Here’s a story about a poem appropriate for this Memorial Day, though the story includes three Easter holidays.
First Easter: on Easter 1913 in March, a freelance writer, normally so pressed for a paycheck that he worked 15-hour days writing piece after piece, started off on a bike tour across Britain from his home near London to the south-western coast of England. Of course, there was a paycheck involved, a travel book was planned and resulted, which was called In Pursuit of Spring.
This trip started in overwork and near the ending of a glum winter, and finished in May with true spring; and this bicycle journey allowed the harried writer to expend a bit more focus on his writing this time. In the book, his trip ends in Somerset England, but a packet of photos he took during the trip indicates that he must have somehow crossed the Bristol Channel to Wales, the homeland of his ancestors. A tell-tale photo with his handwriting on the back was discovered recently, saying it was taken near Tinkiswood, the site of a Welsh Neolithic stone burial chamber. A year later the site was excavated, and 920 human bones were located. Welsh legend has it that staying the night in the chamber will cause any surviving visitor to go raving mad or become a poet. That wasn’t included in the book.
The overworked freelancer who took this journey was Edward Thomas. Shortly after the journey completed, he met a then little-known American poet who’s work Thomas had reviewed perceptively. The poet was Robert Frost. Frost read In Pursuit of Spring and suggested that Thomas should write poetry.
“How so?” asked Thomas.
Frost told him that Thomas had already shown close readings of the book of nature and the rhythm of verse in passages in In Pursuit of Spring.
So, at this time Thomas began writing poetry, extraordinary poetry that is little known in the United States, but which is much loved by poets and readers in the U.K. Some of it so concise and so infused with deep attention to the natural world’s calligraphy that it rivals classical Chinese and Japanese forms.
And World War I breaks out.
I’ve already written about Thomas’ dilemma in deciding if he should enlist in the war, and Frost’s part in Thomas’ ambivalence, so here I’ll just say that Thomas did enlist. The records say it was in a company called “The Artists’ Rifles.”
Can Americans of our time imagine such a military organization? Of course, artists of all kinds have served in America’s military services, but I can’t envision that sort of name being used here in place of something like “The Screaming Eagles.”
The second Easter: the somber name today’s poem was published under was not his. Thomas in his manuscript simply wrote down the Eastertide date in 1915 when he apparently wrote the first draft of it, two years after he’d started that trip that had indirectly formed him into a poet. That summer he was even stationed while on military training in one of the towns he’d passed through on the bicycle journey.
But never mind the name, what a poem. It’s four lines, a single quatrain. Decades later Pete Seeger wrote a song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” condensing an episode from a WWI novel expressing a similar idea. Seeger’s song is not long as songs go, but it’s a good length for a room to sing along to. Thomas’ poem has only started when it comes to its fourth line. The previous line breaks abruptly, enjambed, with “should” and its final line reveals itself as it unwinds in heartbreaking fashion.
And Thomas? A third Easter: another spring, 1917. His diary entry in France wonders if the enemy is unseen in the fields ahead of him, which he still must view with the precision of a nature poet. He pauses to light his pipe. A bullet pierces straight through his beating heart that will, do, never, again.