Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.
So Matthew Hollis recounts on the first page of Now All Roads Lead to France and I'll admit to being stunned. I had no idea of the circumstances of Edward Thomas's death and being 'stunned' can be quite a good way to start a book I think. So through all my recent reading there has been a steady bass note pulsing along in the background, and that is the Team Edward Thomas shared pre-publication read of Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis which is published today, ninety seven years to the day since the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.
I managed to squeeze in a trip to Dartington a few weeks ago to hear Matthew Hollis talk about the book, and if you find him speaking at an event near you I can highly recommend it. Somehow the use of the solid stone wall of the ancient Great Hall as a screen for Matthew's pictorial presentation seemed entirely appropriate when talking about a poet whose quintessential Englishness was being discussed.
Helen Thomas.... dear Helen and how we have all pondered Helen's life and the rather sunny account she gives in her own autobiographical writing Under Storm's Wing. Edward Thomas a depressive man who most certainly needed the freedom which Helen gave him, and how often I have pulled myself up sharp as I read of Edward's travels and sojourns with other poets and thought about Helen and her life alone with the children.
Whilst on August 4th 1914 Edward Thomas and his close friend the poet Robert Frost seemed little exercised by events in Europe, it would be Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, and Edward Thomas's interpretation of it as a serious and moral tale about taking responsibility for one's own destiny, that would eventually tip the balance of his indecision and compel him to enlist. Matthew Hollis's book takes the reader on that journey too and I have been spellbound by my very slow-paced read of Now All Roads Lead to France.
I think Team Edward Thomas have enjoyed it too and my thanks to them for sharing a flavour of their thoughts today. We have more to follow from what has been a fascinating project and I think we will have plenty of questions to ask Matthew Hollis when he stops by here to talk with us in early September.
Come back tomorrow for a really very lovely prize draw.
Edward Thomas’s transformation from a journeyman writer into a late-flowering poet is fascinating, but two other things stay with me after reading Matthew Hollis’s book and refuse to go away. One is the extraordinary length of the shadow cast by the First World War and our continuing feeling that what happened a hundred years ago is still relevant and still shaping us. How do we account for the extraordinary popularity of, say, Downton Abbey? It’s tempting to dismiss this as nostalgia, but there is surely more going on than that.
The second is the sexual politics of Edward Thomas’s life, which seems to have been so irrevocably determined by getting his girlfriend pregnant when he was still at university. All his subsequent decisions were influenced by his need to support a family, and it seems to me that while we are used to talking about the impact of children on women’s lives and choices, we should not forget its impact on men.
I discovered Edward Thomas by accident, while doing research on an unrelated subject. I had read an account of his interest in the young, vulnerable daughter of family friends and I saw the saddest photograph of a child --his son -- and wasn’t able to put it out of my mind. His wife’s very frank memoir told me more than I needed to know about his unkindness toward his family and his persistent reluctance to provide for them properly.
So I had developed a strong dislike for him before I’d read anything that he’d written.
Now All Roads Lead to France is a detailed account of the redeeming choices that Edward Thomas made in what were to be the last 4 years of his life and the book has offered me a chance to give Edward Thomas the benefit of the doubt. It was a fascinating read about his extraordinary creative process and his belief in the choices he made.
...As the book began to focus on the friendship with Frost and the theory and practice of Thomas’s poetry I was totally engrossed. It helps so much that this was written by a poet. I’m now looking forward to reading all of Thomas’s poetry and the poems which he influenced in Branch Lines. I want to understand more about poetic influences and the history of poetic development.
From my reading of All Roads I have discovered the childhood haunts and adult homes of E T. Standing by his memorial stone looking out over a favourite view I thought how hard it was for him to decide to enlist and leave England behind.
Yet being in uniform and the prospect of fighting in France seems to have developed his growing ability to write poetry. Did it lift his depressions despite him never seeing all the poems published? Did enforced separation from his family rather than leaving them of his own will heighten his poetic skills? Two questions I am still asking myself.
I have to confess that before I learned about this book I had never heard of Edward Thomas, though I am very familiar with the poetry of Robert Frost and have read an anthology of WWI poets. While I was waiting for the book to make its way across the pond I found some of ET's prose and poetry at various local libraries and read Helen's memoir. I was impressed with some of the poetry and found the prose rough going. And I must also confess that I found myself thinking that ET was... a jerk! Perhaps Helen was portraying herself as more patient than she really was, but I thought it was wonderful of her to be so supportive of his living by his writing and not getting a "real" job, as his father was pressuring him to do. I doubt if very many wives, even in those days, would have been so willing to live in such poverty with a man who could have been earning so much more. I know he might have been depressed, but he seems to have had more control over his moods when he was with those other than his family (as most of us do), so I felt he was being self-indulgent at home.
In 1914 Edward Thomas had to decide which road to take , the road to France and war or the road to America and farming with his friend Robert Frost. The latter choice seemed to be more alarming, it would mean transporting his family and starting a new life and a new career.
Edward Thomas had an indecisive nature, prone to depression; and he was also sensitive about his physical and moral courage. His friendship with Frost provided the encouragement and stimulus to try verse, Hollis writes of the friendship and the outpouring of poetry that began in November 1914. It continued to flow and he achieved much, even if not publishing success at that time. Thomas must have felt positive about this decision.
Positive too were his experiences of war, his diary shows him to have been a committed officer. The young soldiers with him must have been aware that he could have chosen a safer posting and perhaps admired his courage. His wife Helen* in a letter to Frost says, 'Oh, he's just fine and full of satisfaction in his work'. There appeared to be no trace of his persistent bouts of depression whilst in France.
I sense that Edward Thomas was convinced of the rightness of his choice of roads and that in the months before he died he was happier and more fulfilled than at any time in his life.
Matthew Hollis ends the "Autumn - Dymock 1914" section with the sentence "Edward Thomas was about to become a poet." In the following section, Hollis presents a detailed description of Thomas's initial efforts to write a poem that culminated in the typing of "Up in the Wind" on Thursday, 3 December 1914. He was 36 years old which is not too late to start writing poetry, except in Thomas's case he had only three years left to live and write. He had been encouraged to write poems by his wife Helen before he met Robert Frost in
1913. He had been writing reviews of poetry for a number of years, he was in the company of poets and other writers many times, and discussed the writing of poetry with numerous poets, but the development of his close friendship with Robert Frost and their discussion of the language of poetry gave him the impetus to write his first poem. Hollis's discussion of this poetic relationship is exciting to read and leads me to wonder about other such relationships that have resulted in a poet's first poem. That Thomas did not write poems before this first poem is the real mystery here.