Prior to his Great War poetry years (1914-1917), Edward Thomas produced an astounding quantity of prose works: biographies (of individuals and of places), travel books, criticism and essays, even introductions to books by other writers. Sometimes complete but most often in part, some of these works are now being republished by Oxford University Press in a handsome, if expensive, six-volume edition. Its most recent volume collects Thomas's writings about England and Wales, many of them responses to his wanderings in the countryside. His canvas is vast and varied: roads and their movement through the countryside, rustic landscapes, rain—"All things smiled faintly so that I seemed to touch the pericardium of eternity," Thomas writes in "Rain" (1910) of the moments following a rainfall—ministers and poachers, a tramp who recounts the story of a murder he committed twenty years ago, an elderly man ("Apollo, when he disguised himself as an old man, must have looked so"), even "A Wiltshire Molecatcher" from The Woodland Life (1897), nineteen-year-old Thomas's first book. [End Page 119]
An inveterate walker, Thomas eschewed the usual tourist attractions, such as cathedrals ("they are incomprehensible and not restful," he writes in The South Country), castles and stately homes, in favor of random peregrinations that inspired ruminations on the natural world. Also an avid reader—between 1900 and 1914 he wrote over 1,900 reviews of contemporary books!—Thomas's reflections are often predictably bookish. The Isle of Wight (1911), for example, complete here save for a short section called "History," is less concerned with the place—which was not one of Thomas's usual haunts—than with its literary associations, such as longtime resident Tennyson and numerous lesser-known authors, among them Henry Jones and the Reverend Legh Richmond.
One major influence was Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), whose autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883), Thomas reviewed in 1907 and whose biography he wrote in 1909, and who "played a vital role in shaping Thomas' understanding of the spiritual bond between human beings and the natural world.... There can be few examples in the history of English literature of a discipleship so sustained and devoted." The Book of the Open Air (1907-1908), excerpted in England and Wales, includes a piece on Jefferies ("Except Shelley, no one so much as he was aware of the universe"), a panegyric to the nature writer par excellence. Jefferies is quoted often throughout this volume, and he and Wordsworth have the longest index entries, with George Borrow (another Thomas biographee) a close third. Others much quoted or discussed include Arnold, Chaucer, Cowper, Frost (a personal friend), Keats, Hazlitt, W. H. Hudson, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, Traherne, Virgil and Isaak Walton, a Thomas favorite whose Compleat Angler has a mini-counterpart in "Digressions on Fish and Fishing," one of the six (of fifteen) essays in Horae Solitariae (1902) published in this volume.
England and Wales is divided into eighteen chronological sections of excerpts from works published between 1897 and 1915 (and a few posthumous pieces), each prefaced by a brief introduction giving its genesis and publication history. Reading the excerpts chosen for this Selected Edition gives one a real sense of Thomas as prose stylist, with many of his musings, replete as they are with analogies, allusions and metaphors, resembling prose poems or philosophical meditations. "No one can walk much in the Oxford country without becoming a Pantheist," he writes in one of the three chapters (of ten) from Oxford (1903), his alma mater, commissioned by A. & C. Black to accompany sixty [End Page 120] full-page color illustrations and written three years after his graduation. Of a personality in "College Servants of the Present and the Past," Thomas writes: "I can think of him as being the deity of the place, in a mythopoeic age." Like Oxford, Beautiful Wales (1905) was part of Black's Colour Book Series and is represented here by excerpts from four of its five chapters. Despite...