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Philip Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth, London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. His father entertained a strong interest in the life of the mind and political subjects; thus, he paid little attention to his six sons.
Edward and his father were very different in personality and disagreed on most areas of life; his father disdained Edward’s choice of a literary career. Thomas penned a poem that reveals the tenor of his relationship with his father. He titled the poem simply with his father’s initials:
I may come near loving you
When you are dead
And there is nothing to do
And much to be said.
To repent that day will be
For you and vain for me
The truth to tell.
I shall be sorry for
You can do and undo no more
When you go hence,
Cannot even forgive
But not so long as you live
Can I love you at all.
Thomas wrote the poem in February of 1916, but it was not published until 1949. Thomas father had remained adamant that his son take up civil service for his career, instead of writing. Thomas was equally as adamant against that choice for his life’s work. The fact that the father and son had nothing of importance in common results in the animosity on display in Thomas poem addressing his father.
On Becoming a Writer
Edward Thomas attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London; in 1898, he then entered Lincoln College at Oxford and majored in history, graduating in 1900. It was during this time that he determined to become a writer.
Thomas did take the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, because of his intense interest in writing, instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes.
In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. The couple had three children, Bronwen, Merfyn, and Myfanwy. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree.
Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. Thomas’ earnings were meager at that time, and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years.
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In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist and who became Thomas’ father-in-law three years later, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life. He had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.
Thomas wrote and published several significant biographies and critical studies, which include biographies of the important writers and critics such as Richard Jefferies (1909), Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1912), and Walter Pater (1913). Despite his success in writing critical works, Thomas’ health suffered as he brooded over his financial situation and his lack of opportunity to engage in more creative writing efforts.
Because of his friendships with women writers such Eleanor Farjeon, along with his brooding melancholy, his marriage began to suffer. In 1913, he relocated his family to Steep Village, where he took up autobiographical writing and other writings of a more creative nature. He then produced his most famous works.
Friendship with Robert Frost
The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas. In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began.
Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, "I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship."
In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."
Robert Frost’s poem, "The Road Not Taken," was inspired by Thomas’ dissatisfaction with their path choices during their nature hikes. About the poem, Frost explained to Thomas: "No matter which road you take, you'll always sigh, and wish you'd taken another." Frost treasured his relationship with Thomas, writing that "Edward Thomas was the only brother I ever had."
War and Death
Edward Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's New England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In a letter, dated August 30, 1914, to Walter de la Mare, Thomas wrote: "If the war goes on I believe I shall find myself a sort of Englishman, though neither poet or soldier."
In 1915, Thomas signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became an instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.
Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of the larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.
- Editors. "Edward Thomas." Academy of American Poets. Accessed July 20, 2021.
- Katharine Lindsay. "Edward Thomas Biography." University of Oxford. Accessed July 20, 2021.
- Edward Thomas. "P.H.T." Special Collections and Archive. Accessed July 20, 2021.
- William Green. "Biography of Edward Thomas." Poem Analysis. Accessed July 20,2021.
- Matthew Hollis. "Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and the Road to War." The Guardian. July 29, 2011.
© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes