Edward Thomas - The Journey To War [Radio Wales]

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A portrait of poet Edward Thomas by Gwyneth Lewis on the centenary of his death.

The London Welsh poet, Edward Thomas, was killed during the Battle of Arras, 100 years ago. He was 39 years old.

Gwyneth Lewis, our first National Poet, has admired his work greatly over many years. 'Edward Thomas: The Journey to War' is her tribute to him.
In this programme, Gwyneth presents a comprehensive portrait of Thomas, the man and his work.

The programme features interviews from Cardiff University's Special Collections and Archives. Among the extensive collection are recordings with Edward Thomas' widow, Helen, and his daughters, Bronwen and Myfanwy.

Thomas was one of the most important poets of the 20th century, influencing poets such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and R.S. Thomas.
Gwyneth hears from prominent scholars who are lifelong fans of his work.

Professor Edna Longley, a leading Edward Thomas scholar, tells Gwyneth that Thomas has a unique place in poetry:
"An extraordinary thing is the number of poets today and in the past century who have written poems to or about Edward Thomas There is no other poet of whom the same is true. He is 'a poet's poet' in the best sense of that term."

Thomas isn't, however, an elitist poet. As Edna Longley says, Thomas, to use Virginia Woolf's phrase, is also read by 'the common reader'. His most well-known poem, "Addlestrop" is one of the most requested poems on BBC Radio 4's "Poetry Please".

Katie Gramich, professor of English literature at Cardiff University, organised a conference earlier in 2017 to mark the centenary of his death. She tells Gwyneth how " Edward Thomas is a quiet poet, an introverted poet. He's a poet for introverts you might even say, a poet with a quiet voice but nevertheless an unforgettable voice. "

"I've been nuts about Edward Thomas", says Gwyneth, "ever since I studied his work in New York with Derek Walcott, the Nobel Laureate from St Lucia. He used to say that Thomas was a multi-cultural poet influenced by two countries and two languages. The scandal is that Thomas is seen as an English poet and it's high time we claimed him as one of our own in Wales. Without doubt, Edward Thomas is a literary giant of world stature and we should celebrate him in Wales."
Edward Thomas' father was a Welsh speaker and friends with Lloyd George. Thomas said he was "five-eighths' Welsh" " and his connections with Wales were important to him.

Gwyneth will chart the ups and downs of his life and his difficult relationship with his wife, Helen. They married after Helen got pregnant at a very young age, and Thomas struggled to support Helen and their three children on his income as a writer.

At Cardiff University's Special Collections and archives Gwyneth meets Alison Harvey who catalogued their extensive Edward Thomas collection and curated a centenary exhibition about Edward Thomas. Alison challenges some of the myths about their life together:
"There's been a quite reductive and a rather bigoted suggestion since the first biography in the 1930s that Edward's need to support his wife and children held him back from a more successful writing career Helen believed in Edward's abilities completely and unquestioningly often she was his only source of encouragement throughout his periods of crippling depression and self doubt."

Gwyneth has written about her own depression in 'Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression'. In letters to his friend Gordon Bottomley in the archive, Thomas describes the pain of depression.

Gwyneth explores Thomas' transformative relationship with the American poet, Robert Frost, who came to be regarded as one of America's foremost poets. It was Frost who persuaded Edward Thomas to start writing poetry.

Myfanwy, his youngest child, was six when her father died. In recordings in the archive, she shares precious memories of her father and how they, as children, often inspired him to write poetry.

For Edward Thomas, walking was important for his creativity and well-being. He wrote in his prose and his poetry about nature and the recent interest in nature writing has drawn readers to his work once more. His work also resonates with ecological concerns today.

With other fans of Thomas' work, Gwyneth goes on a pilgrimage to Llyn y Fan Fach in the Black Mountains of Carmarthenshire. Thomas wrote about the place and the legend about the woman who came out of the lake.