‘Can a man stride with a proud and melancholy shyness? If so, he strode in that manner.’ The editor of the Daily Chronicle wasn’t the first to feel unsure about how best to describe or to place Edward Thomas. Thomas felt this way about himself, confessing that he was one of ‘those modern people who belong nowhere’. His peculiar stride was a mark of his uncertainty about where he was headed – and indeed whether he should be headed anywhere. In 1909 he spoke of ‘two incompatible desires, 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’. It’s fitting that one of Thomas’s first poems was about an inn, for ‘the life of inns’, he said, ‘overpowers the delicious sense of home, bids us exchange that for an abode that is a truer symbol of our inconstant lodging on the earth’. A truer symbol, but not necessarily the true one, because even the meaning of this abode – at once a sanctuary and a way station – isn’t wholly clear to him. He wrote of another inn and its surroundings that ‘I never see this place without a story haunting my mind but never quite defining itself’. As so often in Thomas’s work, a plot of land is ghosted by other kinds of plot; place is apprehended as something obscurely personal. It’s as though the story he is trying to define is the story of his own life.
Others have sought to put Thomas on the map by giving him a category in which to reside: as a ‘nature poet’, say, or as a ‘war poet’, or as a travel writer in the tradition of Richard Jefferies. But the itinerancy of his appetites makes him hard to pin down. While writing his book on Jefferies, for example, Thomas could also be found writing to Gordon Bottomley, ‘Isn’t Nietzsche magnificent? & so necessary these days? … The Genealogy of Morals is a very great book.’ Before he committed himself to poetry at the end of 1914, Thomas had published twenty prose books and had edited or introduced a dozen more. He’d also written 1,900 reviews, totalling more than a million words. As Jean Moorcroft Wilson points out in her absorbing new biography, this amounts to one review every three days for fourteen years. Robert Frost was only half right in claiming that ‘I dragged him out from under the heap of his own work in prose he was buried alive under’. Thomas wrote some of the finest criticism of his generation, and that work was preparation for the poetry, not merely an avoidance of it. When he lamented that Walter Pater used words as ‘labels’, or when he sensed that John Clare’s words were ‘alive’ because they were ‘still half-wild and imperfectly domesticated’, Thomas was discovering what sort of writer he wanted to be. Poets, he said, let language ‘play on’; their words ‘never consent to correspond exactly to any object’.
His own poetry is driven and riven by the unconsenting nature of its medium. The subtitle of Wilson’s book, ‘From Adlestrop to Arras’, reflects the preoccupations of her subject, for Thomas is fascinated not so much by what names define as by what they evoke or evade. Of the herb ‘Old Man, or Lad’s-Love’, he admits that ‘the names/Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is’. And yet he likes the names, even though – or perhaps because – they lead him finally to ‘an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’. The poet’s alter ego, ‘Lob’, has ‘thirteen hundred names for a fool’, and you’d be a fool to think that any one of those names is the last word on the matter. Although Thomas elsewhere confesses that, ‘To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails’, the failure feels like some kind of success. To recall ‘Adlestrop’ is to recall ‘The name … only the name’, yet the name recalls other things – and other names:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Another poet might use names to localise or to pinpoint a mood; for Thomas, precision is a form of approximation. Poetic craft may hold place names in place (Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire are coyly coaxed into metrical and rhyming order), but what we are left with is a fertile, almost furtive sense of words and emotions in transit, of feelings that are stationed yet on their way elsewhere. Thomas’s charged moments register ‘The heat, the stir, the sublime vacancy/Of sky and meadow and forest and my own heart’. At his most characteristic, he gives us epiphanies without giving us revelations.
Wilson’s book is the fullest biography of Thomas yet published. It’s also the frankest. Received wisdom has it, for example, that Thomas died at Arras when a shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart (Matthew Hollis, another recent biographer, remarks that ‘He fell without a mark on his body’). Wilson’s research leads to a different conclusion: he was ‘shot clean through the chest by a pip-squeak (a 77mm shell) the very moment the battle began’. Her account of Thomas’s early years is no less visceral: we get detailed accounts of his fights against erections and masturbation; his requests that Helen procure some contraception so they can go to bed before they marry; his increasingly heavy drinking, smoking and opium use; and his letters to Helen confessing that he’s tempted to pick up prostitutes when she’s not around (he did, and contracted gonorrhoea as a result). ‘Damn the respectable’, Thomas writes to her a few months after their clandestine wedding ceremony, and you brace yourself for whatever is coming next.
Wilson gives a balanced account of the marriage and of the consequences of Thomas’s restlessness, his bouts of severe depression, his period of analysis with Helton Godwin Baynes (later Jung’s chief British disciple), his falling for a beautiful teenager (Hope Webb) in 1908 and his suicide attempts. ‘Everything is as bad as it could be’, Thomas opines. ‘Debts. Disagreement. Dirt.’ Yet even at his most tortured and torturing, he has a matter-of-fact resilience. Wilson quotes a snippet from his diary in November 1908 when he’s despairing about Hope Webb – ‘tried to shoot myself’ – but the full entry reads: ‘Up 7. Reading. After tried to shoot myself. Evening reading. Read Marlowe. To bed 11.’ On other occasions he casts side glances at his dark moods, speaking of them as his ‘favourite vice’, or asks searching questions of those who would insulate themselves from such vices: ‘Is it perhaps true that those are never happy who know what happiness is?’
In 1913, the day before he was introduced to Frost for the first time, Thomas had again planned to shoot himself (it would appear he still had the gun in his pocket when they met). Wilson writes thoughtfully of the friendship that would change both men’s lives. The turn to poetry that Frost encouraged did not put an end to Thomas’s prevarications or to his uncertainties – poetry ‘doesn’t simplify the problem of a living’, he noted – but it did give him a shape in which to house them. He started writing with ‘some unseen end in view’, and the endings of poems became a way for him to accept – and sometimes to embrace – whatever he couldn’t quite understand:
This was the best of May – the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.
The closing lines of ‘Sedge-Warblers’ may imply that the birds’ wisdom has now been passed on, or that man still hasn’t learnt the lesson they impart. ‘As to the 3-word line,’ Thomas noted, ‘I thought it was right somehow, but there was nothing intentional about it.’ Poetry freed him from his motives. Or, rather, it freed him from his obsession with ‘thinking out my motives for this or that act or word in the past until I long for sleep’ by allowing him to observe and to create things he didn’t feel the need to account for. In some moods Thomas is in mourning for his life (‘How unprofitable so many of our most genuine likings are, pebbles and seventeen year olds, for example’), but when he’s travelling towards poetry he speaks differently:
I come home daily with pockets full of the smooth pebbles, often pear-shaped (flattish), rosy or primrose coloured and transparent nearly, & in the fresh moistness wonderfully beautiful: others white & round or oval: some split & with grain like chestnuts: not one but makes me think or rather draws out a part of me beyond my thinking.
Thomas had to work hard to allow himself to be drawn out in this way and to recognise that such a process could be both a relief and a kind of achievement. A similar rhythm is evident when he joins the war effort: ‘A man enlists for some inexplicable reason,’ he observes. ‘If he has thought a good deal about it, he has made a jump at some point, beyond the reach of his thought.’ A few weeks before he died Thomas offered a picture of the front that contained its own wry reflections on ‘What no man learnt yet’ – or on what must be endlessly relearnt about the limited reach of one’s thought: ‘Cold, dirt, fatigue, uncertainty, and the accidental or amusing thing. If only one wasn’t taught to think it was something else. But then this is the case everywhere, not only here.’