Auctions | June 8, 2018

Tragic War Poet's Newly Discovered Notebook at Bonhams

blobid16_1528451737871.pngA newly discovered notebook containing the only known working drafts of Edward Thomas’s very earliest poems, is one of the highlights of Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in London on Wednesday 20 June. It is estimated at £30,000-40,000.

Thomas (1878-1917) was already a well-established literary critic when he turned to writing poetry at the prompting of his friend, the American poet Robert Frost. The notebook - a school exercise book that belonged to his daughter, Myfanwy - is dated 17th and 18th December 1914, two weeks after his momentous conversation with Frost.  It includes handwritten drafts of three of his important early works, The Mountain Chapel, The Birds’ Nests and House and Man.     

The friendship between Edward Thomas and Robert Frost was important to both men.  Frost had moved to the UK in 1912 to revitalise his flagging career. His first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, was published in 1913, and gained critical attention only after a positive review by Thomas.  Frost, knowing of Thomas’s increasing unhappiness with the daily routine of his career as a literary journalist, gave him the confidence to embrace poetry.

In 1915, despite suffering from intermittent emotional and physical ill-health, and being over the official recruitment age, Thomas volunteered to join the Army. He was killed on Easter Monday 1917 on the first day of the Battle of Arras, having arrived in France only a few days earlier.

Thomas had written poetry feverishly during the preceding two years and his work had been accepted for publication. Six works appeared under a pseudonym during his lifetime, but the first book in his own name, Poems - which included Birds’ Nests - was not published until after his death. The other two works from the notebook were printed in Last Poems in 1918.

Thomas’s reputation grew rapidly in the early 1930s and has never diminished. Dylan Thomas wrote of him: “It is as though we had always known his poems, and were only waiting for him to write them down.” Ted Hughes - a poet of a much later generation - wrote simply, “He is father of us all.” 

The notebook was given in 1922 by Thomas’s widow Helen to Jack Haines, a Gloucester solicitor and poet and close friend of both Frost and Thomas. Haines played an important role in the publication of Thomas’s work, and in an article in 1933, coined the term Dymock Poets to describe the group including Thomas, Frost, Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater who had lived in and around the Gloucestershire village of the same name.   

Bonhams Head of Books and Manuscripts Matthew Haley said: “This is a very important discovery. Thomas tended to write ideas for his poems on scraps of paper which he then destroyed when he copied out the finished work. This notebook, therefore, is one of the few surviving examples of his creative process at work, and of great literary significance.”   

The notebook is one of more than 40 lots in the sale relating to Frost, Thomas and the Dymock Poets, including the handwritten definitive version of Frost’s well-known poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Image: (Left) Handwritten early draft of poem from Edward Thomas’s newly discovered notebook.  Estimate: £30,000-40,000. (Right) Portrait of Edward Thomas.