Friday, 11 January 2013
Thomas, Frost, Farjeon: The Dark Earth and the Light Sky
"He looks on English things impatiently, but also as a lover might look upon his beloved for the last time. He seems always conscious that a world is coming to an end, though he never says so, it is his tone and it is the tone of his poems; which has taken us fifty years to hear." (P J Kavanagh)
"He is the father of us all." (Ted Hughes)
Last night I went to see The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, a play at Islington's Almeida Theatre about World War I poet Edward Thomas (Pip Carter), his great friends and poets Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley) and Eleanor Farjeon (Pandora Colin), and his wife Helen Thomas (Hattie Morahan). It was written by Nick Dear and directed by Richard Eyre. The play is just ending its world premiere run in London, and it has been extremely well reviewed. I found it to be one of the most powerful and moving plays I have seen in the last few years.
I think the first poem I read by Thomas was probably 'Rain', and probably some years ago. While beautifully written, it remains one of the most suicidally depressing poems I have ever read, and it didn't exactly encourage me to read on in his body of work. However, his name is one which recurs the more you delve into English and British poetry. Witness the quotation from Ted Hughes, above. Many great poets, including the likes of Dylan Thomas, Auden, and Heaney, cite him as an enormous influence, or even a catalyst for their own writing. At the same time, he is not exactly a household name, although I think he is now being studied for GCSEs or A-levels (unfortunately, this may not endear him to a future generation of young readers.)
I booked my ticket for The Dark Earth and the Light Sky several weeks ago, when I realised that it was a) about poetry and poets, and b) was likely to sell out because of how well it has been received and because the Almeida is a small theatre. I gradually, started reading a few more of his poems, and discovered that my initial impressions of him were very limited and rather inaccurate. I had seen him as a poet very much of his time, and mainly pastoral. (I also knew that while he was considered a "war poet", and he died in the war, his poems weren't mostly about the war.)
What I found when I actually bothered to read the poems properly was that Thomas was indeed heavily influenced by the pastoral, and in many ways his language was of its time. However, the shifting perspectives and emotions, the dreamlike blurring of times and places - these are all very modern, very powerful, and sometimes rather shocking. You may start reading one of his poems thinking that it's a nice but slightly depressing piece about the countryside; only to end up gasping for breath, sucker punched by a daring but accurate emotional shift, or a perceptive leap which you would never have thought of but which rings entirely true.
The words "extreme vision" came into my mind when I read some of his poems. He pushes the possibilities of what I would call the "alternative seeing" that poets possess, to their uttermost limits. English poet and critic John Lehmann called it an "intensity of vision" which outstripped that of most of his contemporaries. He chose to write with a vocabulary and apparatus of maps and places. Robert Macfarlane wrote: "To Thomas, paths connected real places but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self. These traverses - between the conceptual, the spectral and the personal - occur often without signage in his writing, and are among its most characteristic events."
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky also employed shifting perspectives. We don't hear much of Thomas's own interior dialogue, except when he addresses the mysterious "other man" who seems to have governed some of his most important decisions. We see Thomas through the eyes of his passionate wife Helen, who loved him unconditionally and was nearly destroyed by the coldness and animosity which were part of his ongoing depression. These scenes were often painful to watch, as was the confrontation between Helen Thomas and Robert Frost, who felt that Helen had betrayed her husband's memory in her frank memoirs. Frost mainly saw Thomas as a remarkable poetic talent, but also reflected on his depression and said: "He didn't want to die, but he didn't want to not die." The shape of their friendship was carefully depicted in only a relatively small number of scenes. I was astonished by how much of the play involved discussion of the craft of poetry. Thomas, consumed by self-loathing, was convinced he couldn't write; Frost encouraged him by pointing to his remarkable nascent talent, and describing poetry as essential, more important than the patriotism engendered by the war, "a momentary stay against confusion." Meanwhile, Eleanor Farjeon nursed an unrequited (?) crush on Thomas and delighted the audience with her vivacity. The interactions between these individuals and Thomas, and their direct addresses to the audience about the man they knew, build up a more complete, rounded picture of a poet who still remains elusive in many ways.
Thomas constantly looked back to pre-industrial times, and found himself trapped between a desire for the pastoral ("I remember when there was lavender on Lavender Hill," he says to his uncomprehending father) and a drive to become engaged with the real world, to prove himself worthy of England, to become "a conscious Englishman." This was what led him to enlist, at least in part. The scene where Helen and Eleanor go through Thomas's effects after his death at Arras in 1917 had me and, I think, much of the audience in tears.
The staging was very bare, but effective. One of the reviews I read suggested that in many respects this was a play that shouldn't have worked particularly well, certainly in structural terms, but worked extraordinarily well.
At the end of the play, Thomas steps forward and speaks this poem.
LIGHTS OUT (Edward Thomas)
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.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way