Eleanor Farjeon described her life during the first part of the Great War in her memoir Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, by which she meant 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917. Her book has contributed to the prestige of Edward Thomas, who is now recognised not just as one of the important Great War poets, but one of the most important English poets of the twentieth century.
Edward Thomas was already a writer when Eleanor met him in 1912, but not yet a poet: he had written books about the countryside, and critical studies of writers like Richard Jefferies, Swinburne and Pater. He had married Helen in 1899, and by 1914 they had had three children. They moved frequently, ending up in Petersfield in Hampshire, and moving to Yew Tree Cottage, Steep, near Petersfield, in the summer of 1913. Eleanor would go to stay with them. The strength of her feelings can be seen by her comment on her visit for Edward Thomas’s birthday on 3 March 1914. “I remember it as a very happy day; and what I chiefly remember is kissing both Helen and Edward good-night on my way up to bed. I thought it might be allowable on a birthday. I felt he was pleased, and Helen afterwards ran up to my room and hugged me as though I had made her a beautiful present. It seems a tiny thing to record, but it took a little courage to slip through Edward’s barriers, even on his birthday.”
1914 was an important year for Thomas, since he met Robert Frost, the American poet, and wrote a rave review at a time when he was not known either in the USA or in Britain. It was in June 1914 that he was on a train going through Adlestrop: but the poem “Yes, I remember Adlestrop“—a deserted railway station in the flowery summer countryside—had a different resonance when he actually wrote it, in the midst of the war.
Eleanor’s brother Bertie joined the infantry in 1914.
Bertie’s Sergeant, when filling in a form with his particulars, expected him to name a religion. Bertie, who had none, said, ‘Pagan’. The Sergeant advised, ‘I wouldn’t, if I was you. The Pagans do fatigue-duty, and have to pick up fag-ends and scraps of paper in camp all Sunday morning while the Christians are singing hymns. Better say Church of England.’ Bertie, rather surprisingly, accepted this (96).
Bertie, however, was soon drafted out of the army, with varicose veins. He consulted Godwin Baynes, and Baynes got him an operation at Bart’s. He went under general anaesthetic.
Next day we found Bertie fully conscious, and in a state of indignation. The shortage of nurses had let in a troop of V.A.D. helpers of all classes, and the make patients had been told that when they required the chamber-pot they must ask the nurse for ‘a snowball’. The reason given was that a number of young aristocrats were on part-time duty in the wards, and the blushes of the débutantes must be spared (98).
In 1915 Edward Thomas thought of going to America with Frost. But he couldn’t really afford it, and, more to the point, thought that he should not leave England and, indeed, should be doing something for it.
He had been trying this problem over for many months, and when, with seeming suddenness, he enlisted, it was the result of having considered and rejected any other course. At first he thought he might serve England with his pen […] Then he considered taking up some form of recognised Civil National Service. His decision to be a soldier followed sharply (107).
By July he was in the army: on July 27 Eleanor had lunch with him in uniform for the first time. He was 37.
It might have been next year when we were walking in the country that I asked him the question his friends had asked him when he joined up, but I put it differently. ‘Do you know what you are fighting for?’ He stopped, and picked up a pinch of earth. ‘Literally, for this.’ He crumbled it between finger and thumb, and let it fall (154).
Not long afterwards, he started sending Eleanor hand-written poems and asking her to type them up and return to him both versions. He was promoted in the army, and became an instructor. But it was not until January 1917 that he went to France. Eleanor stayed with Edward and Helen for the last time in January; and Edward kissed her goodbye. “Our friendship had remained undemonstrative from beginning to end” (241).
Eleanor received some letters from the front, which suggest that Thomas was enjoying it, or some aspects of it. “I enjoyed the exercise, the work with map and field glass, the scene, the weather, and the sense of being able to do a new job” (248). She sends him presents, especially food. “Muscatels and almonds are what I like best, and fruit fresh or dried of any kind. Best of all is to have my pockets fat with your letters as they are now” (258).
He wrote her one more letter, on March 30. And then Eleanor received a letter from Viola Meynell.
The family was sitting at the supper table; still standing I opened the letter.
‘My darling Eleanor, I can hardly bear this for you …”
I made some sort of cry as I dropped the note. Somebody said ‘What is it? I said ‘Edward’, and went upstairs to me room where I went on standing in a state beyond feeling. The door opened and my mother came to me, and stood there with her mouth trembling and her eyes full of tears. I heard myself saying to her very clearly, ‘Mother, it was never as you feared with Edward and me’. I say I heard myself, for I seemed separated from my body’s movements and words and actions (261).
Helen Thomas wrote to ask Eleanor to come to stay.
‘Don’t let me cry, don’t let me cry,’ she sobbed. I put my arms round her and held her while she wept, and nobody looked. Presently she whispered, ‘I asked you to come because I thought I could comfort you—oh, Eleanor, you’ll have to comfort me.’
I stayed in High Beech, for the next two weeks. I slept with her. Grief like hers was shattering thousands of homes all over the world, but I had never before been identified with such grief. My own seemed to be obliterated in it. I took responsibility, as best I could, for the house and children (262).
Oddly, they heard that Edward Thomas’ sergeant was in the neighbourhood, and they invited him over. He told them how they had the Huns on the run that day: “we thought we had won the war!” Thomas came out of the dugout and leaned against the opening and filled his pipe. A retreating German turned as he ran, and let off a random shot. Edward Thomas fell, still holding his pipe. That was the story that Eleanor remembered, but it was false. Helen heard later from Thomas’ captain, and he said it was a stray shell that passed so close to him that “the blast of air stopped his heart” (263). Helen wrote that when the contents of his pockets were returned (letters, a notebook, and a copy of Shakespeare sonnets), they were all creased as if subject to great pressure.
Edward Thomas’s last letter to Eleanor, written six days before the Battle of Arras (9 April 1917), reached her after his death.
Eleanor found a place to live: The End Cottage, Mucky Lane, Houghton, in the depths of the Sussex countryside, north of Arundel (and thus only a dozen miles east of Petersfield, where the Thomases had lived). She stayed there on her own for two years: possibly the most important years of her life, she said. She walked the downs, smoked the clay pipe that Edward Thomas had decorated for her, and mourned, and wrote. “She wore the coarse linen dress of a Russian peasant which had been bought before the war at the height of the ballet craze” (see picture to the right) (Biography, 131).
I am largely following Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford, 1955), in the OUP paperback edition (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1979). See also Annabel Farjeon, Morning Has Broken: A Biography of Eleanor Farjeon (London: Julia MacRae, 1986). A brief biography of Edward Thomas, by E. Longley, is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 54 (2004).