Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Poetic Style of Edward Thomas

Ted Hughes once described the poet Edward Thomas as ‘the father of us all’. Due to the overwhelming emphasis placed on the role of ‘modernism’ in twentieth century poetry, this claim may seem surprising. When we think of the most influential ‘modern’ texts we are perhaps more likely to think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos than of Thomas’s pastoral English lyrics. And yet, there really are few poets who have influenced contemporary poetry more than Thomas has – Auden, Larkin, Hughes and many others have admitted to his influence. In fact, he is so influential that various collections of poetry have been put together by poets wishing to celebrate Thomas’s impact on their verse. The aspect of Thomas’s poetry that these writers refer to most frequently is his conversational style and loose rhythm, both of which were relatively innovative in the early twentieth century but are commonplace now. The meditative colloquialism of Thomas’s verse lends itself to the exploration of uncertainties and ambiguities, a recurring theme in his poems and indeed in modern literature in general. But this colloquial style does not hamper the musical cadences of Thomas’s verse, often overlooked by critics stressing his speech-like intonations. It is perhaps in this sense that Thomas is most influential: in combining a conversational and meditative style with a richly rhythmical musicality.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost spent about a year together over 1913-14. During that time, Frost encouraged Thomas to start writing his own verse and arguably influenced Thomas’s views on poetic style. Frost’s mantra that ‘a poet needs to capture the spoken word’ is clear not just in Thomas’s verse but also in his prose: he once said he wanted to ‘wring all the necks of my rhetoric’ and purge his prose writing of all mannerisms. In his famous poem ‘Adlestrop’, this colloquialism and ambition towards the ‘spoken word’ is clear. The poem opens with the words ‘Yes. I remember Adlestrop –’ as if Thomas is in the middle of a conversation or answering a question. In the poem, there are very few ‘poetic’ terms (apart from the word ‘whit’) and obscurities, reflecting Thomas’s Wordsworthian commitment to poetry for the common man. Similarly, the poem ‘But these things also’, opening as it does with a conjunction, suggests it is some sort of response to an unidentified interlocutor, again adding to the sense of a relaxed, conversational style which draws us into the poem. This poetic intimacy felt by the reader is enhanced by Thomas’s use of relatively loose metres – ‘Adlestop’ is written in iambic tetrameter, but the first line begins with a trochaic foot (‘Yes. I…’) and the third line has nine syllables. These are just two example of the numerous metrical variations in Thomas’s verse. His rhymes vary, too – in ‘Gone, Gone Again’ his rhyme scheme flits from ABCB to AABC to ABCA. Moreover, his rhymes are often, in the words of Walter De La Mare, the ‘faintest of echoes’ – in the aforementioned poem, he rhymes ‘dead’ with ‘interested’ and ‘sun’ with ‘one’. This loose formality not only shows how innovative Thomas was in his time, but it also augments the colloquial style of his verse, drawing the reader in with its speech-like appearance. As Edgell Rickword wrote in the Daily Herald, ‘To read him is like listening to a friend in the completest intimacy…’

Directly connected to this aspect of Thomas’s style is the reflective nature of his verse. ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ is a good example of this. Through the repeated use of enjambment (‘we two walked / Slowly’, ‘started / Again’, and ‘parted / Each night’), we get the sense of a fluidity of thought. It is as if Thomas is letting his thoughts run over the lines in speech-like cadences as he walks with his companion, his words reflecting what Newlyn calls ‘the momentary lulls that are part of companionable walking and talking.’ This may also be clear in Thomas’s use of repetition. In ‘Old Man’, for example, certain words are repeated, perhaps to suggest an intensifying rumination. Thomas writes:

the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.

The repetition of the word ‘names’ seems unnecessary here, possibly suggesting that Thomas is coming to terms with his own mind and organizing his thoughts. Perhaps, too, as J.P. Ward argues, these repeats imply the limitations of thought and of the human mind. Thomas also asks various questions in his verse, demonstrating the uncertainty of his contemplations. For example, in ‘The Unknown Bird’ Thomas asks ‘Was it but four years / Ago? or five?’ He goes on to say: ‘But I cannot tell / If truly never anything but fair / The days were when he sang, as now they seem.’ This questioning and sense of ambiguity clearly influenced Philip Larkin who, in his poem ‘Dockery and Son’, asks questions like ‘… did he get his son / At nineteen, twenty?’ In Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ a similar uncertainty manifests itself in the poem’s final words ‘I don’t know.’ Wells is right, then, when he suggests that Thomas has a ‘scrupulous inability… to conceal uncertainty.’ (65) It runs throughout his poetry, demonstrating how his verse stems from contemplation rather than from sheer energy of insight.’ (De La Mare) So what effect does this colloquial and contemplative style have on our reading of Thomas’s verse? Well, to some extent it brings the poet down to our level – he is not preaching to us in aloof terms or handing us fully-formed theories on life or the mind. He draws us in with his lack of posturing. As Motion argues, through his ‘sympathetic quiet-speaking’ and his emphasis on uncertainty, he creates ‘poems which appear to think aloud rather than be a means of delivering finished thoughts’. We feel directly the personality of the poet – his questionings, his anxieties, the very movement of his thoughts.

But this relaxed and ‘quiet-speaking’ style does not necessarily mean that Thomas’s verse is somehow ‘unpoetic’. True, his poetry is very different from that of Tennyson, for example, but it is still beautifully lyrical and musical. As Newlyn argues, ‘Thomas had a natural, un-taught musicality, which came from his love of ballads, folk songs, and English poetry.’ In fact, he was so infatuated by folk tradition and ballads that, in 1907, he compiled The Pocket Book of Poems and Songs for the Open Air, a collection of ballads, folk-songs, and contemporary poetry. This infatuation clearly fed into his verse: ‘Will You Come?’, for example, is ballad-like in its repetitions and quick rhythms, and his poems are full of harmonious lines, like the ending of ‘November’ (‘Renounce all brightness to the skies’) with its perfect metre and echoing assonance and sibilance. Given the influence of song on Thomas’s poetry, it’s no wonder that 19 of his poems were set to music by Gloucestershire composer Ivor Gurney (his rendition of ‘Snow’ is particularly poignant). A quick look at Thomas’s prose supports this view of his melodic writing style. In The Woodland Life (1897), Thomas describes how the ‘robins rustle gently and fly a yard or two, or a blackbird blusters out’. The alliteration, along with the trochaic rhythm of ‘robins rustle gently’, is prophetic of Thomas’s conversion into a poet.

The ending of ‘Adlestrop’ is similarly rhythmic. As John Bayley explains, the third and fourth stanzas abandon ‘the short choppy sentence structure of the first two’ developing into more flowing, effortless lines of iambic tetrameter. This fluidity is most obvious in the line ‘No whit less still and lonely fair’, which with its repeated ‘l’ and ‘o’ sounds seems to roll off the tongue with ease. In the final stanza, Thomas describes how ‘for that minute a blackbird sang / Close by,’ and then the poem cinematically zooms out to take in ‘all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ This echoing final line, referring to specific places Thomas knew well, carries with it a subtle sense of nostalgia. The whole stanza does, in fact, particularly with the phrase ‘for that minute’, immediately suggesting the transiency of human experience. Perhaps, too, the words ‘mistier’ and ‘farther’ suggest not only a physical distance but also a temporal distance. This uneventful train journey took place about a month before the First World War began, but Thomas only started writing poetry about five months later, once the war had begun, so possibly this sense of nostalgia is one of anxiety that ‘This England’ may be destroyed by the war. After all, when he was asked why he had become a soldier, he is said to have picked up a handful of English soil and said ‘Literally, for this’. Just as Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ expresses a fear that there may not be ‘Beauty yet to find’ and there may not be ‘honey still for tea’ in the village of his childhood, so ‘Adlestrop’ captures a single moment of quietness and of calm before the ‘Guns of August’ wrought havoc across Europe. Like Larkin, Thomas worried that there would be ‘Never such innocence again’. As Andrew Motion argues, ‘Behind every line [of Thomas’s poetry], whether mentioned or not, lies imminent danger and disruption.’

Though Thomas did employ the occasional Georgian inversion in his poetry (‘Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob…’ or ‘Fast beat / My heart’), it would be hard to argue that he was not innovative for his time. As David Gervais put it, he should be read as a modern poet rather than as a revisionist Georgian. His style is perhaps the most distinctly modern aspect of his work – his reconciling of the speaking voice with traditional forms, whilst also allowing for bursts of lyrical vitality. But it’s also important to note his modern sensibility – throughout his poetry, Thomas emphasizes his sense of solitude and loneliness, so much so that J.P. Ward has referred to him as an early existentialist. In fact, various comparisons could be drawn between Thomas the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock, the bundle of inhibitions in Eliot’s eponymous poem. Likewise, the words ‘I should be glad of another death’ (Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’) could really have come from either poet’s pen, which goes to show how modern Thomas really was, in content as well as style. But it’s not as if Thomas was trying to break down barriers, to ‘Make it new’. His close friend and fellow poet Walter De La Mare summarized Thomas’s poetry best when he said: ‘His chief desire was to express himself and his own truth – and therefore life and humanity…’ Thomas, with his thorough knowledge of contemporary poetry and poetic criticism, with his history of depression and anxieties about his turbulent marriage, and most importantly, with his love of nature and his fear of its war-time destruction, was bound to write great poetry. Perhaps if he had not died in Arras, and if he had kept writing years after, we would now see Thomas as the greatest of all the twentieth century poets.

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