The Simple Life

The Simple Life



Two lectures on simplicity and the simple life


1. A Return to Nature: The pursuit of ‘the simple life’ from Edward Thomas to the present day. 

My inaugural professorial lecture was delivered at Liverpool Hope University on 3 March 2022. The video recording is available on YouTube.  The lecture begins by exploring the remarkable ‘simple life’ story of Arthur Bishopstone in The Icknield Way.  Bishopstone is a fictional character, but I discovered that the Bishopstone story is based on a real tragedy, which Thomas read about in the local Hampshire press.

Abstract: The third of March happens to be Edward Thomas’s birthday, and, although it is 144 years since he was born, he seems more relevant than ever. This lecture will look at Thomas’s depiction of attempts to ‘return to nature’, that desire to simplify one’s life, to reject modernity, to go ‘back to the land’ and wave goodbye to the suit, the commute and the office job. By focusing on a remarkable section in Thomas’s book The Icknield Way (1913), we can consider its significance to Thomas (his career, his family, his depression), but also the problems, enemies and tragedies of the simple life, as well as the messages for us now. With Thomas as our guide, we will visit an old barn and a Neolithic barrow, and while we’re there we can think about possessions, pain, regeneration and ‘the pure joy of free, active life’.


Part of the lecture was subsequently published by the Edward Thomas Fellowship: ‘Edward Thomas and the Mundays of East Meon’, Edward Thomas Fellowship Newsletter, 89 (January 2023), pp. 16-21.



2. ‘I should want nothing more’: Edward Thomas and simplicity.  

My Chatterton Lecture on Poetry was delivered at the British Academy on 1 November 2018.  

Abstract: In the years before the First World War, the ‘Simple Life’ became somewhat fashionable, and Edward Thomas (1878–1917) was one of those Edwardians who were attracted to simplicity, both as a way of life and as a way of writing. As a book reviewer and biographer, he greatly admired simplicity in literature (as seen in, among others, William Cobbett, W. H. Davies, J. M. Synge and Robert Frost). His prose moved towards plainness, and his poetry is beautifully simple. This simplicity has been problematic, however. His poetry is unsuited to the decoding and exegesis (which might be suited to Modernism) that universities seek to conduct. Academics studying his poetry have allowed themselves to believe that they have found complexity, hidden beneath superficial simplicity, whereas in fact Thomas is a poet of genuine bareness, clear-as-glass honesty, magical brevity and childlike simplicity. His simplicity has been popular, and seems to suit some 21st-century fashions.

Published in the Journal of the British Academy, volume 7 (2019).

The audio recording is available online.





The simple life was also a topic I discussed on The Allusionist in 2018.

See also two recent book chapters:

  • ‘“That remoter, changeless England”: Walter de la Mare and Edward Thomas’, Walter de la Mare: Critical Appraisals, ed. Yui Kajita, Angela Leighton and A.J. Nickerson, Liverpool English Texts and Studies, 95 (Liverpool University Press, 2022), pp. 77-94.
  • ‘Edward Thomas (1878-1917)’, A History of World War One Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), pp. 350-64.