fashion is a capricious beast. Between 1912 and 1922, five Georgian Poetry anthologies appeared and sold handsomely; the 'Georgians'
included such names as Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater
and others. The name became shorthand for misty, nostalgic lyrics about
bucolic England as she was pre-1914 - a cursory glance through any collection
by writers mentioned above will confirm this.
Edward Thomas' work was not included in any of these collections, and yet
today it is Thomas who commands all the critical attention. Matthew Hollis' Now
All Roads Lead to France, a painstaking
biographical study of his last four years, published by Faber in 2011, was
widely acclaimed and serialised on Radio 4. Judy Kendall's other major Thomas
study, Edward Thomas's Poets, appeared in
2007, exploring how these writers influenced each other. It is Thomas who is
now a set poet on at least one A-level syllabus, not the likes of Drinkwater,
W.H.Davies, Abercrombie and others and he is now viewed as a sort of
'fellow-traveller' rather than a card-carrying Georgian.
Now comes this collection of surviving letters, the latest product associated
with Thomas's poetry and, whilst it is welcome, the word 'surviving' perhaps
hints at my muted response here. The book contains a sequence of 270+ letters
covering the period 1906-1917, with some brief interleaved surrounding commentary,
making sense of the key literary players. Unfortunately, it is hobbled by the
fact that as an epistolary sequence, it very much a one-way street: as the
introduction admits, Walter de la Mare's side of the correspondence was burnt
by Thomas. The effect is of listening to one half of a telephone conversation
Secondly, the letters don't really reveal much about the reason why they were
published in the first place and thought worthy of attention: the composition
of Thomas's poetry. After meeting Robert Frost, Thomas, who had up until that
point been a middling prose writer, an essayist-for-hire, suddenly wrote a
torrent of poetry from December 1914 until his untimely death under fire at
Arras in April 1917. Like me, you may search for clues to his late burst of
creativity here, but find little of substance. Most of these letters are
brief notes, arranging meetings or apologising for missing dinner or the
chance of another commission from a long-defunct magazine. Some give a distinct
whiff of the Georgian period in terms of essayists meeting in central London,
or visiting one another in leafy rural cottages, but apart from that, very
little is said about the way Thomas created his haunting poems.
The book concludes, poignantly, with letters arranging a Civil List Pension
for Helen, Thomas' widow. It's a sad postscript to correspondence which
really reflects the years Thomas spent scrabbling around for literary
commissions more fully than is perhaps necessary, even for those who value
© M. C.