BLOG Linda Rhinehart

NWR Issue 113

Fallen Poets: Edward Thomas & Wales

I attended a recent lecture given by Dr Andrew Webb which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the death of the British poet and writer Edward Thomas on 9 April, 1917, in World War I. It was also part of a larger effort to showcase war poets in the National Library. The presentation was of particular interest to me since I have previously examined Thomas’ poems in the context of nature writing, and found them in particular to be both pertinent to my own research interests, and easy to read and appreciate. Even though I was already aware of Thomas’ Welsh roots, I had not appreciated how much time he had actually spent in our country, having thought of him primarily as something of a rootless nature poet.

Dr Webb spent a good deal of time describing and analysing his non-poetic literary works. He explained that English critics – such as Walter de la Mare and Andrew Motion – have held up Edward Thomas’ writing as ‘a mirror of England’ (1920) and as having ‘a keen love of England’ (1985), respectively. Yet these descriptions ignore both Thomas’ own heritage and his childhood and later visits to Wales. While his mother was originally from Newport and his father from Tredegar, he himself was born in London, and considered himself ‘five-eighths’ Welsh. He frequently visited several locations in Wales as a young person, including Pontypool and Mumbles, and later the areas of Swansea and Ammanford which appear numerous times in his correspondences. Perhaps most importantly, he became friends with several leading Welsh scholars, including Watcyn Wyn, who won the Eistedfodd crown in 1881. Thomas’ books that were at least partly about Wales include Beautiful Wales (1905), Horiae Solitariae (1902) and Light and Twilight (1911). In Thomas’ writing, places in nature appear again and again as places of memory, sorrow and mourning. In his poem, ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’, for instance, he uses flowers as a symbol of the loss of soldiers during the first World War: ‘The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide call to mind the men, / Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should / Have gathered them and will never do again.’ Many of these nature descriptions were likely inspired by his Welsh travels.

Webb argued that not only was the setting of much of Thomas’ work based on his trips here, but also that the consonant patterns and internal rhymes that can be seen in many of his poems are highly reminiscent of Welsh poetic sound arrangements (cynghanedd). Thomas’ poetry is therefore arguably more ‘Welsh’ than the rest of his literary output. Webb further posited that it was only with the onset of World War I that the poet began to define himself more exclusively as English, stating in 1914 that he found himself ‘developing’ into a ‘conscious Englishman’. Webb noted the strangeness of this phrase, and wondered if Thomas had been influenced by wartime propaganda. Of course, Thomas’ death in April 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Arras did not allow for any further explanation, leaving his true feelings still a mystery. The lecture highlighted the importance of examining a writer’s true background, upbringing and possible influences, especially for those writers living in a time and place in which they were automatically incorporated into the dominant culture or nationality.

One thing that I found very helpful was that slides were shown alongside the talk itself, and that these were just the right number (as is often not the case). The audience was also very engaged with the presentation, although the fact that the time limit allowed for only two questions after the lecture was somewhat disappointing, since I would have liked to ask Dr Webb more about Edward Thomas’ nature poetry. Overall, I enjoyed the presentation very much, just as I expected to, however I would have liked to hear more about Thomas’ writing in a broader sense.

Linda Rhinehart is a PHD student at the Aberystwyth University.

This lecture took place at the National Library of Wales on 5 April 2017.


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