NOVEMBER’S days are thirty:
November’s earth is dirty,
Those thirty days, from first to last;
And the prettiest things on ground are the paths
With morning and evening hobnails dinted,
With foot and wing-tip overprinted
Or separately charactered,
Of little beast and little bird.
The fields are mashed by sheep, the roads
Make the worst going, the best the woods
Where dead leaves upward and downward scatter.
Few care for the mixture of earth and water,
Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,
Straw, feather, all that men scorn,
Pounded up and sodden by flood,
Condemned as mud.
(November by Edward Thomas)
That is Edward Thomas’s second ever poem, written in December 1914 in Dymock, Gloucestershire, quoted in the brilliant almost final section of Matthew Hollis’s biography Now All Roads Lead to France, the Last Years of Edward Thomas. That Winter 1914 chapter is a wonderful insight into the birth of a poet. It details the development from his first poems, using the prose he had written previously, through drafts and redrafts as he found his voice with, or even through, the encouragement of the American poet Robert Frost. Here is an example Hollis quotes:
In prose (from In Pursuit of Spring)
“All the thrushes of England sang at that hour, and against that background of myriads I heard two or three singing their frank clear notes in a mad eagerness to have all done before dark; for already the blackbirds were chinking and shifting places along the hedgerows.”
“What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song…”
Continuing with the fairly well-known story of Thomas’s eventual influence on Frost’s best known poem The Road Not Taken written 18 months later, to the writing of Adlestrop, Thomas’s most popular poem, this section is worth buying the book for! It is written by a poet for a poet.
A different literary form can give insights of another kind and Nick Dear‘s play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky directed by Richard Eyre at the Almeida Theatre in London has a more direct and emotional impact, mainly through its focus on the psychology of the characters. Again covering the last years of Edward Thomas’s life, but with intersected postscripts from some of those he had a lifelong effect on (there is only a four page postscript in Hollis), the play intensifies his relationship both to the natural world and to his closest friends and family, perhaps at the expense of his writing. The themes are those of freedom and restraint, staying put and moving on, exterior and interior life, the conflicts of home life versus the conflicts of war and politics, how we make choices in life and the consequences of those choices.
Pip Carter in an understated yet powerful performance as Edward was wonderfully convincing as a British male of the period, torn between the duty of a gentleman and his own desires and the emotional expression or restraint of him in different circumstances. Full of self-doubt and indecisiveness he evoked that tendency to destroy the thing you love, showing how we are often cruellest to those closest to us. Helen, his wife played by Hattie Morahan, came across as a strong character forced to independence, with passionate feelings and opinions, progressive for the times. They seemed to both reinforce and subvert contemporary attitudes to male and female roles and sexuality, in ways which still reverberate today.
Robert Frost, played by Shaun Dooley, was rather unsympathetic, bombastically male and with somewhat double standards, less torn in his opinions and commitments but also more liable to change his mind, except about the value of Thomas’s poems.
Both funny (with jokes about vegetarianism and Hampstead going down well with the Islington audience) and profound, the themes of the play were reinforced by the structure, contrasting walking and intellectualising with more static but emotional domestic scenes. The minimal set of dark earth floor and light backdrop of sky was evocative particularly of empty landscape. Night scenes reverse the dark and light of the play’s title. Occasional additions such as birdsong, a plant, potatoes dug up by Helen give further hints of nature.
Eleanor Farjeon, a counterpoint or intermediary to both Helen and Frost in Thomas’s life, sensitively played by Pandora Colin, compares Frost and Thomas at one point, suggesting Frost saw the world as the work of a greater being – God?- whereas Thomas did not. Did he have a more pantheistic view of nature? There was also debate throughout the play about whether he had a death wish or not. One of my favourite pieces of his writing, (The Stile, published in Light and Twilight in 1911) gives us some idea of his feelings (and is also the source of the title of the play), although at a later date in another frame of mind he seemed to contradict himself. Both seem oddly prophetic.
“Somewhere – close at hand in that rosy thicket or far off beyond the ribs of sunset – I was gathered up with an immortal company, where I and poet and lover and flower and cloud were equals, as all the little leaves ruffling before the gusts, or sleeping and carved out of the silentness. And in that company I had learned that I am something which no fortune can touch, whether I be soon to die or long years away. things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity. the confidence and ease had become a deep joy; I knew that I could not do without the Infinite, nor the Infinite without me.”
In 1913 he wrote “I am not a part of nature, I am alone”
“What will they do when I am gone? It is plain
That they will do without me as the rain
Can do without the flowers and the grass…”
(from What Will They Do? by Edward Thomas)
‘In his lifetime, he was known and loved by a very, loving few. Now, since his death, he is known and loved by very many, and yearly this is more so. There is in his poems an unassumingly profound sense of permanence. A war came and ditched him, but his poems stay with no other wounds than those which caused them.’
- The Dark Earth and The Light Sky, The Almeida Theatre – review (standard.co.uk)
- The Dark Earth and the Light Sky – review (guardian.co.uk)
- The Dark Earth and the Light Sky; Twelfth Night; The Magistrate – review (guardian.co.uk)