May 04, 2007

Poetry Friday: In Pursuit of Spring Early One Morning in May, with Edward Thomas

I first discovered the poems of Edward Thomas (1878-1917) as a child in my now out of print copy of All Day Long: An Anthology of Poetry for Children, compiled by Pamela Whitlock (Oxford University). Thmas wrote beautifully of the English countryside and the seasons. Later, in high school, I learned that he was also one of the World War I poets. And several years ago, I came across some of his prose at the library, a wonderful discovery. Equally wonderful, the discovery the other day of the website of the Edward Thomas Fellowship and also this page from the terrific Counter-Attack website of World War I literature, the result of a great deal of hard work from kidlitosphere friend Michele at Scholar's Blog.

From Thomas's biography page at the Fellowship website:
Edward Thomas was known during his lifetime as a critic, essayist and writer of books about the countryside. Born in London, his happiest days as a youth were spent either wandering over the commons of South London or with relatives in the countryside near Swindon. Wiltshire was to remain his favourite county.

As a schoolboy, Thomas was encouraged to write by James Ashcroft Noble, who had recognised the boy's talent and was himself a distinguished man of letters and a neighbour. At Noble's home, Thomas met and fell in love with Helen Noble, whom he subsequently married while still an undergraduate at Oxford University. After gaining a second-class degree in History, he decided to pursue a career as a writer, having been encouraged by the publication of some nature essays and especially his first book, The Woodland Life, while he was still a student [1897].

That decision, opposed by his father, led to years of poorly paid prose writing, both books and journalism. Life was a struggle for Helen, the three children and himself. Undoubtedly, this contributed to sporadic depressive illness. Nevertheless, his prose work established him amongst the foremost critics of the day.

He was moving towards the writing of poetry when, in 1913, he met and became close friends with the American poet Robert Frost, who further encouraged him to write verse, which he commenced in December 1914. Into the next two years, he crammed all his verse writing. Before he saw his poetry in print under his own name, he was killed at the Battle of Arras on Easter Day 1917. Since then, Thomas's reputation as a poet has increased greatly and, perhaps as important, his posthumous influence on the development of English verse has been crucial. Poets as diverse as WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Derek Walcott have acknowledged their debt to him.
Other friends and poets in Thomas's circle include Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon, who wrote Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, about his life and their friendship. The Fellowship website also includes a rich page of links, a page of selections from Thomas's prose, and poetry.

I was going to put up just Thomas's Sowing for today, but as I was reading through some of his other poems, I realized how many are about spring in general, and May in particular, so I decided to include a few others. That despite the fact that it's been pouring rain for two straight days and feels more like April than May, though the weather is great for the new pavement rose I planted yesterday morning.

by Edward Thomas (1898-1917)

It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl's chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;
Nothing undone
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying good-night.

But These Things Also
by Edward Thomas

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 bird's dung
In splashes of purest white:

All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets
Who seeks through Winter's ruins
Something to pay Winter's debts,

While the North blows, and starling flocks
By chattering on and on
Keep their spirits up in the mist,
And Spring's here, Winter's not gone.

Early One Morning
by Edward Thomas

Early one morning in May I set out,
And nobody I knew was about.
I'm bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

There was no wind to trouble the weathercocks.
I had burnt my letters and darned my socks.

No one knew I was going away,
I thought myself I should come back some day.

I heard the brook through the town gardens run.
O sweet was the mud turned to dust by the sun.

A gate banged in a fence and banged in my head.
'A fine morning, sir', a shepherd said.

I could not return from my liberty,
To my youth and my love and my misery.

The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I'm bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

How at Once
by Edward Thomas

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.


Kelly at Big A little a has the round-up here. Thanks, Kelly!

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