Thomas, (Philip) Edward (1878–1917), poet and writer, was born on 3 March 1878 at 10 Upper Lansdowne Road North, Lambeth, London, the eldest of the six sons of Philip Henry Thomas (1854–1920), staff clerk for light railways and tramways at the Board of Trade, and Mary Elizabeth Townsend (b. 1855), daughter of William Henry Townsend, master mariner, of Newport, Monmouthshire. In The South Country (1909) Edward Thomas calls himself ‘mainly Welsh’, though some family names (including Eastaway, which he was to use as a pseudonym) have links with western England. His autobiography, The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938), evokes holidays in Wales and in Wiltshire, where he explored the landscape of Richard Jefferies, his first literary hero, and met ‘Dad’ Uzzell, a model for the old countrymen who are a touchstone in his work. Thomas's interest in nature had been fostered by his family's move to the area in London between Clapham and Wandsworth commons, but he usually represents the city as alien, the country as his imaginative ground. His alienation from Christianity also began in childhood.
Thomas was educated at several schools, including Battersea grammar school and St Paul's, London, where he disliked the competitive atmosphere. After leaving St Paul's in 1895, he studied for the civil service examination, but this expressed his father's ambition rather than his own. He reacted against the worldly values of his father, who was locally prominent in Liberal politics. Encouraged by the critic James Ashcroft Noble and influenced by Jefferies, he was already publishing essays based on his long country walks and assembling his first book, The Woodland Life (1896). He had also begun a relationship with Noble's second daughter, Helen Berenice Noble (1877–1967). In her memoirs As it was (1926) and World without End (1931) Helen Thomas records the problems caused by her father's death in 1896, the lovers' youth, and her mother's hostility to her relationship with Edward Thomas. She describes Edward as tall and fair: ‘His nose was long and straight, his mouth very sensitive. … The chin was strong. The eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative. … His hands were large and powerful and he could do anything with them’. When they married on 20 June 1899 Helen was pregnant with their son Merfyn, who was born in January 1900. In March 1898 Thomas, having matriculated at Oxford as a non-collegiate student (1897), had won a scholarship to Lincoln College. He graduated with a second-class degree in history (1900); this disappointed his father, as did Thomas's decision to become a writer.
In 1901 Thomas and his family moved to Rose Acre Cottage at Bearsted, near Maidstone, Kent. His dependence on reviewing caused a conflict between necessity and creativity. Despite succeeding Lionel Johnson as a regular reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, he was earning less than £2 a week. He mainly reviewed contemporary poetry, reprints, criticism, and country books. From 1902, when their daughter Bronwen was born, to 1913 the Thomases moved house five times. (Myfanwy Thomas was born in 1910.) Their most significant move was to Petersfield, Hampshire (1906), and particularly (from August 1913) to Yew Tree Cottage, Steep, near Petersfield. The countryside around Steep influenced Thomas's poetic landscapes.
During these years Thomas often saw himself as ‘a doomed hack’ (Letters to Gordon Bottomley). He had to visit London to solicit commissions, mostly ill-paid, and to do research. Besides endless reviews (not only for the Daily Chronicle) and further country books, such as The Heart of England (1906) and The South Country, he also produced essays, anthologies, guidebooks, and folk-tales. His most important critical and biographical studies are Richard Jefferies (1909), Maurice Maeterlinck (1911), Algernon Charles Swinburne (1912), and Walter Pater (1913). It was chiefly the country books which carried Thomas's hopes for ‘my silly little deformed unpromising bantling of originality’ (ibid.), his quest to find a ‘form that suits me’ (ibid.). Repressed creativity was a factor in his recurrent physical and psychological breakdowns, and he once nearly committed suicide. All this put great strain on his marriage, as did some platonic friendships with other women. He was loved by the writer Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965), who wrote a memoir, Edward Thomas: the Last Four Years (1958).
Thomas's country books mix observation, information, stories, portraits, self-portraits, literary criticism, and reflection. He tried various ways of ordering his material, but was slow to modernize his elaborate style. Childhood (begun in 1913) achieves this at a stroke, and there are signs of development in his autobiographical novel The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), The Icknield Way (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). In the autumn of 1914 he reported vividly on how people throughout England were reacting to war. In December 1914 he wrote his first real poem, the blank-verse dialogue ‘Up in the Wind’. Commentators argue over what turned him into a poet: the First World War, the therapy of autobiography, the theory of speech and literature which fired his critique of Walter Pater, his absorption of contemporary poetry, or the influence of the American poet Robert Frost, whom he met in 1913. He made Frost's reputation in Britain, and hence in the United States where Frost was then unrecognized, with a rave review of North of Boston (1914). Frost not only suggested that poetry might be latent in In Pursuit of Spring (most of Thomas's poems are concentrations of his prose) and confirmed Thomas's intuitions about speech-rhythms, but he also showed in practice how speech could reanimate verse-forms. Thomas's poem ‘The Sun used to Shine’ celebrates a friendship, the aesthetic repercussions of which continue [see Dymock poets].
The war also concentrated Thomas's mind because it focused his vision of England and led him to write ‘war poetry’ before he actually reached the trenches. His historical sense, cultural definitions, and poetic structures are closely allied. Hostile to imperialism and jingoism, he stresses knowable communities, local microcosms, the complexity of ‘home’. His poem ‘Lob’ presents Englishness as the interpenetration of language and landscape. Yet he found his form at a historical moment which radically challenged the English lyric. Thus, despite his recoveries of tradition and the technical versatility with which he reanimates traditional forms, his poetry is haunted by absence. English rural communities, already victims of economic change, were being devastated once again. In suggesting how the First World War compounded the dislocations of modernity, and in criticizing ‘the parochialism of humanity’ (Letters to Gordon Bottomley), he became an ecological poet. His poetry is psychologically advanced, too, in that it dramatizes the conflicts of which it helped to relieve him.
The wartime collapse of his literary market gave Thomas time to write poetry. He was also deciding whether to enlist or, as Frost urged, to emigrate to New England. In July 1915 he joined the Artists' Rifles, which was, he wrote, ‘the natural culmination of a long series of moods & thoughts’ (Letters to Gordon Bottomley). In November he was sent to Hare Hall Camp at Romford, Essex. He became lance-corporal, then full corporal, and worked as a map-reading instructor, and in September 1916 began training as an officer cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was commissioned second lieutenant in November and volunteered for service overseas in December. He embarked in January 1917 and served with no. 244 siege battery. On 9 April he was killed by the blast of a shell during the first hour of the battle of Arras and the following day was buried in Agny military cemetery on the outskirts of Arras. He was survived by his wife. Thomas did not live to see Poems (1917), published under his pseudonym, Edward Eastaway; Last Poems (1918) and Collected Poems (1920) appeared under his own name. In two years he had written over 140 poems.
At the end of the twentieth century Edward Thomas's reputation as a poet stood higher than it had ever done before. Earlier, his achievement had been obscured by his prose career, his death, and the vogue of modernism. His significance as a poetry critic has also been underestimated. Besides Frost, he promoted Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence, and poets such as Walter de la Mare and W. H. Davies who later appeared in Sir Edward Marsh's Georgian anthologies. Thomas never met Wilfred Owen, but Owen possessed a copy of his study Keats (1916). His war poetry of the home front complements Owen's; like Owen, he exposed the traditional lyric to forces which some of their English (Georgian) contemporaries excluded. The many poets who have admired his poetry include Hardy, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and Joseph Brodsky. Its centrality is underlined by Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas (1991), which contains seventy-six items. In a letter to Helen Thomas after Edward's death, Robert Frost asked: ‘who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his world?’ (Thomas: Selected Letters).