Some soldier poets/Edward Thomas

Some soldier poets  (1920) 
Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas had wandered over literature and England, and shaped a mind that, at first opinionated, had saddened and mellowed. In the end he became a poet and a soldier almost at the same time, and now is dead. His success in prose had always been middling, breeding further discontent; do his poems[1] greatly succeed? Every time I read them I like them better. Lob, his longest effort, was the first I saw; it was perfectly dissociated from him by the assumed name of "Eastaway" and appeared to me full of promise though unwieldy; but in this collected volume his quality does not strike me as like a young man's, but wily, artful and aware of many traps.

"Rise up, rise up,
And, as the trumpet blowing
Chases the dreams of men,
As the dawn glowing
The stars that left unlit
The land and water,
Rise up and scatter
The dew that covers
The print of last night's lovers—
Scatter it, scatter it!

While you are listening
To the clear horn,
Forget, men, everything
On this earth newborn,
Except that it is lovelier
Than any mysteries.
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
Arise, arise!"

Though the impulse to write that was strong, it has constantly obeyed the bridle of keen literary taste, its grace is not like that of wild life, but like that of horsemanship, and will be the more admired the more fully the difficulties overcome are appreciated. In some of these poems novelty is sought as though felicity were despaired of, yet a few are really happy. Keats believed that felicities should so chime in with the human soul as to seem known before, even though a prenatal existence had to be supposed to justify that impression. Novelties in poetry fail if merely new. Mr Yeats has of late years set the fashion of skating across ever thinner ice until it seems almost miraculous that verse is not prose. You watch the skater as the surface warps under his swift passage, and expect that in another minute he will be in it, floundering like any Walt Whitman, but this does not happen. Rhyme is not discarded, but strained; rhythms are not free, but licentious. Thomas shows this tendency in ways of his own, neither very determined nor very risky, yet sometimes annoying. These sleights of his are intended, like those of others, deftly to dazzle the most sophisticated judges, and in so far betray a greater preoccupation with manner than with matter—a fault of proportion. The creative mind considers the manner solely as the servant of the import and justness of its theme. Thomas knew life after a fashion that was not the fashion he had intended to discover it in. The passionate young man hawks for experience with his fancy, but the quarry brought to his feet is not always that at which he let his falcon fly.

"'He has robbed two clubs. The judge at Salisbury
Can't give him more than he undoubtedly
Deserves. The scoundrel! Look at his photograph!
A lady-killer! Hanging's too good by half
For such as he.' So said the stranger, one
With crimes yet undiscovered or undone.
But at the inn the Gipsy dame began:
'Now he was what I call a gentleman.
He went along with Carrie, and when she
Had a baby he paid up so readily
His half-a-crown. Just like him. A crown'd have been
More like him. For I never knew him mean.
Oh! but he was such a nice gentleman. Oh!
Last time we met he said if me and Joe
Was anywhere near we must be sure to call.
He put his arms around our Amos all
As if he were his own son. I pray God
Save him from justice! Nicer man never trod.'"

This is the spirit of Borrow rather than that of Wordsworth. Yet I divine a hankering for spiritual intensity akin to that of the more central master. These poems drift across a profound hunger for ideal human relations; like those floating gardens of Kashmir, they traverse an incommunicable want, as one of them says—

"content and discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings"

—an acceptance of the encountered actuality far less cavalier than that of the Tinman's antagonist. Though Thomas had waved a flag like those who throw their energies into a movement, the comrades tramping by his side and following were heard like echoes making his foot's thud sound all the more lonely. That heraldic picture of Simple Life Returning blazoned on the banner seemed no truer to his vision than those unsubstantial reverberations multiplying the plod-plod of his two feet; till he felt most solitary when agreement with him was most general. To adore remote places with quaint names became a fashion, but he retreated from prose to poetry in shy alarm.

The country and simple lives have their beauty, but what is more obvious, they are picturesque, inventoried stage properties of well-worn appeal. This picturesqueness deludes men after they have despaired of more ideal beauties, such as can only be recognised in particular cases by very rare souls. For Wordsworth, country folk were the matrix out of which an ideal life might yet be moulded; his dearest thoughts and passionate aspirations rejoiced or suffered on their account. Deep country ancientness and Celtic magic had raised Thomas' enthusiasm, but his mind did not unite with what it admired, and gradually felt undeceived, and this disillusionment was closer to reality than his infatuation had been. At a cross-roads he says:

"I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: 'You would not have doubted so
At twenty.' Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: 'At twenty you wished you had never been born.'"

Though doubtless minor disappointments intensified the feeling, in a general sense one would imagine that his birth vexed him because it had not befallen in a pastoral age, in Aready, in Ireland when Cuchulain was about or in the Middle Ages when the oldest of existing barns was building. This soul, we say as we read, must have chafed against modern circumstance. Union with nature, between man and the most essential conditions of his life, such as that supposed to have been achieved in far-off times and places, has a true ideal value; it does correspond to a profound and rational aspiration. Honour then to its at times quaint and perverse expression! But observant eyes see more than they look for. And Thomas, who took pains to visit and know the most untouched parts of England and Wales, and who drank to the dregs the considerable literature which can feed such curiosity, though he still loved nature, was undeceived about man and, as a corollary, about himself. It dawned upon him that man's need is nobler impulses rather than choicer circumstances, that the soul seeks a mood and should not be put off with hopes and desires, for we can only possess that which we can truly appreciate.

"When we two walked in Lent
We imagined that happiness
Was something different
And this was something less.

But happy were we to hide
Our happiness, not as they were
Who acted in their pride
Juno and Jupiter:

For the Gods in their jealousy
Murdered that wife and man,
And we that were wise live free
To recall our happiness then."

Thus many men and women look back at a full-illusioned youth with something of envy, and yet with a sense of freedom at the thought that those headstrong young people are really dead, which allows them to smile with the world, not in scorn of it, to be tender and kind instead of passionate and self-absorbed. Freedom from that fervid seriousness permits humorous playfulness, permits a vital possession of our own scorned past, and has gentle acceptance for the stream of shortcoming which is daily life.

"If every hour
Like this one passing that I have spent among
The wiser others when I have forgot
To wonder whether I was free or not,
Were piled before me, and not lost behind,
And I could take and carry them away
I should be rich; or if I had the power
To wipe out every one and not again
Regret, I should be rich to be so poor
And yet I still am half in love with pain. . . ."

What a contrast to Wordsworth, who always looked back to his youth as freshly arrived from heaven, and wished to bind maturity and age to it by conscious piety. He had been born free; Thomas achieved freedom at the cost of disillusionment; yet it was part of his latter-day riches that he had been so deceived long ago. Better so, than to have been without fire, than to have been dull, torpid and mean. Yes, yes; but not better than to have been a creative artist, thrilling and anguishing about work that was more important than the workman. But with freedom came the inspired moods at last, and prose gave way to poetry. This wanderer's vision had much in common with Ledwidge's vivid aptness of particular images and Clare's limpid sight.

"While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it."

"The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow
As if the bow had flown off with the arrow."

"Like the touch of rain she was
On a man's flesh and hair and eyes."

"November's earth is dirty . . .
And the prettiest things on the ground are the paths
With morning and evening hobnails dinted,
With foot and wing-tip overprinted
Or separately charactered
Of little beast and little bird."

Such things must always make a poet supremely happy at whatever stage of life they may be written. And where there is simple joy, playfulness and tenderness will find room.

"If I should ever by chance grow rich
I'll buy Codham, Cockridden and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year's first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises—
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall for ever be hers,
Codham, Cockridden and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater—
I shall give them all to my elder daughter."

And to his wife—

"And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine.
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind."

The Muse rarely lays her hand for the first time on a man in his late thirties, and when this happens we ought not to be surprised if he proves himself a considerable poet with complex and subtle moods. Thomas in this thin volume ranges from mere impressionism to creation as exquisite as this:

"The clouds that are so light,
Beautiful, swift and bright,
Cast shadows on field and park
Of the earth that is so dark,

And even so now, light one!
Beautiful, swift and bright one!
You let fall on a heart that was dark,
Unillumined, a deeper mark.

But clouds would have, without earth
To shadow, far less worth:
Away from your shadow on me
Your beauty less would be,

And if it still be treasured
An age hence, it shall be measured
By this small dark spot
Without which it were not."

A really finished and lovely poem, which will improve with long pondering and often repeating. This man had fought for his own freedom and won against considerable odds before he went out to fight for ours. Through his art, as under limpid water, one sees the opinionated savage youngster whom he first was, lying drowned, exclusive in his love of Celtic magic and deep-country ancientness, despising many fine things because he associated them with towns and globe-trotters; but the real man's soul with its depth and stillness has charmed all that turbulence, so that it now lies like a picture of itself under glass. Not born free, but self-freed like a plant that lifts a stone, or a sapling that splits a rock before it can show the world its proper beauty, and, for us discovered, like that hooded wayfarer at the supper-table only recognised after he has vanished, as better than our kindest thoughts had dared suppose. Our house was not well ordered, he should not have had to write hastily for his own and his children's bread, we have lost the chance of using him to the best advantage; yet he leaves us more than we deserved, something that will be treasured by posterity for ever. As his body fell, its cloak melted off the soul and we caught a glimpse which confounded our poor recollections of the man, and words of his still tolling round our ears make us aware that for him this dark casualty had a different meaning.

"Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself."

  1. Poems by Edward Thomas. Selwyn & Blount. 3s. 6d. Quotations by permission of Mrs. Edward Thomas.