In the previous post, drawing on Matthew Hollis‘s absorbing account of Thomas’s last years, we looked at the blind wall Edward felt he was staring at in the dead end his life had become: hack work undertaken with gritted teeth between bouts of depression to support a family he could hardly bear to be with. Hollis goes on to look at the dramatic changes that took place in the less than a handful of years that remained to him. The story that unfolds has intriguing implications for me about the complex relationship between creativity, compassion and mental health and what better place to start my exploration than with the nature of poetry and the importance of friendship.
The nature of poetry and his relationship with Frost
When Frost came to England he was virtually unknown though he had been writing poetry for years. America didn’t seem interested so he came to England. It took some time for the two men to meet up but when they did one of the things that drew them powerfully to each other was a shared sense of what poetry is about: for both men the essence of a poem was in its music (page 73):
So when, in Frost’s favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear. We can detect anger, affection, happiness and so forth because the cadence gives us a kind of sonic blueprint for the meaning and carries a communicative charge all of its own, This is the basis of ‘the sound of sense’ and its importance to poetry lies in the understanding that a line of verse can communicate tonally as well as through the literal definition of words. Patterns of sound and rhythm establish a tone or mood that the poem must work towards – or against – but to which it must never be indifferent.
It is important to understand that this did not mean the kind of hypnotic music of a Swinburne lyric:
In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between wind-ward and lee,
Wall’d round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.
(From A Forsaken Garden)
Frost was after something altogether different. He related to (page 75) ‘Carlyle’s instruction to poets from 1840: ‘See deep enough, and you see musically.’
[But w]hat made Frost’s approach different was that he believed that it was the rhythms of speech – as opposed to music or traditional metre – that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense. It was a view entirely counter to the times in England – counter to the ornate Victorians and the minimalist Imagists, counter also to the musical Georgians – and was born out of a trenchant belief that ‘words exist in the mouth, not in books’.
‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that be never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .
Thomas was already convinced of most of this even before meeting Frost and before the countless hours they spent together debating the matter (page 84):
[Gibson’s] failure to deliver memorable speech in writing, his failure to fix an irresistible rhythm, his inability, to communicate tonally, was to Thomas an unconscionable breach of his promise as a poet: without cadence, a poem could only act upon the intellect and could therefore only ever be partially successful. Gibson was an example of the noble failure that Thomas perceived in his own prose and would seek to rectify when given his chance in verse.
Those familiar with this blog will readily recognise a theme close to my heart here. In the modern world, as Iain McGilchrist so convincingly describes it, we have sold our souls to the left hemisphere’s addiction to prose, which simplifies reality while making it seem reassuringly predictable. Thomas is having none of that when, as now, he is approaching his epiphany. He has been forced for too long already to be an unwilling dealer in prose, at great cost to his sanity and his family. He has been very close to suicide at least once. The force of economic necessity had played a powerful part in preventing his realising that he was really a gifted poet. He was soon to express in action his sense of what poetry could do to make his priceless but till then ineffable experience of the world more fully accessible in words.
His becoming a poet and the effect on his depression
The effect of Thomas’s recognition of his calling cannot be overestimated (pages 181-182):
A moment of gigantic personal significance was underway. It had been surfacing before he met Frost, but it had taken the year’s friendship for it to boil over. It would lift his spirits, deepen his tolerance, satisfy his life-long need to find self-worth. Never again would his chronic depression overwhelm him so utterly, never again would he think of himself as a mere hack. Not a different man, said Eleanor [Farjeon], but the same man in another key.
Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.
This calls into question any simplistic idea that his depression was the source of his creativity. It seems more likely that it was the result of ‘foiled creative fire.’ It also dents the notion two previous posts were exploring that being a great artist might in our culture inevitably entail high levels of self-centredness and low levels of compassion. Clearly this was not the case once Thomas found his true metier.
His realisation of this reality was not plain sailing though it was unbelievably rapid by any customary standards. Hollis shows us how important Frost was in kick-starting this process (page 190):
The draft [of 'November'] had included phrasings that seemed either too precious or too trivial to the American, and Thomas was grateful for the ‘kick’ [from Frost] to set him straight. ‘The foot’s seal and the wing’s light word’, Thomas had written frothily until Frost advised against it, and helped him settle upon a phrasing that was altogether sturdier.
The lesson he had learned concerned more than the correction of that particular phrase: it showed that he had grasped an important principle behind the change (ibid.):
‘I am glad that you spotted “wing’s light word”,’ wrote Thomas appreciatively. ‘I knew it was wrong and also that many would like it.’ Knowing that many would like it and yet that it was wrong: in only his second poem, Thomas had tackled a challenge that all poets must address some time in their development ‑ namely, that popularity may need to be conceded for the sake of a better poem. It can take years for a young poet to learn the importance of that sacrifice, but it had taken Thomas just two poems in two days.
Is that fast, or what? He didn’t rest on those laurels for long though. Almost immediately he made giant strides towards finding his own voice (page 191):
‘What did the thrushes know?’ . . . . There, in those five words, is a phrasing that is already and entirely Thomas’s own. The questioning, doubtful tone, the restless enquiry, the fallibility of a poet’s voice: these were already instinctively, distinctively, the voice of Edward Thomas.
And by the time he was writing ‘Old Man’ we hear that (page 194), ‘It had taken a mere four poems for Thomas to find his voice.’
Even his tendency towards corrosive self-criticism was coming more under his control by the end (page 231):
‘I can’t help it,’ had been Thomas’s response, ‘but I can help personally-conducted tours to the recesses.’ It was a new realisation from Thomas: that he might now be able to control his descent into the worst areas of his depression.
The upshot is that that in the space of two short years Thomas had become a major poet as well as a kinder man. After his death (page 331):
[a] review in the Times Literary Supplement had singled out his contribution. ‘He is a real poet, with the truth in him.’ A second, in the New Statesman, claimed to know (but did not reveal) the author’s true identity: ‘His poems are better than his prose, good though some of this has been.’
In the next and final post we will have to deal with the implications of another process unfolding at the same time as this one: how Edward Thomas became a soldier and met his death. Was it that underneath it all he still wished to die, and rather than take his own life he enlisted? I think we will find it is all a bit more complicated than that. It is not easy though to be sure that it is the poetry alone that eased his depression.
- Matthew Hollis: Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas
- Edward Thomas biography All Roads Lead To France: extract
- Poem for National Poetry Day
- The Master & His Emissary (a review of McGilchrist’s book)