In preparing my recent post about W.H. Davies, who was a protégé of the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, I was reminded of the sad story of Thomas and his wife Helen. The couple had a long, deep, and passionate relationship, marred only by Edward’s descents into depression. After he was killed on Easter Monday in 1917 at the Battle of Arras, Helen wrote two beautiful memoirs of their lives together, As It Was and World Without End, published together as Under Storm's Wing. I have been reading them this week, and I defy anyone to read Helen’s description of the end of Edward’s last leave without tears.
While Helen worked hard to make a home for Edward and their three children in a succession of small country cottages – cleaning, sewing, baking, growing vegetables – Edward was toiling away at the journalism work that made him little money and kept him from his writing. How many writers can empathize with that? His moods and his rages against Helen are harder to read about, though she waits them out every time, never rebelling or resisting.
“Another dreadful day. The children avoid him as much as possible, and are afraid to talk at meals. He knows it, and it is fresh torture to this tortured spirit. He tries to make them say they hate him, and they cry and will not. A black gloom is over the house. I dread his going to the study; I dread his coming back. I feel my face stiffen into deep lines. I am possessed with fear. He speaks little, but what he says is said to hurt me and doubly hurt himself. I keep myself hard at work, for if I stopped I should become physically incapable, as spiritually I am paralyzed. I should just sit and brood. My soul is in the dark and loneliness and agony with him, but my body has to work, my tongue to make conversation with the children. I drag through it all as if I were weighted with chains.”
Helen’s sweetness and infinite patience was what brought him out of these terrible punitive moods of despair and self-loathing, and when they lifted, Edward was once again a loving husband and father – and once more able to write.
After his death, Edward Thomas came to be regarded as one of the greatest poets of his talented generation, particularly in his treatment of nature and the countryside of England and Wales. His most famous poem is Adlestrop – inspired by moment at a rural English station railway on a late June afternoon. (If you click on the poem’s title, you can hear the poem read by Thomas’s fellow Welshman, the actor Richard Burton.)
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.