This guest post comes from Rachel Carney, writer and blogger at http://www.createdtoread.com.
What I love about archives is the fact that they provide an opportunity to discover things you’d never see for yourself in the printed copies of a writers’ work. As we celebrate the centenary of the poet Edward Thomas, who lived and fought during the First World War, it is an incredible privilege to be able to see his personal handwritten letters and notebooks – to read the poems written in his own hand, and to see the very pages on which he wrote.
You can see some of these in a new online exhibition, featuring highlights from the world’s largest collection of Edward Thomas papers. Special Collections and Archives will also host an onsite exhibition, launching tomorrow on 19th April, the first day of the Edward Thomas 100 conference.
The following manuscripts of Thomas’ poems were all written in 1916, the last year of his life.
On first glance, ‘The Trumpet’, written by Thomas in September 1916, seems to be a rousing call to arms, but on closer examination, there is much more to this simple poem than you might think. To begin with, as his biographer Matthew Hollis explains, “he did his best to conceal that it was a poem at all”. It was written whilst Thomas was based at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Trowbridge, and he was afraid, it seems, to let on to his fellow soldiers that he was actually a poet.
We wouldn’t necessarily know this unless we had the original manuscript, which he sent in a letter addressed to his friend Eleanor Farjeon, in which he admitted what he’d done: “You see I have written it with only capitals to mark the lines” because “people are all around me and I don’t want them to know”.
The poem itself is full of ambiguity and irony. Hollis describes it thus: “the form, strident, galloping, heroic… but the content suggesting other tones – the dark stars that failed to illuminate the earth below, the hounding of dreams…” Edward Thomas had always been against the war and the fervent nationalism that it inspired, and it had taken him a long time to make the momentous decision to enlist, and fight for his country. Of all his poems, just a handful refer directly to the war itself, and they are different in style to those of his contemporaries, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke.
Earlier that same month Edward Thomas wrote ‘Gone, gone again’, later titled ‘Blenheim Oranges‘. This is a bleak, depressing verse which focuses on the relentless march of time, as apples continue to “fall grubby from the trees” and the war continues to “turn young men to dung”.
We also hold the original manuscript of ‘As the team’s head brass’, a poem written earlier in 1916, which refers obliquely to the war. In Hollis’s biography, he describes how the poem was deeply significant for Thomas, mirroring his own decision to seek a commission on the Western Front. It pivots around the central phrase: ‘…Everything / Would have been different. For it would have been / Another world.’ These lines, and the fallen elm tree on which the speaker sits, highlight the fact that war changes everything, however remotely removed one might feel from the situation.
It is fascinating to compare these manuscripts, and see that Thomas’s handwriting varied widely. We can also see his corrections, and observe the editing process in action.
If you visit the exhibition you’ll be able to see some of them for yourself, or come along to our poetry performance event on Friday, where items from the archive will be on display.