It is estimated that between 1900 and 1914, the year in which Edward Thomas wrote his first poetry, he published over a million words. As a respected and grossly overworked and underpaid literary critic, Thomas cast his eye over some 1200 books on all matter of subjects positioning himself as one of the most important literary commentators of the early twentieth century. It is through his prosaic lyrical talent that he came to the attention of two of the era’s most significant poetic minds, both at the early stages of their own artistic development: Robert Frost and Walter de la Mare.
It was Frost, primarily, in England to attempt to re-invigorate a career as poet that had suffered a number of false starts in America, who convinced Thomas that his vision was a poetic one. It was their connection, their proto-environmentalism and passion for literature, that helped form Frost’s voice, that set him on his way to becoming the American national treasure and heir to Whitman that he became. Frost saw in Thomas’ intense intellectualism and visionary attachment to his rural surroundings a revolutionary take on poetic tradition. Thomas had never considered writing verse himself. During long walks and conversations in the countryside surrounding the Gloucestershire village of Dymock, Frost began to turn Thomas’ head. The significance of Frost’s influence is not just one of the coaxing spirit, but rather Frost convinced Thomas that much of his initial success would be in the versification of his brilliant prose nature writing. This is the reason why, between the end of 1914 and his death in the Battle of Arras on April 9th 1917, at the age of thirty six, Thomas wrote all of his one hundred and forty-two poems; a lifetime’s work.
Thomas has always been a difficult poet for critics to position. He was vehemently anti-modernist, although displayed many modernist traits in his work – in the same way as Yeats and, indeed, de la Mare. Thomas moved remarkably quickly from his first poem, ‘Up in the Wind’, to a developing body of work that clasped traditional form and ideas and contorted them into highly original, modern (if not Poundian modernist) verse that has had a great, (and often underappreciated) effect on much of the important work to come after it. Edward Thomas, had he lived beyond the trenches, would have gone on to be a towering figure in twentieth century poetry; his cut-off point is tantalisingly bleak and dynamic, looking back to Blakean ideals and forms as well forward to that third Yeats, the strident apocalyptic modernist of ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Thomas’ most striking work, such as his Freudian ‘The Other’, suggests that had he begun earlier and had a longer run he would have been a major poet of this golden era. Unfortunately, he is more of an afterthought to Frost, certainly, and also to de le Mare, the silent, black mirror of this new volume of Thomas’ writings from Seren. Anything new from or about Edward Thomas should be a major literary event, in the same way that anything by the less-gifted Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen would be. It is unfortunate, then, that Poet to Poet is given a misconceived presentation from the off. The book never really launches off from the inconspicuous, back-of-the-envelope title that must have taken less time to think of than it does to say out loud. The book that follows is just as disappointing.
It is a shame, and an unavoidable one, that de la Mare’s side of the correspondence could not be included. We are told in the introduction (somewhat unsatisfactorily) that Thomas burned de la Mare’s letters so that none survive. For a book that proves to be exhaustingly as well as exhaustively researched, the initial omission of the reasons for this act is a frustration to which the reader cannot help but return. Many engrossing volumes of letters have been published with only the one side of the conversation in place (Saul Bellow’s, Ted Hughes’, Phillip Larkin’s to name but a few of the best; and Thomas was no less a writer). But these have been presented in a clear narrative, have been accentuated and driven by the greatness of the author. That does not happen here. Rather the letters are largely smothered by attempts at contextualising by cold academic hands and rather unimaginative (and unhelpful) presentation. Gaining any type of traction, or a feeling of coming close to the man, is never easy.
Thomas the prose writer was an artist of such lyrical talent that the genius Robert Frost immediately saw the swagger of a great poet yet to be introduced to his form. Yet in Poet to Poet, such flourishes are conspicuous by their rarity. Indeed it is quite early on in the book that it becomes clear that this is an exercise in utterly disconnected biography, not a portrait of the artist at all. Each letter is foreshadowed by clumped lists of not always interesting information pertaining to the letter that is to follow (often a note to arrange a walk, or regret at having not had the chance to go on one). The research, syntactically neutral and delivered like student annotations, soon becomes a hindrance, and forces the letters themselves to become the footnotes. The reader is frequently ushered into interpreting lines that, had attention been given to developing a narrative with the letters, would not have needed pointing out. (A letter where Thomas advises de la Mare on cheap train fares is pre-empted by the explanation that this most likely portrays Thomas’ appreciation of his friend’s dire financial situation at the time).
The content of Poet to Poet could have actually formed an excellent basis for an engaging study of the relationship between the two men. Their relationship was, after all, a prime example of the platonic love between men that existed in so many writers of this post-Victorian age. They had a deep sensual heterosexual connection to each other (as did Thomas with Frost), and in these letters is the material to explore that in a clear and engaged narrative.
But this is not the only angle from which Thomas remains a stranger to us. From the letters of Edward Thomas, the man who pioneered psychoanalytic poetry in the modern post-Freudian sense (seeking to cure his lifelong bouts of depression, Thomas dabbled in the new fad of psychoanalysis in 1912 and this fed into his burgeoning poetic voice), we should be delving deep and returning to the surface with gleaming pearls. As one of the most significant minds of his generation to tackle environmental issues, Thomas’ letters should be illuminating, rather than a litany of proposed countryside walks. As a poetic visionary, at his best comfortable in the company of Yeats, we should be able to read some lyrical prose that turns autumn leaves green. But we find none of these potential treats. When Philip Roth first read the recently published volume of Saul Bellow’s collected correspondence he commented that it was like discovering a lost masterpiece from the man. Although one-sided, and very often trivial in content, Bellow’s letters are lyrically superb, evidence of a being who was a writer to his very soul. Thomas’ letters to de la Mare often have the mark of a man in the course of his million words, less concerned with composition and more with relaying his point to an absent friend.
At the other side of the coin to Bellow’s missives we have the mesmerising Words in Air, the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, perhaps the finest example of epistolary anthologies. In this book we see both the development of a relationship, from distant professional admiration to emotional dependency from across the seas, but also a true understanding of the workings of two of the greatest poets of the century, all footnoted with relevant and warmly delivered, incisive and insightful commentary.
Poet to Poet is evidence of an editor in Judy Kendall who is a proficient researcher and less a teller of tales or diagnostician of the poetic psyche. There needs to be a reason to publish the private correspondence of anyone, a reason beyond mild curiosity; Poet to Poet doesn’t seem to have one.