This month’s featured poem coincides with the Easter holiday weekend, and relates to an event from just over a century ago.
Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.)
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.
(April 9th, 1917)
Eleanor Farjeon (13 February 1881 – 5 June 1965) is known today, if at all, as the author of children’s books, but she was an engaged participant in the literary salons of London in the early 20th century. Eleanor was born in the family home on The Strand in London: her older brother was a composer and her father and two younger brothers were writers as well. Today, her relative anonymity might tempt you to think she just dabbled in writing, but the economics of Grub Street at that time meant that a talented writer could maintain an independent professional life. Her literary circle included friends such as Walter de la Mare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and Edward Thomas. The work of hers which is most widely known, but rarely attributed to her, is the hymn Morning Has Broken, written in 1931 but made popular by Cat Stevens in the 1960s. After her death a trust was established in her name and since 1966 there has been an annual Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished contributions to the publishing of British children’s books; in 2018 the award went to Michael Morpurgo, and earlier winners include Mallory Blackman, Michael Rosen, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Shirley Hughes and Jacqueline Wilson.
The subject of the poem is Edward Thomas. Eleanor was a friend of Edward and his wife, and engaged in correspondence with him after he joined the army in 1915. The poem makes poignant reference to the last of those letters, written but never read, because Thomas was killed on that Easter Monday in the battle of Arras in France. I’ve written about Edward Thomas before and he had a troubled relationship with the First World War; he was 37 years old when he joined the army in 1915 and had hesitated for many months before finally committing himself to a military career. His poetry is inspired by the war, but is not about the war – and this dislocation is present in Eleanor Farjeon’s tribute to him.
There’s a symmetry about the poem, but it takes an asymmetric form: as a sonnet the 9-5 line split is unusual, and there’s no rhyme; there’s the recurring pentameter but in each stanza the beat of the rhythm is broken into an erratic pattern. The sadness in the poem lies in the ironic repetition of the circumstances in which the apples were received, and the events of Easter for each of them. Both occurred on such a lovely morning, and the eve of something new, but for Thomas that Easter Monday meant death whilst for the writer it meant life. Similarly, for Thomas is the recipient of the previous season’s apples ready to be consumed, but the author is with the buds of the new spring growth, ready to flower. The effect, to me, is the creation of a fractured imbalance replicating the fractures and imbalance caused by the war; there’s an uneasiness, and it’s unsettling..
Margaret Keeping’s excellent book about Edward Thomas A Conscious Englishman describes the last few years of his life, including his relationship with Eleanor, and is an engrossing read. Eleanor never married, although she did have long term relationships with others. Although Thomas is there in my pantheon of favourite poetry (as earlier posts indicate) on this Third Thursday the focus is on another accomplished writer who happens to chose him as her subject.
Eleanor Farjeon’s writing covered a number of different forms and she wrote novels and plays as well as poetry and children’s books; she was also a journalist and wrote columns for a couple of left wing newspapers – The Daily Herald, and the Sunday Reynold’s News. If you don’t know her work then she’s certainly worthy of further investigation.