Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney   1939 - 2013

How sad that Seamus Heaney has died at what is not a great age at all.  He would have been such a wonderful, gracious, inspiring  ninety-year-old.

Below is an extract from Branchlines. modern poets responses to Edward Thomas, edited by Lucy Newlyn and Guy Cuthbertson. I hope Guy and Lucy will be happy with my citing it.

Seamus Heaney introduces 'As The Team's Headbrass' with this passage, showing his characteristic
'every-dayness', erudition, wide-ranging sphere of reference and generosity.

Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road  
He's not in view but I can hear a step
On the grass-crowned road, the whip of daisy heads
On the toes of boots.
                                    Behind the hedge
Eamon Murphy and Teresa Brennan -
Fully clothed, strong-arming each other -
Have sensed him and gone quiet. I keep on watching
As they rise and go.
                              And now the road is empty.
Nothing but air and light between their love-nest
And the bracken hillside where I lie alone.
Utter evening, as it was in the beginning,
Until the remembered come and go of lovers
Brings on his long-legged self on the Lagans Road -
Edward Thomas in his khaki tunic
Like one of the Evans brothers out of Leitrim,
Demobbed, 'not much changed', sandy moustached and freckled
From being, they said, with Monty in the desert.

 The next work in 'District and Circle' is a prose piece 'The Lagans Road'.
'The Lagan's Road ran for about three quarters of a mile across an area of wetlands. It was one of those narrow country roads with weeds in the middle, grass verges and high hedges on either side, and all around it marsh and rushes and little shrubs and birch trees. For a minute or two every day, therefore you were in the wilderness...'
It  must have known the road he knew first and earliest, as he describes going along it on his first day at school, minded by a neighbour's daughter, and hearing the shouts of children from half- a mile away.

The river Lagan is a tidal river west of Belfast.

As the Team's Head- Brass

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away? '
'When the war's over.' So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out? ' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps? '
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here? ' 'Yes.' 'Many lost? ' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Here's an extract from my novel:

Granted a day’s leave in May, too brief to travel to Steep and being disinclined to visit his parents, he planned a day-long walk into the countryside west of the camp. Once he was out of the suburbs he began to feel his old self coming back to him – his Walking Tom self, as his friends called him, striding along, looking, thinking, and solitary again. He needed it, solitude after company. Then he could enjoy company again.

He had no plan, so he followed his favourite method, taking a series of left turns  every few miles, so that he would be likely to find himself having walked a circle and discovered some  lovely, unknown and unexpected sights on the way.

By noon he was hungry and looking for somewhere to sit and eat his lunch. He might find an inn later in the day for a drink.

A stile led out of a wood to a field being ploughed. In the corner near the stile was a fallen elm tree, its branches invading the field. He sat comfortably on the trunk and looked back at the wood – on the path he had just taken were a couple who were clearly lovers. They suddenly left the track and went into the dense undergrowth. He turned away and watched the team of horses and ploughman making the remaining square of charlock shrink with each round they made. The bright brasses decorating the horses’ heads flashed as they turned into the sun at the corner and began to approach him. For one moment he imagined them treading him down.

At each round the ploughman paused briefly and spoke to Edward. It was a strange conversation – a minute’s stop, then the ten minutes it took for the team and the ploughman to come round again. First they talked about the day’s weather, then about the blizzard that had brought down the tree where he sat.

‘When will they carry it away?’ Edward asked.

‘When the war’s over.’ The war had taken a good many men from the district and a good many of them were lost.

 ‘One of my mates is dead. The second day in France they killed him. It was early in March, the blizzard night. Now if he’d stayed here we should’ve cleared this tree.’

‘Well, it would have been a different world. Everything would have been different.’

‘Ay, and a better world,’ the ploughman answered, ‘although if we could know everything it might be for the best.’

Then the man asked, seeing Edward’s uniform, if he had himself been out. He shook his head.

 ‘Nor d’you want to, I suppose?’

 The conversation between them felt suddenly constrained. Then Edward answered lightly, ‘I could cope with losing an arm, but not a leg, and if I lost my head, well, I shouldn’t want for anything.’

 The ploughing was almost finished and the ploughman bade him good-bye. Edward watched as the ploughshare twisted and clods fell inwards behind, the sliced earth shining down the deep furrow. 

Later, over a pint of mild at a crossroad’s inn, he began some notes. He had a sense of something vanishing, that he and those horses and the ploughman were not destined to stay peacefully in these English fields. Only the lovers, in one form or another, would endure. Troubled, he stopped writing for a time, his fingers tracing the line of a deep grain in the table where his notebook lay.


That same March blizzard brought down all the seven elm trees in the garden at the Gallows that had troubled Robert so much. The Abercrombies weren’t there, in Gloucestershire, any more. Lascelles was supervising a munitions factory in the north by then.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

....Then two come along at once.

Both the Edward Thomas Fellowship and the Friends of the Dymock Poets  Newsletters arrived yesterday.

There is so much meat in both, but I will mention a few things. I turned first to the FDP as I expected a review of A Conscious Englishman, and there it was, a full page review, and opposite a page-long review of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. That was particularly pleasing.

The reviewer is James Riding, unknown to me, a cultural and historical geographer. That seems an interesting starting point, and I was delighted with the review. I liked it all. To cite a  few lines:

'The journey to becoming a poet is written in a tremendously heart-felt and rigorously researched manner and bound up in this wrangling is the fateful decision to go to war. It is a tale of love and the absence of love. A love of landscape, of nature, of place, of community; a love of words, a love between friends, unrequited love, lost love from youth, and a love that can never be wholly given-

That I could not return
All that you gave
And could not ever burn
With the love you have...
With only gratitude
Instead of love-
A pine in solitude
Cradling a dove.'

 'The book ...does not make the mistake of saying anything definitive as some biographies have. It follows a well-known historical time-line that anyone with an interest in Edward Thomas will already know, with minute details and little tales from archival material scattered through to surprise and delight even the most knowledgeable.'

There is so much to read in the FDP Newsletter - I especially valued Lynne Ardrey's account of Anna Stebbings talk on the Dymock field notebooks:

'Thomas jotted down records of buildings, birds, flowers and cloud formations, so that one has the effect of an artist's sketchbook, with precise details: the exact colour of the pigs in the orchard at Ryton, the distant sound of the nightingales along Ledbury road.'

He gave an account of the malodorous privy at Oldfields, all cobwebs, flies and other wild-life. Mmmmh - I didn't know that and it's rather an eye-opener as I had pictured the Chandlers as  a very civilised farming couple with a well-run home.

The notebooks are in the New York Public Library Berg collection and Anna needed to see them as part of her doctorate thesis.  Part of her theme is the Frost/Thomas friendship and I really hope the thesis will be published.

It's very well worth joining the FDP - information is on

Then there is the rather larger, slightly glossier

This edition has a real scoop - I had heard the news last March but now it's gone public.

twenty one books from Edward and Helen's personal library, lost for decades, have been found. It's a long story - in brief, Helen's need to move to smaller accommodation led to the books being stored by friends and after her death in the '60's their whereabouts was forgotten.
There is a fascinating account by Edward's grand-daughter about Helen's life up to and after the Second World War.

Some of the books are exceptionally important - the Shakespeare sonnets that Edward took to the Front. The book is inscribed, 'To Edward from Helen Jan 11th 1917' - just before his embarkation for France.

North of Boston by Robert Frost, inscribed 'Edward Thomas from Robert Frost May 1914.
Both of them feature in my novel.

Several gifts from Eleanor Farjeon, a gift to Helen from John Middleton Murry in 1926 - did Helen meet Katherine Mansfield then? If so I did not know it.

Most moving, a copy of Thomas's first book of poems inscribed by Helen 'from my Beloved to me ' - in October , several months after he was killed.

Much more. I'll look at more of the contents  from the rest of the Newsletter next time.

On the rear is a happy picture of the Steep church window's engraving  in progress after the original  was destroyed. The artist is Tony Gilliam.

To join the ETF    look at their website -

Both organisations have a very low membership fee, plenty of activities and these great journals , which welcome contributions.


I hadn't realised how strongly this poem demonstrate the relationship between Edward and Helen Thomas, even though there are question-marks as to the addressee, if any one person.
It seems to me it begins addressed to his mother and then moves to Helen, mirroring the circumstances of its composition. Initially he noted Balham (parents address) then crossed that out and wrote 'Going home'. (to Steep)

No One So Much As You

No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day.

You know me through and through
Though I have not told,
And though with what you know
You are not bold.

None ever was so fair
As I thought you:
Not a word can I bear
Spoken against you.

All that I ever did
For you seemed coarse
Compared with what I hid
Nor put in force.

My eyes scarce dare meet you
Lest they should prove
I but respond to you
And do not love.

We look and understand,
We cannot speak
Except in trifles and
Words the most weak.

For I at most accept
Your love, regretting
That is all: I have kept
Only a fretting

That I could not return
All that you gave
And could not ever burn
With the love you have,

Till sometimes it did seem
Better it were
Never to see you more
Than linger here

With only gratitude
Instead of love -
A pine in solitude
Cradling a dove.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Edward Thomas and Three Women: Helen Thomas

 Helen is the one who matters: her devotion and loyalty to Edward Thomas must move all but the stoniest heart.  This is just an introduction to Helen.

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880. 

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. She was quite 'bohemian' in dress and in the circles she moved in.

She met Edward through her father who encouraged his writing and their getting to know each other.

Helen became pregnant with Merfyn while Edward was an undergraduate at Oxford .( See my blogs on Oxford.) In 1896, they married and times were very hard financially. Bronwen was born and became quite ill with their poor living conditions, as Edward struggled to make a living by his writing.

Helen taught kindergarden children at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school in Steep where they had moved. They had a third child, Myfanwy, who became a writer.
After the war Helen wrote about her relationship with Edward  in  1926 and 1931. The two volumes, 'As it Was '  and 'World without End' were republished with the  perfect title 'Under Storm's Wing' (from  the poem 'Interval').  Her daughter, Myfanwy, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen  died in 1967.
It was a way of keeping Edward alive for her, and it is an intelligent, passionate work; in it Helen often belittles her intellect and wisdom, sadly, something she had probably evolved under Edward's frequent unkindness.

I depended heavily on 'Under Storm's Wing' and decided to have Helen in the first person - the voice  I give her is not that of Helen in her book - it needs to have that sense of happening in the present which Jude Morgan refers to in his 'Shakespeare'. But  I chose to have her write a memoir, 'Half a Kiss, Half a Tear' and to open and close it with scenes and phrases  taken very closely from Under Storm's Wing. Here is an extract from the closing scene: it is almost Christmas, 1916. She had not expected him to be free to come home for what would be a brief leave before embarking for France, but:          

'My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’

I knew I must live in the present, that we could at least be together like doomed lovers, doubting that they would have a future and making the most of their time. So I told the children and we danced all around the house, singing,

‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’ And in the same post came a cheque for twenty pounds, a gift from a private fund for writers. Twenty pounds – so much money! I hurried up to London and bought the best Jaeger sleeping bag, thick gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Edward, more presents for the children and a red dress for myself – Edward loved to see me in red. And I bought fruit, sweets, and other luxuries, even some wine.

The children collected fir, ivy and holly from the forest. We dug up a little Christmas tree from the garden and made it dance with sparkling decorations and candles ready to light.

Our Christmas Day was perfect. We woke to hear the children, Baba especially, exclaiming over presents in the lumpy stockings. Edward had crept in as usual and filled them while they slept. We always put exciting little things in them; bigger presents waited until later. Edward went down to make tea, his army greatcoat over his pyjamas, and then we all five squeezed into our big bed. Merfyn did still have a stocking, but we acknowledged his grown-up status with shaving soap, cigarettes and a new mouth-organ, and Bronwen’s with the grown-up things she liked, scent, ribbons and a lacy handkerchief, as well as a new sketch-book and crayons. Merfyn played, ‘It’s a long long trail’ on the mouth-organ while Edward wound up a grey clockwork mouse I’d bought Baba. It scuttled over the floorboards and to please her Bronwen and I duly screamed in the way women must.

As usual, Eleanor was too generous, with a great parcel of presents, each one gorgeously wrapped. Edward was happy to have the sumptuous warm Jaeger sleeping bag from me and straight away marked the name tape – P.E. Thomas.

The day passed happily. As soon as tea was over I went out and lit the coloured candles on the Christmas tree, then Edward carried it in from where Merfyn had hidden it in the woodshed. Myfanwy was entranced. She’d never seen a Christmas tree before.

After tea we sat near the fire, eating nuts and talking or reading our new books. Then Edward took Baba on his knee and sang Welsh songs and some rousing army ones.

It was just before her bedtime that I watched the two of them, Baba on a chair by the window, looking out at the snow and Edward behind her looking out too. They were hoping to see deer.

‘Shall we see any? Are they out there?’ she asked. I remember that she wondered if they were cold and frightened, out in the dark, not like her, safe in the cosy sitting room, with the lamp lit and her father’s hand on her shoulder. That was when I wept.
 The poem- of course:
And You, Helen
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.