Friday, 22 March 2013

Living in the past with Edward Thomas

      Above: the view from the hill above the memorial stone to Edward Thomas on Leg of Mutton Hill, Steep, Hampshire

I am spending what has been a very wet and windy and thoroughly miserable spring-that-still-feels-like-winter day up in my office, at the computer, looking up various poems of Edward Thomas, and printing them off (for my talk).  It is easier to do this than to photocopy them from the book I have of his annotated poems.  Needless to say, this sends me on a spiralling exploration of links via the internet - what a wonderful invention the search engine is! - and I am now thoroughly drawn into the past.  The First World War Poetry Digital Archive is the most delightful and helpful site and I have been endeavoring to read some of Edward's letters to his son Mervyn, but gosh, his writing was done in haste and takes some working out as a combination of pencilled writing and many words pretty well joined together needs much concentration.  The signature of "Daddy"  brought a pang to my heart.  He speaks of walking 20 miles on a Sunday afternoon with four pals.

I have read some of his letters to Helen, they start "Dearest".  One mentions sending her some more of his verses which "should make up pretty well, with those I put in the oak chest, the set Merfyn has."  This letter shows him concentrating on practical matters.  Saying he has got a good haversack, but if she gets a pipe, to get it at the Stores, a dark red French briar pipe costing no more than 5/- or 6/- (shillings to those younger than me!) . . . He ends it "Goodbye, Edwy".  No mention of love, or missing her or the children but the core of the letter is about getting sets of his poems together for publishing but not to send to Robert Frost until he (Edward) tells her the thing is settled.

Some of these letters are held in the Edward Thomas Collection in Cardiff and I would love to see them if I could.  Several of the notebooks containing the poems he wrote are held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where I have a reading ticket.  I hesitate to write this next few lines, for fear that I will be thought completely stark raving bonkers, but I would SO love to handle one of those notebooks and see if I could get a sense of the man behind the words, because  I once had the most amazing and inexplicable experience in our local Records Office.  Those of you with long memories must forgive me for having written about this before.

I had ordered up a box of various notebooks, letters and unknown documents for some research I was doing.  The family was a notable Carmarthen one, although they also had land holdings in Scotland.  Amongst the documents I came across scribbled letters from Queen Victoria herself (gosh, but her writing was bad!) as one of the family had been one of her bridesmaids.  I became absorbed by the notebook kept by one of the family's sons (in Victorian times) when his Battalion was sent to the Zulu Wars.  At the time I was looking for mention of how horses were kept etc and there was some interesting stuff which I jotted down.  The son was overawed by the terrific thunderstorms with immense lightening out on the African plains.  He was, it would seem, being kept busy (and safe)  as Staff Officer and well away from the fighting, but he wanted to show his mettle and volunteered to be involved closer to the fray.  Sadly, it was is undoing, for when their small exploratory party came under fire from a Zulu force hiding in  cave, and in bravely offering to lead a small party of men against what was truly an impregnable position, he was mortally wounded.  HERE is a link to tell you more about it. 

Anyway, when I got home, from curiosity, I looked up a website which had photographs of the slain and when I reached Lord C's son's photograph I immediately felt what HE had experienced at the moment of his death.  His blood was up, he was totally unafraid, and completely surprized when he was hit (on his head I believe, from the notes added later in his personal notebook, by his surviving CO).  I scrolled down, and then up again and every time that night I did that, I felt the same thing all over again.  This ended when I had had a bath and presumably his . . . essence . . . or whatever from the notebook was washed from my hands.  I cannot, simply cannot explain it, but I guess it is part of my "feyness".

Oh my gosh - I have just checked, and one of the archivists has written this up in this link  to the journal.  It may take a while to read it though, but it's fascinating stuff.

Anyway, in a childish way, I am rather hoping I might have some sense of Edward Thomas if I handled documents he had written . . .  I shall report back in due course.


  1. fascinating history. i look forward to hearing more. thanks for sharing.

  2. What a powerful experience you had experiencing what the young man did at the moment of his death. It is grand to find unexpected treasures and detours as you research a topic, isn't it? I am a librarian and a writer and love those detours like you do.
    I am reading the Maisie Dobbs novels and the heroine sometimes has fey experiences as she solves crimes. You might like those books.

  3. Terra - I shall add her to my list of books to read (which grows ever longer!) I just cannot explain OW I felt what I did, but I know it to be absolutely what he felt. I have had other unexplicable experiences too and can only put it down to a degree of . . . I suppose you would call it mediumship, although all I can say is these things come TO me and cannot be summoned up.

    Lynda - glad you enjoyed. I am having such satisfaction from getting to grips with my research and could do it all day long!

  4. I do hope you do get to handle them. Isn't it amazing how the hours slip by whilst researching on the internet!

  5. I always think that any kind of research into one's favourite writer does serve to make you feel that you know them better. If your weather is anything like it is here (eight inches of snow) then research is as good as any way I know of making a horrible day pass happily.

  6. No snow Weaver, but the wind is a proper Beast of Berlin and would flay you given half a chance. I managed a walk up the hill today, but the entire horizon was milky and no sign of Black Mountain covered in snow, which is what I was hoping to see. I stayed on the sofa after that, tucked up with Edward Thomas . . .

    Em - so do I. I would love to get a sense of the man, but I think it would be a very despondent sort of sense. Harassed by the world, never really allowed to be himself for himself, but what he had to be to support his family and that made him resent them.

  7. Wonderful, fascinating and interesting post about Edward Thomas and what an awesome experience you had re: Lord C's son. Do so hope you are able to handle Edward Thomas' documents.

    I am sure you probably know but there are a few programmes on Radio 4 over Easter concerning Edward Thomas - I think they start on Good Friday. I am really looking forward to them :)

  8. RR - my friend DW pointed me in the direction of The Wessex Reiver's blog, and he is the director of the ET tribute - the centenary of his writing of In Pursuit of Spring. I can't wait to listen to it and thank you for highlighting it too. Definitely in pursuit of spring here, but it's hiding itself very well . . .

  9. I'm a great believer in the ability of 'things' to carry some sort of essence of their previous owners. I once had a similar experience when I was working as a field archaeologist. I found a piece of pottery with (presumably) the potter's fingerprint on it. I had an overwhelming sense of the satisfaction of knowing the firing process had worked.

    I hope you get to handle the notebooks.

  10. I agree with you AJ. How wonderful to "pick up" on that piece of pottery. When Tam and I were helping out on the dig at Dinefwr Roman Fort(s), we got to clean out the "Pissoire" (fortunately cleansed by 2000 years of rain) which had once been an amphora containing olive oil or fish paste or something similar. Right at the bottom was the thumb print of the potter and although I didn't get that sort of buzz when I put my thumb in it, I got the buzz from "the last person touching this lived 2000 years ago . . ."

  11. Here is a link to the classic "In Pursuit of Spring" by Edward Thomas.