Without nostalgia who could love England?
Without a sentimental attachment to tolerance
Who could delight in this cramped corner country . . . ?
(From ‘England’ – page 44 in Poems 1955-2005 by Anne Stevenson)
My recently reactivated interest in the disturbingly wide impact of trauma in various forms on our lives leads me to republish this sequence on Edward Thomas. I feel I underestimated the influence of his childhood on his struggles as an adult. Most of the texts I explored for this review drew a veil over any of the details of his early life. Only Andrew Motion’s book about his poetry gave any real hint. His depression, I speculated briefly in the first post, may have had its roots in his problematic relationship with his father: to describe this relationship Andrew Motion uses the word ‘tyrannise’ in his account of Thomas’s poetry. A brief trawl of the web has so far produced nothing else, so I am stressing here the importance of this hint as a key to his later life. I need to follow this up more deeply when I have the time.
Matthew Hollis‘s excellent biography traces Edward Thomas’s progress from the depressing hack work he despised to the writing of what is now universally recognised as accomplished poetry of a very high order. The previous two posts looked at Hollis’s account of the critical period in Thomas’s life that marked this transition, one which was remarkably rapid when it came. Hollis shows how the depression soured his relations with his family. I was intrigued by the implications of all this for our understanding of the complex relationship between creativity, compassion and mental health. It would not due justice to the true complexity of the picture if we ignored Thomas’s decision to enlist and join the troops in the trenches of the First World War.
The White Feather Syndrome?
It would be easy to suppose that the suicidal impulses that had scarred his life up to this point were now taking a slightly different form and that he was choosing death in battle in preference to ‘self-slaughter.’ When you look at a detailed account such as Hollis’s the evidence simply does not stack up that way. Yes, his desire for death might have made enlisting seem an attractive option at times, but it clearly was not enough in itself to tip him over the edge into the army. He dithered for a long time and other factors had to come into play before he ended up at the front line.
One of the first things to consider is the incident with the gamekeeper and his shotgun. I don’t want to spoil a good story so I won’t go into detail for the sake of those who might end up reading Hollis’s book. All I’ll say here is that Thomas felt he had left his most valued friend, Robert Frost, in the lurch in a dangerous situation. He was convinced he had been a coward (page 181):
. . . . for Edward Thomas, the encounter would leave him haunted. He would relive the moment again and again. In his verse and in his letters to Frost ‑ in the week when he left for France, even in the week of his death ‑ Thomas felt hunted by the fear and cowardice he had experienced in that stand‑off with the gamekeeper. He felt mocked by events and probably by the most important friend of his life, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. When the call came again he would hold his nerve and face the gunmen.
‘That’s why he went to war,’ said Frost.
It occurs to me that he would have felt that he had let down not only his friend and himself but that he had betrayed poetry as well, something that Frost would have represented to him in its most congenial form.
Why, though, would he feel mocked by someone whom he valued so much and who, we know, valued and respected him in return?
The story behind this added to my understanding of the hidden depths in one of the most famous of Frost’s poems – The Road Not Taken. I have known for a very long time that the simplistic reading of the poem that, for example, inspired the title for Scott Peck‘s well-known book on psychotherapy, The Road Less Travelled, completely fails to understand the tricks and twists of this subtle poem. Hollis gives a penetrating account of the in and outs of that for those who want to know more.
What I had failed to understand was that the trigger for Frost’s poem was at least in part Thomas’s state of chronic indecision. He couldn’t make his mind up which way to go, which path to take in his own life. Frost sent the poem to Thomas: they were both in the habit of sending each other drafts of poems. The Road Not Taken did not go down well (page 235):
Amused at Thomas’s inability to satisfy himself, Frost chided him, ‘No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ But to Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness most astutely was mocking him for it. Thomas took the ‘tease’ badly. He felt the poem to be a rebuke for his own inability to choose between the pursuit of poetry and a career in prose – worse, at his indecisive attitude toward the war, so often expressed to Frost.
Thomas’s position is interesting. As far as his poetry, or perhaps anything else important was concerned, he did not believe choice was possible (ibid.):
He did not believe in self-determination, or that the spirit could triumph over adversity; some things seemed unavoidable, inevitable. Had he chosen poetry he could not be a poet: as he had written in ‘Words’, it had in some sense to choose him. (page 235)
Hollis feels that this goes part of the way to explaining his inability to understand Frost’s teasingly ambiguous poem (page 236):
It seems curious that Edward Thomas, the man who had understood Frost’s writing better than anyone, could not see the poem for what it was. . . . . . And he determinedly assured Frost that he had ‘got the idea’, when plainly he had not.
A simpler way of putting it would be that he lacked a sense of humour, perhaps most especially about himself. The self-mocking Englishman he was not. Perhaps his abrasive self-criticism made him too raw inside for anything like that. Maybe the same thing that was at the root of his depression was also at the heart of his reaction to this poem. He was stung by it and it may have moved him nearer to the front line.
In earlier posts I have described his becoming a poet as a ‘calling’, a ‘vocation’ and a ‘metier.’ The first two words may not be too wide of the mark (ibid):
A strange but revealing exchange had occurred [between him and Frost] in which Thomas had exposed something deep within his poetry and his character. And what he had exposed was this: that choice was not, counter to his reading of Frost, an act of free will. Instead, some choices are prescribed, compelled, ingrained in circumstance or personality; some characters are ‘called’.
Is it fair to describe his decision to enlist as of the same kind? I don’t really feel comfortable with that though it is what Hollis’s account seems to be saying (page 237):
Now, finally, he knew what he had to do. Thomas was passed fit, and the same week, he sat down to lunch with his confidante, Eleanor Farjeon, and informed her that he had enlisted in the Artists Rifles, and that he was glad; he did not know why, but he was glad. Only days before it seemed certain that he would emigrate to America to join Frost, as the two men had planned. And yet suddenly, everything was different. Eleanor would later describe how, in volunteering, the ‘self‑torment had gone out of him’. And Helen: ‘I had known that the struggle going on in his spirit would end like this.’
Enlisting then did seem to dissolve or resolve his chronic state of tension, a tension deeply connected with his depression but not reducible to it. That is still not to say that it was a calming sublimation of his death wish or a ‘calling’. It would be equally if not more plausible to argue that enlisting proved him to be a man of courage, someone of some value: this would have assuaged the torment of his self-doubt and his corrosive self-criticism. It’s also worth remembering as well that enlisting provided him with an income that released him from the necessity of hack work and freed more of his time and his head space for writing poetry.
To see it this way is to focus on the way it provided an escape from his toxic internal dynamics. It doesn’t seem as though that was the whole story though. It is possible he was striving towards something positive rather than simply escaping from the grip of his demons (pages 237-38):
‘The best way out is always through,’ Frost had written in North of Boston, and now Thomas echoed his friend’s words as he explained his enlistment: ‘It is not my idea of pleasure,’ he admitted, ‘but I do want to go right through.’
His long-time confidante and friend, a lady who loved him dearly and knew him well, gives us an illuminating account (page 287):
[Eleanor Farjeon] pressed him on precisely why he chose to enlist. Thomas was said to pause, bend down to scoop a handful of soil from around his shoe, and say, ‘Literally, for this.’
Was It All for Love?
This does root his action literally in the same soil as his poetry. Love was pushing him to action perhaps, not only the desire to escape. Perhaps there was something of a calling in it after all. I’m not sure. Are we back to a form of compassion again at least, that widening of the moral imagination that takes us out of ourselves into a concern for others? If so, this would link his impulse to poetry with an expansion of his moral compass which would in turn account for why the combination of becoming a poet and deciding to fight for the land he loved empowered him to show far more tenderness to his family in his last days with them.
He was anything but a gung-ho patriot and there is much in Hollis’s account that shows how much he despised the kind of patriotism that led to an unthinking hatred of all things and all people German. His patriotism sounds not a million miles away from the kind of which the Bahá’í Faith speaks:
Unbridled nationalism, as distinguished from a sane and legitimate patriotism, must give way to a wider loyalty, to the love of humanity as a whole. Bahá’u’lláh’s statement is: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” The concept of world citizenship is a direct result of the contraction of the world into a single neighbourhood through scientific advances and of the indisputable interdependence of nations. Love of all the world’s peoples does not exclude love of one’s country.
(Promise of World Peace: page 8)
Enlisting and poetry did not co-exist completely comfortably in his new life however (page 299):
Thomas had written the poem he would place first in his collection, and yet in composing he did his best to conceal that it was a poem at all. The verses were scribbled down amid the arithmetic calculations that Thomas was making about the trajectory of shells, disguising it as prose with a code to distinguish the line breaks. ‘You see I have written it with only capitals to mark the lines,’ he told Eleanor, ‘because people are all around me and I don’t want them to know.’ As she observed, the paper bore testament to how hard self‑consciousness died in Thomas: he did not mind poets knowing he was a soldier, but he would not allow soldiers to learn he was a poet.
Anyone who still is tempted to see enlistment as an expression of his death wish needs to consider two things. The first is his mood and way of thinking almost at the very end (page 326):
Occasionally he saw children in the devastated villages ‘too poor or too helpless’ to leave, he told his friend, ‘but I probably am not going to describe any more except to make a living’. It was a telling comment for Thomas to make. In January he had written something tiny but of equal importance to Helen: ‘Please put these letters in my drawer.’ It seemed he intended to use his letters and his diary to write about the war after his return; his enlistment was something he intended to survive and the re‑emergence of his gloom expressed not a death wish but a growing recognition that he might not live.”
The second is that he never, as far as I can discern from all the accounts I have read, sought to put himself recklessly in danger. He may, it is true, have been using the situation rather as a former patient of mine used danger, both in his time in the army and by risk taking in civvie street later, as a test of whether or not he deserved to live. I doubt that because there is no evidence to support it.
Instead I see a man who had found his voice in becoming a poet and his self-respect in becoming a soldier. It is a tragedy that he did not survive the war so that we could see the fruits of that double victory. We should be glad that he has left us a small volume of deeply engaging poetry as his lasting legacy.
- Poem for National Poetry Day
- Edward Thomas biography All Roads Lead To France: extract
- Matthew Hollis: Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas
- Edna Clarke Hall: capturing the moment
- Expanding the Moral Imagination
- Practising Compassion