B: As we know, this is the poem that Seamus is responding to in his poem discussed last week – In a Field. Like the Heaney poem, it is a poem about war in which no one is killed, there is no blood, or bombs yet in which the effects of the war, the way it seeps into everything, is presented incredibly powerfully. It is split into two fairly distinct stanzas, the first setting up the conversation of the second. The protagonist seems to be a traveller, a stranger, who has stopped to observe the ploughing and talk to the farmer. Like in the Heaney, there is use of distinct ploughing terminology “the teams head brass”, “scraping the share”, “screwed along the furrow”. I’ll admit that I had only the vaguest idea about what these phrases meant before looking them up. In doing so I found the wonderful WW1 poetry blog of Southfields Academy in Wandsworth, London1. The notes on this poem are revelatory as to the meaning of the pastoral language, in case you shared my ignorance. All refer to the act of ploughing which is taking place throughout the poem. In fact it frames and punctuates the poem, with the procession and flashing brass of the ploughshare opening and closing the poem. Again like the Heaney the war is brought in though contrast, it is reflected in the endless, timeless ritual of ploughing. Yet as opposed to Heaney, the war for Thomas is not something imposed nor disruptive. It is integrated, can be talked of casually as when the farmer talks “first about the weather, next about the war.” War here is something, like the weather, to allow for connections to be made, for conversation to flow, something all experience so all can talk of. It is also perhaps, like the weather, something unchanging, unknowable, unstoppable, something that just happens. For Heaney the war is specific, is distant and is personified, is something with a different geography, now imposed. While here in Thomas the war is already here, it is in fact everywhere but diffuse.
In Farjeon’s biography of Thomas she talks of the integrity of weather to his thinking, mentioning that “other people talk about the weather, Edward lived it.” Robert Macfarlane takes this up in his most recent book, which leans heavily on Thomas’ writing. Macfarlane claims that, like the landscape, Thomas saw weather as a place to think from, not something simply to be admired from a distance. It is something which affects and through which thought it possible, it “presses hard upon our bodies, mind, and sensibilities.” So. Considering this perhaps instead of the talk of weather provincialising talk of war the comparison allows both to become something transcendental or divine, as outlined above, but also profoundly material, pressing and requiring response.
K: Looking straight to the poem, even after the first reading, I was struck by Thomas’ use of time across this poem, and how the first stanza acts as a description of one unit – one that is repeated again in the second stanza – one square of ploughing, and one conversation with the farmer. Ending with “once more” indicates the cyclical diligence of this observed process. I was also immediately caught by the feeling that, like Heaney, Thomas focuses on and plays with the idea of boundaries – both poets describe the action of marking out and physically creating edges and cleavages in the earth, and describe this process as drawing in and in, tighter and tighter as the poem and its other themes grow. That the protagonist is sitting in a tree “that strewed the angle of the fallow” – literally on a boundary – gives the impression that he is outside of the regimented farming mechanics – he is sat on the meeting point of fallow land and farm land. It punctuates the moment. I think this both emphasises the point you make, above, about him appearing like a stranger in the poem – he has imposed himself on the normal boundaries of the farm – and the fact that a more unusual exchange about war and life as they normally knew it is happening – in spite of the fact that it comes out of a seemingly quotidian conversation about the weather. The specific naming of farming procedures and plants is interesting as you say – and well done for finding that explanatory blog! As we heard on the Echo Chamber the other night, Thomas never claimed anything other than to know the names of plants and flowers and rather eschewed the idea of making deep intellectual points in his poetry. He didn’t think of himself as speaking from above or below about something bigger. I do like that, but it definitely has a deeper effect than he’s comfortable with admitting! It makes me feel like Thomas is exposing us to this different, alien farming world, which has its own language and grammars – I don’t think it’s assumed that we’d know what the plants and mechanics are – so we’re rooted down in their world, looking in. I also find the pastoral descriptions are almost comforting in their vivid specificity, a quiet attention to nature that mimics its gentle, repetitive rhythm.
B: I like the point about the literal marginality of the protagonist, observing from the edge of the farm land. The conversation takes place across the shifting boundary, unlike in Heaney in which the boundary is broken by the “one who arrives”. Perhaps we can relate this partly to the already presentness of the war in the Thomas poem in the ease of it coming up in conversation as I mention above but also in the presence of the tree which – were the war not on – would have already been moved. Also I suppose as the protagonists is not a soldier and so symbolically doesn’t disrupt the scene. I’m not sure about the use of the language, if it would have been alien to a poetry reading public of the 1910s, though I agree that it roots the poem in the rural, in their world.
Another aspect to discuss in the role of the lovers, which like the ploughshare, frames the poem though less directly. The lovers leave and are left. Although like the timelessness of the ploughing the lovers could be said to be a reassuring presence. Both reproduce; one the land and the other the country. Despite the war the basic and important things are still happening: sex and farming. In other Thomas poems he laments the loss of lovers due to the war. Yet here they are fundamental. Could this be a note of optimism?
K: Really like your point about reproduction in the poem – the re-cycling of the land in process, and the lovers. Especially in light of what you read about them being reassuring – that’s exactly what it is. I had been thinking it would be simplistic to say that the lovers are some sign of hope but I do agree they suggest a feeling of reproduction, life going on, cycles continuing, all of which are reassuring. The reemergance of the lovers (“again”), and the final turn of the plough indicates a renewal – it may be another different world but the cycle continues. The fact that they’re clandestine lovers rather than a young married couple (or something else more formerly expressed) evokes a lighter, optimistic and pleasant feeling too I think. A full cycle taking place across the poem, as with the land. I think they really do frame the poem because – although I know you said “the lovers leave and are left” , I actually think they are in the background to the whole poem, which is why it maintains a certain lightness in spite of the war subject. Close to the end of the first stanza we’re reminded of the lovers: “Scraping the share he faced towards the wood” – where we know they are.
The place and position of the writer is intriguing as well – it took me several read throughs to ascertain whether he was a stranger/interloper or whether he was from the area, and I’m still not quite sure! He knows of the tree (it’s the ploughman who asks when they will take it away) but his situation isn’t habitual – I don’t get the impression he makes a habit of watching this process. The dialogue in the second stanza only reinforces that confusion – it’s hard to work out straight away who is saying what, and the unbroken dialogue quickens the pace of the otherwise gently ambling poem, reflecting the increasing tenseness of the topic. For me, this passage – it’s confusion and it’s blunt, fast phrasing all adds to a general feeling I get from the poem that things are out of sorts, and they fumbling to react to that change: the fallen tree breaking up the farm’s boundaries, the blizzard, the war, the fact that they can’t clearly “see all.” And yet, as you say, the war is integrated, and connected to the rhythms of the land, rather than centre-stage, which makes the exchange seem lighter and the war less dominating. At once the connection between the farm and the war it is both totally specific and pendantic, and at the same time profound – “everything/would have been different. For it would have been/Another world.” It’s like there’s this theme of indifference to the war (the conversation begins with pleasantries about the weather, then the war. The war is linked to the moving of a fallen tree, an ironic irritation that lack of available man power is preventing its removal) but talk of other, better worlds, that can’t be perceived clearly (with the blizzard and the fallen tree being the natural metaphor?) is incredibly profound and ties with a broader theme of traditional life changing, and the impossibility of truly comprehending these changes as they happen.
B: Yes! Couldn’t put it any better. In the Macfarlane book mentioned above he discerns Thomas’ true subjects as “disconnection, discrepacy and unsettledness.” I think your points echo this, though I think we agree that this isn’t the whole story, that there is more than an hint of hope. At the time of writing Thomas had just accepted a commission to go to fight in France. He was in his late 30s and so didn’t have to fight, he chose to. There is some doubt over if this was for a pension and thus security or due to Thomas’ feeling of duty. Macfarlane holds that it was the later and that Thomas was “slowly growing into a conscious Englishman.” Most likely would be some mix. Thomas is perhaps unusal as a poet in that he only started writing poetry well into his 30s and in fact the vast majority of his poetic output was written after the decision to enlist. His output was prodigious, writing 60 poems in 55 days in 1916. Talking of Thomas’ letters from the front his wife Helen says that he was “delighting in what beauty there is there, he finds beauty where no one else would find it….” Thomas was killed in April, and like the mate of the farmer having only been in France for a number of days. This poem ends, as you say, with ambiguity with an instance on reserving judgement because although “If we could see all all might seem good” we can’t. We are always limited, our view of the world is fundamentally subjective, we cannot take all paths, we must pick one. Given this, we would do well to remember the opening lines of a new poem that was found in Thomas pocket on the day he died – “Where any turn may lead to heaven/ Or any corner may hide hell/ Roads shining like river up hill after rain.”
1 In a rather nice bit of quasi-serendipity Wandsworth is actually where Thomas lived for a number of years, before he started writing poetry.