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Featured Poem: The Sun Used to Shine by Edward Thomas

August 29, 2016

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Following last week’s Gurney poem, we continue on the war poetry theme with The Sun Used to Shine by Edward Thomas.

Celebrated as one of England’s most important poets, Edward Thomas‘ writing has enjoyed new appreciation in recent years with former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion claiming that Thomas’ work has a “crucial place in the development of twentieth-century poetry” and introducing a modern sensibility that later influenced WH Auden and Ted Hughes.

Thomas was born in London, to Welsh parents, in 1878. His father was a railway clerk who devoted much of his time and interest to politics and intellectual pursuits, to the neglect of his six sons. Edward and his father often clashed, particularly on his pursuit of a literary career.

While at school Thomas met James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, who encouraged his literary ambitions and became an influential figure in his life, more so when Thomas married Noble’s daughter Helen. With a growing family to support, Thomas began accepting assignments from London publishers, working steadily on essays, criticism, biographies and reviews, he produced as many as three books a year.

Many critics believe that Thomas wasted his talents on this hack work, and the writer himself reportedly felt his artistic potential crippled by the strain and pressure of constant production. Despite this, he did become a well respected critic, writing for various newspapers and journals. His critical work was praised for it’s lucid style and intelligent observations.

In 1914, Thomas began writing poetry at the encouragement of American poet Robert Frost, whom he had befriended during the latter’s time in England. He published his first collection, Six Poems under the pseudonym Edward Eastaway in 1916. These verses were to be the only poems Thomas would see in print. As his second collection Poems was being prepared for press the following year, Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras where he was serving in the infantry.

It’s thought that Thomas’ decision to enlist, despite being a mature, married man, was influenced by Frost who, having returned to the US, sent him an advanced copy of The Road Not TakenFrost had meant the poem as a gentle mocking of the indecision Thomas had often shown on their many walks together but the action inadvertently persuaded Thomas to enlist.

Our poem today, The Sun Used to Shine portrays Thomas’ own reflections on those walks with Frost.

 

The Sun Used to Shine

The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted
Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
We turned from men or poetry
To rumours of the war remote
Only till both stood disinclined
For aught but the yellow flavorous coat
Of an apple wasps had undermined;
Or a sentry of dark betonies,
The stateliest of small flowers on earth,
At the forest verge; or crocuses
Pale purple as if they had their birth
In sunless Hades fields. The war
Came back to mind with the moonrise
Which soldiers in the east afar
Beheld then. Nevertheless, our eyes
Could as well imagine the Crusades
Or Caesar’s battles. Everything
To faintness like those rumours fade—
Like the brook’s water glittering
Under the moonlight—like those walks
Now—like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silence—like memory’s sand
When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.
by Edward Thomas
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