The Tree & the Bird
One of the best-known photographs of Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was taken a century ago this year. It is a studio portrait: Thomas is seated but leaning forwards, his chin resting on the knuckles of his folded hands. A white light falls from right of frame, lending a lustre to his hair, a glint to his eyes and a glitter to the signet ring on his left little finger. His features are fine, fawnish and in focus; his tweed jacket and shoulders disappear backwards into a blur. Unsettlingly, Thomas's gaze is not directly outwards, but angled steadily away at something behind and to the right of the camera. When I first saw the photograph, I wanted to glance over my shoulder and glimpse what it was that had so drawn Thomas's attention.
Thomas is now remembered chiefly as a poet, but he made his reputation with series of travelogues, essays, biographies and natural histories (In Pursuit of Spring, The Icknield Way and The South Country being among the most famous). The poetry came late in his life, beginning in the winter of 1914, when he was thirty-six. In an astonishing late outpouring of art, Thomas went on to write more than 140 poems in a little over two years: poems that changed the course of modern English poetry, and whose branch-lines are being followed still. He enlisted in 1915, embarked for the Western Front on 29 January 1917, and died on 9 April of the same year, the opening day of the Battle of Arras - killed by a passing German shell that sucked the air from his lungs and threw his body unmarked to the ground. His war diary, a document remarkable for its serenity, suggests that more poems would have followed had he survived the conflict.
I first read Thomas at school, in an anthology that included his best-known poems, 'As the Team's Head-Brass' and 'Adlestrop'. He seemed to me then an engagingly simple author, verging on the naive: an elegist for a rural England of ploughmen, hayricks and meadowsweet that was vanishing even as he wrote. That reputation for wistful pastoral idealism persists: Thomas is represented in the new British Library exhibition, 'Writing Britain', by a manuscript draft of 'Adlestrop' that appears in the 'Rural Dreams' room.
Elsewhere, however, Thomas is undergoing a remarkable revival and reappraisal, as his modernity as a thinker becomes appreciated. He has been the subject of an illuminating recent biography by the poet Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France (2011), which has helped introduce his work to a new generation of readers. Oxford University Press are currently issuing Thomas's selected prose in six vast and superbly edited volumes. His writing continues to preoccupy literary critics and English students, but is also of increasing interest to cultural and human geographers, anthropologists, historians, conservationists and environmentalists. This coming November at the Almeida Theatre, Richard Eyre will direct a play about Thomas's friendship with the American poet Robert Frost, which developed while the two men were 'talks-walking' - Frost's phrase - together in the Gloucestershire countryside in 1913-14. Thomas has also been a quietly vital figure for those contemporary writers who have taken nature, place and landscape as their subjects, including Ronald Blythe, Richard Mabey and Tim Dee.
Why is Thomas coming back to us now? Partly, I think, it has to do with the relevance of his relationship to place. Thomas sensed early that one of modernity's most distinctive tensions would be between mobility and displacement on the one hand, and dwelling and belonging on the other - with the former becoming ubiquitous and the latter becoming lost, if it had ever been possible - and reconfigured as nostalgia. He experienced that tension between roaming and homing even as it was first forming, and it lay at the source of both his notorious melancholy and his art. The tree (immovable) and the bird (migrant) were among the two most distinctive presences in his writing; the forest (stable) and the path (mobile) its two most distinctive landscape features; and the root (delving downwards) and the step (moving onwards) its two contrasting metaphors for our relations with the world. 'It is hard to make anything like a truce between these two incompatible desires,' he wrote in 1909 (though it might have been 2009), 'the one for going on and on over the earth, the other that would settle for ever in one place, as in a grave and have nothing to do with change.'
Thomas's resurgence can also be understood as a symptom of our growing need for a new relationship with nature, born of old kinds of contact. He was a long-term and long-distance walker, for whom a felt and bodily relationship with the world (the naturalist's eyes, the wanderer's feet) was crucial to his sense of self and self-worth. He was brilliantly alert to the beauties of nature, but never blithe about its ability to console. He was compelled by the present-tenseness of being-in-the-world - the chink of a blackbird in a hedge, the cool of starlight, the feel of a feather's vanes between the fingers - but also aware of the world's darknesses and disinterest. He praised the 'tender loveliness' of nature, but could feel its presence as reprimand: 'I am not a part of nature,' he wrote bleakly in 1913, 'I am alone.' A similarly doubled sense of both separation and longing for connection characterises our contemporary attitudes to nature. In this respect, as in others, it is Thomas's troubledness that speaks to us, rather than his tranquillity.
Yes, Thomas always was modern before his time. And now, as we prepare to fight the Great War all over again in memory, he has many things of value to tell us about how we imaginatively configure our relationships with nature, and the stories we tell ourselves about our places. I have spent much of the past four years reading deeply and widely in Thomas's work, and walking the landscapes that he knew and that shaped him. In that time, I have come to realise that what Thomas is seeing in that 1912 photograph - as he looks out over our shoulder - is the future we are now inhabiting.
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Robert Macfarlane is he author of Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Wild Places (2007) amd The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. which was published last month, and in which Edward Thomas is a significant presence.