Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Edward Thomas and W H Davies: Life and Death in April

Memorial stone for Edward Thomas near Steep, Hampshire

Edward Thomas died on 9 April, 1917 at the Battle of Arras. His work has started to fascinate me increasingly, especially since I saw The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the beginning of this year. As a South Londoner for the last few years, I was also interested to discover that Thomas was born in Lambeth and educated at Battersea Grammar School, which at that time was not very far from where I now live.

Here is a poem about April which Thomas wrote in 1915. It seems more optimistic than many (if not most) of his poems. The identity of 'Emily' is not known.

APRIL (Edward Thomas)

The sweetest thing, I thought
At one time, between earth and heaven
Was the first smile
When mist has been forgiven
And the sun has stolen out,
Peered, and resolved to shine at seven
On dabbled lengthening grasses,
Thick primroses and early leaves uneven,
When earth's breath, warm and humid, far surpasses
The richest oven's, and loudly rings 'cuckoo'
And sharply the nightingale's 'tsoo, troo, troo, troo':
To say 'God bless it' was all that I could do.

But now I know one sweeter
By far since the day Emily
Turned weeping back
To me, still happy me,
To ask forgiveness, -
Yet smiled with half a certainty
To be forgiven, - for what
She had never done; I knew not what it might be,
Nor could she tell me, having now forgot,
By rapture carried with me past all care
As to an isle in April lovelier
Than April's self. 'God bless you' I said to her.

Welsh poet W H Davies, who had known Thomas, wrote this poem as an elegy for him. It was published less than two weeks after Thomas died.


(Edward Thomas)

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature's green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.


  1. In 'April' I am touched by the innocence of nature and the innocence of the girl, a very sweet juxtaposition. And I write this just at dawn here in San Francisco, a fine arid sweet morning of singing birds and light--still, Thomas' very English sensibilities make themselves heard in the poem almost as if I were there myself. I am even more moved by Davies' elegy, though, a work I've encountered before and loved. Perhaps it's to do with the less anthropocentric approach of this latter part of my life, I don't know. But I like the perfect way you've placed the two poems together. I know they're more than that, but the nature writing aspect of it all is astonishing.

    1. Thank you! I do think the two poems go together remarkably well, and I didn't realise to what extent until I looked at them together. I think I had read the Davies poem before, too, and it's marvelous. (I haven't read very much by Davies yet, though.)

      Edward Thomas seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence overall, but I was interested to find him referenced extensively in at least one or two articles lately about the late spring/long winter here in the UK, and such. His pure nature writing, in the form of essays, is still very highly regarded too, although I've really only read quotes from those. I'm reminded of Watership Down, one of my biggest influences and an incredible tribute to the natural details of the English countryside. Thomas seems to have woven so much into his poems, especially in terms of nature and psychology.