Monday, 28 May 2012

Edward Thomas & 'The Old Ways'

Edward Thomas, 1916, by John Wheatley (National Portrait Gallery)
A century ago, Edward Thomas was in his mid-30s and on the verge of despair. Though well known and respected as a literary critic of great skill and sensitivity, he hadn't come close to achieving the success he had dreamed of when he started out as a professional writer more than a decade earlier. Every month he read numerous books and sent in thousands of words of articles and criticism, and every year or so he was commissioned to write a book, which he generally did at great speed, with minimal editing. Unsurprisingly, neither the reading public nor his fellow critics were ever that impressed.

He considered suicide on more than one occasion, and what would have happened to him had war not broken out in August 1914 one hardly dare imagine. Thomas was immensely gifted as a writer, and published his first book when still very young, yet his books are for the most part difficult going. Even when he wrote about his heroes Richard Jefferies and George Borrow he failed to bring his subject to life. His problem, one not unfamiliar to writers and artists, is that he was endeavouring to support a family in a way that was all but impossible, as a principled, devoutly literary writer who refused to teach and was too burned-out to write the bestseller that would have made his name.

It took George Orwell decades to match, in his earnings as a writer, the salary he had enjoyed as a very junior Imperial officer in Burma, and the concomitant sense of failure drove him to the extreme, self-destructive behaviour that gave us 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. He at least knew success for a few years before his early death, but Thomas never even saw an edition of his poetry published under his own name.

Imagine, though, his joy when that first poem came bubbling into his mind, and then the next, and the next! Imagine, after having to write tens of thousands of words every month without a break, his pleasure in the long empty evenings and weekends at Hare Hall, the Artists' Rifles' Essex HQ and the simple notebook with its scribbled lines. He may have scrawled his verses without line breaks so nobody would suspect him of being a poet, but deep down he knew they were good.

Today, Edward Thomas is better known and more widely-read than many of the writers who outshone him during his lifetime. Who now reads Lascelles Abercrombie's gargantuan volumes of verse? Who goes to see plays by Gordon Bottomley? Even giants like GK Chesterton and Walter de la Mare are probably less known to some than Thomas. Let's hope there's a literary club in heaven and that he's up there enjoying all the attention.

There's the lovely new Faber edition of his poems, and Matthew Hollis's marvellous biography 'Now All Roads Lead to France'. This I avoided reading for a while as I knew the Thomas story fairly well (and his wasn't the most cheering of lives), but it proved to be a revelation. In an age of over-stuffed biographies here was a book that was light in tone, selective in content and very informative in its analysis of Thomas's poetry. There was even the suggestion of secret passion to offset the well-known and rather tedious platonic romance with Eleanor Farjeon. Fabulous!

And now Dear old Thomas (as Paul Nash refered to him) is back in the literary pages again, courtesy of Robert Macfarlane, whose book 'The Old Ways' covers some of the Anglo-Welsh writer's old stamping grounds. In 2009 Macfarlane wrote an introduction to Little Toller's centenary edition of 'The South Country', in which he reappraised Thomas's powerful but chaotic book:

'There's something hypermodern about the book's collage-like feel, its shifts and bucks. In topographical terms, the experience of reading "The South Country" resembles a Google-Earth fly-over of the chalk counties: zooming in here, settling there, lifting off, scrolling on... In tonal terms, the book slides without warning from the intensely observed to the extravagantly imagined. The effect on the reader is an intriguing cognitive dissonance...'

The subject of this praise might have offered a wry smile had he heard it, as Thomas was renowned for his plain speaking. He and Robert Frost sought to write as ordinary people spoke, and you need only dip into the work of Bottomley or Abercrombie to see that this was actually rather radical; apart from Thomas, critics of Frost's first efforts didn't get it. And this wasn't just a question of style. Thomas is sometimes described as a proto-environmentalist, and his politics were indeed rather ahead of their time. Here he is in full flow in 'The South Country':

'And those long wayside greens, no man's gardens, measuring a few feet wide but many miles in length - why should they be used either as receptacles for the dust of motor-cars or as additions to the property of the landowner who happens to be renewing his fence? They used to be as beautiful and cool and fresh as rivers, these green sisters of the white roads - illuminated borders of many a weary tale. But now, lest there should be no room for the dust, they are turning away from them the gipsies who used to camp there for a night... Give them a pitch for the night and you are regarded as an enemy of the community or perhaps even as a Socialist.'

Thomas saw no distinction between the countryside and the people who belonged to it, principally working people and travellers. He had an abiding respect and fascination for tramps, and personally secured the publication of 'The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' by Welsh wanderer WH Davies; whatever his views on property ownership, he was no respecter of fences and the 'pheasant-lords' who employed gamekeepers to keep walkers off the land.

If he were alive today I think he'd be a figure more like Iain Sinclair than Robert Macfarlane, or perhaps he'd be a mixture of the two: caustic and poetic, as aware of the present as he was of the past, and as concerned with those dispossessed by progress as he was with the land itself.


  1. One of England's greatest poets - he and Gerard Manley Hopkins are almost the only ones where pretty well every poem and every line counts. As I recall, he used to have an advertising poster hanging in the shed where he wrote, with the enticing headline: Spring is coming, bringing debility.

  2. Thanks Neil, love the description of the poster - sounds like classic Thomas.

  3. And don't you long for the days when advertisers - aiming at farmers, I believe - would use the word debility in a slogan?