Edward Thomas: from Adlestrop to Arras review – the man behind the poet

Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of the first world war poet claims to uncover the trials and torments that made him ‘the father’ of modern British poetry

In this full-scale biography of the Great War poet Edward Thomas, the first for a generation, Jean Moorcroft Wilson claims to “give the actual, very different, facts [of his life] for the first time”. Thomas scholars will be grateful for her research; they may judge her determination to correct previous biographical “distortions” less kindly. It is always the biographer’s fantasy to have forged, in the crucible of life-writing, the only true likeness.

Still, her book is timely. Since Nick Dear’s 2012 play about Thomas, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, and Matthew Hollis’s study of Robert Frost’s relationship with Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, there has been a steady revival of interest in the poet now seen as a key link between Hardy and Hughes, who described him as “the father of us all”.

Almost a hundred years after his death, Moorcroft Wilson has exposed a man with a remarkable double life, full of melancholy secrets. As such, Thomas, born in 1878, is an archetypal late Victorian. In eerie parallel with Freud’s work on the unconscious, the fin-de-siècle literary imagination was obsessed with doubles, from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

Edward Thomas, essentially Welsh, but raised in late Victorian London, began his “other” life early with a secret marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Helen Noble. She was pregnant; he was 21, and still at Oxford. The remaining 18 years of his life would be a prolonged struggle with her obsessive love for him, to which he responded with laudanum.

Thomas’s life divides here. Professionally, he embraced the exigencies of New Grub Street. Privately, this very shy, tormented man was trapped in a relationship with a woman who would give him children, but could not satisfy his other needs.

Moorcroft Wilson is at pains to debunk the myth of Thomas’s garret. However, long before he discovered his vocation as a poet, Thomas was mired in hack work, a life made bearable by his friendships with the literary men of the time: Joseph Conrad, Hilaire Belloc, Walter de la Mare, WH Hudson, and the young Arthur Ransome.

In 1901,“very tired of London” he made a half-hearted attempt at suicide, the first of several. “I did not want to die, though I disliked living,” he wrote. His wife, who later shamelessly mythologised their marriage, told a friend that “poverty, anxiety, and discouragements [made him] bitter, hard and impatient, quick to violent anger, and subject to long fits of depression”.

Husband and wife both seem to have blamed themselves for each other’s misfortunes. Helen, who never acknowledged the truth of her predicament, was long-suffering. In his last year at Oxford, and after their marriage, worshipping “Beauty”, Thomas fell in love with several young men, and drank heavily.

With so much unresolved within, Thomas nurtured a secret death wish, took refuge in opium, and blamed “continued journalism” for destroying his creativity. Meanwhile, in 1908 he fell madly in love with 18-year-old Hope Webb, attracted by “her perfect and wild youthfulness”. Predictably, having told Helen all about it, the end of this infatuation left Thomas more suicidal than ever. This time he tried, and failed, to shoot himself, though Moorcroft Wilson chooses not to explore this.

The evolution of his genius occurred in counterpoint to his home life. He was still writing prose but, by 1909, says Moorcroft Wilson, some of his work began to “anticipate many of the features” of the modernist short stories of Lawrence, Woolf and Joyce, a claim she does not really substantiate.

Thomas was still a slave to his “hack work”. Between 1910 and 1913 no fewer than 13 books appeared under his name. One of these, The Feminine Influence on the Poets (1910), hints at the troubles of his marriage. “Women,” he writes, “are still a race apart”. By 1911, now in “a depressed and violent state”, he and Helen were estranged. He continued to have various affairs and sentimental friendships, notably with the children’s book writer Eleanor Farjeon.

But then, as war loomed, his fortunes changed with a new doctor, Helton Godwin Baynes, who was interested in Freud and familiar with psychoanalysis. Moorcroft Wilson won’t tell us exactly what, but Baynes did something for Thomas that led first to his autobiographical writing (especially The Childhood of Edward Thomas), and finally his poetry. This was doubly blessed by his chance meeting, in October 1913, with the young Robert Frost. In this friendship, championed by Moorcroft Wilson as the equal of Wordsworth and Coleridge, it was the ebullient American who made the running. “I dragged him out from under the heap of his own work in prose he was buried alive under,” said Frost.

Thereafter, as so often with creative epiphanies, Thomas’s greatest work came fast, and fluently, between 1914 and spring 1917. He lived his double life to the end. First, on 8 April, he had a miraculous escape when a dud shell failed to explode. Next day, he was killed by a 77mm “pip squeak” shell, a detail denied by his wife, but uncovered by Moorcroft Wilson.

Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras is published by Bloomsbury (£25). Click here to order it for £20


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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