Moving from 17th century Welsh poet Henry Vaughn we’ll jump forward to a favorite of this blog: 20th century Welsh poet Edward Thomas. Thomas is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in the U.K., perhaps because he’s sometimes classed as a “Georgian poet,” a loose classification given to early 20th century British poets who weren’t Modernists.
As far as America was concerned, not being a Modernist wasn’t a good thing as the 20th century continued, particularly given that two Americans (Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot) were instrumental in the Modernist revolution in English-language poetry. Georgian poets were soon seen as those that hadn’t gotten the news about what sort of topics, outlooks, and word-music was appropriate for the new century. Societal and cultural failures were prime topics, skepticism and a multivalent posture toward agreed-upon premises were expected, and the tight starched collar of strict accentual-syllabic verse music was loosened.
Thomas’ other problem was that he was killed during WWI, and wasn’t published to any degree until after that war was over. In Great Britain, those war poets who held to the pre-war verse forms were given some license because of their service and sacrifice. In the U. S., this was largely a non-factor.
But of course, what kind of word-music a poet uses has little to do with his subjects or outlook. Thomas, like his American friend Robert Frost, was roughly as Modernist as any of his contemporaries, he just didn’t sound like one if you muffled his words so that only the sound and rhythms remained. Like Frost, he never developed a Cubist or Dadaist kaleidoscopic vision, but within the monocular vision by which they squinted at modern problems, their analysis was fully of the new century.
Sun, Moon, and Herbs; scabious and tormentil, Edward Thomas knows ‘em!
Case in point: today’s piece, Thomas’ autumn poem “October.” The subject of “October” is depression. Thomas gives it an old name “melancholy,” but depression and existential isolation is its matter. Many of Thomas’ other poems (including most of those we’ve featured here) have him focusing on the decision whether he as an over-draft-age man would volunteer to serve in WWI, a war whose cause he didn’t really believe in. In the end he decided that he would not exempt himself from the human suffering of the war.* But in those poems, like this one, the other marker that lets one know that we are in an Edward Thomas poem is an almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “October” shows this: the fall plants are specifically named, and the names he chooses for two of them: scabious and tormentil, specifically reference their palliative properties.** And so from the start “October” features a prime Modernist tactic: the use of specific things to surround the actual, ineffable, topic of the poem. The October day described is altogether pleasant. He remarks it could just as well be spring, and the late fall flowers of the harebell are just as beautiful as the early spring flowers of the snowdrop.
He even muses that at some future time he may be able to see his depression clearly as a finished, or at least understood, thing. Notice: there’s close to nothing in this poem (other than that single “melancholy” that comes in the penultimate line, or that say-what’s-not, not what-is “I might as happy be” statement) that tries to say “I’m depressed and can’t presently find my way out of this mood, to decide my life.” He doesn’t even say “And now it’s fall, and I’ve got a damn winter to live through.” Instead, in “October” Thomas leaves us in a Buddhist or Taoist moment, able to see the beauty and the sadness, equal reflections of each other. His opening couplet seems to me like it could be a poem by Du Fu or Li Bai, not the poem of an early 20th century Brit, and so I refrain those lines at the end of today’s performance.***
Elsewise in my performance I worked with the new orchestral virtual instruments which have given me more usable staccato articulations, which I’ve put in service of my simple “punk rock orchestration.” My finger strength has returned to a level that I felt comfortable playing the featured fretless bass motif for this.
The full text of Thomas’ poem his here. The player to hear my performance is below.
*Thomas’ outlook, his feeling that personal decisions even in the face of doubt and lack of information were critical, were gently chided by Robert Frost in Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” Frost was the stoic, Thomas the existentialist.
**Henry Vaughn, the practicing physician, was more overt about the pharmacology metaphors in his poem about “Affliction,” but think of Thomas as an herb-doctor as he assembles the formulary of his nature scene here.
***Has anyone tried to translate Edward Thomas into Chinese? Although “October” is written in English blank verse, so much of it seems like it would sit naturally as a poem in the classical Chinese manner.