Faber & Faber, £20, 389pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Faber & Faber, £9.99, 190pp. £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, By Matthew Hollis
Selected Poems, By Edward Thomas, edited by Matthew Hollis

Thomas Hardy, writing in "Afterwards" of "the dewfall hawk" and the "glad green wings" of May, hoped to be identified as "a man who used to notice such things". Edward Thomas (1872-1917) lacked even this vestigial optimism, but as he walked and cycled the breadth of rural England, he too was intimately attentive to what he encountered – a group of aspens, a nettle-bed, a path vanishing in a wood. In Now All Roads lead to France, Matthew Hollis, himself a poet, sets out to honour Thomas with similar care for the poems, the life and the literary climate in which the poet worked and where, with the help of Robert Frost, he eventually uncovered his poetic gift before joining the millions killed in the First World War.

In this extremely readable critical-biographical study, place and landscape have an importance equal to poetry. Almost-forgotten poets walk the streets and fields, as real as Ezra Pound if less egregious. Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, John Drinkwater, WH Davies, Harold Monro? If they suggest anything it is probably Georgianism, the suburban ignis fatuus of English poetry before the emergence of the major American modernist poets, Eliot and Pound, who would later seem to have swept all that away in the wake of the First World War.

Yet as Hollis lucidly demonstrates, there was a good deal of contact between those who became artistic opponents. Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop off Theobalds Road in Holborn was a place for such encounters, and Monro was happy to publish both Georgian and Imagist anthologies in the interests of a diversity which the beneficiaries predictably found intolerable.

The Imagist poet Amy Lowell, visiting the Poetry Bookshop to hear Rupert Brooke read, found "an atmosphere of overwhelming sentimentality". Pound challenged Abercrombie to a duel, and when Abercrombie visited WB Yeats at home in London to ask him to intervene, the front door was opened by Pound himself, at which point Abercrombie fled. The duel was never fought. Imagine if Abercrombie had won: no Cantos from Pound, no anti-Semitic ravings, no treason trial, no incarceration in the madhouse; but we would have the early poems.

Thomas doesn't really fit anywhere (and blew hot and cold about Pounds's work), though he is found in many literary contexts in the Edwardian period, including a period at Dymock in Gloucestershire in the company of Frost and others. Yet although well-connected, he seems drawn to misfortune from an early stage. On course for a First in History at Oxford, he made his fiancée Helen Noble pregnant, married her and sank into a life of near-poverty as a reviewer and literary hack, often consumed by violent depression and self-loathing.

At times he longed to leave the loyal and tolerant Helen, and lived apart from the family for extended periods, engaging in close but apparently platonic relationships with other women including the writer Eleanor Farjeon – all the while maintaining a heavy schedule of reviews and potboilers, work he came to hate.

Thomas couldn't, he said, write a poem to save his life, but he knew that poetry needed something more than the second-hand music of the Georgians, and more than what he called "the fuss" of Imagism. He reviewed Frost's first collection, North of Boston, in The Daily News in summer 1914 in terms that emphasised what Frost's work rejected: "These poems are revolutionary because they lack the exaggeration of rhetoric, and even at first sight appear to lack the poetic intensity of which rhetoric is an imitation. Their language is free from the poetical words and forms that are the chief material of secondary poets. The metre avoids not only the old-fashioned pomp and sweetness, but the later fashion of discord and fuss. In fact, the medium is common speech."

Thomas reviewed the book three times, which makes the alleged cronyism of present-day reviewing look amateurish. But there was a reason for his repeat visits: the important thing he knew Frost was doing was a matter of musicality, not subject or attitude. North of Boston includes "Mending Wall", "The Death of the Hired Man", "Home Burial" and "After Apple Picking", among the most durable and widely read poems of the 20th century. What Thomas undertook for Frost and, by inadvertent prophecy for himself, was to do as Wordsworth felt a poet must: create the taste by which they could be understood. Thomas's understandings, as poet and critic, continue to be greatly influential, perhaps more so in practical terms than Eliot, whose great poems have an air of finality. His effects can be traced variously in Auden, Larkin, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.

Frost and Thomas had discussed the fruitful tension between the shape of the speaking voice and the formal frame of poetic metre. While the formulation is normally ascribed to Frost, who spoke of Sentence Sounds, Thomas had arrived at similar convictions for himself. It was Frost, though, who suggested that Thomas organise some of his prose writing into lines, convinced that the poetry of the kind they both sought was already to be found there. Thomas's Selected Poems, in a new edition edited by Hollis, re-emphasise the wisdom of Frost's advice. In less than four years' work Thomas discovered himself as a poet. Of the 144 poems he wrote, at least a dozen poems are permanent fixtures, an extraordinary rate of success.

At the core of Thomas's poetry is something unknown, apprehended but not directly sayable. It is not surprising that a great walker and cyclist, travelling great distances across England in all weathers, should turn so often to roads and tracks. Roads vanish into the distance; tracks suddenly cease to exist. Both may extend promises or ill-omens, fulfilment or lures for the death-wish that settled on Thomas early on.

The wonderful "Lights Out" (November 1916) embraces sleep as a trackless forest where "I may lose my way/ and myself". Hollis's account of Thomas's experience as an artillery officer near Arras shows experience both intensified and diminished, as he awaited the death he seemed to view as inevitable. Written in the same month, the extraordinary, slow-burning "The Long Small Room" suggests that extinction simply required him to recognise it, but the poem has none of the languor or indulgence of faux-decadence or rhetoric.

For all the plainness of his language – it really is heightened speech – Thomas was writing about things at the limit of his understanding, or things that instinct and body – the animal elements of the human species – understood far better than the conscious mind. He is well served by Hollis's clear-eyed sympathy.

Sean O'Brien's 'November' is published by Picador

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?