Two tomes simply not enough for the man by whom all critics are judged

Now All Roads Lead To France: The last years of Edward Thomas

WHEN I think of Edward Thomas, killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917 and championed by Michael and Edna Longley for the last 30 years, I think of the railway poem Adlestrop, with its haunting birdsong that the poet heard while waiting for the signal to change. And then I think of the so-called Great War, the waste and slaughter. But another poem, If I Were To Own, reprinted here in this latest Selected, will give you a complete flavour of Thomas’s authority:

If I were to own this countryside

As far as a man in a day could ride,

And the Tyes and Margaretting Tye, — and Skreens, Gooshays, and Cockerells,

Shellow, Rocketts, Bandish, and Pickerells,

Martins, Lampkins, and Lillyputs,

Their copses, ponds, roads, and ruts,

Fields where plough-horses steam and plovers

Fling and whimper, hedges that lovers

Love, and orchards, shrubberies, walls

Where the sun untroubled by north wind falls

You will get some idea from the above of the Thomas effect, the power of naming, the power of the local, and the power of listing, enjambment and rhyme. Within limits set by the poet himself, a refusal to reference effects outside the poem itself, a hatred of rhetorical writing, Edward Thomas is a master. His poetry and death have become ciphers for generations of traditional English poets; his verse-craft has become the standard by which all new books are judged.

Edward Thomas is a wilful Mozart, not Tchaikovsky. No conductor will ever fall off the podium trying to conduct him. Not that he was conventional, or even sane. It is never a sane thing to want to be a full-time writer, never mind a biographer of Maeterlinck. Anything but; he was trenchant, ambitious, driven, and as wrong-headed as any poet ever served a drink. But he was sure of what he wanted; of the literary effects he wished to create.

Part of the excellence of Matthew Hollis’s Selected is the complete familiarity and mapping of Thomas’s mental world through diary extracts and general prose excerpts from other books. Thomas writes, in this Hollis extract from the Maeterlinck biography: “The first few words of a work of art teach us, though we do not know it at the time, exactly how much value we are to give to all the rest, whether they be words only, or images, or spirits. They admit us, or teach us that we cannot be admitted, to the author’s world. Any writer whose words have this power may make a poem of anything...”

As Hollis writes in discussing Thomas’s biography of Walter Pater: “Thomas was stating something more than the qualities of Walter Pater; he was beginning to make a statement about himself. In writing the book, Thomas had understood more clearly than before that the engine of writing should, he believed, first and foremost, be rhythm.”

Hollis, himself a fine poet, traces the gradual accretion of a technique; how the poet negotiated a clear path through the heady woodlands of Georgians, Imagists, Joseph Conrad and Robert Frost. While he would never achieve the “speech delighted with its own music” that he found in Yeats, he would begin with a technique every bit as polished as that found in his friend Robert Frost’s North of Boston.

Death at the Battle of Arras might seem sufficient drama in any poet’s life. But by page 30 of the 388-page Now All Roads Lead to France, Matthew Hollis has frontloaded his biography with incident and pathos.

Thomas’s academic ambitions have floundered, his marriage to the free-spirited Helen Noble is in trouble, he has attempted suicide (with a rusty gun), and he has met the charismatic disciple of Carl Jung, Dr Godwin Baynes. Helen Noble deserves a biography to herself, as does Dr Baynes, a double “blue” in swimming and athletics at Cambridge, a decorated war hero and presiding genius at an impoverished medical practice at Bethnal Green. Helen was long-suffering. “She loved him as a wife and with ‘the pride of a mother and bided her time, and devoted herself to her children.” Two pages later, a failed poultry farmer sails into view, one Robert Frost of Derry, New Hampshire. Between Dr Baynes and the farmer, Edward Thomas would get a good shaking. This biography is nothing if not episodic. Eighty pages in, Thomas tires of his therapist: “When he first came to see me he made me feel that I was the most important person in the world. As I came to know his world I found he gave the same impression to everybody.” It is always a bitter blow to a poet to find that his neurosis is shared by the common people.

It was as late as May 1914 that the 36-year-old Edward Thomas wrote to the other late beginner, Robert Frost: “I wonder whether you can imagine me taking to verse? If you can I might get over the feeling that it is impossible.”

What is astonishing is how tentative Thomas’s beginnings were. The poet’s beginnings as poet are beautifully described. Hollis carries the reader through an extraordinary adventure that happened in November and December of that year; the emergence of the first Thomas poems as mysterious and glistening as turtles hatching on a moonlit beach:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,Had kept them quiet as the primroses.They had but an hour to sing.

When he sprained his ankle while hill-walking on January 2, 1915, he was confined to the cottage. He wrote a further 16 poems in 20 days. Hollis is brilliant in his descriptions of the days of creation during the Edward Thomas winter. The biography rises to the level of poetry itself and the arrangement is, to quote Stevens, supreme fiction. What this depressed and gifted creature, ignorant of trigonometry, was doing in the Royal Artillery still begs an answer: Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.

This biography is a marvel; Selected Poems is equally revelatory.

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