Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, A Biography, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Bloomsbury
Edward Thomas is one of a group of elite WWI poets, and in these years of anniversaries of WWI it is perhaps unsurprising to see his life revisited. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, already a biographer of the poets Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, has written a thorough biography in which she undertakes to fiercely correct some of the mythologising that has grown up around Thomas, including the supposedly saintly nature of his death in France, introduced by his harassed but devoted wife, and that has been perpetuated by other biographers.
His much-publicised death at the front line at Arras, and his turn to poetry before he embarked for Europe, means that the whole book feels like a steady on-rush to these two intertwined events. The narrative accelerates, with Thomas’s final days being described by the author in present-tense, adding to the tension.
Otherwise, much of the book is melancholy, describing a man rarely happy with himself, married at a young age, feeling restricted by domesticity, burdened by the need to complete inordinately large amounts of book reviewing and journalism to pay the bills (a task to which critic John Wain suggests Thomas was temperamentally ill-suited), plagued by depression and suicidal thoughts. Wilson describes his ‘almost permanent discontent’. It also details his equivocation about enlisting, which led his friend Robert Frost to pen one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’. On the other hand, it celebrates Thomas’s love of nature, nurtured by frequent walking and evident in his written work.
It was love of the land of England more so than its people that seemed to drive him to enlist for war. (Contrary to the surrounding jingoism, Thomas on more than one occasion argued that the Germans were hardly different to the English.) But it was also the desire to escape his marriage and to give his normally tortured mind a distraction and purpose. At the front, he felt best when putting his observational skills to work and allowing simple things to attract his attention. Although he was unable to write when he saw action in France, except for letters and a diary, the flowering of his poetry coincided with the war’s opening, which sits in the background of most of his poems. But the poems themselves are more than war poetry (leading some to question the label ‘war poet’). They celebrate the natural world observed while evoking wider themes only quietly. The poems are measured and gentle but confident. They celebrate the ordinary and small, and often only hint at subject matter, in the manner of haiku poetry, with which Thomas was familiar. Thomas uses common language, as he was suspicious of obviously poetic language and high-minded themes, in a natural yet distinctive manner.
His poetry, initially sent out tentatively under a pseudonym, followed extensive and highly regarded (but not always by Thomas) prose work. The poems took passages from that earlier work and re-configured them. There are clear resonances stylistically and thematically, and in fact it was Frost, who was living in England and who was then far less recognised than Thomas, who recognised the highly poetic nature of Thomas’s prose work, and that Thomas would make the transition easily. His reputation as a poet has meant over the years that his prose writing has been down-played and summarised as hack-work, but lately there has been a new appreciation of his prose books, by the likes of Ronald Blythe and Robert Macfarlane. His prose can be said to prefigure the modernists, or even postmodernists, with its impressionistic, perambulatory style which contrasted with the matter-of-factness of Victorian travel writing. His writing often eschews the particulars of place names for overall subjective feel. It is a very personal evocation of shared, rural space.