Sunday, 9 April 2017

Edward Thomas, 3rd March 1878 - 9th April 1917 by Ros Bayes

Edward Thomas (from the Hutton/Stringer Archive, circa 1905)

I have written on this blog before about the poetry of one of my literary heroes, Edward Thomas. Today marks the centenary of his death at the Battle of Arras. He was just thirty-nine years old and he left a widow, Helen, and their son Merfyn and daughters Bronwen and Myfanwy.

Edward Thomas made his living as a writer, establishing his reputation as a biographer and literary critic, but struggled to support his family on what he earned. It was his friend Robert Frost who encouraged him to write poetry, and in it he found his métier, writing poetry prolifically in the two years before his death; seventy-five poems in the first six months alone. His poems evoke the English landscape in vivid images that unfold on the mind of the reader, perhaps supremely in his best-known poem Adlestrop.

He was born on 3rd March 1878 in Lambeth. In June 1899 at the age of 21 he married Helen Noble, who was at the time pregnant with their son. From the writings of those who knew them and of Helen after her husband's death, it seems that they were deeply in love, drawn together by a shared delight in poetry and in the English countryside, but their relationship was a troubled one. Edward was prone to bouts of depression which he took out on his wife and children, yet was racked with remorse afterwards. He felt this keenly, as he shows in the poem he wrote for her, And You, Helen:

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden, and it proved kind.

 His death on Easter Monday 1917 recalls the short poem he wrote two years earlier:

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

 The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

If you don’t know his poetry, try looking up If I were to own and Tonight which are two of my favourites, as well as If I should ever by chance and Beauty. If you have an appetite for unbearably sad writing, try Cherry Trees. In fact, buy a volume and read them all!   His untimely death is an incalculable loss to English literature, but the works he left behind remind us of the English countryside of a bygone era. I will finish, without comment, with the lovely poem Words which speaks to every writer:

Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
Sometimes –
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through –
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet,
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew, -
As our hills are, old, -
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings, –
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there, –
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

Ros Bayes has 10 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting. 


  1. Did you hear the play on Radio 4 yesterday, Ros? It was so good. 'The Dark Earth and the Light Sky.' I love the 'Words' poem. I've taught it to sixth formers and they really got it.

  2. I had visitors here yesterday Fran but I've earmarked it to listen to on the i-player the first chance I get.

  3. Lovely poetry. I especially liked the poem to his wife, how romantic and how tragic that he died before he give her all he wanted to. Saw the film 'A Quiet Passion' about Emily Dickinson at the weekend. Interesting but she was much more insular and not as gracious.

  4. Thanks for this post, Ros. I had heard of Adlestrop, but until recently knew nothing about Edward Thomas. Yesterday I finished reading The Old Ways A journey on foot by Robert Macfarlane. In this the author sets out to retrace the steps of Edward Thomas through the English countryside and beyond. He also records adventures of his own. Have you read any of his books? I thoroughly recommend them for their poetic prose and background stories. Sue

  5. Oh, goodness, yes ... imagine the poetry he would have written had he lived longer! The very first poem I read of Edward Thomas was 'Adlestrop' when I studied A Level English Literature. It's one that has stayed with me ever since ... he made that scene so real. I'll look up more of his poetry and, especially, the ones you've mentioned, Ros. Xx