(1878 - 1917)
It rains, and nothing stirs within the fence
And I am nearly as happy as possible
Unless alone, so happy shall I walk
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
Chove, e nada se move dentro da cerca.
Em ponto algum da densa e virgem floresta
De salsa do pomar. Não há ninguém que quebre
Os grandes diamantes de chuva nas lâminas de erva,
Ou agite as pétalas caídas mais abaixo.
Sou quase tão feliz quanto é possível
Por explorar este ermo em vão, embora bem,
Por pensar em dois que aí caminham e se beijam
Encharcados, mas dos beijos da chuva esquecidos:
Triste também por pensar que nunca, nunca mais,
A menos que sozinho, hei-de caminhar à chuva
Tão feliz. Quando me afasto, na sua fina haste
Que o crepúsculo faz um nada de finura, figura
A flor da salsa, suspensa imóvel em placidez espectral,
O passado pairando ao revisitar a luz.
Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS
poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993.
Chuva, chuva da meia-noite, nada a não ser a chuva agreste
Sobre esta cabana nua, e a solidão, e eu
Lembrando outra vez que hei-de morrer
E não hei-de ouvir a chuva, nem dar graças
Por me purificar como nunca o estive
Desde que nasci para esta solidão.
Benditos sejam os mortos sobre quem a chuva cai:
Mas aqui rogo que ninguém de entre os que amei
Esteja hoje em agonia, nem deitado ainda desperto,
Solitário, ouvindo a chuva,
Quer na dor, quer em simpatia,
Desamparado entre os vivos e os mortos,
Como uma água fria entre juncos feridos,
Miríades de juncos feridos, rígidos e imóveis
Como eu, que não tenho amor que esta chuva agreste
Não tenha dissolvido, a não ser o amor da morte,
Se amor é sê-lo daquilo que é perfeito e
Não causa, diz-mo a tempestade, decepção.
Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS
poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993.
Famous poets and poems
Collected Poems - The Richmond Review
Norton, 388 pages, $29.95
For most of his adult life Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was a hack. Married while still an Oxford undergraduate—he had got Helen, his future wife, pregnant—he spent years trailing round the offices of publishers, newspapers and magazines, suggesting books or articles and asking for work as a reviewer. The strain on his nerves was extreme. He was often unhappy, harsh and even brutal to Helen, who continued nevertheless to love him and believe in him. He suffered at least one nervous breakdown and contemplated suicide—he may even have attempted it once.
Yet in one sense he was fortunate, more fortunate perhaps that Matthew Hollis in this excellent and absorbing biography seems to realize. Culture was still predominantly print culture, and in London in the decade leading up to World War I, there was an abundance of work and opportunities for writers willing to turn their hand to anything, more perhaps than ever before or since. Much of it was badly paid, and Thomas was always in financial difficulties. Nevertheless in the 20 years before he was killed in France in 1917, he wrote (or edited) 24 books, as well as perhaps a thousand articles and reviews.
Some of what he wrote was purely for money. There was a 1915 life of the first Duke of Marlborough, commander of the armies of the Grand Alliance in the late 17th-century war against Louis XIV. Thomas had no interest in Marlborough and little knowledge of the warfare or politics of the period. But other subjects were more to his taste. The English countryside was still largely unspoiled, and there has never been a time when there was such an appetite for the celebration of its beauties. (That the vast majority of English people already lived in cities, towns and suburbs may explain the market.) Thomas was a keen walker and an acute observer of nature; it was always easy to place his country pieces.
More surprisingly, given the excessive work he was obliged to take on to keep his family afloat (children were born in 1899, 1902 and 1910), he became a perceptive critic of new poetry. This is what especially interests Mr. Hollis, a good poet himself. This biography of Thomas is also a study of the new directions in poetry in the first two decades of the 20th century. Mr. Hollis opens his book by quoting an article Thomas wrote in January 1913: "There has been opened at 35, Devonshire-street, Theobalds-road, a 'Poetry Bookshop,' where you can see any and every volume of modern poetry. It will be an impressive and, perhaps, an instructive sight." That qualifying "perhaps" is significant: Thomas would soon conclude that many of the poets were on the wrong lines.
This bookshop spawned the several volumes of "Georgian Poetry," which attempted to "shake the public of their ignorance of contemporary poetry," as Mr. Hollis puts it. "The Georgians," he writes, "looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant. Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse; they looked to Wordsworth in their connection to the land rather than to John Donne and the Metaphysical pursuit of the soul." Their vogue was brief. The grim realities of the trenches and then the Modernism of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot would snuff the Georgians out. Nevertheless for a few years the work of W.W. Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, John Drinkwater, W.H. Davies and Rupert Brooke seemed to represent a new poetic voice. Thomas knew them all, reviewed them all, and was for a time impressed.
Mr. Hollis describes Thomas's relations with these now-forgotten figures (Brooke is remembered but much more as an emblematic early casualty of the war). Of far more importance for Thomas would be the arrival in England of the American poet Robert Frost in 1912. Like Thomas, Frost had as yet made little of his life. School-teaching and poultry-farming had both failed. Editors showed scant interest in his poems. In coming to England he was hoping that a new start in another country where poetry seemed to be enjoying a revival would bring him the recognition that he sought.
But the responses to his book "North of Boston" (1914) were discouraging. Then Thomas reviewed it—in three different publications—and said the poems were "revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric. . . . Their language is free from the poetical words and forms that are the chief material of secondary poets. . . . In fact, the medium is common speech."
"At last," Mr. Hollis writes, "Frost felt understood." Thomas had given him, in Frost's words, "standing as a poet." Frost, in turn, encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and on long walks and conversations, they discussed their theories of how poetry should be written. Without Thomas, Frost's first book might have fallen flat; without Frost, Thomas might never have nerved himself to write poems.
The two families—the Frosts had four children to go with the Thomases' three—were staying in a village in Hampshire when war broke out in 1914. It didn't affect them immediately, though they were to be objects of curiosity, even suspicion to the local people and the police: Frost was a foreigner, they had a Russian boy staying with them and a Dutch friend came to visit. Thomas had no desire to join the rush of volunteers. He was more concerned about whether literary work would dry up and more interested in his conversations with Frost. "In any case Thomas," notes Mr. Hollis, "loathed what he was reading in the newspapers . . . nationalistic nonsense about the brave Brits and the evil Germans." (One might however remark that the word "Brit" wasn't then in use.)
In November, Thomas wrote his first poem. He was 36, a late age to start, and this first effort in verse was, like many subsequent ones, made out of jottings in one of his notebooks. He was, according to Mr. Hollis, "a perennial note taker; he depended on his notebooks to refresh the details that would vitalize his prose." Now they were proving a quarry from which he could make poems. It was remarkable and exciting. He wrote 10 poems in a fortnight.
In January, laid up with a sprained ankle, Thomas wrote 16 poems in 20 days, among them the one that would become his best-known and most frequently anthologized, "Adlestrop":
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
It was as if the ice on a winter river had melted and the water could flow freely.
This outburst of verse took Thomas himself by surprise. Yet in retrospect it seems natural, as if, unconsciously he had been preparing himself for this moment. He had been reading and criticizing poetry for years. He had engaged in intense and encouraging discussions of its art and craft with Frost. He found in his notebooks material that might be turned into poems. He was at a crossroads in his life, undecided which way to turn, faced with a choice between accompanying Frost back to America, as his friend urged, or enlisting in the army to fight a war of which he didn't approve but which he couldn't ignore. "Frankly," he wrote, "I do not want to go but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should." It was a time for him of intellectual uncertainty and emotional stress. Many poets—notably A.E. Housman, one of the stars of Thomas's age—have found poetry coming to them only occasionally but in profusion at times of emotional intensity.
In June 1915, Frost sent Thomas what was to be one of the American's most loved and anthologized poems: "The Road Not Taken." Thomas "took it as a rebuke." Frost later wrote that the poem was "about a friend who had gone off to war"—though Thomas hadn't yet done so—"a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other." This was a fair judgment on the Edward Thomas he knew; yet the strange thing is that Frost was wrong.
The poem led Thomas at last to make a decision and on July 19 he became a private in the Artists Rifles. Having reluctantly signed up for war, he doesn't seem to have regretted it. He found a strange sort of peace in the army and proved a success, receiving both promotion and then an officer's commission. He continued to write poems, most of them good.
Mr. Hollis gives as full an account of Thomas's life as may be possible. He treats his family difficulties sympathetically, recounts, without innuendo or prurience, loving relationships with two other women besides his wife, notes Thomas's difficulties with his father and his inability to understand his own son. Yet this book is essentially a study of the making of a poet, and Mr. Hollis's chief interest is in the poems themselves. It is a very intelligent and sympathetic study.
Thomas was killed by a German shell in April 1917. He had no idea that his poetry would be remembered—and especially highly esteemed by other poets, among them Auden and Larkin. Dylan Thomas put it well: "It is as though we had always known his poems, and were only waiting for him to write them."
Mr. Hollis doesn't speculate on the question that has often occurred to me: whether, if Thomas had survived the war, he would have been freed from the uncertainties that provoked his poetry, and written mostly prose and only the occasional verse subsequently. He is right not to indulge in this speculation, for such questions, however enticing, are ultimately pointless. It is enough that we have what we have.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
—Mr. Massie is a novelist and journalist who lives in the Scottish Borders.
Where the wood ends
Ian Sansom salutes Edward Thomas's Collected Poems, and a life that was a long and lonely pilgrimage
Saturday November 6, 2004
by Edward Thomas
240pp, Faber, £ 12.99
He was a hack, Edward Thomas; he hacked. And he hacked, and he hacked, and he hacked, and for almost 20 years it got him absolutely nowhere. He was the son of an upwardly mobile clerk, he was educated at Oxford, married at 21, the father of three children, and he spent almost his entire, short adult life writing reviews and essays for the papers and banging out commissioned books for publishers, which brought him little money and much misery. In the words of the critic Geoffrey Grigson, in one of those acid little pen-portraits for which he was once justly celebrated and is now almost completely forgotten, Thomas was "caught in the multiplicity of a trap, personal, marital and historical ... poor, difficult, delicately balanced ... married too young, with too much early responsibility, honest, talented, yet not enormously so, caught in the more than usually dishonest, sticky artificiality of letters in late Victorian and Edwardian England." Grigson may have been right about Thomas, but he was wrong about the state of letters; nothing's changed; it's still pretty sticky.
In a writing life of just 20 years, 1897-1917, Thomas wrote more than 40 books, mostly nature and country and topographical books, books about walking and cycling, but also studies of Keats, George Borrow, Swinburne and Pater, and collections of essays and criticism. Some of it is excellent, much of it good, a fair amount merely indifferent, but he thought all of it rubbish: "lies in print" he called it. In his letters to his friend Gordon Bottomley he signed himself "ever your hurried and harried prose man". "I slink down a side street and mess along," he told Bottomley. "I crawl along the very edge of life." To read the letters to Bottomley, and the letters to his other great friend Eleanor Farjeon, is to encounter a great salt-water tide of self-loathing and self-consciousness.
What dried him off, shook him out and straightened him up, so the story goes, were two things: Robert Frost, and the first world war. Thomas met Frost at East Grinstead in 1913, when Frost, at that stage another intense and glorious failure, but an American, was just establishing himself as a poet, and he encouraged Thomas to try to do the same; they became companions in self-determination. "I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship," Frost wrote later of the time they spent together. Thomas wrote to Bottomley, "I have begun to write in verse and am impatient of anything else."
And if Frost and poetry saved him from the dead-hand of belles lettres, so the war, it seems, saved him from dull domestic responsibilities and an unhappy marriage. He enlisted in July 1915, was quickly promoted to lance-corporal, then corporal, and was finally commissioned as 2nd lieutenant before being posted to the front in February 1917; two months later he was killed by the blast of a shell at the Battle of Arras. He had written 144 poems.
They were enough. Even FR Leavis was a fan, writing of his work in New Bearings in English Poetry (1932): "He was exquisitely sincere and sensitive, and he succeeded in expressing in poetry a representative modern sensibility." Everyone seems to agree; Thomas stands for something. Stan Smith, in his fine book about the poet, sees his work as indicative of "the dilemma of a middle-class liberal individualism". Edna Longley, an ardent advocate, sees him "at a nodal point in relation to current ecological issues and their intellectual repercussions". Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, writes about him affectionately; so does Seamus Heaney. Thomas is not only admired; he's venerated. The arc and parabola of admiring accounts of his work is nearly always the same, the same firm line first sketched by Lloyd George, writing in an introduction to John Moore's Life and Letters of Edward Thomas (1939), who assured readers that Thomas's life clearly demonstrated "the winning through of an obscure youth to triumph and renown". If only it were so.
First, and significantly, the prose is not nearly as bad as Thomas himself made out: he was in fact one of Britain's most successful and respected and well-known critics, writing for mass-circulation papers like the Daily Chronicle and the Morning Post. Some of the prose, of course, is dreadful; pretentious, grandiloquent, clichéd, and gushing. "I seemed to be on the eve of a revelation. I could have wept that my senses were not chastened to celestial keenness, to understand the pipits as they flew." He was hardly Henry James, but he was no gross spitter and puffer either. We should never be fooled by self-judgment: for some people, self-deprecation is merely a sad recognition of the demands of genius, and an accurate admission of the necessary circumstances out of which it grows.
Second, the poems are not entirely what critics would have us believe. Reading the Collected Poems it becomes clear that the poet's efforts were not essentially or demonstrably political, ecological or national. But neither are they strictly poetical: you don't go to Thomas for the vivid and isolated phrase, apart perhaps from the famous, vast, infinite linebreak in "Adlestrop" ("Yes. I remember Adlestrop - / The name"), and the great crunchy end to "The Glory" ("I cannot bite the day to the core"). You don't go to him either for mastery of technique, that ultimate test and gauge of sincerity: many of the poems read like echoes of themselves, like broken-up, vaguely blank-verseish prose (and indeed, in many instances, that's exactly what they are).
If anything explains the continuing appeal of his poems, it's probably that Thomas seems to have no clear idea of what he's doing or where's he's going; the effort is all. Many of the poems feature a first-person narrator who is tramping along, overlooked by others, a visitor in the landscape, passing by beguiling streams and fields, often in the rain, listening to much thrush-song and "parleying starlings" and "speculating rooks", and getting absolutely nowhere. Happiness, life and love all lie just out of reach - a leap, or a walking-stick's length away. In one of various poems titled "Home", he writes: "This is my grief. That land, / My home, I have never seen; / No traveller tells of it, / However far he has been." In "The Path", there is a path "that looks / As if it led on to some legendary / Or fancied place where men have wished to go / And stay; till, sudden, it ends where the wood ends." And in "Health": "Beauty would still be far off / However many hills I climbed over; / Peace would still be farther." Alienation is not the right word to describe all this. In "Lights Out" he writes:
not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers:
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf:
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
You're lost. There's no way out. It's a long and lonely pilgrimage; you're just going to have to try and hack your way through it.
Ian Sansom's novel Ring Road is published by Fourth Estate.
Saturday 4 December 2010
My hero: Edward Thomas
'Thomas has been a kind and implacable friend to me'
I began reading Edward Thomas in a cold winter 40 years ago. I found the blue hardback Collected Poems secondhand on Durham market, and by the fire in our strange habitation under the castle mound, nobody else at home, I read him at once, entire, knowing ever more certainly, poem by poem, that I loved him, he would be with me for life, I would learn from him.
Like other Romantics, Thomas got his poems most characteristically by walking. He was a man who walked away solitary into the wind and the rain when anxiety and the black melancholy were upon him; or who might tramp by your side, mile after mile, companionable, and never say a word; or be with you, as he was with Robert Frost, talking, listening, pausing at a gate, a gap, a stile, and so in the rhythm of a long walk and in the attentive to and fro of a conversation you would come nearer and nearer, both of you, to some important understanding.
At the heart of writing, it is always a matter of truth or lies, and anyone in that vocation wants companions, living and dead, who, when you glance their way inquiringly, will warn you by a look if you are edging away from the truth into the many ways of telling lies. Thomas has been one such kind and implacable friend to me. Having his own true tone of voice, he acts like a tuning fork in the ceaseless effort to hit and hold your own.
The dead move and change as the living do. You may think you know them through and through but then, after a lapse of time (in which you have aged), they startle you again. Just the other day, out of context, on a card, not in a book, these lines filled me with a new rush of gratitude: "A house that shall love me as I love it, / Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees / That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches / Shall often visit and make love in and flit . . ."
David Constantine won the BBC National Short Story award this week.
Friday 29 July 2011
When Thomas and Frost met in London in 1913, neither had yet made his name as a poet. They became close, and each was vital to the other's success. But then Frost wrote 'The Road Not Taken', which was to drive Thomas off to war
Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas
by Matthew Hollis
Edward Thomas and Robert Frost were sitting on an orchard stile near Little Iddens, Frost's cottage in Gloucestershire, in 1914, when word arrived that Britain had declared war on Germany. The two men wondered idly whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of the county. They had no idea of the way in which this war would come between them. In six months, Frost would flee England for the safety of New Hampshire; he would take Thomas's son with him in the expectation that the rest of the Thomas family would follow.
So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming. But Thomas was a man plagued by indecision, and could not readily choose between a life with Frost and the pull of the fighting in France. War seemed such an unlikely outcome for him. He was an anti-nationalist, who despised the jingoism and racism that the press was stoking; he refused to hate Germans or grow "hot" with patriotic love for Englishmen, and once said that his real countrymen were the birds. But this friendship – the most important of either man's life – would falter at a key moment, and Thomas would go to war.
Thomas was 36 that summer of 1914, Frost was 40; neither man had yet made his name as a poet. Thomas had published two dozen prose books and written almost 2,000 reviews, but he had still to write his first poem. He worked exhaustedly, hurriedly, "burning my candle at 3 ends", he told Frost, to meet the deadlines of London's literary editors; he felt convinced that he amounted to little more than a hack. He was crippled by a depression that had afflicted him since university. His moods had become so desperate that on the day he was introduced to Frost, he carried in his pocket a purchase that he ominously referred to as his "Saviour": probably poison, possibly a pistol, but certainly something with which he intended to harm himself.
At such periods of despair Thomas would lash out at his family, humiliating his wife, Helen, and provoking his three children to tears. He despised himself for the pain he inflicted on them and would leave home, sometimes for months on end, to spare them further agony. "Our life together never was, as it were, on the level – " Helen reflected candidly after his death, "it was either great heights or great depths." But Edward's heights were not Helen's, and his depths were altogether deeper. He sought professional help at a time when little was available, and was fortunate to come under the supervision of a pioneering young doctor, a future pupil of Carl Jung's, who attempted to treat him using a talking cure. The clinical sessions had been progressing for a year when Thomas abruptly turned his back on them. Yet he continued to look to others to help wrench him from his despondency, believing that a rescuer would one day emerge. "I feel sure that my salvation depends on a person," he once prophesised, "and that person cannot be Helen because she has come to resemble me too much." Such a figure would indeed arrive to help him in his distress – Robert Frost.
Frost had moved his family to England in 1912 in a bid to relaunch a stalled literary career. Then in his late 30s and a father of four, he had managed to publish only a handful of poems in America's literary magazines. He had not been sure whether to relocate his family to London or to Vancouver, so while his wife did the ironing, he had taken a nickel from his pocket and flipped it. It was heads, which meant London, and two weeks later the entire family was steaming across the Atlantic.
He found a publisher in London for his poems soon enough (partly subsidised by himself), though few critics gave his work a second look. But Edward Thomas did. Where other reviewers mistook Frost's verse as simplistic, Thomas was moved to announce his 1914 volume North of Boston as "one of the most revolutionary books of modern times". Thomas was a fearless and influential critic, described by the Times as "the man with the keys to the Paradise of English Poetry". He had been quick to identify the brilliance of a young American in London called Ezra Pound, and instrumental in shaping the early reception of Walter de la Mare, WH Davies and many others besides; and he was quite undaunted in taking to task the literary giants of the day if they fell below the mark, be they Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling or WB Yeats. When Thomas praised Frost, therefore, people began to take note.
North of Boston was a revolutionary work all right. In a mere 18 poems, it demonstrated the qualities that Frost and Thomas had – quite independently – come to believe were essential to the making of good verse. For both men, the engine of poetry was not rhyme or even form but rhythm, and the organ by which it communicated was the listening ear as opposed to the reading eye. For Thomas and Frost that entailed a fidelity to the phrase rather than to the metrical foot, to the rhythms of speech rather than those of poetic conventions, to what Frost liked to call "cadence". If you have ever listened to voices through a closed door, Frost reasoned, you will have noticed how it can be possible to understand the general meaning of a conversation even when the specific words are muffled. This is because the tones and sentences with which we speak are coded with sonic meaning, a "sound of sense". It is through this sense, unlocked by the rhythms of the speaking voice, that poetry communicates most profoundly: "A man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply," Thomas wrote.
Neither Frost nor Thomas claimed to be the first to think about poetry this way, but their views certainly set them apart from their contemporaries, who were in furious competition in the charged atmosphere of the years before the war. Strikers, unionists, suffragettes, Irish republicans and the unemployed were just some of the rebellious groups that England strove to tame in 1914, and might very well have failed to suppress had war not broken out. The young poets emerging at the same time were, in their own way, also in revolt against the decrepitude of Victorian Britain. The centre of their activities was the newly opened Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, from where two rival anthologies were produced: the manicured but popular Georgian Poetry, compiled by the secretary to the first lord of the Admiralty, Edward Marsh, and the radically experimental Des Imagistes, edited by Ezra Pound. It took no time at all for these parties to quarrel: so exasperating and offensive did Pound find Georgian verse that he challenged one of its protagonists to a duel.
Thomas and Frost ploughed their own furrow. Whenever Thomas visited Frost in 1914, they would walk out together on the fields of Gloucestershire; wherever they walked, they moved in an instinctive sympathy. Frost called these their "talks–walking": and in them, their conversations ranged over marriage and friendship, wildlife, poetry and the war. Sometimes there was no talk and a silence gathered about them; but often at a gate or stile it started up again or was prompted by the meeting of a stranger in the lanes – a word or two and they were off again. They went without a map, setting their course by the sun or by the distant arc of May Hill crowning the view to the south; at dusk, the towering elms and Lombardy poplars or the light of a part-glimpsed cottage saw them home.
"He gave me standing as a poet," Frost said of Thomas, "he more than anyone else." But Frost would more than repay the favour that summer, recognising an innate poetry within Thomas's prose writings, and imploring his friend to look back at his topographic books and "write them in verse form in exactly the same cadence". Thomas would do just that, and with his friend's encouragement, started down a path that would take him away from the "hack" work from which he earned his living. Jack Haines was a poet and solicitor living nearby in 1914 and was one of the few people who witnessed the transition at first hand. "It was towards the end of this same year that Thomas first began to write poetry himself," Haines recorded, "and he did so certainly on the indirect, and I believe on the direct, suggestion of Frost, who thought that verse might prove that perfect mode of self-expression which Thomas had perhaps never previously found."
The poems came quickly, "in a hurry and a whirl": 75 in the first six months alone. He revised very little, explaining that the poetry neither asked for nor received much correction on paper. Often he went back to his prose to find his poem. Sometimes his source was a notebook that he kept on his walks, at other times his published books; and though the gap between his initial notes and a verse draft could be many months, once he began on the poem itself he usually completed it in a single day.
But poetry was not the only thing waking in Thomas in those summer months as the war began. Late in August, walking with Frost through the afternoon into the night, Thomas jotted in his notebook:
a sky of dark rough horizontal masses in N.W. with a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.
The war was three weeks old, and for the first time Thomas had imagined his countrymen fighting abroad, under the same moon as he. He was indifferent to the politics of the conflict, but he had begun to weigh up the worth of the land beneath his feet and the way of life that it supported. What would he do, if called on, to protect it, he asked himself. Would he do anything at all?
For a year, Thomas would question himself this way. It would take two incidents with Frost to help him to find his answer.
In late November 1914, Thomas and Frost were strolling in the woods behind Frost's cottage when they were intercepted by the local gamekeeper, who challenged their presence and told the men bluntly to clear out. As a resident, Frost believed he was entitled to roam wherever he wished, and he told the keeper as much. The keeper was unimpressed and some sharp words were exchanged, and when the poets emerged on to the road they were challenged once more. Tempers flared and the keeper called Frost "a damned cottager" before raising his shotgun at the two men. Incensed, Frost was on the verge of striking the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading each other before then finally parting, the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked.
Thomas said that the keeper's aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done about it. Frost's ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done and done right now, and if Thomas wanted to follow him he could see it being done. The men turned back, Frost angrily, Thomas hesitantly, but the gamekeeper was no longer on the road. His temper wild, Frost insisted on tracking the man down, which they did, to a small cottage at the edge of a coppice. Frost beat on the door, and left the startled keeper in no doubt as to what would befall him were he ever to threaten him again or bar access to the preserve. Frost repeated his warning for good measure, turned on his heels and prepared to leave. What happened next would be a defining moment in Frost and Thomas's friendship, and would plague Thomas to his dying days.
The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas who, until then, had not been his primary target. The gun was raised again; instinctively Thomas backed off once more, and the gamekeeper forced the men off his property and back on to the path, where they retreated under the keeper's watchful aim.
Frost contented himself with the thought that he had given a good account of himself; but not Thomas, who wished that his mettle had not been tested in the presence of his friend. He felt sure that he had shown himself to be cowardly and suspected Frost of thinking the same. Not once but twice had he failed to hold his ground, while his friend had no difficulty standing his. His courage had been found wanting, at a time when friends such as Rupert Brooke had found it in themselves to face genuine danger overseas.
The encounter would leave Thomas haunted, to relive the moment again and again. In his verse and in his letters to Frost – in the week when he left for France, even in the week of his death – he recalled the feeling of fear and cowardice he had experienced in that stand-off with the gamekeeper. He felt mocked by events and possibly even by the most important friend he had ever made, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. When the moment came he would hold his nerve and face the gunmen. "That's why he went to war," said Frost later.
But it would take one further episode in Thomas's friendship with Frost to push him to war; and it would turn on a work of Frost's that has become America's best-loved poem.
In the early summer of 1915, six months after the row with the gamekeeper, Thomas had still to take his fateful decision to enlist. Zeppelins had brought the war emphatically to London, but Thomas's eyes were on New Hampshire, to where Frost had returned earlier that year. Thomas prepared his mother for the news that he might emigrate, and told Frost he seemed certain to join him: "I am thinking about America as my only chance (apart from Paradise)." But Thomas's prevarication got the better of him once more, and though conscription had yet to be introduced, he told Frost of the equal pull of the war in France. "Frankly I do not want to go," he said of the fighting, "but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should. With no call, the problem is endless."
But the problem was not endless as Thomas thought, for a poem of Frost's had arrived by post that would dramatically force Thomas's hand: a poem called "Two Roads", soon to be rechristened "The Road Not Taken". It finished:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Noble, charismatic, wise: in the years since its composition, "The Road Not Taken" has been understood by some as an emblem of individual choice and self-reliance, a moral tale in which the traveller takes responsibility for – and so effects – his own destiny. But it was never intended to be read in this way by Frost, who was well aware of the playful ironies contained within it, and would warn audiences: "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem – very tricky."
Frost knew that reading the poem as a straight morality tale ought to pose a number of difficulties. For one: how can we evaluate the outcome of the road not taken? For another: had the poet chosen the road more travelled by then that, logically, could also have made all the difference. And in case the subtlety was missed, Frost set traps in the poem intended to explode a more earnest reading. The two paths, he wrote, had been worn "really about the same", and "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black", showing the reader that neither road was more or less travelled, and that choices may in some sense be equal.
But the poem carried a more personal message. Many were the walks when Thomas would guide Frost on the promise of rare wild flowers or birds' eggs, only to end in self-reproach when the path he chose revealed no such wonders. Amused at Thomas's inability to satisfy himself, Frost chided him, "No matter which road you take, you'll always sigh, and wish you'd taken another."
To Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of his own fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness the most astutely – in particular, towards the war – appeared to be mocking him for it.
Thomas responded angrily. He did not subscribe to models of self-determination, or the belief that the spirit could triumph over adversity; some things seemed to him ingrained, inevitable. How free-spirited his friend seemed in comparison. This American who sailed for England on a long-shot, knowing no one and without a place to go, rode his literary fortunes and won his prize, then set sail again to make himself a new home. None of this was Thomas. "It isn't in me," he pleaded.
Frost insisted that Thomas was overreacting, and told his friend that he had failed to see that "the sigh was a mock sigh, hypocritical for the fun of the thing". But Thomas saw no such fun, and said so bluntly, adding that he doubted anyone would see the fun of the thing without Frost to guide them personally. Frost, in fact, had already discovered as much on reading the poem before a college audience, where it was "taken pretty seriously", he admitted, despite "doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling . . . Mea culpa."
"The Road Not Taken" did not send Thomas to war, but it was the last and pivotal moment in a sequence of events that had brought him to an irreversible decision. He broke the news to Frost. "Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me."
In walking with Frost, he had written of the urgent need to protect – and if necessary, to fight for – the life and the landscape around him. "Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape," he explained, though he had struggled for some time to see what it was that might be done. Finally, he understood. Thomas was passed fit by the doctor, and the same week, in July 1915, he sat down to lunch with a friend and informed her that he had enlisted in the Artists Rifles, and that he was glad; he did not know why, but he was glad.
"I had known that the struggle going on in his spirit would end like this," his wife wrote.
Thomas brought a unique eye to the English landscape at a moment when it was facing irreversible change. His work seems distinctly modern in its recognition of the interdependence of human beings and the natural world, more closely attuned to our own ecological age than that of the first world war.
Though few of his poems were published in his lifetime, his admirers have been many: WH Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion and Michael Longley among them. But perhaps no poet ever valued him more highly than Robert Frost: "We were greater friends than almost any two ever were practising the same art," he remarked. A war, a gamekeeper and a road not taken came between them, but by then they had altered one another's lives irrevocably. Thomas pulled his friend's work from obscurity into a clearing, from which the American would go on to sell a million poetry books in his lifetime. Frost, in turn, released the poet within Thomas, and would even find a publisher for his verse in the United States. That book would carry a dedication that Thomas had scribbled on the eve of sailing for France: "To Robert Frost". Frost responded in kind, writing: "Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had."
At twilight when walking, or at the parting of ways with a friend, Thomas could feel great sadness that his journey must come to an end:
Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity.
He was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras, Easter 1917; he had survived little more than two months in France. Yet his personal war was never with a military opponent: it had been with his ravaging depression and with his struggle to find a literary expression through poetry that was worthy of his talents. And on the latter, at least, he won his battle.
30 July 2011 5:25AM
For all of us who want to write but cannot.
Words by Edward Thomas
OUT of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through--
You English words?
I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak;
Sweet as our birds
to the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,--
As our hills are, old,--
Again and again:
Young as our streams
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.
Make me content
With some sweetness
Have no wings,--
From Wiltshire and Kent
And the villages there,--
From the names, and the things
Let me sometimes dance
Or stand perchance
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.
30 July 2011 4:08PM
My favourite poem of Thomas's:
Old Man, or
Lad's-Love, -- in the name there'??s nothing
To one that knows not Lad'??s-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, though it is not old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I can only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I 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 Ladâ??s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
However, I think there were multiple and perhaps not very clear reasons why Thomas went to war. The cowardice with the gamekeeper and Frost's influence/poem may have been two. But there is a strong suspicion that he both wished to fight for the English countryside (he was not really Welsh except by parentage) and wished to die as an escape. See 'Lights Out':
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way.
30 July 2011 8:14PM
A great article, thank you. But I wonder at the apparent omission of the wonderful poem Frost wrote, to his great friend, entitled simply "To E.T". I believe it's out of copyright and can be posted here:
"I slumbered with
your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,
I might not have the
chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.
I meant, you meant,
that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.
You went to meet the
shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.
How over, though,
for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?"
Such poignancy, the sure touch of a master craftsman. And such economy. The apparent paradox, exquisitely conveyed in: "The war seemed over more for you than me,/But now for me than you--the other way".
It doesn't get much better than that.
Reassessing the literary legacy of the Lost Generation's Edward Thomas
A writer’s posthumous renown is often untethered to his life’s toil, even when that toil is writing. Edward Thomas is now regarded as maybe the finest poet of the First World War, and one of the greatest of the 20th century. His marriage of precise pastoral observation to a severe clarity of vision, and his easy technical virtuosity as displayed in his natural use of diction and of the rhythms of everyday speech, has made him something of a poet’s poet: Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis said they had “little or no hope of ever equaling” Thomas, and at Westminster Abbey in 1985, Ted Hughes declared him “the father of us all.”
But when Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras, on Easter Monday in 1917—as he was filling his pipe, the blast from a passing shell stopped his heart; he died with his body unblemished—his reputation as a writer rested entirely on his vast and varied work in prose. At his death, only a handful of his poems had been published, all pseudonymously. In fact, he had just started writing poetry in the winter of 1914–15, when he was 36; he wrote all of his 144 poems in the last two years of his life. (Although only one of his poems, “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong,” relates directly to the war, he wrote much of his verse while in uniform, and the conflict, as the poet and critic Andrew Motion has argued, pervades his poetry. The enigmatically elegiac power of his most beloved poem, the 16-line “Adlestrop,” for instance, is surely derived from its evocation of the warm, idyllic summer on the eve of the war.)
Thomas’s career as a writer sprang largely from necessity. In 1899, while still an undergraduate at Oxford, Thomas impregnated his then-fiancée. Married and a father at 22, his justifiably high academic ambitions derailed, Thomas had to jump on Grub Street’s treadmill. He could never get off. Over the next decade and a half, he would write an astonishing 20 books, edit or write the introductions to an additional dozen, and write 70 articles and 1,900 reviews (he sometimes wrote 15 reviews in a week). Ever scribbling for money, Thomas, who eventually had three children, took on far too many commissions on far too disparate subjects—he reviewed a dizzying array of titles, and his own books include a biography of the Duke of Marlborough, a novel, and studies of Keats, Lafcadio Hearn, Charles Swinburne, and Walter Pater.
With Edward Thomas: Prose Writings, a work that will consist of six fat volumes, Oxford University Press seeks to change that. (The publication of the opening volumes in the series roughly coincides with the recent publication of the most astute biography yet written of Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, by Matthew Hollis). The bold aim of the series is to establish Thomas “as one of the most important prose writers in English.” But to lay siege to that literary Parnassus demands heavier guns. Given Thomas’s extraordinary output, an assemblage of his prose limited to a mere six volumes permits only relatively small excerpts of much of his work. In the case of the 612-page second volume, which collects some of Thomas’s most important writing on the countryside, entire books, including perhaps his finest, The South Country, must be represented by just a few chapters—which makes it read more like an anthology aimed at undergraduates than an installment in a reputation-defining, grandly ambitious work.
Although Thomas despaired that the Stakhanovite pace of his literary production kept him from writing more lasting works, his prose was far from mere hackery. He was England’s most discerning, esteemed, and feared poetry critic—he very early grasped the brilliance and weaknesses in Yeats and Pound, and championed Robert Frost; Walter de la Mare said that he must have been “a critic of rhymes in his nursery.” In reviews, articles, and book introductions on rural life, and particularly in his “country books”—eccentric, discursive amalgams of travel writing, history, topography, natural history, literary analysis, and fiction, rooted in particular counties or regions—Thomas established himself as among the best in a distinguished line of English writers on nature and the countryside.
Paradoxically, those pursuits added to the labors that kept him from the leisured life he perhaps needed in order to write poetry—a life he would only fully find in the army—even as they immeasurably helped him emerge as a poet. Frost, who urged Thomas to turn to poetry, proposed that he transform into poems some segments from his finely observed book on country life In Pursuit of Spring—a decisive suggestion. “All he ever got from me,” Frost said years later, “was admiration for the poet in him before he had written a line of poetry.” Thomas would, shortly before his death, characterize his poems as the “quintessences of the best parts of my prose books.” It’s ironic, then, that although Thomas built his literary reputation on his criticism and country writing, those endeavors are now peripheral to that reputation.
Still, for all the exigencies that impinged on their creation, and for all the perhaps unavoidable thinness of the sampling, the writings collected in this volume—Thomas’s reviews and introductions about rural life and, above all, excerpts from his own country books—show a prose master of understated power and refinement. Elaborately precise, richly textured, densely allusive, Thomas’s prose reveals a mind minutely curious and a man of prodigious but easy learning and wry warmth. But somewhat incongruously, its style is at once Latinate in its intricate exactitude and, as Thomas himself described the style of one of his literary heroes, William Cobbett, “lean and hard and undecorated.”
Thomas’s genius as a prose writer is surely rooted in his profound historical sense. Deeply and widely read, he littered his writing with unattributed allusions to folklore, ballads, the Greek and Latin authors, and the entire corpus of English literature, which he had in his bones. The force and effectiveness of that allusiveness lies in its particularity. He was alive to the relationship between a particular place and the writers who lived there. As Virginia Woolf wrote,
He had a passion for English country and a passion for English literature; and he had stored enough knowledge of the lives of his heroes to make it natural for him to think of them when walking through their country and to speculate whether the influence of it could be traced in their writing.
Entwined with this literary hyperawareness—this sense of the interpenetration among writers, between writers and their environment, and between literature and Thomas’s experience (“I cannot decide whether my life owed more to my books or my books, more to my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I slipped from one world into the other as easily as from room to room”)—is Thomas’s historical hyperawareness, which gives him almost literally a different way of seeing. He was a skilled mapmaker and map reader, and in his books he brilliantly discerns and interprets what was in plain sight. He sees, as he writes inThe South Country, how “the peculiar combination of soil and woodland and water determines the direction and position and importance of the ancient trackways … [and] the position and size of the human settlements.” He grasps how landscape—the patterns of fields and hedgerows, villages, watercourses, roads—is not fixed by nature but is instead the product of thousands of years of human activity. He can read the hidden anatomy of the land, and see how ancient farming and medieval trade created the contemporary scenery that we take for granted and assume is immutable. Taken as a whole, Thomas’s writing on the countryside offers a meditation on history’s pervasive and stubborn influence on the present: “Toil and passion of generations,” he writes in The South Country, “produce only an enriching of the light within the glades, and a solemnizing of the shadows.”
Thomas’s writing is, as his experience no doubt was, saturated—indeed, charged—with the past. Responding to Coleridge, he says:
There are many places which nobody can look upon without being consciously influenced by a sense of their history … In some places history has wrought like an earthquake, in others like an ant or mole; everywhere, permanently; so that if we but knew or cared, every swelling of the grass, every wavering line of hedge or path or road were an inscription … When we muse deeply upon the old road worn deep into the chalk, among burial mound and encampment; we feel rather than see.
The work in this volume may or may not put Thomas in the front rank of English prose writers. But it does poignantly and scintillatingly testify to the regressive aspects of human psychology and the human experience, which entangle us in the distant and also the recent past even as we try to make our way forward.
Artikel erschienen am Sa, 18. Juni 2005
Tom der Wanderer kehrt heim
Die Wiederentdeckung eines Haltlosen: Der englische Dichter Edward Thomas erscheint erstmals auf deutsch
von Wieland Freund
Edward Thomas: Die Unbekümmerten. A. d. Engl. v. Friedhelm Rathjen. Steidl, Göttingen. 267 S., 22 EUR.
Ein paar Dichter behält eine Nationalliteratur immer für sich. Edward Thomas jedenfalls, der Bücher wie "Beautiful Wales", "The Heart of England" oder "The South Country" schrieb, hat sein stilles Eckchen im "Poet's Corner" von Westminster Abbey schon gefunden. Sein Reich fern dieser Welt ist das "Oxford Book of English Verse", sind jene Bücher, die nach einem ungeschriebenen Gesetz die Farbe von totem Gras haben. In fensterlosen Hörsälen wird gelegentlich ein Gedicht von ihm deklamiert, werden Versfüße gezählt, werden kleine a's und b's und c's mit Bleistift hinter Reime gekritzelt, wird schließlich ein braunstichiges Foto betrachtet, das den Dichter in der Dichterpose zeigt, den Kopf in die Hand gestützt, den Blick nach innen gerichtet, so als hätte es 1907 noch die Ordnung der Dinge gegeben, als wäre damals der Dichter noch verläßlich traurig gewesen, so wie es sich für einen gehört, der aus seinem Leiden Funken schlägt.
Daß einer wie Thomas fast neunzig Jahre nach seinem Tod noch ins Deutsche findet, grenzt in einer Zeit, die sich kaum ihre Gegenwart merken kann, an ein Wunder. Und trotzdem ist es wahr: Eben ist bei Steidl Friedhelm Rathjens Übersetzung von "Die Unbekümmerten" erschienen, Thomas' einzigem Roman aus dem Jahr 1913 - das Cover rot und blau und rosa. "Manche", schrieb Thomas, "verdammen die Erde, auf die sie schauen / Manche warten geduldig bis sie mehr wissen / Als die Erde ihnen sagen kann ..."
Der 1878 geborene Edward Thomas, behaupten die Literaturgeschichten, sei der Dichter einer Zeitenwende. Zuweilen erscheint er wie ein georgianischer Nachromantiker "mit den üblichen ländlichen Themen seiner Zeit", dann wieder wie ein früher Moderner, der als Rezensent Ezra Pound verstand und als Dichter das Drechseln, Floskeln, Schwurbeln verlernte. "Krieg dem Klischee", schrieb ihm sein amerikanischer Freund Robert Frost in einem Brief, und wenigstens der Dichter Thomas hielt sich daran.
Schon die erste Welle der Industrialisierung hatte seine Familie erfaßt und aus dem abgeschiedenen Wales in einen größeren Kontext verpflanzt; als Thomas 1910 das industriell wuchernde Swansea sah, sprach er von einer "vollständig bestückten Hölle". Die Menschen, so steht es in den "Unbekümmerten", "können heute eine Reihe von Sachen, von denen die Alten nicht einmal geträumt haben, aber ihre Bärte sind nichts im Vergleich zu den unglücklichen alten Tagen, als überall Männer mit solchen langen weißen Bärten am Straßenrand saßen und so aussahen, als wären sie von da gekommen, wo die Welt zu Ende ist".
Als Thomas erklären mußte, warum er freiwillig in den Ersten Weltkrieg zog, soll er eine Handvoll Erde aufgelesen und gesagt haben: "Buchstäblich, für das." Von "Old England" hatte Edward Thomas eine feste Vorstellung, von seiner Gegenwart allerdings war diese Vorstellung bedrängt. Die Romantiker gruben ihre Märchen noch mit einem "Heureka" aus, Edward Thomas verlegte seine "Celtic Stories" und "Norse Tales" vielleicht schon im Bewußtsein des Verlusts.
Für seine Biografen jedenfalls ist das Unglück des Edward Thomas eine ausgemachte Sache, die Selbstzeugnisse lassen auch kaum einen anderen Schluß zu. Früh entschied er sich für die Laufbahn eines freien Schriftstellers, und bis er dieses Leben ausgerechnet gegen das eines Soldaten tauschte, rissen seine Klagen nicht ab. Ständig glaubte er sich in Existenznöten, ständig wuchs sein Pensum. Einmal rezensierte er 13 Bücher in einer Woche, einmal arbeitete er innerhalb von zwölf Monaten an sieben Büchern. Er schrieb Reisebeschreibungen und Naturbetrachtungen und Biographien oder stellte Anthologien zusammen - zwischen 1897 und 1917 erschienen 29 Bücher, die seinen Namen tragen. Mit kaum einem davon war er einverstanden, nur wenige brachte er zu Ende, ohne sie mit überlangen Beschreibungen, Zitaten oder nicht immer passenden Auszügen aus seinen Notizbüchern aufzufüllen. Manisch begann er ein neues Projekt, depressiv schloß er es ab. "Stell dir vor, wie ich oft mehr als tausend Wörter am Tage schreibe, sie dann ohne Korrekturen ins Reine schreibe, und das obwohl viele dieser Sachen der Art sind, daß ich eigentlich einen Monat oder länger auf jedem Tausend herumkauen müßte."
Gegen den "damned blues" half dann anfallartiges Schreiben, das anfallartige Schreiben aber führte wiederum zum "damned blues", vor dem Thomas schließlich in die freie Natur floh oder wenigstens weg von zu Hause, manchmal bloß bis in eine Pension. "Die Unbekümmerten" etwa, ein Werk, dem er immerhin ein paar gute Haare ließ, entstand im "Sealsfield House" nicht weit von East Grindstead in nur zwei Monaten. "Walking Tom" nannten seine Freunde Thomas damals schon, ganz offensichtlich war er ein Mann auf einer nicht enden wollenden Flucht.
Thomas' Prosa ist heute selbst in Großbritannien fast völlig vergessen, den Roman "Die Unbekümmerten" nennt sogar sein wohlwollender Biograf R. George Thomas in vornehmer Zurückhaltung einen "keineswegs konventionellen Roman". Es ist ein wunderliches, für Thomas typisches Buch, inhaltlich wie formal. Ziellos kommt einem die lange Beschreibung von Londons "Abbey Road" am Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts vor, im Labyrinth vieler Binnenerzählungen verliert sich, was wohl nie ein Plot war. Edward Thomas, schreibt R. George Thomas, wußte, daß ""Geschichten' außerhalb seiner Möglichkeiten lagen, waren sie nicht getarnte Autobiographie".
Und wo die "Unbekümmerten" zumindest eine Art Roman ergeben, ist das persönlich Erlebte auch nie weit: Die unkonventionelle Familie Morgan, die sich da, wo London ausfranst, ein kleines, herrlich unsortiertes Paradies geschaffen hat, hieß in Wirklichkeit Jones, und sowohl der Lohnschreiber Mr. Stodham, der "allein mit einer Feder, die über ein Blatt Papier tanzt, die Miete und die Bäckerrechnung" bezahlt, als auch der junge Philip Morgan, der sterben muß, sobald er ein Dichter wird, sind Selbstporträts des Autors. Groß beachtet wurden "Die Unbekümmerten" nie, 1913 verkauften sie sich schlecht, heute verkaufen sie sich sogar in Großbritannien nur noch antiquarisch.
Und doch hat Friedhelm Rathjen in seinem Nachwort recht, wenn er glaubt, in den "Unbekümmerten" das "geheime Zentrum" von Edward Thomas' Schaffen entdecken zu können. Alle seine Themen sind enthalten, näher als in den Binnenerzählungen des Romans stehen sie nirgends beieinander: Tagtraumwelten ergänzen nordisches Sagengut, eine Dichterbiographie gesellt sich zu Porträts von Landmännern, die Notizbücher werden ausgebeutet, und manche Landschaftsbeschreibung liest sich schon wie Lyrik, die zu schreiben sich Edward Thomas 1912 noch nicht traute. Für viele der Figuren ist die Ruhelosigkeit des "Walking Tom" charakteristisch, alle sind sie existentiell einsam und leicht und unbekümmert nur im vollen Bewußtsein ihrer schweren Melancholie und Bekümmertheit. Der stille Mr. Morgan, der kauzige Mr. Stodham, der vogelfreie Aurelius, "der überflüssige Mensch" und "wilde Vogel": Sie alle haben in ihrem Unglück ihr Glück gefunden - und wenn auch nur für Momente.
Wenigstens in der Fiktion also ist es Edward Thomas gelungen, "zu einer bestimmten Beschreibung vom Paradies" zu kommen, einem Ort, der, so lautete sein Traum, gleichermaßen "fixed and free" war. Am Ende des Romans allerdings warten der Tod und der Gerichtsvollzieher.
Edward Thomas selbst blieb entweder "fixed" oder "free". Von 1915 an schrieb er die 142 Gedichte, die ihn erst nach seinem Tod berühmt machen sollten, im selben Jahr meldete er sich zur Armee. Die Verwandlung ist erschreckend. Aus dem sanften, nachdenklichen, schüchtern lächelnden Mann mit den hochgezogenen Schultern und dem Sonnenlicht im Haar ist ein Soldat mit breitem Koppel, schmalem Schurrbart und einem in die Ferne gerichteten, strengen Blick geworden. Ein Foto aus dem Dezember 1916 zeigt einen ehemals Haltlosen, der ausgerechnet im Krieg Halt gefunden hat. "Ich habe gereimt", schreibt er 1916 an Robert Frost, "aber ich habe meine Reime verbrannt und bin stolz darauf." Ende März 1917, Thomas ist bereits - wiederum freiwillig - an der französischen Front, heißt es dann: "In anderen Jahren habe ich in den Monaten Januar bis März schon mehr gelitten als in diesem." Am Ostermontag, dem 9. April 1917, frühmorgens um halb acht, wird Edward Thomas auf einem vorgezogenen Beobachtungsposten von der Sogwirkung einer Granate getötet. Was manchem als Selbstmord erscheint, war wohl eher eine endlich vollendete Flucht.