Sunday, 19 August 2012

Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

A short holiday on the border between the Somme and the Pas-de-Calais seemed a good place to read this; Edward Thomas spent the last months of his life near Arras and was killed and is buried there.  I first came across Thomas's poetry during my A level English exam; his poem "Lights Out" appeared in the exam paper for the practical criticism element.  The alternative practical criticism test was an undigestible chunk of Walter Pater, so I wrote about the poem.  Its formal elegance and its graceful ambiguity made me want to find out who wrote it, and to read more of his work.

Matthew Hollis's book describes Thomas's life during its last four years, from 1913 to 1917, but inevitably brings in a great deal of his earlier years, showing how he got to where he was.  It is structured into four sections, one for each year, and each section has four chapters, one for each season of that year.  This gives a great sense of time passing, the precious few years that Thomas has left slipping away.  Thomas the man can be difficult to like.  Depressive, often despairing, and feeling trapped by family life, disappointed with the literary 'hack-work' by which he earns a living, he is rather like a Gissing character made flesh; there are strong echoes of New Grub Street throughout.  His long-suffering and devoted wife Helen yearns to make him happy, but Thomas believes his best chance of happiness - and that of his family - lies in their separation.  Hollis carefully describes the friendships and incidents that  - if they do not transform Thomas into a happy, contented man - open up the possibilities of his life and lead to the remarkable poems he wrote between November 1914 and his death.

A key friendship is that with Robert Frost, making a long stay in England with his family.  The two men met through the Poetry Bookshop, Thomas having been a critic of poetry before he began to write it, and a warm friendship ensued, with the Thomases and the Frosts eventually living near each other (and a number of other poets) in Dymock.  Hollis writes very well about this friendship, which can be a difficult thing to describe; the text gives a real sense of the bedrock of affection that underlies the ups and downs of any such relationship.  He also shows the exchange of influence between the two writers, and explains how Thomas is the likely inspiration for "The Road Not Taken". 

Hollis is a poet himself and this book is not only beautifully written but fascinating, as it shows, from a poet's perspective, how Thomas wrote his poetry.  Using Thomas's notes and drafts, he demonstrates how a brief experience or idea is worked and reworked from the basic account into poetic form, how extraneous words are pared away to increase the intensity of meaning, and how hard Thomas worked to perfect his writing.  There is a vast amount to enjoy in this book from whatever angle you approach it; whether you like biography, poetry, books about World War I, or all three, there will be something to interest you. 

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