Edward Thomas, “The Father of Us All”

Edward Thomas, “The Father of Us All”

At Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, on 11 November 1985, Poet Laureate Ted Hughes unveiled a slate Memorial Stone that listed sixteen names, all “Poets of the First World War.” In alphabetical vertical order, the list is circumscribed by a line from Wilfred Owen’s poem “Preface.” “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” The final name inscribed, above the dates 1914 + 1918, is Edward Thomas, the poet Hughes declared that evening was “the father of us all.”

Owen is more famous now but Thomas had admirers that included Hughes, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, and Dylan Thomas. What was innovative for Edward Thomas one hundred years ago, if normal now, was the rhythmic, conversational style, often meditative and ambiguous as well as musically rich, standing apart from his contemporaries, the florid Georgian and the experimental Imagist poets.

The last poem read that Armistice Day in the abbey was Thomas’s “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915),” a simple, elegiac stanza of four lines. Thomas died two years later on Easter Monday, 1917, in France.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood/This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should/Have gathered them and will do never again.

Born in Lambeth, south London, on 3 March 1878, Philip Edward Thomas, was the son of Philip Henry Thomas of Tredegar, Monmouthshire, and Mary Townsend, whose family was from Neath. Before poetry, Thomas made his name as a literary critic for the London Daily Chronicle. “Burning [his] candle at 3 ends,” Thomas published books, essays, and almost 2,000 reviews. His aid to the Welsh writer W.H. Davies led to a 1907 autobiography of “the tramp poet” with a preface by George Bernard Shaw.

Another poet Thomas championed was the expatriate American Robert Frost whose collection North of Boston was published in England in 1914. Well reviewed by Thomas, it led to their ensuing friendship, culminating in family visits, country walks, and poetry. On a summer trip to visit Frost, the train Thomas took stopped unexpectedly at a Gloucestershire village. His memory of it turned to “Adlestrop.”

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

Poetry sprang from their “talks-walking.” Frost commented in 1914 on In Pursuit of Spring, a Thomas travelogue to Somerset: “Declare the form and they’ll call you a poet.” Both men felt the heart of poetry was rhythm rather than rhyme that found fidelity in the phrase instead of the metrical foot, to the music of speech instead of poetic convention. Scanning the prose, Frost implored his friend to “write [it] in verse form in exactly the same cadence.” Thomas noted his 144 poems as “the quintessence” of his prose.

One more effect: The vacillating Thomas inspired “The Road Not Taken,” Frost’s “tricky poem” that led Thomas to decide finally to enlist in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, a reserve regiment that Wilfred Owen also joined. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery in November 1916, Thomas was posted to France, and died on the first day of the Second Battle of Arras, 9 April 1917.

Biographer Matthew Hollis has Now All Roads Lead To France (2011), but Thomas has “Words.”

Out of us all/That make rhymes/Will you choose/Sometimes – /As the winds use/A crack in a wall
Or a drain,/Their joy or their pain/To whistle through – /Choose me,/You English words?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let me sometimes dance/With you,/Or climb/Or stand perchance
In ecstasy/Fixed and free/In a rhyme,/As poets do.