Fred Beake: The Poetry of Edward Boaden Thomas

Poets with the name of Thomas have had almost a monopoly of English and Welsh poetry this century. There is Edward Thomas of the mournful country elegies, and the First World War. There is Dylan, who is perhaps the only good British surrealist, and also one of our greatest lyric poets. And there is the spare almost imagist ease of R.S. Thomas, whether he writes upon Wales or God. However there is also a fourth Thomas, Edward Boaden Thomas, who is the subject of this paper. His name indeed was Edward Thomas, but to avoid confusion he added his Mother's family name to his normal one when he wrote.

He was born in Essex of a farming family (that was Cornish on both sides) in 1901, and died in Derby hospital after nearly sixty years residence in Derbyshire in 1986. His masterpiece was the 20,000 line long The Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, written between 1954 and 1974. However he also wrote two major sequences of lyrics at the turn of 1980, In a Derbyshire Garden, and A Window from Amherst. And he also composed two long poems - Anne Clifford, which he liked to call the 'only verse biography in English' in the mid 1970's, and Poets' Tracks All England Over in the last few years of his life.

There is inevitably a personal element to this paper, for I knew Edward Boaden Thomas well, if mainly as a correspondent, in the last 5 years of his life. I had read Twelve Parts in the Seventies, and been impressed, if not perhaps as much as I have become since, so at least when I met him at the Cromford Poetry Weekend in 1981 I knew he had done important work. What I was not at all prepared for was to discover that this old man had not (after the fashion of the elderly) stopped writing, or struggled on repeating himself, but was writing major new poems of great freshness, for he was finishing In a Derbyshire Garden, and struggling with the early drafts of Poets' Tracks. And not very long after I met him he produced the extraordinary variations on Emily Dickinson, A Window from Amherst. His daughter, Jennifer Hindell, had been to America, and he had asked her to get him Dickinson's poems, and it had opened a flood gate. This interest in a new author was by no means unique. He never suffered from the old man's disease of thinking all new books are bad. Indeed he read William Carlos Williams and Roy Fisher in the last year of his life, and Williams at least he liked.

He was a great friend, and a marvellous correspondent, and I have had more than a little to do with the publication of his later work, so I cannot claim to be totally disinterested. However it does seem to me that if one looks at the period of his mature poetry i.e. from 1947 when he began to write the early lyrics that eventually found a home in the Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, till his death in 1986, it can be said in all honesty that this was as good a poet as any writing in England.

The competition (as I am sure many of you will tell me) is stiff. There is Bunting's Briggflatts, there is Heath Stubbs's Artorius, there is Kathleen Raine's The Year of One, there is Geoffrey Hill's Funeral Music, David Jones' The Sleeping Lord, J.H. Prynne's Brass, MacSweeny's Ranter, Griffith's Cycles, Roy Fisher's City and (to name two who are here) Jon Silkin's Footsteps on a Downcast Path, and William Oxley's A Map of Time. Then there are the more rated poets - Hughes, Larkin, Heaney - none of whom with the partial exception of Hughes I am particularly in favor of, which may be my loss, but no matter. The competition is large and wide ranging, so, why do I favor this provincial figure writing about Derbyshire, in rather old fashioned stanzas, poems that one avantegardist complained to me 'sound rather like Rupert Bear'?

I think my answer is that Edward approached matters that have interested and worried pretty well everyone who has written in the last fifty years with an extraordinary clarity and perfection. How do you use that mass of historical/mythological material that Twentieth Century England has so steadily accumulated, if you are a poet? The answers are various. Do you go with the fragmented narrative of the Sleeping Lord, or the serious comedy of Heath Stubbs in Artorius, do you mine the quasi history of London with Ian Sinclair, Alan Fisher, or Aidan Andrew Dunn. Do you reduce it all to a brilliant abstraction as Geoffrey Hill has so often managed, and hope your readers know enough to go with you? Do you turn history to Dada as Prynne does in Aristeas, in Seven Years. All these are perfectly possible solutions, and ones which in their own way work. Nevertheless, if you leave out Artorius, and perhaps Vale Royal, there is a problem .

It is this. Most readers simply do not know enough History to read say Geoffrey Hill's recent book Canaan in anything but the most general terms. They may well love the language and the rhythms, they may get something from the frequently superb visual material, they may recognize a considerable poet (and indeed I think Hill is a most considerable poet), but how much do they actually understand? Now I know the counter argument, not least because I have used it myself on numerous occasions in defence of my own work. This is broadly that in an age where the philistine is almost totally in control of our culture, and the great melancholy music of Vaughan Williams and Elgar is appropriated by political parties, it behooves poets to speak privately the things that they truly see, and not give way to a more public utterance, which will only be twisted. Fine, but surely we are here to say something; and to come back to the subject of this paper, Edward Boaden Thomas managed to say a very great deal without compromising his integrity.

That this happened I think was a historical accident. He was born in 1901, and so was 17 in 1918. Thus he was a contemporary, albeit a younger one, of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Edgell Rickword, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, and last, but not least, Basil Bunting and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Now this was the great forgotten generation of English twentieth century poetry. The poets who had died in the War made it because of a handful of marvellous anthology pieces, and in Edward Thomas' case rather more, but of those who survived only Graves really had an impact until quite recently. Bunting made it relatively early - in the Sixties, but it was only indeed in the 1980's that either Sylvia Townsend Warner or Ivor Gurney had Collected Poems, or any real recognition. Rickword, though his deeply radical work has seeded poets as different as the late Roy Fuller and myself, and his work always had some circulation because of a few devoted supporters, has never had the attention he deserves.

One could reasonably deduce from this that Edward entered into life with no obvious starting point for the writing of poetry, which we know that he wished to do passionately from at least the age of 15. Poetry as an art contemporary with himself in an odd way barely existed, and I think it was because of this that he failed to produce anything much before 1947, though here there is a paradox: a few occasional poems of the Thirties got in to such periodicals as Punch and the Observer. They were bad compared with his mature work, and yet his mature work has been almost ignored.

However that may be, there were great tensions and problems to be resolved in his approach to his art. The obvious public poetry of his first forty years was Georgian, and he always retained a respect say for Masefield. Yet he was too intelligent a man to be purely a Georgian. He knew and respected Eliot's work. One of the most moving passages (and one of the best in his late sequence about the English Counties and the poets who lived in them) is about Eliot at East Coker just before the Second World War. (1)

When Eliot had passed his fiftieth year-
And all the world was sinking into war-
His mind, like Spenser's in that different way,
Tried to make terms with mutability.

And when he sought relief in poetry
East Coker on a sunny autumn day,
Still village, open meadow, sunken lane,
Supplied a need for his new work's design.

He chose in that piece barely to refer
To the huge presence of outbreaking war,
Although its shadow seems therein implied
And reinforces those dark words he said.

For such as read the poets soon and late
His village always stands in autumn light
Miraculously still, the hour the same,
The whole a vision of suspended time.

It was East Coker where his forebears lived
Until some dauntless one among them braved
The great Atlantic voyage, the savage waves:
Since when had generations lived their lives.

Thought of the generations filled his mind,
In the New World, on this ancestral ground,
Mortals who lived beneath a temporal sun,
The transience of all things and all men.

This seeming world's substantiality
Partakes of dream as much as any passing play
And hastens like ourselves towards a night
No savant ever learnt to penetrate.

And Eliot, like Shakespeare's Prospero,
Told of a vision faded, told anew
But spoke more somberly, he being grave
And with our godless postures out of love.

The poet's path to truth some few had found,
Thought Eliot, a further few might find;
But utter dedication to the quest
Mattered the most, success or failure least.

Self deprecatingly he thus consoled
His mind for those misgivings that it held;
And sometimes on a dark path he let fall
Such gleaming words as light up that way still.

Similarly he read Auden in the Thirties, for I have a copy of Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse with Edward's name on it, that is devoted to Auden.

So, one might say, a poet of his time, struggling out of the Georgians, looking with Eliot and Auden for more contemporary rhythms, listening indeed with Owen to rhyme in the twentieth century.

But this should have made another minor Twentieth Century poet, and it did not. So what happened? The answer in part at least was a poet who has always stirred up the English, Edmund Spenser. All right, out of fashion all this century you will tell me. Politically incorrect views on Ireland and Women, etc, etc. Rather dull, perhaps? Well I beg to differ: he is still the greatest poet we have got. This is my opinion, but Edward's was identical. To him it was one of the Twentieth Century's illusions that Donne was a better poet than Spenser. Yet do not misunderstand him, he respected Donne , as he did all the Elizabethans. It was a period he knew better than most scholars, both in Literature and History , not least the deeply unfashionable Samuel Daniel.

But Spenser was the cornerstone. Indeed he came to him ridiculously young, for his interest was aroused when he was a small child by his parents buying him a comic that featured stories from the Faery Queen in cartoon form. From him he got two things. Firstly a spirit of formal experiment on the largest scale. Spenser in the Faery Queen sets up a whole series of formal patternings that have the paradoxical effect of letting his narrative move as his mind directs. Something at least of this Edward learnt. Secondly, Spenser was writing at a point when the metrical structure of English was at the end of a process of flux between the 'modern' formal octo or decasyllabic of iambic base, and the more informal four foot pattern of medieval verse. Pronunciation (as in the twentieth century) seems to have been in an uncertain state. Edward did not borrow Spenserian meters,but he loved the Shepherd's Calendar and learned from it I think to look for meter (and indeed rhyme) in a changing contemporary speech, as well as in the older poets. One of his most interesting discoveries was that in normal speech we often talk in ten syllable lines of four stresses. This provided him with the staple narrative meter to sustain his greatest work, the Twelve Parts of Derbyshire through its twenty thousand lines.

Yet he was living in Derbyshire among very ordinary people, and he wished to be understood. Therefore there was always in him a hard practical questioning about how anything he wrote would be heard by an ordinary person. I stress 'heard' for he believed passionately a poem only lived when listened to, and the presentation of his poems by groups of readers was something he very much wrote for. It was not for nothing that he was the guiding spirit of the Alfreton Arts Association, or that his real poetry starts about 1947 with poems composed for those meetings. It was not that he was not intellectual, for he spent thirty years of his life doing Industrial Chemistry, largely in the then advanced field of synthetic fibres. And indeed his poetry is full of a hard chiseled thought. But he says what he has to say so quietly and simply you frequently have to pause and think what is under the apparent sense.

If you put all this together you get some contradictions: a highly intellectual poet, who likes to speak simply. A Spenserian with Georgian undertones, who makes his work in the simple english of the mid twentieth century. A weaver of canvasses so broad people barely notice them.

I want in the rest of this talk to give some impression, albeit necessarily brief, of Edward Boaden Thomas' work. It divides into two groups: the lyric poetry, and the longer works.

The lyric poetry falls into two main groups. Firstly there are the often early lyrics which leaven our rambling way round the Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, which remains I think Edward's major poem, and we will talk more about in a minute. They are simple on the surface, but musically adventurous, and somehow profound in their implication. Their origin is the lyrics of the early Twentieth Century, but the poems are quieter and more introspective than most things in that tradition. Here perhaps one should remember Boaden Thomas' fascination with both the metaphysical and lyric traditions of the Elizabathans, and indeed with Hardy. Here is one of many. (2)

From the East Front at Elvaston
A thrusting avenue runs on
Without a sign of bar or bend
To no distinguishable end.

Broad and free is that stretching strand
Cleaving the woods on either hand
And I would have it in my rhyme
As wide as life, as long as time.

Here I stand by a tall lime tree;
The past comes stealing back to me;
People out of my years ago
Upon the sward move to and fro.

Some who stroll were my friends, a few;
Many there I but little knew;
Now in this dream they all appear,
Myself among them with my Dear.

It is again a gala day
With sideshow tents along the way,
Games of sorts, whatever is best
To charm coins from a summer's guest.

A Punch and Judy show of course
That tells what waits on guile and force;
And one who writes - his skill is rare -
On a postage stamp the Lord's Prayer.

Up on a platform near the home
A towering man with a bald dome
Expatiates on politics,
The other party's knavish tricks.

All so busy and do not know
Summer lights a vanishing show:
As all the rest some later day,
Punch and Judy are packed away

This is oddly like Edgell Rickword's Race Day, if any of you know it. I don't think Edward did. It is not so surreal perhaps, but there is the same sense of the superficiality of the apparent real.

Secondly we get in to the major body of lyrics that Boaden Thomas wrote in the late Seventies and early Eighties. There are two sequences: In a Derbyshire Garden, and a Window from Amherst. A Derbyshire Garden is a series of very quiet, often brilliant meditations constructed around the garden Boaden Thomas built with his wife, and written after her death. Here is 'Yucca'. (3)

We set some long time back a Yucca plant
That does not bloom for years - so we were told -
And after that, exhausted, fails and dies.
The myth did not command our full assent:
Nature - we thought - though sometimes stern or wild
Would never practice such doom-laden ways.

Yet there were sterile summers, maybe seven,
When nothing showed except the leaves' rosette
Though all the plants around were full in bloom,
Until we half believed our Yucca barren,
And shrugged our shoulders and despaired of it
And thought its years of growing wasted time.

One sunny day we stood transfixed and gazed
At loaded stems with hanging cream-white flowers,
As if the cruel spell had lapsed at last,
With this awaited plenitude devised
To celebrate the summer's shining hours.
But that was not the story's final twist.

The mild winter following should have harmed
No well established plant: they all survived
Except this innocent, that in the spring
Left but an empty space, a myth confirmed.
The Yucca was not destined to be saved
By such relief as coming warmth might bring.

Belated flowering, then sudden end,
Compose a destiny that's not unknown
Either in poets' stories or their lives.
And prompt upon those words there come to mind
Old episodes for which the world still grieves,
As mournful as a night of wind and rain.

I think of Edward Thomas: he was one
Who dared not trust his pen to flow in verse
Though scrawling sober prose to earn his bread.
A kindred spirit told him to begin
And so released the pure spring at its source.
But then the wars engrossed him and he died.

In the early Eighties (as I have already mentioned) the gift of a copy of Emily Dickinson led Edward to a series of remarkable poems that start from hers, though almost invariably they have their own sense, that is very separate from the poem that is given as the source. Death, old age, faith dominate, as is not unreasonable in someone in his early eighties. Here are four short pieces (4)


Yes it is hard in mid July
    Imagining the snow:
Middle age begrudges time
    Tracing back from its now.

Wait for December! Not loathe then
    That spring should come to mind
Old men will indulge in reverie,
    Sheltering from the wind.

This has something of the dreadful simplicity of a Greek epigram. There is something of the same feel about Odd Old Men. Here perhaps one should pause to say that Edward in old age was anything but odd, and indeed very widely beloved. Yet it is one of his best poems.

And transitive achievement is -
    As odd old men well know -
Success is perishable stuff:
    Such truths the old allow.

So looking backwards at those peaks
    Once seen long miles ahead
Is merely done perfunctorily
    And no one pays much heed.

Of these painful, yet oddly beautiful poems about old age, Prospector is as good as any.

An old prospector walks the field,
    Bowed back, bent knees, slow gait,
And failing vision worst of all!
    The ore escapes his sight.

Yet still an undiscovered mine
    Is waiting there for claims,
Within imagination's reach,
    Not one but many seams.

Were it but found how rich his days
    Spent delving there within,
The ore and labor joint rewards
    For hitting thereupon.

Yet it would not do to leave you with the impression that these late poems are all sad. They are not, and some are full of a quiet ecstatic joy. This is no more true than in Eternal Cadence.

Singing ballads in lonely places,
    Brooks, astray in the shires each one,
No less tuneful than those in Eden,
    Tell what's to come and what's gone.

Theirs is as near eternal cadence
    Ears like mine will ever receive,
Theirs, and the wind's recurrent chanting,
    Voices known as long as we live.

Moments go into swift recession:
    Fame and honor, time-built, recede:
Only the pure absolute lyrics,
    As of the singing brook, abide.

These lyrics to me are Edward Boaden Thomas at his purest and finest. However there is also the other Edward Boaden Thomas who built remarkable longer poems.

There are three that have been published: Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, Anne Clifford, Poets Tracks All England Over. All are well worth reading, but the masterpiece is Twelve Parts, which he labored on from 1954-75 with little expectation of publication, and little thought but to write what demanded to be written. A rather quiet Englishman (albeit one with more than a little Celtic blood) wanders round Derbyshire, and thinks of the views, and the people who lived here, and occasionally hums a little song to himself. The people are carefully chosen: unknown antiquaries figure quite as much as the philosopher Hobbes. The noble and nonconformist traditions are given equal weight. The nonconformist tradition always appealed to Edward. I remember indeed his once saying (provocatively) that a real political revolution might well start with a religious revival. However he also had a deep respect for good government, that is closely linked to his affection for the aristocratic culture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. But he was not didactic about this. It did not exclude Shelley and his anarchism for example, anymore than an interest in astronomy prevented some attention to astrology. Moreover the apparent casualness of the structure is deceptive. Each of the Twelve Parts is structured to make a form that is superb to listen to, and pleasurable to read. Theme answers theme. Unrhymed ten syllable four stress line answers subtly rhymed lyric. The most real comparison for this immensely intricate tapestry is the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts, who was after all Edward's almost exact contemporary. And yet perhaps one should remember too that Edward's wife was an artist, a maker of tapestries of real distinction. The characters who seem to be introduced so casually are a summary of the kinds of man in every age, and Derbyshire becomes an imagination of the whole world.

And just so you should not think the people of Spenser, Shelley, and Blake are without imagination, there are the beasts. (5)

An English shire under the sky
Becomes a vision in the mind;
And there the urgent creatures come
From the four corners of the earth,
East and north and west and south,
The eagle with the burning eye,
The mounting lion full of scorn,
The high fantastic unicorn,
The frolic gentle lamb.
In the east the sharp eagle of Reason,
In the north the proud lion of Action,
In the west the uncaptured unicorn
Of Imagination, and soft in the south
In the fold the lamb of Society.

Yet it is somehow typical of Edward that it is the Unicorn of Imagination that is the most memorable of these beasts. It is as if this successor of Spenser, although himself a scientist, and living in a world dominated by fact and reality, is deeply aware of the Mutabilitie of things, and must at the last operate within a more eternal realm. So here is the lyric that ends part seven. (6)

Whoever loves the west will know
The dales deep down in crevices,
The wind in lonely clumps of trees;
Will hear, where western waters flow,
Such hasty streams as tumbling move,
The smoother Lathkill, rapid Dove
And all those brooks that gently go
Through meadow valleys on their way
And whisper what they have to say.

Whoever loves the west will learn
The language that the waters teach
And study long their native speech.
For by that study he will earn,
With lonely straying years for cost,
A secret lore that else were lost.
So never pity his concern
Whose years are wasted in your eyes;
He yet may be accounted wise.

If noxious weed corrupts the springs
O then the graceful unicorn
Has but to charm them with his horn.
The eagle of the soaring wings,
The hunting lion on his hill,
Have nothing of that sacred skill.
For still the fabled creature brings
A power, sovereign and his own,
And his the western world alone.

So: you have at least a taste of Edward Boaden Thomas, the poet. As a man he was very quiet, very dry in his humour; not someone to push himself on you, nor one to accept your friendship quickly. But once he gave, he gave enormously. He had a gift, that has outlasted his death in 1986, of inspiring the most intense devotion in those that knew him, which in the case of those who have read them, has extended to the poems. Personally I think it a body of work, which will grow and grow in its importance, till it achieves its proper standing. For myself I read and reread it.

Bibliographic Note

Published work by Edward Boaden Thomas

1. The Twelve Parts of Derbyshire, first edition, Hub Publications, Youlgrave, Bakewell, Derbyshire 1970-75. It was originally published as 4 booklets. In 1975 a bound book of the four pamphlets was issued.

2. Twelve Parts, second edition, Derbyshire County Council 1988. This was later remaindered, but is still available through Mammon Press, 12, Dartmouth Ave., Bath.

3. Collected Later Poems Volume 1, edited by Fred Beake with an introduction by the editor, University of Salzburg press 1993. This contains In a Derbyshire Garden and A Window from Amherst. These were reprinted from the 1985 Boaden Thomas special of the Poet's Voice magazine. The Dickinson poems had originally appeared in a simple pamphlet with green covers issued in an edition of fifty for Boaden Thomas' friends in October 1982. This booklet does not include any of the (later) poems in part three of the Salzburg edition.

4. Collected Later Poems, volume 2, edited by Fred Beake, with a selection of letters between the editor and poet during the composition of the poem, University of Salzburg Press 1993. This is entirely devoted to Poets' Tracks all England Over.

5. Anne Clifford, Hub Publications, Youlgrave, Derbyshire, 1977.

6. A Note on his poetic career by Edward Boaden Thomas was published in the Poet's Voice Special issue in 1985, and later reprinted in an anthology from the Poet's Voice (A Mingling of Streams) edited by Fred Beake, and published by Salzburg University Press in 1989. This is the main source for Boaden Thomas' life.

7. An Essex Poet Remembers The County of his Youth. An interview with Boaden Thomas, conducted by the late Frederic Vanson, and published in the magazine Essex Countryside in January 1974. This is an invaluable source for Boaden Thomas' early years.

Unpublished work by Edward Boaden Thomas

1. The Penshurst Oak (1978-9). This was abandoned by Boaden Thomas 'as a cold historical chronicle' according to his notes in the Poet's Voice special issue of 1985.

2. New Springs from old Sources. This was a series of variations on old poets, similar to, and begun before the Dickinson poems, but far less successful. It is referred to in the Poet's Voice 1985 notes as 'a valuable exercise', which in general is true. It was issued in a simple pamphlet with orange covers for Boaden Thomas' friends in 1982.

3. A large number of unpublished poems from the Dickinson series.


(1)Poets Tracks All England Over, Collected Later Poems Vol 2, P37-8

(2) p230, Twelve Parts, First Edition from the East Front at Elvaston

(3) P16, Later Collected, vol 1

(4) Retrospection p92, Odd Old Men p104, Prospector p110, Eternal Cadence p95 , Collected Later Vol 1. The Dickinson quotes are left out.

(5) Twelve Parts, First Edition p5-6.

(6) Twelve Parts , First Edition , p178


This paper was first delivered at a University of Salzburg Conference on contemporary British poetry on November 1st 1996. It is due to be published by the University of Salzburg Press in the proceedings of that conference.