A blog for Senior Project 1 about sonnets and trenches
Pro Patria Mori
Friday, April 29, 2016
Thomas circa 1905.
Our previous poets were both young and early in their literary careers, lost
before their prime. Conversely, our next poet did have an accomplished literary
career, rather as a critic and novelist than as a poet. Before the war, he was
married with three children, an unlikely candidate to enlist into the British
Army. Peculiar that he would end up as a war poet, but let's look at what drove
him to the Western Front.
Edward Thomas was born March 3, 1878 in Lambeth, Surrey to a Welsh family.
Thomas' father was a railway clerk who Thomas had an adversarial relationship
While in St. Paul's School in London, Thomas met James Noble, a literary
journalist, who encouraged Thomas' literary interests and would help Thomas'
publish his first novel. Thomas attended Lincoln College, Oxford where as an
undergraduate he married Noble's daughter, Helen Noble. After college, Thomas
steadily produced an incredible amount writing, including: book reviews,
biographies, criticism, and fiction. Over the course of Thomas' career, Thomas
befriended American writer Robert Frost, who by 1912 relocated his family to
Thomas and Frost were close friends who frequently took walks together and even
planned to live near each other in America. Thomas started writing poems on
Frost's insistence, but initially published them under a pseudonym.
A path in Dymock Woods, where Thomas and Frost would have taken their walks
CC BY-SA 2.0
After Frost returned to New England, Frost sent Thomas an early copy of The
Road Not Taken
Frost intended to poke fun at the indecision Thomas showed on their walks.
Frost mentioned that Thomas was "a person who, whichever road he went, would be
sorry he didn’t go the other." But the poem is often read more seriously as a
traveler who takes responsibility and forges their own path. The poem was
personal to Thomas, and did not take it lightly. To Thomas, the poem was a stab
at his confidence from someone who keenly knew his flaws, leaving him feeling
like a fraud as a writer and a coward in his indecision.
By July, Thomas enlisted in the British Army, even though he was 37 years old,
a husband, a father, and an establish writer. Thomas did not volunteer solely
over the poem, but was significant in informing Thomas' decision down a path of
irreversible events. At the time, Thomas was conflicted about the war, but felt
pressed to take action after reading the poem.
In Thomas' Rain
, the rain is "washing me cleaner than I have been /
Since I was born into solitude." Not "Washed by the rivers" like we read in
Rupert Brooke's The Soldier
, but that the rain has "dissolved"
everything except Thomas' will to die. When we read Charles Sorley's Such,
Such is Death
, death is an "empty pail" and the notion that 'death in
battle was meaningful' was a "bright Promise, withered long and sped." Thomas
writes that "Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon," but from Thomas'
tone, this is not honor in Brooke's sense. But seems more of a release from
pain, and certainly not empty in Sorley's sense. There is a sense of
helplessness in Thomas similar to Sorley, but is more explicitly experienced
more before death rather than after. We see this change in writing from Brooke,
to Sorley, to Thomas. Brooke romanticize war and nationalism. Sorley has lost
idealism and is acute to German soldiers. Thomas is in despair and solitude.
How these writers are changing in style and expression is a touchstone to the
dread of the war and a precursor to art's evolution into modernism. Themes of
melancholy and detachment will continue through past the war, and will prompt
artists to reject establishment and forge modern art.
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Thomas was killed in action on April 9, 1917 at the Battle of Arras from a shot
through the chest.
To soften the blow, his widow Helen was told he died from a concussive shell
blast stopping his heart. Thomas was buried at the Agny Military Cemetery in
Pas de Calais, France.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted
Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
We turned from men or poetry
To rumours of the war remote
Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermined;
Or a sentry of dark betonies,
The stateliest of small flowers on earth,
At the forest verge; or crocuses
Pale purple as if they had their birth
In sunless Hades fields. The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes
Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar's battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fade—
Like the brook's water glittering
Under the moonlight—like those walks
Now—like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silence—like memory's sand
When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.