The poet Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. A stray German shell dropped near where Thomas stood creating a vacuum as it passed by and threw him to the ground, his body was uninjured but the vacuum created a violent absence of air resulting in a pneumatic concussion, meaning his heart stopped. Thomas was thirty-nine years old with a wife and two children back in England. He had not always been a poet, he had been grinding out a living as a prolific essayist and ‘hack’ writer, but through the encouragement of his friend, the American poet Robert Frost he finally began to write poems which reflected his love of nature, many written just before and during the war. When war broke out in 1914 he was not obliged to serve, he was thirty-six with a young family, but felt increasingly compelled to volunteer. Not moved by a sense of nationalism which he found at times shallow and pompous, it was his passion for the English landscape which helped finally to set his course. A lifelong enthusiastic walker, Thomas once replied to being asked why he volunteered by bending down and scooping soil up from the earth saying ‘literally for this’ as it fell through his fingers.
One of his most famous poems is ‘Adlestrop’, comprising of four stanzas written in quatrains. The speaker of this poem begins as if replying to being asked about the place, ‘Yes, I remember Adlestrop – ‘. The speaker recounts pausing there one afternoon in ‘late June’ on the express train, and it is this fleeting pause which allows the true essence of what Thomas draws out of nature in his poetry to become the focus. Rarely relying on visual experience alone in his poems, it is the sounds, smells and emotions which create the remembrance of place. The speaker recalls ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, utilising onomatopoeia to create the sound of the train and an anonymous passer-by to invoke the movement of people. The speaker then recalls a series of natural smells, ‘And willows, willow-herb, and grass’, followed in the last stanza by the song of a ‘blackbird’, suggesting perhaps that it is nature which creates a strong sense of place and memory, human endeavours are secondary.
In ‘The Brook’, Thomas utilises a simple rhyme scheme to convey a message of innocence and experience, reminiscent of the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth. The poem begins with the speaker settling themselves by a brook ‘watching a child’, the reader is then presented once again with the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world. The mellow ‘blackbird sang’, ‘There was a scent like honeycomb’, ‘A butterfly alighted’ and ‘The waters running frizzled over gravel’. But it is at the end of the poem where the reader experiences the true meaning of ‘The Brook’ when the child says, ‘No one’s been here before’ and the speaker admits this is how they felt ‘yet never should have found // A word for’. It is only the innocence of the child that is able to capture the sense of what the adult speaker wishes to convey, a difficulty of conveying meaning about nature that Thomas will perpetually be aware of and striving for in his poetry.
The poem ‘Tall Nettles’ suggests a passing of time and the cyclical aspect of nature as the speaker tells of how the tall nettles cover up as they have done ‘These many springs’. All of the human made objects have become dilapidated; ‘the rusty harrow’, the plough ‘Long worn out’, the ‘roller made of stone’, insinuating the power of nature over humans as it reclaims these objects through the tall nettles. Thomas privileges nature in this poem as the renewing, cycle of the natural world contrasts with the inanimate human made devices.
As we continue to negotiate the Anthropocene and question our individual actions, the poetry of Edward Thomas can provide reflection, direction and companionship. The love, passion and joy he exudes in his poetry from the sights, sounds and smells of nature remind us that it is worth fighting for, worth changing our habits for and even worth dying for.