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Life Sketch of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost's "To E. T."

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Second Lieutenant Edward Thomas

Second Lieutenant Edward Thomas

Early Life

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:

P.H.T.

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
Impossible
For you and vain for me
The truth to tell.

I shall be sorry for
Your impotence:
You can do and undo no more
When you go hence,

Cannot even forgive
The funeral.
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.

Marriage

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.

Suffering Depression

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.

Sources

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "To E. T."

This Robert Frost poem employs for its title only the initials of his poet-friend, Edward Thomas, with whom Frost had formed a close friendship while residing in England. Edward Thomas is responsible in no small part for assisting in the launching of Frost's illustrious career as a poet.

In 1914, Frost published his first collection of poems, North of Boston, and Thomas wrote a glowing review of the book, after which the American audience began to pay serious attention to the works of Frost.

Robert Frost’s poem to his friend, Edward Thomas, plays out in five quatrains, each with rime scheme ABCB. In this poem, the speaker's main focus is on the nature of consciousness after war, especially after experiencing the death of friend who died serving in the war.

Frost had encouraged his friend, Thomas, to relocate to New England, but Thomas chose to serve in World War I, in which he died. That death left Frost with his curious musing about the nature of war consciousness.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Reading of Frost's "To E. T."

Commentary on "E. T."

In this poem, Frost expresses his musings about his friendship with fellow poet, Edward Thomas, who died serving as a soldier in World War I.

First Quatrain: Prompting a Dream

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

The speaker opens his musing by revealing that he had attempted to prompt a dream of his friend by spreading the friend's poems over his chest as he dropped off to sleep.

The poems were spread over the speaker's chest and resembled the wings of a dove that one sees on tombs. Because the dear friend of the speaker has died, the image works marvelously.

The speaker had revealed that he has only "half-read" through the poems before he dropped them across his body, and he admits that he has spread the poem there with the specific intention of provoking a dream of the friend.

Second Quatrain: What Remains Unspoken

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

The speaker apparently would like to have told his friend that he considered the man both a poet and a soldier. The speaker places those two positions in the odd context of lineage.

He said he would tell to the friend's face that he was indeed first a soldier, and then a poet. But then he adds "both," as if to choose one over the other might somehow insult either the friend or either of the two positions.

The speaker then claims that the friend "died a soldier-poet of your race." So he ends where he begins, in a sense, by placing soldier first in the phrase. By race, the speaker surely means nation. The friend about whom this poem was written is, of course, Edward Thomas, who died serving his country, England, in WWI.

Frost likely used the term "race" so loosely, in order to effect the rime with "face." (This use of rime is always unseemly, and it happens too often, allowing meaning to take a back seat to rime.)

Third Quatrain: An Unfortunate Omission

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

In the third quatrain, the speaker reveals that his relationship with the deceased was a close one. They both had intended that nothing between them would ever remain "unsaid."

He calls his friend "brother" to demonstrate the closeness of their friendship. However, the speaker is sorry that he did not have the chance to say to his friend that he considered him a soldier-poet.

In addition to that unfortunate omission, the speaker realizes that they had not had the opportunity to say exactly what each would have considered "Victory." The speaker remains somewhat vague about his notion of victory over what, as he just says, "Victory for what is lost and gained."

The speaker senses that his friend felt that by serving in war, the friend had gained a victory, but the speaker likely wishes he could have discussed that with the friend in order to understand it better.

The speaker knows what he has lost; he has lost his friend, but now he is having difficulty in accepting that loss as a positive instead of negative event in his life, and also in the lives of both men.

Fourth Quatrain: Death and Questions

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

It was at the Battle of Vimy Ridge that the Canadian Corps demonstrated it ability to fight successfully. Despite great losses, the Canadians came out victorious with the other Allied troops. In this battle, Edward Thomas died, and the speaker in this poem recognizes the fact.

The speaker dramatizes his friends death by metaphorically likening it to meeting an embrace, but this embrace is of "fire" from the shell that took the life of Thomas. When the speaker's friend "fell that day," the war was over for his friend, and the speaker says that at the time, it seemed to him that it over more for the dead friend than for himself.

But now it seems the opposite for the speaker. Now it seems that the war is over more the speaker than the friend, likely because the friend will now forever continue to be a casualty of war, which keeps him tied to that event.

Fifth Quatrain: Nature of the Consciousness of War

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

The speaker continues musing on for whom the war is more over, and he poses a question, rhetorical in nature, wondering how the war can in fact be over more for either of them unless he is able to express that fact in words to his friend.

The speaker inserts into his question the fact that the Battle of Vimy (and the larger Battle of Arras) had sent the Germans packing "beyond the Rhine."

But the speaker remains in a state of quandary from not knowing how the friend would feel about the war effort and also continuing to wonder if the friend would be "pleased once more with words of mine."

The speaker is obviously referring to the fellow poet-friend's being pleased with the speaker's poem. But the speaker also continues to wonder about the friend's consciousness and how, if he were still living, he would reckon his values with the nature of war and how that reckoning would influence his poetry.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes