- Remembered Youth
Although known primarily as a Great War poet, Edward Thomas turned to poetry only in late 1914 and was too soon silenced: enlisting in July 1915, he embarked for France on 29 January 1917 and was killed on 9 April at the Battle of Arras. He was thirty-nine years old and a father of three. His widow, Helen, survived until 1967, dying at eighty-nine, three days after the fiftieth anniversary of her husband's death.
Thomas's fame, for the most part, rests on a slender corpus of 144 poems, edited recently by Edna Longley as Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (2008), a work referred to often in Autobiographies. Preceding the poetry, however, was a copious output of prose works, much of it commissioned by publishers, none of it providing a steady income. There are books on Oxford (1903), Wales (1905), Windsor Castle (1910) and the Isle of Wight (1911); biographical studies of Richard Jefferies (1909), Maeterlinck (1911), Lafcadio Hearn (1912), Swinburne (1912), George Borrow (1912), Pater (1913)—which Guy Cuthbertson calls "a case of patricide"—the Duke of Marlborough (1915) and Keats (1916); and a great many others.
Some of these works are now being republished by Oxford University Press in a series of six volumes under the general editorship of Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn. The first volume, Autobiographies, collects prose written by Thomas between 1912 and 1914: the short novel The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), the few pages of How I Began (1913), The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938), and unpublished extracts from two 1914 notebooks, Addenda to Autobiography (eleven brief sketches) and "Fiction" (fragments of an autobiographical novel). Thomas's prose is breezy, descriptive and often dense with quotations from, allusions to and echoes of other authors and also works by Thomas himself. Cuthbertson has traced and annotated them scrupulously, revealing for the first time the rich backdrop of Thomas's extensive readings and showing how they inform his fictional and nonfictional works.
Thomas called The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), his thirty-fourth book, "half memory, half fancy," but it owes perhaps more to memory, as evidenced by a letter to his friend Edward Garnett in 1913: "I think of writing a preface stating that all the characters but one are from life and offering prizes for identification." Cuthbertson calls it "arguably his most beautiful prose work. He is eloquent, moving, and poetic without being ornate or serpentine." [End Page 107]
More revealing still is The Childhood of Edward Thomas—it had no title, Thomas calling it simply "the autobiography"—of which he wrote: "I don't know what I was. I only know what I did & later on, sometimes, what I thought." And of what he did and thought we learn a great deal. We observe him in his favorite pastimes—keeping pigeons, fishing—and we find him recalling his impressions of poetry, of sex ("Sex was alluring and amusing, whenever it was revealed, because the whole grown-up world for the benefit of the young was endeavouring to keep up the appearance of doing without sex"), and of religion: at the Unitarian chapel Thomas sits between his parents, "sober reverent people without a creed, though their disbelief in Hell and the Devil almost amounted to a creed," with the members of the congregation "all in suspended animation."
According to Cuthbertson, "Fiction" is even "more introspective" than The Childhood of Edward Thomas "and closer to a Bildungsroman." Here, too, we find Thomas summoning up impressions of a few decades past. "Women as a whole seemed to me to be altogether better than men," he muses "in the same way that Liberals were better than Conservatives." (Thomas's father thought Gladstone "a glorious, great and good man.") Even amusing moments are instilled with a sense of wonder, as when Thomas visits a bookseller, "a dull quiet man with offensive breath," to purchase the works of Byron ("spicy stuff sir," he's told). Childe Harold's Pilgrimage provides the young Thomas with something of...