The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

Over the year, I have been on a journey, tracing another man’s footsteps. I finished the journey this morning. Now I have three books on my shelf, each a source of pleasure and satisfaction such that I already plan to retrace my steps from the beginning. I have been walking alongside the First World War poet and one of that destructive conflict’s victims: Edward Thomas. And the reference to walking is deliberate. Thomas walked as much as Wordsworth and worked demotic language into his verse just as effectively.

At the beginning of the year I savoured my Christmas present of “Now all roads lead to France: The last years of Edward Thomas”. Written by a poet about another poet, this was indeed Matthew Hollis’s first prose work. Hollis takes up the story with the opening of the Poetry Bookshop at 35 Devonshire Street, Theobalds Road in 1913 which became a magnet for writers, readers and lovers of poetry. The list of those who attended the opening and those whose work was to be published under the shop’s imprint or in its journal can be found in all the anthologies. Most significant for the future career of Thomas was the presence of the 38-year old Robert Frost. The friendship between the literary critic and ‘hack’ writer of biographies and guide books and the American poet which would, over the next very few years, draw out of the doubting Thomas the realisation that he could and should write poetry. Yes, we all remember ‘Adlestrop’, his poem about a train stopping unexpectedly at a rural station and the poet hearing ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’ but Frost would later say that, although Thomas was a late starter, was able to write in ways Frost had never attempted. At his death near Arras in 1917, Thomas left behind a body of work that would have been no less admirable had it been the product of many years of writing.

Inevitably, the biography led me to the volume of Thomas’s work that had, I am ashamed to admit now, been on my shelf for years, largely unread: “Edward Thomas: Selected Poems” in the Everyman’s Poetry series. I have dipped in and out over the year until, last night I went to the Almeida Theatre to see the new play by Nick Dear, “The Dark Earth and the Light Sky”. The principal characters apart from Thomas are Frost, Thomas’s wife Helen, and Thomas’s devoted admirer Eleanor Farjeon. All three would outlive him by forty years or more and write about him from their individual perspectives. While I was familiar from the Hollis book with the years leading up to his death, the later decades in which his reputation grew were brought out by the playwright in his beautifully constructed work that concluded on the perfect note as the character Thomas spoke one of his very last poems, ‘Lights Out’ of which the third stanza reads, “Here love end,/ Despair, ambition ends;/ All pleasure and all trouble,/ Although most sweet and bitter,/ Here ends in sleep that is sweeter/ Than tasks most noble.” I bought the play text and read Act One on the journey home and Act Two this morning.

So, if you are looking for a package of books to give a good friend then the biography by Matthew Hollis [London: Faber and Faber, 2011], the anthology edited by William Cooke [London: J M Dent/Everyman, 1997] and the play by Nick Dear [London: Faber and Faber, 2012] would be my recommendation.

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