Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Frost and Thomas

I've been thinking about Robert Frost's strange elegy for his close friend Edward Thomas, who died at the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. Frost later called Thomas the only brother he'd ever had. Here is the (unfortunately-titled) poem:

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

It takes a long time for the tone to settle: 'I slumbered with your poems on my breast' is Poetry on its best behaviour, and 'slumbered' and 'breast' sound like unusually stuffy words for a poet who wanted to capture 'live speech'. There also seems to be some unintentional comedy in the image of Frost nodding off halfway through reading his friend's book. At the end, Frost reminds us that Thomas was an appreciative audience while alive: he wants to see Thomas 'pleased once more with words of mine'. There's just a tiny element of self-congratulation in that 'once more'.

Frost outlived his wife, two sons and a daughter, but this is his only overt elegy for an individual. It doesn't quite work. Compare it with his later poem 'Iris by Night', a far better memorial of their friendship.


  1. I think I like this poem more than you do. Parts of the diction are awkward, but isn't that maybe because it's a poem about the unsaid, the words that were difficult to say? I think the last line is honest - that's his most precious memory of Thomas - the moment when his own poetry was validated.
    I'm interested in "unsafe" in the last stanza. Presumably this poem was written after the war, but is Frost saying that he's still worried about German aggression. Do you have a date for the poem?

  2. I'm glad that you like it --- or, at least, that you like it more than I do! It would have been written between the Armistice and April 1920 (date of its first publication).

    I agree that the awkwardness is part of the struggle to turn grief into words. Like many elegies, it distrusts its own artfulness. The poem proceeds through conditionals and negatives, as if hoping to take the impossible (communication with the dead) by surprise.

    I like your point about 'unsafe'. I've always taken it to be referring to the thoroughness of the 'Victory': even thrust back into their own homeland, the 'foe' cannot feel safe.

  3. I don't think it's the foe that doesn't feel "safe" but the Allies who have suffered from German aggression. Isn't this poem echoing the feeling (sometimes found at the time) that the Armistice didn't go far enough, since it let the German Army go back to Germany in god order?
    Is Frost on the side of those (mostly civilians, I think) who reckoned the Germans should have been pursued right back to Berlin and a Carthaginian peace imposed?

  4. As far as I know, Frost didn't express a view on the peace terms or any post-war threat. Frost and the Great War is an underresearched topic, which I'll return to in a future post.

    It's a nice little ambiguity: 'unsafe'. One reason for favouring the interpretation that the foe is 'unsafe' from the Allied nations, rather than vice versa, is the word 'even'. That is, the foe may be thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine, but even though I know this to be the case, the war isn't over for me because I can't tell you (Thomas) the news.

  5. I've been reading with pleasure and some amazement (i.e., how could he be so little known in the U.S.) the new annotated edition of Edward Thomas's Collected Poems--so brilliant when writing on both inner and outer nature, and a "War Poet" mostly by fact of death rather than subject, or so it seems to me. His good friend Frost is a Yank stalwart, of course, but Thomas himself seems to be sadly neglected on this side of the Pond. Will you be commenting on his work here?

  6. I agree with you about Longley's edition --- it's wonderfully done. I reviewed it in the latest PN Review, but unfortunately the review isn't online. I commented there that Thomas's poetry had never really taken hold in the States, despite Frost's good offices and (more recently) the passionate advocacy of David Bromwich.

    I will be posting about Thomas (and not just in relation to Frost) on this blog fairly soon.