The flowers left thick at nightfall in the woodThis Eastertide call into mind the men,Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, shouldHave gathered them and will do never again.
Tag Archives: Edward Thomas
THE SIGN-POST by Edward ThomasTHE dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy.And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,Rough, long grasses keep white with frostAt the hilltop by the finger-post;The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffedOver hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.I read the sign. Which way shall I go?A voice says: You would not have doubted soAt twenty. Another voice gentle with scornSays: At twenty you wished you had never been born.One hazel lost a leaf of goldFrom a tuft at the tip, when the first voice toldThe other he wished to know what ‘twould beTo be sixty by this same post. “You shall see,”He laughed—and I had to join his laughter—“You shall see; but either before or after,Whatever happens, it must befall,A mouthful of earth to remedy allRegrets and wishes shall freely be given;And if there be a flaw in that heaven‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may beTo be here or anywhere talking to me,No matter what the weather, on earth,At any age between death and birth,—To see what day or night can be,The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring,—With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,Standing upright out in the airWondering where he shall journey, O where?
Christ Jesus who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.
HOW AT ONCE
How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift’s black bow,
That I would not have that view
Until next May
Again it is due?
The same year after year—
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.
Dear melancholy Edward Thomas had great insight that speaks to our age – a century on from his death. The swifts, those fast-flying birds that truly earn their name, come screaming around our house over the summer, often after a couple of short spring-time visits, broken off when the weather turns too cold for their insect prey to fly.
This terracotta bird flies beside our door; it came from Pieve San Lorenzo, a Tuscan village where brown alpine swifts replaced our black ones, but the ladies who sold it assured me it was their look-alike, the swallow. Now there’s a bird we see less of than we did, and the house martin too. I fear that they will be over and done suddenly, and our children’s children will never have known them, only to know them gone.
I miss the martins that used to live in our street, but my children do not remember their nests. At least we can put up boxes for the sparrows and blue tits and leave the doves and pigeons to nest in peace in our trees.
And we can watch and pray to discern how we can make our town and country a more welcoming place for these living pest controllers. The first thing is to acknowledge that we are all part of God’s creation, and not throw his gift back at him, but Laudato Si!
Edward Thomas, The man that loved this England well,1 wrote about The South Country before he became a poet. Wandering through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, he recorded what he saw and felt along the way. Here he is in a Sussex village near where the poet Shelley was born; he has just been discussing the romantic poets.
Edward Thomas died this month in 1917, leaving a wife and family.
Note how he values the two villagers, Robert Page and his presumed descendant, as equally worthy of consideration as the poet.
In a churchyard behind I saw the tombstone of one Robert Page, born in the year 1792 here in Sussex, and dead in 1822 — not in the Bay of Spezia1 but in Sussex. He scared the crows, ploughed the clay, fought at Waterloo and lost an arm there, was well pleased with George the Fourth, and hoed the corn until he was dead. That is plain sense, and I wish I could write the life of this exact contemporary of Shelley.
That is quite probably his great granddaughter, black-haired, of ruddy complexion, full lips, large white teeth, black speechless eyes, dressed in a white print dress and stooping in the fresh wind to take clean white linen out of a basket, and then rising straight as a hazel wand, on tiptoe, her head held back and slightly oh one side while she pegs the clothes to the line and praises the weather to a passer-by. She is seventeen, and of such is the kingdom of earth.
And bearing in mind all those saintly women, Agnes, Agatha, Eanswythe, Tydfil, Mildred; we should perhaps affirm that ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Despite his melancholy, Edward Thomas can lead us to the gate thereof this Eastertide.
So too could William Blake, who also lived in Sussex. Surely this little engraving shows the cliffs and downs of nearbyBeachy Head?
1 WH Davies’ description of his friend. The poet Percy Bysse Shelley was born in 1892 and died at the Bay of Spezia in 1822.
THE OWLDownhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;Cold, yet had heat within me that was proofAgainst the North wind; tired, yet so that restHad seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.All of the night was quite barred out exceptAn owl’s cry, a most melancholy cryShaken out long and clear upon the hill,No merry note, nor cause of merriment,But one telling me plain what I escapedAnd others could not, that night, as in I went.And salted was my food, and my repose,Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voiceSpeaking for all who lay under the stars,Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”
Edward Thomas died in battle on this day in 1917. He came late to poetry, as did W.H. Davies, who wrote this tribute to his friend. They were great walkers through the countryside, like these friends from L’Arche Kent. May we all walk in peace!
Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.
And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.
But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.
On 9 April, tomorrow’s date, a hundred years ago, Edward Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras. He had enlisted in 1915 despite being a mature married man with children. Here is one of his poems, with the sadness of War not far beneath the surface. It matters not whether the trees were in England, France or his imagination: the desolation and the beauty are inseparable and painful.
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.
The photograph shows an orchard of new cherry trees at Amery Court, Canterbury. They will spend their spring-times protected from ravages of wind, rain, and birds and squirrels by nets rolled out on frames overhead. Few petals will reach the old road, now part of Cycle Route 1 from Dover to Scotland. But the farmer trusts that the expense of planting these trees will be repaid with many a harvest.
Edward Thomas and so many like him trusted that they were putting their lives on the line to help save England and bring about the end of War…
Also tomorrow we remember the Prince of Peace coming into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, not a tank or armoured car. And it is still not too late to pray and strive for Peace, starting by sowing a seed of love and peace in our own hearts.
And may Edward Thomas and all who fell in War, through the mercy of God, rest in Peace. Amen.
Where the road cuts through the belt of sandy soil near Ezra’s place are clumps of gorse, filled with rabbit runs which his little terriers love to explore. The first week of the year, and the gorse is in flower. This always brings a smile to my lips, remembering Edward Thomas.
‘If I should ever by chance grow rich’, he wrote, he would buy local beauty spots and let them all to his elder daughter for a rent of the year’s first white violets, primroses and orchids, if she should find them before he did. I don’t know what these flowers were doing a century ago, but on January 1st last year the violets by our door were blooming – look under the leaves – primroses were out next door, and, though this is cheating, Mrs Turnstone’s Christmas orchid is flowering next to the crib.
When his poem was first published, some readers saw a touch of cruelty in Thomas’s poem, not understanding his next thought:
‘ But if she find a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all forever be hers.’
The joke was on them, had they but realised it, for gorse, or furze, can be found in flower every day of the year. Thomas was giving his child all this beauty without condition. It is given to us too, had we but eyes to see it. Not Solomon in all his glory was clothed as one of these. (Matthew 6: 28, 29) Was Jesus perhaps cracking a joke when he preached this parable, to show us that we don’t know as much as we think we do?
If I Should Ever by Chance by Edward Thomas
If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises–
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater,–
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.
The leaves are just colouring the ends of the twigs on the trees, but the gorse is always in flower.
We should not let Dylan day pass unacknowledged, even if we missed Shakespeare’s birthday, mea culpa.
Dylan is a great story teller. He proclaims in the prologue to his Collected Poems: ‘Hark: I trumpet the place.’ The place is Wales, eternal Wales, God’s own Wales – with all its people’s failings. That small Principality is concentrated Under Milk Wood, between the sea and Llareggub Hill. As Mary Ann Sailors says:
‘It is Spring in Llareggub in the sun of my old age, and this is the Chosen Land.’
Under Milk Wood celebrates life, a ‘greenleaved sermon on the innocence of men’. Hearing the words brings sight to our inward eye, insight to our hearts. The townspeople are brought to God by the Reverend Eli Jenkins, who like his Biblical namesake praises his Creator morning and evening. For him, Llareggub is an earthly paradise that he prays he may ‘for all my life and longer … never, never leave’. Eli is not blind to the sins of his flock, but they receive Blake’s blessing of ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’ rather than condemnation. his appreciation of Polly Garter reminds me of a saintly priest in my youth, doffing his hat to an unmarried mother shunned by many. ‘Poor Ivy,’ said Fr Lea, ‘she’s had more than her share of troubles.’
Let us celebrate life, and open our inward eyes to the innocence, rather than just the faults, of those we live and work with.
Rain clouds near Caernarfon, April 2015.
Edward Thomas’s love of the natural world speaks to me, and his love of his children. Yet he was prone to depression and deep negativity. He was married and a father when he wrote:
I am alone. There is nothing else in my world but my dead heart and brain within me and the rain without.
Quoted by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, Hamish Hamilton, 2015, p245.
Thomas would walk his moods off, or at least try to. Walking, and observing.
Another observer is Fr James Kurzynski, an astronomer, for whom the heavens proclaim the Lord. He repeats Paul’s challenge:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55)
The whole post is worth reading more than once. Kurzynski reminds us that Jesus was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed out of his loneliness. He did not take Nothing for for granted, but wrestled with it, and the angels ministered to him.
Sometimes wrestling with Nothing may mean carrying on ‘as if’ – as if all is well. We may not be able to pray as Jesus did, we may find it tempting to turn away from the Father, but our walk might well be to our own Emmaus: a friend may walk with us, angels may minister to us. We may only recognise them later. (Luke 24)