Friday, 22 March 2013
Living in the past with Edward Thomas
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.