In his 1905 work, Beautiful Wales, Edward Thomas recounts a journey he made on foot to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach, the high, remote lake in Carmarthenshire where a haunting Welsh fairy tale is set. For Thomas, the path to the summit is ‘a most potent, magic thing […] even as I walked, the whole of time was but a quiet, sculptured corridor, without a voice, except when the tall grasses bowed and powdered the nettles with seed at my feet. For the time I could not admit the existence of strident or unhappy or unfortunate things. I exulted in the knowledge of how cheaply purchased are these pleasures, exulted and was yet humiliated to think how rare and lonely they are, nevertheless. The wave on which one is lifted clear of the foam and sound of things will never build itself again. And yet, at the lane’s end, as I looked back at the long clear bramble curves, I will confess that there was a joy (though it put forth its hands in an unseen grief) in knowing that down that very lane I could not go again, and was thankful that it did not come rashly and suddenly upon the white highroad, and that there is no such thing known as a beginning and an end.’ [Edward Thomas, Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) pp. 166-7].
“Wales always held a peculiar and melancholy attraction for Thomas…”
This is a characteristic passage of Nature writing by Thomas, one that captures one of those ‘moments of everlastingness’ that he would later write of in his poetry. It is no accident that this epiphanic experience is had in a Welsh landscape, for Wales always held a peculiar and melancholy attraction for Thomas the Anglo-Welsh writer who occasionally spoke bitterly of his ‘accidental Cockney nativity’. For Thomas, the Welsh landscape is full of ghosts and whispers – of the legends he retells in Beautiful Wales, of the ancient poetry of Taliesin and Llywarch Hen which he quotes (in translations made by his friend Gordon Bottomley), and of the folk songs and hymns which he hears every Gwyneth and Owain sing around him as he walks through the landscape.
Tragically, there was a premature and brutal end to Thomas’s life, for he was killed in the Battle of Arras at Easter 1917. One hundred years later, in April, 2017, then, we at Cardiff University offer an opportunity for all those who love and admire Thomas’s writing to come to his beloved Wales for a centenary celebration of his life and work. For scholars of Thomas, Cardiff is a particularly appropriate venue because the University’s Special Collections and Archives holds the extensive Edward Thomas archive, which participants in the conference will be able to access and explore. To coincide with the conference, there will also be a free exhibition of items from the archive.
“Thomas’s influence on contemporary writers has never been stronger…”
The plenary speakers at the conference will be Edna Longley and Lucy Newlyn, two renowned scholars who have done so much to restore Edward Thomas’s literary reputation in recent years, and to draw our attention to aspects of his prolific oeuvre which have been unjustly neglected. Thomas’s influence on contemporary writers has never been stronger, so we will also be including readings by contemporary poets and prose writers as part of the conference programme. We will be extending a special welcome to the conference to members of the Edward Thomas Society, and we will be launching a new book on Thomas by Edna Longley, published by Enitharmon Press. For conference attendees who, like Thomas, are keen pedestrians, we will be offering the opportunity to follow in Thomas’s footsteps to see the magnificent Llyn-y-Fan-Fach, where we will hold an open-air reading of Thomas’s poems and prose, with perhaps a few Welsh hymns thrown in for good measure!
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Edward Thomas was a remarkable English writer of Welsh ancestry. He wrote a remarkable body of poems, just under 150 in total, in the short period between December 1914 and December 1916. These poems have a distinctive voice from the outset, a melancholy, meditative, idiosyncratic voice which is unmistakably Edward Thomas. For some 17 years before this extraordinary late flowering as a poet, Thomas had been a prolific prose writer – he made a precarious living for himself and his family through his writing and he wrote in many genres – travel books, reviews, topographical and nature books, literary criticism. Two factors contributed to his sudden and extraordinary flowering as a poet: his meeting with and developing friendship with the American poet, Robert Frost, and the outbreak of the First World War. Sadly, the War cut short his life and his career as a poet, since he was killed on the Western Front in April 1917. Only six of his poems were published in his lifetime – a small pamphlet under the pseudonym ‘Edward Eastaway’ in 1916 – but his posthumous reputation has grown over the last century so that he is now considered one of the most important British writers of the Edwardian and Georgian periods.
Although Thomas was no iconoclastic Modernist in the style of, say, his American contemporary, Ezra Pound, he certainly possessed what the critic F. R. Leavis memorably called a ‘distinctively modern sensibility’, which manifested itself in his often meandering, colloquial, thinking-aloud style, and in his unique exploration of identity, memory, and human consciousness. Thomas’s works look upon the world of Nature in a new way, one which we like to think of as more modern, more ecologically aware; his poems often strike the reader as personal in a new, more inward, more unsettling way. The first-person speaker who appears again and again in Thomas’s poems is a lonely traveller, a solitary, a misfit, constantly meditating on things and failing to reach satisfactory conclusions. Even Thomas’s rhythms and metre often have a certain laconic inconclusiveness about them.
Looking back on Thomas’s achievements from the perspective of 2017 will enable us to take stock, celebrate, discover new works that we perhaps haven’t come upon before, gain insights from different theoretical and critical perspectives, think again about his continuing presence and influence. Perhaps, indeed, as Thomas reflected in Beautiful Wales, there really is ‘no such thing known as a beginning and an end.’
We gratefully acknowledge support from The Learned Society of Wales.