Tuesday 28 September 2021

Warner's Edward Thomas and Anne Donne

 One of the more surprising items in Anne Harvey's excellent anthology Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas is a poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I've read several of her novels (and written about them on this blog), but had no idea she was a poet too. Her Thomas poem is titled 'Edward Thomas Memorial' – 

'Because a young man, petulant and young,
walked this hilltop with strides swinging and strong,
and hid apart
under these trees cooling his hot heart,
and cast his black mood listening to a bird's song;

I who am old, study and city bred,
have climbed hither, slipping in the autumn mud,
and stand here now,
panting for breath, mopping sweat off my brow,
thinking of my first editions and of his spilled blood.'

I'm not sure about that last line, but it's a well made poem, carefully structured, and with something in it suggestive of Thomas's own voice. It recalls a visit to the Edward Thomas memorial stone, which stands on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, overlooking the aptly named Steep, the village in which Thomas and his family lived. It's a place I've been meaning to visit for years, but have never done it yet. 

  Among Sylvia Townsend Warner's other poems is 'Anne Donne', a vivid and very dark piece of work, in which she imagines herself into the mind and body of the poet's long-suffering wife – 

'I lay in London;
And round my bed my live children were crying,
And round my bed my dead children were singing.
As my blood left me it set the clappers swinging:
Tolling, jarring, jowling, all the bells of London
Were ringing as I lay dying –
John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone!

Ill-done, well-done, all done.
All fearing done, all striving and all hoping,
All weanings, watchings, done; all reckonings whether
Of debts, of moons, summed; all hither and thither
Sucked in the one ebb. Then, on my bed in London,
I heard him call me, reproaching:
Undone, Anne Donne, Undone!

Not done, not yet done!
Wearily I rose up at his bidding.
The sweat still on my face, my hair dishevelled,
Over the bells and the tolling seas I travelled,
Carrying my dead child, so lost, so light a burden,
To Paris, where he sat reading
And showed him my ill news. That done,
Went back, lived on in London.'

Anne Donne gave birth to 12 children, five of whom died. The poem is set during the period (1611/12) when Donne was away travelling in France and the Low Countries with his patron, Sir Robert Drury. Anne died in 1617 at the age of 33, after giving birth to a stillborn child. The grief-stricken Donne vowed never to marry again. 


  1. The inscription on Thomas's memorial stone is 'And I rose up and knew That I was tired – And continued my journey'.

  2. Nige: It's nice to see Warner's poetry recognized. In my humble opinion (as the saying goes), she is an unjustly neglected poet. Should anyone be interested in exploring her poetry, the most comprehensive edition is New Collected Poems (Fyfield Books/Carcanet 2008), edited (with a substantial introduction) by Claire Harman.

    If I may, here is another poem by Warner (although I now notice that the three poems provided here may create the impression that all of her poems are about the departed, which is not the case):


    'Elizabeth the Beloved' --
    So much says the stone,
    That is all with weather defaced,
    With moss overgrown.

    But if to husband or child,
    Brother or sire, most dear
    Is past deciphering;
    This only is clear:

    That once she was beloved,
    Was Elizabeth,
    And now is beloved no longer,
    If it be not of Death.

    (Come to think of it, the final two lines sound a bit like something Edward Thomas may have written. Say, for instance, the final stanza of 'Out in the Dark.')

  3. Thanks so much, Stephen – clearly I must read more of Warner's poetry. And you're so right about the echoes of Edward Thomas...