Tuesday, November 17, 2020


Edward Thomas in Uniform

By Edward Thomas


November’s days are thirty:

November’s earth is dirty,

Those thirty days, from first to last;

And the prettiest thing on ground are the paths

With morning and evening hobnails dinted,

With foot and wing-tip overprinted

Or separately charactered,

Of little beast and little bird.

The fields are mashed by sheep, the roads

Make the worst going, the best the woods

Where dead leaves upward and downward scatter.

Few care for the mixture of earth and water,

Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,

Straw, feather, all that men scorn,

Pounded up and sodden by flood,

Condemned as mud.


But of all the months when earth is greener

Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.

Clean and clear and sweet and cold,

They shine above the earth so old,

While the after-tempest cloud

Sails over in silence though winds are loud,

Till the full moon in the east

Looks at the planet in the west

And earth is silent as it is black,

Yet not unhappy for its lack.

Up from the dirty earth men stare:

One imagines a refuge there

Above the mud, in the pure bright

Of the cloudless heavenly light:

Another loves earth and November more dearly

Because without them, he sees clearly,

The sky would be nothing more to his eye

Than he, in any case, is to the sky;

He loves even the mud whose dyes

Renounce all brightness to the skies.


About the Poet:


If the war goes on I believe I shall find myself a sort of Englishman, though neither poet or soldier'

- Letter to Walter de la Mare, 30th August 1914

Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) was a British poet, essayist, and novelist. Scholars consider him a war poet, although few of his poems deal directly with his war experiences. His career in poetry only came after he had already been a successful writer and literary critic. In 1915, he enlisted in the British Army to fight in the First World War and was killed in action shortly after arriving in France.


Thomas thought that poetry was the highest form of literature and regularly reviewed it, but he only became a poet himself at the end of 1914 when living at Steep, East Hampshire. He initially published his poetry under the name Edward Eastaway to disguise his identity due to his fame as a critic. Robert Frost, who was living in England at the time, encouraged Thomas (then more famous as a critic) to write poetry, and their friendship was so close that the two planned to reside side by side in the United States. Frost's most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," was inspired by walks with Thomas and Thomas's indecisiveness about which route to take.


Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, despite being a 37-year-old married man who could have avoided enlisting. He was unintentionally influenced in this decision by his friend Frost, who had returned to the U.S. but sent Thomas an advance copy of "The Road Not Taken." Frost intended the poem as a gentle mocking of Thomas’ indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together; however, most audiences took the poem more seriously than Frost intended. Thomas similarly took it seriously and personally. The poem allowed Thomas to be decisive and enlist.


Thomas was promoted to corporal, and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after arriving in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. To spare the feelings of his widow, Helen, she was told the fiction of a "bloodless death," i.e., that Thomas was killed by the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe and that there was no mark on his body. However, a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington written in 1936 (and discovered many years later in an American archive), states that in reality, the cause of Thomas's death was being "shot clean through the chest." W. H. Davies, the Welsh poet and Thomas's close friend, was devastated by his death and immortalized him in a poem, “Killed in Action (Edward Thomas).”


Killed in Action (Edward Thomas)

By W. H. Davies


Happy the man whose home is still

In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;

To wake and hear the birds so loud,

That scream for joy to see the sun

Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.


And we have known those days, when we

Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;

When you and I, with thoughtful mind,

Would help a bird to hide her nest,

For fear of other hands less kind.


But thou, my friend, art lying dead:

War, with its hell-born childishness,

Has claimed thy life, with many more:

The man that loved this England well,

And never left it once before.


 Thomas is buried in Agny military cemetery on the outskirts of Arras. He did not live to see Poems (1917), a collection of his poetry published under his pseudonym, Edward Eastaway. In just under two years, he had written over 140 poems. On 11 November 1985, Thomas was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription, written by fellow poet Wilfred Owen, reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."


Susan said...

Dearest Joe,
Reading these two poems brought tears. The story of one life lost to the madness of war is heartbreaking. And here we are today in the midst of fighting another war losing thousands and breaking the hearts of millions. All equally sad.

naturgesetz said...

Did Robert Frost ever say anything about his role in inadvertently encouraging his friend to enlist as far as you know?

Joe said...

Naturgesetz, to be honest, I do not know. I tried to do a little research and found an article in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/29/robert-frost-edward-thomas-poetry), which is well worth reading. It does not say whether Frost knew he was the reason for his friend going to war, but the article does state that the poem was just the last straw in a series of events that led to Thomas' decision. However, Frost and Thomas continued to correspond up until the death of Thomas, so Frost likely had some idea that he may have inadvertently encouraged Thomas to enlist. Frost may have never been able to admit he was part of the reason Thomas enlisted; the guilt would have been overpowering. At least that's what I think.

naturgesetz said...

Thanks, Joe. Interesting article.