Lest we forget: Remembering Edward Thomas

November 11, 2016

To mark Remembrance Day, SDNPA’s Nick Heasman, writes about Edward Thomas – South Downs writer and war poet

‘It is almost one hundred years since a single bullet passed through the chest of Edward Thomas at the Battle of Arras in France, taking his life on Easter Monday 1917.

Like many others I first discovered Edward Thomas while studying the war poets at school where he joined the likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. It wasn’t until I moved back to the South Downs and, exploring the ‘Hangers’, found his memorial stone, halfway up the Shoulder of Mutton in Steep, that his work came into the light for me.

I had understood Thomas purely as a war poet, but he only took to writing poetry in 1914. His 140 war poems were written in the build up to his departure to France. It was by discovering a, now tatty, copy of ‘The South Country, 1909’ that I began to appreciate his fluid landscape narrative and captivating prose.

Once described by the poet laureate Ted Hughes as ‘the father of us all’, he is influence is still felt today, particularly by those of us who find solace and recreation in nature. Hardy and Auden admired him, Seamus Heaney found his work inspiring and best-selling author Robert Macfarlane refers to Thomas regularly as a guiding influence.

The landscape was Thomas’ constant, at times providing a restorative vigour when he was plagued by heavy bouts of depression.

Though his writing has been described as being ‘at the edge of consciousness’, it is not a harmonious dream. His language is often restless, always moving as it absorbs the features of the landscape. One of my key joys of his writing is how he captures detail as well as scale. You are with him on his journey and through his personal battles, described in visceral tones and weightless prose.

The kestrel swayed and lunged in his flight. Branches gleamed, hard and nervously moving. Rain pools glittered, and each brittle stem and flower of a dead plant, each grass-blade and oceanic murmur of the earth.

 South Country 1909, Edward Thomas

This affinity to the natural world carried into his poetry of the great war. On arrival in France, he noted in his letters home the similarities of the chalk, clay and flint landscape of northern France.

To all the fallen and to Edward Thomas, we will remember them.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,’

Rain, 7 January 1916, Edward Thomas

Nick Heasman is a Countryside and Policy Manager for the South Downs National Park Authority