The best poems by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Edward Thomas was a master of the short poem. Variously labelled a ‘Georgian poet’ and a ‘war poet‘, he was really a little of both of these, and yet not quite either of them. In a brief flurry of poetic creativity between late 1914 and his death in WWI in 1917, Thomas produced some of the finest poems of the early twentieth century. Here’s our pick of what we consider Edward Thomas’s ten finest poems, along with a little bit of information about each of them. Click on the links provided on the titles of the poems to read them.
‘Thaw‘. This four-line lyric is about nature’s superior sensitivity to the signs of the passing seasons, a sensitivity that surpasses that of mankind. We may be aware of the snow half-thawing, but the rooks see deeper than us, and notice the subtle and ‘delicate’ signs of spring’s imminent arrival.
Here once flint walls,
Pump, orchard and wood pile stood.
Blue periwinkle crawls
From the lost garden down into the wood …
The movement of ‘flowerless hours’ into ‘flowers’ is particularly delightful in this short poem, which is not among Thomas’s most famous or widely anthologised, but beautifully shows his delicate handling of assonance and rhyme.
‘Aspens‘. The title of this poem tells us what it’s about – specifically, the way aspen trees sway side to side day and night, whatever the weather. Thomas identifies in the trees’ continuous movement a metaphor for human endeavour – like the aspens, we have no choice but to go on.
Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow …
Although we didn’t include this poem in our pick of great poems about winter, it could easily have made the list. Particularly effective here is the use of the same rhyme at the end of each of the five lines in each stanza – for instance, in the first stanza, snow/go/doe/blow/slow.
In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails …
Included in our pick of the best cat poems, ‘A Cat’ presents an unsentimental view of our beloved feline companions. Thomas hates the cat because it kills the birds Thomas loves, but at the same time he can realise that the same act which makes him loathe the cat – its killing of thrushes and blackbirds – is also something that humans have carried out on the cat’s own kittens, which have been ‘duly drowned’. The juxtaposition of these two killings raises questions about nature and death which the poem needs only hint at to achieve its effects.
‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)‘. Another four-line poem, and a poignant one at that, as is probably apparent from the title and the date. But Easter, a time associated with rebirth and new beginnings, with Christ rising from the dead, is here a time of death only. Although the title prepares one for death straight away, one of the clever things about the poem is the way it holds off saying this until the final line, simply referring to the men being ‘far from home’. Yes, and never to return home, Thomas’s last line observes.
‘Tall Nettles‘. This poem takes a small and specific detail from nature and describes it in clear, plain language. It conveys the surprise the speaker feels at finding pleasure in such an unusual sight: the sight of flowers blooming is traditionally beautiful, but dust on nettles is a slightly unexpected source of enjoyment.
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude …
As well as being a rain poem, this is also a war poem, a poem about solitude, a religious poem – it lends itself to many interpretations. Like many of Thomas’s poems it has a simple setting: the speaker, sheltering from the rain alone in a hut, muses upon his loved ones miles away and on death and the ‘love of death’. And speaking of love of death, the next poem on this list also embraces this subject.
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose …
One of Thomas’s most popular poems, ‘Lights Out’ is one of several ‘forest poems’ Thomas wrote, though the forest described is really a metaphor for sleep, the desire to ‘lose my way / And myself’. But is the sleep that poem calls for actually what Hamlet called ‘that sleep of death’? Beneath it all, as Philip Larkin understood, desire of oblivion runs.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June …
The origins of the poem lie in an event that took place on 24 June 1914, while English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was on the Oxford to Worcester express train. The train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (formerly Titlestrop) in Gloucestershire, a tiny village in the Cotswolds with a population of just over 100. Thomas took the opportunity to fill his notebook with his observations of the place before the train started up again. The poem, then, had its origins in an unexpected event, a chance occurrence, that occurred one summer’s day in 1914. Thomas would later write up his observations into this fine, understated poem, which has since become a national favourite.
Recommended edition: Faber and Faber’s Edward Thomas. Collected Poems. It contains all of the poems mentioned above plus countless other fantastic poems which Thomas wrote in the last few years of his life. But do you agree that ‘Adlestrop’ is Edward Thomas’s best poem? What would get your vote?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Edward Thomas in c. 1905, from the Hutton/Stringer Archive; Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Chelsea Flower Show exhibit at Adlestrop showing the bench and station sign (author: John Mann), Wikimedia Commons.