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Comptes rendus

Andrew McKeown and Adrian Grafe, Edward Thomas’ Roads from Arras

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, 179 p.
Sarah Montin
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Andrew McKeown and Adrian Grafe, Edward Thomas’ Roads from Arras, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, 179 p.

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1In the introductory poem of her collection Singing in the Dark (2008), Alison Brackenbury places herself under Edward Thomas’ shadowy aegis: ‘We leave no mark. / His voice, she writes, was clear and quiet. / I hear him singing in the dark’ (‘Edward Thomas’ Daughter’). The question of the legacy left by such an influential yet elusive poet is, in part, what Andrew McKeown and Adrian Grafe’s Edward Thomas’ Roads from Arras seeks to address by proposing to follow the road his poetry has taken since his death in France in April 1917. Does he really leave ‘no mark’ (A. Brackenbury) neither ‘print (n)or trace’ (E. Jennings), as many of his readers, as well as his own unsubstantial personae, often seem to suggest? Indeed, as the title of this new collection of articles indicates, the road, or rather the furrow traced by Thomas in the English tradition, richer for his 142 poems written in the span of three short years, is still to be explored.

2Although his poem ‘Adlestrop’ has ensured him a household fame in Britain, the introduction of the volume begins by qualifying the extent of Thomas’ public appeal. Considered by many today as a ‘sweet old-fashioned thing’ in Ian McEwan’s words, he appears more than ever to be a poet’s poet (‘the father of us all’ wrote Ted Hughes) rather than a popular choice. This may explain why he remains obscure in France, his last resting place―only a handful of poems are available in French, in contrast to the two complete translations of his works into Spanish, as studied in Mario Murgia’s enlightening paper. It is thus notable that it is two academics educated in Britain and “exiled” in Northern France that have taken on the task of publishing this anniversary collection, giving voice to French colleagues (among others) and, hopefully, a fresh visibility to the poet.

3This slim volume, composed of eleven chapters, reads first and foremost as a homage, a tribute from ‘elected friends’―the unusual number of poets among the contributors confirms this, as well as the striking illustrated conversation between Charlotte Hodes and Deryn Rees-Jones recorded in the penultimate paper: ‘Edward Thomas at Arras: A Response in Word and Image’. This may explain the rather atypical freedom of style and richness of close-readings offered in this volume, which focuses extensively on Thomas’s verbal artisanry and ‘infinitely qualified’ formal accomplishments.

4Rather than offering radically new perspectives on Thomas however, this collection of papers deepens the furrow traced by previous scholarship while leaving signposts for future criticism (this is particularly the case in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s conclusive article ‘New Biographical perspectives’). Indeed, the introduction points out what have always been deemed Thomas’ more ‘modern’ qualities: his ‘love of uncertainty itself’ (x) and ‘jarring grammatical constructions’ (x), his ‘enigmatic quality’ (ix) and ‘elusiveness’ (ix), already noted in his time and, later investigated by his foremost student and scholar, Edna Longley. The question of Thomas’ ambiguity is however explored anew through the lens of language’s ‘clumsiness and grace’ (12), the poet’s alternating familiarity and unfamiliarity forever forcing us, as brilliantly shown in Andrew McKeown’s paper, to ‘go back over the ground we have covered’ (7) and disturb our reading practices. Ian Brinton’s paper on the poet’s spectrality and suicidal attraction to the past and its hauntings, contributes equally to the exploration of Thomas’s ‘ungroundedness’ (2) and unfixity. By contrast, another major focus of the volume is the thorny and oft-debated issue of Thomas’s status as war poet, explored in Ralph Pite’s discussion of his ‘enlistment poems’ and Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s illuminating comparison with the canonical war poets and, in particular, Charles Sorley. Finally, the question of his literary status and posterity, starting of course with his relationship with Robert Frost (on which Ralph Pite’s article also sheds new light), is explored fruitfully, as a complement, perhaps, to the celebrated anthology of literary influence edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn in 2008; Branch-Lines, Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry. William Wooten’s paper on Walter de la Mare’s admiring if ambivalent response to the poet is particularly welcome in a time where Georgian poets are rarely evoked, even less studied in such detail, and goes hand in hand with Emilie Loriaux’s analysis of Thomas’ avian connections to Hardy. Helen Goethals’s article in particular offers a fascinating perspective into Derek Walcott’s attachment to Thomas and the unexpected intersection between two poets of such seemingly different stamp and history. An analysis of Thomas’ influence on contemporary female poets, suggested by the quotations of Jennings and Rees-Jones’ ‘And You Helen’ in the last words of the introduction, would have made an interesting addition to the volume. Such an article would have come as a compelling companion-piece to Adrian Grafe’s own paper on the subject of love and the feminine influence in Thomas’ poetry, showcased through his novel re-reading of ‘Adlestrop’.

5Published in 2018, Edward Thomas’ Roads from Arras was primarily intended as a centenary volume, celebrating Thomas’s death at the battle of Arras on April 9th 1917 as well as, presumably, the end of the First World War. But it also coincides with a more recent ideological conflict, namely Brexit and the debates around questions of national identity it reignited. A common feature of the papers is that they all encourage a form of reflection on ‘ideas of England’ and British poetry, through the questions of attachment to the land and soil (substantially explored by Jack Thacker’s discussion of Thomas’ quasi-Virgilian images of mud, earthwork and war, as well as in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s analysis of how Thomas ‘valued England’) patriotism and the complex yearning for (a) Home, and how these ideas infuse poetry, in particular poetry of nature. In coming back, time after time, to these themes, the volume shows that Thomas has never been so relevant, so jarringly in tune with the spirit of our age, both in his subtle interrogations of national and individual identity and his empathetic yet troubled relation with the natural world, to be linked with the production of our more contemporary eco-poets.

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Sarah Montin, « Andrew McKeown and Adrian Grafe, Edward Thomas’ Roads from Arras »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 24 octobre 2021, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sarah Montin

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle

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