Early in 1913 Edward Thomas cycled from London to the Quantocks writing an account of his journey commissioned by a publisher and titled The Pursuit of Spring. He wasn't at that time the poet Edward Thomas. “I couldn't write a poem to save my life” he said to his friend Eleanor Farjeon. He was a poorly paid critic, reviewer and journalist, respected by his contemporaries but convinced of his own mediocrity. He suffered from attacks of depression, and was prone to sometimes suicidal episodes of melancholy. One of the ways he had learned to cope with his mental turmoil was to walk alone through the countryside. Long rambling walks he took a round his home in Hampshire and also longer hikes and expeditions across Southern England. Sometimes he would persuade a publisher to take his prose accounts and descriptions of his travels and package them as a kind of Edwardian coffee-table book.
“The Norfolk Jacket school of writing” is how he jokingly described his rural writings, but for Thomas it was a given that life in the countryside was the truest way of life and that a man in the city could only lose himself as he lost touch with nature and his natural surroundings. He loved literature and he loved history but he loved above all things the English countyside. He knew the names of every bird and wild flower and all his life he had studied them through the changing seasons in Kent, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Surrey and Somerset.
So he came by bicycle in 1913 on his journey from Clapham to Coleridge's old home in Somerset observing the landscape, the wildlife and the country ways and describing them and the poets who had once lived and found inspiration in the Counties he passed through, ostensibly to look for the first signs of Spring and in passing to check if there really was no weathercock on the church at Kilve,
The following year in 1914 Thomas was to review the poetry of the american poet Robert Frost. His favourable reviews did much to establish Frost as a serious poet and the two became friends. Frost theorised that the vocabulary, rythms and cadences of ordinary speech could be elevated into poetry and specifically pointed to Thomas's prose in the Pursuit of Spring saying that the book was full of poetry “but in prose form where it did not declare itself”. He even picked out paragraphs “and told him to write it in verse form in exactly the same cadence”.
As the war in Europe continued Thomas began to feel that he had to volunteer to serve and through 1915 and 1916 as he first struggled with his conscience, then enlisted and began to prepare himself for his likely death in the trenches Thomas finally turned to poetry, producing 144 short poems before he left england for France with the Royal Artillery. He was only three weeks at the front before being killed by shell. Only a handful of poems had been published in his lifetime, but such has been the popularity of Thomas's poems that they have not been out of print in the 100 years since his death.
Thomas didn't directly rewrite his Quantock prose as Quantock poetry but he certainly reworked his notes and recollections into his poetry and there is one poem in particular which is irrefutably a quantock poem:
An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:
A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:
A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:
For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.
In the first verse Thomas mis-quotes Coleridge's 'Sea, hill and wood' that he identified as a Quantock view in his prose writings, and in the second and third the hedges, trees and gardens closely echo his description of East Quantoxhead in Pursuit of Spring. The clincher though, is in the third verse where he names the pub in West Bagborough where he stopped for refreshment while pushing his bike up the steep western slope of the Quantocks.
Another favourite is this poem, not definitely Quantockian but sharing the theme of searching for first signs of Spring:
But These Things Also
But these things also are Spring's -
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was;
The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds' dung
In splashes of purest white:
All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets
Who seeks through Winter's ruins
Something to pay Winter's debts,
While the North blows, and starling flocks
By chattering on and on
Keep their spirits up in the mist,
And Spring's here, Winter's not gone.
in 2015 a collection of old photos was found among the manuscripts in the Edward Thomas Archive at Cardiff University. They appear to be Thomas's own photos of his journey. the whole collection is viewable on Rob Hudson's Blog.