- Guy Cuthbertson
Dymock poets (act. 1913–1915), were the six writers—Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Wilfrid Gibson, Edward Thomas, and the American Robert Frost (1874–1963)—associated with the village of Dymock, between Ross-on-Wye and Ledbury on the Gloucestershire–Herefordshire border, in the period immediately before and after the outbreak of the First World War.
In 1911 Abercrombie moved to a cottage, The Gallows, at Ryton, close to Dymock, where he lived until 1916. The Gallows became a key meeting place for the circle. Wilfrid Gibson stayed there during his honeymoon in 1913 before his move, in the following year, to the Old Nail Shop at Greenway Cross, 2 miles west of Ryton. Having moved to a cottage, Little Iddens, at Ledington in April 1914, Robert Frost and his family lived at The Gallows from September until their return to America in February 1915. Frost's poem 'The Sound of Trees' was written for Abercrombie and, like 'The Thatch', has been seen as a poem about The Gallows. It was from the cottage that Abercrombie, Brooke, Drinkwater, and Gibson produced the quarterly literary journal New Numbers, published at 'Ryton, Dymock', in 1914. Edward Thomas spent August 1914 in the area, and made shorter visits too: on 24 January 1915 he noted that 'after 10 months my “Ross” map is one of my best used' (Farjeon, 114).
With the exception of Brooke, the six wrote poetry about Dymock, and while Brooke's famous work 'The Soldier'—first published in New Numbers—might not necessarily have been written with Dymock in mind, it is also suited to the place: Dymock was a place of 'laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, / In hearts at peace, under an English heaven'. On 6 July 1914 Brooke wrote, 'I've stayed two days with Gibson', who was 'still in a Heaven of delight', and commented on his love of Abercrombie's cottage 'where one drinks great mugs of cider, & looks at fields of poppies in the corn' (Brooke, 598). In the work of these poets Dymock was a golden corner of rural England, coloured by wild daffodils and cider apples, and Dymock in 1914 has come to represent a world that was destroyed by the First World War. Gibson's 'The Golden Room' (published in 1927) recalls a summer evening at Dymock with Abercrombie, Brooke, Frost, and Thomas, but darkness fell when 'August brought the war, and scattered us'.
The group's journal, New Numbers, failed to survive much beyond 1914. The fourth and last issue, although dated 1914, was slightly delayed and did not appear until early 1915, because Brooke was still working on a sequence of war sonnets. Brooke's death in April 1915, and the popularity of 'The Soldier', brought new attention to New Numbers. Its four issues included four poems by Abercrombie, eight by Drinkwater, fourteen by Gibson, and fifteen by Brooke. The poems vary in length and, to some extent, style and subject matter, but there is more cohesion in New Numbers than in the first of Edward Marsh's five anthologies, Georgian Poetry, 1911–1912 (1912), in which the four poets had also appeared. (Gibson and Drinkwater in turn published work in each of Marsh's five volumes up to 1922; [see Georgian poets].) Thomas and Frost, the two Dymock poets whose work did not appear in Georgian Poetry, are now by some way the most highly regarded of the six. However, at the time of New Numbers' first publication Frost was hardly known and Thomas had not yet written a poem. By the time of the journal's final issue Thomas had completed some of the best poems of the century, and Frost's North of Boston (1914) had been acclaimed as a major collection, not least by Thomas, a prominent critic.
Thomas wrote about New Numbers in a letter of 8 March 1915, saying that 'Drinkwater is hopeless', and Gibson 'almost equally so' (quoted in Moore, 326), and it would be wrong to see the Dymock poets (who never used this term of themselves) as a gang of six devoted friends. They were nevertheless initially brought together by friendship, and this friendship is a key characteristic of Dymock poems, notably 'The Golden Room', Drinkwater's 'Daffodils', Thomas's 'The Sun Used to Shine', and Frost's 'Iris by Night'. They also received visits from other literary friends, including Edward Marsh, William Henry Davies, and Eleanor Farjeon, whose Edward Thomas: the Last Four Years describes visiting the 'covey of poets' or, rather, 'two brace': Abercrombie and Gibson, Thomas and Frost (pp. 91, 94).
Thomas and Frost had one of the great literary friendships of the period, and in 'Iris by Night' Frost suggests that they were 'elected friends'; indeed both 'Iris by Night' and 'The Sun Used to Shine' refer to 'we two' rather than ‘we six’: 'we were together to the exclusion of every other person and interest all through 1914—1914 was our year' (Selected Letters of Robert Frost, 220). Frost and his family had arrived in England from America in September 1912, and Frost first met Thomas in October 1913, six months before the Frosts moved to Little Iddens. When the Thomas family spent August 1914 in a neighbouring house, Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry. When he did, Thomas admitted that they were not 'Frosty very much' (Edward Thomas: Selected Letters, 106), but his walks and talks with Frost were certainly important, and these encounters are recorded in 'The Sun Used to Shine' and 'A Dream', and in his essay 'This England', in which Thomas described how Hereford 'stood out among county names as the most delicately rustic of them all, with a touch of nobility given it long ago, I think, by Shakespeare's “Harry of Hereford, Lancaster and Derby”' (Thomas, Last Sheaf, 215). Thomas and Frost were both aware of the literary associations of the countryside around Dymock. Thomas's 'The Sun Used to Shine' and 'Words' were influenced by Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century writer who grew up nearby. There are also echoes of Brooke's New Numbers poem 'Tiare Tahiti' in 'The Sun Used to Shine', and it is possible that Brooke and Abercrombie influenced 'Words'. Similarly, Frost noticed that he was living among 'the modern counterparts of Langland's Piers Plowman people' (Mertins, 118), and 'Iris by Night', set on 'a Malvern side', alludes to Piers Plowman, which opens on the nearby Malvern Hills. William Langland is also associated with the Malverns in Thomas's wartime essay 'England'.
As Thomas's poems and wartime essays suggest, Dymock helped him to become 'a conscious Englishman' (3 Sept 1914, Letters to Berridge, 74). In August 1914 he had recorded an epiphany in his notebook: 'it seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged' (Collected Poems, 406). Dymock was also crucial to his sense of England. He spoke to local people for whom the country's 'core and vital principle' was 'a few thousand acres' around Dymock, and he concluded that 'England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home' (Last Sheaf, 136, 111).
Frost, on the other hand, claimed that 'I never saw New England as clearly as when I was in Old England' (Collected Poems, 686). He looked back to New England from Dymock, and looked back to Dymock after his return to America in 1915. He wrote several poems while at Dymock, but 'Iris by Night', the poem that is most clearly about his time there, was composed later and recalls 'the miracle / That never yet to other two befell'. The work of the Dymock poets frequently looks back, either during their time in Dymock to the past, as in Gibson's 'The Old Nail-Shop' (a New Numbers poem about his cottage), or more often—fondly and longingly—from another place, from the First World War or after. Dymock is the lost happy place, in much the same way that the Herefordshire countryside of his childhood is a lost Eden in the work of Traherne. For example, Drinkwater's 'Blackbird' and 'Daffodils' look back from the town to magical Dymock ('I've been there a thousand times'); in 'The Golden Room' and 'To John Drinkwater' Gibson looks back to Dymock 'before the world went wrong', while 'Reunion' (dated 6 October 1928) is dedicated to Frost and mentions Brooke, Thomas, and Abercrombie by name; Abercrombie's 'Ryton Firs' is a moving elegy not just for a former time, but also for a place—'they've killed our woods'. Five days before his death at the battle of Arras, Thomas remembered a world where the sun shone: 'our ASC driver knows the part of Herefordshire where I saw Frost & Abercrombie & it was a pleasure to talk about those villages' (4 April 1917, Letters to Bottomley, 283). After Brooke's death the three surviving contributors to New Numbers had written elegies, and now Frost wrote an elegy, 'To E.T.' In 1932, in John Gawsworth's Ten Contemporaries, Abercrombie—now a professor of English at Bedford College, London—looked back on his time at Dymock and lamented 'I make no cider now' (p. 21).
Given the importance of memory and retrospection in the circle's poetry, it is appropriate that the epithet the Dymock poets was not used in print until 1933, in an article by John Haines in Gloucestershire Countryside. In 1957 Frost returned to Dymock, where he discovered that Abercrombie's cottage, The Gallows, had fallen into ruin. This visit was widely publicized, but the Dymock poets as a group did not receive much attention until the end of the twentieth century. In The Country and the City (1973), Raymond Williams discussed 'the Georgian poets [who] settled near Ledbury, and started New Numbers', though he did not identify them as the Dymock poets and, despite 'my family on my mother's side … working on farms there', appears to have known little about them. In the 1990s, however, three books and other scholarly articles were published on the circle, the Friends of the Dymock Poets was founded, and the Dymock Poets Archive and Study Centre was created at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham. Members of the group are also commemorated by a series of street names on the outskirts of Ledbury and the region now supports a local tourist industry offering guided walks and a permanent exhibition at St Mary's Church, Dymock. The Dymock poets are associated with a world long gone, but Frost and Thomas have become major figures, and forefathers, of modern literature, and their friendship at Dymock has been important to a number of later poets. Glyn Maxwell, for instance, in 'Letters to Edward Thomas' (1998), provides a
Poem to Mr Thomas and Mr Frost,Created by a dandelion you passedAs you in talk about a stanza crossedHalf Herefordshire.
Cuthbertson and Newlyn, 156–7
- The letters of Rubert Brooke, ed. G. Keynes (1968)
- K. Clark, The muse colony: Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and friends—Dymock, 1914 (1992)
- J. Cooper, Lascelles Abercrombie and the origin of the poet's colony at Dymock (1997)
- G. Cuthbertson and L. Newlyn, eds., Branch-lines: Edward Thomas and contemporary poetry (2007)
- G. Cuthbertson, ‘Edward Thomas's “Words” and the worthies of Dymock country’, Dymock Poets and Friends, 4 (2005)
- G. Cuthbertson, ‘From “known fields” to “a strange stream”: the influence of the environment of Dymock on the poetry of Edward Thomas’, MPhil diss., U. Oxf., 2001
- G. Cuthbertson, ‘The literary geography in Edward Thomas's work’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 2004
- E. Farjeon, Edward Thomas: the last four years (1958)
- R. Frost, Collected poems, prose and plays, ed. R. Poirier and M. Richardson (New York, 1995)
- Selected letters of Robert Frost, ed. L. Thompson (1965)
- J. Gawsworth, Ten contemporaries: notes toward their definitive bibliography (1932)
- J. E. Gethyn-Jones, Dymock down the ages (1951)
- J. W. Haines, ‘The Dymock poets’, Gloucestershire Countryside, 1/9 (Oct 1933)
- L. Hart, ed., Once they lived in Gloucestershire: a Dymock poets anthology (2000)
- L. Mertins, Robert Frost: life and talks-walking (1965)
- J. Moore, The life and letters of Edward Thomas (1939)
- New Numbers, 1/1–4 (Feb–Dec 1914)
- S. Street, The Dymock poets (1994)
- Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, ed. R. G. Thomas (1968)
- Edward Thomas: selected letters, ed. R. G. Thomas (1995)
- E. Thomas: The annotated collected poems, ed. E. Longley (2008)
- The collected poems of Edward Thomas, ed. R. G. Thomas (1978)
- E. Thomas, The last sheaf (1928)
- The letters of Edward Thomas to Jesse Berridge, ed. A. Berridge (1983)
- J. E. Walsh, Into my own: the English years of Robert Frost, 1912–1915 (1988)
- R. Williams, The country and the city (1973)
- University of Gloucestershire, Dymock Poets Archive and Study Centre