Friday, November 16, 2012

What about Wales? What did Wales mean to Edward Thomas?

Sunday Times Cover, 11th November '12

I mentioned this excellent article by AA Gill last Sunday.
That 'quiet voice of England' headline has upset at least one person: an anonymous reader of my publisher Frank's blog, justthoughtsandstuff: -

'I, too, read the article on Thomas in the Times and was irritated (but not surprised given Gill's historic hostility towards the Welsh)by its title ('The Quiet Voice of England')and not even a passing acknowledgement of his Welsh roots (both his parents were Welsh)of which he was very proud, to the extent that he gave all his children Welsh names (Merfyn, Myfanwy and Bronwen), and note, his son's name spelt the Welsh way, with an 'f' rather than a 'v'. And now here's this book, 'A Conscious Englishman.'
If, by this, certain English people are trying to stake an exclusive claim on Edward Thomas as being one of their own, then it is a deception that does not bear scrutiny.' There is no doubt that he loved England, but he is more fairly described as an Anglo-Welsh poet.'
 Thomas's parents were born and brought up in Wales, moving as young adults to London where their six sons were born. Edward had Welsh grandparents living in Swindon whom he often visited, and a cousin in the country near Swansea. He was proud of his Welsh roots.  I wasn't aware that AA Gill had also added Wales to his long  list of dislikes - but what can you expect?
Frank replied sympathetically being half -Welsh, but pointing out that the 'Conscious Englishman' comment was Thomas's own, referring to his having patriotic thoughts in 1915. He added that Thomas's pride in his Welsh roots is made clear in my novel
 I commented, rather defensively now I think:
'I am slowly growing into a conscious Englishman,' was a significant statement in his growing belief that he had to 'do something' about Britain at war. He called himself an 'accidental Cockney', was described by a very close friend as 'A Londoner with a covering of Oxford', and the truth is that English language and literature, writers and preoccupations filled his thinking constantly. His prose 'Beautiful Wales' is lovely, but  I find only two poems relate in any way to Wales - Mountain Chapel and Helen of the Roads - a pity. His poems and 90% of his prose are specifically placed in southern England, no doubt reflecting demand for the prose and daily influence for the poems. So in a way Gill is right.
 But do read Thomas. He saw 'lovers of the Celt' as poseurs:

'Their aim and ideal is to go about the world in a state of self-satisfied dejection, interrupted, and perhaps sustained, by days when they consume strange mixed liquors to the tune of all the fine old songs which are fashionable...I cannot avoid the opinion that to boast of the Celtic spirit is to confess you have it not.'

 Ouch! You can always rely on Thomas for honesty.
Of course 'I am slowly growing into...' does imply that he was not a conscious Englishman beforehand. He is using England to mean Britain as he disliked that term and thought it meant nothing: people only relate to their own 'holes and corners.' It's annoying for 'the rest'  but I think it was even more prevalent then than now, when we are a bit more attuned to separate identities.
 I missed a line from my quote out of Beautiful Wales:
'If you can discover a possible Celtic great-great-grandmother, you are at once among the chosen.'
By this I  feel sure Thomas is satirising the 'lovers of the Celt', the pretentious aesthetes in contrast to  real Welsh people - and that he, being always wary of sham emotions, was cautious about how much he could claim to be Welsh or part Welsh himself. In his Preface he writes :
'I confess, chiefly for the benefit of the solemn reviewer, that I know nothing of the Welsh language.'
There are puzzles about Thomas and Wales - he omits Wales entirely from his 'A Literary Pilgrim in England' - known by him as 'Omes and 'Aunts - which includes a chapter on Scotland!
It would be good to have comments on why this might be, especially from Wales - my guess is that it relates to the suppression of Welsh culture by the establishment and education at the time, so that there was little demand for prose? But that's an uneducated guess.
On reflection Frank's anonymous reader does have a valid point and the English should recognise Thomas as an Anglo-Welsh poet.
It is odd that Gillian Clarke, - isn 't she still the National Poet of Wales? -  writing on Thomas in Branchlines doesn't mention his Welsh roots either.

A friend commented that WH Davies  and Thomas had a close friendship.
Phil Carradice in the BBC Wales blog confirms my sense of what Thomas meant by 'English' and 'Englishman' in
 It does seem extraordinary to younger people  but I can date the time when 'British' began to be properly used to around 1980 - it was rarely heard before then.
But there is Words, written on May Hill where he could look towards Wales, just before he enlisted.
UT of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through--
Choose me,
You English words?                                                                                       
I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak;
Sweet as our birds
to the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,--
As our hills are, old,--
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.
Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales,
Whose nightingales
Have no wings,--
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there,--
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.
Maybe that partly answers the question? 


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