Edward Thomas

b. 1878 d. 1917


The simple lack / Of her is more to me / Than others' presence – Edward Thomas, 'The Unknown'

Adlestrop

Edward Thomas, read by James Fenton

As the Team's Head-brass

Edward Thomas, read by James Fenton

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About Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas wrote all his poetry in less than three years, between 1914, when he wrote his first, and 1917, when he was killed in the Battle of Arras. Most of his poems were published posthumously; they show sensitive observation of the countryside, combined with a bleak honesty about his sometimes painful doubts and self criticisms, expressed in the language of everyday speech. He was born in London in 1878 and attended St Paul's School and Lincoln College, Oxford. Married to Helen while at university, he worked hard to support his family by accepting a wide range of prose commissions; he wrote many volumes of prose and was in demand as a reviewer, a biographer and a topographical writer. Despite his fluency he despised much of this work; his marriage was marred by periodic bouts of depression and his restlessness led him to leave home for periods of several weeks at time. He befriended and supported the tramp poet, W.H. Davies, and knew several of the poets known as Georgians who took as their subjects the commonplace and everyday. Some of them gathered at a house in Dymock along with the American poet Robert Frost whose friendship was crucial in Thomas's poetic development: in long walks they discussed a style of writing that avoided pomposity and literary flourish in favour of colloquial directness. Frost introduced to Thomas his concept of 'the sound of sense' (which, incidentally, expresses perfectly what the Poetry Archive as a whole stands to do) using the cadence of speech. Frost persuaded Thomas that he should write poetry and in doing so prompted a remarkable period of creativity for his friend. In June 1914, Thomas was travelling by train and stopped briefly at the now closed station Adelstrop, recording the incident in his notebook. In January 1915, under Frost's influence, he wrote sixteen poems in twenty days; he looked back at his notebook and came across the Adelstrop entry. With great care and several false starts he hit upon the apparently effortless and now famous opening: “Yes, I remember Adelstrop-”. This magical poem evokes the Summer before the war, a world already lost but still remembered with longing. It is a war poem without mentioning war, as so many of Thomas's poems are. The short poem 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', packing so much into four lines, is a further example. After much doubt and hesitation, Thomas enlisted in July 1915. 'Rain' was written early in 1916, in hut 51 at the Hare Hall camp in Romford, once again based on a description in his notebooks, this time of a downpour in 1911 along the Icknield Way. Then, in May he wrote 'At the Team's Head-Brass', partly in response to Frost's poem 'The Road not Taken', which is a teasing play on the need to decide between different paths during the course of a life. In 'At the Team's Head-Brass' Thomas questions the notion that we have choices; we have no idea how the choices we make will affect our future: 'If we could see all all might seem good'. Thomas is deciding that going to the front is no longer a choice, but inevitable. Thomas turned down an offer to remain on the permanent staff as an instructor at Hare Hall camp and volunteered for a commission at the front. On Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras Offensive, he paused for a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart; he died without a mark on his body.

Selected bibliography

Edward Thomas: Selected Poems and Prose (Penguin...

Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe...

Edward Thomas: Collected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2004...