- Edward Thomas, Swinburne, and Richard Jefferies:“The dead oak tree bough”
Between 1914 and 1917, Edward Thomas wrote 144 poems. It is on these that his reputation now rests, but a focus on the remarkable creativity of this period can often misrepresent the nature of his literary achievement as a whole. "[O]f his twenty-two months as a soldier," Kenneth Millard reminds us, "all but seventy days were spent training in England, and he only wrote one poem in France, 'The Sorrow of True Love."'1 Such comments are a timely corrective to those who, since the revival of critical interest in Thomas in the early 1970s, have tended to regard him primarily as a war poet. Andrew Motion has been especially influential here, notably in his frequently quoted pronouncement: "Because all [Thomas's] poetry was written after the outbreak of war, it is all, in an important sense, war poetry. Behind every line, whether mentioned or not, lies imminent danger and disruption."2 That "whether mentioned or not" gives Motion and those who followed him critical carte blanche to transport Thomas's poems to the Western Front and enshrine them in the canon of anthems for doomed youth. Elements of Thomas's work do, on occasion, encourage a sense of preoccupation with the war, but the conflict in France is far from the only cause of "danger and disruption" in his poetry, or indeed his other writings.
There are, needless to say, a number of other versions of Edward Thomas in circulation. There is the Thomas of biography and recollection, a young bohemian with an inadequate knowledge of birth control, disappointed academic ambitions, and a susceptibility to "melancholia." Then there is Thomas the Georgian, the Thomas hailed by Walter de la Mare as a "mirror of England," Thomas the "nature poet," Thomas the Anglo-Welsh quasi-socialist visionary, Thomas the friend of Robert Frost. There is also the Thomas who emerges from Edna Longley's [End Page 164] superb collection of his critical writing, A Language not to be Betrayed (1981), as a journalist evolving a complex literary and critical aesthetic while reviewing thirty books a week. The polyphonic characterisations that are attached to Thomas, those of husband, father, critic, novelist, journalist, anthologist, travel writer, soldier, and finally poet, make it very difficult to achieve a stable perspective on him, especially when he was wont to characterise himself as a "doomed hack."3 Which Thomas is under discussion here?
To answer this, we need to refine the idea of Thomas as a war poet. Thomas was not a pacifist, but neither was he especially bellicose: his main reason for joining the army in 1915 was a pragmatic wish to ensure a larger pension for his wife and children. War was a job rather than a calling, and Thomas had no illusions about the reasons for the conflict, the lasting worth of much so-called "war poetry" or his own probable fate in northern France. Six months after he was killed, a reviewer of a reprint of one of his books declared that Thomas's criticism revealed "a dislike of committing himself" and that "First and last, Thomas was a non-combatant of letters." "Just as little was he non-combatant in literature as in war," Thomas's father replied, appalled by the slur on his son's memory.4 Any reader of Thomas's criticism can have no doubt that his father was right, yet the reassurance of his military heroism occludes the genuine significance of the remark. Thomas was very far from a "non-combatant" in either life or literature, being engaged in both the real war which ultimately cost him his life and a more complex set of negotiations with late-Victorian literary culture. One engagement was a martial struggle in which he was the pawn of forces beyond his control, but the other saw him in a very different position as a cultural diplomat seeking a negotiated solution to an increasingly vicious struggle between aspects of late-Victorian and self-consciously modern literary practice. While the prose grenades of Blast (1914) were blowing up the years 1837–1901, Thomas was, so...