The Last Years of Edward Thomas
by Mattew Hollis
Matthew Hollis's award-winning book tells the story of the last four years of writer & poet Edward Thomas. I've always loved Thomas's poetry & I've read several books about his life including the memoirs of his wife, Helen, & the memoir written by Eleanor Farjeon about their friendship.This book is different because, although it also concentrates on those last four years of his life, as Farjeon's did, it's really about his evolution as a poet. It's also about his friendship with the American poet, Robert Frost, and the influence of that friendship on his writing.
Thomas is not an easy man to like. Frequently withdrawn, taciturn & depressed, he was frustrated in his working life & very difficult to live with. The family always seemed to be just on the edge of poverty as Thomas worked as a freelance writer, picking up commissions to write books about literature & the English countryside, resenting the hack work all the time. He often took his frustrations out on his family & his moods could be frightening. More than once he threatened to commit suicide. His frustration was partly at his inability (as he saw it) to properly provide for his family & partly because his commissioned writing left him no time or energy to write anything else. Yet he was also a very attractive character, whose friends loved him. Helen adored him & her memoirs, collected as Under Storm's Wing, are very moving. Edward, however, grew to resent her need of him & the constant need to provide for the family. Eleanor Farjeon, the poet & children's writer, loved him & wrote movingly of their friendship in Edward Thomas : the Last Four Years.
Perhaps the most important friendship of Thomas's life was with Robert Frost. Frost had brought his family to England from New Hampshire to see if he could make a name for himself as a poet. In the years before WWI, Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop in London was the place for poets & poetry lovers to meet. Monro's anthologies, Georgian Poetry, were immensely influential & made the reputations of several poets. When Frost & Thomas finally met, they became friends & spent days walking through the countryside talking about everything & anything - their families, their work, the coming war. Frost encouraged Thomas as he began tentatively to write poetry. Once he started, the poetry poured out of him, sometimes he was writing a poem a day.
This is the point where this book really took hold of me & I found it difficult to put it down. Hollis is a poet & his descriptions of the way Thomas wrote his poetry are fascinating,
His first poem had emerged in an unwieldy manner from his prose, but it was, in an important sense, better than his prose. The prose had done everything asked of it: polite, unshowy lines pitched at the level of a quietly spoken conversation; but the poem had that and more besides: it had cadence and it had drama. It was an extraordinary first effort, full of character and good phrasing; tonally, perhaps, it borrowed from his friend, Robert Frost, and by the standards of poetry it carried a prosaic bagginess that he would have to shake off; but in places it soared with an energy and confidence that showed glimpses of the promise to come.
That first poem, Up in the Wind, has all the qualities of Thomas's verse. Quiet, conversational, alive with the details of country life. Thomas is called a war poet but more because he was killed in the war than for any other reason. None of his poetry is explicitly about the war in the way that Sassoon or Owen wrote about the war. The war is often there, in the background, as in my favourite of his poems, As the Team's Head-Brass. The war is there in the quiet conversation of the speaker & the ploughman but the scene is somewhere in England, not France or Flanders.The scene is a field not a trench.
Thomas's most famous poem is probably Adlestrop.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
Hollis shows how the poem was written, from the notes he jotted down in June 1914 in the field notebooks he always carried with him, to the many attempts at that first verse, changing words until he found the right ones. It was as if all the prose Thomas had written over so many years had all been leading him to the point where he could write poetry. Often it was one of his articles or notebooks that suggested a poem or reminded him of an incident or conversation that he could turn into verse.
When the war broke out, Thomas initially had no thought of joining up. Robert Frost had taken his family back to New Hampshire, along with Thomas's son, Mervyn. The rest of the Thomas family or at least Edward himself, had plans to follow them. Thomas was in his mid 30s and there was no conscription to force him into the Army. Gradually, however, he came to feel that it was his duty to join up. He grew uncomfortable with the thought that other men were fighting for the country he loved so much. There was also a more pressing financial incentive. Freelance literary work had almost completely dried up & if he was in the Army, Helen & the children were guaranteed an income, especially if he served overseas.
Thomas joined the Artists Rifles & eventually became an officer in an artillery regiment. I hadn't realised that he was in camp at Hare Hall at the same time as Wilfred Owen. Hollis speculates that Owen was probably trained in map reading by Thomas but, as Owen hadn't been part of the poetry scene in London before the war, he didn't know of Thomas's reputation as a writer & critic. Thomas had not had any of his poems published &, when he did send them out to magazines, he used the pseudonym Edward Eastaway. Hollis wonders what the effect would have been on Owen's development as a poet if he had come under Thomas's influence at this point rather than the influence of Siegfried Sassoon whom he met at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917.
Thomas could have stayed in England with a staff job but volunteered for service in France where he was killed at Arras on Easter Monday, April 9th 1917. He didn't see his poetry in print but a volume was published soon after his death & his reputation has grown ever since. Now All Roads Lead To France is a fascinating look at the evolution of a poet. It's interesting to speculate about Thomas's future if he'd survived the war. I don't think he would have been defined by his war service & his war poetry as Sassoon was. His subject matter was much broader. I wonder if he would have been a happier, more contented man if he had returned from France to continue writing poetry & maybe visit America & farm with Frost as they had once dreamt of doing. It's another of the great What Ifs of literature.