Edward Thomas was born in London. He worked as a book reviewer, reviewing upto 15 books every week. He worked as a literary critic for the Daily Chronicle. Robert Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry. Thomas was promoted Corporal and in November 1916 was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery as second lieutenant. He was killed in action soon after he arrived at France at Arras on Easter Monday, 9th April, 1917. Thomas’ poems are notes for their attention to the English Countryside and a certain Colloquial style. The short poem ‘In Memorium’ exemplifies how his poetry blends the themes of war and the countryside. His subject was mainly war and the pity of war.
The poem opens with the image of a team of horses pulling the plow, whose head girdles shine brightly under the sun as they move. “The lovers disappeared into the woods” leaving us with hope and optimism. The “Lovers” appear as key figures in Thomas’ poems. We only see them at the beginning and the end of the poem, but they are important symbols of love and life. In “In Memorium (Easter 1969)” and “The Cherry Tree” the absence of the lovers is a terrible loss; in this poem, their poem, their fleeting presence is a cause for optimism and hope. As the narrator sat “among the boughs of the fallen elm” tree, he watched the horses plot through a yellow square of charlock (a yellow mustard weed). Every time the horses passed the narrator, instead of ignoring him, the farmer would lean on the handles and ask questions “about the weather, next about the war”. The narrator gives a beautifully detailed description of the bough he sat on- the blizzard had felled the elm tree in “whose crest” the narrator sat in, beside a “woodpecker’s round hole”. When the ploughman asked when they would take away the fallen tree, the narrator says that they will move it “when the war is over”. With this, the talk began between intervals every time the farmer passed by him. Thomas has managed to show us a very rare view of war- the other side of war, the side which, even though not directly involved, suffers enormously. A conversation takes place between the farmer and the narrator where they talk rather directly and matter of factly about war with a hint of light heartedness and irony.
The farmer asks if he has been to war when the narrator replies that he hasn’t. When the farmer asks if it is because he doesn’t want to take part, the narrator says that he would join if only he could “come back again”. He puns that he “could spare an arm” but he doesn’t want to “lose a leg”. Here, there is a pun when he says he could lend a helping hand, but then he takes it in a literal sense and continues saying he doesn’t want to “lose a leg”. When we see that there is still a bit of laughter despite all the horrible things happening, we can’t help but smile.
The speaker then realised on a more sombre note that if he lost his head instead, he wouldn’t “want nothing more” as he would be dead. This is said in a very direct and straightforward way as if a matter of life and death is almost a daily conversation. This paints a picture of life on the other side of the battlefield.
The speaker then asks the farmer if many have died and the farmer replies in the affirmative. The farmer further goes on to say that “one of his mates are dead. The second day in France they killed him”. Though the farmer has accepted his loss and says this matter-of-factly, we feel a squeeze in our hearts as we witness the loss of near and dear ones and the impact on their friends and family. The farmer goes on to say that if he “had stayed here we should have moved the tree” which shows that not only did he lose his friend, but also a helper in times of need.
The narrator then observes that if they had indeed moved the tree, then he “should not have sat here” and “everything would have been different. For it would have been another world”. Thomas has managed to show us how important each life is, how each life matters, and how each life makes the world a unique place and completely different.
The lovers come out of the woods again, bringing with them love, laughter and hope. The horses moved again, ploughing the fields as the narrator watched the “clods crumble and topple over” symbolizing the lives and hopes and dreams that are being trodden on. The narrator watches the “ploughshare and the stumbling team”, reminding him of England and the raging war they are fighting against other countries. Just like the lovers, life goes on, and hopefully, hope and brightness goes along with it.
Read more essays here- Critical Analysis of Signpost by Edward Thomas