Apparently it was in November 1914 that Edward Thomas, with the encouragement of Robert Frost, began to write modern poems. I have known the ‘anthology poems’ of Thomas since I was a teenager, but now I am reading all his poems chronologically in the Collected Poems and War Diary, 1917 (Faber, 2004). I’ve been struck by the last poem in ‘Poems 1914’, entitled ‘The Hollow Wood’. It begins:
Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish —
The wood appears to be ‘hollow’ in the sense that from above, where the goldfinch is, it is leafless, or ‘pale’ from a few leaves left, and hence a kind of wicker cage in which the other birds can be seen, but for Thomas like an aquarium where these birds ‘swim like fish’.
It is strange, but not surprising, that one immediately relates this image to Thomas’s (yet to come) experience of war. The bare wood is like the fairly small woods all around Ypres in November 1914, such as Nonnebosschen, Sanctuary Wood, or indeed Bulgar Wood where the sniper hid who wounded George Calderon on 29 October. The stripped, dead, brittle, and then devastated wood is a potent image in much war poetry. Moreover, ‘the hollow wood’ in Thomas’s poem already has disturbed and disturbing features: the fish that the birds are compared to ‘laugh and shriek’, the base of these trees is covered in baleful ‘lichen, ivy, and moss’, some trees are ‘half-flayed and dying’, others already ‘dead […] on their knees’. It seems a foretaste of Arras.
Woods — small woods, classically ‘groves’ — feature often in the poems of Georg Trakl, who for me is possibly the most disturbing and beautiful of the war poets. His ‘Grodek’ (October 1914) begins:
At evening the autumn woods resound
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, which the sun
Darker rolls over; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild keening
Of their broken mouths.
The quintessence of the landscape and of the War is rendered in Trakl’s line:
Alle Strassen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
(‘All roads flow into black putrescence.’)
Next entry: Visitors and ‘visitors’