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The Greatest English Poet You Haven't Heard of

The wisdom of a poet in nature and in war

E.O. Hoppé/Corbis

“We are at the beginning of another ‘Georgian period,’ which may take rank in due time with the several great poetic ages of the past,” wrote Edward Marsh in 1912. And for a brief moment, such confidence seemed plausible. The series of anthologies that Marsh edited, Georgian Poetry, sold tens of thousands of copies throughout that decade, and made its contributors—poets such as Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, and John Drinkwater—the leading figures of their literary generation. The adjective “Georgian” had such power that even Virginia Woolf, in her 1924 essay “Character in Fiction,” tried to claim it for writers whom we would now classify very differently. “Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot I will call the Georgians,” she writes, contrasting them with “Edwardians” such as H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. After all, King George V took the throne in 1910, and wasn’t it in December 1910 that human nature changed?

Woolf’s essay was written before it became obvious that the writers she admired, and she herself, would go down to posterity not as Georgians but as modernists—a name that insisted on their dissent from everything that Georgianism stood for. Soon enough, “Georgian” became a synonym for “also-ran,” and the Georgian poets a byword for genteel tedium and rural nostalgia. They are the slumber from which Eliot, Pound, and company awakened us. “The Georgians,” Eliot complained, “caress everything they touch.”

In his new study of Edward Thomas, a poet who lived among the Georgians but was not of them, Matthew Hollis offers a familiar characterization. The Georgians “settled too readily for comfort and consolatory tropes, and almost to an individual failed to develop fully their inner editor. They formed a coterie of gentlemen who cared for polite manners and polite verse.” He does not quote much of their work, but one gets a sense of what he means by reading a poem like Abercrombie’s “Ryton Firs”:

Follow my heart, my dancing feet,
Dance as blithe as my heart can beat.
Only can dancing understand
What a heavenly way we pass
Treading the green and golden land,
Daffodillies and grass.

This is the English countryside seen through a scrim of “Comus” and Wordsworth, a zone of aesthetic self-pleasuring devoid of close observation or precise language. Yet it is also possible to see, with a little sympathetic imagination, why the Georgians once seemed modern:

Now I breathe you again, my woods of Ryton:
Not only golden with your daffodil-fires
Lying in pools on the loose dusky ground
Beneath the larches, tumbling in broad rivers
Down sloping grass under the cherry trees
And birches ...

Here Abercrombie’s language is fuller, more descriptive and vivid; at the time it would also have seemed modern, for its prose syntax and common vocabulary. And his emotion is a valid and recognizable one: the gratitude of someone in an urban civilization who goes to the country for spiritual sustenance, in a way that people had done since Wordsworth’s time and still do today. There is no reason why these could not be the ingredients of great poetry.

One of the revelatory things about reading Edward Thomas is that he shows how elusive, yet unmistakable, is the distinction between competence and greatness in poetry. Thomas, too, was a city dweller who loved the country. Born in London in 1878 to Welsh parents, he remained attached to the capital by family and professional bonds, even as he lived in a succession of rural cottages and took long tramps through the countryside. He, too, used a simplified syntax and vocabulary, heightened and shaped by meter and rhyme. From afar, he looks like a Georgian. Yet how great is the difference between “Ryton Firs” and Thomas’s “But These Things Also”:

But these things also are Spring’s—
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was;

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung
In splashes of purest white:

All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets ... 

The very title of Thomas’s poem could be a rebuke to Abercrombie and company. To really see the countryside in spring, rather than to repeat other poets’ formulas, means noticing the snail, the flint, and the dung; and to turn that vision into a poem means allowing the poet’s own emotion to pervade and animate those details. But to make that poem a modern poem, the kind of poem that speaks immediately and naturally to us even a century later, something more is required: the kind of modesty and forbearance that knows the danger of the pathetic fallacy, and uses nature metaphorically only with a quiet, ironic reticence. What we learn about Thomas from this poem is that he is the kind of man who sees the winter prolonged in the spring, death counterfeiting life, and takes a bitter satisfaction in the sight.

As Hollis shows, Thomas was at the heart of the Georgian milieu. Now All Roads Lead to France opens with a vignette of Thomas at the opening of London’s legendary Poetry Bookshop in January 1913, alongside Edward Marsh and several of his contributors. At that moment Thomas was well known in the English poetry world as a critic and reviewer. A prolific contributor to newspapers and magazines, he was also the author of a constant stream of travel books and biographies, on subjects ranging from the Oxford countryside to Maurice Maeterlinck. Yet if Thomas had died that night in 1913 he would now be forgotten: very little of what he produced as a prose writer rises far above the level of hack-work. It was only in November 1914, at the age of 36, that Thomas began to write verse; and by April 1917 he was dead, killed in battle in the First World War. Yet in that short span of time he produced the hundred-odd poems that make him one of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century.

It is this last-minute self-reinvention that makes Thomas’s life, otherwise fairly bleak and eventless, take on the quality of parable. “Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives,” Auden wrote, and while Thomas was certainly innocent of “cowardice, conceit,” he is nonetheless a wonderful example of the way time worships language. When he died in a bombardment in the Arras offensive on April 9, 1917, no collection of his poems had yet appeared in print. The first book, under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway, came out in October 1917, six months after his death. Ever since, he has been seen as one of the great English poets to emerge from World War I. As his widow, Helen, said, “Death came leading Fame by the hand.”

Hollis’s book, the latest tribute to that fame, bears the subtitle “A Life of Edward Thomas,” but it is really something more and something less than that. This is not a full biography; for that, the reader can still turn to the standard Edward Thomas: A Portrait, by R. George Thomas, which came out in 1985. What Hollis offers instead is a study of Thomas’s last four years, the years of his vocation, and a group portrait of the Georgians and modernists who dominated English poetry at that moment. Above all, and inevitably, it is a book about Thomas’s friendship with Robert Frost, the American visitor to England who catalyzed Thomas’s decision to become a poet himself.

It is just as well that Hollis restricts himself to the end of Thomas’s life, with only flashbacks and side glances at his earlier years. For those earlier years are almost as grim to read about as they must have been to live. As a child, in R. George Thomas’s account in his biography, Philip Edward Thomas was already withdrawn, moody, and devoted to the countryside—the qualities that would dominate his adult personality. When he was sixteen, his teacher wrote in his school report that “I wish he seemed to take more interest in life generally.” In retrospect, it sounds like an omen: all his life Thomas would struggle with intense depression and thoughts of suicide. “I sat thinking about ways of killing myself,” he wrote in a note to himself in 1907. “My revolver has only one bullet left. I couldn’t hang myself: and though I imagined myself cutting my throat with a razor ... I had not the energy to go. Then I went out and thought what effects my suicide would have. I don’t think I mind them.” This is not, perhaps, the voice of a man who really wants to die, for which the one bullet would have been enough; but it is undoubtedly the voice of hopelessness.

The same melancholy is the also the ground note of Thomas’s poetry, the emotion that suffuses his natural observations and raises them at times to the pitch of ecstasy. Writing an essay on the subject of ecstasy in 1913, Thomas described “that extreme lack of ecstasy which ... becomes something like ecstasy itself ... the state only a little removed from ecstasy, when that remoteness, real or imagined, produces grief. In that state the soul desires to feel, with a perhaps inhuman, angelic intensity, how beautiful things are.” Such moments of exalted distress inspire many of Thomas’s poems, as in “The Glory”:

Or must I be content with discontent
As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?
And shall I ask at the day’s end once more
What beauty is, and what I can have meant
By happiness? And shall I let all go,
Glad, weary, or both? Or shall I perhaps know
That I was happy oft and oft before,
Awhile forgetting how I am fast pent,
How dreary-swift, with naught to travel to,
Is Time? I cannot bite the day to the core. 

The failure to bite the day to the core, to receive what nature seems to offer, is Thomas’s theme as a nature poet, and makes him a kind of negative of Wordsworth. Wordsworth was the great poet of natural joy, and his work offers a whole metaphysics of joy. For him, man belongs in and to nature, and the recognition of this belonging is what makes life whole: “For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood, / They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the daffodils.”

Thomas, on the other hand, is the opposite of a metaphysician, and he has no confidence in the mutual belonging of man and nature—or at least no assurance that this mutuality will issue in contentment. “The birds’ songs have / The holiness gone from the bells,” he writes in “March the Third,” but this holiness is somehow unsatisfying, unattainable. It is much more likely, in his poetry, to produce a sense of ecstatic disappointment, as in “Ambition”:  

Was powerless while that lasted. I could sit
And think I had made the loveliness of prime,
Breathed its life into it and were its lord,
And no mind lived save this ‘twixt clouds and rime.
Omnipotent I was, nor even deplored
That I did nothing. But the end fell like a bell:
The bower was scattered; far off the train roared.
But if this was ambition I cannot tell:
What ‘twas ambition for I know not well.

Thomas is often a sad poet, sometimes a self-pitying one, in the high Victorian tradition of self-pity. But at his most delicate he knows how to describe nature in a way that captures its holiness without trying to characterize it as holiness—to be content with an experience he cannot master or prolong. At such moments, Thomas himself ceases to dominate the poem, and he achieves an evanescent simplicity that irresistibly reminds the reader of Chinese poetry. Something of this quality can be heard even in one of Thomas’s most famously English poems, “Adlestrop”:

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Thomas’s unmistakable melancholy was, at bottom, constitutional. But it was compounded by two constant and related strains—family responsibility and money worries. Thomas was just twenty-one years old and still an undergraduate at Oxford when his girlfriend, Helen Noble, got pregnant. He did his duty and married her, and they remained married until his death; but the marriage often felt like a prison to him, and he took out his resentment in ferocious tirades and long absences. This in turn led to guilt, as Thomas recognized how completely devoted to him Helen really was: “My wife could be the happiest woman on earth—and I won’t let her,” he wrote. After his death she produced two memoirs of their relationship, which show that as a girl she idolized him, and wanted nothing more than to live with him and bear his children. The quality of her emotion is suggested by a passage from her barely fictionalized autobiography World Without End, in which Edward is called David:

When during these months David was troubled, I had the strange experience which I expect most women have, who are in love, of an eternal tenderness as old and wise as the earth; almost a physical sensation of being big and strong to comfort and protect. He was my child, and I the ancient ageless mother in whose arms was unfailing comfort, and in her heart the deep wisdom of the earth.

World Without End is a melancholy document because it shows how much Helen loved Thomas, and how little she understood or could sympathize with him. For the ancient ageless embrace was surely one of the things that soon made family life so intolerable to him. The poems Thomas wrote to and about Helen near the end of his life are heartbreaking in their emotional candor:

I at the most accept
Your love, regretting
That is all: I have kept
A helpless fretting

That I could not return
All that you gave
And could not ever burn
With the love you have,

Till sometimes it did seem
Better it were
Never to see you more
Than linger here

With only gratitude
Instead of love—
A pine in solitude
Cradling a dove.

Things were only made worse at home by the insecurity of Thomas’s career as a full-time writer. There is no doubt that he chose this profession—he resisted several of his father’s efforts to get him a more secure job in the Civil Service—and in many ways it suited him. It was solitary work, with no bosses or colleagues, and even the discipline of deadlines was salutary. But to make enough to support his expanding family—he eventually had three children—Thomas had to keep up a punishing schedule, often reviewing fifteen books a week, and accepting publishers’ commissions to write full-length books in weeks or months. Until he discovered poetry, his highest literary ambitions were for his nature essays and sketches, but these did not pay: “My imaginings all in a cupboard & only my lies in print,” he complained. Combined with his melancholy, his financial worries often drained Thomas’s life of any kind of pleasure: “Nothing is worthwhile, and it is really wonderful how I persuade myself to work regularly. I have no joy, no hope, no responsibility; no certainty.”

Two things broke the sad stasis of Thomas’s life in the year 1914. The first was his friendship with Robert Frost, who had come to England from New England in order to make his name as a poet. On the day they first met, Hollis shows, Thomas may well have been carrying a gun or a dose of poison in his pocket—his letters of the time make ominous reference to something he called “the Saviour.” But soon Frost encouraged Thomas to think of himself as a poet, telling him that the prose descriptions of nature in some of his books were already almost poems: “I dragged him out from under the heap of his own work in prose,” Frost recalled years later.

Still more important, Hollis argues, was the example of Frost’s own verse, with its plain style, strong rhythm, and focus on what the poet called “the sound of sense.” All of this helped to liberate Thomas from Georgian decorativeness, though at first it discomfited him. When Thomas read “The Road Not Taken”—a poem partly inspired by his own indecisiveness—he told Frost he was taken aback: “the simple words and unemphatic rhythms were not such as I was accustomed to expect great things, things I like, from. It staggered me to think that perhaps I had always missed what made poetry poetry if it was here.” (What survives of the Thomas-Frost correspondence was published in 2003 under the title Elected Friends.)

But starting in November 1914, and with increasing confidence until his death two and a half years later, Thomas brought that very simplicity and directness into his own poetry. In turn, he himself scandalized Georgian poets such as Gordon Bottomley, who told him: “My only real and serious criticism is that you tend to use words in the spirit of the prose-writer, respecting first their utility and the syntax which everyday use requires them to observe.” This “prosaic” quality is, of course, the touchstone of trustworthiness to modern readers, especially when it comes to Thomas’s poems about the war.

For it was the war itself, along with Frost’s example, that allowed Thomas to reinvent himself as a poet. Almost immediately after August 1914, the literary journalism that was his bread and butter disappeared. Thus there was no material barrier to his mounting sense that it was his duty to England to enlist, which he finally did in June 1915. A famous anecdote, recorded by his friend Eleanor Farjeon, records that when she asked Thomas what he was fighting for, he picked up a handful of earth and replied, “literally, for this.” This sounds like a legend, but it is entirely consonant with what he wrote about the war in an article in November 1914: “All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically, like a slave, not having realized that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die rather than leave it as Belgian women and old men and children had left their country. Something I had omitted. Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape.”

The war, it seems, allowed Thomas to jettison responsibilities and thoughts of the morrow. He could abandon himself to poetry, since in wartime no other pursuit was any more necessary or practical. Yet despite the implications of Hollis’s title—which quotes a line from one of Thomas’s darkest war poems—he actually wrote less about the war than one might expect, given that his entire poetry-writing career coincided with World War I and that he was in uniform starting in July 1915. And his war poems are all the more powerful for treating the war aslant, almost incidentally. Thomas, unlike Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, never writes from the trenches. He sees the effect of war in its absences, in the men no longer there to do farm work and pick flowers: 

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

That is the whole of Thomas’s epigrammatic “In Memoriam (Easter 1915).” The colloquialism of “will do” sets the seal on the poem’s classicism by redeeming it from monumentality.

Even Frost, for all his homespun facade, is a far more monumental poet than Thomas. In Frost, the sheer perfection of the rhythm and the aggressive confidence of the voice leave us no doubt that we are in the presence of a great poet, a genius. With Thomas, greatness takes another form—more human, fallible, and intimate, more like the voice we imagine is ours when we talk to ourselves. The trajectory of Thomas’s life lends further credence to the illusion that anyone could write poetry, if we could only capture that inner voice. In fact, what Thomas’s life and work show is that every true poet comes as an incomparable, unforeseeable surprise—sometimes even to himself. 

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Why Trilling Matters (Yale).