The danger threatening modern man is that instead of being a complete person at any given moment, he will be split into unrelated fragments . . .
(From The Artist as Citizen Thomas Lysaght – page 143 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzergerald)
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 speculate briefly in this 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.
I have just finished reading Matthew Hollis’s absorbing account of the last years of Edward Thomas’s life. I was particularly struck by certain parts of the arc of his life’s trajectory at that period. When the book begins we are watching a man fighting with himself and with his perceived lot in life. He is seemingly trapped in a dead end – no sign of any exit short of death, in fact. We watch his emerging realisation that he is a poet, an epiphany facilitated by his warm friendship with Robert Frost. The ice bound wilderness of his previous inner existence melts into a creative springtime. At the same time as he begins to move towards and get to grips with his true vocation, he is debating whether to enlist in the so-called Great War. Hollis’s description of these various stages in the unfolding drama is compassionate and gripping, even when, as I did, you know the bare bones of the story already.
I hope I won’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this wonderful book if I look at these three stages of Thomas’s life in more detail using Hollis’s account as a springboard. I’ll be focusing on some of their implications for my obsessions with character, creativity, compassion and mental health. I can’t cram it all into one post so I’ve split this set of reflections into three. (For those who are interested there is a moving November 2013 interview with Hollis on the BBC website at this link.)
His hack work and the maintenance of his depression
Much of Edward Thomas’s bitterness in the opening years of this account stems from his having to slave away at what he experienced as hack work in order to feed his family. He had married young and had his wife and three children to provide for.
To see this as alone responsible for his depression would be to simplify things rather, in that the depression predated his hack work and also his marriage as an undergraduate (page 20):
Thomas had been plagued by depression from before his university days at Oxford. There, he fought to shake it out of himself. He tried drink and opium, took up rowing and rowdiness, but could not hold the bleak moods back. When the dark thoughts overran him, he told himself that he valued life too much to take it away or that he was too sedentary to go through with ending it; but in recent years he had become harder to console. In advertising his sorrows, as he put it, he had punished his family, decimated his friends and broken down his self-respect. ‘Things have been very wrong,’ he told his old friend Jesse Berridge in February 1913. ‘Health is now definitely bad – not mere depression – and I don’t know how it will develop. . . .’
It 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. Thomas at least once came terrifyingly close to suicide but was unable to carry through his plan (ibid).
He hated [his wife Helen’s] fussing and her pretence that all was well, but the loathing he felt toward his own cowardice was stronger. Unable to do what he believed he should and put an end to his suffering, he was left to berate himself bitterly: ‘I’m the man who always comes home to his supper.’
Some of the prose work he did contained clues to his future greatness as a poet. He was a discerning and courageous critic of the work of other poets. He also wrote with deep feeling and great skill of the English countryside and those who lived close to it. He was completely blind to the potential planted in what to him seemed such unpromising soil.
He comes across from all accounts as a fundamentally decent man whose dark moods poisoned his relationships with others, and there is no real hint of a constructive link between his depression and his creativity. He was completely trapped in a demoralising vicious circle (page 17):
The relentless, ungratifying work left him exhausted and bitter, while the din of family life served only to worsen his mood. In poor spirits he treated his family cruelly, scolding the children and reprimanding his wife, and the more he did so, the worse his spirits became.
He recognised how much his wife and children suffered from his moods but seemed powerless to protect them from himself if he stayed (page 19):
. . . . the family had joined Edward for Christmas, cared for by Helen, the woman he had married thirteen years ago, who loved him with a passion that he could no longer return.
And he also seemed powerless to leave them for good and set them free from him on a permanent basis either, not that they would have welcomed that idea at all (page 27):
‘What I really ought to do is live alone,’ he told Jesse Berridge. ‘But I can’t find the courage to do the many things necessary for taking that step. It is really the kind Helen and the children who make life almost impossible.’ Somehow they adapted to the outbursts and the absences.
The cost of keeping the family together was cruelly high (page 28):
The absences were crippling to Helen. She was warm and impulsive, a product of her father’s free‑thinking influence, but her untidy spontaneity made her a hopeless housekeeper and a poor cook to Edward’s irritation. . . . . It was her bohemianism that allowed her to ‘manage’ his disappearances emotionally but it was these same unconventional attitudes that left her isolated and wounded when he left.
There is an interesting clue we are given late in the book to what might have been going on within him at this time and beyond (page 230):
He longed for someone to break through the edifice that he had put around himself, an edifice designed, he said, to protect his humility.
The chances of finding anyone in England at the time with the necessary expertise was remote in the extreme (page 29):
Psychology in England was in its primitive stages before the war, with psychosomatic disorders little understood.
Hollis seems to feel with Thomas that the depression which dogged him was positively related to his creativity (ibid):
Thomas himself was not uncritical of his own condition, nor was he unappreciative of the energies that it produced within him. Aware that the depression was also a source of creativity, he had in the past been ambivalent about attempts to purge it. ‘I wonder whether for a person like myself whose most intense moments were those of depression a cure that destroys the depression may not destroy the intensity,’ he wrote in 1908, adding, – a desperate remedy?’
His later history, which I will be dealing with in the other two posts on this subject, calls this view into question. An easing of his depression did not seem to diminish the strength of his experiences or his capacity to translate them into words – but more of that later.
He did feel at one point ‘in 1912 [that] he had finally met an individual [Godwyn Baynes, later a follower of Jung] who could help with a subtler understanding of his suffering.’ Initially Thomas was Baynes’s only ‘client.’ His optimism was relatively short lived and the gains temporary. As Baynes widened his clientele Thomas’s belief in him shrank.
As we will see, his decision to enlist and his realisation that he was writing real poetry eventually combined to decrease his susceptibility to depression. This had a significant positive effect on his relationship with his family (page 308):
. . . then he sympathised with [Helen’s] visit to town to have a bad tooth taken out. ‘I hope you don’t dislike the dentist who took it away.’ It was a care and kindness that Thomas would show more of in the weeks ahead.
Not that the weeks ahead were without intensely painful moments as the time for his final departure to the front drew closer (page 310):
. . . . to ease the tension [he] took out his prismatic compass and showed her how to take a bearing from it; when she cried he closed the casing and put the instrument away. Helen could no longer rein back her desperation and felt engulfed by an uncontrollable grief of a kind that would plague her in the years ahead. She would recount his tenderness in that moment. She wrote of his gentle ability to soothe and steady her, to give her both the emotional and the physical reassurance for which she so longed. He read to her and carried her to the bedroom in his greatcoat. ‘Helen, Helen, Helen,’ he had said, ‘Remember that, whatever happens, all is well between us for ever and ever.’ When the morning came, she stood at the gate and watched him disappear into the mist and snow. Edward for his part recorded nothing of the details, only this entry in his diary: ‘Said goodbye to Helen, Mervyn and Baba.’
Such intense tenderness would have been impossible to him before he became a poet and a soldier. But consideration of those developments will have to wait until next time.
- Poem for National Poetry Day (This is a poem to his wife Helen written shortly before he left for France.)
- Edward Thomas biography All Roads Lead To France: extract
- Matthew Hollis: Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas