A Perfect Match

Some paintings are made to pair with a poem.

Read Edward Thomas’s As the Team’s Head Brass and then take another look at A Winter Landscape, 1926 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889–1946)

As the Team’s Head Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
                       The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

– Edward Thomas

Nevinson is best known for his paintings of the Great War. His post-war career was not so distinguished although many of those works are quite markable he  never achieved the acclaim that was bestowed on him for his war paintings. 

Self Portrait
Christopher Nevinson – 1911

Edward Thomas photographed in London in 1912

Thomas wrote all his poetry in a three-year burst of creativity between 1914 and 1917. He had enlisted in 1915 and embarked for France at the beginning of 1917. 

On Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras Offensive, Thomas  paused for a moment to fill his pipe. He was killed by a shell that passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. His wife Helen was told that he died without a mark on his body. This was the story that was believed for many years. A letter from his commanding officer discovered years later revealed that he had been “shot clean through the chest”.

Most of his poems were published after his death and they show his great love of the countryside and close observation of nature and the seasons.
He was a complicated man and full of contradictions. For a taste of that read Robert Crum’s review of his biography.

Margaret Bourke-White, Iron Mountain, Tennessee, 1937

1 Comment

  1. Jane:

    I think this is my favourite Edward Thomas poem. It is about the war but more it is about the change of the season, the rhythms of the country. It’s perfect the way the conversation “gossip” is parsed out by the up and down of the plough team. The ploughman weighs the losing of a limb – a leg, and arm – and his mind. This war seeping into every corner of life. So brilliant. So moving.

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