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
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