The Literary Life

Poet to Poet: Edward Thomas's Letters to Walter de la Mare,

edited by Judy Kendall (Seren 2012, 245pp, 14.99)

Literary 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 - unsatisfactory.

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 his work.

     M. C. Caseley 2012