Edward Thomas 1878-1917
(Full name: Philip Edward Thomas) Late nineteenth— and early twentieth-century British poet, essayist, literary critic, and biographer.
The following entry provides information on Thomas's life and works from 1920 through 2001.
Although he wrote fewer than 150 poems in his lifetime before being killed in World War I, Thomas's slender body of poetry has come to be seen as occupying an important position in twentieth-century British poetry. Written in a colloquial style that rejects both the flowery rhetoric of late-Victorian poetry and the self-consciousness of the Imagists, Thomas's poems are informed by a distinctly modern vision of doubt, alienation, and human limitation. Although he shares a love of nature expressed with the Georgian poets and the topic of war with poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas's poems are known for their willingness to grapple with difficulty and uncertainty.
The eldest of six sons, Thomas was born on March 3, 1878, to Welsh parents in the London suburb of Lambeth. Young Thomas frequently visited relatives in rural Wales and Swindon, where he developed a love of nature. At age fifteen, Thomas began writing accounts of his country walks. A reformed poacher named David “Dad” Uzzell, taught Thomas about nature and served as a model for Thomas's poem “Lob.” In 1895 Thomas met critic and writer James Ashcroft Noble, who encouraged him to publish his essays in London periodicals. Thomas published his first book, The Woodland Life (1897), at eighteen. Although he was determined to be a professional writer, his father insisted Thomas secure a position in the civil service. Instead Thomas went to Oxford in 1897, winning a history scholarship to Lincoln College in 1898. He'd fallen in love with Noble's daughter, Helen, and after she became pregnant, they married in June 1899. Thomas received a second-class degree in history not long after the birth of their son. For the next twenty years, Thomas worked as a professional essayist and journalist, writing commissioned biographies, literary criticism, essays, stories, natural history and book reviews. From 1910 through 1912 Thomas wrote twelve books. The family of five struggled financially, moving frequently from one country cottage to another, and emotionally, as Thomas suffered depression for most his life. In 1913 his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas became “conscious of a possible perfection as I never was in prose.” As World War I raged, Thomas—along with others of his social class—concluded, in his words, that England “was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die.” In June 1915 seven months after he found his voice as a poet, Thomas enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. He volunteered for overseas duty and sailed for France in January 1917. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras, only eight of his fewer than 150 poems having been published in his lifetime.
The author of more than thirty books, Thomas came to poetry late, which accounts for the small body of work he left behind. Written in a colloquial style, Thomas's poetry is influenced by Frost but is more intense, meditative, and melancholy. Although Thomas's poetry concerns war, it does not directly address his experiences in the trenches or display patriotic fervor. The thoughtfulness and ambivalence of his poetry is evident in one of his most anthologized poems, “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong,” which begins “This is no case of petty right or wrong / That politicians or philosophers / Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.” Thomas's poetry connects World War I to his prewar feelings that urbanization and industrialization were destroying the countryside and undermining country life and values. Thomas's love of the Earth and the countryside is evident throughout his poems. The ending of “Aspens” demonstrates the sense of despair of ever finding harmony with nature that is present in many of Thomas's poems: “Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves / We cannot other than an aspen be / That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves / Or so men think who like a different tree.” Thomas's colloquial language and penetrating, searching doubt give his poetry a distinctly modern character. Poems such as “The Owl”—in which the owl's cry reminds the speaker, a traveler, of “all who lay under the stars, / soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice”—and “Rain”—in which the speaker, listening to the rain, remembers “again that I shall die / And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks / For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude”—are early expressions of the alienation articulated by twentieth century writers. And yet his poetry can also express joy in language, as in “Words”: “Let me sometimes dance / With you, / Or climb / Or stand perchance / In ecstasy, / Fixed and free / In a rhyme, / As poets do.”
Thomas, who only published eight poems during his lifetime, did not receive much attention until after his death. In an early comment, Frost praised his treatment of nature, writing “His concern to the last was what it had always been, to touch earthly things and to come as near to them in words as words would come.” Walter de la Mare remarked that Thomas's poems “tell us … not so much of rare, exalted, chosen moments, of fleeting, inexplicable intuitions, but of Thomas's daily, and one might say, common, experience.” As young poets, wrote Cecil Day Lewis in 1956, he and W. H. Auden considered Thomas a poet they had “little or no hope of ever equaling.” Despite the praise of a few, until 1932, when literary critic F. R. Leavis singled him out as “an original poet of rare quality” and suggested that he, in “record[ing] the modern disintegration … succeeded in expressing in poetry a representative modern sensibility,” Thomas had been generally dismissed as a Georgian nature poet (a category that referred to the generally romantic, sentimental poems published in five anthologies between 1911 and 1912; it included Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, and Walter de la Mare), or a poet of World War I, along with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. While agreeing with Leavis that Thomas's poetry contains modern qualities, mid-century critics often concluded that the slimness of Thomas's output and the deeply personal nature of his poetry rendered him a minor figure. In 1970, H. Coombes concluded that Thomas's verse is “a poetry that lacks the strength of tragedy—it is not impersonal enough to achieve that kind of strength.” In 1959, John Danby, noting that Thomas had “neither the benefit of the intellectual certainty of the universally known, nor the enfolding comfort (a paradoxical consolation) of the settled romantic melancholy,” praised as Thomas's strength “his adequacy to what others would find overwhelmingly debilitating.” In 1987, J. P. Ward called him a “twentieth-century existentialist” who “is concerned with poetry's and language's difficulty.” Contemporary critics generally hold that Thomas is an important transitional figure whose work thematically and structurally straddles the Victorian and Modernist eras.
Such prominent critics and authors as Walter de la Mare, Aldous Huxley, Peter Sacks, Seamus Heaney, and Edna Longley have called Edward Thomas one of England's most important poets. Since 2000, much serious consideration has been given to Thomas's work. Most critics would agree with Andrew Motion, who states that Thomas occupies "a crucial place in the development of twentieth-century poetry" for introducing a modern sensibility, later found in the work of such poets as W. H. Auden and Ted Hughes, to the poetic subjects of Victorian and Georgian poetry.
Despite affinities with the Georgian movement of the early 20th century United Kingdom, Edward Thomas's verse consistently defies classification. Like the work of his Georgian contemporaries, his verse displays a profound love of natural beauty and, at times, an archaic use of diction. However, Thomas's personalized voice and intensity of vision give his poetry an artistic force which the Georgians never approached.
Thomas was born of Welsh parents in London. His father was a railway clerk who neglected his six sons in favor of politics and intellectual pursuits. Temperamentally, Edward's father was the opposite of his son, and the two disagreed on nearly all matters, including Thomas's desire for a literary career. Much later Thomas was to portray this adversarial relationship with his father in the poem "P.H.T." In 1894, while attending St. Paul's School, Thomas met the successful literary journalist James Ashcroft Noble, who encouraged Thomas in his literary ambitions and was instrumental in getting his first book, The Woodland Life, accepted for publication. Shortly thereafter, while still a student at Lincoln College in Oxford, Thomas married Noble's daughter, Helen. Faced with the necessity of supporting a growing family, Thomas began accepting assignments of all sorts from London publishers. Much of the work he received was uncongenial hack-work, but Thomas wrote steadily, sometimes producing as many as three books a year. His work included essays, natural history, criticism, biographies, reviews, fiction, introductions, and topographical descriptions. Thomas wrote his first poems in 1914 at the urging of the American poet Robert Frost, with whom he forged a friendship during Frost's years in England. Two years later his first book of verse, Six Poems, was published. Due to Thomas's fear that it would be unfairly dismissed by the critics if it were published under his own name, this collection was published under the pseudonym of Edward Eastaway. These six were the only poems that Thomas lived to see in print: in 1915 he enlisted in the infantry and was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras, while the first edition of his Poems (1917) was being prepared for press.
Thomas's many reviews and critical studies—such as Richard Jefferies, Walter Pater, and The Feminine Influence on the Poets—represent the best of his prose work. Much of Thomas's prose was written according to the demands and deadlines of his publishers. Many critics believe that Thomas wasted his talents on hack work, and the author himself felt that his artistic potential was being destroyed under the strain of constant production. In spite of these circumstances, Thomas developed into a respected critic, and his reviews for various newspapers and journals were widely quoted. All of Thomas's criticism has been praised for its lucid style, precision of speech, and intelligent observations. Vernon Scannell has said that Thomas's "verse criticism shows not merely an intuitive awareness of what poetry should be about, but an intelligent familiarity with refinements of technique and a fine sense of the historical continuity of English literature."
While an accomplished prose writer, Thomas is of far more interest for the poetry which he began to write relatively late in his career. From his first poems, Thomas demonstrated, according to John Lehmann, an "intensity of vision" which set him apart from his contemporaries. His earliest poems bear the influence of Frost in their treatment of nature and in their simple style. However, Frost's influence was to decrease as Thomas discovered his own personal voice. Numerous critics, including Jeremy Hooker and J. P. Ward, have stressed the two principal themes in Thomas's poetry: one, the presence of war and its effect on the individual; the other, the poet's profound sense of solitude. Though he wrote only one war poem per se—"This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong"—throughout his poetry Thomas subtly portrays the influence of war on the natural order. Thomas's sense of solitude has led Ward to consider him an early existentialist. Though this might be an isolated point of view, most critics agree that Thomas remains appealing to the modern reader—while many of his contemporaries have fallen out of favor—because his poetry expresses an awareness of individual alienation commonly associated with existentialism.