This Sunday, April 9th 1917, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Edward Thomas, on the first day of the Battle of Arras. I will celebrate it with the first Edward Thomas poem that I ever came across, around the end of the nineteen-fifties. At that time Thomas was still far from having the iconic status among general poetry readers that he now enjoys, and he certainly hadn’t figured in my English teacher’s rather conservative version of the school curriculum, which stopped with that daring modernist Wordsworth (and let us never forget that Wordsworth was a daring modernist). But I fell in love at once with Thomas’s combination of close observation, natural speech rhythms and rueful self-examination.
The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,
And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry,
Rough, long grasses keep white with frost
At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.
I read the sign. Which way shall I go?
A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
One hazel lost a leaf of gold
From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told
The other he wished to know what ’twould by
To be sixty by this same post. ‘You shall see,’
He laughed – and I had to join his laughter –
‘You shall see; but either before or after,
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth, –
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, –
With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,
Standing upright out in the air
Wondering where he shall journey, O where?