I’ve just been reading with great enjoyment  the new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. I’ve written about Thomas before,  after we visited his grave last year. He’s a difficult and complicated person who somehow draws you back and back again to his poems;  deceptively calm, they give you that sense of encountering something familiar that you recognise instantly, dusty nettles in the corner of a yard, a tiny railway station glimpsed in passing, a road gleaming after rain, making you feel that he’s writing for you personally.  There’s something about their quiet strength that reminds me of the work of Eric Ravillious, whose work we visited the Dulwich gallery last week to see; both use pastel colours, sometimes radiant , sometimes sombre, turning a keen gaze upon the everyday and apparently banal. Ravillious too gives you the sense of transmuting your own experience,  a third-class railway carriage (even for those too young to remember them) a greenhouse full of cyclamen,  into something timeless and archetypical.  And both men, the writer and the painter, demonstrate a quality usually described as ‘quintessentially English.’ To try and describe what this means would require a whole other blog post, would have to take in music, Elgar and Vaughan  Williams as well, and I fear would be beyond my fairly puny critical powers, so I shall leave it at that.

I’ve chosen one of my favourite Thomas poems, ‘Words’, in which he uses the conceit that words choose the writer rather than the other way around.  But Thomas’s choice of words, and his ability to position them so as to draw out their cadences,  is exquisite. Who else, in ‘Adlestrop’ could make the names of two English counties into one of the most beautiful lines in poetry?


UT of us all

That make rhymes

Will you choose
          As the winds use
           A crack in the wall
           Or a drain
          Their joy or their pain
              To whistle through
           Choose me
           You English words?
          I know you
         You are light as dreams
,        Tough as oak,
         Precious as gold,
            As poppies and corn
        Or an old cloak;
             Sweet as our birds
            to the ear,
             As the burnet rose
              In the heat
               Of Midsummer
            Strange as the races
            Of dead and unborn:
             Strange and sweet
             And familiar,
               To the eye
             As the dearest faces
             That a man knows
             And as lost homes are:
              But though older far
                Than oldest yew
              As our hills are, old
             Worn new
                Again and again:
               Young as our streams
                After rain:
               And as dear
              As the earth which you prove
             That we love
               Make me content
               With some sweetness
                 From Wales,
              Whose nightingales
               Have no wings
               From Wiltshire and Kent
             And Herefordshire,
           And the villages there,–
               From the names, and the things
           No less
           Let me sometimes dance
             With you
            Or climb,
            Or stand perchance
            In ecstasy
             Fixed and free
              In a rhyme,
              As poets do.
                                   Edward Thomas