Mouthful of Earth (A Brief Dream of Edward Thomas)

Thoughtful Edward Thomas

I was sure of the name of one of the ghosts;
instantly I knew it, in a dream without names
although, for a ghost, he was more like the ghost of a ghost
with his white unsunned skin and wrongly faintly red hair.
Choose to approach him? But all choice was numb:
the chill in his eyes was the spitting image of Antarctic-blue ice
or invincible reserve, not to be distributed. I willed my face
to disturb my dreaming mouth and quote his own lines back at him by heart —
Whatever happens it must befall, / A mouthful of earth
to remedy all /
Regrets and wishes shall freely be given . . . —

but my hoarse will by then could make no more noise
and when I forced a meeting through my haphazard orbitings
he half-looked at me only to look right through me, like paper,
as if I were the ghost and not worth his greeting,
as if transparent eagerness were the one precise flaw
that made my sighting so simply insubstantial. Yet unmistakably
he was there, even without a voice,
warding me off, watchful, difficult, uneasy, calling me gracefully
into question — or focus — or being — or something
beyond any dream, with a clarity that wasp-stings
even dead-weight sleepers bolt upright from torpor.

Edward Thomas / “That Girl’s Clear Eyes”

Mademoiselle Riviere TWO


“That Girl’s Clear Eyes (Handel Street)”

That girl’s clear eyes utterly concealed all
Except that there was something to reveal.
And what did mine say in the interval?
No more: no less. They are but as a seal
Not to be broken till after I am dead;
And then vainly. Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs. Nor until now could I admit
That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain
I tasted in the stony square sunlit,
Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane,
While music blazed and children, line after line,
Marched past, hiding the ‘Seventeen Thirty-nine’.


We are all puzzled by ourselves to some degree. The more you can identify with the general order of things, the less troubled you may be — seeing your interests, aspirations and values reflected all around you must be a great reassurance. But there are people who have trouble identifying with the status quo: they just don’t get it. As a result, they often feel deeply alienated. Such people are often deeply engaged with an individual world, something they find largely within themselves, in the absence of any confirmation from the outside.

This condition is often called “introversion”, an immersion in inwardness. I found a beautiful description of this in F. D. Ommanney’s book on Hong Kong, Fragrant Harbour:

He was a round-faced, bullet-headed little chap who always sat in the middle of the driving-seat of the car, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, gazing intently at the road ahead and singing an endless little crooning song to himself. He was far away in the private world that little boys inhabit and when you spoke to him you had to recall him from a great way off. I remembered, too, those jolts backward from my distant kingdom into the real world. Directly he had answered your question his little spirit fled and was off again on its wings.

Perhaps Edward Thomas was like this too as a child. Whatever the case, he kept his connection to a distant kingdom into his adult life, and possibly turned to poetry to help him manage the jolts his condition caused him. When he writes

. . . Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs.

he is, I think, trying to convey something of this secret life in a kind of corresponding image. The references to graves must strike us as morbid, but can be attributed in part to the fact that his sense of himself seemed so at odds with his surroundings. In fact, I think Thomas also tended to think of tombs as places of fabulous discovery. In another poem called “Swedes” we find the lines:

. . . It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.

Edward Thomas Image_29 JUN 2019

Edward Thomas

In other words, it is a place where treasure is hoarded. Perhaps poetry too can serve as a “tomb” of this kind. Thomas can never directly communicate his self-nature to others (language is too generalized a medium for the task), but he can craft a certain approximate shape for it in poetry. We as readers can certainly find something of the poet’s “unwordable” (Emily Carr) puzzle preserved in his language.

Interestingly, the poem finds space to make a confession: Thomas uses it to announce his preferences for solitary pleasures (“all I cared for was the pleasure and pain / I tasted in the stony square sunlit, / Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane”). I was reminded of these lines when I read the following in Jay Griffiths’s Tristimania:

My psyche was on a dangerous journey, but a further reach of the human mind comes within one’s grasp in these extra octaves, something exquisite and oddly impersonal. It is accented by one’s individual nature, yes, but still seems to touch something beyond, a cry for the divine.

This is Thomas’s rather unusual kind of mysticism, which seems to push at the supposed boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world (does such a boundary really exist?). Our social being, he seems to be saying, his only a small part of our make-up. As Rilke puts it in one of his letters to a young poet, “if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it becomes clear that most people get to know only one corner of their room, a window seat, a strip of floor which they pace up and down”. In other words, there is much more to us than we imagine, but how often are we encouraged to act on this fact?

I think this may shed light on the engimatic final two lines of the poem. The marching children and the rather ancient date of 1739 suggest endless ranks of human beings coming into the world, confronting the mysteries of their existence, and then passing out of it again, not necessarily any wiser for what they have experience. It is a sad note to end on, but also a cry from the heart: it is time to wake up to the bigger picture, the extra octaves concealed in all of us.