Thursday 19 October 2017

Thomas's lovely verse a treasure trove waiting to be discovered

It was Con Houlihan who introduced me to the poems of Edward Thomas, and I returned the favour by raving on about Philip Larkin -- an exchange of enthusiasms that has enriched both of our lives down through the years.

Certainly the reading of Thomas has enriched mine. Like Hardy, Yeats, Kavanagh and Larkin, he's a constant companion and hardly a week goes by when I don't open the Collected Poems and at once find consolation and exhilaration in the limpid music of his verse.

He has been patronised as a minor poet, which makes me wish that some of the majors were nearly so memorable.

Perhaps he's too accessible for critics who make their careers out of difficulty and who can't derive a thesis from verse whose meaning is so clear.

He always had distinguished admirers, though, including WH Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Larkin and Michael Longley -- whose wife, Edna, has written of his work with eloquent scholarship.

And there's a fine new biography by Matthew Hollis entitled Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, which has just been published by Faber along with a new Selected Poems.

Thomas died in 1917, killed by a shell during the spring offensive at Arras. He had come late to poetry, encouraged by his friend Robert Frost, and he had come late to the war, too, his anti-nationalist feelings enshrined in the lines: "I hate not Germans, nor grow hot/With love of Englishmen."

Indeed, when asked why he chose to enlist, he scooped up a handful of country earth and said: "Literally for this."

That earth is all over his poems, which evoke a landscape under threat and a way of life that was soon to vanish.

"Never such innocence again," is how Larkin put it in his poem MCMXIV and that sentiment is all over Thomas's lovely verse, though as prediction rather than hindsight.

If you've never read Thomas, I envy you the discovery.

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