Edward Thomas, From Adlestrop to Arras by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Bloomsbury 2015
Let me make clear from the outset: this is a stunningly powerful biography of the haunted figure of Edward Thomas and it will surely come to be regarded as the official account of this poet for many years to come.
One of the most powerful aspects of this book is the way in which Wilson makes clear how much of Thomas’s poetry is to be seen as ‘war poetry’. After pointing out that the ‘belief that war poetry, to qualify as such, must deal only with actual fighting appears simplistic in view of Thomas’s powerful achievements in this area’ she goes on to present to the reader a picture in which the war ‘is always hovering as a sinister, metaphorical background to the English countryside.’ This is convincingly evident in her comments on the poem that grew out of his walks with Robert Frost, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’, written in May 1916. After quoting from the essay ‘This England’ in which Thomas refers to 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-edge’ she takes us forward to the ‘sentinel-like’ flower ‘At the forest verge’.
This new biography explores the poet’s relation with the English countryside in convincing detail and the criticism of even such an anthologised poem as ‘Adlestrop’ reveals the touch of a very fine literary critic:
By introducing that word ‘unwontedly’ the poet also transforms the everyday into a realm of uncertainty and unknownness, begging questions he does not answer. In Thomas’s hands the ordinary acquires extraordinary if indefinite significance.
Nor does Jean Moorcroft Wilson fight shy of examining the relationship between Edward Thomas and his childhood sweetheart, Helen. She looks at the relationship in an almost forensic way and it is refreshing to read about what has so often been offered as near-idyllic in a more realistic light. There was no doubt about Helen Noble’s undying affection for the melancholy and introverted man she married but whether he became, in the words of George Meredith, a ‘rapid falcon in a snare condemned to do the flitting of the bat’ is something which has not really been looked into until this biography. As Wilson puts it ‘Unconditional love, however desirable it might seem, is not always easy to receive and Thomas would later express grave doubts about his early choice of life partner’. As she then points out, it is possible to see his emotional development as being arrested at the adolescent stage:
First love is generally an overwhelming experience but it is often part of a learning process and not necessarily suitable for a lifetime’s wear. It was probably particularly difficult for someone as highly sexed as Thomas evidently was to distinguish his physical need of Helen from the rest of his feelings towards her.
Writing about Thomas’s early prose Wilson points us towards aspects of the essays in both Horae Solitariae and Rose Acre Papers that foreshadow the later poetry. She recognises that ‘Common to them all is a sense of the poetry of existence’ and that there are passages which anticipate the best of the later prose and poetry. She also points us towards a sense of the female figures which haunt so much of Thomas’s work:
The farmer’s daughter in ‘On the Evenlode’, for instance, is the first of Thomas’s beautiful but mysterious women, whose ‘whole expression was one of holy wistfulness, but changed ceaselessly and even contradicted itself, like a picture seen again in other days: it was full of the sorrow there is in laughter, the joy in tears’. She is encountered again in ‘Isoud of the White Hands’, where a ‘pale glorious face’ is seen fading into the dusk and, as Jan Marsh argues, becomes an image of the countryside’s perfection.
Jan Marsh referred to the ‘Dryad or angel’ representing the lost and inaccessible happiness which Thomas always hoped to rediscover and capture within the hidden landscapes of the English and Welsh countryside. In Newsletter 51 for the Edward Thomas Fellowship, published in January 2004, I remember writing an article about the poet and nympholepsy, that morbid desire to seek out a supposed lost Eden. In it I suggested that Thomas’s work is essentially Orphic as he cannot help but turn round to gaze upon what is untouchably in the past. However, the poet’s sharp eye for recorded natural detail dissolved that nympholeptic yearning and in ‘Sedgewarblers’, the poem written in May 1915, the ‘nymph whose soul unstained / Could love all day, and never hate or tire’ is perceived as poison which needs to be ‘drained’. The visual metamorphosis as the dream fades into the light of common day is convincingly presented as the ‘hair’ from the narcissistic vision lingers with the word ‘shook’, with its association with tresses. The accurate description of the sedge-warblers ‘clinging so light / To willow twigs’ merges with the quick, shrill or grating song ‘that lacks all words, all melody’ to ground us in a world that is far distant from the one which was ‘Long past and irrecoverable.’ Thomas’s firm eye for Nature brings the vague seduction of the dissolution of personality into sharp focus for us as we recognise the power of the present.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s outstanding biography brings the different aspects of Edward Thomas’s haunted life into a sharp and thoroughly convincing focus. This is the best book on Thomas for years.