Today I favour flowers over man:
Marigold with its bright brown eyes
And cornflower nodding in assent
To everything I say. Who alive
Want to be here? To be spent
In awe at nature’s spendthrift plan.
I want to taste the blue
From the borage, til my tongue
Shakes its grasp of words
And joins in the buzz
Of the battery of bees.
And you, verbena, clumsily
Lolloping your well-coiffed head
Over the raised bed,
Are a giant queen
In a paddling pool.
(Cabbages won’t admit
But envy your legs.)
Me, I’m in nonchalant charge
Over this lovely scene.
I can’t help but think
That summer’s past its best
So much beauty and grace
Will turn to compost in nature’s haste.
This talk has had two names. The first title was ‘A Strange Sweetness’ – it has since become Edward Thomas: A Miscellany, which is the title of the book it is about. Perhaps this is an appropriate kind of multiplicity for a talk about a man who wrote by two different names, and was known by two names. Edward Thomas the critic and writer of countryside books, essays, biography and fiction was born Philip Edward Thomas in March 1878, in South London. Edward or ‘Edwy’ were the names his family used so as not to confuse him with his father. He became Edward Eastaway the poet when his poetry first appeared in print in 1915.
He published his poetry under the ancestral surname ‘Edward Eastaway’ to avoid its association with the widely known critic and countryside writer Edward Thomas. He became Philip Edward Thomas again when he was died – killed by an enemy shell during the Battle of Arras in 1917. His soldier’s grave in Agny Military Cemetery bears the name ‘PE Thomas’. Following his death, his recently finished poetry continued to be published by his friends under the name ‘Edward Thomas’.
There are other kinds of doubling in the poet’s biography. Sometimes these created inner conflicts. Edward Thomas had two nationalities and identified with both at different points in his life. He was mainly Welsh by ancestry and English as a result of what he called his ‘accidental’ birth in London. He is known as a poet and a soldier, but he also wrote a great deal of literary criticism and completed many books in other genres before he became a poet.
The conflict between what Thomas did to earn a living and what he was at heart created tensions that plagued him for much of his life. Writing and walking were more than recreation – they allowed him to re-unite the disparate dimensions of his inner self. In the most striking example, he created a fictional double, or ‘other’, that he met and conversed with in the otherwise non-fiction book, In Pursuit of Spring. This book, which is featured in the Miscellany, charts Edward Thomas’s journey westwards by bike and on foot from London in March 1913, in a quest to see the first signs of spring, and to escape from his ‘inner winter’. Here, the writer’s unpleasant double pursues him along the route.
One of the conversations, goes as follows:
‘I suppose you write books,’ I said. ‘I do,’ said he. ‘What sort of books do you write?’ ‘I wrote one all about this valley of the Frome… But no one knows it was the Frome that I meant. You look surprised. Nevertheless, I got fifty pounds for it’. ‘That is a lot of money for such a book!’ ‘So my publisher thought’.’And you are lucky to get money for doing what you like.’ ‘What I like!’ He muttered, pushing his bike back uphill, past the goats by the ruin, and up the steps between walls that were humid with lovely moneywort, saxifrage like filigree, and ivy-leaved toadflax.
The invented writer is unsociable, introspective, picky and prone to complaint. In Thomas’s early poem called ‘The Other’, the speaker is in pursuit of his better double, who makes a more agreeable impression on those around him. Apart from these examples, it is difficult to find direct evidence of the more ‘unsociable’ side of Thomas that he sometimes considered himself.
There are many such barely-disguised alter-egos in his writing. The idea of the double or doppelganger is not unique to Thomas, and it has all sorts of precedents in literature and mythology. But more frequently, he wrote about the real people, real birds, animals, memorials, buildings and plants, that he encountered on his journeys. These encounters are steeped in Thomas’s huge sympathy for the unloved and neglected.
These encounters allowed Thomas to find a sense of being at home in the world. He felt pleasure in the open air, ‘sweetness’ in his surroundings, and in what he once called the ‘commonwealth’ of all life. In his prose writing about the countryside which I will be talking about more in this talk, as well as an in his poetry, his work is infused with this sense of joy.
This is what I refer to as Thomas’s feeling for the ‘strange sweetness’ of the world. He found ‘sweetness’ in many different things. So much so that would be hard to find a common meaning for the word ‘sweetness’. Yet it is clear that this sweetness is as real for Thomas as many living things and people that inspired him. Thomas’s writing about the countryside is a reminder of the power of landscape and nature to inspire all types of feelings and ideas that are intense but barely possible to put into words. And as I will conclude at the end of this introduction, Thomas’s experiences of ‘strange sweetness’ help us to understand our own encounters with nature.
So rest of talk is also a kind of doubling – it is both about my anthology of Thomas’s writing that has recently been published by Galileo Publishers in Cambridge, and about themes that recur in Thomas’s poetry and prose.
The words ‘sweet’, ‘sweets’, ‘sweetened’, ‘sweetest’ or ‘sweetness’ appear 44 times in the Miscellany. Of these, 31 are in the prose extracts that make up two thirds of the book, and 13 are in the poems, suggesting it was a word he used as much in poetry as in his many other forms of writing.
The words ‘Strange’, ‘stranger’ or ‘strangest come up almost as much in both, and in the poems ‘Words’ the two terms combine to make – a ‘strange sweetness’:
Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
You English words?
I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, –
As our hills are, old, –
Again and again:
Young as our streams
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.
Make me content
With some sweetness
Have no wings, –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire, –
And the villages there, –
From the names, and the things
Let me sometimes dance
Or stand perchance
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.
Elsewhere Edward Thomas: A Miscellany –
‘Sweet’ is used to describe a reed-bunting’s song, the process of decomposition and regeneration in a garden, the sense of earlier walkers on footpaths, flowers of chalk Downland, unnamed women’s voices, mud turned to dust, hard-earned rest, the past, garden mint, a spring breeze; perhaps bizarrely, a parrot’s song; the smell of tar, champagne, and the earth. The property of ‘Sweetness’ is ascribed to a summer rain shower, a cool spell in summer weather, the scent of wild carrot and parsnip seeds, fountains, and deer enclosures in Richmond Park, ‘The talking of a thrush’, and a man’s whistling. It is perhaps both strange and sweet that someone who is now thought of as one of the finest poets writing in English during the 20th century, should use one word so often.
In these unlikely lists, ‘sweet’ describes to many different kinds of objects, creatures, people, events and even ideas, as they affect the senses, the mind and feelings alike. It becomes a kind of verbal pantheism, or monism at least. The word sweet, as the many ‘plain’ words that Thomas used, has a deceptive simplicity that is at the core of Thomas’s achievements as a poet – plain words demonstrate the complex differences between the sense and references of words. In a similar way, he used traditional verse forms and this disguised the complexity of Thomas’s innovations with the sound and rhythms of poetry. He uses words such as ‘sweet’ that we have heard and used many times ourselves, and this has a particular power.
In his work as a poet he put into practice what he had learned from literary criticism and what he knew about folk literature. Thomas noted deficiencies in the obscure symbolism of some contemporary poets and – I quote – ‘of all music, the old ballads and folk songs and their airs are richest in the plain immortal symbols … in themselves epitomes of whole generations, of a whole countryside’. In his poetry and prose, words such as ‘strange’ and ‘sweet’ are more than signs, they are ‘plain immortal symbols’. He uses language that we might hear in folk songs and which we may use ourselves, and infuses them with new meanings, to create richly symbolic poetry.
End of extract. To find out more, contact email@example.com
A grey November light tells me
Something about death: it creeps
Through gaps. Grasping for throats
Tenderly. The cat breaches
The space between me and him,
Weaving ribbons of scent
On my face, ribbons that tie
To the smell of hair on a pillow.
A smell that ties me to you,
The same thick wavy-brown hair.
The same kind of smell and the
Same kind of light on you.
But you can’t see it, lying
In your tiny bed, with your
Nut-brown face against the wall.
These ribbons are strong, and so
Are my hands and eyes, and I wish
I could give you their strength to feel
Their soft touch and bright colours. How can
The ribbons be so weak they fall off
And I can’t keep them tied to your hands. Do your
Eyes soak in, but not see,
This deadly November light?
I’d give a thousand November days
August ones even – for you to feel
The cat’s warmth against your belly
To see your beautiful things and feel loved.
But death pulls them with such force.
Let the wars cease; no more remembrances
But for you, a dustman’s child
Child of the Downs. Watch this
Fade into the grey November light.
Fascinating session considering walking in literature yesterday led by Anna Stenning in Ledbury. We read prose extracts from Robert MacFarlane, Linda Cracknell and Richard Maybey and heard poems from West Midlands poets Ruth Stacey and Jenny Hope as well as the Dymock Poets writing before WWI before we ambled up to Frith Wood.
We had to finish at lunch time but I carried on alone, which seemed fitting; exploring the well-made path, eating a few of the wonderfully fat sweet chestnuts scattered amongst their bronzed fallen leaves and cactus-prickly burst pods.
Not so sweet when raw; they need to be cooked and their astringent fluffy inner coat removed to taste at their best. Ravens’ argued with aggrieved crows somewhere high in the trees.
Gusty wind swooshed through tall firs like waves across shingle, scattering pale green-gold lime leaves over me. Following a well-use badger track off the main path I…
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