The Road Not Taken

Edward Thomas's Poets, ed. Judy Kendall
[207 pp, 14.95, Carcanet]

It is surprising to consider for a moment the continuing interest in the poetry of Edward Thomas, almost all produced during World War One, in the last two years of his life. The contemporary poets Thomas knew, corresponded with and reviewed himself do not command such loyalty or fascination: there are few scholarly monographs on Wilfred Blunt, for instance, and Carcanet may not be rushing into print collections of Gordon Bottomley's verse. The reason for this is that Thomas seems to be such a tantalising link to a tradition of mainly rural English poetry, and his death, in the battle of Arras in April 1917 seems to put a full stop to it. The ground, to use a fitting metaphor, is cleared for the likes of Eliot and Pound to buccaneer through the 1920s.

This may not be the full story, however, and this admirable contextual study suggests new ways of viewing Thomas' poetry; this has continued to garner readers, even if only through the anthologising of 'Adlestrop'. It is a simple idea; Judy Kendall has traced letters and other contemporary documents from the period 1914 1916 and placed Thomas' poems alongside such material. For readers of Thomas, this provides some useful insight ~ we can identify locations, such as the village in 'The Manor Farm' ~ but also some surprises. How many readers of Thomas, for example, knew of his habit of composing from a last line backwards? Or his aim to try to keep poems down below twelve lines? The volume is full of delightful anecdotal detail such as this.

For more serious devotees of the development of Thomas' poetry, there is the ongoing epistolary drama of his attempts to separate experience from self-conscious intention: his successes are there to see in the late poems such as 'Out in the Dark' and 'Lights Out'. This is what essentially marks Thomas out as in a different league from other Georgians and popular writers of the period; indeed, as the letters reveal, he was quite harsh towards famous names such as Walter Pater and friends like John Freeman and Walter De la Mare. The friendship and example of Robert Frost was undoubtedly key here, and this volume prints extracts from several interesting letters to him; sadly, few replies from Frost are extant, and only one brief, fragmentary paragraph is included, significantly telling Thomas he should avoid Georgian literary men.

The reader is left with great respect for Thomas' determined attempt to develop his poetry far beyond the work of his peers. The practical problems mount up in the margins of his letters: commissioned literary hack-work, continual rejection, financial worries, and ultimately, the difficulties of writing having enlisted to fight. Ultimately, the reader of Thomas always realises that he is fighting to ensure the survival of  England and English poetry: 'This is No Case of Petty right or Wrong' dramatises his reasons for doing so, and was written after a furious argument with his father. My theory is that we still read and value Thomas because his concerns and, to some extent his poetic processes, continue in the work of other, often quite surprising writers. Consider, for instance, Larkin's 'The Trees' or Geoffrey Hill's 'Sorrel' (in the collection
Canaan). The green roads that Edward Thomas wrote of have a way of outlasting tarmac and motorways.

         M.C. Caseley 2008