Although the English poet Edward Thomas was born in 1878, Now All Roads Lead to France opens in 1913, when Thomas (already a widely published writer of prose) was thirty-five. A year later, encouraged by Robert Frost (then living in England), he wrote his first poems since his undergraduate days. On April 9, 1917, he was killed at the front in France. He is better known in England (with its appreciation of the poets of World War I) than in the United States. This new biography, written by the young English poet and Faber editor Matthew Hollis, was originally published by Faber in 2011 to considerable acclaim; the present book is a Norton reprint directed at American readers. It declares itself as a biography of Thomas’s last four years, emphasizing his literary acquaintances in London, the state of contemporary “Georgian” poetry, and his efforts to understand—after the momentous encounter and exchange of letters with Frost—the direction of his own new and surprising poetic work. It is also the wrenching story of Thomas as husband and father, at times more humanly interesting than the tale of his literary career.
Although Hollis gives generous space to the poetry, one needs the amplitude and range of Andrew Motion’s reflections in The Poetry of Edward Thomas (1980) and Edna Longley’s scholarly commentary in The Annotated Collected Poems (2008) to come to satisfactory terms with the poetry itself. By contrast, a biographer’s chief duty (beyond accuracy to fact) is to vivify the subject’s life and open it to speculation. Hollis—like his predecessors in 1939 (John Moore), 1970 (William Cooke), 1980 (Andrew Motion), and 1985 (R. George Thomas)—has to attempt the awkward integration of the actions of the life with the efforts of the imagination. In restricting himself (after a quick initial overview) to the last four years of Thomas’s life, Hollis simplifies the biographical task, not without loss.
The closing years are of course the thrilling ones—Thomas meets Frost in London in 1913, begins (for the first time since Oxford) to write poetry, feels guilty (in complex ways, including the fear of cowardice) about watching others die while he remains at home, decides to enlist, trains as an officer (in part for the higher pay), volunteers for the front, and courts death. When the death arrives (from a bomb blast in Arras) it is both shocking and unsurprising.
What is lost, however, in restricting the biography to the close of life is a penetrating and particular sense of the preceding thirty-five grinding years of Thomas’s existence, which were agonizing in being both successful (externally) and unsuccessful (internally). A series …