The Poets, And The Paths Taken
INTERVIEW:Matthew Hollis, who is coming to Kinsale Arts Festival, tells EILEEN BATTERSBYabout following in the footsteps of the poet Edward Thomas, subject of his award-winning biography
BIOGRAPHY SELDOM PRODUCES a work of art. Yet when the poet Matthew Hollis went to explore the sombre and allusive work that an earlier English poet, Edward Thomas, wrote during the final years of his life, he achieved exactly that. Now All Roads Lead to France is an extraordinary, Hardyesque book on many levels, not least for the beauty of the writing and for the lost England it evokes.
As a poet Hollis is somewhat bemused by having written a prose work that has not only brought Thomas to a wider reading public but also established Hollis as a gifted biographer. This is a writer’s book of unusual depth and nuance.
“As I’m more interested in poetry than prose, my interest in Thomas began really when I realised that he had such a close friendship with Robert Frost,” Hollis says. “It was this that first intrigued me; I wanted to find out about it.”
Hollis had some awareness of Thomas’s poetry, but until he began writing the book he was far more familiar with that of Robert Frost, the grand old man of 20th-century American poetry.
The book opens with a fittingly haunting prologue, describing the eerie circumstances of Thomas’s death during the Arras offensive on Easter Monday, 1917: “A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on him.” For Hollis the symbolism is obvious. “I began the book with his death, and it ends with his death.”
It was a strange end to a life that had often been unhappy. “He suffered from depression, attempted suicide and was unfulfilled,” says Hollis of Thomas. “He had written 20 books and all those reviews” – about 1,500 – “without a line of poetry. He had even said that he couldn’t write a poem to save his life.”
Thomas was the most prolific literary journalist of his day; his opinion could make or break a career. He saw himself as a hack churning out disposable words. “It was his friendship with Frost that made him a poet,” says Hollis, who will be speaking at Kinsale Arts Festival next weekend about Thomas’s painful journey towards his destiny, which involved the composition of 144 poems, a lifetime’s work, in his last two years.
“He was a great walker; he needed to set off. I tried to follow his steps, as I felt that the best way to break open the poet was by seeing the world as he saw it, at ground level. Other poets see a place and then take it away with them and write their version of it. Thomas described the landscape as it was.”
Hollis is a dedicated, if noncompetitive, runner, and runners tend not to make great walkers, although Hollis seems to have done well. Thomas used to advise friends not to try to keep up with him but instead to imagine they were walking with him. He has come to be regarded as one of Britain’s literary war generation, which, of course, he was. Yet he was primarily a nature poet who saw how man affected the landscape.
Hollis shares this heightened response to landscape. He was born in Norwich in 1971 and has a love for the flat, open landscape of East Anglia, “the Fens and the great wide skies, the water and the light. Thomas was different: he preferred hills and valleys. This interest in ecology makes him way ahead of his time.”
HOLLIS IS THE YOUNGERof two sons born to academics. His parents both worked at the University of East Anglia in the 1970s, part of a generation that included writers such as Malcolm Bradbury, Lorna Sage and the visionary German WG Sebald. Hollis is familiar with the landscape that inspired Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
Traces of Sebald’s quest are reflected in the restless wanderings of Edward Thomas. Hollis considers this before offering a characteristically exact distinction. “Max was very interested in the world as it could have been; Edward Thomas saw the world as it was.”
Hollis refers to Thomas’s keen eyesight and wonders aloud if this had a bearing on the precision that shapes the observations of nature in his work. While Thomas happily listened to Frost explaining the technical aspects of poetry, the American delighted in his English friend’s knowledge of nature and the way he could identify every bird, each species of tree.
Poetry came to Hollis through writing pop songs while at Edinburgh University, where he studied sociology and politics while collaborating on a semi-anarchic student magazine. “It was Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Seamus Heaney – I remember first reading Seeing Things – that influenced me. I didn’t do English at A level, so I was not reading the poetry that I would have.”
Because of this he feels he came to an appreciation of Thomas slightly later. He believes there is a maturity about Thomas’s work, yet Hollis, a careful, gentle character, worries that, by saying this, he may discourage younger readers. This thoughtfulness is one of his most striking qualities as a person and as a reader. Hollis is a superb reader of Thomas’s poems; it has been said that it took a poet to do full justice to the man and his work.
Hollis gives generous praise to the Irish literary scholar Edna Longley, whose meticulous work on Thomas, originally published in 1973, was revised and reissued as The Annotated Collected Poems in 2008. “Edna Longley looked to the layering and offered great clarity.” Before Longley, Thomas had had another powerful champion in WH Auden. Yet interest in Thomas’s work tended to wax and wane.
The idea for writing the biography occurred to Hollis at an office party. He had given up his postgraduate studies to return home when his father became terminally ill, and was with him for what proved to be the final year of his life. “I didn’t see the point of returning to university then; I loved that year.” He then began working in publishing, initially with Oxford University Press and then with Faber and Faber, where he now edits the poetry list. At the office party Hollis mentioned Thomas to the Irish writer and editor Neil Belton, who listened and then said: “Write the book.”
It became a labour of love, and in the end it was deservedly rewarded with the Costa biography award. Hollis’s book, about a forgotten poet whom Ted Hughes called “the father of us all”, saw off even Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens in this, the great Victorian’s bicentenary year.
In keeping with the strangeness that surrounds the despairing, melancholic and often angry Thomas, Hollis became aware as he wrote the book that his age had begun to coincide with that of Thomas. “By the time I finished it I was the same age as Thomas was when he died.”
Perhaps there was always something doomed about Thomas. Hollis remarks on his physical beauty: “Heads would turn in the street as he walked by – and then he aged so dramatically.” Thomas lived with a fear of his own cowardice after an incident when he was a boy, and this was later compounded when he and Frost were apprehended by a gamekeeper armed with a gun. Frost brazened it out; Thomas fled. A similar difference could be seen in their poetry. “Frost was very confident; Thomas was far more diffident,” says Hollis.
With his large eyes and unruly red hair, Hollis himself resembles Dylan Thomas had he taken up running rather than drinking. Although surprised at the success of his book, he speaks about the subject with an engaging authority. One of the many strengths of his compelling narrative is a sense of Hollis’s muted horror at Thomas’s behaviour towards his wife and their children, with whom he could not connect. “He could be very cruel,” says Hollis, pointing to the unsettling ambivalence of No One So Much As You, addressed to his long-suffering and overly tolerant wife, Helen Noble.
Thomas reviewed Frost’s second collection, North of Boston (1914). It was a crucial critique and, ultimately, ironic, as is so much about Thomas. Frost, who always believed in himself, had arrived in England discouraged by the United States’ failure to recognise his art. He gave Thomas support and told him he was a poet, but he also placed a burden of responsibility on him through the poem The Road Not Taken, which he wrote in 1916. It is about choice, and Thomas took it as a personal challenge.
It decided him on going to a war that meant little to him. His England was not about military victories; it was a pure, almost sacred landscape. Frost, meanwhile, returned to the US and enjoyed a career as the unofficial national laureate, dying in 1963, aged 89. “Thomas thought deeply about life,” says Hollis. “He has so much to tell us, now more than ever.”
Does Hollis like him? “I admire the work but would have to say I would be wary of the man.”
Matthew Hollis is at Kinsale Arts Festival next Saturday
Man and landscape Two Edward Thomas poems
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.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.