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.”