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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn