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The Poetry of Edward Thomas

by J. Middleton Murry

We believe that when we are old and we turn back to look among the ruins with which our memory will be strewn for the evidence of life which disaster could not kill, we shall find it in the poems of Edward Thomas.[2] They will appear like the faint, indelible writing of a palimpsest over which in our hours of exaltation and bitterness more resonant, yet less enduring, words were inscribed; or they will be like a phial discovered in the ashes of what was once a mighty city. There will be the triumphal arch standing proudly; the very tombs of the dead will seem to share its monumental magnificence. Yet we will turn from them all, from the victory and sorrow alike, to this faintly gleaming bubble of glass that will hold captive the phantasm of a fragrance of the soul. By it some dumb and doubtful knowledge will be evoked to tremble on the edge of our minds. We shall reach back, under its spell, beyond the larger impulses of a resolution and a resignation which will have become a part of history, to something less solid and more permanent over which they passed and which they could not disturb.

[Footnote 2: Last Poems. By Edward Thomas. (Selwyn & Blount.)]

Our consciousness will have its record. The tradition of England in battle has its testimony; our less traditional despairs will be compassed about by a crowd of witnesses. But it might so nearly have been in vain that we should seek an echo of that which smiled at the conclusions of our consciousness. The subtler faiths might so easily have fled through our harsh fingers. When the sound of the bugles died, having crowned reveillé with the equal challenge of the last post, how easily we might have been persuaded that there was a silence, if there had not been one whose voice rose only so little above that of the winds and trees and the life of undertone we share with them as to make us first doubt the silence and then lend an ear to the incessant pulses of which it is composed. The infinite and infinitesimal vague happinesses and immaterial alarms, terrors and beauties scared by the sound of speech, memories and forgettings that the touch of memory itself crumbles into dust—this very texture of the life of the soul might have been a gray background over which tumultuous existence passed unheeding had not Edward Thomas so painfully sought the angle from which it appears, to the eye of eternity, as the enduring warp of the more gorgeous woof.

The emphasis sinks; the stresses droop away. To exacter knowledge less charted and less conquerable certainties succeed; truths that somehow we cannot make into truths, and that have therefore some strange mastery over us; laws of our common substance which we cannot make human but only humanise; loyalties we do not recognise and dare not disregard; beauties which deny communion with our beautiful, and yet compel our souls. So the sedge-warbler's

  'Song that lacks all words, all melody,
  All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
  Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.'

Not that the unheard melodies were sweeter than the heard to this dead poet. We should be less confident of his quality if he had not been, both in his knowledge and his hesitations, the child of his age. Because he was this, the melodies were heard; but they were not sweet. They made the soul sensible of attachments deeper than the conscious mind's ideals, whether of beauty or goodness. Not to something above but to something beyond are we chained, for all that we forget our fetters, or by some queer trick of self-hallucination turn them into golden crowns. But perhaps the finer task of our humanity is to turn our eyes calmly into 'the dark backward and abysm' not of time, but of the eternal present on whose pinnacle we stand.

  'I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
  And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing;
  Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
  For what I should, yet never can, remember.
  No garden appears, no path, no child beside,
  Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
  Only an avenue, dark, nameless without end.'

So, it seems, a hundred years have found us out. We come no longer trailing clouds of glory. We are that which we are, less and more than our strong ancestors; less, in that our heritage does not descend from on high, more, in that we know ourselves for less. Yet our chosen spirit is not wholly secure in his courage. He longs not merely to know in what undifferentiated oneness his roots are fixed, but to discover it beautiful. Not even yet is it sufficient to have a premonition of the truth; the truth must wear a familiar colour.

  'This heart, some fraction of me, happily
  Floats through the window even now to a tree
  Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
  Not like a peewit that returns to wail
  For something it has lost, but like a dove
  That slants unswerving to its home and love.
  There I find my rest, and through the dark air
  Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.'

Beauty, yes, perhaps; but beautiful by virtue of its coincidence with the truth, as there is beauty in those lines securer and stronger far than the melody of their cadence, because they tell of a loyalty of man's being which, being once made sensible of it, he cannot gainsay. Whence we all come, whither we must all make our journey, there is home indeed. But necessity, not remembered delights, draws us thither. That which we must obey is our father if we will; but let us not delude ourselves into the expectation of kindness and the fatted calf, any more than we dare believe that the love which moves the sun and the other stars has in it any charity. We may be, we are, the children of the universe; but we have 'neither father nor mother nor any playmate.'

And Edward Thomas knew this. The knowledge should be the common property of the poetry of our time, marking it off from what went before and from what will come after. We believe that it will be found to be so; and that the presence of this knowledge, and the quality which this knowledge imparts, makes Edward Thomas more than one among his contemporaries. He is their chief. He challenges other regions in the hinterland of our souls. Yet how shall we describe the narrowness of the line which divides his province from theirs, or the only half-conscious subtlety of the gesture with which he beckons us aside from trodden and familiar paths? The difference, the sense of departure, is perhaps most apparent in this, that he knows his beauty is not beautiful, and his home no home at all.

  'This is my grief. That land,
  My home, I have never seen.
  No traveller tells of it,
  However far he has been.

  'And could I discover it
  I fear my happiness there,
  Or my pain, might be dreams of return
  To the things that were.'

Great poetry stands in this, that it expresses man's allegiance to his destiny. In every age the great poet triumphs in all that he knows of necessity; thus he is the world made vocal. Other generations of men may know more, but their increased knowledge will not diminish from the magnificence of the music which he has made for the spheres. The known truth alters from age to age; but the thrill of the recognition of the truth stands fast for all our human eternity. Year by year the universe grows vaster, and man, by virtue of the growing brightness of his little lamp, sees himself more and more as a child born in the midst of a dark forest, and finds himself less able to claim the obeisance of the all. Yet if he would be a poet, and not a harper of threadbare tunes, he must at each step in the downward passing from his sovereignty, recognise what is and celebrate it as what must be. Thus he regains, by another path, the supremacy which he has forsaken.

Edward Thomas's poetry has the virtue of this recognition. It may be said that his universe was not vaster but smaller than the universe of the past, for its bounds were largely those of his own self. It is, even in material fact, but half true. None more closely than he regarded the living things of earth in all their quarters. 'After Rain' is, for instance, a very catalogue of the texture of nature's visible garment, freshly put on, down to the little ash-leaves

            '… thinly spread
  In the road, like little black fish, inlaid
            As if they played.'

But it is true that these objects of vision were but the occasion of the more profound discoveries within the region of his own soul. There he discovered vastness and illimitable vistas; found himself to be an eddy in the universal flux, driven whence and whither he knew not, conscious of perpetual instability, the meeting place of mighty impacts of which only the farthest ripple agitates the steady moonbeam of the waking mind. In a sense he did no more than to state what he found, sometimes in the more familiar language of beauties lost, mourned for lost, and irrecoverable.

  'The simple lack
  Of her is more to me
  Than other's presence,
  Whether life splendid be
  Or utter black.

  'I have not seen,
  I have no news of her;
  I can tell only
  She is not here, but there
  She might have been.

  'She is to be kissed
  Only perhaps by me;
  She may be seeking
  Me and no other; she
  May not exist.'

That search lies nearer to the norm of poetry. We might register its wistfulness, praise the appealing nakedness of its diction and pass on. If that were indeed the culmination of Edward Thomas's poetical quest, he would stand securely enough with others of his time. But he reaches further. In the verses on his 'home,' which we have already quoted, he passes beyond these limits. He has still more to tell of the experience of the soul fronting its own infinity:—

           'So memory made
  Parting to-day a double pain:
  First because it was parting; next
  Because the ill it ended vexed
  And mocked me from the past again.
  Not as what had been remedied
  Had I gone on,—not that, ah no!
  But as itself no longer woe.'

There speaks a deep desire born only of deep knowledge. Only those who have been struck to the heart by a sudden awareness of the incessant not-being which is all we hold of being, know the longing to arrest the movement even at the price of the perpetuation of their pain. So it was that the moments which seemed to come to him free from the infirmity of becoming haunted and held him most.

  'Often I had gone this way before,
  But now it seemed I never could be
  And never had been anywhere else.'

To cheat the course of time, which is only the name with which we strive to cheat the flux of things, and to anchor the soul to something that was not instantly engulfed—

         'In the undefined
  Abyss of what can never be again.'

Sometimes he looked within himself for the monition which men have felt as the voice of the eternal memory; sometimes, like Keats, but with none of the intoxication of Keats's sense of a sharing in victory, he grasped at the recurrence of natural things, 'the pure thrush word,' repeated every spring, the law of wheeling rooks, or to the wind 'that was old when the gods were young,' as in this profoundly typical sensing of 'A New House.'

  'All was foretold me; naught
    Could I foresee;
  But I learned how the wind would sound
    After these things should be.'

But he could not rest even there. There was, indeed, no anchorage in the enduring to be found by one so keenly aware of the flux within the soul itself. The most powerful, the most austerely imagined poem in this book is that entitled 'The Other,' which, apart from its intrinsic appeal, shows that Edward Thomas had something at least of the power to create the myth which is the poet's essential means of triangulating the unknown of his emotion. Had he lived to perfect himself in the use of this instrument, he might have been a great poet indeed. 'The Other' tells of his pursuit of himself, and how he overtook his soul.

  'And now I dare not follow after
  Too close. I try to keep in sight,
  Dreading his frown and worse his laughter,
  I steal out of the wood to light;
  I see the swift shoot from the rafter
  By the window: ere I alight
  I wait and hear the starlings wheeze
  And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight.
  He goes: I follow: no release
  Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease.'

No; not a great poet, will be the final sentence, when the palimpsest is read with the calm and undivided attention that is its due, but one who had many (and among them the chief) of the qualities of a great poet. Edward Thomas was like a musician who noted down themes that summon up forgotten expectations. Whether the genius to work them out to the limits of their scope and implication was in him we do not know. The life of literature was a hard master to him; and perhaps the opportunity he would eagerly have grasped was denied him by circumstance. But, if his compositions do not, his themes will never fail—of so much we are sure—to awaken unsuspected echoes even in unsuspecting minds.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things