John Dunn

John Dunn original writing
Book sales
Thought Pieces
Oxford to Cambridge

Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas on Dr John Dunn. Edward Thomas

Selections from a long out-of-print monograph that I wrote about Edward Thomas twenty years ago. It is, however, still available on Kindle.

I thought that I might drop the occasional extract in to keep my home page fresh whilst I pull together material for my next publication.

A Bleak but Honest Resolution

from Chapter 1
Escape and idiocy

The personal and social issues with which Thomas grappled in his poetry are monumental in their complexity. In words which drew upon his love of the countryside are to be found the consciousness and paralysis of social alienation, the response to the challenge posed by a self-made, socially and politically aware father and an eventual rejection of religious belief. That Thomas should have memorials in the stained glass of church windows is ironic, though perhaps illustrative of the obscured picture of Thomas left by a grieving wife and daughter, both of whom found solace in religion. Their memoirs, combined with those of Eleanor Farjeon, have influenced the subsequent biographical and critical treatment of the poet to the detriment, I would argue, of his reputation as a poet and socially relevant thinker. Thomas can be read as a ‘mirror of England’, as long as that England is today’s place of continued social change where traditional beliefs are under strain, for it is to this England that Thomas’s poetry remains relevant.

Edward Thomas was brought up as a Unitarian and held to the essential principles of Unitarianism all his life. It is easy to see the tents of this religious movement reflected in Edward Thomas the individual. Unitarianism encourages an individualistic and deeply personal approach to belief. It allows scope for a wide range of beliefs and doubts.Truth is the goal of the individual, rather than the end of a teleological social movement in the Comtean, Hegelian or Marxist sense. Every Sunday, in the Unitarian chapel, Edward Thomas would be amongst a relatively isolated group of people, united by shared values rather than a creed. Individuals would be encouraged to derive insights into religious truths from other faiths, science, the natural world and the arts. Blind faith would be discouraged and certainly, at no one point in his life would Thomas ever experience the comfort of absolute belief. Instead, religious insight would be tested by rational thought and inner feeling.‘Prove all things: hold fast to that which is good’ (1 Thes v.21) is the scriptural text that best describes Unitarian thought.

Edward Thomas’s father, Philip Thomas, was the archetypal Unitarian, in as much as Unitarianism attracts people with an interest in social change. The closest resemblance to a Unitarian creed might be ‘deeds speak louder than words’. In Edward Thomas’s choice to live by the word, therefore, the germ of a conflict with his politically active father existed from the start of his literary career. Philip Thomas’s later abandonment of Unitarianism for Comtean Positivism was part of a wider defection from one world view to the other that had its roots in the USA in 1910. Comtean Positivism’s spiritual world embraced all the realms of thought, including science. It was humanity-centred and its adherents worshipped notable figures from history who had gained subjective immortality. (Ironically, Edward Thomas would later fall into this category of the literary immortals having been a failure in his father’s eyes when alive). The signs of the philosophical materialism that would later emerge in Philip Thomas’s shift to positivism were already evident early in the time of Edward’s childhood. Edward, for example, would accompany his father to lectures at Kelmscott House by the atheist Grant Allen and the Marxist, William Morris. Father and son would attend lectures by luminaries of the socialist tradition at the Washington Music Hall - Michael Davitt of the revolutionary Irish Land League, John Burns, Kier Hardie and others. His father’s defection, in effect an open declaration for atheism and a logical and godless universe, was to pose a persistent intellectual challenge to Edward Thomas’s own belief system, one which would lead to much of the mental struggle played out in his poetry.

The major tenets of Unitarianism might all be said to have influenced Thomas’s poetry. These would include the non-existence of an afterlife, the quest for truth and meaning in life, the unity of humankind and creation, insights that are repeatedly tested by rational thought. The content of his poetry was often held in tension (as was his life) between, on the one hand, adherence to this ‘creed’ and escape from the burden it represented on the other. The happy, blind ignorance of the Lob-like figures, tramps, gypsies, and children of his poems represented an escapist ideal, a contentment he sought, but failed to achieve in life. His life became on long dalliance with ‘escape’, for example:

  • from his father’s world of workaday routine and radical politics to a literary life,
  • as a boy, from the suburbs to the commons,
  • as a young man, from the town to the country,
  • as a married man, from wife and family to his literary friends,
  • from house to house,
  • to contemplation of suicide,
  • to army life and so on.
Yet, though the thought of escape was a constant temptation, the need to search for truth and respond to the gauntlet of action and Positivist certainty laid down by his father dogged him mercilessly. The constantly searching, striving and ambitious Thomas, very much in the mould of his father, is the ever-present other of his poems. Here lies the rational consciousness, the Unitarian consciousness, the Positivist consciousness that rendered the Lob-like escapism sinful to Thomas’s mind or, at best, a form of idiocy in Wordsworthian and Marxian senses. Wordsworthian, in that idiocy is a state to be tolerated if innocent, as in The Idiot Boy. Marxian, in recognising that idiocy (and innocence) are wiped out in their various forms by the progress of capitalism, which leaves consciousness of alienation in its wake, if not consciousness of its cause.

Escape, for Thomas, very soon lost its innocence. During the early part of his writing career and life as a jobbing hack, he quickly began to feel his way of life to be out of step with his personal creed. His aspiration to live by the pen offered little escape from the necessity of providing for his family through the production of commodities for sale in the literary market place. He was soon admitting to George Bottomley that his work was about production, rather than composition and that his and that his writing for Oxford was ‘just inkhorn work’. Later, Thomas wrote that he was not ‘able to do anything but eat & drink & earn a living’. Neither did the escape to a rural idyll provide an escape from the gnawing persistence of personal ambition or, when it did, the moment was of such brief intensity as to become the subject of poetry in later life.

One manifestation of this debilitating ambition was the urge he had to earn money, only to stretch himself more and more financially, as though spending was itself a form of escape. The move to the big new house at Wick Green, on top of paying for his children to attend Bedales School, in part, contributed to his nervous breakdown. He suffered from the ‘worry of many books and a big garden’ and ‘the necessity of more overproduction’, he told Bottomley. He was ‘plagued by such little thoughts as how much shall I earn next week’ and the fact that he was driven to ‘writing badly and much, because I am getting little money’. Money became an obsession and a factor in his eventual decision to enlist. He would enlist ‘if ordinary work fails’, he told Bottomley. Once in the army, he rationalised taking the commission with more money ‘to get a larger pension for Helen’.

Social ambition and the desire for an outward display of personal improvement was driven by a need to compete with his father, whose own rise through the civil service ranks was mirrored in the purchases of ever-larger houses in South London, and the friends and contemporaries from his Oxford days onward who, one way of another, had each made a success of their lives in material terms or benefited form inherited wealth. He also must have felt the need to keep up appearances with the leisured literati in whose circles he moved; people such as Clifford Bax and Vivian Locke Ellis. In short, Edward Thomas was no more or less immune to social pressures than any one else would be from his suburban origins of lower middle-class respectability. A fear of sliding down the social scale up which his father had scrambled must have been ever-present. His concern to preserve a middle-class respectability manifested itself in a fastidiousness over appearances, clothes and money. Whatever his literary ambition might have been, the values of suburbia would never leave him. ‘I must do something in order to feel that I am really a wage earner’, he confessed to Bottomley.

The fact that he had escaped to the country as a place to live and from where he might earn his living changed nothing. In fact he soon recognised his own suburbanite’s notion of the rural idyll as a sham. Arcadia and the rural idyll were not enough; neither was walking in the country. ‘It is no use walking, for I do nothing but feed my eyes when I walk, & it has at last occurred to me that is not enough’ he told Bottomley. He valued a pure rusticity’ rather than anything feigned. He criticised Rathbone for being’ mediocre and pastoral’ with ‘faint…original feeling’. Here pastoralism became, for him, a term of derision, coupled with the feeling that there was much more that was original to write about.

Living by the pen as a countryman had offered no escape and his work as a writer, driven as it was by material need and social ambition, rendered his art as commodity for sale, rather than the search for truth which might have provided a justification for the work he produced. Whether living amidst nature or writing about it, the form his work took was no substitute for the truth his Unitarian-influenced consciousness sought. ‘There is no form that suits me’, he told Bottomley. He had earlier compared himself, much to his own detriment, with W. H. Davies, who wrote with ‘clearness, compactness and felicity’, the implication being that felicity is the measure of a true work. He knew he would only find felicity in a truer method’, implying that his method to date had been false. If his move to the country and his writing on rural themes reflected his search, however flawed, for new forms of living and working, then his own attempted transformation from townsman to countryman was representative of the suburbanisation and destruction of former ways of life or states of idiocy.

Thomas’s thwarted desire to escape rendered him painfully conscious of his own alienation,a state felt by many, but which he would articulate for others in his poetry. Thomas would learn the hard lesson of all thinking people in the current age, i.e. to be ‘content with discontent’ (The Glory). He would be tortured in the dialectic of this resignation, i.e. contentment, even with discontent, had a quality of sinfulness that made a searching discontent wrong, especially as it led to an impotence and very opposite of his father’s potent political and philosophical activity and beliefs. However, Thomas can certainly be said to have rejected an unthinking contentment, a pure contentment, or idiocy and, in so doing, he recognised that, however desirable (and he was repeatedly tempted) to flee over the horizon to some rural idyll in which he might commune with nature, this would offer no escape. He rejected contentment as a state of innocence or idiocy that could not be recovered. It was an unreal state, a sinful state.

He felt his search for truth would always be compromised in his production of commodities for sale. It was not until changes to his personal circumstances made a commitment to poetry possible that the flight from reality would be checked. It was poetry that provided him with the vehicle in which the conflict between the real and the unreal could be fought out and in which he might create the concrete. This is what Thomas’s poetry is about, not the country. His long-held ambition as a writer was, in fact,to ‘cease to write about the country’. ‘Artists don’t write about anything’, he told Bottomley. He used Pater to illustrate his point. ‘I do not see the necessity for his work’, he said of Pater, he saw ‘nothing in it which was beyond his control’. For Thomas, it was the uncontrolled element that was important and must be sought, or rather, allowed to emerge in art. This was a view of art as something essential to the quest for truth and, if closed to new ideas, it lost its raison d’être, i.e. as Thomas implied of Pater’s work, there was no ‘necessity’ in it.

We worry too little about generalisations in our anxiety for facts, he complained to Bottomley. Instead, he pleads for ‘a little more playfulness in science’. His critique of science is, in fact the classic criticism of empiricist science, or positivism and, by default, a criticism of his father’s worldview. Real discoveries will not come from the simple accumulation of facts. The search for truth must also involve combining the facts in new ways in order to establish generalisations that represent a qualitative shift in our understanding. For example, Darwin had the same facts to hand as other men. It was how he played with those facts, recombining them in new ways, which led to a revolution in thought. Play, in the sense Thomas used, is about give and movement and looseness. It is qualitative rather than quantitative: tending to intuition rather than observation, emotive rather than rational, inductive rather than deductive.

Thomas likened his own prose work to empirical science. He explained to Bottomley how the notebooks he used to collect facts for his prose works ‘came between nature and emotional response’ and ‘spoil the natural rhythm of his work’. He transferred his own problems with notebook art onto ‘the other man’, the writer who did not like writing, in In Pursuit of Spring.

He had been attempting the impossible task of reducing undigested notes about all sorts of details to a grammatical, continuous narrative. He abused notebooks violently…if he had taken none, then only the important, what he truly cared for, would have survived in his memory, arranged not perhaps as they were in nature, but at least according to the tendencies of his own spirit.

In the words of ‘the other man’ are expressed Thomas’s own frustrations as a hack writer of prose. ‘Prose can’t transmute matter’, he would tell Bottomley. ‘Poetry in verse is at one with the tides and the pulse; prose is chaos cut up into beds & borders & fountains & rustic work like a garden.A merely great intellect can produce great prose, but not poetry’. ‘I hope I’m not literal and matter of fact’, he told Bottomley. Poetry, for Thomas, was not about the recording of the observed or writing about something. It was about the transmutation of that which he experienced into something new, the uncontrolled element that would take him nearer to the truth he sought in his poetic quest, an understanding that was completely in accord with his Unitarian conscience. In the light of this, when he said that ‘artists don’t write about anything’, he meant that poetry would not come from notebooks.

He wanted words to transmute, not to record, aspects of the world around. The role of literature, as he saw it, was a play on words that sought to get behind what was observable on the surface. That he was prompted by the thought that ‘there must be something more than this’ does not make him unique. In an age of uncertainty, such a question is common to the human experience of most people at one time or another and it was Thomas’s searching for more that keeps his work relevant today. What he found, and how he responded to the Godless and amoral universe he uncovered, must be understood to appreciate his poetry fully and the relevance of its message to the living. He had written to Bottomley about his reading of Nietzsche and shortly after of how ‘Nature makes these beautiful things so carelessly’ whilst he had ‘to earn a living’. A Godless nature that is careless of human affairs that seem, on the surface, to be so pressing, was to become, together with escape and idiocy, an ever-strengthening theme in his short-lived poetic project.

The Unitarian creed guiding him in his quest for ‘something more’ was one in which insight would be tested by rational thought and inner feeling. Any untested thought in poetry would have been catagorised by Thomas as the sort of rhetoric he came to reject in the critical studies he made of his former idols, Pater and Swinburne, written between 1911 and 1913. This is why Robert Frost, a poet who himself eschewed rhetoric, appealed to Thomas so much. Thomas’s review of Frost’s North of Boston was also a vindication of his own theory of poetry. Of Frost’s poems he said, ‘these poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation’.

Typically, Thomas’s poems have an aspect representative of escape, or contentment. In Old Man, it is ‘the child’ (in contrast to the poem’s title), who exists in the state of being, i.e. a happy ignorance, or idiocy. In the war poem, Snow, a child offers her metaphorical interpretation of snow.

They have killed the white bird up there in her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast!’

In The Path, the path itself offers a fairyland of delights for children, ‘winding like silver…with gold, olive, and emerald’, as if it might have led ‘to some legendary or fancied place’. The wandering old man in Man and Dog, exists in a state of child-like contentment. He wanders, seemingly at will, ‘hoeing and harvesting / I half the shires where corn and couch will grow’. A similar character appears as Old Jack Norman in May the Twenty-third. ‘Jaunty and old, crooked and tall’, he is the epitome of ambition-free contentment, growing out of the countryside ‘like the leaf and bur / That clung to his coat from last night’s bed’. He does not deal in commodities to live. When questioned about the content of his basket he replies:

I don’t want to sell,
Take them and the flowers, too, free.

‘And I paid nothing then’, said Thomas in The Gypsy, in gratitude for the grace of a gypsy girl…

As I pay nothing now with the dipping of my pen
For her brother’s music when he drummed the tambourine
And stamped his feet, which made the workmen passing grin,
Whilst his mouth-organ changed to a rascally Bacchanal dance
‘Over the hills and far away’…

In contrast to Thomas’s own commodified work, the gypsy boy’s art was freely given.

The blind idiocy, innocence, contentment, ambition-free communion with nature which characterises the portrayal of children, tramps and gypsies, are above epitomised in Lob. Perhaps this is simply a patriotic poem. Strangely, for a poem by Thomas, this might be read at face-value, as a celebration of a strain of folklore that has run through English history. It can be read as though one side of Thomas’s character was dominant throughout. In Lob, Thomas offers a celebration, in easy, conversational, rhymed couplets, of the robust and poetic naming spirit which is synonymous with the traditions of rural history. The named, yet tantalisingly anonymous creator of place-names such as ‘The Hog’s Back’, ‘Mother Dunch’s Buttocks’, fairy stories, legends, jokes and folk names for wildlife, is an eponymous character who unites the traditions of the countryside through time. Yet this apparently free and timeless spirit of folklore is very much a product of Thomas and the suburban mind. Who, outside a coterie of suburban folklorist would have been aware of the traditional names that Thomas details in the poem? These were no longer part of a living tradition, but rather specimens for collection by the enthusiast. Once the traditions become the conscious preoccupation of the few, they have already ceased to be the unconscious linguistic coinage of the many. The very act of writing the poem was dependent on the Cecil Sharpean acquisitiveness of the enthusiast observer.

That the poem is a parody of the sentimental pastoralism he despised in the work of Rathbone** and others becomes clear on close inspection. Lob talks of a footpath sunk into dereliction. Whilst apparently free, Lob is confined to ‘No-Man’s Land’, the rural spaces between private property, places for tramps and gypsies, with the additional connotations of the land to which the rustic Lob’s of Thomas’s day were being condemned in the war.

The villages, ‘Seldom seen except by aeroplanes’, may seem secluded. Yet the ‘three Manningfords, - Abbots, Bohun and Bruce’, evoking a soft and organic rural scene, have their seclusion shattered by the deliberate intrusion of hard technology, just as ‘Ages ago the road / Approached’, only to be met with hostility and defiance from the rustic inhabitants. Village life and the belief systems of the villagers are presented as vulnerable, at the dawning of the end of isolation and idiocy. The villagers’ and Lob’s defiance, in this context, mark a persistence of idiocy, feeding the wilful nostalgia of outside observers in the face of inevitable change.

Thomas lulls anyone who reads this poem at face value as a patriotic poem into a false sense of security. Here lies the trap. For though the poem evokes times past wistfully, this is subordinate to Thomas’s purposeful recording of the inevitable death of rural life, together with all its certainties founded on isolation, ignorance and folklore. The reader who wakes up to Thomas’s true intent discovers the poem to be the other to its whole self, replicating his own experience, i.e. that the country offered no place of escape, only the temptation of sinful escapism.

That the temptation to give in to an easy contentment, an unquestioning state of idiocy, was an aspect of Thomas’s complex persona there is no doubt. It was always his other self. In The Other, his loud-mouthed alter-ego in the tap room ‘loudly… asked for me’, but Thomas dared ‘not follow after / Too close’. Yet there was never a complete release from the temptation of abandonment.
He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases. Then also shall I cease.
Thomas’s poems repeatedly illustrate states of contentment and oneness with nature, for example:
the ‘woodman’s cot’ in Interval, which ‘hunches soft / Under storm’s wing’ and ‘has no care’;
the ‘La - la - la!’ of The Unknown Bird;
the ‘fraction’ of himself which seems to float ‘through the window’ to find Beauty, in the poem of that name, ‘Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale’;
the ‘kind of bliss’ that lays ‘spiritualized… / In the perpetual yesterday’ of Parting;
the contentment of the drunkard in Head and Bottle who ‘neither sees, nor hears, nor smells, nor thinks’;
or in July, Thomas’s response to the ‘Long hours since dawn…’ of a summer’s day which ‘Brims my mind with content thus still to lie’.
Rarely, however, is this oneness with nature untroubled at some point. The Bridge is the exception that proves the rule, where, at a resting place between the past and future, Thomas lived for the ‘moment brief / Between two lives’. There are the notable instances also in poems about poetic composition, such as Words and Aspens, where he literally abandoned himself to words, being metaphorically passive as a‘crack in a wall / Or a drain’ for words ‘To Whistle through’, or like aspens which ‘must shake their leaves’ when a wind of words blows.

Nevertheless, much the greater part of Thomas’s poetry is about his rejection of a communion with nature. It often reflects his Unitarian striving for truth and, more importantly, the truth that he believed he had ultimately found, i.e. a Godless and purposeless universe. To what extent his father’s conversion to a Comtean ethic, founded on empirical science and a religion of humanity, influenced Thomas is not exactly clear. That it must have done to some degree is certain. Thomas may have held a wistful longing for the idiocy of the children, tramps and gypsies he encountered, but wilful ignorance was not an option for him. Neither was there any consolation in the truth that he found. Unlike the happy ignorance of childhood, knowledge was a burden to Thomas and something to be endured. To pretend otherwise was, he felt, a betrayal of his art and his use of language. Famously, after years of hack work, Thomas would no longer countenance such a betrayal of language, a point made explicit in I Never Saw That Land Before.

I should use, as the trees and birds did,
A language not to be betrayed;

His response to the burden of knowledge, as he saw it, was one of stoic acceptance, especially in his later poems. In It Was Upon,Thomas recalled the blind optimism of a Lob-like ‘wandering man’. ‘“The lattermath / Will be a fine one.” So the stranger said’. With ‘a score years’ experience behind him in later life, Thomas reconsidered the ‘unaccomplished prophecy’ of the stranger’s words and, with a knowing weariness, posed the question again as it related to the colder and less hospitable reality he now faced, ‘wondering, / What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?’

Returning now to Old Man, the child’s innocent thinking of nothing contrasts with Thomas’s own consciousness of nothing, which is a sad, lonely realisation of the purposelessness of the universe that holds nothing for anyone. All that remains is ‘an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’.

In Snow, the innocent child’s poignant metaphor is overshadowed by a parallel and darker metaphor, i.e. death of the dove of peace, as the harbinger of the catastrophe of war.

In The Path, the children’s fairyland way just ends ‘sudden… where the wood ends’ - then nothing, just like the ‘avenue’ in Old Man. The path’s precious, jewel-like attraction offered only a diversion, nothing more than false and childish hope.

The Lob-like figure in Man and Dog cannot live apart from the modern world. ‘His sons, three sons, were fighting’ and he means ‘In the trenches’ when he says ‘Many a man sleeps worse (than him) tonight’. When he goes, it is ‘for good’, like Jack Noman, in May the 23rd, who ‘disappeared’. Thomas knew that lives like this were no longer viable. The Romany too, in The Gypsy, was lost into ‘the hollow wooded land… as he played and stamped his tune, “Over the hills and far away”’, away to some other place - not this one.Over the Hills is a poem about Thomas’s search for this other place. He had a glimpse of that Utopia, where a gypsy-like communion with nature was possible, when he ‘passed the horizon ridge / To a new country’. But he could never find that place again and had to live with regret.

…I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line. It became
Almost a habit through the year for me
To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night. Recall
Was in vain….

The Lofty Sky, written the day after Over the Hills, is again about Thomas’s desire to escape and the impossibility of this aspiration. Comparing himself to a tench that rises from the ‘weeds and mud’ at the river bottom to play

Among the lily leaves
And sees the sky, or grieves Not if he nothing sees:…

Unlike the unthinking idiot state of the fish, Thomas was conscious of his condition and would have escaped of he could.

…I know that trees
Under that lofty sky
Are weeds, fields mud, and I
Would arise and go far
To where the lilies are.

But the lilies are not the sky, they are, in fact, symbolic of death. Did the latter offer the only genuine way to escape?

The ‘new country’ in Over the Hills and ‘that lofty sky’… ‘where the lilies are’, become ‘That land / My home’ in Home(1). In this poem, ‘That land’; that state of abandonment he wanted but rejected in The Other, offers no real escape from ‘Remembering ills’. Instead, he has to endure, stoically and consciously, life as it is by turning a blind eye to its ills.

Until blindness come, I must wait
And blink at what is not good.

The happy ignorance of his children, tramp and gypsy figures was not for him. A condition of his unremitting search for truth was that he must never succumb to the unknowing satisfaction of his other.

In Health, he said that a beauty, unencumbered by the realities of day-to-day life, i.e. a non-referential beauty, ‘would still be far off / However many hills I climbed over’. His condition was such that he would never be satisfied. He had to continue, ‘Even with knowing I never could be satisfied.’ The oneness, the communion with nature, the idiocy of an unthinking state was not for him, as it was for birds and sun.

I could not be as the wagtail running up and down
The warm tiles of the roof slope, twittering
Happily and sweetly as if the sun itself
Extracted the song
As the hand makes sparks from the fur of a cat:

I could not be as the sun.
Nor should I be content to be
As little as the bird or as mighty as the sun.
For the bird knows not of the sun,
And the sun regards not the bird.
But I am almost proud to love both bird and sun,
Though scarce this Spring could my body leap four yards.

In The Glory, even nature in all its glory would never seduce him to abandon his unthinking self. ‘The glory invites me’ he says, ‘yet it leaves me scorning’. Not for him the blind ignorance of the birds in the hazel copse, the ‘short-lived happy-seeming things’. He had instead to ‘be content with discontent’. This was his natural state, just as the ‘larks and swallows are perhaps with wings’. He would not choose an animal-like integration with nature, yet, still he asks, ‘shall I let all go?’ The pull and temptation offered by his other self would not let go and he could not bring himself to ‘bite the day to the core’. The implication of taking wholly from the tree of knowledge and discarding the last vestiges of belief, exchanging and Eden (or ‘the glory of the garden’, for that is what the title of his poem implies), for the knowledge that nature holds no purpose, that the universe is a Godless place and to go where his father had gone intellectually, was simply a bite too far. In fact, nearly all Thomas’s poems present us with the half-eaten apple of contentment, bitten into by discontent.

In Home (1), the contentment that he might have found in ‘That land, / My home’ was marred by the likelihood of ‘dreams of return’ to reality and ‘Remembering ills’. In The Owl, written the next day, his escape from the cold inhospitable world to the inn where he had ‘food, fire and rest’ was marred by the ‘melancholy cry’ of the owl. The wise bird, symbol of knowledge, would not leave his tap-room ‘other’ in a sweet, intoxicated state of repose. On the contrary, ‘my repose’ was…

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

In But These Things Also, there is no complete escape from Winter, even in Spring. Even the unalloyed pleasure of the young couple in Lovers,consumed wholly by their passion, is met by the knowing, voyeuristic commentary of their elders, who represent Thomas’s own thoughts. To the consummation of sexual passion, the voyeurs bring the reality of war. ‘There are more things than one…’ said George (voicing Thomas’s own obsession with the impossibility of achieving oneness with nature), ‘…/ A man might turn into a wood for’. ‘He has not got a gun’ replies Jack, with an overt reference to the war. ‘It’s a bit too much of a good thing.’ The Eden of the lovers is a false Eden, an illusion which draws them, whilst they succumb, into a state of idiocy. Thomas expanded on the truth of this in the companion poem to Lovers, written the following day, i.e. In Memoriam (Easter, 1915), in which the men and their sweethearts are parted by war and death.

In Home (2), the contentment, or idiocy, of the labourer finding absorption in his work, is contrasted with the restless wandering of the alienated poet. On the one hand, the labourer…

…went along, his tread
Slow, half with weariness, half with ease;
And, through the silence, from his shed
The sound of sawing rounded all
That silence said.

On the other hand, the poet ‘had come back / That eve somehow from somewhere far’. The steadfast labourer in his shed provides at once a contrast with the wandering restlessness of Thomas himself, as well as an idealised metaphor for the life of a man of letters crafting work in his hill-top study, to which Thomas once aspired as described in When First.

When I first came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat My heart at the sight of the tall slope
Or grass and yews, as if my feet

Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed…

Leaving that study and the hill behind as ‘now I walk / Down it the last time’, he also left the blind, irrational hope of his other self behind. Unlike the labourer in Home(2), who finds contentment in place and work, even hope of this, as Thomas explains in When First,‘has gone for ever’. The labourer represents unalienated labour from a bygone age of craft and rural idiocy. The alienated Thomas, however, must leave hope behind for a life of wandering and searching for he ‘knew not what’, for ‘something’. ‘Perhaps’ he thought he would find that ‘something’, over the hills and far away.

I may love other hills yet more
Than this: the future and the maps
Hide something I was waiting for.

It is in the context of Thomas’s self-reproaching desire for sinful escape, counterpoised with his recognition of the impossibility of escape, that we must view his Dymock experience.

Dymock and the meeting there with Robert Frost marked, famously, the point of a new departure for Thomas along the path of poetry. As such, much of his poetic writing was influenced by this experience. Dymock provided Thomas with a final and glorious opportunity to escape, quite literally, over the hills to a daffodil-strewn literary arcadia. However, he witnessed the short-lived community of Georgians shattered by the onset of the First World War and was struck by the futility of attempts to live apart from the reality of human affairs.

The poem that Thomas first wrote about Dymock and his time with Frost, The Sun Used To Shine,presents the intimacy and intensity of their close friendship against the vast foil of world-shaping events, way beyond the power of individuals to control, that encroached on the poets’ arcadia. The reality of war intruded upon their peace and contentment in great waves.The harsh reality of the world could not be kept at bay and it was impossible to sustain a communion with nature apart from the world. Beyond the conversation with Frost is a conversation with his other.

We turned from men or poetry

(From poetry and friendship to war)

To rumours of the was remote

(From war to poetry and friendship)

Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermine;

(From poetry and friendship to war)

…The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise

(From war to poetry and friendship)

To faintness like those rumours fades -
Like the brook’s water glittering

Under the moonlight - like those walks
Now - like us two that took them.

(From poetry and friendship to death)

And silences - like memory’s sand
When the tide covers it late or soon…

The cycle of escape - reality - escape - reality is set by Thomas in the context of the sweep of history, both the past, ‘the Crusades / Or Caesar’s battles’ and the future, when ‘memory’s sand’ will have been covered by the ‘tide’, rendering his brief and contrasting interlude with Frost, and even the world war, insignificant and purposeless.

From Chapter 2

The Carelessness of Nature

Up in the Wind was Thomas’s first poem and, therefore, the closest to his time in Dymock. The ‘wild girl’ in the poem is a reverse projection of Thomas’s self, i.e. an expression of his other, who, as we have already seen, would recur in many subsequent poems. The ‘wild girl’ with the cockney accent, having spent some time in Thomas’s South London, had found contentment in place.

‘…What about Kennington?’
She bent down to her scrubbing with ‘Not me:
Not back to Kennington. Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay….

Yet this is not so much contentment as a resignation to her lot. The familiar restlessness of Thomas remains.

…But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I’d have it blowing that I might go with it
Somewhere distant…

There is the desire for oneness with nature.

And I could wake and not know where I was…

She projects her hopes onto the wind, whilst he projects human attributes on the calves, described as…

Sipping and thinking, both happily, neither long.
The water wrinkled, but they sipped and thought,
As careless of the wind as it of us.

The calves and the wind exist ‘happily’ without projecting anything upon each other. The wind will not take the wild girl anywhere, least of all to a place ‘where there are trees no more’. As if to emphasise the point, Thomas ended the poem with, ‘Hark at the trees again’. In as much as she thinks nature has a care or purpose, these are her projections of her own hopes and aspirations upon nature. Thomas presents the opposite to his other’s hope, a nature that is purposeless and ‘careless…of us’.

Themes of the purposelessness and carelessness of nature are continued in November a poem written the day after Up in the Wind. Just as he counterpoised his other self with the ‘wild girl’ of the previous poem, here he offers two interpretations of nature with an idealistic and a materialistic examination of the November skies. Looking up to the November skies

One imagines a refuge there
Above the mud, in the pure bright
Of the cloudless heavenly light:


Another loves earth and November more dearly
Because without them, he sees clearly,
The sky would be nothing more to his eye
Than he, in any case, is to the sky:

‘One’ projects his hope on to the skies and sees in them an escape from the ‘dirty earth’, to a life ‘above the mud’, to a life after death in ‘heavenly light’. ‘Another’ projects no such aspiration on to nature, recognising that he is nothing to the skies, just as the wind was ‘careless’ of him and the ‘wild girl’ in Up in the Wind.
There is no ‘refuge’ in a ‘heavenly light’ from this point of view, or a purpose inherent to nature. Thomas goes on the end the poem with a statement of materialist defiance.

He loves even the mud whose dyes
Renounce all brightness to the skies.

The renunciation of ‘brightness’ is a renunciation of God and heaven in favour of a worldview founded firmly on this earth, in the ‘mud’ of the here and now.

Death, in The Sign-Post, offers no heavenly refuge or abandonment to an unthinking bliss. Instead, even in death, there remains the hellish torment of a wistful memory from which there is no escape. This memory (something which Thomas sees as a flaw in the heaven of death), is grounded in the concerns of earth and a perpetual mobile of discontent. Where and with whom the striving happens is secondary to the need to go on with the quest for the truth. It might…

…be here or anywhere talking to me.
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, -
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, -
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king.

© John Dunn.

Website design and CMS by WebGuild Media Ltd
This website ©2009-2024 John Dunn