A lot of these performances begin somewhat randomly. Oh, Edward Thomas isn’t random, I’ve enjoyed exploring this British writer with you since I first ran into his connection with Robert Frost in the years just before WWI. Was I looking for a poem considering a particular subject or event? One could see today’s piece, “Cock-Crow” as a spring poem. Well, spring is random, the current one where I live more so than most. but I wasn’t looking for a spring poem so much as I wanted to find someone else to present from the early 20th century.
I picked up a poetry anthology from 1929. It’s titled 20th Century Poetry, which would be audacious for a book published a little more than a quarter of the way in, but the editors were aware of that and they rightly note that their century milepost had marked a noticeable change in poetic expression.*
It starts with selections from 50 British Isles poets. Names you might expect are there: Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, De La Mare, Masefield, and so on. A couple of distinctive British women poets you may recall from posts here too: Charlotte Mew, Frances Cornford.
It’s to be expected, given that 1929-to-now allows plenty of shelf-life for poet’s readership and notice to expire, and because Britain and the United States do not share a completely unified poetic canon, that there are a good number of “Who?” names there too: Edmund Gosse, William Watson, Henry Newbolt, Clifford Bax, and Edward Shanks.
It may have been my mood, but though I would have loved to find a little-known poem I thought would be interesting to perform there, much of it was quite dreary as I skimmed through it. The copy I was reading was a library scan, and these books sometimes have interesting marginalia. In my boredom, I examined the library stamp:
I wondered where Fort Huachuca was, and what would be going on there between the World Wars? Turns out it’s near the Mexican border in Arizona. It was a military facility since Western Frontier times, and it was the base for a “Buffalo Soldiers” Afro-American Calvary Regiment. Just before America’s entry into WWI, the base commander was Charles Young, the Black officer that was the subject of this poetic tribute by Countee Cullen that I presented here last year. So, as I wandered off from the poems themselves, an interesting place for this poetry anthology to reside — even more so when I glanced at the Wikipedia list of the notable people who had been there over the years. That list includes Jayne Cortez a Black Arts Movement poet and (out)spoken-word performer who was born while her father was stationed there. She’d have been too young when she left Fort Huachuca to have read this anthology, but the momentary thought that perhaps her parents had read this volume I was scanning was more intriguing than many of the British poems — or at least it seemed to me reading through it in the middle of a 21st century night.
The editor** is faint-praise in his introductory note to Edward Thomas in his anthology, calling him accurately (but misleadingly) a “commencing poet” and saying that Thomas’ poetry “comes from a very shy and personal mood that sometimes seems to lack variety if we bear it company for long at a time.” He oddly concludes Thomas’ “Invention made no parade of vigour, but he borrowed hints from no one.” Gee, Johnny Editor, it’s the middle of my American night and a lot of the early 20th century British poets you’re presenting are boring me to the point I can’t get to sleep with their all-too-unoriginal “vigour” — an odd effect which I attribute to my hopefulness of discovery — but I’ll take Thomas’ originality thank you.
“Cock-Crow” is a little 8-line poem describing awakening from disturbing or unresolved dream-sleep, or lack of it, to a set of chickens — not hanging out round a New Jersey wheelbarrow, but amusing Thomas with the bird-pair’s face-to-face rural dramatization of a veddy British heraldic motif. Is Thomas simply smiling at that coat-of-arms likeness, or is there a resonance toward Britain’s more overt class structure?
“Heralds of splendour’ he says of us! That’s about right. Lions’ll go and eat you, and unicorns don’t even bother existing.”
The charm of this poem is that Thomas acknowledges the unsettling “wood of thoughts that grows by night”*** yet allows them to be chopped down by bird-song — and transcendental bird song is ever-present in Thomas’ poetry. And what revelation does that song bring? Farm workers putting their boots on and getting to work. So. Much. Depends. Upon. Putting your boots on and getting to work. Want to read the text while listening? Here’s a link.
Musically I started with a simple folk-guitar accompaniment, though I tried to be settled and unsettled with the harmonic cadence in this one. I ended it with a minute-long coda where I used a vocal chorus to spread out across the English countryside like all the birds of spring. Why do I do these audio pieces? Because I want to hear them — and you can to. You can use the player that appears below, or this highlighted link in the player’s absence.
*We’re approaching a similar milepost in the 21st century. Can we say that English-language poetry has significantly changed since 2001? You might say “We’ll know later what we can’t see now in the midst of things.” But the editors of this book were in the midst, and yet thought they could see something distinct in their new quarter-century.
**John Drinkwater for the anthology’s British half.
***Whose woods these are, I think he knows. Thomas led a troubled life. Every peaceful British rural scene in a Thomas poem is set next to that dark woods of thought that grows by night.