Sunday, September 4, 2016

Gone, gone again

Edward Thomas is not a forgotten poet of the First World War; he is commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poet Corner, and his poems “Rain” and “As the team’s head-brass” are frequently included in collections of war poetry.

However, others of Thomas’s poems may be less familiar, and one of these is the beautiful, neglected poem “Gone, Gone Again,” written in the early autumn of 1916 as the battle of the Somme was entering its third month.  It has been set to music by Toby Darling and can be listened to here. 
Gone, Gone Again

Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,
Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.
And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees,
As when I was young—
And when the lost one was here—
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.
Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead
Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:
I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—
I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.
            --Edward Thomas

The poem echoes with melancholy: the passing of summer, the death of so many young men, the loneliness of life and of aging.  And while other poets have written of desolate homes destroyed by the war (Margaret Widdemer in “Homes” and May Sinclair in “After the Retreat”), Thomas compares himself to an abandoned house, “Dark and untenanted,/With grass growing instead/
Image: Dr. Neil Clifton
Of the footsteps of life.” At nearly forty, Thomas was older than the typical volunteer soldier; his poem “Gone, Gone Again,” resonates with undertones that are deeply conscious of mortality and powerlessness. 

Thomas did not survive the war, but was killed in the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 1917.  His wife, Helen, was told that his death was bloodless, that he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell as he stood to light his pipe. The reality was much grimmer.  A letter from Thomas’s commanding officer was recently found in an American archive, and it reveals that he was “shot clean through the chest.”*

In her poem “Easter Monday: In Memoriam E.T,” Thomas’s friend and fellow-poet Eleanor Farjeon wrote of receiving one of his last letters:
….Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

Thomas did not receive the last letters sent to him by Farjeon and other friends, for he, too, joined the thousands of other men who were “Gone, gone again,” and as his poem comments, their bodies were left to fertilize the soil of France, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Italy, Mesopotamia, and the countless other battlefields of the Great War. 

Thomas's grave at Agny, France


  1. Many Thanks for linking to my musical setting of the poem. I have actually made two albums of Edward Thomas' poetry set to music, which are free to download from my link above.

    1. Lovely music - thanks for letting us know of the other albums, too.

  2. Such fine (even if at times desperate) memories of Edward can be gleaned from his wife Helen's collection Under Storm's Wings (Carcanet).
    With additional reminiscences of Ivor Gurney, Eleanor Farjeon, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence and more.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful book recommendation, Chris -- "Under Storm's Wings."

  4. marvelous poem. Thomas is so good.