Saturday, April 18, 2015

News -A new destination for Edward Thomas pilgrims.

Unveiling of the plaque at 113 Cowley Road, Oxford, Edward Thomas's first lodgings away from home, on May 16th 2015  at 2pm. All welcome. There will be some readings,  a walk into Oxford and maybe tea in the garden on our return.

Edward Thomas and Oxford -  Recognition at last -the long-awaited plaque commemorating Edward Thomas's  first lodgings in Oxford.

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 he did not have a care-free time at University. 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 able  to apply to Oxford.

He had been encouraged in his writing 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.

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.  It is an ordinary Victorian house, unfortunately rendered and with modern Upvc windows, though the rear garden speaks much more of the 1890's. It belongs to a housing  association which, after encouragement from local MP Andrew Smith,  co-operated
keenly with the Edward Thomas Fellowship ( in forwarding the project. The Fellowship would appreciate donations to help with the costs - details on the website.

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.

 I have very much wanted to see the house, 113, marked in some way.  A young stone-mason, Richard Morely, happened to be living there, and we talked about the possibility of  doing something, with the help of the Edward Thomas Fellowship. (Richard remains in Oxford and can be contacted for commissions -
The wording was agreed and a design made. Delays happened. The design has been altered now to a portrait shape but the wording remains the same and Richard has  been given the go-ahead.

 Oxford 'Entrance'

The non-collegiate scheme was demanding.  Edward 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.'  -,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.

As always though, 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.

From The Word, (which goes on to concern something quite different from the formal learning at its beginning):
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.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In Pursuit of Spring - 3

Further West, and birds.

The Lark Ascending, kind permission of Keith Tilley, Painting on the Edge blog.

So many birds in 'In Pursuit of spring' as in Thomas's poetry.

They represent  a form of language, a clear true language, and freedom. I remember Robert MacFarlane suggesting that, in contrast to, or balance with, the 'staying put' of trees, birds represent the drive to 'move on'. This was a constant tension for Thomas:  to leave home and then to long to be there again.
The movement is of course  especially true of the spring and summer visitors. It is these birds that receive special attention in 'In Pursuit...'

Still in London, rooks and blackbirds dominate. I associate Thomas with blackbirds - he mentions them often and as a Londoner they would have been very familiar in gardens, even more so than now.
British Trust for Ornithology.

The first birds he encounters are Londoners and prisoners - a parrot who 'sings sweet street songs of twenty years before', and the finches and linnets in cages, in a dismal shop. 'Battered ones a shilling, a neater one at eighteenpence.' Poor goldfinches bloodied from flinging themselves at the bars. The odd Other Man buys a finch, in a paper bag, and releases it. Is this Other Man really Thomas himself? I think he may be.

Here are four extracts from the novel in which both birds and trees feature and perhaps balance each other. There were many more.

He looked around. A trickle from a smaller stream entered Preston Brook. White chickens pecked among the roots of an ash tree; they squeezed through the hedge from a farmhouse he could just see through the elms. The hedge was blackthorn skilfully laid, the clean scars of the labourer’s hook still visible.  He listened. The only sounds were of the stream, the birds and the trees – their own pure and individual languages, never straining for effect, never false. He thought about the many languages, man’s one among many. Was it possible that a man’s words could have that kind of truthfulness?


He went for a walk in the misty stillness of evening. Something in the birds’ songs, the single spirit of their singing together, and the calm after London, was like a welcome. He had a sense that he and the birds of Steep were one, that his needs and pleasures were at one with theirs and that he was home. A labourer walked with a slow heavy tread and turned into the thatched wood-shed beside his white cottage. Soon afterward a rhythmic sound of sawing from the man’s shed and the birds had fallen silent. He was home, among country people and thrushes and chaffinches and the oaks and elms that were their homes.


He worked on new verses – a poem on beauty he began in January, another on sedge warblers, and one about a cuckoo. Birds had enormous significance, a kind of holy importance for him. He felt that their place in nature was always as it should be, not like man’s place, so often destructive, or false, or discontented, and that they were users of a language too as he was.


He kept a notebook-cum-diary of course, making observations about the surprises of spring, this spring that manifested itself even under fire. The birds especially seemed determined to sing, to mate, to soar in the sky, in spite of it all. For him and for many of the men, the countrymen among them, they were signs of hope and reminders of home. So too was the emerging landscape, the rounded chalk hills with small clumps of trees on their tops. It was as if he could take a sudden turn into a secret path and find himself in Steep.

In Pursuit of Spring: As he moves from suburbs into the country there are more birds - blackbirds of course, thrushes, jackdaws at Guildford castle, rooks everywhere - and so many larks. To me larks are relatively rare - I know where they can be found reliably, especially on Dorset hills near the sea, but  have to make a special effort to go to see and hear them.

Edward Thomas listens for the chiff-chaff call as a marker that spring is here, and remembers an early arrival when he was nineteen - no doubt recorded in 'The Woodland Life.'  After Bentley in Hampshire, in the park of a large house:
', and at eleven o'clock, I first heard the chiff-chaff saying, "Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff!"
My guide says:'Their song is heard from early March; birdwatchers listen eagerly for it as a sign of spring.'

As he travels over Salisbury Plain he hears and sees 'pewits' (peewits, lapwings) over a river : they 'wheeled over it with creaking wings and protests against the existence of man.'
Linnets twittered, thrushes sang and larks 'rose and fell unceasingly over Dean Hill.' Then near West Grimstead :
'A thrush and and several larks were singing and through their songs I heard a thin voice that I had not heard for six months, very faint yet unmistakeable, though I could not at first see the bird - a sand-martin. On such a morning one sand-martin seems enough to make a summer, and here were six, flitting in narrow circles like butterflies with birds' voices.'

British Trust for Ornithology- lapwing



The most numerous things on Salisbury plain  'next to the dead' - 'sheep, rooks, pewits and larks. Today they mingle their voices, but the lark is the most constant.'

Skylark - Telegraph picture

For a change  Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Sea and the Skylark
ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, 5
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skein├Ęd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time, 10
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
 A marvellous account of the bird and its song (- the last line perhaps too strong, but for depression he could outdo even Edward Thomas.)

For Thomas's poem, there are several to choose from:The Thrush, The Cuckoo, The Owl, The Unknown Bird(rare for Thomas not to be able to identify), Sedge-Warblers, and
 Two Pewits

Publishing matters: these are genuine reviews. I'm glad to say that people I do know personally have all, without exception, also said how much they enjoyed it. Some knew a great deal about Edward Thomas, others very little.

30 March 2013 1:07PM A marvellous review on the Guardian web-site.
Timely, Shapely.
2014 sees the 100th anniversary of the First World War; attention will be paid to the writers who remind us. Already the London stage has hosted a play about Edward Thomas, and this Easter the BBC begins readings from his book 'The Pursuit of Spring'. Margaret Keeping's 'A Conscious Englishman' is timely.
Her research is impeccable and she is scrupulous in indicating when she is quoting directly from letters, diaries, poems; where she must imagine, she convinces. Biography can be shapeless, but here the problem is solved by structuring the book around Thomas's search for an answer to the tormenting question - how should he respond to war? This sharp focus excises undigested lumps of research, much to this reader's pleasure. (It could be argued that the relationship with Edna Clarke-Hall is a diversion, but you have only to track her photograph on the internet to understand her allure.)
Helen Thomas has written devotedly of her marriage, and although to a later generation it may lack attraction, Margaret Keeping is wise and generous enough to understand that where both parties have needs which are being met, third-party censoriousness is inappropriate. Her Helen is allowed to speak, and her voice is an engaging one.
Above all, Thomas is a poet of those spots of time - in Margaret Keeping's words, those "moment[s] out of time that could contain something everlasting, a rapturous moment, always remembered." Her gift is to create in prose the landscapes and moods which Thomas captured in his poems. In showing us the genesis of 'The Manor Farm', 'Old Man', 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)', she sends us straight back to the poetry, and for a writer who loves Thomas's work, what finer service could she render?


Another surprise review on Amazon - I hadn't been checking:

A good read, 24 Mar 2013

This review is from: A Conscious Englishman (Paperback)
'This excellent book about the important but often overlooked Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas, can be delightful. We experience the blossom of spring, the smell of apples and perry pears, him pushing his children on the swing in the orchard above the wide Gloucestershire fields. And there are some touching, not to mention passionate, moments with his wife Helen.
Margaret Keeping writes very skilfully, achieving some most economical character studies - 'Edward complained I treated everyone as if they were my children and they did not like that. It was nonsense, I was interested in people and hoped they would like me.' One can just see this bustling, fussing albeit well-meaning person driving everyone mad. But one can also see what an anchor she was to Thomas.
The book is an account of their relationship and the relationship with other literary greats of the day, particularly Robert Frost. It is also, of course, the story of Thomas's heart searching and indecision as he clambered to brief fame as a poet, and as such it deftly portrays selfishness, depression and anger.
Most of the narrative is in the third person, but some sections are given to Helen, which is effective in contrasting the down to earth practical point of view of a mother with that of an artist prepared to give up so much for his art. It points up both aspects and increases the feeling of reality in the story.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in poetry, particularly turn of the century poets, English/Welsh rural life, or just a good read. '