Sunday, 9 April 2017

100th anniversary of the death of edward thomas, poet

Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, poet.

Above is his poem Tall Nettles, one of my favourites. I love its simplicity and the fact that Thomas picked out this abandoned part of the farmyard to write about. He reclaims the lost and makes one see beauty in this unexpected, otherwise overlooked place.

The poem is taken from my copy of his Collected Poems (Faber Library edition, fourth impression, 1945). I was thrilled to find this book in Blackwell's rare books department many years ago. Thrilled too by the price: £3.50!

An Edward Thomas site worth checking out is his collection in the Bodleian Libraries' First World War Poetry Digital Archive, which includes digital images of his War Diary.

This afternoon, I shall listen to Nick Dear's play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which was originally broadcast yesterday afternoon.

I shall also dip into Margaret Keeping's wonderful novel A Conscious Englishman and re-read favourite bits. Here is the Prologue.


February 1917

At dawn the thaw began. Snow slid from the holly hedge, at first in a sprinkling shower, then in heavy tumbling lumps. Clear ice blades that lined the ash twigs fell suddenly, chiming as they struck each other in the silence, then melting into the greying snow.

An hour later a thrush sensed the change and began to sing, but as there was no answering challenge he stopped and the silence returned for a time.

Half-frozen grasses and dead campion umbels showed a drab grey against the lighter snow. A man passed through them, below them, as he walked the trenches, and the scrape and rustle against his tin helmet taught him to keep his head down.

He was walking to the British line looking for possible observation points. Stark poles jutted out of the dingy snow, barbed wire strung between. Through his field glasses he watched intently, anticipating a sight of the enemy. He saw no one, only posts, wire, dead trees and ruined houses. Yet from the enemy lines, every few minutes, shells came, screaming through the air and over his head. As they passed, he felt a sickening sensation in his ears – not so much sound as pressure. The shelling is the enemy, for both our sides, he thought.

Every evening he wrote in his notebook: about trees, splintered, snapped and dead, about filling sand bags to shore up the trenches. About how he’d enjoyed the digging, as he always did in the garden at Steep, the scent of chalky earth as his spade cut through dead leaves and bracken reminding him of home.

He dared not think too much about home. He held on to the natural world, its continuation, its immunity to what was happening. Larks still soared and sang, though it became more and more difficult to hear them over the noise of shelling. They carry on their business in the midst of it all, as I do, he thought.

From his observation post he watched the Engineers swarming over No Man's Land, making a board road between the shell-holes to bring out the wounded, shell-holes full of blood-stained water and beer bottles among the barbed wire. But larks, partridges, hedge sparrows and magpies were busy with their young around his post.

How to describe the effect of the continuous shelling on air? The word 'flap' was the nearest he could get: The air was flapping all night as with great sails in strong gusty wind, he wrote. But appallingly the air also somehow sagged – a sag and flap of air. Was that it? He scribbled two lines that were in his mind:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven,
Or any corner may hide hell.

Every evening he wrote letters too.

'I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live,' Edward wrote to Robert Frost. 'But I know as much about my chances in either case.'

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