ET

 

‘It is precisely because the landscape makes its impact upon me and produces feelings in me, because it reaches me in my uniquely individual being, because it is my own view of the landscape, that I enjoy possession of the landscape itself… The world is the field of our experience… I am a field, an experience… Inside and outside are inseparable. The world is wholly inside and I am wholly outside myself… I touch myself only by escaping from myself.’ 

(The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty)


In 1906, Edward Thomas, the poet and topographical writer, published The Heart of England. The book begins with Thomas leaving London, on foot, with the reader initially stumbling upon an archetypal suburban street scene; unbroken rows of houses, all the same. Everything is described in vivid detail, as Thomas follows a boy of nine years old, moving briskly in every direction, and a strange, free, hatless man, ignoring puddles – a traveller. Colours, angles, flows, lines, loops, patterns, textures, sounds, smells. The mood becomes darker as night falls and Thomas travels further into a pre-emptive Ballardian suburbia; the place has no meaning, no history, nothing understandable to Thomas, it is half-built, unnaturally devastated, dejected, sorrowful, and despairing. Dead. The rain formed a mist and a veil over the skeletons round about, but it revealed more than it took away; Nature gained courage in the gloom (Thomas, 1906: 7). Thomas sets out that night, so as not to endure another night of torment, the noise of his heels and stick staining the immense silence. Feeling entrapped on his exit from the city, in a borough of London, once nothing but fields, looking up at the thousands of people in lighted windows, Thomas proclaims, in late Foucaultian fashion: “most men are prisons to themselves.”  Not the brave, cheerful lights, in the distance, which we strain our eyes for as we descend from the hills of Kent or Wales: A place of refuge in complete darkness. The first landscape Thomas encounters after leaving London is The Lowland. Of the landscape, Thomas writes; ‘how nobly the ploughman and the plough and three horses, two chestnuts and a white leader, glide over the broad swelling field in the early morning’ (1906:23). He continues to express his love of ploughs and what they represent for a further five pages. Evident in these pages, is a desire to preserve practices, which due to mechanisation during the Industrial Revolution of the previous century, are witnessed less and less. By romanticising traditional rural practice, he is preserving something of the landscape before him. It is this longing to ‘make the glimpsed good place permanent,’ which is evident in Thomas’ later, more famous, poetry, ‘although somewhere beyond the borders of Thomas’ mind, there was a world he could never quite come at’ (Thomas, 1964:11). The book ends with a collection of traditional folk songs. And turns out to carry thought on landscape-performance-memory to challenge, echo, and surprise our own. Older books, beyond where we would normally look, offer a resource, for our thinking of current living landscapes – dead, mute, absent, inaccessibility’s, and all. Debates we are having now were anticipated by Thomas, his texts – practices in their own right, with specific language and grammar – require geographical attention. I could easily have begun with the book, The South Country, from 1909, in which Thomas wanders through every season, and covers all the counties from Hampshire to Cornwall, and from Surrey to Sussex. As he travels, his mind also wanders, involuntary memories materialize, and past events are recollected. Whilst in East Hampshire, Thomas (1909:9) foreseeing the problem geographers have of representing immediacy, perception, and affect, writes:

‘The spirit of the place, all this council of time and Nature and men, encircles the air with a bloom deeper than summer’s blue of distance; it drowses while it delights the responding mind with a magic such as once upon a time men thought to express by gods of the hearth, by Faunus and the flying nymphs, by fairies, angels, saints, a magic which none of these things is too strange and supernatural to represent. For after the longest inventory of what is here visible and open to analysis, much remains over, imponderable but mighty. Often when the lark is high he seems to be singing in some keyless chamber of the brain; so here the house is built in shadowy replica. If only we could make a graven image of this spirit instead of a muddy untruthful reflection of words!’

In spite of poetry’s decline in favour, since the heady days of ‘reading’ or deconstructing vast textually reshaped landscapes (see e.g. Squire, 1988), the potential use of Edward Thomas to contemporary cultural geography (non-representational geography) has already been noted. David Matless (2008), recently called for us to consider a book from 1913, written by Thomas, entitled The Icknield Way an account of a walk along a dismembered ancient trackway from Thetford in Norfolk to Wanborough in Wiltshire – in relation to the plethora of geographical research about landscape-mobility-practice. Hinting at how Thomas and other topographers, or poets, could be used by cultural geographers, Matless notes, how ‘books move in and out of Thomas’ book in surprising ways’ (2008:199). Aspects of landscape ignored by others, such as diverting the text indoors and looking at paintings of landscape on his hotel wall, are perhaps a ‘deliberate indoor extension of landscape mobility’, and an interesting allusion to encountering representation (in and of the world) in landscape (Matless, 2008:199). A year later, in 1914, when Thomas published In Pursuit of Spring war had broken out. And his soon to be good friend, the poet Robert Frost, concluded that the book was poetic and that ‘Thomas was a poet behind the disguise of his prose’, encouraging him on their first meeting to begin writing poetry (Thomas, 1985: 223). This is a lovely tale, though unclearly discussed in a number of biographies, where Thomas appears Frost’s ‘debtor, in verse and in inspiration’ (Sergeant, 1961: 209). Eleanor Farjeon, another writer and close friend, could have encouraged him to begin writing poetry. The war was also a factor. He could have merely decided himself; the outpouring of eighty-five poems in seven months from November 1914 to the day he enlisted, is astonishing, and would indicate that this may be the case. As, R.G Thomas (1985: 223) writes, ‘we can see Thomas clearing the ground [in his prose] in preparation for a thorough understanding of the self that, he feared had gone astray’. It is now widely understood, rightly so, that Thomas had been a poet all his life, and that Frost produced the enharmonic change, which made him not a different man, but the same man in another key (Farjeon, 1958: 56). Put simply, Robert Frost kick-started Thomas’s poetry (Longley, 2008: 15). The poetry written during this period is quietly revolutionary, concentrating on the loss of landscape, ‘rather than continuing the kind of relaxed celebration typified by Isaak Wilson and Gilbert White’ (Motion, 1980: 40). Not avant-garde, or fashionable, in any way. His poetry is simple, honest, and understated, in a ‘disarmingly low-keyed tone of voice’ (Motion, 1980: 169): The sound of sense (Motion, 1980). Moments of thought and memory perforate, and expound all that is ‘ungraspable in the very nature of words, and memory, and consciousness’ (Danby, 1959: 313). Leaving, therefore, only disconnected impressions of landscape, providing merely a series of fragments for the reader. Lanes, trees, woods, brooks, pits, roads, hills, farms, pubs, paths, houses, chapels, signposts, and animals are interwoven with places, weather, people, and countryside practices. He does not sit very easily with the present, preferring the past, but is in many ways a covert modernist in his style. His verse subtly upsets. Rhyme schemes are rarely used; a rhyming couplet is particularly rare. In short, his poetry resists categorisation. He is on the cusp of old and new, ‘between antiquated traditionalism and elitist modernism,’ an isolated figure, not included in Michael Robert’s epoch-defining Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936) (Wisniewski, 2009:1). Despite this, Ted Hughes, once said Edward Thomas is “the father of all of us”. Edna Longley reiterated this statement, arguing Thomas began the modern poetry movement with Robert Frost and W.B Yeats, due to their rejection of a constricted verse, and imagism led poetry, allowing freedom (Longley, 2008: 20). Furthermore, his version of Romantic Ecology, or eco-historical writing, naturalistic but very much committed to the people who cultivate the landscape, shares many similarities with current ecological thought: A pastoral melancholic, ‘longing to make the glimpsed good place permanent’ (Thomas, 1964: 11).

Of the one hundred and forty four poems written in the final two years of his life, ‘sometimes at the rate of one a day’, The Manor Farm (1914), The Combe (1914), Adlestrop (1915), The Chalk Pit (1915), A Tale (1915), The Path (1915), Lob (1915), Aspens (1915), The Mill Water (1915), Wind and Mist (1915) and many others still resonate, despite their speedy execution (Sacks, 2004: xxiv). And as he would have wished defined him as a person, after years spent doing hack work. The fleeting, fractured moments he captured, of intimate disintegrating places, are set in the wider context of a disappearing, encroached upon, English countryside and its traditional practices. The poems are often praised for their “Englishness”; in spite of his Welsh heritage affecting his attitude towards nature, and his imagination (see Wisnieski, 2009). And the landscape represented has also in many ways become the archetypal “rural idyll” preserved for eternity in eerie, haunted, uncanny verse – due to his ‘residual mystical inclinations’ (Longley, 2008: 14). For these reasons, I resolved to hitchhike with his Fellowship, before any other societies, leaving The Friends of the Dymock Poets, and The Richard Jefferies Society, amongst others, to wait. The subsequent Literary Hitchhiking – the re-walking of a walk-poem – intertwines theory and practice, and is a nod to Michael Taussig; in particular his piece of muted defective storytelling, Walter Benjamin’s Grave. The aim of the paper is to push at the borders of the geographical imagination – following the path forged by non-representational theorists – using creative writing as a form of analysis to do so.


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3 responses to “ET

  1. Hi
    This is really interesting! I’m doing a PhD (in literature) on Edward Thomas & Robert Frost’s poetry of place at Worcester Uni and would love to see your final article on this. I’m trying to fathom the significance of urban places to Thomas at the moment. In particular, I wonder if I might find a cultural geographic perspective that helps to explain that journey out of London in The Heart of England, to explore the significance he attaches to the different types of suburban and urban places. It seems to me that The Heart of England is pioneering as a forerunner of psychogeography in the idea of the urban as indicative of states of the human mind. Before, I’ve written a paper about the idea of regions in The South Country, which I’m hoping to build upon with my analysis of Frost.
    It would be great to hear from you.
    Best wishes
    Anna

    • Hello Anna,

      Thanks for reading the blog. Glad you found it interesting. I’m afraid I can’t be much help with the article that you are looking for – there are no geographers writing about Edward Thomas, or any other poet really. There has been an increasing interest in new nature writing though. Lots of people are writing about subjectivity. I will send you any papers I subsequently write and any I think of by other geographers. There is a book by Richard Jefferies, called Nature Near London, it was published in the London Standard. Similar to The Heart of England and The South Country in style. Think that you could go back to that and call it psychogeography. I have been trying to argue such. In terms of the city, all the stuff I’ve been writing has tried to get past a celebration of nature and has tried to illustrate how Thomas is doing more than simply that. I guess that includes writing about the city as well as the countryside because that is how most people experience the countryside; travelling to it from the city. In a way it points towards the way geographers could write nature in a way which deconstructs old ideas of the sublime.

      Hope that helps somehow,

      James

  2. Great. email’s a.stenning@worc.ac.uk
    I know about the Jefferies book. I found my way to Thomas’s poetry through contemporary nature writing. And my own attempts at writing.
    Do you know Jos Smith? I think he mentioned you to me. I’m trying not to wish I was Exeter. So much interesting stuff and interesting people there. I’m also in touch with Becky Welshman and going to the Jefferies Society weekend in August.
    Thanks for your suggestions. I certainly agree that there are some interesting developments on the sublime and picturesque in Thomas’s writing about London.
    Thanks for your help!
    Anna

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