herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

A MAN AT WAR WITH HIMSELF

thomas never treated his depression: it might have changed who he was

Edward Thomas was born in west London. His father was a native of Wales and a scholar: it was a formidable combination. He was one of the last of a dying species: a man of letters. His wife was an English woman and she accepted the fact that most of the Welsh were eccentric and didn't mind very much the fact that he worked from home. He wrote for high-class newspapers and history magazines and he made a decent living.

Edward was like his father: he was a born scholar and, inevitably, he went to Oxford. There he made his name as a staunch oarsman and a steady drinker. Of course, he didn't neglect his studies and he was deeply disappointed when he came out with a second-class degree. He knew it would grieve his father. It may have been the first of the causes of the guilt feeling that was to shadow him for all his life. He was determined not to join the Civil Service but he would make his living in the most precarious way known to civilised man. He would be a freelance journalist.

His wife, Helen, was as much a romantic as himself. He found out that Fleet Street wasn't an Eldorado and he spent a long day walking from one office to the other in search of work. His interview with Henry Newman, the editor of the Daily Chronicle, became famous.

When asked what his special interests were he said: "I know nothing about anything." Nevertheless, the famous editor gave him some books to review. Reviewing was then mainly the province of people who were happy just to see their name in print. Things haven't changed.

The more he searched for work the more he felt like a fox that is hunting all day to feed his family and came home with only a few birds taken from scarecrows, and the more his meagre income declined. They moved from one inferior house to another.



family

Helen wished to have a large family but circumstances decreed otherwise. She had enough in two little children. And as Thomas was away searching for work she was often in her own world all day. As compensation for his search for work, he went on long country walks and there, apart from improving his knowledge of nature, he found a new world.

And he came to admire the men who could drink all night and sleep under a hedge and do a good day's work on the morrow. And he came to believe that the pyramid called The British Empire was founded on soldiers and men and women who had to work hard for a living.

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors

Many a frosty night and merrily

Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen and all bores:

"At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush", said he, "I slept".

And where now at last he sleeps

More sound in France -- that too he secret keeps.

Thomas was a few years over the age of conscription but enlisted because, as he said, he didn't wish others to do his fighting for him. He was part of England and England was part of him.

Speeches or flags or anthems didn't affect him but he was prepared to die for England and he did. He perished in the Battle of the Somme.

Francis Ledwidge lost his life about the same time. They both continued to write poetry when they were in the army. At their deaths they were becoming known but would never reach popular fame.



tradition

Ledwidge wrote in the lyrical. Thomas wrote in no tradition at all. You could be sure that he revised his lines. They are so simple that very often you see that he is talking to you. A poem he wrote about a country inn is an example. You feel that you were there. And as he talks to the girl behind the bar, you could be there yourself. His directness reminds you of the old ballads.

His latter years, before he joined the army, were complicated by a new love in his life, Eleanor Farjeon who was a writer of stories for children. He came to know her through her brother who was the head of the literary set who had adopted Thomas.

They were young people who loved writing but not the hard work that underpins it. Eleanor knew otherwise. Thomas became a confidant and he soon realised that she was deeply in love with him. Now he had two noble women in his life, Helen and Eleanor, but he couldn't love either because he could not love himself.

Thomas, like many poets and artists, suffered from depression but creativity is the ladder from that; it is for building a bridge for when attempting a poem or a painting, you cannot be in the depths of depression.

Thomas at one time was so depressed that his friends said to him: "There is a brilliant young psychiatrist from Vienna now practising in London. If you go to see him, it will drive away all your depression."

The poet said: "If he does, I won't be Edward Thomas any more."

This story may not be true but it could be true. It was fashionable at the time to say that you were lonely and depressed. Cezanne liked to give the impression that he was the loneliest man in the world when he had a home and a wife and a family and he had no worries about money. And the pictures that Cezanne painted about the rising countryside behind his home in the south of France are obviously the work of a happy man.

Fogra: My best wishes for the rest of the year go to Tom and Lena from the friendly Kerry village of Scartaglen

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