Biography by Emily Cersonsky
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is best known as a poet, despite the fact that he wrote all of his poems during the years 1914-17, and spent most of his life trying to eke a living from his work as a literary critic and writer of the English countryside. Born in London to middle-class Welsh parents, Thomas attended Oxford University’s Lincoln College on scholarship. He eloped with Helen Noble in 1899, had a son, Merfyn, and soon after graduating with a degree in history, moved his growing family to Maidstone, Kent, the first of several homes in the English countryside.
While Helen helped to support the family by teaching work, Thomas spun out a rapid succession of reviews and books for which he received minimal compensation. His works ranged from studies of nineteenth-century writers like Richard Jeffries (1909), George Borrow (1912), and Walter Pater (1913), to descriptions of rural England, such as The Icknield Way (1913), to literary anthologies and edited volumes, such as his wartime collection, This England (1915). Thomas travelled often in the course of his writings, and in doing so came into contact with various writers, including Walter de la Mare and, most famously, Robert Frost.
Thomas’ proliferous, diverse prose work and his acquaintance with various literary figures and groups, from the Dymock poets to Harold Munro of The Poetry Review and The Chapbook, may serve as one explanation for the difficulty in classifying his eventual poetic turn. His poetry certainly shows a strong attachment to country writing, but also bears the mark of its wartime composition in its often violent themes and syntax. It shares much with the rural subjects of Frost, yet at the same time also departs into a more challenging, more recognizably “Modernist” form, perhaps better compared with the similarly restrainedly experimental verse of Isaac Rosenberg.
Certainly one commonality between Thomas and Rosenberg is the truncation of their poetic careers by untimely death in combat. After joining the Artists’ Rifles as an instructor in 1915, at the age of 37, Thomas petitioned to be sent to active duty, and died soon afterward in the Battle of Arras. While he saw a few of his poems published under the name “Edward Eastaway” in Gordon Bottomley’s 1917 Anthology of New Poetry and had already sent off more to the editor Robert Ingpen, his Poems did not appear until late 1917 and Last Poems until the following year. Both were received to general critical acclaim.
Thomas, R. George. Edward Thomas: A Portrait. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.