THOMAS (EDWARD) Autograph compositional drafts of his poems 'The Mountain Chapel', 'The Birds' Nests', and 'House and Man' (all untitled here), [Steep, Gloucestershire], 17 and 18 December 1914

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Lot 290
Autograph compositional drafts of his poems 'The Mountain Chapel', 'The Birds' Nests', and 'House and Man' (all untitled here), [Steep, Gloucestershire], 17 and 18 December 1914: 'WHEN GODS WERE YOUNG/ THIS WIND WAS OLD' – A NEWLY DISCOVERED POETRY NOTEBOOK OF EDWARD THOMAS.

Sold for £ 52,500 (US$ 71,321) inc. premium
Autograph compositional drafts of his poems 'The Mountain Chapel', 'The Birds' Nests', and 'House and Man' (all untitled here), written in a Bedales school exercise-book originally belonging to his daughter Myfanwy, comprising drafts of the first two poems from first thoughts to the final draft, those for 'The Mountain Chapel' dated at the head of the second leaf "17 xii 14" and for 'The Birds' Nests' dated on the seventh leaf "18 xii 14" and eighth "18 xii"; the earliest drafts of 'Mountain Chapel' written on the right-hand pages, with the achieved version facing on the left-hand pages, covering 10 pages in all; those of 'Bird's Nests' covering 3 pages, with the first draft written on the left-hand pages and with later version facing on the right; with a single draft of 'House and Man' written on the verso of the penultimate leaf facing the final version of 'The Birds' Nests'; upper wrapper printed in black 'Beedales School/ Name:.../ Subject:.../ Term:.../ Form:...' (filled-in by her "Myfanwy Thomas"/ Drawing/ Yearly/ IV"), 14 pages in all on ruled paper, green wrappers, partly disbound (no doubt following on from Myfanwy's contributions having been torn out by her father), some very light foxing and browning, although seemingly in sound condition, 4to, [Steep, Gloucestershire], 17 and 18 December 1914


  • 'WHEN GODS WERE YOUNG/ THIS WIND WAS OLD' – A NEWLY DISCOVERED POETRY NOTEBOOK OF EDWARD THOMAS. Although he had long been an accomplished, prolific and well-respected critic and writer of prose, Thomas did not start his career as poet until after the outbreak of the Great War, largely at the prompting of his friend and neighbour Robert Frost. This was only a couple of weeks before he began drafting poems in this exercise book (hereafter referred to as the Haines MS).

    On 15 December he wrote to Frost: 'My works come pouring in on you now. Tell me all you dare about them'. In Matthew Hollis's account: 'Less than a fortnight after completing his first poem, Thomas had not only sent his friend a batch of verses in Ryton... Thomas's industry was frantic, even manic: poems and letters about poems and replies to those letters about poems. There was little room for family or for worrying about money: the experience was all consuming. He confessed to Frost of feeling "uncommonly cheerful mostly", pleased with some of the pieces, but something else besides. "I find myself engrossed and conscious of a possible perfection as I never was in prose," he said. "Still, I won't begin thanking you just yet, tho if you like I will put it down now that you are the only begetter right enough" (Now All Roads Lead to France, 2011, p.195).

    His entire corpus of mature poetry was compressed into the little over two years between December 1914 and his death on the Western Front in April 1917; nor did he live to see his first volume of poems published, and with it the start of his posthumous reputation: ʻPoems by Edward Thomas, was published by Selwyn and Blunt in October 1917... F.R. Leavis wrote in 1932 that it was a body of work of "a very rare order". W.H. Auden and C. Day Lewis said that Thomas was a poet they had "little or no hope of ever equalling". Dylan Thomas believed he had grown to be loved by so very many that we could hardly think of a time when he was not alive: "It is as though we had always known his poems, and were only wanting for him to write them down." In preparing the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, Philip Larkin would permit Edward Thomas as many poems as T.S. Eliot. Ted Hughes would put it most clearly of anyone. "He is father of us all."' (Hollis, p.338).

    His poem 'The Mountain Chapel' is unusual among Thomas's poems for having a Welsh setting. No other manuscript of this, or its principal companion in the Haines MS, 'The Birds' Nests', is known; the only primary source hitherto known for both being the volume of typescript copies prepared by Thomas for the posthumous Poems of 1917 (the typescript of 'Mountain Chapel' having one word, and 'Birds' Nests' three words, altered by Thomas in ink). There are in addition a small number of typescripts, including those sent to Robert Frost (for full details, see The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, edited by R. George Thomas, 1978, and Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley, 2008, and the Cardiff University Archives website).

    For the third poem in the Haines MS, 'House and Man', one other manuscript source is known, this being the autograph fair copy of the final version among a volume of twenty-seven poems in the British Library (Add, MS 44990, f.26). There is, however, one anomaly. The BL manuscript is dated 3 and 4 February 1915. Our version, by contrast, is written on the reverse of a sheet dated 18 December 1914 and facing a sheet with the same date. However Edna Longley points to an entry in Thomas's diary that leaves little doubt that an early February date is indeed correct: 'On 1 February Thomas had noted: "magpie in oak tip like weathercock"... The poem ends with the image that ostensibly, and perhaps actually, sparked it off' (p.192). One can only assume, therefore, that Thomas drafted it onto a spare page of the Haines MS a month-and-a-half after the other poems.

    The Haines MS shows that gestation of 'Mountain Chapel' was especially difficult. What appears to be the very first draft runs to over eight sometimes closely-written pages. Robert Frost has urged him to write poetry by telling him that it was already latent in his prose, and his very first poem, 'Up in the Wind', finished on 3 December, had evolved out of a prose sketch written the month before (analysed by Hollis, pp.183-9). 'The Mountain Chapel', too, starts off in prose: "Out of sight by the s.d/ The chapel & its few old tombs/ Are hidden among rocks, and cut/ [?] Clean off from..."; above which he has inserted: "The chapel & a few graves/ Chapel & graves, – a few all old,/ Are hidden among rocks, & cut". From this grows the opening of the poem as we know it, written in the final draft on the version of the second leaf: "Chapel & gravestones [few and old deleted] old & few/ Are shrouded by a mountain fold/ From sound & view..." (a trope later echoed in his description of how the birds' nest, too, is hidden from view). This final version, in its essentials, corresponds with the established text.

    The gestation of 'Birds' Nests' is less tortuous. In the Haines MS we have what appear to be the first draft, second, and final drafts, comprising a single page each. In the first of these, we see Thomas clearly pitching to find his voice, writing first "The summer's nests exposed in winter's hedges", changing this to "The summer nests left bare by winter wind", before settling for "The summer nests uncovered by autumn wind" (this being the final version). (Seen together here in the Haines MS, these two poems form something akin to a pair. For the ruined chapel, the habitation of mankind, time runs in centuries; for the ruined nest, the habitation of birds, it runs over a space of a few seasons; overarching both, one of Edward Thomas's most famous utterances, with which ʻThe Mountain Chapel' ends – "when gods were young/ This wind was old".)

    Gestation of 'House and Man' appears to have been easier still. The Haines MS contains a single draft This takes up a single page and clearly represents not only his first ideas for the poem but brings us close to the final version. It opens: "One hour: as dim he & his house now look/ As a reflection in a rippling brook" under which he has written and deleted "As imagines in a rippled & running brook". He continues: "While I remember him; but first his house/ Empty it sounded. It was dark with beech tree boughs" this last sentence being then altered to: "Darkened it was by boughs" before arriving at the final reading "It was dark w forest boughs". The most notable difference between Haines draft and final text is at the very end of the poem. The Haines MS breaks off "In the house darkness, – a magpie"; whereas the final version ends: ʻIn the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,/ A magpie like a weathercock in doubt'. (Judging from the other material in the notebook, there do not appear to be any missing leaves at this point.)

    'Birds' Nests' was first published in the Poems of 1917; while 'Mountain Chapel' and 'House and Man' were published in its successor, the Last Poems of 1918; 'Mountain Chapel' also appeared that same year in the Selwyn & Blount anthology Twelve Poets: A Miscellany of New Verse.

    Helen Thomas gave this manuscript to Haines sometime in 1922 (see her letter, below, in the present sale), writing: "I remember I was very sorry to say to you that Edward wrote all his poems first of all on odd little bits of paper which often he destroyed when he copied them for me in a book, but I have one or two of these M.S.S. & if you would like it I would send you what I have. I send you now having it quite handy this exercise book... I know you wd like to have it & I wd like to know it is in your care". (Haines had, as we have seen, helped see the Poems of 1917 through the press.)

    Another, larger, volume of drafts containing 27 poems written between 14 December 1914 and 23 May 1915 is held by the National Library of Wales (MS 2292A). The National Library of Wales also holds a later, similar, volume of drafts, kept between 4 March and 5 July 1916 (MS 22921B). The school exercise book containing Thomas's very first essays in the medium is held by the Lockwood Memorial Library; while the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library holds another Bedales School exercise book, containing drafts of five poems. The Bodleian Library holds a notebook kept between 25 June 1915 and 24 December 1916 with autograph fair copies of 66y poems (MS Don d.28). Only three manuscripts for poems are listed as having been sold at auction by ABPC, 'October' in 1979 and, in 1986, 'The Gallows' and 'Cock Crow'; the latter reappearing in our rooms in the Roy Davids sale (8 May 2015, lot 485, £20,000 including premium).
THOMAS (EDWARD) Autograph compositional drafts of his poems 'The Mountain Chapel', 'The Birds' Nests', and 'House and Man' (all untitled here), [Steep, Gloucestershire], 17 and 18 December 1914
THOMAS (EDWARD) Autograph compositional drafts of his poems 'The Mountain Chapel', 'The Birds' Nests', and 'House and Man' (all untitled here), [Steep, Gloucestershire], 17 and 18 December 1914
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