I’m sitting in bright sunshine on a rooftop balcony in Naples – Vesuvius looms in the distance – my injured right foot propped up a cushion (I’ve broken my ankle I later discover). I’m reading Matthew Hollis’s account of the last years of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, when I encounter the passage in which Hollis tells of Thomas being laid up, immobile, for a month or more at the beginning of 1915 after spraining his ankle coming down the Shoulder of Mutton, the hillside above his home at Yew Tree Cottage in Steep, Hampshire. Thomas had been anxiously debating whether to enlist for the war for weeks, but the sprain would kick any thought of enlistment into touch for the time being. Instead, writes Hollis, ‘for his poetry it would be a tremendous blessing’.
This is the crucial point in Edward Thomas’s shift from prose to poetry – the central theme of Matthew Hollis’s book. Nine months before the accident, in the spring of 1914, Thomas had met Robert Frost met in the Gloucestershire village of Little Iddens – a meeting of poetic sensibilities that was to have an incalculable effect on Thomas. They saw eye to eye on matters of poetry, and Frost, observing the poetry in Thomas’s prose, encouraged him to consider writing poetry. Now, confined to a deckchair in the bedroom at Yew Tree Cottage, Thomas had the opportunity to to take ‘an uninterrupted run’ at his poems. The result, Hollis writes, was ‘a literary dam burst’.
Prompted by Frost, Thomas had taken to reading back through his notebooks for inspiration. On 8 January 1915, he came across this entry made on the journey from London and through Gloucestershire by train in midsummer heat on 24 June 1914. At 11:44 the train drew up at Oxford; haymakers toiled beneath the hot sun; it was eighty degrees in the shade:
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12:45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.
‘Then we stopped at Adelstrop’: what follows in Hollis’s account is a revealing description of how Thomas struggled to achieve the ‘easy, wistful tone’ of the opening of ‘his best loved and best remembered poem’. The poem is reproduced in full in the book; as I read the last lines on that Naples balcony, a blackbird flew to a TV aerial on a nearby rooftop and began to sing.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
‘Adelstrop’ was published in the New Statesman (currently celebrating its centenary) three weeks after Thomas’s death.
The beauty of Now All Roads Lead to France is that, written by a poet, it places the process of creating verse central to its biographical narrative. Matthew Hollis examines how Thomas’s poems entered the world, sometimes through detailed reference to the ideas jotted down in his notebook, revealing how false starts, disjointed lines and crossings-out eventually began to assume the form a finished verse. Hollis also offers a fascinating account of the literary climate in which the Thomas worked before the First World War. (I have another book by Matthew Hollis: an excellent 2003 anthology 101 Poems Against War which gathered poems written against war from Ancient Greece to the present day Gulf. All royalties from the sales go to the Mines Advisory Group.)
Hollis begins his narrative in the winter of 1913 when Edward Thomas had reached something of a personal and artistic crisis in his life. He was 34 years old, a father of three, who felt trapped in his marriage to a woman whom he often treated badly, but who loved him deeply. He had produced 20 books of biography and criticism, and more than 1,500 book reviews, mostly at high speed and under intense pressure, ‘plagued with work, burning my candle at 3 ends’, as Thomas put it. Hollis writes that Thomas suffered bouts of deep depression that resulted in thoughts of suicide and harsh verbal attacks on his wife Helen.
The relentless, ungratifying work left him exhausted and bitter, while the din of family life served only to worsen his mood. In poor spirits he treated his family cruelly, scolding the children and reprimanding his wife, and the more he did so, the worse his spirits became.
His discontent and frequent self-loathing made him sour, self-pitying and cruel to his wife: ‘Your sympathy and your love are both hateful to me. Hate me, but for God’s sake don’t stand there, pale and suffering’.
‘What I really ought to do is live alone,’ he told Jesse Berridge. ‘But I can’t find the courage to do the many things necessary for taking that step. It is really the kind Helen and the children who make life almost impossible.’
Yet Thomas was well-regarded and loved by those close to him (though not, it appears, his father). Hollis paints a picture of a man who, when fully in command of himself, could be gentle and sweet-hearted. Helen continued to love him and believe in him:
The absences were crippling to Helen. She was warm and impulsive, a product of her father’s free‑thinking influence, but her untidy spontaneity made her a hopeless housekeeper and a poor cook to Edward’s irritation. . . . . It was her bohemianism that allowed her to ‘manage’ his disappearances emotionally but it was these same unconventional attitudes that left her isolated and wounded when he left.
Matthew Hollis’s superb biography (which won the 2011 Costa Book Award for ‘Best Biography’) makes its central focus the transformation of a talented author and literary critic into one of the most highly regarded poets of the 20th century. In part, it’s a study of new directions taken in poetry in the years before the First World War. Hollis begins his book with a culturally-significant event which took place in January 1913, as recorded by Edward Thomas in an article in the Daily Chronicle:
There has been opened at 35, Devonshire-street, Theobalds-road, a ‘Poetry Bookshop’, where you can see any and every volume of modern poetry. It will be an impressive and, perhaps, an instructive sight.
The bookshop, five minutes walk from the British Museum, had been launched by Harold Monro who was to publish several volumes by ‘The Georgians’, poets who, in Hollis’s words:
Looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant. Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse; they looked to Wordsworth in their connection to the land rather than to John Donne and the Metaphysical pursuit of the soul.
Critical regard for their poetic style did not last long: the grim realities of the trenches and the modernism of Pound and Eliot would see to that. But Hollis provides an engaging account of a literary firmament illuminated by stars whose light has since faded: Wilfred Gibson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, and John Drinkwater. Thomas knew them, reviewed their work, and was – for a time at least – impressed by them. But that was before he met Robert Frost.
The relationship between the two writers forms the central thread in Hollis’s narrative. Robert Frost arrived in England in 1912, and Thomas’s first encounter with the American poet a year later would be of supreme importance for Thomas. The pair soon formed a firm friendship, founded on shared ideas about poetry. The two poets would spend hours engaged in what Frost called ‘talks-walking’, rambling along paths and through fields, sometimes for 25 miles:
They would spend days together in this way: walking and talking, about verse, about their home life or their peers, stopping now and again to examine the flora in the hedgerow, or to lean on a stile or gate. Frost delighted in his friend’s knowledge of wild flowers and bird calls, while Thomas could listen all day to his companion speak about verse; and they found a meeting of minds on their ideas about poetry: on speech rhythms and sound-sense, on uncluttered diction, on cadence and the ear. To Frost, the thoroughness and insight of Thomas’s knowledge was second to none; to Thomas, Frost’s instincts were sharper and truer than any he had met. Writer to reader, poet to critic … but Frost had already seen a poet in Thomas and would set about convincing his friend that they were talking writer to writer.
That verse could be natural speech would become central to the beliefs and friendship that bound the two men together. Frost had formulated the idea of ‘the sound of sense’:
It is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.
Hollis elaborates and explains – more clearly than anything I have read about poetry – what this implies:
Frost’s belief was this: cadence is a natural part of human speech – it gives the speaking voice its intonation, its modulation and its rhythm. We use cadence to indicate and understand meaning in a way that goes deeper than the content of individual words into the arena of moods and atmospheres. So when, in Frost’s favourite example, we hear voices behind a closed door we can broadly make out sense even if the words themselves are not clear. We can detect anger, affection, happiness and so forth because the cadence gives us a kind of sonic blueprint for the meaning and carries a communicative charge all of its own, This is the basis of ‘the sound of sense’ and its importance to poetry lies in the understanding that a line of verse can communicate tonally as well as through the literal definition of words. Patterns of sound and rhythm establish a tone or mood that the poem must work towards – or against – but to which it must never be indifferent.
Once the poet has grasped the sound of sense, Frost believed, the next task was to stretch the irregular rhythms of speech across the regulated rhythms of poetry:
Frost … believed that it was the rhythms of speech – as opposed to music or traditional metre – that should guide our ear when employing the sound of sense. It was a view entirely counter to the times in England – counter to the ornate Victorians and the minimalist Imagists, counter also to the musical Georgians – and was born out of a trenchant belief that ‘words exist in the mouth, not in books’.
Edward Thomas had been groping towards similar conclusions for himself, but it took Frost’s shove and encouragement to persuade Thomas to organise some of his prose writing into verse, for Frost was sure that poetry of the kind they both sought was already there.
On 2 November 1914, Thomas called at the White Horse Inn near Steep, a regular haunt, and there he scribbled notes that eventually were hammered into the shape of his first poem, ‘Up in the Wind’, with its arresting opening line, ‘I could wring the old thing’s neck that put it here!’ In a tremendous passage (see extract here), Hollis describes how Thomas inched forward, sometimes backtracking, as he shaped phrases in his notebook: ‘I could wring the old girl’s neck/That put it here/A public house’. That didn’t sound quite right, though, and over the next days he recast the lines and added more before completing the 115-line poem. Hollis, a poet himself, knows how verse is composed; but he also knows how to communicate the process to the general reader.
This first effort was, like many later ones, composed from jottings in one of his notebooks. He was, Hollis states, ‘a perennial note taker; he depended on his notebooks to refresh the details that would vitalise his prose’. Now he began to quarry from them phrases and images from which he could shape poetry. He wrote ten poems in the following fortnight. He was 34 years old, and in the three years remaining to him Thomas found himself as a poet, writing 144 poems of which at least a dozen are considered classics, a brief but remarkable flowering of genius cut short by death in war.
There’s another aspect of the friendship between Frost and Thomas that Matthew Hollis places centre-stage: the matter of Thomas’s indecisiveness and self-doubt. One element of that self-doubt was Thomas’s conviction that he was a coward, a feeling reinforced by an incident when Frost and Thomas had encountered an aggressive gamekeeper. Thomas was convinced he had been a coward:
For Edward Thomas, the encounter would leave him haunted. He would relive the moment again and again. In his verse and in his letters to Frost ‑ in the week when he left for France, even in the week of his death ‑ Thomas felt hunted by the fear and cowardice he had experienced in that stand‑off with the gamekeeper. He felt mocked by events and probably by the most important friend of his life, and he vowed that he would never again let himself be faced down. When the call came again he would hold his nerve and face the gunmen.
‘That’s why he went to war,’ said Frost.
Thomas prevaricated over whether to enlist or follow Frost to his farm in New Hampshire. Frost was amused at Thomas’s inability to make up his mind, and teased him: ‘No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.’ Frost wrote what would become his most famous poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in response to Thomas’s dilemma.
But to Thomas, it was not the least bit funny. It pricked at his confidence, at his sense of fraudulence, reminding him he was neither a true writer nor a true naturalist, cowardly in his lack of direction. And now the one man who understood his indecisiveness most astutely was mocking him for it. Thomas took the ‘tease’ badly. He felt the poem to be a rebuke for his own inability to choose between the pursuit of poetry and a career in prose – worse, at his indecisive attitude toward the war, so often expressed to Frost.
Hollis spends some time discussing the poem, often read as a parable about the traveller taking responsibility for their own destiny. But, as Hollis notes, it’s not that simple: Frost said, ‘It’s a tricky poem – very tricky’. Hollis observes that both paths in the poem are ‘worn about the same’ and ‘equally’ covered in fresh, untrodden leaves. In actual fact, there is no discernible difference between the two paths. The real message, wise and ironic, is that choices we make in in life, however much we might hesitate or debate, are often just acts of impulse. Take the other road, Frost implies, and that might be just as significant. Either way, it’s not worth sighing over.
Few poems, Hollis suggests, have been so misinterpreted. But crucially, Edward Thomas, the man for whom it was written, failed to understand it:
It seems curious that Edward Thomas, the man who had understood Frost’s writing better than anyone, could not see the poem for what it was. . . . . . He determinedly assured Frost that he had ‘got the idea’, when plainly he had not.
Thomas took the poem very seriously, reading it as exasperated counsel from his friend. It forced his hand, Hollis argues, compelling Thomas to sign up, with fateful consequences.
It also provoked Edward Thomas’s ‘Roads’:
I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone. […]
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.
On Easter Monday 1917, Thomas was killed by a shell in Arras. He had left his dugout for a moment to fill his pipe; a shell passed so close that the blast of air stopped his heart and he fell to the ground, not a mark on his body. In October his Poems was published. The book was dedicated to Robert Frost.
Two paths had diverged, and Thomas had made his choice. A major poet, who crammed his entire output of more than 140 poems into the last two-and-a-half years of his life, was lost. Edward Thomas’s poetry has grown in stature with each succeeding generation. ‘His poetry is so very brave – so unconsciously brave’, said Frost. ‘He didn’t think of it for a moment as war poetry, though that is what it is. It ought to be called Roads to France.’
- Review by Robert Macfarlane (The Guardian)
- Edward Thomas Fellowship: information, prose and poems
- Edward Thomas walk: leaflet published by East Hampshire District Council (pdf)