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Beautiful as He Did It

Edited and with an introduction by Matthew Spencer
(Handsel Books, 216 pp., $24) I.


For two poets, two facial expressions. One is simple enough: the blankness with which I, as a graduate student, and every one of the thousand or so graduate students I have taught, first received the words "Edward Thomas." Since this is wrong, and dismaying, I try to have some fun with it. I tell them about a poet they need to know called Thomas, lyrical, fond of pubs, Welsh background, died too young, and I wait for the hands to shoot up like saplings and for the whole class to go not at all gently into that good night, via the Chelsea Hotel and the White Horse Tavern, at which point I say, "That's right, Edward Thomas," and watch the saplings dwindle and die. Then I get that look. The other expression is more complex.

The best way to grow it is to tell a group of bright postgraduates, up on Eliot, down with Derrida, already duking it out with Pound and Stevens and Olson and Ashbery, that we are going to learn some Robert Frost poems. And I get this polite smile, somewhere between amusement and bemusement, a smile that, as it becomes clear that I mean it, slowly hardens into a sort of half-grin, half-frown. It's as if I've asked them to bring in some colored paper next week, so we can make flowers.

Perhaps a similar sequence of expressions would have been observed at Frost's eighty-fifth birthday dinner in 1959. Many of the guests were veterans of his seventy-fifth and sixty-fifth birthday dinners, and several more besides. Friends and relations and disciples and rivals presumably fastened on that smile again, at least until Lionel Trilling rose and described Frost as "a terrifying poet," an intervention that, at the time, seems to have puzzled or offended almost everyone present. And although many students--and indeed many poets--journey toward a full and serious appreciation of Frost's splendor and gravity, still they meet him in childhood as that old-time uncle on his farm, making sailboats out of wood, full of proverbs, quoting himself. They have miles of rural book jackets to get through before they come face to face with the terror in the midst of the trees. Such is the fate of a "national" poet. By the time his ninety-fifth birthday dinner comes around, he is marble, engraved, frozen, claimed by the populace, readers, non-readers, untouchable, alone. But he had been that for years.

How contrasting, then, are their reputations, Frost the giant, Thomas the rumor, and yet how akin in isolation. Frost is the only major poet to whom modernism can lay no rational claim, who came into his force almost in spite of the prevailing winds of the twentieth century. Thomas rustles in anthologies of the even less remembered Georgians--John Drinkwater, Lascelles Abercrombie-- whom he only superficially resembles, or the "War Poets," where his pale surface is overshadowed by the lush dismay of Owen or the crisp fury of Sassoon. Since very few of his poems concern life on the front line, to describe him as a "War Poet" is simply to classify a poet by cause of death. Alcohol and suicide would merit schools and anthologies.

THE FACT IS, Frost and Thomas, the former as famous as a poet can be, the latter--at least outside the British Isles--barely visible, resemble only each other. And while the modern or postmodern literary academy can do nothing about Frost's indestructible achievement, it can at least doggedly ignore the work of the reticent Welsh soldier who even in his prose, Frost believed, was writing poetry "as good as anybody alive."

The history is short, sweet, and sad. In August 1912, Frost, thirty-eight, unsuccessful, and his wife, Elinor, who dreams of "living under thatch," toss a coin in their kitchen in New Hampshire: "Heads England, tails Vancouver." In October 1913 in London, literary journalist Thomas, thirty-five, broke, depressed, excuses himself from a meeting with his friend Eleanor Farjeon because he has "an appointment of uncertain time with an American." Friendship follows, culminating in a series of marathon sun-blessed hikes through the countryside of western England in the antebellum "golden summer" of 1914. During that summer North of Boston is published in England, and Thomas--who has never written a poem--manages to review it for three different journals: "This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times ... because [the poems] lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation."

War breaks out. Thomas writes to Frost, "I am in it now & no mistake," but he means poetry. Frost has told him that he should try working his reams of prose about the countryside into blank verse. Thomas is astounded: "I find myself engrossed %amp% conscious of a possible perfection as I never was in prose," he writes in December 1914. Two months later the Frosts are sailing back to safety in New England and Thomas is agonizing over whether to join up. The men--both now poets--correspond across the wartorn Atlantic. In July, Thomas enlists in the Artists' Rifles, and, for the first time, writes "Goodbye" at the end of a letter. But dozens of letters follow, chatty, mournful, funny, about friends, about the war, about Thomas's son Mervyn, who has sailed with the Frosts, about Thomas's army life, Frost's newfound celebrity. In February 1917, Frost thinks he might have found Edward an American publisher, but in March Corporal Thomas writes from the front: "I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live, but I know as much about my chances in either case, %amp% I don't really trouble about either." Then in April: "Things are closely impending now %amp% will have happened before you get this." At dawn on Easter Monday 1917, a blast kills Thomas at the Battle of Arras.

A copy of North of Boston was found in Thomas's kitbag. Frost wrote his widow, Helen: "I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet.... It was beautiful as he did it." And the relationship was preserved in the verse, in Frost's "To E.T." and, by his own account, in "The Road Not Taken," in Thomas's poems "The sun used to shine" and "A Dream":

...So by the roar and hiss And by the mighty motion of the abyss I was bemused, that I forgot my friend And neither saw nor sought him till the end, When I awoke from waters unto men Saying: "I shall be here some day again."

THOMAS SAW ONLY six of his poems published, and his reputation in Britain built slowly through the twentieth century, from non-existent to minor, while-- not unlike Frost's--being rendered homely and unthreatening by traditionalists, who drew him lovingly into their corner, against the modern, against the new, against the current. "Adlestrop," a memorable little poem on the silence of a country railway station, is the Thomas equivalent of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," much anthologized, much beloved--and so well known it can scarcely be heard. "Adlestrop" and Thomas himself spent much of the twentieth century in a familiar cloud of English nostalgia, for rhyme and the rural and the age of railways:

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

Edward Thomas, like England, needs rescue from the nostalgists.

For this reason, Handsel Books, which has recently published the collected poems of Thomas as well as these letters, has done English-language poetry a considerable service. And yet the letters make a curious volume. For one thing, they are weighted heavily in favor of Thomas: most of Frost's letters to him are gone. With Thomas's reviews of North of Boston included, this means we hear a great deal more from him than from Frost. Conversely, we spend a lot more time in Frost's shoes, as it were, or trying to extrapolate what he must have said to Thomas. For instance, Thomas writes: "Yes I quite see about using the 'naked tones,' not the mere words, of certain profoundly characteristic instinctive rhythms. And No, you don't bore me, only I feel a fraud in that I have unconsciously rather imitated your interest in the matter." Of course we know enough to guess what kind of thing Frost said, but trying to pin it down makes the reader feel like an old man whose memory is failing. The absence of most of Frost's contributions gives Thomas's letters a kind of false anxiety of abandonment: "I tell you I wish you were in Gloucestershire as God is ... or instead of him," he writes, as another one goes unanswered.

Michael Hofmann, in a graceful foreword to the book, has some play with how the relationship grows a phantom narrative, how Frost by default becomes the strong, silent type, Thomas the restless suitor ever needing reassurance. The friendship, even when we can read Frost's answers for ourselves, does resemble the habits of a romance, or at times an affair in danger of fatal imbalance. As Hofmann puts it, Frost's letters are less "frisky" than Thomas's. Thomas explains that he has not yet said more about North of Boston because of pure "disinclination to sprawl about before your eyes as I feel I should do." Several excited critiques from Thomas about a new Frost poem originally titled "Two Roads"--letters answered in reality but not answered here--do eventually receive this from Amherst: "Methinks thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem."

But the friendship suffers--literally--a sea change. Once Frost is back in New England and Thomas is in the army, the plans that were so nearly possible-- that Thomas emigrate with his family, that he and Frost set up a "lecture-camp" in the New England woods--come to seem utopian and strange to Thomas: "It is no use me saying how much I wish I were destined to come %amp% live at your farm. But ... I find myself thinking as if there wasn't going to be no future." When Frost suggests that Thomas--a year after the sinking of the Lusitania--come out to America for three weeks on the "fast boats," Thomas writes heavily: "We could not help smiling that you should think it possible." In late 1916, Frost sends Thomas a war poem ("France, France, I know not what is in my heart"), but it is rhetorical, shrill, worked up from newspaper cuttings. Thomas, in uniform, between miserable chores, writes carefully: "I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say, and what you feel about saying so much."

And while Thomas's letters spiral to a shrug of desolation, Frost, who can know nothing of what his friend is seeing, reaches back into the brief spring of their relationship for some light: "Your letter shows you can still undertalk me when you like. A little vaccination and a little cold and you are down where it makes me dizzy to look in after you. You are so good at black talk that I believe your record will stand unbroken for years to come." These are the little digs of a profound friendship, but the two roads have diverged very far by now. When Frost believes he has found his friend an American publisher, one detects exasperation in his prediction of the likely response: "Get up no hopes--as I know you are incapable of getting up any." Then again, Thomas's publishing history rather supports his pessimism.

With the poetry elsewhere, and Frost's more developed writings on poetry elsewhere, the chief pleasures of this book are Thomas's sketches of life in England during the war, as his company drifts around the southern counties prior to leaving for France. The countryside is deserted, the air numb with the boredom of soldiers and the silence of farms and cottages braced for bad news. What had threatened for years has come to pass, but in the ancient villages of Kent and Sussex and Hampshire it registers as calm--"ate %amp% drank (stout) by a fire at a big quiet inn--not a man to drink left in the village"--punctuated by the abysmal rumble of artillery from across the English Channel. For Thomas, for whom true happiness consisted in walking the countryside, about which he knew everything, the experience must have been almost as harrowing as what was to come in the hellfire of France, and his measured words feel clung to, a lifeline. He has been denied promotion, but neither explains why nor ever quite gets over it:

I am writing this & the other man, who is an artist, is trying to draw me. The taproom is very noisy, but here there is only a fire & 3 billiard balls on a table &  us. He is the man through whom I fell into disgrace. I haven't outlived it yet.

When he refers to old acquaintances, they inhabit another world. No wonder Frost and New England came to seem as remote as heaven, when daily life was this wading nightmare: "Nobody recognizes me now. Sturge Moore, E. Marsh, %amp% R.C. Trevelyan stood a yard off %amp% I didn't trouble to awake them to stupid recognition."; For those of us who grew up believing war pictures on the news and do not really believe them anymore, Thomas stands shaking his head at the very birth of the process. For those of us who grew up believing war pictures on the news and do not really believe them anymore, Thomas stands shaking his head at the very birth of the process: "The cinematograph pictures of the 'Somme Battle' tell you exactly nothing. I went to see them last night. You can learn far more from two or three soldiers talking about women." Thomas once replied to the question of what he thought he would be fighting for by lifting up some English soil and muttering, "For this," but an aside to Frost straightens the picture: "My father is so rampant in his cheery patriotism that I become pro German every evening." Elsewhere, he writes: "My country had virtually deserted me before I decided not to desert it." But his faith in ordinary talk as a dwelling place of truth bears some delightful fruit:

Shall I copy out the speech our captain made to the men who were leaving us to go to be finished at the cadet school? ... "Take care to mind your Ps & Qs, & do everything top-hole." He is a huge kind man with no memory, very fond of the country. The other day in the fields he said "Company, attention! Oh, look at that rabbit."

WHAT WAS LOST t to English poetry when Edward Thomas died has never really been found again. It is an authenticity of the present moment expressed at the level of breath. One can hear it in Frost, of course, but the Thomas strain is different: its sadness seldom resolves; rarely does he elbow his way like Frost to some provisional platform of wisdom. While in his review Thomas described "The Death of the Hired Man" and "Home Burial" as "masterpieces of deep and mysterious tenderness," in private to Frost he questioned the last lines of both, as if he wasn't entirely comfortable with conclusion of any kind. His is a poetry concerned with capturing present feeling, while contemplating around and beyond it a desolation of time and space that is impossible to know.

Now, this is hardly a unique attitude for a poet of the twentieth century-- or earlier, if one knows Marvell--but Thomas, in contrast to any of the important poets of that era, positions himself much closer to the wind, to the thought so fresh it opens the mouth and registers as gasp or sigh. In this sense it is a walking poetry as against a sedentary one, a work of the breath as against the brain.

One hallmark of the finest poetry is that no other verse can diminish it, but a peculiar effect of reading deeply in certain enduring work is that for a while one is drawn into thinking that this is the only way poetry should be written. Nothing in Edward Thomas can chip away at the achievements of Auden or Eliot or Yeats, and yet, in the moments one is alongside Thomas, walking as he walks, seeing as he sees, Auden can seem brisk and sealed and prescriptive, Eliot a caster of spells to serve a narrow faith, Yeats a grand politician shoehorning life into his systems. These perceptions may not even make up one- hundredth of one's opinion of these poets (and they in their turn will reduce all others), but Thomas can just for a moment occasion them, perhaps because his own way of seeing has all but disappeared from poetry.

THE BULGING CELL of verse in English swelled and divided spectacularly in the early twentieth century- it can more or less be traced to the footsteps of Frost and Pound warily converging and then crossly parting on the streets of Bloomsbury; and while Thomas thought Frost "revolutionary" in 1914, by 1922 there were rather more empathetic claims on that word. What's striking is how little has essentially changed in ninety years. You pass left or right around a stone marked "Stein" and just keep walking till everyone you meet agrees with you. Creative-writing departments are one thing or the other. Two anthologies of new British poetry recently published in the United States share hardly a single poet, so mutually exclusive are their conceptions of value. "New Formalists" and "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" poets cluster in their own departments, bristling with satisfaction, indifferent to the indifference of the world outside. And while these two airless extremes are only the edges of the spectrum, most poets are tugged one way or the other, as if the grotesque civil war in America's mind might spread through every field of action. Those who operate between the poles favor a loose prosaic style, having thrown out technique along with form, or an elliptical one, standing some way off from the poem, winking at it, coaxing the reader to unpick it like a knot, to grant it a coherence the author withheld.

But then young writers enter the arena--that is to say, the academy--bearing certain assumptions with which, frankly, their more literary grandmothers would have agreed. That poetry is for the few. That poems must be clever. That poems must surprise. That poems must be difficult. Or rather, that they can speak truthfully only if they are difficult, because life on earth--suddenly--is difficult. That the new things of this world are alienating, still. That the poet, more alert and psychologically complex than most readers, can express his or her complexity only by acts of evasion or concealment, calling, as Auden said, "The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle." That the chief criterion of significance in a poem lies in what volume and with what further complexity it might profitably be studied.

These assumptions are not all wrong, or always wrong, but they are assumptions. They are of their time. They are of their time like the ubiquity of the word "text," which purports to allow a neutral space between authorial intent and critical perception while in fact reducing the once-admired author to a hapless conveyor of signs and flattering the once-humble reader into thinking that there is no mystery beyond the tools of contemporary analysis.

It is hard to see those tools lingering long over Edward Thomas, who locates mystery not in some deftly broken contract between poet and reader, but in the soundless breathing space between his words and the world, and who had a habitual doubt about anything that he felt was "made up," "thought out," "done too much on purpose." Of his deceased contemporary Rupert Brooke, he wrote to Frost: "He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed. And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after %amp% what he achieves. I think perhaps a man ought to be capable of always being surprised on being confronted with what he really is." The world changes in Thomas, clouds go by, light alters. These things shift the vowels, nudge the syntax. Words register changes in both inner and outer weather. There is little hope of conclusion and less of revelation, because there is no wisdom partly concealed or teased out by the poet for reasons of aesthetic structure. Still, because the verse sits true on the breath, it sits true there now, and try as it might it cannot get old. ...

..."My past and the past of the world were in the wind. Now you will say that though you understand And feel for me, and so on, you yourself Would find it different. You are all like that If once you stand here free from wind and mist: I might as well be talking to wind and mist. You would believe the house-agent's young man Who gives no heed to anything I say. Good-morning. But one word. I want to admit That I would try the house once more, if I could; As I should like to try being young again."

What Thomas thought was true he found in Frost, and his awestruck words on North of Boston, in a review written before he had himself attempted verse, form a touchstone and template for what--so very briefly--he would achieve: "With a confidence like genius, [Frost] has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other."

THE POEM "OLD MAN" begins thus: 

Old Man, or Lad's-love,--in the name there's nothing To one that knows not Lad's-love, or Old Man, The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree, Growing with rosemary and lavender. Even to one that knows it well, the names Half decorate, half perplex the thing it is: At least, what that is clings not to the names In spite of time. And yet I like the names....

Everything sounds on the breath. A poet who knows how to include it in the utterance--who knows, in fact, nothing else--can achieve astonishing levels of compression. The first two lines above manage to hold up two phrases, drain them within a line, estrange them further within the second, while incidentally running the span of existence backward ("Old Man," "Lad's-love," "name," "nothing") and then forth again to the brink of extinction, otherwise known as the end of the line. As if this were not enough, the words then sprout leaves before our eyes. The lines meanwhile carry the precise weight of the thought. First, we hear the press of the need for it to sit somehow, however awkwardly, in the English language: "The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree"; then that thought relaxing into prior knowledge, "Growing with rosemary and lavender, " deftly muting the rhyme that the two nouns would have offered if switched, a rhyme that would have sailed the poem into the serenity of the pre-Raphaelites. But rosemary is noticed first, and so rosemary is noted first. After the silence of visual contemplation, we hear the thought begun again, more intent on completion: "Even to one that knows it well, the names/Half decorate, half perplex," where the line break and the consonantal knot between "half" and "perplex" slow the line so that one may hear the words being sought and chosen. The effort of finding them drains from what follows, reducing the language to this numb staccato: "the thing it is:/At least, what that is clings not to the names."

Discussion of prosody is redundant here; there are no Greek terms or slash marks adequate for lines this subtle, this felt. It is the sound of intaken oxygen molding and being molded by thought. It is analog, unreadable to a critical culture so sure that art can be digitalized. You can hear it in the mutterings of any man given by his creator both authentic breath and imagined bounds, limits to exhalation, stops to the mind: "To die, to sleep--/No more-- and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to! 'Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--/To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub...." No wonder verse has faded from the stage; no wonder poetry workshops gaze at drama departments across miles of campus, when poets seem not to realize that the physical accuracy of utterance to which a playwright must hold his characters can be applied to poems, by a poet.

SPECULATIONS ON WHAT brought Thomas to this plane of sensitivity so abruptly and intensely--the certainty that he was about to die? the feeling that his world had vanished forever?--are just new ways to go gray. But perhaps a clue lies in the unusual origin of his poetic voice. In so many cases he made verse from only his existing prose, faithful to the orders of perception, alert to the alternating of clarity and confusion, knowledge and surprise: "As I hold the spring to my nose and slowly withdraw it, I think of nothing, I see, I hear nothing, yet I seem too to be listening, lying in wait for whatever it is I ought to remember but never do. No garden comes back to me, no hedge or path. . . ."

To this he added only one thing, that which he described in Frost as "the good old English medium of blank verse." Thomas's blank verse is hardly a strict pentameter, the kind of line that by the late Victorians had congealed into sweetness and was over-ripe for scorn; even the best of that lies under dust. It is a vessel: it bears the man through time. Blank verse organizes thought no more nor less forcefully than breath, which is why--if what is remembered is anything to go by, and it is really all there is to go by--it tends to last. It is the most accurate metaphor English has ever found for the experiencing of the moment, for combining the wave-fall of breath with the glowing or flashing of new light, while sounding below it all, for as long as it lasts, the consolation of sameness.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing; Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait For what I should, yet never can, remember: No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush Of Lad's-love, or Old Man, no child beside, Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

If the poetry of English still numbers among its projects a need to express the human moment, using the words that float nearest in the air, and moving at the pace at which that moment passes, then the lines of this forlorn soldier- poet are waiting. Eighty-seven years have not dated them one second.