Sunday, October 21, 2012

Edward Thomas and Oxford

As I began  this heading I wasn't  sure what I meant. It could be about Edward Thomas's book  'Oxford', published  1903, republished recently by OUP.

Or about Edward Thomas's Oxford, his time there? Yes, today is about that, the book on another day.
 As I live in Oxford and have lived in or around the city since the mid-sixties it is important to me and I believe it was important to Edward Thomas, but -
 I did not have a straight-forward relationship with the University - as a mother of three primary-age children in my late twenties, but with all the right A levels, I could probably have applied to Harries Manchester and read for  an English degree as a mature student. But I was ignorant and lacking in confidence and connections so I spent three mind-numbing and fruitless years at Culham teacher-training college before having a fourth, much happier year at Oxford for my English  B.Ed (a degree which no longer exists at Oxford.)
Some years later I took an M.Sc in Applied social studies, belonging only nominally to Somerville as I had teenage children by then, in the throes of exams themselves. I dream of one day being a proper student.
I relate all this to bring me to Edward Thomas who really could have made almost as big a botch as me.
 He left school at just seventeen, his father insisting that he studied at home for Civil service entrance, but instead he set off to walk from London to Swindon, taking notes for the book that became A Woodland Life. He'd already  had a dozen articles published in national journals and was earning money from them; this gave him courage to stand up to his father and the Civil service idea was dropped - instead he was to apply to Oxford.
He had been encouraged in his writng by James Noble, writer and critic and father of Helen. Helen and Edward fell in love, and on her twentieth birthday became lovers. Biographers agree that for young people of their class this was not usual - some query Helen's motives, I think she was a very passionate person.
In the autumn of 1897 he went up to Oxford
to work for a scholarship while living
in lodgings at 113 Cowley Road, as a non-collegiate student. 

 Graffiti shops, Cowley Road, by  Jane Hope, 
If you're not familiar with it, today Cowley Road qualifies for the word 'vibrant' -  restaurants, bars, shops of every ethnicity, a live music venue, small independant  cinema, a well-known early health-food shop, Uhuru, very trendy community market - so much I can't begin to describe it. East Oxford overall is also becoming the creative heart of Oxford, especially though not entirely, for younger artists and writers.
What it's not known for is its architecture or for more established  literary connections  (Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to East Oxford as Oxford's  'base and brickish skirt'.) Not like North Oxford which is peppered with blue plaques. For this reason I want to do something about 113, but I'll come to that.

Oxford 'Entrance'

The non-collegiate scheme was not unlike the set-up in which I took my B.Ed, and Edward was not going to be satisfied with it. He had to pass exams in Greek, Latin and logic with Mathematics, and failed three times to pass what was in effect the Oxford entrance exam. He went to lectures in the morning, walked in the afternoon, worked for the rest of the time.
Edward  wrote very loving letters to Helen almost daily,
'I am very happy with you, very content, and very hopeful.... you alone are beautiful. I can often doubt whether what I see is beautiful; but I know....{unfinished}  He took long walks into the country, 'Late flights of larks were singing and darting about in the last gardens of the town and the first fields of the country.'
He wrote 'verses' and wanted her opinion, asking if she thought them ludicrous. He treated her as an intellectual equal at that time, suggesting reading  they could discuss later. Many letters are sexually charged, and one refers to the rights and wrong of 'preventatives' - contraception. In others Edward is distinguishing lust from love, saying that love lasts and also allows room for other things, whereas lust is obsessional and allows room for nothing else.
He worked hard and eventually won the history scholarship he needed to go to Oxford 'proper', to Lincoln College to read history.
There was of course no such thing as 'English literature' in conservative Oxford; it carried an association of dissent  and belonged in Liverpool and London. But it's clear that Edward spent a good deal of his time reading literature, for pleasure and because he was still selling his articles to journals.


A Poem.
From The word, (which goes on to concern something quite different from the formal learning at its beginning):
The Word
There are so many things I have forgot,
That once were much to me, or that were not,
All lost, as is a childless woman's child
And its child's children, in the undefiled
Abyss of what can never come again.
I have forgot, too, names of mighty men
That fought and lost or won in the old wars,
Of kings and fiends and gods, and most of the stars.
Some things I have forgot that I forget.
The Turl And  here is part of a poem from Branchlines, Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn, in which fifty-three of today's poets respond to him in their own work.  
This is Robert Crawford on a sense of his presence in Oxford still; Guy, his former student, is the man the poet met by chance, and certainly for me 'Your man, Edward Thomas,' is exactly right. That is Guy, and an ever-helpful guide and clue-dropper to me.

The second stanza is about the collection of letters between Edward and Robert Frost, 'Elected Friends', edited by Matthew Spencer. 
'somehow someday I shall be here again'
When we met by chance on the Turl, were you aware
Yon door opposite was exactly the dark door where
Your man, Edward Thomas, before he became a poet,           
Nipped out of the world and into Lincoln College?
 Odd we met and spoke about him there.

Odd, too, in St Louis, seeing in the Left Bank bookstore
That book of his to-and-fro with Robert Frost.
I bought it on impulse - his finest writing
So lightly right I can't get away from him,
Though all the time I know he isn't there.
Next,  Edward's student days at Lincoln and being an undergraduate father.

Blog things.
15th October post
Apropos of none of the above, I received permission from the States to post the  picture of the Frost children at Beaconsfield I removed. Courtesy of Plymouth State University.


1 comment:

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