Monday, October 29, 2012

Edward Thomas and The Thames at Oxford

It was the 50th Anniversary of the building of Donnington Bridge last Saturday and we went along to the celebrations with visiting family. In Thomas 's time there was a ferry across the river, and in the thirties a footbridge only.

Edward Thomas was quite a keen rower and this stretch, between Folly Bridge and Iffley Lock, must have been where he rowed.  He appreciated the college barges, beautiful things, of which there is only one left I believe, moored very near Donnington Bridge and now someone's home (open during Artsweeks.)

'The River Isis

On the right is the gold-and-white barge of Magdalen College undergoing repair. The masts and barges of other Colleges line the side of the river, and Folly Bridge closes the prospect.'

Oxford, 1903

I walk from Donnington to Iffley most days even though sadly without our beloved Greg who died in January. (We are now thinking about and looking around for another dog - ideally a mongrel puppy- hard to find.)

Today I paid another visit to the bull's head sculpted by Charles Wheeler, R A in 1923, and set in the lovely old bridge before Iffley Lock. as a 'starting ring.' Not many people walking the riverside path know it's there, but those tying up their boats for the Head of The River start must know it well.  The bull of course is for Ox-ford.
Charles Wheeler was only in his early twenties when he sculpted this, but already R.A. He became its first sculptor President   - that was in 1956 when he was very Establishment - Royalty, the Bank of England.
We were watching an Arts programme recently when he was mentioned as having banned from the Royal Academy the abstract artist  John Hoyland (at least we're pretty sure it was him - please correct me if I'm wrong.

 Edward Thomas, from 'Oxford' on the culture of rowing in Oxford which does not seem to have changed a bit except - thank God - there are WOMEN.

'It is a finer lesson in eloquence to listen to the coaches shouting reprimand and advice, in sentences one or two words long, to a panting crew. One can see the secret of English success in the meek reception which a number of hard-working, conscientious, abraded men give to the abuse of an idler on the bank. On the afternoon of the races all is changed. The man who yesterday shouted "Potato sacks" or "Pleasure Boat!" now screams "Well rowed all!" Before and behind him flows all of the University that can run a mile.'The faces of all are expressive in every inch; all restraint of habit or decorum is gone for the time being. The racing boats make hardly a sound, and for the most part the rowers hear not a sound from the bank, only the click  of their own rowlocks.'


Here is a much lazier boat, and an unusually contented  poet. He associated rivers and lakes with psychic harmony and relaxation, and it seems a pity that he did not often have the chance to take a boat out.
. 'The morning was already hot... At the river I took a dinghy and sculled for nearly two hours... Hardly a though or memory stirred itself. Nevertheless I was conscious of that blest lucidity, that physical well-being of the brain, "like the head of  a mountain in blue air and sunshine", which is so rarely  achieved except in youth.'

' There is nothing like the solitude of a solitary lake in early morning, when one is in deep still water.'


Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake
Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.
The boat itself stirs only when I break
This drowse of heat and solitude afloat
To prove if what I see be bird or mote,
Or learn if yet the shore woods be awake.

Long hours since dawn grew, - spread, - and passed on high
And deep below, - I have watched the cool reeds hung
Over images more cool in imaged sky:
Nothing there was worth thinking of for long;
All that the ring-doves say, far leaves among,
Brims my mind with content thus still to lie.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Edward Thomas's  'Oxford', printed in 1903, saved the family from the 'gutter and bankruptcy.'

It was his first major commissioned work and came at a time when they were desperate for money after two years of living mainly from reviewing and single articles.

 Words or pictures first?  My copy, a rather expensive birthday present, privileged the John Fulleylove paintings above the text., and Edward Thomas was commissioned to accompany them.

Mine is the 'ordinary' edition, priced twenty shillings, and there was a limited Deluxe Edition, each copy numbered and signed by the artist, price two guineas.
There are sixty full-page illustrations, of which eleven are reproduced in Lucy Newlyn's 2005 reprint,Signal Books. (I have used her introduction  for most of the information in this blog.)
Lucy writes that Fulleylove was an establishment Victorian painter, his trademark being historically important buildings painted with everyday, homely touches,'with a skilful choice of the unexpected as well as the typical aspects.' Hence a cat in a quad, people on bikes, figures coming round the corners of building.
 As Edward Thomas was also  drawn to the unpretentious and everday, the two works suited each other, though they are entirely independant.
Over  a hundred years later the very peopled pictures look very Edwardian and dated to my eyes. So many chaps in black gowns, a rarer sight these days, and how different  from the French painters of the time, at least those we value most.
 I prefer the views of Oxford without people - Magdalen tower for example,(actually that is quite Impressionistic), the view from South Hinksey and the little churchyard of St Peter in the East.
I'm rather nervous of scanning the paintings but have tried  a few.
Saint Peter in the East
'It is sweet to enter that peacefullest and homeliest of churchyards, St Peter's in the East, overlooked by St Edmund Hall and Queen's College and the old city wall. There is a peace which only the thrush and blackbird break-'
The Text of 'Oxford'.

‘At sunset or dawn the city's place in the world, as a beautiful thing, is clearest. Few cities look other than sad at these hours; many, unless hid in their own smoke, look cheap. Oxford becomes part of the magic of sunset and dawn- is, as it were, gathered into the bosom of the power that is abroad. ‘

Oxford' is a strange book, peopled with semi-fictitious characters, half amalgamations of people he knew, half imaginary, and many reflecting himself as a visitor or undergraduate.. It is not everyone's cup of tea, although there is a good deal of humour in it.

It’s a  city with human influence of streets and architecture, the natural world everywhere intermingled with the buildings and the way the city 'steals out into the fields.'  That is as important to him as well as the culture of books and librairies.

He seems to have enjoyed looking back, but the book is not a personal account at all. Oxford gave him time to read and learn and make some friends, but his was not a typical student life because of the separate, secret life he had with Helen throughout.
If you are interested in Oxford it's worth buying Lucy Newlyn's book.
The poem? One of his best melancholy, looking-back poems. The lost one may be Edna.
Gone, gone again
Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,

Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.

And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees,

As when I was young—
And when the lost one was here—
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.

Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lincoln College, Oxford and 'going wrong.'

The 'back-story' : fiction writer's phrase for what the author knows about his or her characters but includes only obliquely.

My novel begins in August 1914, when war was declared and Edward Thomas was thirty-six. The events in this blog are part of his back-story, a very crucial part. It can take a long time to recover from events that 'go wrong' in your youth; some would say that he never  recovered, others that perhaps those events gave something  as well as taking from him.

I find myself thinking about this period much more than  before - almost wondering whether a 'prequel' would be a good idea!

So, continuing:

In the autumn of  1898 he moved from 113 Cowley Road to Lincoln College.
He was glad to be in college, with tutors and the possibility of friendships, rather than the solitude of his lodgings.

When he writes of Lincoln  he mostly  stresses its quietness;  on writing to Helen  on his first day he liked everything including his neighbour on the stair.

I had my first delightful glimpse of the grey, main quadrangle of Lincoln, so quiet and deserted, filled with the gaudy crimson of flying creeper leaves.

In  'Oxford,' he writes of the 'quaint cottages of Little Grove' - the fifteenth century originals. And:

what sweeter and more dignified picture of quietness and study is there than at Lincoln in Wesley's time?

But the reality is that in many ways his own  university career was a failure, especially his final year.
He  felt friendless at times,  writing to Helen,

'If I did not know you I should by this time be the most abandoned of creatures up here. As it is - did you see me as I am, I fear you would think me sadly fallen from my sentimental, well-intentioned babyhood, two years ago.'

But he did make some lasting friends, he rowed, and he had an excellent tutor who challenged and encouraged him. He was not just studying, though,  but living as a semi-professional writer with deadlines and demands for deep reading on whatever he might be reviewing or  depicting. This, his scholarship and allowance from his father made a reasonable income -  for one.

He did find time to visit friends of his friend, law-student E.S.P Haynes, the lawyer Clarke-Hall and his very young wife Edna; Edward and Edna were attracted to each other, seeing themselves as 'the artists' as opposed to 'the lawyers.'

And then in his second year Helen found she was pregnant. Worries: the future, lack of money or prospects, the reaction of their parents, whether to marry - these anxieties show in their letters especially Edward's. Helen's mother rejected her (her much-loved father had died) but Edward's parents  took her in. The couple married in May 1999. About the expected baby, Edward wrote:

'You ask, if I too feel any joy at the thought of a child. I confess I have felt it considerably, but I do not know if it is a decent joy.'

Edward stayed at Lincoln, but saw Helen often. In November - Helen seven months pregnant - he wrote:

'I crave unbearably for you, body and soul. That poor body!I can easily understand how the sight of it upsets you. I hope it is not very prodigious, also that it will not interfere with us when I return. Will it do you think? for a weight upon it might do it great harm.'

Merfyn was born in January 1900; at this time Edward's work began to suffer and his moods became gloomy. He started drinking heavily, socialising more, taking opium occasionally and despairing of getting a good degree. He was dreading leaving Oxford, having no job and no way of  knowing how  his family was to avoid  'bankruptcy and the gutter ahead.'

 What really ruined his performance in Finals, though, was that he'd  contracted gonorrhea in May during the celebrations for the relief of Mafeking - when 'all the women of the city allowed themselves to be promiscuously kissed ..,. everyone was drunk,' as he wrote to poor Helen.  'It was an absurd occasion for so unpatriotic a man'.
He felt ill and the treatment would have made him feel worse.
 Poor Edward too - as far as anyone can tell this was his first and last infidelity, aged twenty-one, and he certainly paid for it.

He tried last minute revision but too late to make enough difference. He did get a second class degree - if he'd had a First he could well have become a Fellow and  life would have been easier. His father,  who had paid an allowance for three years, was annoyed and contemptuous.

The Poem: written when Merfyn, then fifteen, was leaving for America to be away from the war and to grow up a little. It looks back on what had been a difficult relationship.


THE Past is a strange land, most strange.
Wind blows not there, nor does rain fall:
If they do, they cannot hurt at all.
Men of all kinds as equals range

The soundless fields and streets of it.
Pleasure and pain there have no sting,
The perished self not suffering
That lacks all blood and nerve and wit,

And is in shadow-land a shade.
Remembered joy and misery
Bring joy to the joyous equally;
Both sadden the sad. So memory made

Parting to-day a double pain:
First because it was parting; next
Because the ill it ended vexed
And mocked me from the Past again,

Not as what had been remedied
Had I gone on,--not that, oh no!
But as itself no longer woe;
Sighs, angry word and look and deed

Being faded: rather a kind of bliss,
For there spiritualized it lay
In the perpetual yesterday
That naught can stir or stain like this.

Next,' Oxford', the book.

Blog: I finished the poem by Robert Crawford in the previous blog.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Edward Thomas and Oxford

As I began  this heading I wasn't  sure what I meant. It could be about Edward Thomas's book  'Oxford', published  1903, republished recently by OUP.

Or about Edward Thomas's Oxford, his time there? Yes, today is about that, the book on another day.
 As I live in Oxford and have lived in or around the city since the mid-sixties it is important to me and I believe it was important to Edward Thomas, but -
 I did not have a straight-forward relationship with the University - as a mother of three primary-age children in my late twenties, but with all the right A levels, I could probably have applied to Harries Manchester and read for  an English degree as a mature student. But I was ignorant and lacking in confidence and connections so I spent three mind-numbing and fruitless years at Culham teacher-training college before having a fourth, much happier year at Oxford for my English  B.Ed (a degree which no longer exists at Oxford.)
Some years later I took an M.Sc in Applied social studies, belonging only nominally to Somerville as I had teenage children by then, in the throes of exams themselves. I dream of one day being a proper student.
I relate all this to bring me to Edward Thomas who really could have made almost as big a botch as me.
 He left school at just seventeen, his father insisting that he studied at home for Civil service entrance, but instead he set off to walk from London to Swindon, taking notes for the book that became A Woodland Life. He'd already  had a dozen articles published in national journals and was earning money from them; this gave him courage to stand up to his father and the Civil service idea was dropped - instead he was to apply to Oxford.
He had been encouraged in his writng by James Noble, writer and critic and father of Helen. Helen and Edward fell in love, and on her twentieth birthday became lovers. Biographers agree that for young people of their class this was not usual - some query Helen's motives, I think she was a very passionate person.
In the autumn of 1897 he went up to Oxford
to work for a scholarship while living
in lodgings at 113 Cowley Road, as a non-collegiate student. 

 Graffiti shops, Cowley Road, by  Jane Hope, 
If you're not familiar with it, today Cowley Road qualifies for the word 'vibrant' -  restaurants, bars, shops of every ethnicity, a live music venue, small independant  cinema, a well-known early health-food shop, Uhuru, very trendy community market - so much I can't begin to describe it. East Oxford overall is also becoming the creative heart of Oxford, especially though not entirely, for younger artists and writers.
What it's not known for is its architecture or for more established  literary connections  (Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to East Oxford as Oxford's  'base and brickish skirt'.) Not like North Oxford which is peppered with blue plaques. For this reason I want to do something about 113, but I'll come to that.

Oxford 'Entrance'

The non-collegiate scheme was not unlike the set-up in which I took my B.Ed, and Edward was not going to be satisfied with it. He had to pass exams in Greek, Latin and logic with Mathematics, and failed three times to pass what was in effect the Oxford entrance exam. He went to lectures in the morning, walked in the afternoon, worked for the rest of the time.
Edward  wrote very loving letters to Helen almost daily,
'I am very happy with you, very content, and very hopeful.... you alone are beautiful. I can often doubt whether what I see is beautiful; but I know....{unfinished}  He took long walks into the country, 'Late flights of larks were singing and darting about in the last gardens of the town and the first fields of the country.'
He wrote 'verses' and wanted her opinion, asking if she thought them ludicrous. He treated her as an intellectual equal at that time, suggesting reading  they could discuss later. Many letters are sexually charged, and one refers to the rights and wrong of 'preventatives' - contraception. In others Edward is distinguishing lust from love, saying that love lasts and also allows room for other things, whereas lust is obsessional and allows room for nothing else.
He worked hard and eventually won the history scholarship he needed to go to Oxford 'proper', to Lincoln College to read history.
There was of course no such thing as 'English literature' in conservative Oxford; it carried an association of dissent  and belonged in Liverpool and London. But it's clear that Edward spent a good deal of his time reading literature, for pleasure and because he was still selling his articles to journals.


A Poem.
From The word, (which goes on to concern something quite different from the formal learning at its beginning):
The Word
There are so many things I have forgot,
That once were much to me, or that were not,
All lost, as is a childless woman's child
And its child's children, in the undefiled
Abyss of what can never come again.
I have forgot, too, names of mighty men
That fought and lost or won in the old wars,
Of kings and fiends and gods, and most of the stars.
Some things I have forgot that I forget.
The Turl And  here is part of a poem from Branchlines, Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn, in which fifty-three of today's poets respond to him in their own work.  
This is Robert Crawford on a sense of his presence in Oxford still; Guy, his former student, is the man the poet met by chance, and certainly for me 'Your man, Edward Thomas,' is exactly right. That is Guy, and an ever-helpful guide and clue-dropper to me.

The second stanza is about the collection of letters between Edward and Robert Frost, 'Elected Friends', edited by Matthew Spencer. 
'somehow someday I shall be here again'
When we met by chance on the Turl, were you aware
Yon door opposite was exactly the dark door where
Your man, Edward Thomas, before he became a poet,           
Nipped out of the world and into Lincoln College?
 Odd we met and spoke about him there.

Odd, too, in St Louis, seeing in the Left Bank bookstore
That book of his to-and-fro with Robert Frost.
I bought it on impulse - his finest writing
So lightly right I can't get away from him,
Though all the time I know he isn't there.
Next,  Edward's student days at Lincoln and being an undergraduate father.

Blog things.
15th October post
Apropos of none of the above, I received permission from the States to post the  picture of the Frost children at Beaconsfield I removed. Courtesy of Plymouth State University.