Edward Thomas joined up to fight of his own free will. He was just starting to come into his own as a poet when he was killed. This poem of mine refers to two of his poems, ‘Rain’ and ‘Words’, two poems I have loved for years.
In this poem, from The Five Petals of Elderflower, I have wishes for him but for every other person killed in war. World War One, like all wars, was indiscriminate in its killing: ‘poets and painters and musicians,
labourers and farm hands, thinkers and doers’ all perished, along with those killed by their own side who had become too traumatised to fight, conscientious objectors, who deserve to be admired for taking a stand, but who also suffered from poor treatment and even imprisonment in many cases.
The great war deprived me of three great uncles. Two were killed in France: Nicholas Lawler and Frederick Coyne, and James Lawler survived the war but died in his 50s as a result of bad health caused by being gassed. He walked with a stick and only had sight in one eye. As a child growing up it never occurred to me why I only had great aunts.
I was moved to see Nicholas Lawler’s name on the Theipval monument, but next time I go on a battlefields tour I hope to find Frederick’s grave. Nicholas’ body was never found.
This poem is for all of them.
Nothing but Rain
The window pane is streaked and spotted.
The beech hedge offers little comfort to birds.
Water puddles in the road, car headlamps sheen.
The bird feeder bobs on the almond branches.
Edward Thomas wrote about rain like this,
that drenched and seeped through fustian uniform.
He sheltered in a shed and heard rain drum
on the corrugated iron room, in such despair
as he’d been able to assuage by tramping
fields and woods where he lived in England.
No such warmth for him now, days or weeks
away from death, in a war that wasted
poets and painters and musicians,
labourers and farm hands, thinkers and doers
as trenches filled with mud and blood.
Even the weather was against them.
Rain is still as wet, and drips into poems
like this one, but each one after his
calls out in fellow feeling, as if his Rain
and ours is the same, as if shelter would come
and safety, and warmth and life, like mine
by this coal fire, time for his English words,
to flock into his mind with feathery lines,
so he could once more sing of birds.