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The Creations of Edward Thomas

Gabriel Roberts

A Conscious EnglishmanMargaret Keeping
A Conscious Englishman
StreetBooks, 2013
290 pages
ISBN 978-0956424235


In 1914 Edward Thomas began writing poetry. He was 36 and a well-regarded writer of prose, including biographies, an enormous corpus of literary criticism, and several books on walking in Britain. Before his death in 1917, he wrote 142 poems, most of which are short, brooding meditations on nature and man’s place within it. The final years of Thomas’s life, in which he transformed himself into a poet, have captivated the interest of writers. Following Eleanor Farjeon’s memoir Edward Thomas: the Last Four Years (1958), the subject has been treated biographically in Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France (2011), dramatically in Nick Dear’s The Dark Earth and the Light Sky (2012), and in a chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways [1] (2012). These works are now joined by a novel in Margaret Keeping’s A Conscious Englishman (2013).

The story begins in 1914 with Thomas and his family on holiday with the poet Robert Frost in Gloucestershire. With Frost’s encouragement Thomas begins thinking about poetry, but with the outbreak of the War he is also drawn to enlist, to prove that his love of the British landscape amounts to more than mere aestheticism. In dwelling on these twin vocations he neglects his children and Helen, his devoted wife, from whose anguished perspective much of the novel is written. He succeeds in writing poetry, but enlists in the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915 (voluntarily, as he was above the age for conscription), setting in motion the events which will lead to his death. The later sections of the novel describe Helen’s sense of betrayal as Thomas pursues his destructive desire for military heroism and his self-becoming as a poet. The novel ends with his death near Arras in the Easter offensive of 1917.

On the face of it, the novel bears clear similarities to Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1991) and to its sequels The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). The novels share a common subject in the psychological troubles of poets in the First World War and a matter-of-fact frankness in their prose. But there are also important differences. A Conscious Englishman is more squarely historical than Barker’s novels, which contain fictional as well as historical characters, and is concerned more directly with poetry. Edward and Helen, and even the War itself, are in some ways tangential, as the central event in the novel is the creation of Thomas’s poems. The reader’s attention is directed towards Thomas’s achievement, rather than towards Keeping’s own, and in this there is a pleasing modesty.

But there are also problems. To a reader with some familiarity with Thomas’s poems, the narrative of their composition is likely to seem preconceived. Regarding the poem ‘Old Man’, for instance, in which Thomas reflects on the herb Artemisia abrotanum, Keeping writes (here in the voice of Helen):

By the front door the grey-green bush of Old Man grew, and the other herbs we bought from cuttings whenever we moved house, lavender and rosemary.

This is apt to seem rather too knowing, like a furtive authorial wink. The problem deepens, however, when Thomas composes the poem while watching his daughter at play:

Some memories were too illusive for thought. This shrub, the scent of it, tantilised him with the mystery of what it was, what memory it was, that was eluding him.

The shrub was still only half the height of Myfanwy because of her habit of picking a stalk and sniffing it whenever she went in or out of the house. He’d written about it only a few weeks before in his notebook […] He would mould those thoughts and notes into a poem, a long poem without too clear a structure, just as the scent led him to Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

There is a sense of teleology here which is false to the creative process. To a reader who knows the poem, Thomas’s thoughts will seem to gravitate to their target, rather than finding their way through trial and error. The creation of the poem must surely have been less certain and unerring. The problem is not unique to Keeping, as any retelling of an artistic creation will struggle to convey its newness. But it weighs heavily in a novel in which such moments of creation are important.

A further consequence of this narrative investment in the poems is that each composition is an achievement, a step which moves Thomas towards his goal of becoming a poet. This gives the novel direction and impetus, but at the risk of misreading the poems. One of their most characteristic features is their tendency to end on a note of existential menace, an unseated unhappiness and a sense of life’s fleeting beauties. The second stanza of ‘February Afternoon’ is a good example:

Time swims before me, making as a day
A thousand years, while the broad ploughland oak
Roars mill-like, and men strike and bear the stroke
Of war as ever, audacious or resigned,
And God still sits aloft in the array
That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind.

This dark side of Thomas is absent from Keeping’s novel. Though there are many scenes in which he feels miserable and in which Helen feels excluded and misprized, these emotions have identifiable objects and reasonable grounds. Thomas worries about becoming a poet and whether he should enlist in the army; Helen worries about their children, about failing to become pregnant, and about the attention which Thomas receives from other women. All this, when handled by Keeping’s steady prose, seems fair enough. But the moods of Thomas’s poems are diffuse and stormy, overcasting his thoughts and deeds.

As an historical novel, the work is a mixed success. Keeping has certainly done her research and is familiar with the landscapes which she describes. She sustains her attention to the facts through a complex narrative and helpfully indicates when she is quoting from original documents. But there is also a penumbra of anachronism. The repeated references to Thomas’s unhappiness as ‘depression’ and to sex with his wife as ‘lovemaking’ (neither of which terms were in common use in the 1910s) are cases in point. The choice of issues, events, and people to include also accords rather too closely with modern perceptions of their historical importance. There are allusions to racial segregation in America and allegations of German atrocities, to the suffragettes and the sinking of the Lusitania, and to Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Owen, and Ezra Pound. There is little opportunity here for historical encounter. In political terms, moreover, Thomas and wife are with the angels, disapproving of racial and sexual inequality, sympathizing with the German people while at war with them, and disdaining the class-bound nature of English society. These were, of course, their attitudes, but for Keeping to describe them in recognizably modern terms, and to present so little that jars with modern liberal values, daubs the novel with historical cliché.

But all this may sound too negative. A Conscious Englishman holds its own against other versions of the same story and provides an easier route than academic studies into the contexts of Thomas’s writing. Anyone with a burgeoning interest in Thomas should begin by reading the poems, but A Conscious Englishman is a worthy addition to the expanding secondary literature. It is curious, however, that Thomas is so much in the ascendant. The effect of eco-criticism in the last two decades, which has dislocated Thomas from previous classifications as a war-poet and a nature-writer, may explain the growing interest of academics. But his wider popularity, including settings of his poetry to music and an ‘Edward Thomas Fellowship’ promoting his work, is harder to explain. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that Thomas’s works depict the vanishing rural beauties of the British landscape, but with a wariness of sentimentality. This balance may be especially important now, when the degradation of the natural world continues, but when longing for pastoral idylls seems jejune.

Gabriel Roberts [2] is reading for a D.Phil. in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.