The poets of the First World War: Edward Thomas

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This week marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. It is a week in which many will think of the horrors endured by so many in that first industrialised conflict, and of the millions who lost their lives. Few can reveal the truth of the war better than the war poets.

To commemorate the anniversary, Blue & Green Tomorrow will this week review some of the finest works of the soldier poets.

Edward Thomas, at a time of great personal strife, enlisted with the Artists Rifles in July, 1915. His poem “There is no case of petty right or wrong” was written on 26th December 1915. He chose to enlist instead of taking his family to America, and to peace – why he enlisted is most likely a theme discussed within the poem.

The piece was supposedly written directly after having an argument with his father over patriotism, something his father embraced heavily.

Thomas, although a relative patriot himself, explores themes of moderate nationalism in his piece, believing that the typical patriot was as ridiculous as the people they so avidly hate. His father was privy to demonising the Germans, as much as the English papers were.

This is no case of petty right or wrong 

That politicians or philosophers 

Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot 

With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.”

Thomas explores the reasons why he loves his country, but they are all personal to him. The use of commas to break up the sentences encourages a sense of confusion over the matter, which is a charming addition to a truly human subject.

“Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar. 

From one the weather shall rise clear and gay; 

Out of the other an England beautiful 

And like her mother that died yesterday.  

Little I know or care if, being dull,”

Unlike Owen, who chooses to engage in criticising the war, or like Brooke, who romanticises it, Thomas is undecided, and subsequently uninterested in choosing a side. For Thomas, England is still the mother of the land where he is from, and subsequently fights for, regardless of the careless politicians at the top, who he criticises heavily. England gives meaning to a wandering soul, lost in conflict.

“She is all we know and live by, and we trust 

She is good and must endure, loving her so: 

And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.”

There is no case of petty right or wrong

“This is no case of petty right or wrong 

That politicians or philosophers 

Can judge.  I hate not Germans, nor grow hot 

With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers. 

Beside my hate for one fat patriot 

My hatred of the Kaiser is love true: – 

A kind of god he is, banging a gong. 

But I have not to choose between the two, 

Or between justice and injustice. Dinned 

With war and argument I read no more 

Than in the storm smoking along the wind

Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar. 

From one the weather shall rise clear and gay; 

Out of the other an England beautiful 

And like her mother that died yesterday. 

Little I know or care if, being dull, 

I shall miss something that historians 

Can rake out of the ashes when perchance

The phoenix broods serene above their ken. 

But with the best and meanest Englishmen 

I am one in crying, God save England, lest

We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed. 

The ages made her that made us from dust: 

She is all we know and live by, and we trust 

She is good and must endure, loving her so: 

And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.”

Photo: Charlotta Wasteson via Flickr

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Further reading:

 

The poets of the First World War: A.E. Housman

The poets of the First World War: Rupert Brooke

The poets of the First World War: Siegfried Sassoon

The poets of the First World War: Wilfred Owen

Lights Out event marks centenary of the outbreak of World War One