Above: writer and poet Edward Thomas, photographed in 1905
Anniversaries can do wonders for the dead poet, particularly when they are centenaries. Posterity may not exactly have shunned Edward Thomas, but his life and his death, in the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday 1917, have become matters of intense fascination as the awful milestones of the Great War come parading through our calendar.
His is a strange case. He was not a Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, documenting the horror of it all with a well-wrought passion. In fact, he hadn’t really been a poet at all, at least not in his own perception, until Robert Frost assured him that he was. Frost was an older, self-assured American. Thomas, for years struggling resentfully with the burdens of low-paid journalism and rural fatherhood in Hampshire, had reviewed a collection of Frost’s poems favourably. The two became friends, with Frost insisting that Thomas was already writing poetry, which just happened to be termed journalism.
If you look at some of his early poems, like “Up In The Wind”, you can see what his mentor was driving at. A few miles from Thomas’s adopted village of Steep in Hampshire was a pub called The White Horse. Its sign had been stolen and not replaced. (It is still missing, hence the locals’ affectionate tag, “The Pub With No Name”.) In setting down the beginning of a conversation there with a Cockney girl bemoaning the isolation of the place, he is working from an earlier prose draft, breaking it up into lines and evolving a form of muscular, richly lyrical blank verse.
“As The Team’s Head-Brass” has Thomas placed at a field’s edge in the same environs. Surrounded by tumbled elms, he chats to the ploughman as he and his horses pass round again. They mention the war, the many gone to fight – young men as fallen as the trees, though the comparison is never specifically made. The diction is plain and unheightened. One hundred years on, Thomas’s readers find deep emotional eloquence in the absence of ostentation – a voice seeking modernity.
Thomas had only three years in which to pursue his craft, but in that time he wrote some 150 fine and evocative poems. If he had lived now, he would have surely been diagnosed with acute depression. Rage and patriotism made him determined to do his bit as a soldier, but his insistence on going up the line at Arras was nothing less than suicidal.
Plagued by a sense of futility and despair, Thomas would have been astounded by his enduring influence. In the past six years, there have been major contributions to the study of the man and his work. Nick Dear’s 2012 play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky reconstructs the poet’s relationships with his poor, devoted wife Helen, his disapproving father and that buccaneering man of letters, Frost. Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s 2015 study, From Adlestrop to Arras, sees him as the father of modern poetry, no less, while Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France (2011) explores the importance of his friendship with Frost.
Thomas’s modern-day acolytes are often to be found treading the paths he frequented near Steep, just 18 miles across the South Downs from Goodwood. There are excellent walks to be had here, passing the houses where he, Helen and their children lived. High on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, which inspired the poem “When I First Came Here”, is the memorial stone bearing his name, erected by the author Walter de la Mare in 1937. In the village church are two engraved memorial windows by Laurence Whistler. The Edward Thomas Fellowship holds an annual walk in Steep to commemorate the poet’s birthday (March 3). This takes in the church, the memorial stone and the Red House, his home from 1909 to 1913. And the bangers and mash at The Pub With No Name are excellent.