Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the poetry of Edward Thomas (1878-1917) and its place within Modernism

Virginia Woolf wrote in 1919, “Is it worth while?  What is the point of it all?"[1] Although she was referring only to literature, these questions were asked by many creative artists at the turn of the 20th century with regard to their work. Stravinsky began to re-evaluate the symphony, Picasso and Matisse the painting, and Frank Lloyd Wright the aesthetics of architecture.
In an essay entitled Modern Novels, Woolf referred to the need for a new form of literature for changing times. Drawing on the work of numerous novelists of 19th-century realism such as Thackeray, Austen and Hardy, she admits that such novels are “so well-constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in”, but asks, “and yet–if life should refuse to live there?” In other words Woolf questions the worth of unrealistic, over-fictionalised novels; instead, she points to the “myriad impressions” which the mind receives every second and defends a new class of literature ushered in by herself, Joyce, Stein and the like, which aims to reveal “the flickerings of that innermost flame.”
From the start Woolf acknowledged the debt of modernism to the Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, even opining that “if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time”. One of the great hallmarks of modernism – ambiguity, and creative effort which appears to have no meaning – stems from what she calls “the inconclusiveness of the Russian mind”.
The start of the modernist movement is often given, if rather arbitrarily, as the publication of James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses. Other prominent writers include Gertrude Stein (whose abstract works have been compared to the Modernist painter Pablo Picasso), E. E. Cummings (whose poetry was profoundly irreverent towards grammar and syntax), T. S. Eliot (writer of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, with its attachment of significance to subjects of apparent banality, and The Waste Land, which is renowned for being impenetrable due to its reliance on thorough knowledge of classical and Renaissance texts), Ezra Pound (a poet associated with Imagism and who preferred language to be as taut as possible, imagery to be precise, and for the musical sound of linguistics to correspond to the mood it expressed), Franz Kafka (whose novels such as The Trial and short stories such as Metamorphosis were frightening visions of a disjointed, ludicrous nightmare world) and Marcel Proust (whose seven-part novel In Search for Lost Time is heavily dependent on involuntary memory).
Modern narratives were becoming increasingly popular at this time, with the use of disjointed time-frames; increasing psychoanalytic relevance; marked pessimism and loneliness (both a product of the First World War and a reaction against Victorian optimism); overlapping voices with no prominent, unifying narrator; and the “stream-of-consciousness” technique, which was perhaps best employed in Ulysses, a 1000-page novel the events of which occur over 24 hours.
Juxtaposition of unusual images, heavy irony, vicious satire and seemingly structure-less rants are hallmarks of the modernist style. For this reason many readers have found the movement very difficult and frustrating because everything seems ambiguous, nothing is linear or defined, and characters do not react in obvious ways. However, this ambiguity is in a sense the point of the works, since the modernist movement was particularly associated with elitism, intending to keep out the lower-class readers who were more used to Dickens or Hardy. Conveying ideas about society, sex, and death became significant to the modernists, who saw everything as totally devoid of a rosy Victorian romanticism. Death was no longer a moment of tragic excellence, it was to be reviled; sex and love were no longer beautiful, merely carnal acts for the purpose of reproduction.
Edward Thomas, who wrote his poetry between 1914 and 1917, is not, then, an immediately obvious Modernist poet. He expressed scornful opinions on the poetry of his friend Robert Frost, criticizing his “lack of stops”[2] and unclear verses, his meaning which arrives “somewhat apart from the words,” and his “simple words and unemphatic rhythms.” These do not sound like criticisms by a modernist poet, opposed to the dry and conservative poetry of previous years; they sound more like criticisms by one such traditional writer.
Certainly Thomas’ poems appear rooted in the landscape of rural England, a theme which would sit easily with Hardy and other 19th-century poets, and they often contain a nostalgic, wistful air. Writing as he was during the First World War, he has a strong sense of traditional patriotic values and the English landscape most soldiers were fighting to protect. In some sense his poetry is a patriotic defence of England’s culture – one of his most highly regarded poems, This is No Petty Case of Right or Wrong, is certainly patriotic despite its anti-propaganda stance; and ‘this is tall Tom that bore/the logs in, and with Shakespeare in the hall/once talked’ in Lob hints at the deep interfusion of England’s back-history into his heart and mind. He also utilises some archaic phrasing, such as ‘strange solitude was there and silence’ (Tears 10) and ‘first to pass/were we that league of snow’ (‘Home’ 6-7). He proves himself with brief lyric, too, as with In Memoriam (Easter 1915), in which he writes with stark, beautiful simplicity of flowers which remain standing in the wood, and the association with the dead men who would have picked them this Easter.
That said, certain elements of modernism are present in Thomas’ works. He occasionally favours colloquialism; fellow poet Walter de la Mare, in his foreword to the Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, specified that Thomas’ lines should be ‘read slowly, as naturally as if it were talk, without much emphasis’[3]. Certainly we can see such careful tracing of speech patterns in the poems, most notably ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop’ (Adlestrop 1) and much of As the Team’s Head-Brass. He also pays specific attention to the musicality of particular words and syllables, a trait later particularly associated with Ezra Pound; this is noticeable in the skilful assonance and rhythm of the opening six lines of As the Team’s Head-Brass. Thomas’ poetry is often associated with walking through the countryside, and its conscious rhythmic feel is a natural result of this, as in Over the Hills; and the idyllic landscape is often used to evoke war or violence as in ‘one of my mates is dead/...the very night of the blizzard, too’ (As the Team’s Head-Brass).
More importantly, many of Thomas’ poems are experiential, with a questioning, existential tone, which certainly could be categorised in the Modernist movement – ‘else I should be/another man, as often now I seem/or this life be only an evil dream’ (‘Home’ 36-8). Indeed, in his introspective nature, he stands on what Edna Longley calls “the cusp of modern selfhood”[4]. He questions and subverts traditional values of memory, self-confidence, and language. There is an emptiness of purpose, a questing mind, which sits with the author of The Waste Land; as seen in ‘shall I now this day/begin to seek as far as heaven...’ (The Glory 12-13). The indeterminacy of many of his poems reflects what some believe to be his own irresolution, that of the soldier-poet.

[1] Modern Novels, from The Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 1919

[2] Elected Friends: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas to One Another. Ed. Matthew Spencer. New York: Handsel Books, 2003, p61-64.
[3] Walter de la Mare’s foreword, Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, p9.

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