Saturday, March 25, 2017

A quiet place apart

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas
On an August day in 1914, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost “were sitting on an orchard stile near Little Iddens, Frost's cottage in Gloucestershire…when word arrived that Britain had declared war on Germany. The two men wondered idly whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of the county.”*

Frost would later describe Edward Thomas as “the only brother I ever had.” The First World War separated the two poets: Frost returned to America, and in 1915 Thomas enlisted in the British Army, but the two men frequently exchanged letters.  In December of 1916, Frost sent Thomas a letter about talk of the war in the United States: “Silly fools are full of peace talk over here…. It's none of my business what you do: but neither is it any of theirs. I wrote some lines I've copied on the other side of this about the way I am struck. When I get to writing in this vein you may know I am sick or sad or something.” Frost enclosed this poem with the letter:

Suggested by Talk of Peace at This Time
Popular anti-war song, 1915

France, France I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As a watcher for a quiet place apart

Than you are fighting in an open grave.

I will not ask more of you than you ask,
O Bravest, of yourself. But shall I less?
You know the extent of your appointed task,
Whether you still can face its bloodiness.

Not mine to say you shall not think of peace.
Not mine, not mine. I almost know your pain.
But I will not believe that you will cease
I will not bid you cease, from being slain.

And slaying till what might have been distorted
Is saved to be the Truth and Hell is thwarted.

Shortly before being posted to the Western Front, Edward Thomas replied to Frost in a letter dated 31 December 1916:**

War poster, 1917
My dear Robert,
I had your letter & your poem ‘France, France’ yesterday.
I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say & what you feel about saying that much. It expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act. Well, I am soon going to know more about it.

In previous letters to Edward Thomas, Frost had written,“You know I haven't tried to be troubled by the war. But I believe it is half of what's ailed me ever since August 1914,” and “You rather shut me up by enlisting….Talk is almost too cheap when all your friends are facing bullets.”

Frost’s poem expresses his own ambivalence toward the Great War as well as the uncertainty many Americans felt towards the conflict.  Frost is deeply worried for his soldier-friend Edward Thomas, who prepares for “fighting in an open grave” while Frost watches in safety “from a quiet place apart.” The repeated refrain “Not mine, not mine” speaks not only of Frost's surrendering his  right to comment on a war that the US had not yet entered, but also of Frost's respect for Thomas’s decision to enlist and even for Thomas’s willingness to die in battle. It is a very hard thing to concede that our loved ones have the right to sacrifice their lives that are so very precious to us. 

Edward Thomas was killed on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.  In his letter of sympathy to Helen, Thomas’s widow, Frost wrote,

I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known….
Edward Thomas
Of the three ways out of here, by death where there is no choice, by death where there is a noble choice, and by death where there is a choice not so noble, he found the greatest way.  There is no regret—nothing that I will call regret. Only I can’t help wishing he could have saved his life without so wholly losing it and come back from France not too much hurt to enjoy our pride in him.  I want to see him to tell him something.  I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet….”††

*Guardian article “Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war,” by Matthew Hollis, published Friday, 29 July 2011.  This link
**“A Poem from Robert Frost for Edward Thomas,” A Century Back. Blog post 31 Dec. 2016.
† “Between Friends: Rediscovering the War Thoughts of Robert Frost,” by Robert Stilling. Virginia Quarterly Review 82.4, Fall 2006.
†† Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900- 1918, page 178. The book is written by Leslie Lee Francis, Frost’s granddaughter.

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