My first impression of Eleanor Farjeon, whom I hope to write about some time, – and it’s certainly an impression she cultivated in later life – was of a cosy dumpling of a woman who wrote poems about cats. But we saw another side of her in Nick Dear’s play about Edward Thomas, performed at the Almeida a couple of years ago, ‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky,’ which showed her intense relationship with the poet. Eleanor was then a young woman from a literary family, who moved in a busy circle of musicians, Fabians, writers and psychologists. It was in 1912, when Thomas was receiving treatment for his depression from a young doctor, Godwin Baynes who specialised in nervous diseases, that Eleanor first met him, and very soon fell in love with him. The affair was platonic – Eleanor probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Though Thomas became very close to Eleanor and emotionally dependent on her, he didn’t reciprocate her love. They exchanged numerous letters – his to her survive, hers to him don’t – spent much time together, went for long walks – Eleanor wasn’t a strider by nature but she learned to keep up to Thomas’s long loping steps. They talked about poetry – Eleanor was one of the people who suggested to a diffident Thomas that he might try writing it – Robert Frost was another, and fortunately for us, Thomas took the hint.
Thomas’s long suffering wife, Helen, must have been unsure at first about Eleanor’s place in her husband’s life, but when they met, they became good friends and remained so. Helen came to see her as an ally rather than a rival.
Eleanor had been writing poetry all her life – it came naturally to her; too naturally sometimes. D.H.Lawrence said it might be a good thing if she never saw another Elizabethan sonnet in her life again, since she could fall so easily into pastiche. But when she was moved by real emotions, her poetry was beautiful and moving. She wrote this sonnet when Thomas had just been called up, and it must capture the feelings of many women who wonder if they are seeing their loved ones for the very last time.
Now That You Too…
Now that you too must shortly go the way
Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
Have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
And in their numbers will not come again:
I must not strain the moments of our meeting
Striving each look, each accent, not to miss,
Or question of our parting and our greeting –
Is this the last of all? is this- or this?
Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
Last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
Even serving love, are our mortalities,
And cling to what they own in mortal fears:-
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
By immortal love, which has no first or last
(copyright Eleanor Farjeon)