I happen to love Edward Thomas’s poetry. I read ‘Adlestrop’ at school, like everyone else, but thanks to Matthew Hollis’s new collection of his Selected Poems last year (see this post), then I read many more. And as my interest in Thomas’s poetry grew, so, it seems, did everyone else’s. Matthew Hollis wrote an award-winning biography of Thomas, which concentrated on his friendship with Robert Frost, Now All Roads Lead to France (see this post). This was swiftly followed by Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful The Old Ways (see this), in which the spirit of Edward Thomas lingers like a watchful ghost. And now we have Nick Dear’s new play at the Almeida. What is it that has made so many of us now, suddenly, at once, so fascinated by Edward Thomas?
The first thing one might suspect is that they’re all in on it together. It’s quite nice to picture Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear going for long walks together up Shoulder of Mutton hill, puffing on clay pipes, listening out for larks, tramping in the poet’s footsteps and being mutually inspired to write their books. But the surprising thing is that each of them says they wrote their respective books about Edward Thomas independent of one another. Indeed Nick Dear talks a little about this on Front Row in an illuminating little interview – about 8 minutes in.
Perhaps these writers were inspired by a conference about Edward Thomas that took place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 2005. From this conference came yet another lovely book, Branch Lines, filled with the responses of contemporary poets to Thomas. But none of our writers Hollis, Macfarlane or Dear have contributed to the book. Perhaps this book is another coincidence, a few years ahead of the zeitgeist.
I pondered this very question – why all this Edward Thomas now? – on Twitter (that home of articulate, complex pontifications) and reviewer Wayne Gooderham, who wrote this excellent blog, said that maybe it was because we are coming up to the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. Good point – and actually I’m rather ashamed that it hadn’t crossed my mind – but then I haven’t noticed the same growth of interest in our other war poets. Where are all the new books on Sassoon, Owen and Brooke? In any case, was Edward Thomas really a war poet? Yes, he wrote at the time of the War, and the War is there in the shadows of his poetry, but really his poetry is about the land – England not Belgium. (I loved the way this came across in the set of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, with its floor of dark earth, even if it did give rise to a surprised titter when Thomas’s wife Helen dug up some potatoes from it.) And beyond this, as Macfarlane points out, his true subjects are ‘disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness’.
I think there must be something else pulling us towards Edward Thomas.
In his Foreword to Branch Lines, Andrew Motion writes of the appeal of ‘the story of Thomas’s arduous journey towards poetry’:
not simply the pathos of his frustration in prose, but the patient struggle of his efforts to purify his style and “wring all the necks of my rhetoric” describes a process that most poets they undertake (on a smaller scale) every time they pick up a pen to write.
For those of us who aren’t poets, let’s not dismiss so quickly ‘the pathos of his frustration in prose’. All the books make it clear that Edward Thomas only became a poet at the very end of his short life; he didn’t even live to see one of his poems in print under his own name, rather than his pen name Edward Eastaway. As he says in The Dark Earth: ‘Did anyone ever begin at thirty-six in the shade?’ Until this turning point, this late out-pouring of poetry, sparked largely by his encouraging and inspiring friendship with Robert Frost, Thomas was really a hack, scraping together a living by reviewing, clutching at his advances for prose works which he belted out, thousands of words a week – as Muriel Spark put it several years later and about someone else, he was a ‘pisseur de copie’.
And Thomas was deeply unhappy with his existence as a hack. His choice to quit the civil service and earn his living by his pen plunged his family into dreadful poverty. He felt he ‘ruined’ Helen and was thoroughly horrid to her. Take this from The Dark Earth, the book which best captures his cruelty:
I’m sick of everything. Sick of you, sick of the children, whom I know really despise me, although they couldn’t despise me as much as I despise myself for not putting an end to the wretched business! – Stop that! I don’t want you fussing around me. I know what I am, I know what I’ve done to you. Go away.
Thomas is frustrated, dissatisfied, miserable. He suffers from depressive visions of ‘the other man’. But he finds relief – indeed, at times ecstatic happiness – from walking for miles through the countryside, especially in the company of Frost. And he will eventually succeed in his struggle to become a poet.
It’s a potent story, an appealing myth. Of course many of us are unhappy with the daily grind of our lives, and feel a little like frustrated poets – or at least frustrated somethings – suffocated by the 9-5 slog of work. This has always been the case, but recently, with the recession, everything’s been shaken up. People have been made redundant; we are at a near-record high of part-time work, as opposed to full-time. For many people, the decision to leave their jobs, to quit the 9-5 and start again has been made for them. Admittedly, for most people this is awful and they want to find full-time employment again as soon as possible, but for some, perhaps Edward Thomas is a kind of lodestar. Now is the time to write that poem, or novel, or whatever it is that you’ve been meaning to do forever. Now is the time to start, even though you’re thirty-six in the shade. Perhaps we are becoming a nation of poets rather than shopkeepers.
In any case, The Dark Earth left me fervently hoping that if we do become a nation of poets, we aren’t all as perfectly horrid as Edward Thomas! While Matthew Hollis and Robert Macfarlane both make it clear that he was a difficult, unhappy man, and Hollis gives over quite a bit of space to his tricky marriage, perhaps the authors are too much under the spell of Thomas’s wonderful poetry to condemn his behaviour towards his wife.
Seeing it acted out before you, it is impossible to watch Edward’s exchanges with Helen without flinching at his cruelty, wincing at the disparity between his carelessness and her exhausted tending to him.
The virtue of The Dark Earth’s use of multiple perspectives, rather than just one narrator, is that Helen’s voice comes through loud and clear. She loves Edward Thomas in an all-encompassing self-sacrificing passion, and I couldn’t help but think what might have become of her if she hadn’t sacrificed herself so entirely. What happened to the bright young Helen that she remembered, who read the literature brought to her by her lover? Now, as she says when she opens the play, she hasn’t the time to read – she’s too busy looking after Edward and the children.
My understanding is that Helen Thomas has been rather dismissed by the literary establishment. Her books about her relationship with Edward Thomas are out of print, indeed at one point they were banned in Boston. There is a brilliant scene in The Dark Earth which shows Frost returning to England many years later and being very rude to Helen. He says that he has removed his dedication to her in his book of poetry because she ‘insulted …[the] manhood’ of Thomas in her book. Whereas in the past, opinion would have sided with Frost, such is the power of the play, that we side with Helen.
If our collective obsession with Edward Thomas is set to continue, perhaps a publisher will see fit to bring Helen Thomas’s two much maligned books about her husband back into print. Unlike Robert Frost, I for one would be fascinated to read them.