Urthona - A Journal of Buddhism and the Arts

Edward Thomas master of prose

On Fri, 4 December, 2015 - 10:51
Ratnagarbha's picture

Edward Thomas – master of prose

Edward Thomas has been much celebrated in recent years for the short lived but vital output of his poetry before he headed for the Western front and into memory. The influence of his prose writing – nature writing and literary reviews has been downplayed. This is regrettable. I would argue that in some ways his prose is more accomplished than his poetry. It is certainly true that he wrote too much prose in fact was forced to become a bit of a hack to make ends meet. However if you dip into one of several volumes which contain collections of his best nature writing you will find a wonderfully poignant and vivid world of close observation of nature and states of mind. Yes there is a kind of neoromantic glow over all, but it is done with a deft and delicate touch, not in the slightest bit objectionable. By contrast his poetry is often a bit awkward and crabbed, as if he is straining to communicate an unusual experience. Take these famous lines for example:

Out in the dark, over the snow

The fallow fawns invisible go.

This is atmospheric but frankly the second line is a bit of a tongue twister, and it finishes with that strained and artificial inversion of word order.

By contrast take this opening passage of his essay ‘Walking with Good Company’:

Lightning grows upon the sky like a tumultuous thorn tree of fire.  The thunder grumbles with interrupted cadences, and then, joyful as a poet, hits the long, grave, reverberating period at last, repeats it triumphantly, and muttering dies away… Then the rain wastes away. I can count the drops on the broad burdocks leaves; and the evening sun comes through horizontally; and it is good to be afoot and making for something remote, I know not why. Each meadow shines amid its encircling hedges like a lake of infinitely deep emerald. On the dark red plowland the flints glitter with constellated or solitary lights… The purple oak tops reach wonderfully into the somber, bluish sky, and over them the woodpigeons turn rapidly from darkness to splendour – from splendour to darkness, as they wheel  and clap their wings.

This is a luminous scene, and the piece moves on to evoke a group of friends chaunting old folksongs as they tramp the lanes towards some remote inn. It is all a bit romantic, but done with such fine and loving observation , and the prose flows so smoothly, it does not strain after something that it cannot reach. It does not ask us to share, with a drumming, monotonous rhythm, and rhymes that chime with a hollow ring, in the oppressive fears which haunted his mind:

And star and I and wind and deer

Are in the dark together – near

Yet far, and fear, drums on my ear

In that sage company drear.

Take your pick you, can have whichever Thomas you want, but I would prefer to follow him and his group of friends, as the twilight draws in, ‘singing some old song whose melody finds a strange fitness to our minds’.

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