Where writers write: Edward Thomas’s poetry

Where writers write: Edward Thomas’s poetry

Edward Thomas's poetry b/w headshot
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Ted Hughes considered him the father of all poets. Yet it was only in the last three years of his life Edward Thomas turned his pen from prose to poetry. He wrote his first poems in December 1914, at The Bee House, up on the hill above Steep, in Hampshire.


A low, thatched building perched on the edge of an escarpment, with dizzying views, The Bee House belonged to Arts and Crafts architect, Geoffrey Lupton. As you’d imagine, he built it for his bees. But it also housed a study, designed especially for Edward Thomas.

According to the writer, Ernest Rhys, who visited Thomas there, the bees seemed a natural part of his writing equipment. And on a hot day, you could smell the honey. 

Edward Thomas’s poems

A respected literary critic, Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was known during his lifetime for his prose writing.  He was prolific. One of his biographers, R. George Thomas, reckoned he’d written just over a million words about 1,200 books between 1900 and 1914. And as well as his reviews, there were books on nature and the countryside, biographies (of Richard Jefferies, Keats and Swinburne) fiction and essays. 

The first to recognise the talent of contemporary poets, like W H Davies, Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost, Edward Thomas was slow to realise his own. He was 36 when he began writing poetry. Then promptly managed to cram a lifetime’s work – 142 poems in all — into the years between 1914 and 1917.  

He did not live to see his poetry published under his own name. On 9th April 1917, just as the first edition of his collected poems was being prepared for press, Edward Thomas was killed at the start of the Arras ‘Easter offensive’. Shot through the chest by a pip-squeak (a 70 mm shell) at the very moment the battle began. 

His poetry has never been out of print since. 

But back in 1909, at The Bee House, Thomas hadn’t yet begun to write poetry. It was prose he was writing; and he was churning it out.

Hateful hack-work

After marrying Helen Noble in 1899,  while still an Oxford undergraduate, Thomas chose not to follow his father into the Civil Service. (The decision did not go down well.) Instead, encouraged by Helen’s father, the critic James Ashcroft Noble, he decided to pursue a career as a freelance writer.

It wasn’t the most financially secure career choice. And while his latest biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, believes it’s a myth that Thomas was ‘grindingly poor’ (calculating his earnings between 1906 and 1912 as the same as a university professor’s) Thomas himself often complained, a touch theatrically at times, about the ‘hateful hackwork’ he was forced to do to support his family. 

‘Oh, I have lost my very last chances of happiness, gusto & leisure now. I am swallowed up,’ he wrote to Gordon Bottomley in 1906. ‘I live for an income of £250 & work all day & often from 9 am until 1 am’.

Undoubtedly, overwork and constant money worries led to exhaustion. And contributed, too, to Thomas’s attacks of the ‘damned blues’, as he called the depressive episodes that punctuated his short life. 

But by 1909, there was some justification for the financial pressure he was feeling. With two children already to provide for, now a third was on the way. On top of that, there was the expense of a new house. 

Where did Edward Thomas live?

After moving from Kent in 1906, Edward and Helen Thomas rented a succession of cottages in or around Steep, in Hampshire. When it looked like their first, Berryfield Cottage, might be sold from under them, Geoffrey Lupton came to their rescue. 

He’d already built himself a house on a windy strip at the top of Shoulder of Mutton hanger. Now he offered to build his friends one. 

Delighted by the idea of a house fitted out William Morris-style, at whatever rent they could afford, the Thomases took him up on his offer. Helen requested an alcove with a seat built into the wall above the terrace where she could sit and sew. Edward asked for a study, separate from the main house. 

Lupton obliged them both. By April 1909, Edward’s writing room in The Bee House was complete. (Although he started using it before the windows were even glazed.) And two weeks before Christmas they moved into the house.

Where writers write, Edward Thomas house at Wick Green

The house at Wick Green, c 1910. built for the poet Edward Thomas by Geoffrey Lupton. To the left are Lupton’s workshop and cottage. On the far left, a little lower down, you can just make out The Bee House. Image: Edward Barnsley Workshop.

Wick Green

In theory, the new house should have been everything they’d ever wanted. But neither of the Thomases loved their new, hilltop home. 

Long and low, most of its windows faced south. The land fall away so steeply from the house,‘there was no foreground for the eye to rest on,’ Helen said, ‘– nothing until the downs seven miles away; and when the downs were hidden by the mists that sometimes filled the combe we felt as if we were on a ship at sea’. 

Edward fell out of love with the house almost immediately. Its exposed position meant there was nothing to protect them from the wind, roaring and shrieking in the chimneys. ‘The wind and rain knock at all our windows all day and all night’ he grumbled to Bottomley. Living there, he admitted, made him obsessed with the weather. 

Written on 1st April 1915, Thomas’s ‘Wind and Mist’, could be read as an attempt to process his feelings about the house. They’d moved again by then and with distance came perspective:

‘Doubtless the house was not to blame

But the eye watching from those windows saw,

Many a day, day after day, mist — mist

Like chaos surging back – and felt itself

Alone in all the world, marooned, alone. 

We lived in clouds, on a cliff’s edge almost

(You see), and if clouds went, the visible earth

Lay too far off beneath and like a cloud.

I didn’t not know it was the earth I loved

Until I tried to live there in the clouds. ‘

Edward Thomas, Wind and Mist.

The Bee House 

A hundred yards from the house, at the edge of the hanger, The Bee House was even more exposed to the weather. But from the long window in his study, Thomas had the same sweeping views. And it was a small room he could make cosy by burning a great pile of wood-shavings from Lupton’s workshop in the fireplace.

Under Lupton’s supervision, he’d made himself a plain worktable in the workshop, as well as bookcases to take all his books. And in a border by the study-door he planted herbs. Rosemary, bergamot and a bush of the hoar-green, feathery Old Man’s Beard – grown from cuttings sent by Bottomley.

He didn’t like the scent of Old Man. But it seemed to him ‘to hold the secret of something very long ago’, he said in his field notebook, and inspired a prose poem. One of his first, written on 6th December 1914, its last lines run:

No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush

Of Lad’s-Love, or Old Man, no child beside,

Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

Edward Thomas, Old Man

After his death, Helen Thomas took a cutting of the bitter-scented bush to France. It grows now on his grave at Agny.

To pay for the new baby and the new house, between 1910 and 1913 he committed to 9 new books, which meant writing morning, noon and night. His Bee House study was a hive of activity. Much like the workers next door. 

But the sheer volume of work left Thomas exhausted and depressed. Often overwhelmed by a sense of domestic claustrophobia, like most writers, he needed his creative space. And Helen’s adoration, which, judging by her memoirs really did border on worship, could be stifling. 

By 1911, escaping 100 yards to The Bee House, wasn’t far enough. He spent much of that year away from home. Six weeks of it in Wales, mainly in Laugharne (home to Dylan Thomas for the last four years of his life) where he finished a draft of a book on George Borrow. 

It wasn’t the first time he’d left home for weeks at a time to have space to write. In December 1907 he spent 9 weeks in Minsmere, Suffolk, to break the back of his Jefferies biography.  

Away from domestic distractions Thomas’s writing tended to flow. Although in Minsmere, there was quite another kind of distraction in the shape of eighteen-year-old Hope Webb. 

The wild, grey-eyed girl, timid as a sea-bird, haunted him for years. There are glimpses of her in Thomas’s prose and poetry. But that’s another story. 

Yew Tree Cottage, Steep

By late July 1913, the Thomases had moved down the hill to Yew Tree Cottage. But for a shilling a week, Lupton agreed Edward could continue to use The Bee House study for as long as he liked.

It was just as well. Yew Tree Cottage was tiny and cramped. There was no bathroom and the sitting-room and kitchen were one room. Helen thought it was cosy and pretty. But there was nowhere for Edward to work. 

Edward Thomas’s writing routine

So, every morning, after a cold bath in the zinc tub in the kitchen, up the hill and through the wood Thomas strode to The Bee House. Down again he’d come for lunch at noon. In the afternoons, he’d walk, or garden till tea-time and then return to work in the study again till supper around half past eight. 

That same year (1913) Thomas reached a crisis in his writing life. He’d been experimenting with genres, searching for the right medium. There’d been a novel, travel books, even a memoir (The Childhood of Edward Thomas, published posthumously). But none of these satisfied him.

During a bout of insomnia while staying with friends in Surrey in September 1913, he’d even tried his hand at verse. It didn’t go well. He joked about it afterwards in a letter to Walter de la Mare:

‘In sleepless hours this morning I found myself (for the first time) trying hard to rhyme my mood & failing very badly indeed, in fact comically so, as I could not complete the first verse or get beyond the rhyme of ember & September. This must explain any future lenience towards the mob of gentlemen that rhyme with ease’.

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Robert Frost is usually given the credit for kick-starting Edward Thomas’s verse-writing. But the first time Eleanor Farjeon read any of Thomas’s prose she asked if he’d ever written poetry. Farjeon, who was quietly in love with Thomas for the last four years of his life, recalls his response in her memoir of him.

‘ “Me?’ He uttered a short, self-scornful laugh. “I couldn’t write a poem to save my life” ‘. 

‘How strange’, she goes on, ‘that a writer capable of such imaginative prose, ‘who could evaluate the poetry of other men, and make or break a new poet with a review – “couldn’t write a poem to save his life” ‘.

The undamming, Farjeon says, was Frost’s doing.

When Robert Frost and Edward Thomas first met in October 1913, of the two, Thomas was better known. As a respected critic, when he reviewed Frost’s first book of published poetry, people paid attention. And when he then went on to describe Frost’s second collection North of Boston as ‘revolutionary’, the American’s reputation as a poet was made, this side of the Atlantic. 

Frost reciprocated. By reading Thomas’s prose and telling his new friend he’d been a poet all his life.

‘Edward Thomas had about lost patience with the minor poetry it was his business to review’, Frost explained later. ‘He was suffering from a life of subornation to his inferiors. Right at that moment he was writing as good poetry as anybody alive, but in prose form where it did not declare itself and gain him recognition. I referred him to paragraphs in his book In Pursuit of Spring and told him to write it in verse form in exactly the same cadence’. 

Thomas took Frost’s advice. Perhaps because it was more practical than Farjeon’s shy encouragement. And by December 1914 at The Bee House, Thomas’s verse-writing was in full spate.

Between December 1914 and early February of the following year, he wrote 33 poems. And although he managed to sprain his ankle coming down the hill from The Bee House in January, even confined to Yew Tree Cottage he was still churning out verse. By March 1915 he’d completed 44. 

When did Edward Thomas go to war?

The coming of the first world war also prompted a change in Thomas’s writing life. By the autumn of 1914 his reviewing work and book commissions dried up. For once, he had time to think. 

He enlisted in July 1915. But whenever he was home on leave, up he’d head up to The Bee House to work. Or browse among his books, or weed the herbs at the door. Helen went there only when he was away; to open the window and keep the place dusted. 

Then Mrs Lupton wrote to ask Helen to remove all Edward’s belongings from the study as she needed it for a woman she was engaging as a companion. Helen protested. Lupton (who’d also enlisted) had, after all, promised the study to Thomas for as long as he wanted it. And it was his sanctuary ‘a blessed spot where he could be quiet among his books’. 

But Mrs Lupton insisted. So with the help of an elderly man and donkey cart, Helen emptied The Bee House of Thomas’s books, manuscripts and pictures. It took her the whole day to carry all the books up through the steep garden to the lane, while Mrs Lupton watched her from the kitchen window.

Eviction from The Bee House was the final straw for Helen, who’d fast lost interest in Steep with Edward gone. Not long afterwards, she moved nearer to where he was stationed at Epping Forest. He couldn’t get leave to help with the move, but returned for a brief farewell to the hangers and their ‘juniper-dotted hill’. And during that stay, Bee House or no Bee House, the poetry was still pouring out.

But by 13 January 1917, Thomas had written the last of his poems. Two weeks later, as second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, he embarked for France. 

The father of us all

On 11th November 1985, Hughes unveiled the memorial stone engraved with the names of 16 poets of WW1 at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Last on the list is Edward Thomas; the poet Hughes declared that evening ‘the father of us all’. 

Among Edward Thomas’s disciples are some big names: Thomas Hardy, W H Auden, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney. Yet Edward Thomas is still not widely known as a poet. In part, perhaps, because his verse is difficult to categorise.

He’s there on the plaque among the war poets, but Thomas didn’t consider his work war poetry and wrote no ‘trench poems’. Neither do his poems sit comfortably in ‘Nature’, ‘Georgian’ or ‘Pastoral’ niches. Experimental, genre-shifting, like his prose, they were something new.

Edna Longley, most prescient critic of his verse, believes that ‘perhaps because his poetry is so far ahead’, we are still catching up with Edward Thomas. 

Edward Thomas on writing poetry

Feminine Influence on the Poets deals with the subject of composition but not in a ‘hints and tips’ way. In Swinburne, Thomas examines the relationship between words and rhythm. And his preface to The Icknield Way explores the process of composing. And in ‘Insomnia’, which you’ll find in his book of essays, The Last Sheaf, he relates his sleepless night trying to rhyme September.

Read his letters to and from de la Mare, too. As well as showing his progression from prose writer to poet, the two men discuss inspiration (they both used dreams as sources) and techniques like the associative ‘wool-gathering’ of images.

Edward Thomas books

If you’re new to Edward Thomas’s work, try these:

Edna Longley’s Annotated Collected Poem charts and reveals Edward Thomas’s progression from prose to poetry. Take the Miscellany with you if you feel like a walk with Edward Thomas — it’s ruck-sack sized.

The Folly, at The Bee House

The Bee House still stands. In its grounds is The Folly where you could stay for a night or two. Be inspired by the view and see how it feels, up in the wind.

Read other articles in my series on Where writers write.

Summary
Where writers write: Edward Thomas's poetry
Article Name
Where writers write: Edward Thomas's poetry
Description
'The father of us all' Ted Hughes described the poet Edward Thomas. Yet it was only during the last three years of his life Edward Thomas turned from prose to poems. The first few, he wrote at The Bee House, his study up on the hill overlooking Steep, in Hampshire.

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