Edward Thomas’ Poetry in The Great War

This post may have gotten away from me, but I really am fascinated and struck by the poetry of World War One poet Edward Thomas. Really, there is so much great poetry from the era, and I may touch on others later, but Edward Thomas, I believe, deserves a special and sustained focus. While conflict was not new to Europe, the name was appropriate due to the unprecedented deaths and horrors experienced by both sides. The morbid and depressing descriptions in the poems of the Great War period reflect the experiential knowledge of violence and gore of the soldiers. I think that poetry served as a means of emotional release for these war-poets in addition to serving as a source of news for the citizens who were shielded from the horrors and did not know how tolling the war was. Particularly, the language and symbolism, both of weather and scenery, used in the poems of Edward Thomas were a reflection of how the bloodiest and most violent war in history, up to this point, had affected the soldiers who experienced its horrors and England, which, as Thomas saw, was doomed by war.

Edward Thomas, before becoming a poet, was a renowned Welsh literary critic. Before turning his focus to poetry in 1914, Thomas published thirty books, edited sixteen anthologies and editions, and managed to review fifteen books a week (And I struggle to write three blog posts a week!). At the age of 37, Thomas began writing poetry and considered enlisting in the British army to fight World War One. Though the experience of Thomas were not particularly different than any other soldier’s, his ability to transform his horrific experience and feelings into eloquent prose and verse has led to him being immortalized and forever remembered as a war-poet, and, in particular, not that it much matters, one of my favorite poets.

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The experience of the average British soldier during The Great War was filled with extreme emotional and physical turmoil. Soldiers, even those not in the trenches, saw the gory landscapes left behind by the battles of the war first hand. The smell of blood and piercing screams scarred the soldiers long after the end of the battle and even the war. In fact, as historian E.J. Leed describes, due to the massive amount of causalities, “The front [lines of the war] was a place that dissolved the clear distinction between life and death. Death… became for many in the war a “dash,” a continuum of experience the end of which was the cessation of any possibility of experience.” Leed goes on to remark how soldiers, further disbanding the traditional understanding of death, saw the enlistment as a death of their civilian life. The disillusionment of death and the difference between his current and pre-war life is a reoccurring theme in Thomas’s poetry. However, Thomas took the idea of the civilian death and applied it to England. Thomas believed, just as soldiers believed individually, that England died with the entering of World War One and any hope of returning to its pre-war state was irrational and naive.

Though Thomas never fought in the trenches, his experience was not unlike the experience of any other soldier. For instance, seven days from Thomas’s death, he, in a letter to his friend Robert Frost, wrote about his war experience:

I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from.

In addition to the constant work being a soldier brought, and the lack of relief time it allowed, his letters show near the end of his life that nearly every day he and his company were fired upon. Thomas’s war-time feelings and observations being fused with pre-war memories allows us to see how much of an impact the war had on his mentality. Thomas’s miserable experience in the army was further amplified by his relative old age and being apart from his wife, children and broader family. Nature, much of the focus of Thomas’s poetry, is a conveniently familiar topic, easily understood by most readers around the world regardless of their knowledge of war.

Thomas, in the poem “Rain”, uses the description of a rainstorm to reflect and relate his war experiences with those who would otherwise not be able to relate. Creating a relatable atmosphere of miserableness, Thomas opens the poem with the lines, “Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain / On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me.” Using the words, “midnight,” and, “wild,” when describing the rain, it takes on the dismal and uncertain qualities of night. Its symbolism of depression (felt at the time by Thomas and other World War One soldiers) is exemplified by the second line in which loneliness and drabness is combined with the previously mentioned mental effects of rain. Most importantly, rain, unlike the sound of machine guns firing and the smell of blood and death, is something experienced and felt by everyone. Thomas’s ability to transform his distinct experience into familiar thoughts allows his poetry to have a profound impact on the readers. Overall, the impact of his poetry was the British citizen’s education of what fighting in continental Europe was like and how horrifying the war was.

Rain

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.

Death and destruction, in addition to sadness and removal from society, are important elements in Thomas’s poetry. In the poem “Rain” the rain serves another purpose in the poem besides allowing the feelings of dread to be relatable to citizens. It is revealed near the end of the poem that rain is also a symbol for the personal depression of the soldier. Thomas first brings up his depression when saying, “Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved except the love of death”. The downpour of water, overwhelming his senses, behaves as a solvent, flushing his affection. The empty sensation Thomas felt by the rain is supplemented by a yearning for death. Amongst all of the destruction, death, and turmoil of war, the metaphysical question of the purpose of human existence is relevant. The idea that death is not just a possibility by an attractive, probable solution is showcased in the closing lines, “If love it be towards what is perfect and / Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.” Like many scarred by war, the spiritual toll of war on Thomas caused him to have a discomforting affection for death. Death, as Thomas sees it, allows him to escape and be removed from society, the war, and the world. The theme and thought of death in “Rain” continues in other poems and the mind of Edward Thomas.

Continuing the focus on death and devastation, the cherry tree petals in the poem “The Cherry Trees” create an ironic visualization of the death, destruction, and hopelessness caused by the war. The poem imagines the experience of war on cherry trees, something that is known to symbolize life, “The cherry trees bend over and are shedding / On the old road where all that passed are dead, / Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding / This early May morn when there is none to wed.” (Norton 1958-9). Despite the Cherry Tree’s best efforts to create a lively scene in which an event as joyful as a wedding could be held, the presence of death is overwhelming. The result of the tree’s actions of “strewing the grass” in the scene is a useless, pathetic effort by the cherry tree to create a happy, cheerful atmosphere amidst devastation. The tree’s attempt of creating a beautiful scene is failed also to marriage not only being a commitment of love but also a promise and expectation of the future. In a time of war, especially when it is the size of World War One, nothing, including a peaceful future, is certain. If neither love nor the thought of a peaceful future exists, then, as Thomas reasons in the poem, none would marry. The end result of the poem, similar to “Rain”, is the observation that there is no love or care for the future, only death, seen by the road filled with the bodies of dead men. According to Thomas, with the experience of war, there is no visible reason to plan for the future as life is merely a path, if not a vessel, towards death.

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

In addition to the morbid outlook Thomas pronounces in “The Cherry Trees”, he also reasons that war is dooming England. The lack of marriage, in addition to the morbid outlook, is arguably also due to the lack of citizens available to marry. Furthering his theory, in the poem “As the Team’s Head Brass”, the title referring to the use of horses in war, the narrator and another character discuss the state of pastoral society and how too much work is being demanded of too little workers. Horses, just like humans, were necessary to fight the war. The absence of workers, both human and animal, is evident in the poem, “”Have many gone / From here?” Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes a good few. / Only two teams work on the farm this year.” (Norton 1959). War not only, as seen in Thomas’s other poems, bring about death and devastation but also the stoppage of rural production. Pastoral work requires a lot of help and with the lack of horses and men the narrator was able to sit “among the boughs of the fallen elm / That strewed an angle of the fallow,” (Norton 1959). The tree, as later seen in the poem, will only be removed from the uncropped land after the war is over simply due to the lack of required manpower. Thomas’s thought of England’s rural state even amongst all the violence and depression felt in the poem “Rain” is remarkable and continues to be a reoccurring focus of his poetry.

Another, more obvious, poem concerning the war’s emptying out of England can be seen in Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop”. In “Adlestrop”, a village in Gloucestershire famous for its railway tracks, Thomas recollects how, “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. / No one left and one came / On the bare platform. What I saw / Was Adlestrop—only the name”. The presence of steam and a person clearing his throat, representing a train and its staff, amid the absence of people paints an unsettling picture.

Adlestrop

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire

Though the train was still running in Adlestrop, the consumers appear absent. Their absence can be prescribed to, what Thomas felt was, the lack of citizens still left in England. While soldiers continue to enlist, fight, and die in the war, Adlestrop, and other places, become ghost towns. The feeling of the emptying of England in the poems “Adlestrop”, “As the Team’s Head Brass”, and “The Cherry Trees” is a reflection of the fear that even though England and her allies may win the war, there will not be a functional town or economy to come back to. The England before the first battles in 1914 was dead to Thomas. Furthermore, Thomas saw the war-time England has having a dismal future. The belief that the war, meant to protect England, is putting England is a state in which it could not recover from is unsettling and a large cause for the darkness in Thomas’s poems.

Thomas’s experiential understanding of war’s horrors had a profound effect on Thomas’s poetry. The experience of blood, gore, and death on the chaotic battlefield became the motivation for the dark imagery consistently present in Thomas’s war-time poems. Through sensory imagery and symbolism Thomas is able to masterfully create a dark, yet relatable verse. His eloquent prose and understanding of nature stands out from the poets of his time causing him to be recognized as one of the great modernist poets.

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