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The Great War Poets, The Folio Society Limited Editions (2015-2018)

Over the previous few years The Folio Society published three very nicely done limited editions meant to honor and commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the deaths of three of the great poets of the First World War:

The Folio Society – Limited Editions of Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. Books in slipcases.

What makes these editions particularly interesting to Books and Vines subscribers, beyond the excellent content, is that all were “designed to emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century.” The text was typeset and printed via letterpress and the illustrations done via autolithography (with the exception of the engravings done for the Owen edition). The bindings are quarter leather with the use of hand-made paste-paper sides. Combining these great poets, excellent scholarly introductions and private press production methods makes these editions quite desirable. What follows is a look at each of these editions in the order they were published.

Rupert Brooke: Selected Poems

Rupert Brooke (3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) is most famous for his “idealistic” war sonnets, especially ‘The Soldier.’ Brooke was born in Rugby, Warwickshire and attended King’s College, Cambridge where he was President of the Cambridge University Fabian Society and a member of the Cambridge Apostles. Along with writers such as Robert GravesD. H. Lawrence, and Siegfried Sassoon, Brooke was part of a literary group known as the Georgian Poets and, along with others such as Edward Thomas (whose work is also reviewed in this article), was a leading member of the Dymock poets. He was also friendly with a number of the Bloomsbury group of writers, including Virginia Woolf. By all accounts his intellect was matched by his strikingly good looks (Yeats famously called him “the handsomest young man in England”), his engaging charm and his love of laughter. He was very well liked and seemingly popular everywhere he went.

Rupert Brooke in 1913, a year before his death at 27. Photo from The Rupert Brooke Society.

In 1912, Brooke was suffering from extreme emotional duress, apparently due to circumstances around a complicated love life. He travelled through France and Germany in an attempt to recuperate, which seems to have partially worked. He then travelled to the United States and Canada as a correspondent for the Westminster Gazette, tasked with writing dispatches on his impressions of these countries. He eventually took a long way back to England through the South Seas, especially enjoying Tahiti where he may have fathered a daughter with a women named Taatamata. While the fathering a child is the subject of some debate, it seems quite likely that he loved Taatamata and she is infused into numerous poems. Finally getting back to England, he enlisted soon after the outbreak of war in August 1914.

His poetry was contemporaneously admired by many, including Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. In March 1915, The Times Literary Supplement quoted from two of his sonnets and, on Easter Sunday 1915, “The Soldier” was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was now quite famous. He was to die a little over two weeks later, just weeks prior to the publication of his most famous collection of poetry, 1914 & Other Poems.

The circumstances of his death are particularly unfortunate as it resulted from sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. At the time, he was on a French hospital ship just off the Greek island of Skyros. The ship had to depart for participation at the battle at Gallipoli, so he was hurriedly buried five hours after his death in an olive grove on Skyros. Brooke is commemorated, along with 16 other First World War poets, on a slate monument in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The Folio Society provides some excellent context on Brooke’s poetic oeuvre when reflecting on his life and work:

Like so many others of his time, Rupert Brooke did not live to reach his full potential, but his haunting, often prescient poems testify to his dazzling command of words and the depth of his imagination.

Brooke often mused on the certainty of death, but he also treasured deeply the vital pleasures of life — friendship and love, the ‘link’d beauty of bodies’, the joy of hearts ‘swift to mirth’. His musical poems pay homage to the quiddity of things — ‘wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light’, ‘white plates and cups’, ‘live hair that is/Shining and free’ — urging us to remember him as one who loved all that the world offered to his senses and his mind. But even while he cherishes the sensations of being alive, in his early work he evokes the possibility of a superior, ethereal form of being, free from the shortfalls of earthly emotions. Like elegies from which the sadness has been lifted, ‘The Treasure’ and the strongly Platonic ‘Tiare Tahiti’ gently insist that the fleeting moments that have made up his life, and those of his lover, will live on in ‘some golden space’.

This embracement of life and the afterlife has given us some of the most memorable verse of the Georgian school. It was a stance Brooke maintained in his group of sonnets, written while he was on leave from the Royal Naval Division at Christmas 1914. In these he anticipates that the destruction wrought by war will give way to the renewal and rejuvenation of a ‘world grown old and cold and weary’. ‘The Soldier’, famously read aloud by the Dean of St Paul’s at the Easter Sunday Service in April 1915, reassures us that in the event of his death, his essence will live on, ‘all evil shed away’, as a ‘pulse in the eternal mind’.

But Brooke’s appeal also lies in his ability to temper these beautifully rendered visualisations of destiny, death and the afterlife with a playful irony, sometimes in the form of satirical counterpoints to his own grand themes and paeans to Platonism and Christianity. Indeed, he increasingly rejected the notion of a heaven, and in his final, deeply moving poem, ‘Fragment’, found in the notebook he was using in the weeks before his death, the exuberant tone of his earlier verse is replaced by a deeply reflective awareness of the fate of his generation. Notions of honour, patriotism and a sublime hereafter give way to that of casual destruction. As many have conjectured, this last poem suggests that Brooke, had he lived longer, would likely have equalled Owen and Sassoon in his responses to the horrors of the war. At least, as Jon Stallworthy writes in his introduction to this edition, Brooke’s avowal that his heart would give ‘somewhere back the thoughts by England given’ turned out to be true; however short his life, his meditations remain alive for us today.

The aforementioned Jon Stallworthy, who was a British literary critic, poet and Oxford Professor of English, provided an extremely informative and educational introduction to this limited edition from The Folio Society, especially in his analysis of Brooke’s growth as a poet and in exploring Brooke’s recurring themes. Stallworthy calls Brooke not a ‘war poet’ but a “a solider poet,” and says of him that “he is a poet of peace, a celebrant of friendship, love and laughter.” The best way to fully appreciate Brooke is simply to read his beautiful verse. At the tender age of 18 he was already writing poetry of the depth of “A Sicilian Octave”, the first poem in The Folio Society edition:

An Evil Time came down with fateful feet
And trod across the garden of my soul --
Before him grass and tender herbs were sweet,
But still behind him desolation stole.
Stark thorns and thistle hedge a waste complete,
Wide-spread beneath the adverse stars control;
How shall the frail hands of my spirit meet
The change -- or make the marrèd beauty whole?

Four years later, in 1909, Brooke wrote even more thoughtfully in “Sonnet”, a poem with a lyrical contemplation of death:

Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,

One day, I think, I'll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a low light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,

And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam --
Most individual and bewildering ghost! --

And turn, and turn your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.

In 1912, he wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.” Written while he was in Germany, it reads as a paean to the homeland he is nostalgically longing to get back to. Just as the idealism of “The Soldier” was to ultimately meet the reality of the war’s massive and senseless killing, the innocence of life reflected in “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” was also to soon hit the reality of a substantially changed post war world. You can read the entire poem here, though here are a couple of my favorite lines:

 εἴθε γενοίμην. . . would I were 
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! --
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur

and

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of that district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.

From Brooke’s most famous collection, 1914 & Other Poems, here is the oft-mentioned “The Soldier”, a patriotic tour de force:

 If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven

Another poem from that same collection is “The Dead“, praising the sacrifice of English soldiers:

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been.
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth.
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.

It is easy to understand how these poems were gladly embraced by the powers that be to drum up patriotic support for the war. As The Folio Society mentions, it is unfortunate that Brooke never had the chance to apply his talent once he had seen more of the eventual horrors that the war unleashed. I think it foolish for post war critics to chastise Brooke for being sentimental and/or naive in his poetry. Brooke would very likely have been poetically forceful in his condemnation of the horrors of war had he lived to witness more of it firsthand. What his poetry beautifully represents is a reflection of England as it was, romantically and pastorally, when it was written.

Turning our attention to this specific edition from The Folio Society, how does this publication “emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century?” It was printed letterpress at The Stonehouse Fine Press in Monotype Walbaum on Zerkall mould-made smooth paper, having been typeset by Stan Lane at Gloucester Typesetting Services. In addition, the artwork and binding, as the following paragraphs describe, also were done very much in the fine press tradition.

This edition contains lithographs by artist, illustrator and printmaker Ed Kluz. The illustrations, according to The Folio Society, “capture the vitality and beauty of his verse.” Mr. Kluz’s biography states that his “work explores contemporary perceptions of the past through the reimagining of historic landscapes, buildings and objects. The ideas of early Romanticism, the Picturesque movement and antiquarian representations of topography and architecture underpin his approach to image making…” Mr. Kluz describes the creative process he went through in illustrating this work:

Illustrating the work of a poet always presents a challenge. Taking on board the ideas and imagery of a writer goes, to a certain extent, against the independent creative process of the artist. In this sense the illustrator of poetry is a conduit for the visions of others.

In order to find an approach to these illustrations, I looked for common metaphors within Brooke’s writing — water, darkness, light, solitude and the passing of time infuse the images. The second challenge was somehow to create a sense of narrative and movement within a single static representation; an image which is immediate but which also reveals itself slowly, presenting details and leading the eye, emulating the experience of reading a poem. Of all literary forms, poetry, in some ways, is most like an image. In this sense an accompanying illustration should at once work in tandem with the poem and function as an independent entity.

As mentioned, Mr. Kluz’s work is here reproduced using autolithography. Gaye Smith, in Colour and Autolithography in the 20th Century, describes the process:

Autolithography is a particular application of lithographic printing where the artist draws directly on to the lithographic stone or plate. No other hand or photographic technique is involved. The advantages of autolithography are many: the artist has control over the work and the spontaneity of the original drawing is not diminished by an intermediary copier; the artist benefits from a greater delicacy of tone, due to the planographic nature of the process, and great clarity of tone due to the unprinted background; printers save costs by not having to employ copiers or re-touchers.

One very nice thing about autolithography is, as The Folio Society points out, that the net result is that every image is an original print, not a reproduction of a pre-existing work. It is labor intensive and costly, but also is what makes private press books that use this reproduction method so attractive.

The binding for this edition also reflects private press values. It is quarter-bound in blue goatskin by Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto (L.E.G.O.), blocked in gold with the poet’s name, with a colored top-edge, and has hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall. Ms. Hall describes the process of making hand-made paste-paper:

The sheets are first dampened and left a short while to rest. Each damp paper is then brushed all over with a coloured starch paste prepared by cooking a combination of flours, before being tooled with a handmade metal comb. The papers are vulnerable at this stage and are put aside to air-dry slowly over several hours. They are then pressed before being patterned again. After further drying, they are flattened with a big cast-iron standing press.

Ms. Hall further describes her work for this particular edition:

My early trial designs for this book featured flowing pastoral elements in pastel colours, followed by an exploration of the blues and yellows of the coast. Somehow the layered design needed something more subdued and earthy, so the final colour scheme features horizontal bands of undulating blue suggesting water or sky, with vertical bands in a colour which reflects dirt, trees and the colours of mud. Using only two colours, I have tried to create a pattern design which is complex, open and endless.

Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall

All in all this is a very nicely done edition, produced in a manner very amenable to collectors of private press works. The content, including the introduction by Jon Stallworthy, is excellent, and the look and feel of the edition is quite satisfying. It is certainly well worth the $330 asking price, let alone the current $210 sale price.

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Spine and Covers
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Colophon
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Frontispiece and Title Page
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Text Page #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Macro of Sample Text #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #1 by Ed Kluz and Text of ‘A Sicilian Octave
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #2 by Ed Kluz and Text from ‘Menelaus and Helen
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #3 by Ed Kluz
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #4 by Ed Kluz and Text from ‘Retrospect
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Illustrations #5 by Ed Kluz and Text of ‘Fragment
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Sample Text #2 (‘The Soldier‘)
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Macro of Sample Text #2 (‘The Soldier‘)
Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke, The Folio Society – Copyright Page

Edward Thomas: Selected Poems

Philip Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917) only started writing poetry a few years prior to his death. He had already established himself as a novelist and critic of some note, but it was to be his poetry that would make him famous. He was born in Lambeth, London and went to Lincoln College, Oxford. At 21 years of age and still an undergraduate, he married Helen Berenice Noble (1878-1967). Like Brooke, and Robert Frost, Thomas was part of the Dymock poets. It was Frost, who, in 1913, impressed by Thomas’s nature writings, encouraged Thomas to write poetry. Despite the short time he wrote poetry, The Folio Society tells us that Thomas managed to write 144 poems “of extraordinary maturity of style and lyrical intensity,” and that “he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the English countryside, his verse grounded in a pastoral patriotism that makes him unique among the poets of the First World War.” English poet, novelist and biographer Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, says, in the introduction to this edition from The Folio Society, of Thomas’s current standing:

These days, Thomas is commonly referred to as a national treasure, his work is widely anthologised , ‘Adlestrop‘ is regularly included in round-ups of ‘the nation’s favorite poems’, and his writing about landscape is accepted as an index of Englishness. It would be impossible, now, to write a history of modern British poetry without acknowledging both his intrinsic achievement and his influence on writers younger than himself — a dual role well summarised by Ted Hughes, who referred to him as ‘the father of us all’.

Edward Thomas, Photo from The Edward Thomas Fellowship

Though at 37 years old he was not required to, Thomas enlisted in July 1915, joining the Artists Rifles. It was Frost who influenced his decision, this time unintentionally. Thomas had read an advance copy of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“, a poem Frost wrote about him. Infogalactic says that:

The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together; however, most audiences took the poem more seriously than Frost intended, and Thomas similarly took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas’s decision to enlist.

Shortly after arriving in France, Thomas was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday 1917. Eerily similar to the death of Brooke just weeks before publication of his 1914 & Other Poems, the first edition of Thomas’s Poems was being prepared for press at the time of his death. As with Brooke, Thomas is commemorated on a slate monument in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

It is worth noting, as Mr. Motion does in the introduction, that Thomas wrote all of his poems after the outbreak of war, many of which after he had enlisted. However, he only wrote one while in France, because he was killed so soon after arriving. Mr. Motion says that “This means that all of his war poetry is home-front poetry, and records the pressure and effect of the war on individuals and society in England, rather than describing mud and blood and wire.” The result is war poems with a clearly different focus from those such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The Folio Society provides further excellent context on Thomas and his poetry:

Poised between Georgian lyricism and stark modernism, Edward Thomas’s verse consistently defies classification. Like his Victorian and Georgian counterparts, he was a celebrant of the profound beauty to be found in the natural world, but his faith in the plain rhythms of speech and his intensity of vision mark him out as an influential precursor of W. H. Auden and Ted Hughes, who referred to him as ‘the father of us all’. One of Britain’s most important poets, Thomas represents, as former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion astutely observes in his introduction to this volume, ‘a kind of hinge, connecting British poetry with its tradition while swinging it forward to feed our own time’.

Thomas’s eye for the English landscape was unrivalled, and his loving attention to moments of distilled beauty – the ‘thin gilding beam’ of a February sun, ‘waters running frizzled over gravel’, the ‘roar of parleying starlings’ – infuses his poetry. Many such details have their roots in his earlier prose writings, or the notebook jottings made on his many walks in the country. But his poems, were all composed in ‘a hurry and a whirl’ in the last two years of his life, while he was preoccupied with the war in Europe and plagued with indecision about whether to enlist. In his verse his appreciation of the richness and beauty of the natural world is ‘salted and sobered’, tinged by an awareness of its potential loss.

In his bleak and oblique ruminations, images of light and darkness, life and death contend as Thomas uses the natural landscape to point to the unnatural war: a ‘fallen elm’ stands in for a fallen man in ‘As the team’s head-brass’, the strewn blossoms in ‘The Cherry Trees’ are a reminder of a wedding ‘when there is none to wed’, and in ‘Rain’ ‘Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff ’ are likened to the dead, and the living, in France. As Motion writes, Thomas’s poems, unusual in their approach to the conflict, ‘experience the war as an organic event, a tremor through nature’.

But Thomas’s poetry is also concerned with the individual, and in particular the poet’s own feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty. Poems rarely resolve, and the dual perspectives in verses such as ‘The Other’ and ‘The Signpost’ suggest a mind that is still deliberating, still ‘Wondering where he shall journey’. Elsewhere, as in his most famous poem, ‘Adlestrop’, or the softly powerful ‘Old Man’, there is a notion that knowledge is ungraspable, or lost. The poet has ‘mislaid the key’, and sees ‘Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end’. This selection closes with a draft poem, ‘The sorrow of true love’, and a handful of notes from Thomas’s war diary. The latter, breaking off in mid-sentence, are a poignant reminder that, at the time of his death, Edward Thomas was a poet who had only just found his voice.

As with the Brooke publication, this edition contains an excellent introduction, this one from the aforementioned Andrew Motion. Besides Mr. Motion having been Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 – 2009, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and is the founder of The Poetry Archive. While at Oxford, Mr. Motion spent a couple years studying Thomas. In addition, he published a collection of poetry drawing on soldiers’ experiences from the First World War up through more recent conflicts. Clearly Mr. Motion is an excellent choice for providing the specially commissioned introduction to this edition. In it, he describes “the emergence of Thomas from relative obscurity to his rightful place as a poet of the first importance, a crucial bridge between the tradition of English pastoral and the innovations of Modernism.” As done with Brooke, the best way to fully appreciate Thomas is simply to read his verse. Here is his famous “Adlestrop”:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

As you can see, “Adlestrop” gives an idyllic picture, reflecting a moment in time, of the beauty of the English countryside (somewhat analogous to Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”). The innocence at that moment in time was to be shattered and lost forever due to the outbreak of World War I, a mere six weeks later. That singular moment immortalized by Thomas may, perhaps, have continued popularity today due to nostalgia for a time long gone, but the seeking of something beautiful, via observation and contemplation, especially with the long ago passing of innocence, remains ever so relevantly modern.

One of my favorite Thomas poems is the shortest, “In Memoriam (Easter 1915).” Simple (though not in the wording of the phrases!). Direct. Powerful. The flowers give a tiny glimpse of a happier world only to be replaced by the horrible replacement of such by death from war.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Another war poem, “Rain” was written by Thomas in 1916. Here he sympathizes with soldiers while contemplating helplessness and death.

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Turning our attention to this specific edition from The Folio Society, as accomplished with Brooke, this publication succeeds in its goal to “emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century.” It was printed letterpress at The Stonehouse Fine Press in Monotype Walbaum on Zerkall mould-made smooth paper, having been typeset by Stan Lane at Gloucester Typesetting Services. In addition, the artwork and binding, as the following paragraphs describe, also were done very much in the fine press tradition.

Artist David Gentleman provides 9 original lithographs, printed at Curwen Studios by autolithography (described above), and 9 letterpress vignettes. Mr. Gentleman’s career spans over 60 years, which includes studying illustrations under Edward Bawden and John Nash at the Royal College of Art, which, according to The Folio Society, instilled “an appreciation for craft, design and the pastoral that is everywhere evident in Gentleman’s art.” The Folio Society goes on to tell us that:

He has worked across an exceptionably wide range of formats: his wood engravings have appeared on the covers of numerous Penguin editions as well as a 100-metre-long mural at Charing Cross London Underground station; he is the designer of more than 100 stamps for the British Post Office; and his watercolours and lithographs feature in countless publications.

Mr. Gentleman’s work is represented in Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, and numerous private collections. An excellent overview of his portfolio is here. As far as his illustrations for this edition of Thomas poems, The Folio Society states:

Like Thomas, Gentleman has a particular talent for capturing the spirit of a place, and much of his creative output springs from his close observation of the natural world made on his own country walks, particularly around his house in Suffolk. His work for Edward Thomas: Selected Poems prompted him to tread in Thomas’s footsteps, travelling to Steep in Hampshire to sketch the house Thomas describes in ‘The Manor Farm’. Gentleman’s beeches are based on those on the hillside behind the farm, while the trees for his ‘In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)’ lithograph are portraits of ‘old friends in Suffolk’. 

As Gentleman himself acknowledges, poetry offers an artist a specific challenge; artwork should accompany rather than illustrate verse, reflecting tone and atmosphere without ‘stepping on the toes of the poem’. Gentleman’s lithographs, quietly fresh and intricately detailed, do just this, while the gently recurring imagery of pathways and trails are evocative of the roads taken – and not taken – that were such a dominant feature of Thomas’s life and work.

The binding for this edition also reflects private press values. It is quarter-bound in green goatskin (Indian) by Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto (L.E.G.O.), blocked in gold with the poet’s name, with a colored top-edge, and has hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall. As for Ms. Hall’s work for this edition, we are told that she:

…has drawn inspiration from the landscape that inspired Thomas’s poetry. Experimenting with several textures and various shades of green, she developed an organic design, embodying natural rather than geometric forms. The result is wonderfully redolent – in texture and colour – of the grass and moss of the English countryside. Each paper is unique, mirroring in design and form the endless complexity to be found in nature.

Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall

All in all this is very nicely done edition, produced in a manner very amenable to collectors of private press works. The content, including the introduction by Andrew Motion, is excellent, and the look and feel of the edition is quite satisfying. Like the other editions reviewed in this article, it is certainly well worth the $330 asking price, let alone the current $210 sale price.

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Spine and Covers
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Colophon and Signature
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Frontispiece and Title Page
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Text #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Macro of Sample Text #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #1 by David Gentleman and Text of ‘Old Man
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #2 by David Gentleman and Text of ‘Adlestrope‘ and ‘Over the Hills
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Macro from Text of ‘Adlestrope
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #3 by David Gentleman
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #4 by David Gentleman
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #5 by David Gentleman and Text from ‘No one so much as you‘ and ‘Home
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #6 by David Gentleman and Text from ‘The sorrow of true love
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Copyright Page

Wilfred Owen: Selected Poems

Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) is considered by many as the greatest poet of World War I. His portrayal of the absolute horror of trench and gas warfare gave the English public a realistic taste of what their troops were facing, flying in the face of the then current perception. Owen, born near Oswestry in Shropshire, was the oldest of four children. He received his schooling at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School, ultimately attending classes at University College, Reading. He became interested in poetry as early as 1903, with the Romantic poets (such as John Keats) being his favorite.

Wilfred Owen, Picture from the Wilfred Owen Association website.

After the outbreak of war, Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps. In June 1916, he was commissioned in the Manchester Regiment. Sent into action in France in January 1917, he immediately suffered a number of horrid, traumatic experiences, here summarized by The Folio Society:

Within weeks, he had undergone the intensely concentrated front-line experience that would inspire his greatest poems: enduring ferocious bombardment holed-up in a waterlogged dugout, crouching under fire in freezing conditions, and leading an attack through a ‘tornado of shells‘. This baptism of fire was compounded by physical and mental trauma: a fall into a fifteen-foot hole that left him severely concussed, and a horrific period lying wounded near the dismembered remains of a fellow-officer.

From this, due to shell shock, he ended up at  Craiglockhart War Hospital for treatment. In July 1918, despite his pacifism, he voluntarily returned to France so that the brutal truth of what this war was could continue to be told (and also so his bona-fides for speaking against the war would carry more weight). His bravery led to him be awarded the Military Cross in Oct 1918. On November 4, 1918, one week prior to the signing of the armistice ending the First World War, Owen was killed in action. He was 25 years old. Only five of his poems had been published before his death. As with Brooke and Thomas, Owen is commemorated on a slate monument in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. In fact, an inscription from Owen is on the memorial for the Great War Poets: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.

His time at Craiglockhart War Hospital was to prove monumentally influential to Owen. Poet Siegfried Sassoon was also at Craiglockhart, having been sent there in lieu of being courtmartialed for sending his commanding officer an anti-war letter entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Sassoon was to become his close friend and mentor, significantly influencing the direction of Owen’s poetry towards a greater emphasis on realism. Owen’s adopting some of Sassoon’s style, while doing so in a symbiotic manner with his own romantic underpinnings, elevated his poetry, in the minds of many, to greater heights than even Sassoon attained. The Folio Society expands on much of this in providing further excellent context on Owen and his poetry:

His experiences in the trenches were transformative, triggering a loss of religious faith and a total shift in his attitude to war, as well as the mental collapse that saw him institutionalised. Crucially for his development as a poet, his recovery at Craiglockhart War Hospital was supervised by an unorthodox medical officer, Dr Arthur Brock, whose principle of ‘ergotherapy’ or work-cure led him to encourage Owen to edit the residents’ magazine, teach at a local boys’ school, carry out social-welfare visits in Edinburgh, and above all, to alleviate his wartime trauma and his chronic nightmares by writing about them.

Owen was joined at Craiglockhart by the leading anti-war poet of the day, Siegfried Sassoon, who had effectively been sectioned after expressing treasonable views. Sassoon gave Owen detailed editorial input, confidence in his burgeoning talent and direct access to other writers, including Robert Graves, Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells. He also stressed his belief that poetry should draw directly on life and that even the most painful memories could be raw material for great art, leading to Owen’s new creed, that ‘every poem, every figure of speech should be a matter of experience’.

Under the influence of both Brock and Sassoon, the period between September 1917 and August 1918 saw Owen transmuting his trauma into what we now recognise as his masterpieces: poems that are unparalleled in their fusion of the elegiac and the brutally realistic, that set biblical phrasing alongside army slang, interrupt lyrical passages with military jargon, and seamlessly interweave literary reference and eyewitness testimony. Working and re-working his texts, Owen also employed discordant near-rhymes (known as pararhymes) that increase the feeling of unease and frustration – and sonic effects that capture the sounds of battle, as he struggled to achieve in poetry ‘what the advanced composers are doing in music’.

Owen’s work laid bare as never before the gap between propaganda and reality, revealing the psychological damage and deadening of feeling that were the only possible responses to the inhumanity of mechanical warfare. In his poetry he summoned up images that have seared themselves into the minds of generations of readers – a sentry screaming for help after a shell has blinded him; the fatal result of a panicked response to a gas attack; shell-shocked patients wrestling with memories that they cannot escape; soldiers shifting a comrade’s corpse into the sunlight in the futile hope of reviving it – achieving his stated aim of describing the unimaginable hardships endured by his fellow-soldiers’ as well as a pleader can’.

As for this specific edition from The Folio Society, it contains an excellent introduction, this one from Welsh novelist, poet and playwright Owen Sheers. The Folio Society mentions that Mr. Sheers work “has often dealt with war and its traumatic fall-out,” and that he “brings a writer’s sensibility to bear on Owen’s accelerated maturation as a poet, his influence on later authors and the reasons why his work continues to resonate so powerfully one hundred years on.” In the introduction, Mr. Sheers tells us that “the greatest of Wilfred Owen’s poems are poems of response…Drawing humanising windows into the reality of trench warfare in an attempt to bridge the gulf of understanding between the actuality of the fighting and the narratives of the war away from it.” A quick look at some of Owen’s verse makes this clear. Here is his famous “Dulce et Decorum Est“:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: 
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.

(*from the Roman poet Horace: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.")

In what most believe his greatest poem, “Strange Meeting“, two soldiers from opposite sides of the war, now dead, meet. As described by Kenneth Simcox on the Wilfred Owen Association website,  “No longer enemies they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of ‘the truth untold’ and the need for the poet to proclaim that truth in the face of a world set to ‘trek from progress'”.

It seemed that out of battle I escaped 
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped 
Through granites which titanic wars had groined. 

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, 
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred. 
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared 
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes, 
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless. 
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,— 
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. 

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained; 
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground, 
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. 
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” 
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years, 
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, 
Was my life also; I went hunting wild 
After the wildest beauty in the world, 
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, 
But mocks the steady running of the hour, 
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. 
For by my glee might many men have laughed, 
And of my weeping something had been left, 
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, 
The pity of war, the pity war distilled. 
Now men will go content with what we spoiled. 
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. 
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.


None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress. 
Courage was mine, and I had mystery; 
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: 
To miss the march of this retreating world 
Into vain citadels that are not walled. 
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, 
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, 
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint. 
I would have poured my spirit without stint 
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. 
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. 

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend. 
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned 
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. 
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. 
Let us sleep now. . . .”

Through such poems, Wilfred Owen played an important part in the evolution of how the public thinks of war. As Mr. Sheers says in his introduction to this edition:

….for every generation since the mid-twentieth century his name has been synonymous with the very idea of what war poetry is; a medium not, as it had been for centuries, for the celebration of battles and glory, but rather a conduit for the honest rendering of the worst of human experience in the best of human expression.

As for the production values of this specific edition from The Folio Society, similar to the Brooke and Thomas works, this publication succeeds in its goal to “emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century.” It was set in Plantin at The Folio Society and printed letterpress by The Logan Press in Wellingborough on Zerkall, a smooth mould-made paper. In addition, the artwork and binding, as the following paragraphs describe, also were done very much in the fine press tradition

British artist Neil Bousfield, who specializes in relief printmaking and contemporary wood engraving, provides eight letterpress vignettes and a series of nine original engravings which bring Owen’s texts, as The Folio Society mentions, “vividly to life.”

Building on the preoccupation with landscapes as emotional palimpsests which is such a strong feature of his work, narrative elements are overlaid onto schematic diagrams of trench networks from the locations where Owen fought, creating a jarring contrast between the cool objectivity of the maps and the extreme violence that occurred in the places they represent.

Furthermore, The Folio Society describes the process used in producing the images:

To produce the images, Neil created his own blocks, before working on them using the ‘reduction method’, engraving and printing the block with a first colour before repeatedly re-engraving and reprinting it using different colours. The results are stunning – multi-layered images, with an instantly recognisable aesthetic and texture that are as painstakingly crafted as the texts that they accompany.

Unlike the Brooke and Thomas editions, the illustrations for Wilfred Owen were not printed using autolithography. I was told by The Folio Society that many, many trials were done to see what reproduction method would work best with Mr. Bousfield’s engravings. The images proved too detailed for autolithography, so were printed using offset lithography.

The binding for this edition also reflects private press values. It is quarter-bound in khaki goatskin leather by Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto (L.E.G.O.), blocked in gold with the poet’s name, with a colored top-edge, and has hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall. As for Ms. Hall’s work for this edition, we are told that it:

…perfectly complements Neil Bousfield’s engravings, the dynamic design responding directly to the parallel lines that appear throughout his prints, evoking stormy skies, violent explosions, trench duckboards and searchlights as well as the rays of the sun.

Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall

Like the Brooke and Thomas editions, Wilfred Owen: Selected Poems is a very nicely done edition, produced in a manner very amenable to collectors of private press works. The content, including the introduction by Owen Sheers, is excellent, and the look and feel of the edition is quite satisfying. Here is a short video from The Folio Society on the edition:

Contemplating the gifts of verse and thought bequeathed us by these War Poets, it is hard not to rue the loss of cultural gifts that never came to be with the early deaths of these men. It is a reminder that the horrible impacts of war are final; it is not just millions of nameless, faceless people lost to history. Each one of the millions lost across all sides were a Brooke, a Thomas, an Owen; having their promise erased senselessly. Poets like Thomas may well be the father to all poets who came after, but Brooke, Thomas and Owen are certainly the brothers of all those lost in that horrible war.

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

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Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Spine and Covers
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Colophon and Signature
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Frontispiece and Title Page
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Text #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, The Folio Society – Macro of Sample Text #1 (from Introduction)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #1 by Neil Bousfield and Text of ‘1914
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #2 by Neil Bousfield and Text from ‘The Sentry
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #3 by Neil Bousfield
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Text #2 (from ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘)
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #4 by Neil Bousfield and Text from ‘The Calls
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Sample Illustration #5 by Neil Bousfield and Text from ‘Strange Meeting
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Macro of Sample Text from ‘Strange Meeting
Selected Poems of Wilfred Owen, The Folio Society – Copyright Page
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