I like to mix up our musical encounters with poetry here, using both well-known and lesser-known poems. Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before, written by a poet who is less-known in the U.S. than in his native Britain, Edward Thomas.
Thomas was 36 years old and was scratching out a living for his family as a freelance writer on whatever topics could generate a check, but his real passion seemed to be as an enthusiastic naturalist. He liked nothing better than to walk about the countryside reading the book of nature, jotting down notes about what he’d seen. It was 1913 when he met a similar no longer young writer, a 40-year-old American who wanted to be a poet.
The American had not found his own country in agreement with his vocational desire, and so he had flipped a coin to strike out somewhere else: Canada or England? He knew no one in either place, it was just a hunch that someplace different might change his lot. The coin came up England. He took a cottage in the Cotswolds, near to where Thomas was living. The 40-year-old American poet? Robert Frost.
Over the next couple of years, the two men developed what would be the most significant friendship in their lives. Now Thomas had a companion besides his notebook on those nature walks. Although Frost had published only a handful of poems in periodicals at this point, Thomas saw his talent, a man who could write metrical verse so supple that it didn’t seem like poetic diction. In turn, Frost saw another poet in this self-described “hack writer” with his avocational notebook.
Frost published his first two books of poetry in England, “A Boy’s Will” and “North of Boston,” and Thomas reviewed them enthusiastically, helping launch Frost’s literary career. And with Frost’s encouragement, Thomas’ notebook jottings became poems.
In 1915 Frost moved back to the U. S. where publishers would now publish American editions of his poetry. Edward Thomas, and his family, were to follow. The two poets were to live near each other in New England and continue their fruitful friendship.
These two men, these two friends, who each could write tremendously concise poems in which a natural drama could play out in but a few lines, had one constitutional difference. Frost was reconciled to chance and fate. He would jump oceans with a coin flip. If lost on a road by a snowy woods on the darkest night of the year, well keep on driving that buggy onward in the dark. Thomas, on the other hand, believed that introspection and judgement, an ever-closer reading of the book of nature could discern the right choice. If two roads diverge (as they would when he and Frost walked the Cotswolds) your honor derives from making the correct choice from the inconsistent evidence.
Back in the USA, Frost wrote his famous, misunderstood, poem about those two paths and sent it to his friend, still tarrying in England, and Thomas became the first person to misunderstand “The Road Not Taken.” No matter how much we honor the author’s intent, the poem exists after it’s creator. Thomas’ outlook saw the undercurrent in the poem, that choice could be important. Thomas thought: if Frost was making gentle fun of that, no matter, that was the point.
Here’s a small, four-line poem that Thomas wrote about spring, “Thaw.” As often with Thomas’ poems “Thaw” is set on a nature’s large stage, but it’s a very short drama. Winter’s snow, as it is here in Minnesota today, is half-melted. Crows are cawing in tree tops, as the crows I saw today on my morning bike ride to breakfast were too, speaking the inscrutable language of crows. I saw one swoop down and frighten a foraging squirrel on a lawn, the black bird somewhat larger than the squirrel—and then, larger yet to it when the rook spread its wings and hammered out its hard-consonant caw.
The squirrel hopped like something had exploded underneath it and disappeared. These natural decisions could be read if one picks up the book of nature.
In Thomas’ “Thaw,” the poet understands that the crows know spring is coming, they are nesting already, and their treetop kingdom, unlike the ground beneath the poet’s feet, is snow free. They have read the book of nature more perceptively.
In Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the comic narrator will sigh “ages and ages hence” about not having read nature right, of having lost the experience the road not taken would have given him. Edward Thomas decided not to move to New England to live next to Frost. Edward Thomas decided, though he was nearing 40 years old, and with a family to leave behind, that honor and his sense of correct decision required that he enlist in World War I, then half-way over. Within a few weeks of arriving at the front, a German artillery shell, following the arc of nature’s laws for men’s unnatural needs, killed him outright.
Thomas had continued writing his nature poems through his boot-camp training, and presumably at the front. In that unnatural world, he was still seeking to find what it knows that he doesn’t.