Robert Frost and Edward Thomas: Inspirational Friends
by Steve Newman
Robert Frost and Edward Thomas seem, on the surface, to be the most unlikely of poets to become inspirational friends, but over a period of three years they became as brothers, with their work often closely entwined, with both absorbing the same London literary fertility that Lawrence enjoyed during those years prior to the First World War, and later the somewhat bucolic time spent together in Gloucestershire.
The two men would never have met of course unless Frost had not decided to head east to the land of his forbears, who had sailed west from Devon to New England in 1636, just twenty years after Shakespeare’s death. Perhaps Frost felt the need of poetic inspiration from the old country.
Of Welsh descent, but seemingly the most English of Englishmen, Edward Thomas, living in south London, earned his living writing biographies of writers – invariably dead writers – plus hundreds of book reviews (including the work of D. H. Lawrence) for weekly literary magazines and newspapers, when all he really wanted to do was write poetry. But poetry wasn’t going to feed his young family.
Frost had the same problem and tried many things to make a living - including chicken farming - but soon realised the fox had the upper hand when it came to chickens. Maybe taking off for England might just be the making of him as a poet. Whatever the reason the thirty-eight- year old poet gathered his wife and family together and set sail.
Although Thomas may have been unhappy writing hagiographies the publishers paid well, which meant he had to travel frequently into London, where he got to know the poets of the day who gathered in the many coffee shops and book shops, not least The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury.
Robert Frost and his family landed in England in 1912, settling in Beaconsfield (now better known for its splendid motorway services), with his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, published on April 1st the following year. And although his poems in that first volume use pastoral settings they are, as Frost admitted, not of England but of New England, and said something to the effect that the further he got away from New England the Yankier he got.
The poem ‘October’ is from that first collection. A taste:
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all…
Frost quickly made himself known to the London crowd of writers such as W. B. Yeats, Ford Maddox Ford, Robert Graves and the modernist, Ezra Pound, and, perhaps more importantly, the so called ‘Georgian’ group of poets, some of whom, in early in 1914, persuaded Frost to move with his family to a cottage to the north of the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire where they had settled and where he could be free to write, away from the noise and smoke of London. That often dwindling and changing group was, at its core, made up of Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfred Gibson, John Drinkwater and Rupert Brooke. Frost agreed and moved, loving that part of Gloucestershire from the start. Eventually, in August 1914, just as war was declared, Frost persuaded Thomas and his family to join him and the others. All so very out of kilter with the rest of Europe that summer.
As Matthew Hollis, author of Now all Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas, writes, the village of:
“Dymock lay to the north-west corner of Gloucestershire, in an enclave that spilled untidily into Herefordshire a few miles from the market town of Ledbury. The vale took its name from the Leadon or ‘broad stream’ which winds south and east through Dymock before tumbling into the Severn west of Gloucester. The valley is bounded to the north by the ancient Malvern Hills which rise for eight northerly miles toward the Iron Age fort at British Camp and their peak at Worcestershire Beacon…”
For the so-called ‘Dymock Poets’ it was a magical place that could become a new poetic nirvana, or put another way, seen from the perspective of history, a way of burying poetic heads in the cornfields, crumbling cottages and wooded hilltops.
Naturally they were seen by many of the locals as German spies and therefore something to be feared and not welcomed, as was the case with D. H. Lawrence and Freida when they settled in Cornwall in 1917. A hopeless kind of naivete ruled.
Frost was an outspoken, loud, and angry man who soon had run-ins with local Gloucestershire farmers, which usually included the threat of being run out of town at the business end of a shot gun, or being woken in the early hours by the local policeman knocking on his front door asking to see his papers. During one encounter Thomas feared he had acted cowardly when he failed to back Frost in a confrontation (doubtful if Frost even noticed) with a gamekeeper. It was something that would haunt Thomas in France as he faced the enemy: did he have courage?
But then, when not riling the local constabulary, Edward and Robert took long walks to the borders of Wales, or north to the Malvern Hills, stopping at Inns, always talking: talking away their depressions and how poetry should be written — fewer adjectives — and that Thomas should write poetry again and become a great poet as Frost intended to be. Then they’d talk about the war, how Edward felt he should join up and Robert too, then stopping to listen to the birds singing in a copse of trees along a Roman Road, or the song of a lark rising from the cornfields, as they watched the late summer breeze make patterns across the last of the corn as teams of men scythed, and dark clouds rose from the east with the sound of thunder in the distance — or was it artillery fire? — and then the two poets would laugh and wonder how far they were from home, and tell stories of different homes in different places: of New England and California, of holidays in Wales, and of wives and children, and of poetry — always of poetry with the sound of thunder, and the swish of scythes and Hares breaking cover before them, and the laughter of children and the barking of dogs and the rattle of a train heading who knows where. A last freedom as they soaked it in never wanting to stop, and both men knew they were brothers, but more than brothers, more than anything else on Earth.
And both poets always wrote of Dymock, whether they realised it or not.
What things for dream there are when spectre-like,
Moving among tall haycocks lightly piled,
I enter alone upon the stubble field,
From which the laborers’ voices late have died…
Under the after-sunset sky
Two pewits sport and cry,
More white than is the moon on high
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry…
But the violent reality of 1914 would catch up with both poets and the rest of the Dymock gang, and all would dissolve as the casualties mounted with Frost heading back to the US in 1915, and Thomas heading for France and war, and a different poetry that was now full of Dymock, but more importantly Robert Frost, with Frost’s full of the shock of his friend’s death.
Thomas died as a result of shell fire during the battle of Arras in 1917, aged 39.
Robert Frost died of old age in 1963, aged 89.
Two of the greatest poets that ever lived.
Editor's note: After reading Lawrence’s poetry, Frost remarked: ‘I wanted to go right to the man that wrote it and say something.’