There is a new biography of Edward Thomas called Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis. I think that it is true to say that most people, without perhaps realising it know, or know of, one of his poems Adlestrop and also know one poem by his great friend and mentor Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken and possibly little else except that he was killed in the First World War. This perceptive,illuminating and richly rewarding biography will change all that, as it covers his last remaining years, his complicated and difficult relationships, and his writings in general.
We discover the man behind his wondrous and sonorous poetry, as well as the debt we owe to Robert Frost for setting Edward Thomas on the path from prose to poetry. It is quite extraordinary to think that such a rich body of work came from a very short span at the very end of his life, that his poetry was only going into print for the first time even as he travelled to France, never to return.
The truly marvellous translation from prose to poetry began in the late autumn of 1914. Edward Thomas had already written and published several books, some better than others and was a renowned literary critic. He was a friend of the Dymock poets: John Drinkwater, Wilfrid Gibson, Edward Marsh, Lascelles Abercrombie and Robert Frost of whom only the latter is really remembered or read today. Sometime in mid-November 1914, Edward Thomas began an adventure that would lift his spirits and transform his writing – he began to write a poem. Matthew Hollis shows us the whole process, garnered from the notebooks, from prose piece to finished poem. From that beginning to the end in April 1917, Edward Thomas wrote approximately 81 poems and in the years since his death his reputation has steadily grown.
It was after a visit to Robert Frost and an uncomfortable encounter with a gamekeeper in the autumn of 1914, just before Frost returned to the United States, that Thomas changed, as it turned out irreversibly. The plan had been that Robert Frost and his family, with Edward Thomas’ son Mervyn would travel to America, followed shortly after by the rest of the Thomas family, though Edward himself was ambivalent about whether his family would go too. The War broke out and the Frosts left with Mervyn as planned. But Edward realised that he could not leave England, and came slowly to a recognition that he must fight, so he joined the Artists’ Regiment and went to France. He died along with many others on the first day of the Battle of Arras.
I came to Edward Thomas’ poetry though another source, Ivor Gurney who set some of the poems to music. The accompanying volume of Selected Poems covers much the same ground and includes most of the best of his work. The two volumes make for an excellent present, and are a rewarding read.