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Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

11.12.2017


Reed Reviews Edward Thomas

I hope I am not being too disingenuous with my title, but I did hit upon an unexpected windfall of Reed's book reviewing in The Sunday Times. Once again, a simple snippet in Google Book Search was enough to lead me to three articles by Reed from 1969 and 1970, including "Two Years Before the Muse": a review of William Cooke's biography of Edward Thomas which appeared on March 29, 1970:

Sunday Times


Two years before the muse

EDWARD THOMAS: a critical biography by William Cooke
Faber 50s

HENRY REED


FLAWLESSLY and confidently though he himself can write, Mr Cooke does not hesitate, in this fine book, to withdraw himself when necessary, and with excellent judgment to let his subjects—for there is Helen Thomas as well as Edward—have their own say: as they both eloquently could. And since Thomas and is wife, despite difficult passages, were never enemies, Mr Cooke's book moves the reader in a way that biography rarely does: his second chapter, "The Divided Self," is a model of well-selected documents, in both poetry and prose, brought together, properly digested, and firmly handled.

He has, of course, a subject where, biographically at least, there seems little need for guesswork. Thomas himself was a self-declared depressive, often took laudanum, and was on occasion determined on suicide. Mr Cooke is fully aware of the justifiable self-pity of both Edward and Helen. It is balanced by their pity for each other and their candid understanding and acceptance of each other.

Certainly Thomas himself, through the whole of his fantastically overworked life as a hack journalist and a writer of "deadline" commissioned books, gives the impression of someone who could not easily tell lies, and the well-known portrait of him (a trifle blurred in this volume) gives the feeling of someone who could not easily believe in them either.

And truth is a useful thing. Curiously, his candid avowal that Helen loved him more than he loved her produces one of the finest love-lyrics in the language. It ends:
Till sometimes it did seem
Better it were
Never to see you more
Than linger here
With only gratitude
Instead of love
A pine in solitude
Cradling a dove.
An even more sombre candour informs the poem about his father, withheld from the brief Collected Poems till twenty-two years after the poet's death. It is not at all a poem about hate, but it begins:
I may come near loving you
When you are dead
and ends:
But not so long as you live
Can I love you at all.
His father survived him.

Apart from conventional juvenilia, Thomas wrote no poetry before the age of thirty-six. Hitherto he had confined himself to twenty-nine books of prose. He was to live about two years more; and despite its many outstanding virtues, the most astonishing and valuable part of Mr Cooke's book is the appendix in which he establishes the chronology of these two incredible years: I quote merely its beginning:
       1914
3 December "Up in the Wind"
4 December "November"
5 December "March"
6 December "Old Man"
7 December "The Sign Post"
And these poems are by no means dilettante haiku. Some are of notable length. It is to be hoped that the elegant pages of the Collected Poems may as a result of Mr Cooke's researches, soon be rearranged chronologically.

Thomas's switch to poetry (much of it, and some senses all of it, remarkable: it had the rare distinction of never appearing in "Edward Marsh's "Georgian" collections) has been variously explained, Robert Frost, older, but not much older, and first published in England, had said to him: "You are a poet or you are nothing." But a man does not became a poet simply because he is told he is one; though doubtless Frost's remark struck at something Thomas had wanted to, yet dared not, until then, think of.

But these things are, as psychoanalysts say "over-determined." I am not so much entranced as I once was by the observations of analysts on what they call "creativity": but what the distinguished analyst Dr Elliott Jaques in an essay on what he terms the "mid-life crisis" devotes his early pages to artists in their middle thirties—the mezzo del cammin of Dante. He examined a "random sample" of 310 artists of genius (one had not thought death had undone so many!) who had exemplified this mid-life crisis in three different ways: either their career ended at this time; or it began (one thinks of Conrad); or a decisive change took place in the quality and content of their work. (One might add that some artists re-begin at this age: I am thinking of our own Jane Austen.)

I think that Edward Thomas, if not decisively a genius, fits well enough into all this. Dr Jaques connects his thesis with our realization at this age that death does actually exist, and is probably nearer to us than birth. Thomas thought often of death. He was not strictly of conscribable age, and had every opportunity of joining Frost in America. But he decided to enlist, and was apparently certain that he would not see his beloved England again. He wrote no more poetry once he landed in France; and it could be said of him by Alun Lewis, also writing of death, and himself prematurely killed in a later war:
Suddenly, at Arras, you possessed that hinted land.
(p. 56)
You can read more about Edward Thomas on the Friends of the Dymock Poets website.



1513. Hodge, Alan. "Thunder on the Right." Tribune (London), 14 June 1946, 15.
Hodge finds 'dry charm as well as quiet wit' in "Judging Distances," but overall feels Reed is 'diffuse and not sufficiently accomplished.'



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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