‘I should want nothing more’: Edward Thomas and simplicity

by Guy Cuthbertson

04 Nov 2019
Journal of the British Academy, volume 7 (2019)
Digital Object Identifier
Number of pages

Abstract: In the years before the First World War, the ‘Simple Life’ became somewhat fashionable, and Edward Thomas (1878–1917) was one of those Edwardians who were attracted to simplicity, both as a way of life and as a way of writing. As a book reviewer and biographer, he greatly admired simplicity in literature (as seen in, among others, William Cobbett, W. H. Davies, J. M. Synge and Robert Frost). His prose moved towards plainness, and his poetry is beautifully simple. This simplicity has been problematic, however. His poetry is unsuited to the decoding and exegesis (which might be suited to Modernism) that universities seek to conduct. Academics studying his poetry have allowed themselves to believe that they have found complexity, hidden beneath superficial simplicity, whereas in fact Thomas is a poet of genuine bareness, clear-as-glass honesty, magical brevity and childlike simplicity. His simplicity has been popular, and seems to suit some 21st-century fashions.

Keywords: the Simple Life, simplicity, complexity, Edwardians, universities, First World War, Modernism, Robert Frost, William Cobbett, J. M. Synge.

Chatterton Lecture on Poetry, read 1 November 2018

Sign up to our email newsletters