Rachel Carney explores the continuing legacy of Edward Thomas on Welsh poetry in English
Edward Thomas, who was killed in action at the Battle of Arras in April 1917, is often described as ‘an English poet’ whose work has influenced numerous writers since. He was born in London and lived most of his life in the south of England. But his parents were Welsh, he frequently visited family and friends in Wales, and had a great influence on the work of Welsh poet W. H. Davies.
He wrote a letter to his wife in 1898, describing his admiration for Welsh poetry. In fact, he thought that in Wales, ‘a poet, especially a lyric poet, has an infinitely greater chance here than in England… in his art and in his fame.’
In his poem ‘Words’ Thomas appears to search for his own identity, an identity mixed up with his quest for poetic fulfilment and a sense of belonging. It begins with a question, ‘Will you… / Choose me, / You English words?’ and continues, describing the words as ‘familiar, / …As the dearest faces / That a man knows, / And as lost homes are.’ The words he seeks seem to be old words, words which are tied up with memory and the past, and a longing for something ‘lost’. He ends the poem with a demand: ‘Make me content / With some sweetness / From Wales… / From Wiltshire and Kent / And Herefordshire’. It implies a lack of contentment with his own language, a lack of language, or a language lost. Perhaps, in this poem, Thomas is longing for an alternative life, in which he might thrive as a Welsh language poet.
In their preface to Branch-lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, published in 2007, Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn refer to a long line of Welsh or Anglo-Welsh poets who have admired his verse, from R.S. Thomas, to Dylan Thomas, who described his poems as ‘compassionate and ennobling’. The anthology is packed with poets citing the influence of Edward Thomas on their own work.
It includes the former National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, whose poetry echoes Thomas’s ecological concerns. In reference to his poem ‘Tall Nettles’, she explains how the nettles in her garden are ‘protected by a spell as powerful as the enchanted thicket in the fairy story, the words of a long dead poet’. Her own poem ‘Nettles’ responds directly.
Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins is also featured in the anthology, thankful to Edward Thomas for offering ‘a way of reading the landscape – any landscape – that is immensely rewarding to a writer seeking to re-enroot himself’. He explains that ‘Edward Thomas may be perceived as a quintessentially English poet, but – Welsh father, half-Welsh mother, and a frequent visitor to the Swansea-Mumbles-Pontarddulais area, among others – there is no denying both the significance to him of various Welsh influences, and his influence, in turn, on such writers of Wales as Alun Lewis, R.S. Thomas, Leslie Norris and Gillian Clarke…’
It was another Thomas, Professor R. George Thomas, who was largely responsible for collecting and preserving an archive of manuscripts, letters, notebooks and photographs relating to Edward Thomas, which is now held in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives. To mark the centenary of this Anglo-Welsh poet, the University is organising a series of events, including a conference, a creative writing workshop and an exhibition. There will also be a unique performance event on 21st April, supported by Literature Wales. It will feature three poets whose current work has been shaped and influenced by Edward Thomas: Lucy Newlyn, Jonathan Edwards and Glyn Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards, who was born and brought up in a small village near Newport in South Wales, describes how he first gained an interest in Thomas’s work through teaching: ‘My love for the work of Edward Thomas began in the classroom, talking about his accessible and moving poems with the sixth formers I’ve been lucky enough to teach, and he quickly became an important influence on my poetry. His passion for place, the way that the famous ‘Adlestrop,’ for example, seeks to celebrate a place that many might overlook, was a real inspiration as I began to write about my tiny village in Wales. I feel that there’s a strong sense of Hiraeth in his work.’
‘Equally important is the way in which a poem like ‘Old Man’ is so adept at clashing together different parts of time in a poem. I’m hugely excited by what that poem does with time, and it’s responsible for a lot of the zooms and backward glances time does in my poems about football matches or movies. And of course, coming from Newport, I have to love a poet who was so supportive of our local laureate, W.H. Davies.’
Glyn Edwards, like Edward Thomas, was born in England to a Welsh family, but he moved back to North Wales a number of years ago:
‘My first introduction to Edward Thomas was through his lyrical and observational travel writing. When I thumbed through a tatty book in Liverpool’s Williamson Library during a lunch break, I was ignorant to Thomas’ reputation as a poet, oblivious to his infamous ‘Adlestrop’ and naïve to his influence on Robert Frost. Over the subsequent twenty years, I have encountered the traveller again in passing many times: teaching his poetry on the GCSE syllabus; Robert Macfarlane’s account of the Icknield chalk paths in ‘The Old Ways’; a portrait on the wall of Dylan Thomas’ writing shed.’
‘Recently, my wife gave me a quite beautiful first edition of The Trumpet and other poems, and I read it aloud in an ambling, warm rhythm as though it were a gentle walk, somewhere between a field of prose and an orchard of verse. His poem ‘Words’ explores language as though it was a viewpoint or a lookout; as though, through walking, one finds meaning.’
The poetry performance, entitled ‘Yes. I remember Adlestrop’, will celebrate this incredible legacy of verse, and will include an open mic on the same theme. There will also be a series of creative writing prompts throughout April, as part of National Poetry Writing Month, encouraging poets across the globe to write a poem a day, inspired by the work of Edward Thomas.