Edward Thomas (poet)

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Philip Edward Thomas
Thomas in 1905
Born (1878-03-03)3 March 1878
Lambeth, Surrey, England
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Pas-de-Calais, France
Pen name Edward Thomas, Edward Eastaway
Occupation Journalist, essayist, and poet
Nationality British
Genre War poetry
Subject War
Spouse Helen Berenice Noble/Thomas
Children One son (Merfyn), two daughters (Bronwen and Myfanwy)

Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) was a British poet, essayist, and novelist. He is commonly considered a war poet, although few of his poems deal directly with his war experiences, and his career in poetry only came after he had already been a successful writer and literary critic. In 1915, he enlisted in the British Army to fight in the First World War and was killed in action during the Battle of Arras in 1917, soon after he arrived in France.

Life and career

Early life

Thomas was born in Lambeth, London. He was educated at Battersea Grammar School, St Paul's School in London and Lincoln College, Oxford. His family were mostly Welsh. In June 1899 he married Helen Berenice Noble (1878-1967),[1] in Fulham, while still an undergraduate, and determined to live his life by the pen. He then worked as a book reviewer, reviewing up to 15 books every week.[2] He was already a seasoned writer by the outbreak of war, having published widely as a literary critic and biographer as well writing on the countryside. He also wrote a novel, The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), a "book of delightful disorder".[3]

Thomas worked as literary critic for the Daily Chronicle in London and became a close friend of Welsh tramp poet W. H. Davies, whose career he almost single-handedly developed.[4]

From 1905, Thomas lived with his wife Helen and their family at Elses Farm near Sevenoaks, Kent. He rented to Davies a tiny cottage nearby, and nurtured his writing as best he could. On one occasion, Thomas even had to arrange for the manufacture, by a local wheelwright, of a makeshift wooden leg for Davies.

Clump of Scots pine trees on May Hill - Robert Frost and Thomas walked here and it was here that Thomas began writing his poem "Words".[5]

Even though Thomas thought that poetry was the highest form of literature and regularly reviewed it, he only became a poet himself at the end of 1914[2] when living at Steep, East Hampshire, and initially published his poetry under the name Edward Eastaway.

By August 1914, the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire had become the residence of a number of literary figures, including Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson and American poet Robert Frost. Edward Thomas was a visitor at this time.[6]

Thomas immortalised the (now-abandoned) railway station at Adlestrop in a poem of that name after his train made a stop at the Cotswolds station on 24 June 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.[7]

War service

His memorial stone near Steep

Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting. He was unintentionally influenced in this decision by his friend Frost, who had returned to the U.S. but sent Thomas an advance copy of "The Road Not Taken".[8] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together; however, most audiences took the poem more seriously than Frost intended, and Thomas similarly took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas' decision to enlist.[8]

Thomas was promoted corporal, and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as a second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after he arrived in France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. To spare the feelings of his widow Helen, she was told the fiction of a "bloodless death" i.e. that Thomas was killed by the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe and that there was no mark on his body.[9] However, a letter from his commanding officer Franklin Lushington written in 1936 (and discovered many years later in an American archive) states that in reality the cause of Thomas' death was due to being "shot clean through the chest".[10] W. H. Davies was devastated by the death and his commemorative poem "Killed In Action (Edward Thomas)" was included in Davies's 1918 collection "Raptures".[4]

Thomas is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Agny in France (Row C, Grave 43).[11]

Personal life

Thomas was survived by his wife, Helen, their son Merfyn and their two daughters Bronwen and Myfanwy. After the war, Thomas's widow, Helen, wrote about her courtship and early married life with Edward in the autobiography As it Was (1926); later she added a second volume, World Without End (1931). Myfanwy later said that the books had been written by her mother as a form of therapy to help lift herself from the deep depression into which she had fallen following Thomas's death.

Helen's short memoir My Memory of W. H. Davies was published in 1973, after her own death. In 1988, Helen's writings were gathered into a book published under the title Under Storm's Wing, which included As It Was and World Without End as well as a selection of other short works by Helen and her daughter Myfanwy and six letters sent by Robert Frost to her husband.[12]


Thomas is commemorated in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, London, by memorial windows in the churches at Steep and at Eastbury in Berkshire and with a blue plaque at 14 Lansdowne Gardens in Stockwell, south London, where he was born.[13]

There is also a plaque dedicated to him at 113 Cowley Road, Oxford, where he lodged before entering Lincoln College.[14]

East Hampshire District Council have created a "literary walk" at Shoulder of Mutton Hill in Steep dedicated to Thomas,[15] which includes a memorial stone erected in 1935. The inscription includes the final line from one of his essays: "And I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey."

As "Philip Edward Thomas poet-soldier" he is commemorated, alongside "Reginald Townsend Thomas actor-soldier died 1918", who is buried at the spot, and other family members, at the North East Surrey (Old Battersea) Cemetery.

He is the subject of the biographical play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky by Nick Dear, which premiered at the Almeida Theatre, London in November 2012, with Pip Carter as Thomas and Hattie Morahan as his wife Helen.[16]

In February 2013 his poem "Words" was chosen as the poem of the week by Carol Rumens in The Guardian[17]


In Memoriam

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.

- 6. IV. 15. 1915[18]

Thomas's poems are noted for their attention to the English countryside and a certain colloquial style. The short poem In Memoriam exemplifies how his poetry blends the themes of war and the countryside.

On 11 November 1985, Thomas was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.[19] The inscription, written by fellow poet Wilfred Owen, reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."[20]

Thomas was described by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes as "the father of us all."[21]

At least nineteen of his poems were set to music by the Gloucester composer Ivor Gurney.[22]

Selected works

Poetry collections

  • Six Poems (under pseudonym Edward Eastaway) Pear Tree Press, 1916.
  • Poems, Holt, 1917.[23]
  • Last Poems, Selwyn & Blount, 1918.
  • Collected Poems, Selwyn & Blount, 1920.
  • Two Poems, Ingpen & Grant, 1927.
  • The Poems of Edward Thomas, ed. R. George Thomas, Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Edward Thomas: A Mirror of England, ed. Elaine Wilson, Paul & Co., 1985.
  • Edward Thomas: Selected Poems, ed. Ian Hamilton, Bloomsbury, 1995.
  • The Poems of Edward Thomas, ed. Peter Sacks, Handsel Books, 2003.
  • The Annotated Collected Poems, ed. Edna Longley, Bloodaxe Books, 2008.

Prose fiction


Essays and collections

References to Thomas by other writers

Adlestrop bus shelter with the station sign. Thomas immortalised the (now-abandoned) railway station at Adlestrop in a poem of that name after his train made a stop at the Cotswolds station on 24 June 1914
  • In 1918 W. H. Davies published his poem Killed In Action (Edward Thomas) to mark the personal loss of his close friend and mentor.[26]
  • Many poems about Thomas by other poets can be found in the books Elected Friends: Poems For and About Edward Thomas, (1997, Enitharmon Press) edited by Anne Harvey, and Branch-Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, (2007, Enitharmon Press) edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn.
  • Norman Douglas considered Thomas handicapped in life through lacking "a little touch of bestiality, a little je-m'en-fous-t-ism. He was too scrupulous".[27]
  • In his 1980 autobiography, Ways of Escape, Graham Greene references Thomas's poem "The Other" (about a man who seems to be following his own double from hotel to hotel) in describing his own experience of being bedeviled by an imposter.
  • Edward Thomas's Collected Poems was one of Andrew Motion's ten picks for the poetry section of the "Guardian Essential Library" in October 2002.[28]
  • In his 2002 novel Youth, J.M. Coetzee has his main character, intrigued by the survival of pre-modernist forms in British poetry, ask himself: "What happened to the ambitions of poets here in Britain? Have they not digested the news that Edward Thomas and his world are gone for ever?"[29] In contrast, Irish critic Edna Longley writes that Thomas's Lob, a 150-line poem, "strangely preempts The Waste Land through verses like: "This is tall Tom that bore / The logs in, and with Shakespeare in the hall / Once talked".[30]
  • In his 1995 novel, Borrowed Time, the author Robert Goddard bases the home of the main character at Greenhayes in the village of Steep, where Thomas lived from 1913. Goddard weaves some of the feeling from Thomas's poems into the mood of the story and also uses some quotes from Thomas's works.
  • Will Self's 2006 novel, The Book of Dave, has a quote from The South Country as the book's epigraph: "I like to think how easily Nature will absorb London as she absorbed the mastodon, setting her spiders to spin the winding sheet and her worms to fill in the graves, and her grass to cover it pitifully up, adding flowers — as an unknown hand added them to the grave of Nero."
  • The children's author Linda Newbery has published a novel, "Lob" (David Fickling Books, 2010, illustrated by Pam Smy) inspired by the Edward Thomas' poem of the same name and containing oblique references to other work by him.
  • Woolly Wolstenholme, formerly of UK rock band Barclay James Harvest, has used a humorous variation of Thomas' poem Adlestrop on the first song of his 2004 live album, Fiddling Meanly, where he imagines himself in a retirement home and remembers "the name" of the location where the album was recorded. The poem was read at Wolstenholme's funeral on 19 January 2011.
  • Stuart Maconie in his book Adventures On The High Teas mentions Thomas and his poem "Adlestrop". Maconie visits the now abandoned and overgrown station which was closed by Beeching in 1966.[31]
  • Robert MacFarlane, in his 2012 book The Old Ways, critiques Thomas and his poetry in the context of his own explorations of paths and walking as an analogue of human consciousness.[32]
  • In his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan has a character invoke Thomas's poem "Adlestrop," as a "sweet, old-fashioned thing" and an example of "the sense of pure existence, of being suspended in space and time, a time before a cataclysmic war."[33]
  • The last years of Thomas's life are explored in A Conscious Englishman, a 2013 biographical novel by Margaret Keeping, published by StreetBooks.
  • Pat Barker's 1995 WW1 novel, The Ghost Road, Booker Prize winner and the third novel of her Regeneration Trilogy, has as its opening epigraph 4 lines from 'Roads'.

'Now all roads lead to France/ And heavy is the tread/ Of the living; but the dead/ Returning lightly dance:'


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  23. [1]
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  31. Stuart Maconie, 2009, Adventures On The High Teas, Stuart Maconie, Ebury Press, pp 239-242.
  32. Robert MacFarlane, 2012, The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, pp 333-355
  33. Ian McEwan, 2012, Sweet Tooth," Ian McEwan Nan A. Talese, 2012, pp 177-178

Additional sources

Further reading

External links