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Places of Cycling: In Pursuit of Edward Thomas

Words by Paul Maunder w/images from Getty Images

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On August 3rd, 1914, Edward Thomas and his son Mervyn set off by bicycle from their home in the village of Steep, Hampshire. They pedaled north-west, across the Wiltshire hills on a windy day that threatened rain. That evening, when they stopped for the night, they learned that Germany had declared war on France. The following day, as they arrived in Gloucestershire for a month’s holiday, Britain too was at war.

The poet and writer Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He wrote most of his poetry whilst he was on active service during the First World War. He was killed in action at Arras in 1917. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In the summer of 1914, Edward Thomas was a writer of prose and criticism. He had published dozens of books, articles, and reviews but had not yet written the poetry for which he is now known. This was Thomas’s third visit to Gloucestershire in five months. There, in a white cottage called Little Iddens, just north of Dymock, lived his friend Robert Frost. Though Frost had published poetry, he was frustrated by its lukewarm reception. The two men’s friendship was founded on their perception of each other’s genius. Frost could see what Thomas had not yet realized – that he was a poet masquerading as a prose writer. Thomas could see that Frost had the potential to take poetry in radical new directions. Throughout Thomas’s visits to Dymock, they walked the neighboring footpaths and talked of writing, love, travel, and now war.

On the day that the first shots were fired in France, Thomas and Frost were walking through an orchard close to Little Iddens. They stopped and wondered whether they might be able to hear the guns from this idyllic spot. The war, so long a diplomatic drama played out in the newspapers, was now much more tangible.

American poet Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). His poetry was greatly influenced by his friendship with the English poet Edward Thomas. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Just over a year earlier, Thomas was commissioned to write a travel book. His journey was to take him, by bicycle, from London to Somerset, traversing the landscape with which he was becoming synonymous. Ostensibly his mission was to search for the first signs of Spring – the song of a chiffchaff, the pale pink of cuckoo flowers in the verge. The book that Thomas produced, In Pursuit of Spring, was not destined to become a classic. It was uneven, written too quickly. Yet it influenced Thomas’s career in a profound and unexpected way. For when Robert Frost read In Pursuit of Spring he saw in its prose the germ of poetry, and he cited it when he encouraged Thomas to turn to verse.

And in January 1915, Thomas did just that. During a period of intense creativity, while confined to bed with a sprained ankle, he wrote sixteen poems in twenty days, including the famous Adlestrop. These were the first poems that would go on to secure his place among the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His influence has been extensive and grows to this day. In an era when we are rediscovering the value of the natural world, Thomas’s pioneering ecology, and his reliance on nature to manage his mental health (though of course, he would never have put it in those terms), are more apt than ever.

Of Thomas, the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes said simply, “He is the father of us all.”  

At the age of thirty-seven, Thomas enlisted in the Artist’s Rifles regiment of the British army. Though his wife and friends protested, Thomas was adamant that he wanted to serve his country. Initially, he was posted to Essex to teach map-reading but this wasn’t his idea of defending his country so he requested a transfer to France. Eventually, despite his superior officer’s warnings, and fully aware of the danger he was putting himself in, Thomas was posted to the front. On the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday 1917, Thomas stood up to light his pipe and was killed by a single bullet to the chest.