Sunday 12 September 2021

'The one True Thomas'

 After happening upon Peter Porter's Adlestrop poem, I decided to seek out Anne Harvey's anthology Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas – and there I found another surprising poetical hommage. Gavin Ewart – who's had a few mentions on this blog before – was a poet quite unlike Edward Thomas in just about every way. And yet Thomas had played a part in Ewart's literary development, as this poem makes clear...

Edward Thomas
(for the ghost of Giles Romilly)

Some poets are for ever linked
with special times or places,
like epithets (the hedger's 'swink'd'),
but, oftenest, with faces...

My copy has some Love from you
inscribed on early pages,
sixteen in 1932.
The teens are passionate ages,

and adolescent à quoi bon?
is mix'd with what's romantic;
young highbrows with our own haut ton,
we were quite mid-Atlantic – 

in that we loved the Sacred Wood
where Eliot was camping.
Thomas's concern seemed good,
for soldiers dully tramping.

The sadness and the wistfulness,
the 'Lights Out' feeling, chimed
well with our awkward, young distress.
The whole thing was well-timed.

If often what teenagers like
can turn out to be kitsch
and nonsenseful as the Third Reich,
with soppy tone and pitch,

this never happens in his verse – 
he is the one True Thomas
(young Dylan had the Bardic curse,
though, down to the last commas,

the tourist-wise Professors push
his vowel-rhyming sagas 
as higher than the Hindu Kush
to bigots bashing lagers).

The voice is level (read 'The Owl').
That War's across the Channel.
It's not a strident Ginsberg howl
of fluting, flat – or flannel!

This is the genuine rustic sound
we later found in Hardy – 
the countryman sure of his ground,
not brash, or bold, or bardy,

so good, a critic might say 'great'
that world need unemployment),
and wonderful for weightless weight
and actual enjoyment!

A fine summing-up of Edward Thomas, I think (and an equally fine dismissal of Dylan). Weightless weight is indeed what you get with Thomas at his best – and actual enjoyment.
The 'swink'd hedger', by the way, is in Milton's 'Comus'.

'Read "The Owl"' says Ewart, rightly – it's one of Thomas's best: 

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Gavin Ewart was himself the subject of a poetic tribute – by Philip Larkin, in one of the last poems he wrote:

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

'Sprightly' is the word for Ewart's poetry, and his 'Edward Thomas' shows off his sprightliness. Like much of Ewart, it reads almost like conversational prose, its crafted poetical structure only fleetingly apparent. 'Edward Thomas' turns out, on inspection, to be written in common metre (alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, as in many a hymn) and rhymed AbAb (or, in a couple of stanzas, ABAB). A master of the art of concealing art, Ewart was indeed 'a warming to us all'. 


  1. "Bigots bashing lagers"? That does not resemble the cult of Dylan Thomas, to the extent I have ever encountered it. But I applaud the rhyme "saga/lagers". Surely, though with Thomas as the subject, one could have rhymed Wales/ales.

  2. Absolutely – I wondered about the lagers too. I always think of Dylan and the Dylanistas with warm brown beer – probably some dreadful Welsh brew by Brain's...