‘hack work’, but when you actually go back and read it you can easily find the voice of that latterly brilliant poet hidden in the prose writer. He was an independent-minded and incisive critic but, more than anything, he was a walker and a lover of nature. This is why contemporary nature writers like Robert MacFarlane have championed him in their works, resurrecting Thomas as an ecological writer, a pathfinder, a man who speaks eloquently to our contemporary times.

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An envelope from Cardiff University’s Edward Thomas archive in the Special Collections of the Arts and Social Studies Library (Source)

What makes Cardiff University the ideal venue for this conference?

Cardiff University holds a very extensive Edward Thomas archive in the Special Collections of the Arts and Social Studies library. Most of Thomas’s major scholars and biographers have visited our archive at some point in their research, so it will be something of a homecoming for them, we hope. South Wales itself was an important place for Thomas. Both of his parents were Welsh, though he himself was born and raised in London. Thomas had many relatives still living in rural Wales, and visited them often; he wrote about the country and people in a lovely illustrated book entitled Beautiful Wales, first published in 1905, and refers to Welsh landscapes and mythology in a number of poems, such as ‘Roads’ and ‘The Mountain Chapel’. In his semi-autobiographical novel, The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans, he recounts Welsh legends and also ruminates on what it means to be a displaced Welshman, living in the English metropolis. Indeed, you could say that some of Thomas’s characteristic melancholy could have something to do with what he referred to as his ‘accidental Cockney nativity’ – he longed for a homeland but could never quite find it. It’s no accident that there are 3 Thomas poems entitled ‘Home’ and all of them are fundamentally about not having one. This is one of the characteristics of his writing that makes him seem to us so quintessentially ‘modern’ – you could say that he’s a deracinated modern man before the Modernists discovered deracination!

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Helen and Edward Thomas in 1905.

What is it about Thomas’ work that appeals to you?

F. R. Leavis was very astute when it comes to Edward Thomas’s work. In his 1936 book New Bearings in English Poetry (where he famously champions T. S. Eliot as The Poet of Modernity) Leavis refuses to condemn Thomas as a Georgian writer of pretty verses. On the contrary, Leavis says, ‘only a very superficial classification could associate Edward Thomas with … the Georgians at all. He was a very original poet who devoted great technical subtlety to the expression of a distinctively modern sensibility…Edward Thomas’s [poems] seem to happen. It is only when the complete effect has been registered in the reader’s mind that the inevitability and the exquisite economy become apparent. A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.’[1] Spot-on, Frank, is all I can say!

“There is also something uniquely fragile and vulnerable about Thomas’s first-person speakers. Their words seem constantly shadowed by something they cannot quite articulate; Thomas dramatizes that frustration we all feel sometimes with not being able to say just what we mean or feel.”

So what was this ‘distinctively modern sensibility’ that Leavis perceived in Thomas? One aspect of it was his lack of certainty, his ‘homelessness’, as I’ve suggested. There is also something uniquely fragile and vulnerable about Thomas’s first-person speakers. Their words seem constantly shadowed by something they cannot quite articulate; Thomas dramatizes that frustration we all feel sometimes with not being able to say just what we mean or feel. ‘I cannot bite the day to the core’, as he puts it in one poem, ‘The Glory’. And Thomas’s poems are emphatically first-person poems: his work is personal in a new, more inward, more unsettling way. The first-person speaker who appears again and again in Thomas’s poems is a lonely traveller, a solitary, a misfit, constantly meditating on things and failing to reach satisfactory conclusions. Even Thomas’s rhythms and metre often have a certain laconic inconclusiveness about them.  This is what I like about Thomas – he is more than capable of being lyrical, but it is when he is deliberately unlyrical, mulling things over in a characteristic blank verse form, that he creates a unique atmosphere of Edward Thomas-ness, if I can put it that way. He is one of those poets who seem to be constantly whispering in your ear, like the susurrating trees in his poem, ‘Aspens’.

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Edward Thomas walking in nature

In what ways do you think Edward Thomas can still speak to contemporary readers, or influence contemporary writing?

All his poems were written while he was still in Britain, either before he joined up in July 1915 or while he was in army training camps in the south of England before being posted to France. Nevertheless, arguably the war overshadows all of his poetry, even when he is ostensibly focusing on an aspect of Nature, such as a bird or a tree. His sense of the fragility of Nature, as well as its beauty, is in a sense intensified by the knowledge of the war and exacerbated by a growing knowledge of his own fragility and mortality. I think that undercurrent of knowledge of the worst is something that can resonate with us today – that fear, that frustration, that angst. And yet, when all’s said and done, many of Thomas’s poems are just downright beautiful – the mysterious ‘Old Man’, for instance, or the poignant ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’.

“His sense of the fragility of Nature, as well as its beauty, is in a sense intensified by the knowledge of the war and exacerbated by a growing knowledge of his own fragility and mortality.”

We are still accepting abstracts for papers for next April’s conference in Cardiff and hope to receive proposals that read and appreciate Thomas’s work in all kinds of new and comparative contexts. In a way what I hope is that the conference will be an opportunity for us to see Thomas the writer as a whole once more: to put the poet and the prose writer back together, as it were, and to celebrate the whole range of his achievements.

Footnotes

[1] F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London: Penguin, 1967; original ed. 1932) pp. 61-4.


About the Conference

If you would like to attend the Edward Thomas 100 conference at Cardiff University, or even submit a paper, you can find out more at their website. The conference is being organized by Professor Katie Gramich and Dr James Castell.

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