Clifford Bax on Edward Thomas

Edward in 1913 by Clifford BakFound among the papers of Joan Stevens (1933-2015) the feminist bookseller and expert on the Powys Brothers and Edward Thomas this piece, apparently unpublished, by  Clifford Bax on the poet Edward Thomas.

Clifford Bax (1886 –1962) was an English writer, known particularly as a playwright, a journalist, critic and editor, and a poet, lyricist and hymn writer. He also was a translator (for example, of Goldoni). The composer Arnold Bax was his brother, and set some of his words to music. Between 1922 and 1924 with the mystic painter Austin Osman Spare he edited The Golden Hind, an important and collectable periodical. The photo of Edward Thomas was taken by Clifford Bax in 1913 (many thanks to the Edward Thomas Fellowship.) Bax’s piece was probably written in the 1930s when Edward Thomas’s reputation was much less than it is now – the reference to him not having the status of Patmore could not be made now and for the last 60 years… Only 2 typed pages were present but Bax seemed to be near the end at the point it is cut off..

At intervals during the three years that I lived there (Wiltshire), Edward Thomas, breaking the long journeys on foot of which he wrote so well, stayed with me for a month or more. I had become acquainted with him in the previous winter and as I learned to know him better I realised how raw was my literary sense by comparison with his. The swiftest and happiest way of putting a keener edge upon our perceptions is to associate with a friend of maturer taste. Imperceptibly because we do not understand them. In the end we are astonished that we could ever have made such crude mistakes.

Thomas distressed me when he said that Stephen Philips was “a sincere sham.” I protested when he declared that William Watson was “too noble.” I felt that he was condoning a smudgy use of language when he defended Wordsworth for having said that an “evening” was “free”. I suspected him of timid traditionalism when he opposed my contention that nothing but the exigence of rhyme had caused Keats to speak of “faerylands forlorn”: contention which I supported, with an unwitting touch of psycho-analytic doctrine, by suggesting that the poet, conscious of a weak word, had tried to reinforce it by carrying it over into his next verse. And from Thomas I first heard the dictum that poetry cannot by translated. Two or three years must have passed before I appreciated how foolish my arguments must have sounded to Thomas. I remember, too, that I often teased him about his conviction that the mind of a peasant is a mystery to all other men. In vain, at the time, did he try to communicate the notion that a peasant’s mind is filled with instincts and apprehensions that have come to him through his ancestry – that he is still looking upon the world through the mist of dawn. To me it was clear that a mind of more culture included the mentality of the peasant. To Thomas it was clear that a man cannot see with the eyes of a child.

When he first came, in June, the heart was intense, and on a certain afternoon I had taken a chair into the garden and had read once more the “Prometheus Unbound”. Toward evening, Thomas and I set out for a stroll, and, following a grass-track that meandered through buttercup meadows and under a series of stiles, came at length to an unfrequented stretch of the River Avon. And as we were going along I said to him “Suppose that Shelley were writing now: do you think he would be acclaimed or ignored? By reviewers, I mean.” “Ignored,” said Thomas, after a moment or two of reflection…

I know that Edward Thomas had not the status of Blake or Shelley or Keats or Patmore. I know that he was not the best writer of his time. His prose was too static: low-pulsed: deficient in emphasis and variety: and, inasmuch as Nature interested him more than Man, his work was not of the kind that I have always valued most; but I am still amazed that his contemporary should not have recognised in him a prose-artist who had few living superiors. Ignoring his exact communication of subtle impressions, they lavished their praise upon brass-voiced mediocrities. Had they given him even a moderate encouragement, his work might have glowed. When I came to know him (and he must have been in the middle thirties) he was resigned to a life of obscurity and hackwork. The race of reviewers, when it was not inexplicably spiteful, tried to quench his fine talent with tepid commendation or pettifogging strictures. He did his work with no hope that the world would care to have it. He had to speak, as it were, into a vacuum. At the end his plight became extreme. Just two years before the War he wrote to me: “It has been too wet even for killing groundsel, but I have had little enough to keep me indoors. No work or prospect. All my proposals to publishers have fallen through, and there really seems nothing to do but wait and see what turns up… I want to come and see you when I can be quite easy, and that I can’t be until work begins to flow in or something is decided.” At this time, in a word, he – a writer of taste, a true poet – could not get even hack-work to do. Sometimes he made a sardonic witticism about a publisher or an editor, but a man who has natural dignity cannot snivel, and Thomas never indulged in self-pity. Nor did he once complain, in my hearing, of his treatment by reviewers. He knew from log experience how superficially a modern reviewer must read, and how easily a hurried reader may overlook subtly or death. “We stand a good chance of appreciating a classic,” he once observed, “because we read it with expectation and attention.” His best work had been handled so casually that, when the War came, his spirit as a writer was, I think, broken. A few weeks before he was killed I met him in Shaftesbury Avenue, and he said, “It’s too late now for me to hope, – as a writer. I’m nearing forty, and it’s clad hat I’ve missed the mark.” I did not see him again; But I remembered those words when his book of poems appeared, when I heard of his death, and when the newspaper men began to praise him.

It is idle to waste lamentation upon a defect in human affairs for which there is no remedy. Other men, till the end of the world, will meet with the fate of Edward Thomas: and he himself, having long since passed into the new conditions and become a new being, needs no man’s commiseration. I do not grieve for him, but I must regret the loss of his best work. For I think that he never wrote it.

Shallow-pates may parrot the cry that a man is always aware of his talent and should meet the scorn of the world with scorn. A few men, fortunately placed or tough by nature, may weather neglect indefinitely. It is only one type of talent that persists through all opposition. An uphill joinery to renown is good, I am sure, for any man, but I am sure, too, that no man, however “great”, will achieve hi s utmost if he never has the wind behind him.

Had the War not turned him into a soldier, Thomas might, at best, have abandoned his craft, emigrated to New England, and joined a friend who possessed a farm. This project was the “something” of his letter that might be “decided”. In the future a man of his kind will not be able to hold out so long as he did. Pure merit will come to its reward more tardily even than at present. Literary ability is becoming organised. Many of our writers already “run” their talent as a business man runs his business; and, however profoundly we may deplore it, a small talent, if well organised, will easily take the market from undirected genius – just as one modern gunboat could send the whole fleet of Elizabeth to the bottom of the sea. If a man is “a good fellow”, he may talk and drink his way to a reputation.

And what where the goods which Thomas brought to the literary market? I reproach myself for dullness that now, in immaturity, I.. (finishes)

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5 thoughts on “Clifford Bax on Edward Thomas

  1. Roger

    It’s interesting that Bax seems completely unaware that Thomas’s “friend who possessed a farm” in New England was Robert Frost, so there was no reason to think he would “have abandoned his craft” if he did so. How well-known was Frost’s poetry in England when Bax wrote this? In fact, Bax seems to disregard Thomas as a poet: “His best work had been handled so casually that, when the War came, his spirit as a writer was, I think, broken.” He emphasises Thomas as ” a prose-artist who had few living superiors”. It was only in the war and with the support of his pay as an officer that Thomas had the leisure to benefit from Frost’s encouragement to write poetry.

    “It’s too late now for me to hope, – as a writer. I’m nearing forty, and it’s clad hat I’ve missed the mark.” -presumably “clad” is a typo, but what should it be? “hat” no doubt should be “that”

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  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Thanks Roger- I have mislaid the original but I think that should be ‘sad that’. Curious that he missed Frost, a bit like being back at Eel Pie island and not noticing one of the musicians in your gang was Brian Jones… Bax is actually quite collected now, esp his occult related stuff and his cricket writing. Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will was published in London 1913. Now that is collectable!

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  3. GP

    Perhaps this is part of the script for a radio programme that was broadcast on 17 July 1936 on the BBC’s Regional Programme. It was entitled ‘Edward Thomas: Some poems selected by a few of his friends and admirers, with an introduction by Clifford Bax’.

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  4. Claudia Fournier

    It could also read ‘clear that’. Thomas also had difficulty having his poetry published when alive, and wrote no more during his two month’s service on the Western Front before his untimely demise at the Battle of Arras. Recognition was tardy in coming, and in his case, death was not immediately a ‘good career move’.
    However, Bax who did not know, or like, Thomas especially well, may have been right in commenting that his relatively early death prevented him from producing his best work.

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