The structural ironies of Edward Thomas's life still condition his reputation. Just as he made a late poetic start, so criticism has been slow to gather momentum. Even the recent spate of studies - by Michael Kirkham, Stan Smith, and the contributors to Jonathan Barker's Art of Edward Thomas - seems more fortuitous than co-ordinated. Thomas, as Robert Frost reminded him, 'knew the worth of [his] bays'. However, it is unwise to die in war when a hegemonic project like Modernism is getting under way. Frost's reputation survived because, feigning simplicity, he appealed to the people, to readers, over the head of 'the Pound-Eliot-Richards gang'. Frost initially marketed Thomas as well as himself in the US ('I hadn't a plan for the future that didn't include him'): but this return for Thomas's influential promotion of North of Boston lapsed after the latter's death. The separation of Thomas and Frost along an Anglo-American dotted line distorts perspectives on early 20th-century poetry. A history so specific to poetry has been additionally marginalised by the Modernist convergence of literary modes. Thus Frost, and Thomas, can be omitted from poetry courses in American universities where Modernist orthodoxy prevails. Their combined critical as well as creative forces might dent this orthodoxy. Thomas's review of Exultations (1909), no snap judgment, anticipated the direction of Pound's career: 'both in personal and detached poems he is, as a rule, so pestered with possible ways of saying a thing that at present we must be content to pronounce his condition still interesting - perhaps promising - certainly distressing. If he is not careful he will take to meaning what he says instead of saying what he means.' As if in revenge, the hard-faced men who have done well out of Modernism either ignore Thomas's poetry or patronise some fancied resemblance to Imagism - a movement he shrewdly criticised. The tendency to exclude Thomas from general discussion of modern poetry (panoptic views favour Modernism) not only severs his vital tie with Frost, but obscures his different affiliations to Yeats and Hardy. A few essays in The Art of Edward Thomas open out the issues, but a whiff of poet's corner lingers on. Pace Peter Levi, it is not quite enough to celebrate Thomas as 'certainly genuine, authentic, a true poet'.
LRB 5 May 1988 | PDF Download