Who is Edward Thomas, I wondered years ago when I first read his wonderful poem “The Combe” in Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes’s anthology, The Rattle Bag, a treasure chest of discoveries. Did his surname indicate that he was Welsh, like R.S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas? Or did I wonder first what a combe was? The word, like the poem, had to be fished up out of a word-hoard unfamiliar to me as an American reader.
This word-hoard was a treasury of hard-bitten words—hard-bitten like a coin taken between the teeth to test the value of its metal—many of these words monosyllabic, words that embody the linguistic genius of the English language, with its deepest roots in the language of the Anglo-Saxons, but containing at the same time trace elements from Celtic tongues like Welsh and Scots, from the Britons who lived here before those North Germanic invaders came storming over the sea, the whole of it veneered by an overlay of Norman French from the final wave of invaders who crossed the Channel in 1066. The word “combe” has its origins in Welsh.
While American English feels at home with abstractions and generalizations like “significant other,” “sibling,” “upwardly mobile,” the language on its home turf prefers the gritty monosyllable. An unpleasant person is a “git” (John Lennon used the word in his song on The White Album called “I’m So Tired”); our “bits and pieces” is, over there, “bits and bobs.” A rude or unpleasant person, particularly a rude or unpleasant child, is “stroppy”—a word perhaps derived from the latinate “obstreperous.”
Where we might say “six of one, half-dozen of the other,” which is pithy enough, in England I have heard the more economical “six and two threes.” (I am oversimplifying here and ignoring American English’s own genius for pith—exempli gratia, the American monosyllable “jerk” holds its own against English “git.” Our variety of English goes back to the same roots. We, like our British cousins, are a plain-spoken people.)
Here is the poem in its entirety:
The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.
Already in the first line we have gone back in time, perhaps before recorded history, as the pleonastic repetition of “dark” suggests. A combe (sometimes spelled comb or coombe— pronounce it to rhyme with “room”) is a valley or ravine cut into a hillside, often in chalky country. Thomas gives the word dignity by capitalizing it. Here all is dark and impenetrable, and the combe is represented as a living thing: it has a “mouth” monosyllabically “stopped” with inhospitable vegetation of “bramble, thorn, and briar.”
The rhetoric renders the place even more remote by negation: “no one scrambles over the sliding chalk . . .” This is the same strategy Thomas’s contemporary and friend, Walter de la Mare, memorably employs in his masterpiece, “The Listeners.” In answer to the question the traveller calls out, “Is there anybody there?” the following drama ensues:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
’Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men.
You have to climb and scramble down into this unwelcoming place—though “no one” ever does, according to the poem!—using “roots and rabbit holes for steps.” Here the poem rises to its highest pitch of lyricism, with “The sun of Winter, / The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds . . .” But just as no one ever goes down there, neither do the sun, the moon and the singing birds. A secret place this is indeed.
If you’ve ever hacked around in the countryside in the British Isles, you know how forbidding, how inhospitable these self-protective spiky vines and bushes can be. The inhospitality of the place, a kind of den, protects its denizen, a badger. Edward Thomas’s poem was written in 1914. Badgers were endangered even a hundred years ago—as more of their habitat was destroyed every year and more and more land was cleared for agriculture and human settlement. Think of stalwart Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows, with his underground house interwoven with passageways and rooms added on, with hams and slabs of bacon hanging in the larder, where Rat and Mole find the gruff but kindly Badger on a scary, snowy night when they venture ill-advisably into the Wild Wood.
Badgers, like foxes, are creatures of myth, and no more so than in this poem which, if Thomas had chosen to give away the game in advance, he could have titled “The Badger.” “The Badger” is a secret inside a secret.
Only two words in the poem have latinate roots: “perishing” and “precipices.” Even “perishing,” though, sounds native, perhaps because of its biblical associations. “For God so loved the world,” the King James Bible says, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Otherwise most of the poem’s vocabulary derives from Anglo-Saxon roots. Its word choices lay the groundwork for the poem’s drama—for “The Combe” is a drama, an allegory even, because it tells of a Britain within a Britain.
Although Thomas was English, he had Welsh ancestry. When the Angles and Saxons invaded the British Isles in the 5th century, the previous occupants, the people they conquered, were Celts who fled before the onslaught back into Wales in the west and Scotland in the north. Celtic Ireland was spared, for the moment, from Anglo-Saxon invasion.
A Briton, historically, is not the same as an Englishman. Thomas’s poem makes the badger an emblematic animal, hunted down in his secret burrow, dug out and given to the hounds. The poem, specific and rooted as it is, also rises to the level of allegory. The destruction of the badger suggests something about the destruction not only of wild bits of nature but the way language and folkways are altered or destroyed by conquest and encroachment.
One thing among many that I admire about “The Combe” is a directness amounting almost to bluntness. Structurally it resembles a sonnet. Only twelve lines long, the poem builds a picture of the combe itself in the first eight, then focuses swiftly on what lives within the combe, the badger, briefly and brutally recounting how the badger was killed, suggesting the poem’s historical and linguistic reach only in that last, definitive phrase, “that most ancient Briton of English beasts.”
* * *
English poetry was injected with two strains from America in the early 20<th century. The better known of the two was the Modernism that came when Eliot and Pound both expatriated to London. But just as important in terms of how English poetry would develop was what Robert Frost brought in 1912 when he went to live in England for two and a half years.
Frost was thirty-eight, four years older than Thomas, and the move to England was an attempt to find himself as a poet. He gave up his job as a schoolteacher, so there was some financial risk. A friend he made in London arranged for him to meet Ezra Pound, who with his dramatic mop of hair, jutting beard and cape, and opinions which he adhered to with the absolute certainty of his fanatic’s mind, cut a wide swath among the English literati.
Frost’s and Pound’s writing had almost nothing in common other than the freshness of both and how good a poet each of them was. But Pound was the ultimate networker, and he was able to give his compatriot some useful introductions. The swashbuckling Ezra was ten years younger than the farmer and schoolteacher from New Hampshire, but the younger man must have seemed infinitely more sophisticated and worldly. Though he was glad for the introductions into English literary circles, Frost didn’t take to Pound, whom he described in a letter as “that great intellect abloom in hair.”
Still, there’s nothing like going abroad to discover who you are, and in England Robert Frost’s view of himself as a “Yank from Yankville” was confirmed. Frost had only been in the UK for two months when his first book, A Boy’s Will, found a publisher back home. A year later, in May of 1914, his second book, North of Boston—perhaps his greatest—came out. Frost and Hemingway seldom appear together in the same sentence, but clearly the first few decades of the last century were a time when more than one American writer, and not only those associated with Modernism, had to go to Europe to discover their Americanness. Thinking about Frost writing about New Hampshire from a cottage in the English countryside reminds one of Hemingway sitting in a café on the Left Bank writing about fishing in northern Michigan.
* * *
Through a mutual friend named Eleanor Farjeon, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas arranged to meet at the St. George’s Café, a vegetarian restaurant in St. Martin’s Lane in London on October 6th, 1913. Frost and Thomas hit it off immediately, and saw a lot of each other during the three years that Frost and his family stayed in England. Though he was immensely prolific as a writer of prose, Thomas had become dissatisfied with the work he was doing. He barely scraped by on his earnings, suffered from a melancholia that was at times almost paralyzing, and he harbored a secret ambition to write poetry, though he somehow felt unworthy of what he considered that high calling.
Eleanor Farjeon had once asked Thomas if he had ever written poetry. He replied, “Me? . . . I couldn’t write a poem to save my life.” These words were oddly prophetic, because in a sense, poetry did save his life, both by giving him a sense of purpose and by injecting the energy and skill one learns from poetry into his nonfiction. The tragic irony is that the life that poetry saved would be snuffed out three years later. Edward Thomas was killed at the battle of Arras in France.
In May, 1914, half a year after making friends with the American poet and the very same month that Frost published North of Boston, Thomas asked him in a letter, “I wonder whether you can imagine me taking to verse. If you can I might get over the feeling that it is impossible.” Frost’s intuition about his new friend told him that the desire to be a poet was something Thomas had been suppressing for years. The irony was that part of his work as a hack writer had him reviewing new books of verse for the English newspapers. “It was plain,” Frost wrote in a letter, “that he had wanted to be a poet all the years he had been writing about poets not worth his little finger.”
Frost would later write that “Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had.” Elected Friends: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas to One Another*, is a well-edited collection of the letters the two wrote to each other, along with poems for and about each other, as well as Thomas’s reviews of Frost’s early books. In his foreword the English poet Michael Hofmann writes interestingly of “Thomas’s tireless charm, solicitude, address, seductiveness” in their exchange of letters, going on to add:
All this, of course, is not to suggest there was any homoerotic component in the relationship, but rather to propose that something of what one thinks of as merely or exclusively sexual—the gallantry or flirtatiousness of seduction—adheres in many, if not most, great friendships. In fact, I would say there is something a little strange where it’s not there.
Hofmann goes on to add that “The romance of friendship is to me a very beguiling trait in these letters.” If Thomas does come across as flirtatious and solicitous of Frost’s company and friendship, it may be because he was looking for more from this association. He was the more “needy” of the two, because he looked to Frost to help him fulfill an essential part of who he wanted to be, who he was destined to be. Thomas published a tribute to that friendship in the English magazine The Nation within the context of a prose piece called “This England”:
Three meadows away lived a friend, and once or twice or three times a day I used to cross the meadows, the gate, and the two stiles. . . .
How easy it was to spend a morning or afternoon in walking over to this house, stopping to talk to whoever was about for a few minutes, and then strolling with my friend, nearly regardless of footpaths, in a long loop, so as to end either at his house or my lodging. . . .
If talk dwindled in the traversing of a big field, the pause at the gate or stile braced it again. Often we prolonged the pause, whether we actually sat or not, and we talked—of flowers, childhood, Shakespeare, women, England, the war . . .
Frost loved talk. Speech recurs again and again in his poetry, particularly in the dramatic narratives in North of Boston and later collections. The conversational tone is one of the glories of his writing.
I’m not sure any critic has summed up Frost’s excellences as succinctly and comprehendingly as Thomas did in the brief review of North of Boston he wrote for The English Review in August, 1914. Frost has, he writes,
succeeded in being plain though not mean, in reminding us of poetry without being ‘poetical’. The new volume marks more than the beginning of an experiment like Wordsworth’s, but with this difference, that Mr Frost knows the life of which he writes rather as Dorothy Wordsworth did. That is to say, he sympathizes where Wordsworth contemplates. The result is a unique type of eclogue, homely, racy, and touched by a spirit that might, under other circumstances, have made pure lyric on the one hand or drama on the other. Within the space of a hundred lines or so of blank verse it would be hard to compress more rural character and relevant scenery; impossible, perhaps to do so with less sense of compression and more lightness, unity, and breadth. . . . Only at the end of his best pieces, such as ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘Home Burial’, ‘The Black Cottage’ and ‘The Wood Pile’, do we realize that they are masterpieces of deep and mysterious tenderness.
In a review published the month before, Thomas claimed of North of Boston that
This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive. It speaks, and it is poetry. . . . These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation.
Clearly what was revolutionary to Ezra Pound was not revolutionary to Frost and Thomas. The experiments in free verse being tried by Pound, H.D., Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg and others were in Frost’s view at best a novel experiment, at worst a dead-end. “To break the pentameter,” the author of The Cantos later wrote, “that was the first heave.”
Not so for the author of North of Boston, who chose for his medium not the vers libre that Pound pioneered, but instead, in Thomas’s words, “the good old English medium of blank verse”—unrhymed iambic pentameter, the very line whose back Pound sought to break. When Frost says “English” here, he would have understood the word to mean English in terms of poetry written in the English language, not English in terms of nationality. As Seamus Heaney would later write about the British province where he grew up: “Ulster was British, but with no rights on the English lyric.”
The truly revolutionary thing about what Frost was up to in his understated way, was to reclaim the pioneering work Wordsworth and Coleridge began in their Lyrical Ballads, of which Wordsworth wrote in his preface to the 1802 edition: “It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.”
To appreciate the change that they effectuated, Frost’s and Thomas’s use of the language has to be seen against the background of Edwardian and Georgian poetry, and that is a hard thing to do, since very little of that poetry is read anymore. An example is the first stanza of “Nightingales” by Robert Bridges (1844-1930), who was a close friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Beautiful must be the mountains whence you come,
And bright in the fruitful valleys the streams, wherefrom
Ye learn your song:
Where are those starry woods? O might I wander there,
Among the flowers, which in that heavenly air
Bloom the year long.
Frost’s blank verse eschews the elaborate stanza form, the archaic diction, with its “Ye” and “whence,” its “O,” and above all else the sense that poetry breathes a rarefied air more hospitable to nightingales, starry woods and flowers than to men and women living on the land. If Frost’s poetry in some manner looks back to Wordsworth, the Edwardians and Georgians looked back to Keats, and in this poem especially, to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
If the revolution that Edward Thomas is writing about here was not so dramatic and cutting-edge as what Pound had in mind, in actuality it meant that the new poets were fitted to write a kind of poem that had nothing to do with a “poetical” manner. Poets using this new, plainer style could write about seemingly ordinary things in a language that owed much to spoken English. If a New Hampshire farmer never actually said something like “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build,” he certainly might have said it. Bits of speech like this, borrowed from the language of the tribe or invented for the occasion, are one of the glories of Frost’s poetry.
Edward Thomas was one of the conduits through which the plain style based on speech flowed into English poetry. Clearly the first few lines of his poem, “The Lane,” could have been spoken casually in conversation:
Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries,
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Only the personification of September and the notion of her “hiding herself” are “poetical.” It is no wonder that Thomas and Frost both were favorites of the line of British and Irish poets that includes Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney among others—though I have not been able to find any mention of Frost in Kavanagh’s writings. Since Kavanagh was, like Frost, a farmer and a poet, it may well be that he found his inspiration directly. It is no accident that Heaney grew up on a farm too, and that Hughes lived close to the land. What could be rhetorically plainer than the beginning of one of Heaney’s best-known poems, “Digging”?
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it . . .
In England Thomas’s best-known poem, one that every child learns in school, is “Aldestrop.” It begins slowly, almost casually:
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name . . .
Because Thomas was killed in the Great War, the poem has become associated with the immense wave of love for England that swept over the country during and immediately after the war. Nostalgia for an England irrevocably changing, that had in fact been changing ever since the first incursions made into England-as-it-had-been, since the Industrial Revolution brought what Blake called the “dark satanic mills” to “England’s green and pleasant land.”
The poet says he remembers Aldestrop, and the supposition or sub-text is that he remembers it from a battlefield in France. Thomas wrote the poem shortly before he was killed. I think of the train as being an express carrying troops to war. None of this is stated, yet it stands as a example of all that may be in a poem without actually being “in” it. This is a kind of meaning ruled out by the New Critical orthodoxy, which disallowed anything that did not strictly inhere in the words that were on the page. But we do not think that way; we do not read poems that way.
As the train stands there on the platform before heading off on its journey again, an awareness of—what shall I call it—the essence of the land, seen in a panorama, perhaps the kind that can come only from memory, floods over Thomas:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Poems can terminate in many ways other than the way Yeats wrote about when he said that “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” This one opens and opens and opens.
* * *
But let me retrace my steps and return to the prose piece I quoted from above in connection with the friendship between these two men, “This England.” Here Edward Thomas struck three notes central to who he was: the English landscape, his all-important friendship with Frost, and thirdly his patriotism, which itself sprang not from recruitment-poster notions about King and Country, but from a simple and unfeigned love of the land.
The sky was banded with rough masses in the north-west, but the moon, a stout orange crescent, hung free of cloud near the horizon. At one stroke, I thought, like many other people, what things that same new moon sees eastward about the Meuse in France. Of those who could see it there, not blinded by smoke, pain, or excitement, how many saw it and heeded? I was deluged, in a second stroke, by another thought, or something that overpowered thought. All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically, like a slave, not having realized that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die rather than leave it as Belgian women and old men and children had left their country. Something I had omitted. Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape, at the elms and poplars about the houses, at the purple-headed wood-betony with two pairs of dark leaves on a stiff stem, who stood sentinel among the grasses or bracken by hedge-side or wood’s-edge. What he stood sentinel for I did not know, any more than what I had got to do.
How characteristic of Thomas that this sentinel he invokes should not be a soldier with a gun as the word suggests, but rather a tall-stemmed wildflower.
* * *
In early December of the same year that he wrote his letter to Frost with the question about whether his friend could ever see him writing poetry, Thomas did write his first poem, called “Up in the Wind.” This was a blank-verse eclogue that shows the influence of poems by Frost like “The Death of the Hired Man.”
The enveloping action or “surround” of Robert Frost’s poetry is the depopulation of rural New England, the decline of a way of life. Where small farmers and their families once scratched a living from the rocky soil of New Hampshire and Vermont, building farmhouses and gathering in villages with whitewashed houses and steepled churches, a visitor to the region in Frost’s day would have seen more and more deserted homesteads, places where, as in “Directive,” one of the greatest poems of the 20th century:
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
“Directive” visits one of those deserted places, where children once improvised a playhouse for themselves:
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
The enveloping action of Edward Thomas’s poetry is the degradation of rural life in Britain, urban encroachment from the cities out into the countryside. We now call this urban sprawl. Though born in Lambeth, South London, Thomas was brought up on a farm in Wiltshire, and he loved the long, rich tradition of country life in Britain—the work of cultivating, planting and harvesting, the farmers, the tramps and wanderers, the gypsies, charcoal-burners and ballad singers all of whom were part of the fabric of life lived on the land.
Both poets were connoisseurs of loneliness. In “Up in the Wind” Thomas encounters, in the most unlikely place out in the country, a pub, where he stops to drink a pint of ale:
While I drank I might have mused of coaches and highwaymen,
Charcoal-burners and life that loves the wild.
For who now used these roads except myself,
A market waggon every other Wednesday,
A solitary tramp, some very fresh one
Ignorant of these eleven houseless miles,
A motorist from a distance . . .
The genius locus of the place is the bar maid who pulls pints and cooks for her father, who has inherited the place—”‘I draw the ale, and he grows fat’ she muttered.” Her loyalties are divided between city and country life. She curses, bemusedly, the series of circumstances that have led her to the odd life she is living here, drawing pints for the occasional traveller in these remote parts who might drop in: “I could wring the old thing’s neck that put it there!,” she shrieks. “A public-house! It may be public for birds, / squirrels and suchlike . . .”
The oddity, the unlikelihood of a pub existing so far away from people in this unfrequented spot intrigued Thomas. He championed “England’s green and pleasant land” against the encroachments of urbanization, and he always preferred the local and homely to anything grand and glamorous. “I prefer any country church or chapel,” he wrote, “to Winchester or Chichester or Canterbury Cathedral, just as I prefer ‘All around my hat’ or ‘Somer is icumen in’ to Beethoven.”
* * *
One would be mistaken to suppose Edward Thomas as a poet was no more than a disciple of Robert Frost. True, he followed Frost’s example in the matter of his blank-verse eclogues, but his aspirations as a lyric poet were somewhat more elevated than those of Frost. He aspired to rhetorical flourishes more typical of his English contemporaries like de la Mare. You can see this in a brief poem like “Cock-Crow,” which I will quote in its entirety:
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendor, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
There are no coats of arms in Robert Frost’s poetry. Nor do we look to him for “splendour.” He would not compare a rooster to a trumpeter from the world of heraldry. The crisp, end-stopped couplets as well, are not a form Frost would have been comfortable with. Much as Thomas revered and loved his American brother, he was not quite ready to follow Frost into the full rigors of the plain style.
* * *
Significant as he was as a poet, Edward Thomas is increasingly seen as a major English prose writer. Even what Oxford University Press calls Prose Writings, A Selected Edition, runs to six volumes, each one of sufficient heft to be used as a doorstop. He discovered his métier early, and like many young writers, he began by imitating predecessors whose work and style he admired. Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy from the 17th century were life-long favorites, as were classics of English nature writing like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne and W.H. Hudson’s Hampshire Days; but at an early age he fell under the spell of Richard Jefferies, author among other books of An Amateur Poacher. In his teens, he wrote in his autobiography, “I had begun to write accounts of my walks in an approach as near as possible to the style of Jefferies.”
His first book, The Woodland Life, contains “A Wiltshire Molecatcher,” which sketches one of a class of characters who used to make their livings on the fringes of English country life. The literary type has something in common with Wordsworth’s “Leech-Gatherer” and “Old Cumberland Beggar.” Clearly the fledgling teenaged Thomas was starting out in his career by tracing a path well worn by the tradition of English nature writers. He was teaching himself to be a writer by practicing a literary form that had been done brilliantly by his predecessors.
The Woodland Life was followed in 1902 by a book of essays, Horae Solitariae. Thomas’s models here were the English essayists Charles Lamb and Hilaire Belloc. No one reads Belloc anymore, and I wonder who reads Lamb? This modest man, who wrote under the nom de plume “Elia,” is the greatest, and most characteristically English, of the island nation’s essayists, and part of the pleasure of reading the pieces in Horae Solitariae comes from relishing the way the young Thomas inhabits an essay-writing persona that harks back to the earliest days of the form, for which English writers have demonstrated a particular genius. A favorite of mine from Horae Solitariae is “Inns and Books.”
Both subjects announced in the essay’s title are examined: “Something, we may think, that overpowers the delicious sense of home, bids us exchange that for an abode that is a truer symbol of our inconstant lodging on the earth.” The anonymity of the experience of staying in a hostelry, the sense of liberation that comes from having no fixed identity other than being “the gentleman in the parlor” waiting for his supper to be brought in, trigger one of the lyrical passages that are the glory of the informal essay. You can see where Thomas’s poetic impulses were being channeled during the years before he discovered that he could write poetry:
In several inns I have—before candles were brought in—fancied myself on board a ship in strange seas, or in a lonely camp. I seem then to be of no nation or class. The great lord ‘knows no such liberty.’ On a sharp November night, when the sky is swept broad and clean, and garnished with stars that wink as if the wind fluttered them, one may enjoy at a small inn amidst a grey country the lonely monarchy of a helmsman at sea.
Thomas was a fly fisherman. He winningly presents himself in the essay as an angler who, returning from a day on the trout stream, finds little in the way of reading material at his inn to interest him: “many times after a day with the Mayfly or March brown I have thought that, considering how pleasant a portion of our life is passed at inns, their provision of books is inadequate.”
And he goes on to write amusingly of the assortment of books to be found on the shelves of inns, or among the tea things in the china closet: Bibles, dusty devotional books by forgotten doctors of divinity, perhaps a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary, and other oddments. The essay is so pleasing, so tight, so companionable that Charles Lamb himself would not have been ashamed to call it his own. You can almost feel the young Edward Thomas’s sense of satisfaction in proving to himself that he too is capable of excelling at this kind of classic English essay.
I was surprised to find, in the essay “February in England,” which was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1902, the following passage, which seems to prefigure the way T.S. Eliot presents London as a kind of Dantean Hell. Here is what Thomas wrote: “I watched the clockwork movements of the grey-minded men and women pacing the streets. I met hundreds of people in the streets that might have taken roles in the Inferno.”
For the lover of Thomas’s poetry a bonus from reading the prose is to encounter places where he treats the same subject in both genres. My favorite is “Chalk Pits,” a prose treatment of the kind of place presented in the poem. Here he gives himself seven pages to expatiate on the subject, where “The Combe” does what it does in twelve lines. The prose piece is all description where the poem is all drama. Where in the poem the badger is dragged out of his burrow and ruthlessly destroyed, here he is safely hidden: “One [chalk pit] is so broken up by the uneven diggings, the roots of trees, and the riot of brambles that a badger is safe in it with a whole pack of children.”
Thomas’s output was absolutely immense, considering that he died at the age of thirty-nine. He was a publishing prodigy, with his first book appearing when he was nineteen. Even though he died young, he left twenty years’ worth of work when he was killed in France. Though he complained about the burden all this work was imposing on him, though it was fatiguing and did not pay very well, Thomas seems incapable of writing badly. Literary nonfiction, sometimes called “creative nonfiction,” has over the past couple of decades or so, come into its own as a genre. For many readers, Edward Thomas’s nonfiction is a treasure waiting to be discovered.
* Elected Friends: Robert Frost Edward Thomas to One Another, edited and with an introduction by Matthew Spencer, foreword by Michael Hofmann, afterword by Christopher Ricks. New York: Handsel Press, 2003.
RICHARD TILLINGHAST is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Wayfaring Stranger, 2012, and Selected Poems, 2009, as well as Dirty August, translations from the Turkish poet, Edip Cansever, also 2009, in collaboration with his daughter, Julia Clare Tillinghast. The latest among his four nonfiction books are Istanbul: City of Forgetting and Remembering, 2012, and Finding Ireland, 2008. He was a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. Richard recently lived in Ireland for five years and now divides his time between Hawaii and Tennessee. He has almost finished a new nonfiction book, Breakfast at the Airport: A Book of Places.