|Edward Thomas Fellowship
We also offer, as a downloadable document, A Chronological Listing of Published Letters from Edward Thomas, with an Index of Correspondents (2011; revised 2013 and 2017), compiled by Fellowship member Graham Roe.
From The Woodland Life (1897), Edward Thomas's first book,
published when he was just 19 years old. A description of the English countryside
At length the road emerges from its groove on to the hill-top, and once more it is level and bounded by narrow woods of spruce, whence comes the startling challenge of the pheasant-cocks. Meanwhile the twilight air has become keener and the wind rises -- humming through the green firs. The smaller birds are nearly all in cover, and only a belated pipit or a steady flapping rook moves aloft in the rude air. Sometimes, in the hedges that line the way, robins rustle gently and fly a yard or two, or a blackbird blusters out; otherwise the life so lately stirring is silent, and the tomtits are rocked asleep amid the swaying larch-boughs. Out in the fields, freshly turned by the plough, peewits run rapidly hither and thither, occasionally chirruping a low distressful note, unlike their usual screaming wail. The whole flock is within thirty yards of us, and their markings are perfectly clear,-- the flowing crest, the dark band beneath the throat, and the snow-white breast, showing against the clods. With the chilling wind the snow begins to fall again, and from the shelter of this holly-tree we can watch the flakes drifting swiftly across the meadows, and rolling like thin smoke, silvering the sward and heaping by the ditches. Still the peewits move uneasily in the open, always facing the wind and the thin wall of snow bearing down upon them. Scared by a sportsman passing near them, several rise, but soon settle again, running a short distance in the very teeth of the blast. Some of them stand huddled in the furrows, as partridges do by the ant-hillocks. At length the snow ceases and the wind drops to a whisper; then over the hill-top the lapwings start up again and wheel in phantom flight, shrieking their weird night call.
From Beautiful Wales (1905). A description of a Welsh clergyman which exemplifies Edward Thomas's skill at observing traits of character as well as his gentle humour.
He makes a fine figure of Charity in his old age, with his preoccupied blue eyes under a brow that is marked only by three lines like three beams thrown upward by a sun. He has a large, joyous, curving mouth, side-whiskers, careless beard, large feet.
He has but one touch of sentiment. Nearly half a century ago he fell in love with a pretty woman, and unsuccessfully; yet, though she is known to be married and still alive, he has come to have for her memory a grandfatherly tenderness, regarding her as a white and careless girl, in spite of time. For the rest, so warm and radiant is he, that I remember the peculiarity of Kai. "When it rained hardest, whatever he carried remained dry for a handbreadth above and a handbreadth below his hand, and when his companions were coldest, it was to them as fuel with which to light their fire."
But in the pulpit - whether it is a whim or an atonement or merely a recollection of his years at a theological college - he always makes an attempt to dust the wrinkles of his waistcoat. In every other way he makes his week-day self incredible to a stranger. He justifies and makes use of his size more than any man I ever saw. Seeing him in the pulpit, it seems fitting that he should live there day and night, so necessary a pillar is he to the dull, small chapel, though, when holding out his arms, as often he does, he threatens to demolish the little arches and poor windows and to create something more splendid in their place. Going there once in his absence, a visitor remarked to a deacon that they had made some changes in the building; and asking what had gone from there, he was told, "Oh, only Mr Rowlands."
Standing there, he undertakes to speak on behalf of the Deity, whose ways he explains, and by a magnificent self-conceit supposes that his own stature and voice are fitting symbols to mortals incapable of apprehending things more august. For a time, indeed, during the singing of the hymns, there is a geniality as of lightning about his face. He smiles; he tosses his head with the joy of the song, and he may even be supposed to feel, not without sympathy, that the mighty music says things which were not dreamed of by prophets or apostles.
When he reads a lesson, it is plain to see that above all other Gods he loves "the Lord that smiteth." He opens his mouth and rejoices in the rich and massy Welsh. He makes no attempt at mere clear reading, which would be of no use to an imaginative audience, that is familiar with the Bible; but, raising and lowering his voice, now hurrying as if to a precipice where all will be overthrown, now creeping as if he feared what is to come, he makes the chapter anew, creating it as if he were sculptor or musician. I suppose he uses nearly as many musical notes as if he sang; but the result differs from singing, as prose from poetry; and so noble is the prose that it suggests only one possible answer to the question which, like a schoolman, he once asked, Whether the music of the spheres be verse or prose? Yet, if the note of the lesson is melancholy, full of the dreariness of moving over the void and creating, the note of the sermon is triumphant, or if not triumphant it is minatory, or if not minatory it is scornful, and at times a listener expects to see him wrapped in a cloud and carried away from an undeserving and purblind race.
From The Heart of England (1906). Edward Thomas appears to recount walking with his wife Helen across the fields to the farmhouse where they would live. This precise description of Else's Farm, near the village of Weald in Kent, which was the Thomases' home from 1904-1906, remains accurate. This passage also provides an example of Edward Thomas's lyrical idealism in his prose.
Almost at the end of a long walk, and as a small silver sun was leaving a pale and frosty sky, we began to ascend a broad, heaving meadow which was bordered on our right, on its eastern side, by a long, narrow copse of ash trees. At the top of the meadow, hardly a quarter of a mile away, was a little red farmhouse -- yet not so little but that it rose with a maternal dignity among and above the sheds and stables, its children, and, like it, of antique red. The home and dependencies gave out a sense of solidity, independence and seclusion. Our hearts acknowledged at once that it was desirable, saluted it, and were calmly glad at the sight.
At that moment the tumult of a windy day was entirely gone. The north wind now lay dead upon the long white clouds in the east. The smoke from the farmhouse chimneys flowed southward along the top of the ash trees in a narrow, motionless rivulet in the calm air. Far off the hoofs of the returning hunt clattered decently, and combined with the dim memory of the wind in the trees and sedge to give to the great meadow an emphasised tranquillity like that which fills an invalid's room when others are just audibly busy about and below. We walked more and more slowly up the meadow. The red house was clear and hard in the grey air, yet with a richness and implicated shadow as of things submerged. Something which it gave out abundantly filled our minds that had for hours played with casual and untraceable thoughts and images -- descended like an enthusiasm among criticisms. In a minute the house was beautiful; it seemed to flower with the happiness of men and women and little children living melodiously; there, we thought, must be minds and bodies which, without carelessness and without stupidity, found in life what some expect from the future and some feign to remember in the past; there was character and beauty and strength, which time flowed over in vain. Hither, it seemed, had drifted upon Lethe's stream all the hopes and wishes and recollections and unaccomplished dreams of unhappy men, and had formed at last a blossoming island in the waste.
And some were enjoying that island now. The very smoke from the chimneys had goodness in it. Even as we walked we turned the moment past into a Golden Age, except that, whenever we looked up towards the house, we knew that all was not yet lost, and that a Golden Age might still succeed the last.
From 'A Return to Nature', a short story in The South Country (1909). Here, Edward Thomas describes a small and rather pathetic demonstration by famished unemployed men in London; the attitudes of various onlookers are particularly telling. This passage reveals his acute conscience regarding social injustice.
The multitude on the pavement continued to press straight onward, or to flit in and out of coloured shops. None looked at the standard, the dark man and his cloudy followers, except a few of the smallest newspaper boys who had a few spare minutes and rushed over to march with them in the hope of music or a speech or a conflict. The straight flower-girl flashed her eyes as she stood on the kerb, her left arm curving with divine grace round the shawl-hidden child at her bosom, her left hand thrust out full of roses. The tender, well-dressed women leaning on the arms of their men smiled faintly, a little pitiful, but gladly conscious of their own security and pleasantness. Men with the historic sense glanced and noted the fact that there was a procession. One man, standing on the kerb, took a sovereign from his pocket, looked at it and then at the unemployed, made a little gesture of utter bewilderment, and dropping the coin down into the drain below, continued to watch. Comfortable clerks and others of the servile realized that here were the unemployed about whom the newspapers had said this and that -- ("a pressing question" -- "a very complicated question not to be decided in a hurry" -- "it is receiving the attention of some of the best intellects of the time" -- "our special reporter is making a full investigation" -- "who are the genuine and who are the impostors?" -- "connected with Socialist intrigues") -- and they repeated the word "Socialism" and smiled at the bare legs of the son of man and the yellow boots of the orator. Next day they would smile again with pride that they had seen the procession which ended in feeble, violent speeches against the Army and the Rich, in four arrests and an imprisonment. For they were angry and uttered curses. One waved an arm against a palace, an arm that could scarcely hold out a revolver even were all the kings sitting in a row to tempt him. In the crowd and disturbance the leader fell and fainted. They propped him in their arms and cleared a space about him. "Death of Nelson," suggested an onlooker, laughing, as he observed the attitude and the knee-breeches. "If he had only a crown of thorns . . . " said another, pleased by the group. "Wants a bit of skilly and real hard work," said a third.
From In Pursuit of Spring (1914), one of Edward Thomas's best topographical books, recounting his bicycle journey, in March 1913, from London, through the southern counties, to Cothelstone Hill in Somerset. Here he describes Glastonbury.
For three miles I was in the flat green land of Queen's Sedgemoor, drained by straight sedgy watercourses, along which grow lines of elm, willow, or pine. Glastonbury Tor mounted up out of the flat before me, like a huge tumulus, almost bare, but tipped by St Michael's tower. Soon the ground began to rise on my left, and the crooked apple orchards of Avalon came down to the roadside, their turf starred by innumerable daisies and gilt celandines. Winding round the base of the Tor, I rode into Glastonbury, and down its broad, straight hill past St John the Baptist Church and the notoriously mediaeval "Pilgrim's Inn," and many pastry cooks. Another peat cart was going down the street. The church stopped me because of its tower and the grass and daisies and half-dozen comfortable box tombs of its churchyard, irregularly placed and not quite upright. One of the tombs advertised in plain lettering the fact that John Down, the occupant, who died in 1829 at the age of eighty-three, had, "for more than sixty years owned the abbey." He owned the abbey, nothing more; at least his friends and relatives were content to introduce him to posterity as the man who "for more than sixty years owned the abbey." If the dead were permitted to own anything here below, doubtless he would own it still. Outside the railings two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whip-top, and that a carrot-shaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey. The interior of the church is made equally broad at both ends by the lack of screen or of any division of the chancel. It is notable also for a marble monument in the south-west corner, retaining the last of its pale blue and rose colouring. A high chest, carved with camels, forms the resting-place for a marble man with a head like Dante's, wearing a rosary over his long robes.
At first I thought I should not see more of the abbey than can be seen from the road -- the circular abbot's kitchen with pointed cap, and the broken ranges of majestic tall arches that guide the eye to the shops and dwellings of Glastonbury. While I was buying a postcard the woman of the shop reminded me of Joseph of Arimathea's thorn, and how it blossomed at Christmas. "Did you ever see it blossoming at Christmas?" I asked. "Once," she said, and she told me how the first winter she spent in Glastonbury was a very mild one, and she went out with her brothers for a walk on Christmas day in the afternoon. She remembered that they wore no coats. And they saw blossom on the holy thorn. After all, I did go through the turnstile to see the abbey. The high pointed arches were magnificent, the turf under them perfect. The elms stood among the ruins like noble savages among Greeks. The orchards hard by made me wish that they were blossoming. But excavations had been going on; clay was piled up and cracking in the sun, and there were tin sheds and scaffolding. I am not an archaeologist, and I left it. As I was approaching the turnstile an old hawthorn within a few yards of it, against a south wall, drew my attention. For it was covered with young green leaves and with bright crimson berries almost as numerous. Going up to look more closely, I saw what was more wonderful -- Blossom. Not one flower, nor one spray only, but several sprays. I had not up till now seen even blackthorn flowers, though towards the end of February I had heard of hawthorn flowering near Bradford. As this had not been picked, I conceitedly drew the conclusion that it had not been observed. Perhaps its conspicuousness had saved it. It was Lady Day. I had found the Spring in that bush of green, white, and crimson. So warm and bright was the sun, and so blue the sky, and so white the clouds, that not for a moment did the possibility of Winter returning cross my mind.
Pleasure at finding the May sent me up Wearyall Hill, instead of along the customary road straight out of Glastonbury. The hill projects from the earth like a ship a mile long, whose stern is buried in the town, its prow uplifted westward towards Bridgwater; and the road took me up as on a slanting deck, until I saw Glastonbury entire below me, all red-tiled except the ruins and the towers of St John and St Benedict. At the western edge the town's two red gasometers stood among blossoming plum trees, and beyond that spread the flat land. The Quantocks, fifteen miles distant, formed but a plain wall, wooded and flat-topped, on the horizon northward.
From 'The Maiden's Wood', a short story in Rest and Unrest (1910). Though this piece is most accurately classified as a short story, its style is very similar to that typical of Edward Thomas's nature essays and topographical writing: first-person narration with closely observed details of an encountered scene or character.
I had been there a score of times without making anything like a full survey and inventory of my kingdom. It was becoming part of me, a kingdom rather of the spirit than of the earth, and I was content to see what I had seen on my first visit. In the neighbouring woods I had sought for orchises but after finding half a dozen kinds here at that time I had not looked for more. The other flowers were the usual flowers of the woods, the minute green moschatel, the stars of stitchwort and later woodruff, the bluebell and a few more, such as I was glad to greet for the twentieth time with more familiarity than ceremony. But one day I not only learnt that the wood was not my own, but that there was a further mystery. At the first moment the other visitor seemed to its possessor, so much at home was she and so strange did I suddenly feel. It was a woman, how much past middle age I could not guess. her hair was flaxen, her face as much weathered as it was possible to be without ceasing to be pink and fresh, her thin mouth at one childlike and shrewd, her eyes of a sparkling grey so that in each of them seemed always to be a drop of quick-silver sliding. She was short and plump and had a kind of briskness that I imagined to mean a nature of the utmost independence and unworldliness. She came towards me gathering flowers which she put into a basket on one arm. She looked at me with those intensely brilliant eyes that certainly saw me as I had never been seen before and saw in me something of which I was unaware; she curtsied and went on picking flowers. I was just about to step off the narrow path so as not to disturb her, when, still bending and without looking at me, she hopped aside and I passed by. Indeed I should not have spoken to this extraordinary human being, in spite of her rarity and fascination, if it had not been for the flowers which I caught sight of under her face. Though I am not a botanist I see most of the flowers in my path and I know the names of most; but I recognized none of these. They were bells and cups and stars clustered or single, in spires and bunches, that I had never seen growing wild before.
"There are many here in this wood," she said in answer to my questions. "Yes, only here."
"Can you tell me their names?" I asked.
"No. They have never been christened that I know of," she replied.
Seeing some orchises among them I said:
"But you know these?"
"Yes, they are fly-hawkins and butterflies' nests," she said, perverting the names of the fly-orchis and bird's nest and butterfly orchises. She smiled, I did not know why; but it was a smile as fitting to her childlike mouth and complexion, her quick-silver eye, her briskness, and her hop to one side. I asked her the name of the wood. "The Maiden's Wood," -- she said, "It has always been called the Maiden's Wood . . . I do not know the meaning of the name." And she went on picking flowers. I now saw that these unfamiliar kinds were to be found everywhere in the little wood.
Twice again I saw her in the wood, and I liked to see her alone and undisturbed, at ease and at home there like a bird questing among the dead leaves when it has no fears of being observed.
From The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938). Written between 1913 and 1915, this is Edward Thomas's autobiography which unfortunately he was unable to continue beyond his schooldays, but the existing portion is complete in itself. It creates a vivid picture of his middle-class suburban childhood, with many amusing vignettes of his family, friends, school teachers and casual acquaintances, as well as giving a fascinating account of Edward's burgeoning passions for literature and natural history. It also sometimes, as in this extract, depicts the unpleasant - even brutal - aspects of human nature as they were revealed to this boy.
So I used to enjoy going about with Henry to look at the pigeon shops in Wandsworth, Battersea and Clapham, occasionally to visit the back-garden lofts of working men in the same neighbourhoods. He had me in tow and I think I remained for the most part silent in the background unless I had a bird to buy. These long rambles among crowds of working people under the gaslight, in all sorts of weathers, were a great pleasure and were interrupted by a greater one when we stood and looked at pigeons in an atmosphere of shag smoke, grain and birds. At one time I paid a good many visits to the lofts of a tradesman in our neighbourhood, a tall gross pale-faced man with a truculent geniality. He was said to ill-treat the small wife who did most of the shop work and to be going under an assumed name for some bad reason. John would never have endured him: if he had to deal with men below him he preferred gamekeepers and such like who had to be tipped and knew their place. But the man kept scores of long-distance homing pigeons. Their high circlings visible from our back garden, and their rushing lower flight between the chimney-pots, were sublime to me. It was a great day therefore when I went round to him to get the pair of young black chequers which I had been awaiting for many days. I was to have them, so I understood, for two-and-six the pair. When I already had them in my hands I learnt that they were two-and-six each. This was beyond my means, nor did I want to have one of them at such a price. So he took them back into his hands at the door. Then while I was still lingering he put the head of one bird in his mouth, as I imagined in fun, or to slip a grain into its beak. His teeth closed on the slender neck tighter and tighter, the wings flapped and quivered, and when he opened his jaws the bird was dead. I was speechless, on the edge of tears. He looked down at me with a half-pitying grin, remarking that I was "still soft-hearted". My tenderness turned to hatred for the man, yet I could not speak. I dared not show my feeling. With only a meek resentfulness I even accepted his gift of the surviving bird. It became the prize of my pigeon house, always distinguished as "the young homer". The man I never did more than nod to again.
From The Diary of Edward Thomas 1 January - 8 April 1917 (1977). Edward Thomas made this diary entry about six weeks before his death in action on the Western Front.
23 [February 1917]
Chaffinch sang once. Another dull cold day. Inspected stables, checked inventory of new billet for men in Rue Jeanne d'Arc, went with Colonel round 244, 141 and 234 positions and O.P. in Achicourt. Afternoon maps. Partridges twanging in fields. Flooded fields by stream between the 2 sides of Achicourt. ruined churches, churchyard and railway. Sordid ruin of Estaminet with carpenter's shop over it in Rue Jeanne d'Arc -- wet, mortar, litter, almanacs, bottles, broken glass, damp beds, dirty paper, knife, crucifix, statuette, old chairs. Our cat moves with the Group wherever it goes, but inspects new house inside and out, windows, fireplace etc. Paid the Pool gunners (scrapings from several batteries doing odd jobs here). 2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more. Finished [Robert] Frost's 'Mountain Interval'. Wrote to Frost. A quiet still evening. Rubin brought over letters from Helen [Thomas, his wife] and Oscar [Thomas, his brother].
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