Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas

by John Batchelor

E dward Thomas (1878-1917), son of Welsh parents brought up in London, was a writer stirred by the outbreak of war in 1914 to create poetry which is now world-famous.

The celebrated Oxford poet and critic Jon Stallworthy (who died, sadly, before his time, in 2014) wrote that Edward Thomas's constant awareness of the natural world was intensified 'by a sense of impending loss and the certainty of death — his own and others.'

Edward Thomas's beautiful poem about a horse drawn plough, 'As the team's head-brass,' begins as though it is an innocent celebration of a rustic scene. It was in fact written at the height of the war, shortly after the poet had volunteered for the army in 1915. When asked by a friend what he was fighting for, Edward Thomas bent down, picked up a pinch of earth and said 'literally, for this.'

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The war is uppermost in the ploughman's mind, but he is slow to reveal a key fact, which is that his friend has been killed:

One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March.

Without the war he and his friend would have moved a fallen tree, and the poet, currently on leave from the front in France, would not have been out walking in the field. ‘It would have been another world.' The poem ends by referring back to life's continuity despite the destructive forces threatening it:

The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Edward Thomas's life as a poet was all too brief.

At the outbreak of the war he was struggling to support his family by his employment as a journalist and reviewer with the Daily Chronicle. He was encouraged to write poetry by his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost, who was living in London. Frost persuaded him to switch his talent from prose to poetry, and the outbreak of the war in 1914 released his full poetic voice.

He volunteered for the army in 1915, aged 37, served in the trenches in France and was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917.

The disaster of the 1914-18 War, together with the lucky friendship with Frost, coincided to give us one of our most gifted poets. His best-known piece, the brief lyric 'Adlestrop' evokes a pastoral England which was then under merciless attack, but the poem radiates calm and innocence.

The poet was on a train which has made an unscheduled stop.

What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Willows, meadowsweet, willow-herb and a blackbird, but no people, as though the human race has been removed.

This resonates with aspects of our current pandemic in this beautiful spring; the weather is sunny, the air feels fresh and all the birds are singing, and all the while there is a new deadly enemy abroad, striking at random.

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

John Batchelor is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire.

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John is also Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other books have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).

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