After reading a slim book of essays by Edward Thomas earlier this year I decided to try his poetry. Thomas, born in London in 1878, was, by the time he began writing poetry, an established writer of prose. It was only after Robert Frost became his neighbor that Thomas tried his hand at poetry in 1914.
Thomas was a great walker of the countryside and his prose about his rambles is beautiful and lyrical so it doesn’t seem like it would have taken a great leap for him to write poetry. And while his poems have a Frosty (Frostian?) feel to them, Thomas is also distinctly his own man. Sadly WWI broke out, Thomas joined up and was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in 1917. Nonetheless, during his short time as a poet, he managed to produce 140 poems. Pretty amazing when you think about how productive that is. Makes me wonder what he would have been like should he have survived the war. Would he have continued as prolific? Or maybe he had a premonition that his time was short and he needed to write as many poems as he could. Whatever the case might be, I am glad for Frost’s encouragement of him and I am delighted by his 140 poems.
They tend to be on nature or humans in relation to nature, and while his voice is generally light and the verse sparkles along, an underlying feeling of darkness or death creeps in to remind us the birds might be singing and the woods bright and green but it is not always so. Take, for example, the last stanza of the poem “Old Man.” Old Man, also called Lad’s Love is a green herb. In the preceding stanzas he talks about his love of the plant and he imagines his child loving it too, and then:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s Love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Along with whole poems that are wonderful, he has many standout lines too that just grabbed me and made me pause to think about them and read them again and again. Lines like, “When Gods were young/ This wind was old.” And:
And she has slept, trying to translate
The word the cuckoo cries to his mate
Over and over.
And yet I am still half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
Once the war starts Thomas begins to shift his focus away from nature a little bit. I take that back, shifting away is not accurate, broadening his view is more like it. He writes a few love poems, missing his wife and family perhaps. And of course the war enters in to some of the poems too. Even though he only wrote a handful of poems about war he is still better known as a war poet than a nature poet. There are some fine ones that made my heart sink with their utter sadness. But I don’t want to leave this on a sad note because Thomas is not a sad poet. So here is one of his love poems, “Some Eyes Condemn”
Some eyes condemn the earth they gaze upon:
Some wait patiently until they know far more
Than earth can tell them: some laugh at the whole
As folly of another’s making: one
I knew that laughed because he saw, from core
To rind, not one thing worth the laugh his soul
Had ready at waking: some eyes have begun
With laughing; some stand startled at the door.
Others too, I have seen rest, question, roll,
Dance, shoot. And many I have loved watching. Some
I could not take my eyes from till they turned
And loving died. I had not found my goal.
But thinking of your eyes, dear, I become
Dumb: for they flamed, and it was me they burned.
Isn’t that wonderful? I take that last line as a positive thing, burning with desire and love, but it could be read differently. It’s a glass half empty, glass half full line, isn’t it?
You can read more details about Thomas on his page at the Academy of American Poets where there are also four of his poems to enjoy as well.