Resilience of the poetic spirit
BIOGRAPHY: Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, By Matthew Hollis, Faber, 389pp. £20
WHAT IS it about the first World War that coming on to 100 years since it began there is still a huge and seemingly unappeasable appetite in Britain and, to a lesser extent, in Ireland for reading about the disaster? In some way the “great” war has never left us. It marked the end of a way of life and the traumatic beginning of a somewhat delayed new century. Its shadow falls across generations of lost fathers and sons and warns of the dreadful outcome when politics fails and war takes over. The gruesome headcount of those killed varies but as Matthew Hollis remarks in the conclusion to his excellent and highly readable portrait of the fine “Anglo-Welsh” poet Edward Thomas, who died at the front, the “truths and reliabilities of the old order had foundered in the war: nine million young men had gone to their graves in adherence to them”.
Now all Roads Lead to Francetells the story of Edward Thomas and his almost-40-year life, concentrating upon the “last years” as Thomas is eventually drawn into the maelstrom of war and his death in Arras, April 1917:
“The Allied assault was so immense that some Germans were captured half-dressed; others did not have time to put on their boots and fled barefoot through the mud and snow. British troops sang and danced in what only a few hours before had been no-man’s-land. Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.”
But the war sits in the background of this story as Hollis writes a fascinating and knowledgeable study of England and Englishness of the era through the dramatis personae of a group of (mostly) middle-class English writers and poets whose names have long since passed into the margins of so-called master narratives of 20th-century poetry: WW Gibson, Walter de la Mare, Gordon Bottomley, Harold Monroe (of The Poetry Bookshop fame), Edward Garnett, John Drinkwater and the wondrously named Lascelles Abercrombie. This history is neatly matched by a succinct reading of the poetics of the time and Thomas’s place in their critical forefront.
Patrolling these waters, Ezra Pound sharks in now and then (referring to Thomas as “a mild fellow with no vinegar in his veins”) while Yeats swans in and out. The scene provided in Hollis’s account of the Irishman’s reading at the Poetry Bookshop in London is worth a play all to itself.
In the years before the first World War newspapers and journals and publishers were all looking for and a livelihood could be maintained with much work in reviews and the like. But such a life had a cost:
“Thirty-four years of age, a married father of three, Thomas was, in his mind, little more than a literary hack, writing all the hours he could manage to bring home a modest income. The relentless, ungratifying work left him exhausted and bitter, while the din of family life served only to worsen his mood.’’
The social background to this relentless work is well revealed by Hollis’s light touch and insight, particularly into the sense of England itself, pre the war crisis. The picture is far from idyllic or idealised. As Edward Thomas meets up with his “mentor”, the visiting American poet, Robert Frost, the narrative bi-locates. As the poets go about their countryside “talks-walking” about “natural expressive rhythm” and other poetry matters, we see, often through wily Frost’s eyes, “the English class system in action”. And a distasteful sight it is too. Forget the televisual Lark Rise to Candlefordor Downton Abbeysilliness, the poverty of ordinary folk was appalling:
“In Gloucester, mothers cleared stones ahead of the plough for a shilling a day; [Frost] watched them work through a downpour, carrying flints the size of their fists in their aprons. Children worked as soon as they were physically able to bring in an extra sixpence a day. Families survived on a pound a week, some on as little as half that.”
Hollis’s book dramatically sets the achievement of Edward Thomas and his poetic contemporaries inside this English world with sketches of Thomas’s and his family’s ceaseless movement from rented house to rented house, between commissioned book to review to publication offer and back again. “He desired a literary life for himself but feared the poverty it would inflict upon his family”. Precious wonder it all got too much for him and he suffered a nervous collapse but fortunate too that Godwin Baynes, “a pioneer of an early form of psychoanalysis in England” helped him ease the tension. “I am so plagued with work”, Thomas remarked to Frost, “burning my candle at 3 ends”.
Having grown up in a family with middle- class expectations, Thomas was burdened from the start. The dichotomies of his Anglo-Welsh inheritance suggest an outsiderliness that, in a class-conscious society such as England’s, brought its own complications: “I am 5/8 Welsh” he said.
Indeed, the inner reaches of Thomas’s self, along with the wider non-Englishattitudes and experiences of his life and time, are treated perfunctorily by Hollis (the Easter Rising leaders are referred to rather heavy-handedly as “ringleaders”) when these different cultural inheritances may have merited greater exploration.
Women were Thomas’s saviours – his stalwart wife, Helen, Eleanor Farjeon, the 31-year- old daughter of “a Jewish Victorian novelist who had escaped East End impoverishment, her mother the daughter of an actor”, and also the stunningly beautiful artist Edna Clarke Hall. And for a brief spell during his stay in England Robert Frost was staunch in his emotional and artistic support and understanding of the uncertain self-doubter in Edward Thomas. As war approached, and the social and literary world underwent profound change, Thomas was clear about one thing: “The war is an ill wind to me. It ends for the time being the thought of publishing any more books. Our game is up”.
In Hollis’s gloss, fate was all-powerful: “For all his adult life [Thomas] had lived by his prose but now he could see his livelihood disappearing. Perverse as it seemed to him, he would now entertain the thought of volunteering for financial reasons alone”. Like Isaac Rosenberg perhaps? Not quite. On the war, Thomas remarked that it “seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it”. The quarrel with himself was simple enough: “whether or not to write poetry, go to America, enlist”.
After years of churning out prose books, in a period of two years in his mid-30s, Thomas had found his poet’s voice. He would write poetry and enlist.
The face that stares out from a photograph, taken one month before his departure to France in December 1916, a matter of months before his death in Easter 1917, says it all. But the poems which survive, now republished by Faber in a Selected Poems, along with some apt prose, edited by Matthew Hollis, are a magnificent testament to the resilience of the poetic spirit which took hold of Edward Thomas, producing some of the most entrancing poems in the English language. “His poetry”, wrote Frost “is so very brave – so unconsciously brave. 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”.
Gerald Dawe’s Conversations: Poets & Poetrywill be published later this year. He edited Earth Voices Whispering: an anthology of Irish war poetry 1914-1945(2008). He teaches at Trinity College