The year just past was the centenary of the births of two exceptional English poets, Edward Thomas and John Masefield.
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was a critic, essayist, nature writer and novelist who turned to poetry in the last five years of his life. A solitary singer, subject to periodic bouts of depression, his efforts to feed his family by reviewing and other hackwork gouged his soul and eroded his prose. This bothered the critic in him and doubtless stimulated his melancholia ("I have th thin edge of a wedge of anxiety penetrating me"). In his prose, though, there was much perceptive criticism and excellent writing (for example, "Light and Twilight," "Rest and Unrest" and the biography, "Richard Jefferies"). And there was always character. To his friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley, he wrote, "I can't like everything you do tho I like everything you are."
Thomas' meetign with Robert Frost in 1913 was pivotal for both. These two blue-eyed writers of similar makeup and outlook discussed their anguish (Frost also suffered from periodic depression) and anticipations. When Thomas said that he wanted to write poetry, Frost delighted him by answering that some of his prose was poetry.
Thereafter, he put poetry first. "I can hardly wait to light my fire," he exclaimed hurrying toward his study, excited by poetry preempting the old unhsppiness. This ardor continued into the army and death in France in April 1917.
Friend and poet Eleanor Farjeon wrote that Thomas kept his senses fresh ("As you get older," he once advised her, "don't go cozy") and kept his love for nature all his life. This made him, she said. "wonderful to walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with." And made him, in the end, a poet.
Most a Thomas' poetry is simple and direct and full of a quiet happiness tinctured with melancholy. Its theme is attachment and loss in nature and man. As Walter De La Mare wrote, it doesn't intoxicate you but converys superbly, without rhetorical tricks, what he wants to say.
The last page of his war diary has these lines:
The light of the new moon and every star/ and no more more singing for the bird .
But he was wrong. His poems continue to sing.
When Thomas died in 1917 he had seen only 27 of his 144 poems in print, and these under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway. Much of the poetry was collected in 1920 and has never been out of print since. The new "Collected Poems," however, supersedes the old. Professor R. George Thomas, its editor, was asked by Helen Thomas, the widow, before her death in 1967 to completely overhaul the work. He went through all the manuscripts and notebooks to provide final states and arrange the poems chronologically. He substituted new words, phrases and even whole versions of poems for older texts. For this rigorous, masterful overhaul, he also included elegant notes and the diary Thomas kept in France.
Thomas, an unerring critic, was the first to praise John Masefield (1878-1976) the young poet associated early in the century almost wholly with the sea. Masefield died just 11 years, ago, a fact surprising to many of us who remember him from a generation or lifetime ago and who had him long since in the sod. We remember the early lyrics "Sea Fever," "The West Wind," "Cargoes" and the longer narrative verse "The Everlasting mercy," "The Widow in the Bye Street" and "Dauber." When World War I so blooded existence, Masefield doubted that he could ever write poetry again. But he did: his finest triumph, "Reynard the Fox" (recalling Ralph Hodgson's "The Bull" and anticipating Henry Williamson's "Tarka the Otter"), emerged in 1919.
Thereafter, the juices dried and by 1930 when he was named to succeed Robert Bridges as Poet Laureate he had little significant left to say with his pen. But much with his ife, living out his days, this shy, gentle man, in sunshine. MacMillan's anniversary selection of his poetry is indifferently packagfed, the print is squinting small, and the preface by John Betjeman appear hurried and is undistinguished except for these saving lines. "His life... seems to have been one long psalm of thanksgiving. His goodness shone out of him." But inside the modest pacakage there is the old racy and rollicking poetry that stirred us once... and stirs some of us still.