Sunday 9 April 2017

'What couldn't possibly happen to us had happened...'

I have written much about Edward Thomas on this blog, but, looking back, I realise that I have never marked the anniversary of his death. And this year it is the centenary of that sad loss to English poetry - and something more terrible to his family and others who loved him.
 In her autobiography, Myfanwy Thomas, Edward's younger daughter, then just six years old, describes her anxieties after her father left for the war -

After saying good-bye to my father, every night for weeks I prayed for his safety on the ship, which seemed to me the most dangerous part of going to war. I imagined huge waves dashing against a small tug-boat, which mounted to the crest and then slithered down. My eyes screwed up tightly could not dispel this terrifying picture. The only prayer I knew was one which Joan Farjeon, Joe's daughter, had taught me. The prayer was a puzzle but I did not like to ask Mother about it; we were not a praying family. But seeing Joan kneel by her bed enchanted me and I became a regular kneeler.

Then, when the dreaded news came -

On that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. "No answer" came like a croak, and the boy rode away.
Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother's sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.
The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron [her sister Bronwen] had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire on a rage of tears - for what couldn't possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea?

 It was long believed that Thomas died without a mark on his body, killed by the concussive wave of a passing shell. However, in a letter discovered recently in an American archive, his commanding officer wrote that he was 'shot clean through the chest'. His widow was tactfully spared this fact - the slightest softening of a blow that plunged her into unbearable grief and a shattering 'breakdown'.
 Robert Frost, who described Thomas as 'the only brother I ever had', knew him for just four years, but his loving friendship and encouragement made a poet - ultimately a great poet - of Thomas. Three years after his friend's death, Frost wrote To E.T. -

I slumbered with your poems on my breast 
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through 
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb 
To see, if in a dream they brought of you, 

I might not have the chance I missed in life 
Through some delay, and call you to your face 
First soldier, and then poet, and then both, 
Who died a soldier-poet of your race. 

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain 
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained— 
And one thing more that was not then to say: 
The Victory for what it lost and gained. 

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire 
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day 
The war seemed over more for you than me, 
But now for me than you—the other way. 

How over, though, for even me who knew 
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, 
If I was not to speak of it to you 
And see you pleased once more with words of mine? 

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