(Easter Monday, April 9th 1917)
“I simply watched the shells changing the landscape”
- Edward Thomas
No man can take this land, it is nature’s own
Shimmering under full moon, and poppies autumn sown.
A long night exposed, watching, peaceful in the dark,
Listening to the thud, a dud, so close but still, no blast.
A shell of frost on mud in early dawn of day
Turns quick to blood red streams throughout the clay
Into the ditches, limp bleeding streams,
Along the other tracks he might have been.
Nettles have no peace to grow among the plough
Shares rusting in the burnt barns wrecked by fire.
Empty shell of snail holed by the thrush, now
Beak bladed open in the filthy mire.
A watcher turns field glasses towards an armoured sky
To the projectile falcon, at its summit,
Ready to drop. The shell still hovers higher.
Incessant noise, then autopsied flesh, then quiet.
“He was killed on Easter Monday by a shell”
- Helen Thomas
Shell (Easter Monday, April 9th 1917) is a simple poem paying homage to Edward Thomas, an English poet with a long writing career but short duration writing poetry. Thomas was a professional writer and was encouraged to publish his poetry by Robert Frost. A brief outline of their friendship and the consequences of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is available in an article in the UK newspaper “The Guardian”. Edward Thomas enlisted in the British army during the First World War and died on the first day of the Battle of Arras.
Thomas wrote at a time of immense change, breaking free from the constraints of Georgian poetry but not stretching as far as the modernist approach of Eliot, for example. Nevertheless, Thomas provides a peculiarly structured yet loose portrayal of England (rather than Britain) at the time of WW1.
In this poem there is a reference to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as well as Thomas’ poetry, particularly “Tall Nettles” supplemented by Yeat’s “Second Coming”, a post-war poem containing savage and mystical imagery and sharing the evolutionary path in British poetry that Thomas might have taken, had he not been killed in 1917.
Rhyme in this poem has been carefully controlled and disrupted in an attempt to display the evolutionary state of poetry at the time, as has the metre. Formal rhyming schemes come in and out of focus, initially aabb, but moving to a slant-rhymed abab at the final stanza.