Writing in The Poetry Review in 1997, Edna Longley hailed Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) as “the first truly ecological poet”. Here, we reprint the article in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Thomas’s death
Eighty years ago Edward Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell at the Bartle of Arras. ln late March 1997, during a tour of the Great War battlefields and cemeteries in northern France, I visited his grave in Agny Military Cemetery. The tombstone is inscribed SECOND LIEUTENANT P. E. THOMAS, ROYAL GARRISON ARTILLERY 9th APRIL 1917. Towards the bottom of the stone he is called POET. Agny, now entangled with Arras, was once a distinct village. In his war diary (23 March 1917) Thomas writes of its neighbour Achicourt:
… went with Colonel round 244, 141 and 234 positions and O.P. in Achicourt. Afternoon maps. Partridges twanging in fields. Flooded fields by stream between the 2 sides of Achicourt. Ruined churches, churchyard and railway. Sordid ruin of Estaminet with carpenter’s shop over it in Rue Jeanne d’Arc – wet, mortar, litter, almanacs, bottles, broken glass, damp beds, dirty paper, knife, crucifix, statuette, old chairs… The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.
Like all British military cemeteries, the small cemetery at Agny imitates an English garden. In March spring flowers were appearing along the neat tombstone-lined borders. The visual oxymoron seemed to fit Thomas’s dualistic poetic landscape, and some of his characteristic images were mysteriously present: tall trees overshadowing the sequestered corner, cherry trees blossoming among the graves. As for sound-effects: the “speculating rooks at their nests cawed”, while other birds twanged, sang, chuckled, called and talked as they do in his diary and poems. The cemetery’s situation today –between suburban allotments and open fields – reproduces the larger axis of Thomas’s life and work.
Critics usually term Edward Thomas a ‘nature poet’ (not always establishing how this consorts with ‘war poet’) but the label can be loose even where it is not dismissive. He was brought up in the London suburbs and all his writing is less a flight from streets, although he called them “the strangest thing in the world”, than an effort to grasp huge social and cultural transformations. Although the Great War may have been the catalysing factor that turned Thomas into a poet (he wrote his first real poem ‘Up in the Wind’, which sets wildness against London, in December 1914), it focused rather than changed his vision of history. He had already written that Cornwall’s deserted mines, “frozen cries of despair”, joined “cromlech, camp, circle, and tumulus of the unwritten years [in] a silent bedlam of history, a senseless cemetery or museum”. The diary-entry quoted above places ravaged Achicourt in a similar perspective. And if Thomas makes any sense of what he notes in France, it is because he reports on war in the context of a larger and longer environment.
One way of reconciling war poet with nature poet is to see Thomas as the first truly ecological poet –and, perhaps, eco-historical poet. He compared orthodox historians to “a child planting flowers severed from their stalks and roots, expecting them to grow”. Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology invokes the literary prophets of environmental awareness; but Thomas, who himself absorbed all the available traditions of country writing, took the matter further. His historical and cultural co-ordinates enabled or compelled him to imagine what it might mean to be “nor a transitory member of a parochial species, but a citizen of the earth” (the quotation is from an essay on George Meredith). His post-Darwinian metaphysic was also conditioned by late nineteenth-century economic trends: the destruction (uniquely in Europe) of southern English agricultural communities, explosive urban growth – all leading to contemporary agribusiness and environmental stress. Thomas brooded on the consequent loss not only of jobs but also of bearings, traditions and identity. In Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (1993) Jose Harris refers to “a society in which rootlessness was endemic and in which people felt themselves to be living in many different layers of historical time”.
Thomas’s poetry constantly layers historical time. For instance, in ‘Man and Dog’ the speaker meets an itinerant labourer whose
mind was running on the work he had done
Since he left Christchurch in the New Forest, one
Spring in the ’seventies, – navvying on dock and line
From Southampton to Newcastle-on-Tyne, –
In ’seventy-four a year of soldiering
With the Berkshires, – hoeing and harvesting
In half the shires where corn and couch will grow.
His sons, three sons, were fighting, but the hoe
And reap-hook he liked, or anything to do with trees.
This history gives non-human actors their significance: “Stiffly he plodded; / And at his heels the crisp leaves scurried fast, / And the leaf-coloured robin watched.” Thomas anticipated the Green critique of anthropocentrism allied to capitalism. Human power, the human gaze, is regularly chastened in his poetry. The robin “watches” while a drama of human obsolescence plays itself out. The poem ends: “They passed, / The robin till next day, the man for good, / Together in the twilight of the wood”. Ecocentric thinking stresses an interconnected web in which there are no firm boundaries between species or between the animate and inanimate. This is how Thomas’s poems are constructed, how their language and symbolism works (“the leaf-coloured robin” contrasts with the disjunction between leaves and man). By looking for a “diminution of man’s importance in the landscape”, and objectifying the self as an “inhabitant of the earth”, Thomas exposes the solipsism of much neo-Wordsworthian poetry.
Does his evolutionary long view exclude politics and protest? lt depends on what you mean by both. When Thomas observes that ruins are good news for jackdaws as a species, the “inhumanity” might be salutary. He attacks the war-mongering that finds new ways to exploit working men, yet does so partly in the name of non-human entities that have also been exploited, non-human powers that have been violated. The “twilight of the wood” forbodes that all this may end in human severance from the interconnected web. In one of two poems called ‘Digging’ clay-pipes in the soil connect Thomas with “a soldier of Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet / Perhaps”. Both soldiers are represented as victims of a political system, but also of deeper failure to comprehend the eco-systems to which humanity belongs. Their pipes lie only “A yard or two nearer the living air / Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see / Almighty God erect the mastodon, / Once laughed, or wept, in this same light of day”.
It follows that Thomas’s approach to language, form and poetic tradition might be termed conservationist rather than conservative. Despite his ‘poet’s poet’ status, he does not often figure centrally in accounts of modern poetry. Perhaps his Green time has come at last. And war poetry, like nature poetry, can be sidelined, if for different reasons. It can be viewed as a specialised rather than capacious genre. This, in turn, is linked with denying the centrality of war itself to British or English experience. In a curious displacement, the modern waste land seems easier to contemplate than the dynamics that produced it. To bring Thomas fully back ‘home’ (a word he makes both resonant and ambiguous, and whose scope encompasses “the living air”) means admitting the historical crisis to which he and the other war poets bear such extraordinary witness. This crisis is also felt in his poetry as a crisis of language. Language, for Thomas (as for Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct), is an evolutionary consequence of humanity’s niche in the interconnected web. He does not assume identity between ‘word’ and ‘thing’ (a constant conundrum), but he does assume association. Words and things co-habit in the web, the earthly text: “the names / Half-decorate, half-perplex the thing it is.” Thus when wider gaps open up between language and referent in Thomas’s poetry it is not merely to theoretical effect. The aporia or abyss at the end of ‘Old Man’ implies the absence, not the relativity, of human consciousness: “Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.”
It was an inevitable decision to bury dead soldiers from these islands in France and Belgium. Yet the British Isles miss a mnenonic which should, to say the least, temper Euro-scepticism. Edward Thomas’s poetry is itself a cemetery, a haunted landscape, a landscape of memory: “The past hovering as it revisits the light.” But his elegies, in a different sense from Wilfred Owen’s, also reach beyond the Great War to be haunted by the future. They are proleptic of further absences if, in Thomas’s phrasing, “the parochialism of humanity” remains blind to “the business of the earth”.
Edward Thomas: 3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917.