The blurb on this excellent new and expanded edition of Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems tells you that Thomas was ‘one of the great English poets of the 20th century’, which is true, and that he was not really a ‘war poet’ but a lonely nature poet, which is slightly less true. The First World War is tacitly present in all the poems here, not only colouring their characteristic attitude towards nature and solitude, but as the condition for their being written at all. Thomas, who was killed at Arras in 1917, didn’t write any poems until the autumn of 1914. Thinking over their genesis afterwards, his friend Robert Frost commented that ‘the decision he made in going into the army helped him make the other decision in form.’ This is both a simple material explanation and perhaps also a piece of soul-searching. Frost knew that the more Thomas believed he could write poetry, the more he would lose interest in his literary journalism, the less he would earn from it, and the more inevitable it would be that he would have to enlist in order to support his family. But as the person whose chivvying, confidence and encouragement had done most to help Thomas make that decision ‘in form’, Frost also knew he had been part of the complex and tangled relation of circumstances which had put Thomas on the road to France as well as to poetry, and this knowledge tinges the poem he sent to Thomas about a month before the latter enlisted in July 1915:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Teasing Thomas about his hesitations between poetry and prose becomes in retrospect a rather darker meditation on choice and its consequences for both poets. Thomas, however, felt that Frost had missed the point entirely:
It’s all very well for you poets in a yellow wood to say you choose, but you don’t. If you do, ergo I am no poet. I didn’t choose my sex yet I was simpler then. And so I can’t leave off going in after myself tho’ some day I may. I didn’t know after I left you at Newent I was going to begin to write poetry.
This is not really fair to Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’ doesn’t treat choice as straightforwardly as Thomas claims, and it’s certainly not the hymn to self-reliance that patriotic Emersonians have sometimes wished it to be. According to the poem’s logic, the choices are as good as each other, and so taking the road more travelled would also have made all the difference. But for Thomas, the issue was not the reasons for his choice, but rather whether poetry and the life it represented really had anything to do with freedom of choice at all. If one could choose to be a poet, then Thomas felt that a good deal of what was new and distinctive about his own poetry would be in vain. Like ‘Adlestrop’, many of Thomas’s poems are about times that could not be chosen or anticipated, or moments of being caught off guard and carried away – by the surprise of his own poems, by birdsong or silence, by his own black and squally depressions – and behind them all is the poet who knew he had no future that could be secured. This sense of self-dispossession makes Thomas the nature poet and Thomas the soldier poet the same person, and links them both to Thomas the 20th-century poet.
In the foreword to the first edition of Thomas’s Collected Poems (reprinted here as an appendix), his neat-minded friend Walter de la Mare drew attention to Thomas’s ‘loose-woven’ style, a wonderful epithet which simultaneously conjures up the Thomas of tweeds, pipes and trousers tucked in socks, and his verse, written in a form both ‘fixed and free’, which enacts Thomas’s encounters with the contingent even as it narrates them. As Peter Sacks notes in his introduction, Frost’s influence was partly responsible for this formal discovery, but another reason was Thomas’s critical dissatisfaction with his contemporaries, a dissatisfaction which for many years got him bracketed as an anti-Modernist. In particular, Philip Larkin’s search for an alternative English tradition to Modernism tried to recruit Thomas to the side of unpretentious Georgian everydayness.
But Thomas had rejected the Imagists because he saw in their work something he desperately needed to exorcise in himself: Walter Pater’s aesthetic of artistic control, which had led to the exquisite self-consciousness that tormented him for years. As Thomas’s 1913 biography of Pater notes, Pater’s doctrine of artistic autonomy tried to eliminate all but the writer’s chosen meaning, although ‘no man can decree the value of one word, unless it is his own invention,’ and the result of trying to do so is a would-be autonomous work which speaks of nothing but its author’s self-assertion. It was this same self-conscious individualism he disliked in Pound and the Imagists, who took Pater’s idea of the poem’s unique virtù and used it to justify their own aesthetic of eliminating everything which would contaminate the poem’s uniqueness. The overriding point of such exquisitely singular poetry, Thomas felt, was only ‘that it is conspicuous’. But Thomas’s scathing reviews of the Georgians make it clear that he also disliked this excess of self-consciousness in their work, especially when it manifested itself as self-conscious ordinariness in poets such as John Masefield and Wilfred Gibson. Thomas felt that trying to be down to earth was part of the same problem; instead he wanted a poetry whose interplay of self-expression and common forms would always make it mean more than the writer could choose or control – for only then would it be true to living unpredictability. As de la Mare explained it to the generation of readers weaned on Pater, Thomas’s poems are never about ‘rare, exalted, chosen moments’ but the accumulation of ‘common experience’.
In their refusal to separate self-expression from self-dispossession, the poems’ syntactic thickets of ands, ifs, yets and buts become less a record of some miserable failure of will, and more a slant way to baffle the willing self implicit in the notion of choosing. ‘If there be a flaw in that heaven,’ the second voice in ‘The Signpost’ remarks, ‘’Twill be freedom to wish,’ and the poem presents so bewildering a list of alternatives that no choice could really matter. Likewise, the tortuous syntax of ‘Liberty’ makes freedom indistinguishable from its opposite:
If every hour
Like this one passing that I have spent among
The wiser others when I have forgot
To wonder whether I was free or not,
Were piled before me, and not lost behind,
And I could take and carry them away
I should be rich; or if I had the power
To wipe out every one and not again
Regret, I should be rich to be so poor.
It is liberty to ‘dream what we could do if we were free’, but those dreams would be about using the hours spent dreaming of freedom for something more worthwhile, or for not caring about their loss. It is liberty to dream about the freedom of not dreaming about freedom, in other words; the more liberty is insisted on, the more it becomes mired in self-absorption, regretting its own regrets and freely doing nothing. Hence the conclusion that the poet is ‘half in love with pain, with what is imperfect . . . with things that have an end’ is not only a declaration for the earthly limitation his freedom laments, but for the imperfections of that free lamentation. Appropriately enough for a poem which will not divide freedom from constraint, what looks at first like blank verse actually rhymes 24 of its lines at varying, unpredictable intervals, so that its aural connections turn out to have been there all along, although they can be heard only in passing. Appropriately for a poem about imperfection, however, three lines are left as awkward half or vowel-rhymes: ‘I’, ‘grave’ and ‘away’.
These three words set the tone for a poem written just over a month later, the most direct reply here to Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’; but its more enigmatic title, ‘Roads’, elides the moment of choice on which Frost meditates:
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.
Exposed in the solitude of the ‘loops over the downs’ rather than alone in a wood, Thomas finds there is only one road to walk. The interest of the poem lies not in the conscious act of choosing that road, but in the road’s inseparable relation with the traveller along it:
The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.
They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only.
‘I love roads,’ the poem begins, simply, and here Thomas walks ‘in remote time’ with Roman soldiers into Wales, in 1916 with the dead back from France, and with Wordsworth, who loved public roads and met the discharged soldier on one. ‘It is always going: it has never gone right away, and no man is too late,’ Thomas wrote in The Icknield Way (1913),and the road’s endless going allows him to see his own passing as part of a larger continuity:
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.
On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure.
‘Roads’ avoids definite starts and stops: living and dying become continuous, just as Thomas’s favourite enjambed rhyme slides ‘are’ into ‘forgotten’, like the trace of the star seen as it is vanishing. The present continuous tense weaves itself into Ariel’s song (‘Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change’), a text about deathly transformation which Thomas, like T.S. Eliot, had long wondered at for its lack of a beginning. In 1910 he wrote that ‘the magic of words is due to their living freely among things, and no man knows how they came together in just that order when a beautiful thing is made like “full fathom five”. And so it is that children often make phrases that are poetry.’ ‘Roads’ is characteristic of Thomas’s poetic because it undercuts the ideal of independence itself, exploring instead states where choice doesn’t imply value, and where the usual modern questions of identity, roots and goals are sidestepped. One such state Thomas found in the unsought and dispossessing power of poetry, which is intertwined in ‘Roads’ with the discipline and anonymity of the army, and with them both, that sense of his own passing. Another of these states was his vision of the English countryside.
As with Frost, there has been a temptation to see Thomas as a national genius, who represented the spiritual truth of a mystical core of Englishness. But Thomas’s rural England is distinguished less by its pastoral contentedness than by its emptiness. What catches Thomas’s eye are ruined or broken things left behind by those long dead (the pipe in ‘Digging’, dead weasels caught by a gamekeeper, bits of china plates), or flowers unpicked and fallen trees unmoved by newly dead farmhands. A few farmers and many more tramps, beggars and wayfarers pick their way across this depopulated landscape. In Thomas’s travel prose, these vagrants are free spirits of nature, but in the poems their homelessness has become the soldier-author’s too, as he writes his verses on trains between his home in Steep in Hampshire and army camp, looking forward to sleeping outdoors like the ploughman ‘dead in battle’; alone in the night and the cold like the ‘soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice’ in ‘The Owl’; passing into the dark like the tramp in ‘’Twill take some getting’:
‘Many a man sleeps worse tonight
Than I shall.’ ‘In the trenches.’ ‘Yes, that’s right.
But they’ll be out of that – I hope they be –
This weather, marching after the enemy.’
‘And so I hope. Good luck.’ And there I nodded
‘Good-night. You keep straight on.’ Stiffly he plodded;
At his heels the crisp leaves scurried fast,
And the leaf-coloured robin watched. They passed,
The robin till next day, the man for good,
Together in the twilight of the wood.
As Sacks emphasises, Thomas’s ‘effortless peripheral vision’ was always receptive to anyone on the margins of social or individual consciousness. The many poems about trees, birds or streams which register nature’s resistance to the poet’s language have in common this attempt to oust the poet’s self-centredness, as he searches for a ‘pure thrush word’ which he can never learn to say. However, the birds’ indifference to the poet’s consciousness is not merely a restatement of Wordsworth’s ecopoetical difficulties, but a way for Thomas the soldier-poet to encounter his own ever approaching absence.
This absence is the unspoken theme of Thomas’s most subtle poem about choice and consequence, ‘As the team’s head brass’, in which enlisting is linked to a larger network of forces and relations that displace the exercise of choice itself. A walker sits on a fallen elm and talks about enlisting to a ploughman with a curious mixture of self-preservation, black humour and suicidal interest:
‘Have you been out?’ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps?’
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more . . .’
It turns out that the elm had fallen on the same night as the ploughman’s mate was killed on his second day of active service:
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
This is a poem about contingency, in the multiple, paradoxical senses of its dictionary definition: ‘close connection or affinity’, ‘chance, fortuitousness’, being ‘at the mercy of accidents’, a ‘possible occurrence’, and in its philosophical sense, ‘dependent . . . on or upon some prior occurrence’. It was chance that caused the elm to fall and the speaker in Thomas’s poem to sit on it, but that chance, and the conversation it leads to, depend on someone else’s death. The present situation is the contingent conjunction of infinite possible worlds, and to realise its uniqueness (‘and I should not have sat here’) is equally to realise the intricacy of everything around it. This sense of contingent, simultaneous lives is strengthened by the way the pair of lovers who disappear into the wood at the start of the poem reappear oblivious at the end; the ploughman and walker are just figures on the edge of their future memory, as they are on the edge of the speaker’s. And this contingent sense of universal relation without inevitability is axiomatic for the choice of road Thomas must make. If he goes out like the ploughman’s mate, everything will be different. But if he does not, everything will also be different, because of the thousands of decisions and accidents, like the ploughman’s death, that already make up his life.
Contingency evades the binary division of self and world, fate and freedom: any moment of free inward decision turns out to be already implicated in and anticipated by contingent events, just as the poet’s conversation with the ploughman is timed by the turn of the plough, and metrically by the turn (versus) of the blank verse. The games of chance and fate suffered by soldiers in the trenches are already being played out back in England, and this confluence of the circumstantial and the inevitable is what lends the closing lines – a declaration of neutrality and melancholy – their extraordinary ambiguity. ‘And for the last time’ might be factual – the ploughman has finished his square of charlock – or it might indicate a decision to carry on his walk. Or it may be an admission that he is going to the ploughed-up chaos of Flanders, and perhaps hearing the faint accents of the First World War’s most fateful command in the clods that ‘crumble and topple over’. Thomas did not and could not know what would happen next. Nor could he know what an impact these poems about living with the uncertain would have on the poetry of the next century.