Edward Thomas ranks alongside Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Rupert Brooke as one of the best poets of the World Wars. Over the few years of his life, he composed more than 150 poems, many of which are read in schools and loved to this day.
About Edward Thomas
- Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth, Surrey, England in March of 1878.
- Thomas enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles.
- Over a two-year period, he wrote more than 140 poems.
- Thomas was killed in Arras, France on April 9, 1917.
- He was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery Agny.
- He lived near Robert Frost.
- Thomas volunteered to be sent to France during WWI.
- He became friends with Wilfred Owen at Hare Hall Camp, Essex.
- Thomas was the oldest of six sons.
- His life is commemorated in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
- ‘The Sign-Post’ discusses time and the nature of Heaven from a first-person perspective. He begins the poem by describing the scene around him on top of a hill beside a signpost. It is cold, and the surrounding plant life is mostly dead. The poem moves more clearly into a discussion of life and death with the introduction of a second narrator.
- ‘May the Twenty-third’ is one of Thomas’s best-known poems. It describes a perfect day that is naturally beautiful beyond compare and ends with a mystery. This particular “may” is the best he’s ever had. Throughout the day, a man comes into the scene, Jack. He speaks with the narrator, shows his kindness, and then moves back to uptake road the way he came.
- ‘The Chalk Pit’ is a mysterious and memorable depiction of an abandoned chalk-pit. Throughout the poem, the speaker describes the “fullness” of life that he senses there. While the place has been abandoned for a century, it still seems as though there is something there, something that “just” ended.
- ‘Haymaking’ is another of Thomas’s best-known poems. It describes a landscape and its laborers who are impacted in different ways by the passage of time. The poem is heavily focused on the imagery o the scene. It is tranquil and pristine as if it was just created by God. The last lines introduce the haymakers resting along the water. Everything feels as though it has been this way forever and will last throughout time.
- ‘Beauty’ contains a definition of what beauty is and how the speaker encounters and experiences it. His life is a delicate balance and he knows that beauty plays an important part in it. When things are without beauty, they’re meaningless to him. It’s in the natural world that he’s able to completely rid himself of annoyances and feel at peace.
Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth, Surrey, England in March of 1878. He was the son of Phillip Henry Thomas, a civil service clerk, and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Thomas was the oldest of six sons born to the couple. Much of his young life was spent in Wales and Wiltshire. As a young boy, he attended Belleville School and St. Paul’s School in London.
In 1898 he started at Lincoln, College, Oxford where he studied history. It was around this period of time that he decided he was going to spend his life as a writer. Thomas published his first book, The Woodland Life, in 1896. It contained a collection of essays about walking. He also met and married Helen Berenice in 1899. Thomas finished at Oxford in 1900.
Thomas’ father hoped that his son would enter into his own field, that of civil service. Thomas wanted to obey his father’s wishes, even preparing for the civil service examination. He did not pursue this career though. Thomas also found work as a book reviewer and later worked for the Daily Chronicle as a reviewer of contemporary poetry, criticism, and country books. He was making very little a week, forcing him to take on more work and taking away time from his own creative writing practice.
The following years saw the Thomas family move more than five times. They also had two daughters, Myfanwy and Bronwen. Thomas also published a number of volumes, including biographies of Richard Jefferies in 1909 and Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1912. While these biographies were his own work, they did not provide him with the creative outlet he needed and his health suffered. Before the start of World War I, he wrote The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans in 1913 and In the Pursuit of Spring in 1914.
It was during this period that Thomas grew close with poet Robert Frost, whose family had moved into a nearby home. They spent a great deal of time together, walking and inspiring one another in their works. It is thought that Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ came from these quiet walks through the countryside.
The landscape of the surrounding Steep Village was deeply influential on Thomas’ work. Frost’s presence was also a powerful force. He influenced Thomas to begin writing poetry. Thomas reciprocated Frost’s support by positively reviewing his volume North of Boston. His first poems were written in 1914. One of the first, ‘Up in the Wind’ was published that year. Another work, ‘Adlestrop’ made famous the railway station of the same name in Cotswold.
At the start of the First World War, having been further inspired by Frost, Thomas enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. This enlistment was completely voluntary. His position as a married man would have exempted him from being drafted into the service. Today, some believe that after receiving a copy of ‘The Road Not Taken’ Thomas took the poem personally and quite seriously. It may have been the deciding force in his choice to enlist.
He was sent to Hare Hall Camp in Romford, Essex. He soon became a Lance Corporal. One of his many fellow officers was the well-known war poet Wilfred Owen. During the months that Thomas was at Hare Hall, he wrote prolifically. He finished more than forty poems within a ten-month period. These are included in a two year period during which he wrote more than 140 total pieces of verse. Thomas’ work is noted for its first-person perspective. His narrators are often in a state of flux, moving from place to place, unsure of what they are doing or where they are going.
Death and Legacy
In 1916 Thomas started training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was soon commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Again, he volunteered and was sent to France. He was stationed in a number of different towns including Dainville and Arras. It was in Arras that he was killed on April 9, 1917. At the time it was stated that the cause of his death was a shell blast. Since information has been uncovered revealing instead that he was shot in the chest. He was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery Agny.
After his death, fellow poet W.H. Davies wrote ‘Killed In Action (Edward Thomas), published in 1918. Thomas’ widow wrote about her life married to the poet in her two-volume autobiography As It Was and World Without End. Thomas’s life and literary works are commemorated in Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.