…otherwise better known as the poet Edward Thomas, and whose grave we went to visit earlier this year, in the little cemetery at Agny, near Arras.
Edward Thomas was a strange and difficult man, depressive and quite unsuited to domestic life, despite the attempts of his adoring wife Helen to make it a perfect one for him. He went for long, gruelling walks through the English countryside, during which he absorbed more than most people ever could, of its sights and smells and sounds, although he didn’t start writing his poems until the last years of his life. Yet he was not a gloomy companion. Eleanor Farjeon, who also loved him, wrote: Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh and liked what he saw. He saw more than anybody I ever knew and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with.
As an older married man, he could have avoided enlisting, but he joined the Artist Rifles in 1915. In many ways the life of the army camp suited him – it gave him a kind of liberty and a purpose in life, and we was popular with his men. In 1916, he was sent to France. He died at Arras on Easter Monday 1916. The story that Helen believed was that he had just paused to light his pipe when a shell whizzed close to him, and he died from the blast without a mark on his body. Apparently, though, there may be other versions of this story, and I believe there is a new biography in preparation which I shall await eagerly.
After the war, his reputation seemed to dwindle, maybe because unlike the other war poets, he chose not to write about the horrors of war, except indirectly. He was also tarred with being that terrible thing, a ‘Georgian’. But I’m glad to say that seems to be over now, and his poetry is admired for the subtle and complex thing that it is. Ted Hughes described him as ‘the father of us all.’
Here’s a short and moving poem from 1915 about the losses of war and what is left behind.
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.