When the poet Edward Thomas marched away to the Great War from his Hampshire home at Steep he left behind the country scene that had been his greatest inspiration.
His time in this quiet Hampshire village had inspired a huge amount of literary work; books on the countryside, biographies, walking studies and hundreds of essays, articles and reviews. This quiet rural scene enthused his late flowering as one of England’s greatest poets, much of his verse written in the last months before departure for France.
Edward Thomas did not join the army out of patriotic zeal. When asked why he was fighting, he scooped up a handful of English earth and replied ‘literally – for this’.
During a London boyhood, Edward Thomas longed for a country life, publishing his first essays in his teens. After marriage to Helen Noble, he lived in Kent, before settling among the woodland hangers that adorn the long ridge above Petersfield.
His first home close to the still peaceful village of Steep was Berryfield Cottage, below Shoulder of Mutton Hill, the Hampshire height dedicated to his memory. The family came to Steep so that Edward’s son Mervyn could attend Bedales School.
Helen Thomas worked at the school to defray the cost of living in such a place. Thomas loved this first Hampshire home, describing it as ‘the most beautiful place we ever lived in’. It is quiet and unspoiled to this day, glimpsed from the country lane alongside its long garden. When Thomas moved elsewhere, he mourned its loss each time he walked past.
He gained a knowledge of the area as good as any local, acquired through long tramps around the district, talking to farmers, gamekeepers, Gypsies and inn keepers. This understanding inspired his rural essays, country books and, eventually, his poetry.
High on the plateau above Froxfield he found the White Horse Inn, strangely hidden from the main road, a signpost in place but the inn sign missing – as it is to this day. This lonely public house inspired his earliest serious poem Up in the Wind, a long narrative verse of a Cockney girl marooned here by family circumstances. He describes in the poem how the inn
…hides from either road, a field’s breadth back;
And it’s the trees you see, and not the house,
Both near and far, when the clump’s the highest thing
And homely, too, upon a far horizon
To one that knows there is an inn within.
Today’s inn is better known, but it is not hard to capture the feelings that inspired Edward Thomas if you sit in the dark bar by the glowing log fire. There is a charming carved wooden memorial to the poet who gave it such immortality.
Walking for Edward Thomas was not just a recreation or a way of gathering material for his writings. It was a palliative for the depression that often beset him causing him to rage and despair. Once he stormed out into the night with his revolver, seemingly determined on suicide. But a walk amidst the darkened beechwoods cleared his mind. He recalled the incident in the autobiographical story The Attempt.
The sheer volume of writing Thomas had to undertake in order to make a living fuelled these moods. His pen was never still. Apart from country books such as The South Country and The Icknield Way, there were biographies of Richard Jefferies and George Borrow, reviews – he would often read and criticise a dozen books a week – and essays. Given this treadmill, it is a wonder that his books read so well and have lasted.
Edward’s second home in Hampshire was at Wick Green, a beautiful red-roofed house with far-reaching views to the distant South Downs. Helen Thomas would recall how the mist would fill the intervening valley, giving the house the feeling of a ship at sea.
Once a week Edward Thomas would walk into Petersfield taking the London train to seek new writing commissions. He would dine with literary friends, such as Arthur Ransome, W.H. Davies and W. H. Hudson. But his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost, then enjoying a long sojourn in England, turned Edward Thomas from a country writer into a major poet.
They met in 1913, becoming inseparable companions. As Europe tumbled towards war Thomas, encouraged by Frost, began to discover himself as a poet. Frost had recognised the poetic nature of many of Thomas’s writings about the countryside. Without Frost it is likely that Edward Thomas would never have written poetry.
Initially he resisted the call, having no belief in his abilities. He told his friend Eleanor Farjeon, ‘I couldn’t write a poem to save my life!’ His friends badgered him into making an attempt, suggesting poeticising earlier prose sketches. Walking near Steep it is easy to identify some of the locations in his verse. A deep valley inspired his atmospheric poem The Combe:
The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipice of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out…
His last home at Steep was the semi-detached 2 Yew Tree Cottages. Thomas complained about a lack of space for his family and guests, but loved the tiny study at the back with its views of familiar wooded countryside. Just outside the door grows Old Man, a descendant of the bush referred to in his poem of the same name, which Thomas recalls
…I like not, but for certain
I love it, as some day the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in and out of the house.
The child of the poem was Edward Thomas’s daughter Myfanwy, a great advocate of her father’s writings until the end of her long life.
In 1915 Edward Thomas left Steep to become an artilleryman in the Great War. This new life and regular pay allowed him to concentrate on his new-found gift for writing poetry. In the following months, dozens of poems exulting the English countryside poured from his pen, ensuring his lasting reputation as a great poet.
It was a short flowering. During the opening hours of the Battle of Arras, the thirty-nine year old poet was killed by a passing artillery shell which sucked the air from his lungs.
But Steep has not forgotten Edward Thomas. There is a memorial window in the church and a great sarsen stone in tribute to his life and work on Shoulder of Mutton Hill. His name is carved, along so many others, on the village war memorial.
But it is Edward Thomas’ writings, capturing the English countryside in all its glory that remains his greatest monument, a gift to all who love rural life.
This is a shortened version of a piece in my book Wayfarer’s Dole, now out in paperback and on Kindle.