It is surprising to consider for a moment the continuing
interest in the poetry of Edward Thomas, almost all produced during World War
One, in the last two years of his life. The contemporary poets Thomas knew,
corresponded with and reviewed himself do not command such loyalty or
fascination: there are few scholarly monographs on Wilfred Blunt, for
instance, and Carcanet may not be rushing into print collections of Gordon
Bottomley's verse. The reason for this is that Thomas seems to be such a
tantalising link to a tradition of mainly rural English poetry, and his
death, in the battle of Arras in April 1917 seems to put a full stop to it.
The ground, to use a fitting metaphor, is cleared for the likes of Eliot and
Pound to buccaneer through the 1920s.
This may not be the full story, however, and this admirable contextual study
suggests new ways of viewing Thomas' poetry; this has continued to garner
readers, even if only through the anthologising of 'Adlestrop'. It is a
simple idea; Judy Kendall has traced letters and other contemporary documents
from the period 1914 Ð 1916 and placed Thomas' poems alongside such material.
For readers of Thomas, this provides some useful insight ~ we can identify
locations, such as the village in 'The Manor Farm' ~ but also some surprises.
How many readers of Thomas, for example, knew of his habit of composing from
a last line backwards? Or his aim to
try to keep poems down below twelve lines? The volume is full of delightful
anecdotal detail such as this.
For more serious devotees of the development of Thomas' poetry, there is the
ongoing epistolary drama of his attempts to separate experience from
self-conscious intention: his successes are there to see in the late poems
such as 'Out in the Dark' and 'Lights Out'. This is what essentially marks
Thomas out as in a different league from other Georgians and popular writers
of the period; indeed, as the letters reveal, he was quite harsh towards
famous names such as Walter Pater and friends like John Freeman and Walter De
la Mare. The friendship and example of Robert Frost was undoubtedly key here,
and this volume prints extracts from several interesting letters to him;
sadly, few replies from Frost are extant, and only one brief, fragmentary
paragraph is included, significantly telling Thomas he should avoid Georgian
The reader is left with great respect for Thomas' determined attempt to
develop his poetry far beyond the work of his peers. The practical problems
mount up in the margins of his letters: commissioned literary hack-work,
continual rejection, financial worries, and ultimately, the difficulties of
writing having enlisted to fight. Ultimately, the reader of Thomas always
realises that he is fighting to ensure the survival of England and English poetry: 'This is
No Case of Petty right or Wrong' dramatises his reasons for doing so, and was
written after a furious argument with his father. My theory is that we still
read and value Thomas because his concerns and, to some extent his poetic
processes, continue in the work of other, often quite surprising writers.
Consider, for instance, Larkin's 'The Trees' or Geoffrey Hill's 'Sorrel' (in
the collection Canaan). The green
roads that Edward Thomas wrote of have a way of outlasting tarmac and
© M.C. Caseley