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:
The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted
Each night. We never disagreed
Which gate to rest on. The to be
And the late past we gave small heed.
Their families were powerless to interrupt the men’s closeness (which amounted to familial abandon while the precious days or weeks of joint talk lasted). Although both marriages had begun as love matches, painful domestic trials made each of the men, upon finding a kindred poetic spirit, almost unhinged with gratitude. Thomas was so deeply struck by Frost’s North of Boston (1914) that he reviewed it three separate times: “This is one of the most revolutionary books of modern times, but one of the quietest and least aggressive…. These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric.” Not long after their first meeting in London, Frost (who had read some of Thomas’s nature writing) simply told Thomas outright that he was a poet. Frost’s confidence warmed Thomas’s spirits into flooding rivulets of verse, yielding fifty poems in four months (all told, in his brief career, Thomas wrote only 142 poems).
Thomas acknowledged Frost’s influence on his own first work, but hoped that later poems were “less Frosty.” And in fact the Frostian turns of phrase diminished and eventually vanished, as Thomas developed idiosyncratic configurations of words and subdued shadings of emotion. Less grim than Frost, at his best Thomas escapes plaintive pathos by his intensity of observation and his reticent inwardness.
Although in retrospect, writing in 1916, Thomas could affirm in “The sun used to shine” that the 1914 talks with Frost gave “small heed” to “rumours of the war,” he nonetheless was noting, in his 1914 diary, “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.” And in a 1914 essay, “This England,” he recalls—in an extraordinary set of sentences—looking up at the moon and thinking first, with a leap across space, that soldiers in France were seeing the same moon as he. That simple truth yields to a rush of successive strokes of thought replicating Thomas’s tangle of feelings:
Of those who could see it there, not blinded by smoke, pain, or excitement, how many saw it and heeded? I was deluged, in a second stroke, by another thought, or something that had overpowered thought. All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically, like a slave, not having realised that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die.
This excerpt strikes the note of Thomas’s best prose, reproducing the restlessness of his mind and eye. His mind sweeps like a lighthouse beam, picking out in sequence the larger and smaller categories by which his thought moves. First, all soldiers in France; next, among those, the ones who were in the presence of the moon; and of that group, the ones who were not blinded.
A second sweep, and the query descends to speculation on the causes of that blindness, each distinguished from the others. What would the blinded ones be blinded by? Perhaps by an impediment to sight, the “smoke” of the shelling; or by physical agony, the dreadful “pain” of their wounds; or perhaps by—Thomas’s savage closing noun of emotion—“excitement.” And of those who could see the moon, how many would heed it? the lightbeam asks, sweeping again among the soldiers who still possess vision to circumscribe a yet smaller set of men, the heedful, as the beam divides empty physical vision from reflective moral thought.
Finally, the beam pierces inward and scans the poet’s own brain: Wasn’t there (besides the thought of the soldiers) another thought lurking there? The very question brings on a deluge of self-incrimination. What was wrong with your own attitudes, asks the beam—now prompting an examination of conscience. The possibilities (as usual with Thomas) are many. Perhaps, he says, I had never loved England—or loved it foolishly—or like a slave—or without realizing love’s requirements. “Foolishly,” “like a slave,” and “not having realised” are all linked, fatally, to the chief adverb, “aesthetically.” Morals are hovering, threatening to efface the claims of art.
It is this agile, veering, hypothesizing scrutiny that propels Thomas’s athletic sentences. Yet they, like Thomas’s later poetry, are voiced in a plain diction. At nineteen, wanting to sound like a writer, Thomas could extrude stagey sentences like this one melodramatically evoking the moon: “How like to some pale lady of pity she will arise, softly, as if she feared to wake us, out of yonder dismal chimneys!” Yet among such archaizing sentences there were always some plain ones, even in Thomas’s youth, as though he learned his poetic sincerity and integrity by successive steps from early to late period.
Hollis quotes ably from the impossibly large amount of primary material Thomas left behind—essays, letters—but uses the prose chiefly to illustrate concerns of the poetry. He does give a moving and mostly sympathetic account of the strains in the Thomas marriage, which, beginning as an ecstatic sexual union, soon collapsed under economic and mental strain into a union requiring exhausting effort on both sides. Helen Thomas was the more loving one, while Edward—between his nervous collapses and his scruples of conscience—was given to extremes of hellish self-judgment. After fifteen years of marriage (preceded by three of courtship), he wrote bleakly to his wife:
You know my usual belief is that I don’t and can’t love and haven’t done for something near 20 years. You know too that you don’t think my nature really compatible with love, being so clear and critical. You know how unlike I am to you, and you know that you love, so how can I?
Clear and critical he certainly was, and the marriage was repeatedly shaken by Thomas’s merciless clarity and wounding criticism. The noise of the four children was too much for Thomas to put up with, and his expedients—a writing shed here, a stay with friends there, long solitary walking tours—were not really of use to someone so burdened with poverty, overwork, and innate melancholy. Helen staunchly reminded him of his creative identity and helped him through crisis after crisis, although when he developed, on one of his long absences, a manic obsession with a young woman, she sensed an alienation of his affections, and became abject, pleading, “Oh do come back and be happy with me once more.” But as far back as 1900, Helen had detected the waning of desire in an increasingly anxious Edward, and wrote to him at Oxford, “You used sometimes to take my face between your hands and kiss my lips. I wish you could kiss me like that tonight…. You are not here to kiss me, so I must go to bed unkissed.”
Hollis goes so far as to say that Helen was “ever the martyr when it came to Edward’s feelings,” but that is to put things too crudely. Helen was the recipient of hundreds and hundreds of letters from Edward; she understood his arresting talent, realized the tragedy of his mental illness, and actually loved him enough to give him, as far as she was able, absolute freedom from obligation (although they both recognized the obligations to the children). At the end, a day before he died, Edward was still addressing Helen as “Dearest,” and hoping eagerly for a letter from home:
I expect there will be a letter today. Never think I can do without one any more than you can dearest. Kiss the children for me.
All and always yours, Edwy
Even before he went to war, Thomas was nervous, thin-skinned, and uneasy in society (where he felt an intenser loneliness than in solitude). Helen allowed him to be the beset creature he could not help but be, and only rarely reproached him. This is not being a “martyr” to Edward’s feelings: it is the sign of an undeterred understanding and love. To see, in the course of this biography, these two finely tuned creatures make a joint life is to follow a shared aspiration underlying a continual desperation. But what the undergraduate Edward wrote to a friend about style was also true of his life: he aimed at perfection, but falling short, judged in self-condemnation that he had ruined the enterprise:
I always think style, in its limited point—the perfect sentence, is like the casting by a spider of its thin thread far out from itself towards some remote object, to attain which is its intent, but to fall short of which by a hair’s breadth is to fail utterly.
And what does Hollis tell us about Thomas as a poet? He sums up the poetry accurately as he draws a sharp contrast between conventional Georgian poetic practice and the individuality of Thomas’s original poems. The tone of Thomas’s poems
was more tentative and more complex…; they…avoided showy sonnets or epic dramas and tended to resist the various formal symmetries of the time. The cadence of the speech rhythms and particularly of [Thomas’s] “thought moments” was strange to Georgian ears. The restlessnesss, the unresolved endings, the refusal to bow to nostalgia or to a moral convenience may have left contemporary readers unsatisfied, where today these are some of the very qualities that keep his work alive for modern readers.
There is indeed a restlessness and irresolution in some of the poems, but there is also a harsh truth-telling. Thomas’s severity can be seen in the clenched lines to his still-living father (anticipating the unwanted church funeral that will be imposed on his atheist parent):
I may come near loving you
When you are dead
And there is nothing to do
And much to be said.
To repent that day will be
For you and vain for me
The truth to tell.
I shall be sorry for
You can do and undo no more
When you go hence,
Cannot even forgive
But not so long as you live
Can I love you at all.
Such poems of personal relation may strike home with American readers more than those revered by the English—poems that dwell intimately on native landscapes, birds, animals, plants, sights, and seasons. English readers experience, in reading Thomas, the reaction of Elizabeth Bishop’s speaker in “Poem”: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” Thomas had an encyclopedic knowledge of natural phenomena; in a wholly unselfconscious way, as in a familiar letter, he specifies what he experiences on his walks, recording not only the visible and audible, from plants to birdsong, but also the beautiful and elusive aspects of the scene: the quality of the light, the time of day, the weather, the wind. Prose afforded Thomas the leisure to survey the natural profusion of the English landscape, but he knew (as he had so prophetically remarked of Hardy) that lyrics had to select from the bewildering surplus of sensation. In his poem “Digging,” Thomas vows (taking us aback) to restrict himself to the single sense of smell (the sense least praised in poetry)as the means to thought:
Today I think
Only with scents,—scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery.
It is easy to miss the subtle oddity of Thomas’s dislocation of language. What can it mean to say “Today I think only with scents”? Thomas’s most intense intervention in poetics is to insist that poetic thinking is nonintellectual in its origins and is impelled by the provocation of the senses. Yet he equally asserts that poetic thinking is as finely discriminating as any other form of reflection. In “Digging,” he first transmits his nostrils’ panoramic investigation of the landscape (from minute seeds to an entire mustard field) and proceeds to identify self with earth, as the spade “wounds” nature.
Like an animal, he sniffs the air and makes an inventory of odors: yes, here is rose; and there, currant; and further down, raspberry. “The smoke’s smell, too,” he adds, noting the bonfire’s burning, but the language turns moral as he sees with favor the consumption of “the dead, the waste, the dangerous,” as the bonfire converts all the detritus “to sweetness.” (He is turning the tables on Shakespeare’s “Consumed with that which it was nourished by,” saying, “Nourished by the renewed sweetness after consumption.”) There is, for Thomas, no paradise but the joy of natural renewal.
The last stanza of “Today I think” begins with the most modest, but also the highest, word for joy—“enough”:
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth.
“Digging” produces, in its interpenetration of the real bracken and the virtual dead and waste, a characteristic Thomas “thought moment.” Hollis is faithful, in his comments on poems, to Thomas’s assemblage of sensation, emotion, thought, and language, but he often reads the poems—as he must in pursuing his biographical speculation—as documents of Thomas’s psychology more than as usual permutations of language. The book, conceding to the uneasy compromise of all accounts of literary life, must shuttle between events and poems. In Hollis’s forthright retelling, the drama of Thomas’s pained and troubled mind, the startling emergence of the poet from the prose writer, the insoluble domestic struggles, and the final stoic days in France will help to attract American readers to this most English of twentieth-century poets.
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). ↩