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They Shined Together

A. Duncan Williams; Hulton Archive/Getty Images
At left, Edward Thomas, Steep, East Hampshire, 1914; at right, Robert Frost, 1913. Frost had moved to England in 1912, and between 1913 and his return to the US in 1915, Helen Vendler writes, he and Thomas ‘were as inseparable as they could manage to make themselves.’

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 of breakdowns led Thomas to judge himself a failure in both his literary and his domestic roles. (Hollis, in 2011, imagines him bipolar; Motion, in 1980, imagined him plunged into a schizoid state by the repression of his creative gift.) Thomas’s wife Helen described his depression as a combination of anxiety and a “melancholy which had its roots in no material circumstances but came to cloud his spirits and our life, unbidden and uncontrollable.” What is certain is that Thomas was helpless against the onslaught of his nerves, and that he was contemptuous of his own prose. In the middle of composing The Heart of England (1906), an account of his travels in the English countryside, he wrote (mentioning two travel writers he admired) that his own book was “pseudo-genial…Borrow & Jefferies sans testicles & guts.”

Thomas made his early fame as a vivid literary critic, a bold and prescient reviewer (of Hardy, Yeats, Lawrence, Pound, and Frost, among others), and an uneven writer of prose about the English landscape. The scholar R. George Thomas describes the prose output as “staggering”: Thomas’s own index to his 1900–1914 writing reveals that in this period he had written “just over a million words about 1,200 books.” Any modern writer would blanch at the idea of writing “a million words”—while marrying, having four children, frequently moving house, being undone by depression, and incurring escalating expenses. The total is painful to contemplate.

Thomas was a compulsive walker (especially during the periods of nervous energy succeeding months of low spirits), and he loved the natural world, from clouds to birds, with an intensity and a degree of symbolic self-projection that won him many readers in his lifetime, and will perhaps draw more as ecological literature rises in appeal. The Oxford Prose Writings, planned for six volumes (of which two were published in 2011), will unfold the energetic variety of Thomas’s prose work: critical reviews, biographies (which he considered hackwork), reflections on poetry, accounts of the British landscape, a short autobiography, a novel.*

While much of this work was undertaken on desperate commission to support his wife and children, he never could be an irresponsible writer, and the prose, despite his own denigration of it as “hackery,” achieves distinction and charm in passage after passage. Now, reading Hollis’s biography of the last years, and Longley’s admirable edition of the poems, one longs for an ampler Selected Letters. The 165-page Oxford edition of 1995 can’t serve as an adequate measure of Thomas’s torrent of letters—acute, sardonic, clever, warmhearted, spontaneous, amused, finely descriptive, and achingly personal. Over a thousand of these were written to his wife Helen over the eighteen years of their courtship and marriage.

American readers will learn from Hollis’s abbreviated outline of Thomas’s life and poetry the events, travels, and dramatis personae of the last four years, and will read a deft commentary on many of the poems that so unexpectedly, in a few years, emerged from a writer of prose. Thomas’s life is a heartbreaking one of almost unremitting troubles until, in gaining a kindred spirit in Frost, discovering his own poetic talent, and volunteering for military duty, he found self-redemption. In 1905 he had written prophetically to his friend Gordon Bottomley, “Only a revolution or a catastrophe or an improbable development can ever make calm or happiness possible for me.” The war was that transformative catastrophe.

Thomas’s troubles began in youth, a period rapidly summarized by Hollis. The poet was the eldest of six sons, and his father, a domineering civil servant (positivist and atheist), wanted Edward to follow him into the civil service. Thomas resisted his father’s pressure and found reassurance in a neighbor who intuited his gifts, the Unitarian editor and literary critic James Ashcroft Noble. Noble also encouraged the friendship—which became a profound love affair—between his daughter Helen and Thomas. At eighteen, Thomas published his first book (The Woodland Life, dedicated to Noble), and then, as a scholarship student in history, went up to Oxford with bright prospects. But when Helen found herself pregnant a year later, a marriage was quickly arranged (largely for the sake of the parents, notified after the fact), and Thomas—whether from “nerves” or from a venereal infection—failed to get a first-class degree, a result barring him from university teaching.

Refusing yet again his father’s unrelenting demands, Thomas did not apply to the civil service, and, by deciding firmly on life as a freelance writer, doomed himself to a frenzied pursuit of enough money to support his family. Thomas’s wife and four children tethered the restless spirit of the poet to a domestic life that he alternately depended on and fled from. The family lived in a series of inadequate houses, one after the other, as Thomas sought inexpensive dwelling places in the countryside; his compulsive walking needed a landscape to walk in. In the later years, those covered by this biography, he would go into London once a week for lunch with literary friends—Walter de la Mare, W.H. Hudson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Harold Monro—names now unrecognized by most American readers. He was always looking for more freelance work, although an account by an editor of an early interview with Thomas reveals his inability to curry favor:

He was tall, absurdly thin, and a face of attractive distinction and ultra-refinement was sicklied over with nervous melancholy and the ill condition of bad food or hunger. Almost too shy to speak, he sat down proudly and asked if I could give him work. I enquired what work he could do, and he said “None.” At once recognizing my former self in him, I asked whether he would like some reviewing on any subject, and on what. He replied that he knew nothing of any subject, and was quite sure he could not write, but certainly he did want work of some sort.

Thomas had always been, and continued to be, an omnivorous reader; he had composed prose since 1897. But it was the igniting presence of Frost that created Thomas the poet. For the two years—between 1913 and 1915—that they had together in England before Frost returned to the United States on the first American publication of his poems, Thomas and Frost were as inseparable as they could manage to make themselves. Long visits and long talks were the means, and poetry the end, of this earnest twinship; the two men, alike in their love of the countryside, their position as outsiders without regular positions, their precarious family economics, and their perfectly attuned sensibilities, loved each other beyond measure, corresponded yearningly when they were apart, and hoped to find, in the long run, a common literary life in the United States.

The writers Thomas knew in England were able ones, but most of them were not attached to the rural landscape as he and Frost (both passionate walkers) were, nor were they advo- cates of making intonation—“sentence-sounds”—the driving force of poetic lines. Thomas (even before meeting Frost) had—as Hollis recounts—declared a commitment to “natural expressive rhythm.” Writing on Thomas Hardy, five years before meeting Frost, five years before he himself became a poet, Thomas eerily described his own case:

In what frame of mind does he who can say so much in prose and denies himself no subject or mood in it, turn to verse? Is it an instinct for finality in form, a need of limitation and strict obedience to rule, or a desire to express but not to explain?

To express but not to explain became the very nature of Thomas’s verse. He said, comparing and contrasting himself and the golden young poet Rupert Brooke, “Thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling.” And Thomas invented the phrase “thought moment” for lines of poetry that fused an inseparable alloy of thought and feeling, and didn’t merely transcribe unreflective feeling into verse.

Thomas was, in short (as Frost divined), already a poet. The two poets could have said of each other what Keats said of his youthful friend Charles Cowden Clarke: “We revelled in a chat that ceasèd not.” So it was with Frost and Thomas, as they walked from dawn to dusk, in rain or shine, from field to field, and from stile to stile, whenever they could be together. Thomas later recalled, in “The sun used to shine” (1916), those days of 1914:

  1. *

    Prose Writings: A Selected Edition: Volume I: Autobiographies, edited by Guy Cuthbertson (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Prose Writings: A Selected Edition: Volume II: England and Wales, edited by Guy Cuthbertson and Lucy Newlyn (Oxford University Press, 2011). 

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