English - Changing miles into metre

15th March 2013 at 00:00
Set the pace by studying a writer's haunting poems of the countryside

Britain's greatest poets have always been inspired by the outdoors. But for anyone who has ever walked down an English lane and had a sense of the countless others who have taken the same route before them, Edward Thomas (1878-1917) is possibly the most haunting poet to read.

He considered that all such paths told tales and that they absorbed the emotions of the generations of walkers who preceded him. One of the lesser-known soldier-poets of the First World War, he found solace from his depression - and created some of his most memorable works - by treading the lanes and byways of southern England.

Thomas was a compulsive walker. Born in Lambeth, he acquired the habit on Wimbledon Common and other parts of the southwest London suburbs. As a young man, married and with a growing family, he turned his back on London to become a country-based freelance writer and reviewer.

Among myriad, poorly paid, commissions were a number of works celebrating southern England's famous pathways. The Icknield Way, written in 1913, was completed at such speed that Thomas had to cheat: he covered portions of the ancient route on bicycle. But despite this, he managed to bring a sense of the curious to the account, including uncanny descriptions of a kind of doppelganger pursuing him on the road.

It was such passages that caused the US poet Robert Frost, on meeting Thomas in 1913, to encourage him to mine his prose for poetry. In 1915, Frost sent Thomas a draft of his poem The Road Not Taken. In it a narrator describes the melancholy he feels at a dividing point in a path, hesitating before making a choice about which way to go. It was symbolic of the choices that Thomas faced in 1915, vacillating between travelling to America or volunteering to fight.

In the end he volunteered, taking the steps that would fatefully take him to France and the bomb that, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his book The Old Ways, "carefully killed him".

His war diary was one of the few possessions returned to his wife, Helen, after his death. Along with the diary there was a scrap of paper. Written on it were three lines possibly describing the feelings he had negotiating the hazardous supply roads leading to the front: "Where any turn may lead to HeavenOr any corner might hide HellRoads shining like river up hill after rain."

Curiously, his body showed no sign of injury and the clay pipe he had been smoking also survived intact. But the shell - one of the last fired by the retreating Germans on the first day of the Battle of Arras (9 April) - had sent out a concussive shock that had flung Thomas to the ground and stopped his heart.

Jerome Monahan is a teacher, freelance writer and journalist. He provides Inset and student enrichment workshops in schools nationally and internationally: email Jerome.Monahan@dsl.pipex.com. View Edward Thomas' diary at bit.ly104E49z

What else?

Listen to a recording of Margaret Atwood's poem The Moment and hear nature whispering to voyagers throughout the ages. This resource from TES English includes audio commentary and readings with sound effects.

bit.lyTheMomentAudio

Take a look at lolsson's compilation of poems inspired by nature, with an activity focusing on their use of similes, alliteration and personification.

bit.lyNaturePoets.

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