A writer’s posthumous renown is often untethered to his life’s toil, even when that toil is writing. Edward Thomas is now regarded as maybe the finest poet of the First World War, and one of the greatest of the 20th century. His marriage of precise pastoral observation to a severe clarity of vision, and his easy technical virtuosity as displayed in his natural use of diction and of the rhythms of everyday speech, has made him something of a poet’s poet: Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis said they had “little or no hope of ever equaling” Thomas, and at Westminster Abbey in 1985, Ted Hughes declared him “the father of us all.”
But when Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras, on Easter Monday in 1917—as he was filling his pipe, the blast from a passing shell stopped his heart; he died with his body unblemished—his reputation as a writer rested entirely on his vast and varied work in prose. At his death, only a handful of his poems had been published, all pseudonymously. In fact, he had just started writing poetry in the winter of 1914–15, when he was 36; he wrote all of his 144 poems in the last two years of his life. (Although only one of his poems, “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong,” relates directly to the war, he wrote much of his verse while in uniform, and the conflict, as the poet and critic Andrew Motion has argued, pervades his poetry. The enigmatically elegiac power of his most beloved poem, the 16-line “Adlestrop,” for instance, is surely derived from its evocation of the warm, idyllic summer on the eve of the war.)
Thomas’s career as a writer sprang largely from necessity. In 1899, while still an undergraduate at Oxford, Thomas impregnated his then-fiancée. Married and a father at 22, his justifiably high academic ambitions derailed, Thomas had to jump on Grub Street’s treadmill. He could never get off. Over the next decade and a half, he would write an astonishing 20 books, edit or write the introductions to an additional dozen, and write 70 articles and 1,900 reviews (he sometimes wrote 15 reviews in a week). Ever scribbling for money, Thomas, who eventually had three children, took on far too many commissions on far too disparate subjects—he reviewed a dizzying array of titles, and his own books include a biography of the Duke of Marlborough, a novel, and studies of Keats, Lafcadio Hearn, Charles Swinburne, and Walter Pater.
With Edward Thomas: Prose Writings, a work that will consist of six fat volumes, Oxford University Press seeks to change that. (The publication of the opening volumes in the series roughly coincides with the recent publication of the most astute biography yet written of Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, by Matthew Hollis). The bold aim of the series is to establish Thomas “as one of the most important prose writers in English.” But to lay siege to that literary Parnassus demands heavier guns. Given Thomas’s extraordinary output, an assemblage of his prose limited to a mere six volumes permits only relatively small excerpts of much of his work. In the case of the 612-page second volume, which collects some of Thomas’s most important writing on the countryside, entire books, including perhaps his finest, The South Country, must be represented by just a few chapters—which makes it read more like an anthology aimed at undergraduates than an installment in a reputation-defining, grandly ambitious work.
Although Thomas despaired that the Stakhanovite pace of his literary production kept him from writing more lasting works, his prose was far from mere hackery. He was England’s most discerning, esteemed, and feared poetry critic—he very early grasped the brilliance and weaknesses in Yeats and Pound, and championed Robert Frost; Walter de la Mare said that he must have been “a critic of rhymes in his nursery.” In reviews, articles, and book introductions on rural life, and particularly in his “country books”—eccentric, discursive amalgams of travel writing, history, topography, natural history, literary analysis, and fiction, rooted in particular counties or regions—Thomas established himself as among the best in a distinguished line of English writers on nature and the countryside.
Paradoxically, those pursuits added to the labors that kept him from the leisured life he perhaps needed in order to write poetry—a life he would only fully find in the army—even as they immeasurably helped him emerge as a poet. Frost, who urged Thomas to turn to poetry, proposed that he transform into poems some segments from his finely observed book on country life In Pursuit of Spring—a decisive suggestion. “All he ever got from me,” Frost said years later, “was admiration for the poet in him before he had written a line of poetry.” Thomas would, shortly before his death, characterize his poems as the “quintessences of the best parts of my prose books.” It’s ironic, then, that although Thomas built his literary reputation on his criticism and country writing, those endeavors are now peripheral to that reputation.
Still, for all the exigencies that impinged on their creation, and for all the perhaps unavoidable thinness of the sampling, the writings collected in this volume—Thomas’s reviews and introductions about rural life and, above all, excerpts from his own country books—show a prose master of understated power and refinement. Elaborately precise, richly textured, densely allusive, Thomas’s prose reveals a mind minutely curious and a man of prodigious but easy learning and wry warmth. But somewhat incongruously, its style is at once Latinate in its intricate exactitude and, as Thomas himself described the style of one of his literary heroes, William Cobbett, “lean and hard and undecorated.”
Thomas’s genius as a prose writer is surely rooted in his profound historical sense. Deeply and widely read, he littered his writing with unattributed allusions to folklore, ballads, the Greek and Latin authors, and the entire corpus of English literature, which he had in his bones. The force and effectiveness of that allusiveness lies in its particularity. He was alive to the relationship between a particular place and the writers who lived there. As Virginia Woolf wrote,
He had a passion for English country and a passion for English literature; and he had stored enough knowledge of the lives of his heroes to make it natural for him to think of them when walking through their country and to speculate whether the influence of it could be traced in their writing.
Entwined with this literary hyperawareness—this sense of the interpenetration among writers, between writers and their environment, and between literature and Thomas’s experience (“I cannot decide whether my life owed more to my books or my books, more to my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I slipped from one world into the other as easily as from room to room”)—is Thomas’s historical hyperawareness, which gives him almost literally a different way of seeing. He was a skilled mapmaker and map reader, and in his books he brilliantly discerns and interprets what was in plain sight. He sees, as he writes in The South Country, how “the peculiar combination of soil and woodland and water determines the direction and position and importance of the ancient trackways … [and] the position and size of the human settlements.” He grasps how landscape—the patterns of fields and hedgerows, villages, watercourses, roads—is not fixed by nature but is instead the product of thousands of years of human activity. He can read the hidden anatomy of the land, and see how ancient farming and medieval trade created the contemporary scenery that we take for granted and assume is immutable. Taken as a whole, Thomas’s writing on the countryside offers a meditation on history’s pervasive and stubborn influence on the present: “Toil and passion of generations,” he writes in The South Country, “produce only an enriching of the light within the glades, and a solemnizing of the shadows.”
Thomas’s writing is, as his experience no doubt was, saturated—indeed, charged—with the past. Responding to Coleridge, he says:
There are many places which nobody can look upon without being consciously influenced by a sense of their history … In some places history has wrought like an earthquake, in others like an ant or mole; everywhere, permanently; so that if we but knew or cared, every swelling of the grass, every wavering line of hedge or path or road were an inscription … When we muse deeply upon the old road worn deep into the chalk, among burial mound and encampment; we feel rather than see.
The work in this volume may or may not put Thomas in the front rank of English prose writers. But it does poignantly and scintillatingly testify to the regressive aspects of human psychology and the human experience, which entangle us in the distant and also the recent past even as we try to make our way forward.