20-26 July 1915: Poetry written whilst waiting in Balham

Last week’s blog post mentioned the letter from Edward Thomas to his friend Eleanor Farjeon about coming to London to be attested.  This week’s post looks at the letters he wrote a few days after he joined up, again to Eleanor.

On Tuesday 20th July, Edward wrote from his parents’ house in Rusham Road, Balham, that “yesterday I was attested”.  Attestation was the start of the process of joining up when the recruit completed the attestation forms.  He also wrote that he had been having trouble with his feet and was due to visit the doctor, apologising for delay in writing:

Otherwise I should wait longer until I had seen the doctor.  I only hope he won’t give me leisure to think why I joined.  Several people have asked me; but I could not answer yet. 

The following day he writes again, also from Balham, having had to be signed off by the doctor until the tendons in his foot had recovered.

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

This letter finishes with him requesting “don’t tell anybody I aren’t a soldier yet, tho I am in uniform”, presumably in relation to being signed off, but the bulk of it refers to the poetry he has been writing whilst in Balham waiting:

…six hours over ten lines which perhaps are not right yet.  But if you would type them for me could see them better.  They are

What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth

Letting down two old pipes into the earth?

The one I smoked, the other a soldier

Of Blenheim, Ramillies, & Malplaquet

Perhaps.  The dead man’s immortality

Lies lightly represented with my own,

A yard or two nearer the air of day

Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see

Almighty God erect the mastodon,

One laughed or wept at what earth had to bear

Detail of "Digging"

Detail of “Digging”

The finished version of the poem can be seen here.  Prior to the war Thomas had mainly written criticism, rather than poetry, the outbreak of the war and the influence of his friend Robert Frost meant that he began writing poems in autumn 1914. He often sent drafts or material for typing to Eleanor, getting her to comment on it as well as to type it up – the commentary was a service he provided for her as well.  Drafts of his poems within the collection include “Lob” and “Lights Out”, the latter we’ll come to in a future blog.

Letters to Eleanor Farjeon, 1915, ref: D112/1/3

Letters quoted are numbers 114 &115 and available on microfilm in the first instance.

 

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