Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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The Soviet Briar: poems of Vladislav Khodasevich

In the light of recent political events in the UK, it seemed important to be thinking about wider perspectives this week – Europe, Revolutions, the role of poetry. The poems of Vladislav Kodasevich came easily to mind and I have wanted to praise Peter Daniels’ translations of them for a while now.

What emerges from Peter Daniels’ Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems (Angel Classics, 2013) is a vivid picture of a poet who was, both by temperament and historical circumstance, very much an individual. From a Lithuanian Polish background, coming to creativity at the fag end of Symbolism, witnessing Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917, going into permanent exile in 1922, Khodasevich (1886-1939) was perhaps inevitably a writer with little sense of belonging, of sure identity. It’s no surprise that he plays with images of doubles, often standing outside himself, then counters such doubts with rather grandiose claims to his poetic vocation.

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The consequent difficulty of pigeon-holing him as a poet is one of the reasons why he is less well-known than his more familiar contemporaries – Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Pasternak. He is also difficult to pin down because he is “a modernist, but with a classical temperament” (Daniels’ Preface). In a period when others were tearing up rule books (poetical and political) Khodasevich harks back to the “eight little volumes” of Pushkin’s works. Amongst the ruck of Symbolists, Acmeists, Futurists and Cubo-Futurists, Khodasevich’s poems mostly retain traditional forms and he proudly declares: “I grafted the classic rose / to the Soviet briar bush” (‘Petersburg’). Such formalism presents great challenges for the translator, of course, with Khodasevich flaunting his conservative and poetic concerns – “O may my last expiring groan / be wrapped inside an articulate ode!” – and, like many before and since, he argues such formal frameworks are paradoxically the way to find release. (Carol Rumens has discussed some formal aspects of a Daniels/Khodasevich poem for The Guardian). Curiously, his last ever poem was in praise of the iambic tetrameter, the classic metre of the Russian tradition:

 

Its nature is mysterious,

where spondee sleeps and paeon sings,

one law is held within it – freedom.

Freedom is the law it brings . . .

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Vladislav Khodasevich

If Khodasevich uneasily straddles a variety of poetic strategies, there is a fascinating parallel to this in his views on self and society. The self is at one moment urged to “be a star that breaks away from the night” but in the next is “grunt[ing] to yourself, / looking for spectacles or keys”. This “usual self” is preoccupied with tarnished spires, the tops of cars, old iron eaves, and in ‘Berlin View’ sits shivering and sneezing in a café, surrounded by “plate-glass” reflections of itself. A couple of years later, at what seems a Dantesque ‘mid-point’ in his life, Khodasevich stares hopelessly into a mirror: “Me, me, me. What a preposterous word! / Can that man there really be me?” This is the Modernist side of the poet, observing from “the gutter”, watching a sordid Parisian cabaret, a dismal demi-monde of “tinselled chaos”. Yet the poem quoted here – ‘The Stars’ – goes on to suggest our gaze may sometimes incline upwards, “from the horizon to the stars” and – at least on occasions – we are aware of a “starry universe in glory / and the primordial loveliness”.

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Khodasevich and Nina Berberova, Sorrento, 1926

This suggests Khodasevich was still enough of a Symbolist to see the poet’s role as seeking out such “loveliness”, the transcendent within the quotidian (as Michael Wachtel’s Introduction defines this key Symbolist intent). This accounts for Khodasevich’s repeated images of stars often unseen above us (but still there) and also of the flourishing of seeds in the earth as an image of personal and social growth. The title poem of The Way of the Seed (1920), in rhymed couplets, describes the traditional sower, with seed gleaming golden in his hand, but scattered into “the blackness of the land”. There it finds “its moment for dying, and for growth”. Latterly, the poem suggests this is also the path of the “soul” as well as “my native country, and her people”. This nicely sums up Khodasevich – the progressive conservative, these organic and traditional images of the farmer absorbed into bold ideas of growth and change incorporating both a dying back and re-birth. A similar pattern is reflected in ‘Gold’ – a coin is placed into the mouth of a corpse, buried, and after many years, in the unearthed skull, the coin is found again, rattling: “the gold will flash in the midst of bones, / a tiny sun, the imprint of my soul”.

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Peter Daniels at Khodasevich’s grave

It is in such longevity, such insightfulness that continues to be true, that Khodasevich finds reasons to celebrate the poetic vocation. Though the names of the dead who fell at the Battle of Khotin (1739) are forgotten, “the Ode upon Khotin” by Lomonosov is still recited. ‘Ballad of the Heavy Lyre’ opens with Khodasevich in the Soviet-run House of the Arts, surveying his life and finding it “worthless, a quagmire”. But eventually verses burst from him till “a galaxy streams at my head” (those stars again) and a heavy lyre is mysteriously thrust into his hands and, in the final line, he understands this is the lyre of Orpheus. Written in 1921, this poem foreshadows Khodasevich’s departure from the Soviet restrictions in the following year with hopes (one imagines) of further freedoms to be enjoyed.

I was especially interested in the seven substantial blank verse poems Khodasevich wrote in a brief period between 1918-20 (David Cooke’s review of the book for London Grip makes the same observation). These in particular bring to mind the modernist-conservatism of Robert Frost (whose two first books were published in 1913 and 1914) and it’s astonishing that Khodasevich did not pursue these successful experiments with a less formal verse that seems an ideal vehicle for his quiet observational voice, his sense of the mystery or beauty that lies beneath the ordinary, his observations of a provisional self often encountering an unstable, uncertain world.

‘An Episode’ appears to record, moment by moment, an out-of-body experience Khodasevich had in 1915 (these blank verse poems are always keen to name times, places, people). At one moment, he sits before a shelf of books, at the next he is gazing at himself as if looking at “a simple, old, old friend”. The transitional moments are evoked through the marvellous image of feeling like a “diver, plunging to the deep, [hearing] / the running about on deck and the shouts / of the sailors”. ‘2nd November’ describes the aftermath of revolution – again the precision of street names, people’s responses as they emerge into the smashed and bullet-scarred streets makes this read as a very contemporary poem indeed. The narrator watches a neighbour, a joiner, building a coffin and painting it: “under the brush / the boards were turning crimson”. But the golden seed in black earth comes to mind again as a child is observed – a “four-year-old, chubby, in a flap-eared hat” – who manages a smile as if listening to Moscow’s “beating heart, / the moving fluids, growth” though for the narrator even Pushkin’s beloved works, on this occasion, fail to alleviate the shock of political change.

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The unresolved tensions Khodasevich manages to hold together in these blank verse poems create a very modern impression. Another child appears in ‘Midday’, the narrator sitting in the most ordinary street scene, recalling a visit to Venice, fleeting glimpses of those “incandescent stars” once more. ‘An Encounter’ drops the star images for a more conventional image of beauty or inspiration, a “lovely English girl” glimpsed in Venice with its “black gondolas, / the fleeting shadows of pigeons, and the red / flow of the wine”. The extraordinary poem ‘The Monkey’ replaces the stars and the girl with the bizarre image of a tame monkey in a “red skirt”, led on a chain by an itinerant Serbian man (a much inferior translation of this poem by Alex Cigale can by read in The Kenyon Review). After a drink of water from a bowl, the monkey offers “her black and calloused hand” with such “nobility”. It’s the realism of the setting – the heat, the cock crow, the dusty lilacs – that enables Khodasevich to anthropomorphise the animal to such an extent and get away with it. It becomes another epiphanic moment in which the transcendent emerges from the quotidian. Here, a great chain of brotherhood seems implied and this makes the final line all the more devastating: “That was the day of the declaration of war”.

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The two most Frost-like of these blank verse poems describe respectively a derelict house and a couple of neighbours chopping wood. ‘The House’ leads to reflections on transience, whether for a “palace” or a “shack”, the sudden advent of “war, plague, famine, or civil turmoil”. Such contrasts are again viewed from an Olympian height, an aloofness which has more negative capability about it than unfeeling Modernist cynicism. An old woman appears, scraping a living, and rather than pass judgement on her or her fate, the narrator joins her in stripping useful materials from the ruined house: “in pleasant harmony / we do some of the work of time”. A green moon rises ambiguously over the scene, casting light over a “tumbled” stove.  Khodasevich’s rich embrace and acceptance are also evident in ‘The Music’ as two neighbours chop wood. One suddenly claims to hear music but try as he might the other cannot hear it. In ‘Mending Wall’, Frost’s narrator likewise teased his farmer/neighbour and drew from him an old saying: “Good fences make good neighbours”. Khodasevich’s poem yields only a sense of earthly work well done together, the remoteness of the sky (from which perhaps that music fell), the clouds passing onward as “feathery angels”, or perhaps they are really no more than clouds.

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