The name of this book’s subject doesn’t appear in the text proper until page 14, and then as that of an adult attending the opening in London’s Bloomsbury of the Poetry Bookshop on January 8, 1913. The celebratory crowd was salted with poets, beginning with the proprietor, Harold Monro, who intended to use the store to host readings and publish the occasional volume as well as sell books of and about poetry. Besides Henry Newbolt, the bard of imperial loyalty who held the chair in poetry at the Royal Society of Literature, as what we would call the master of ceremonies, other poets on hand included Walter de la Mare, Lascelles Abercrombie, W.H. Davies, Edward Marsh (secretary to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill), F.S. Flint, Wilfrid Gibson—next only to John Masefield the most popular younger English poet, who was living upstairs—and beside Flint on the staircase an American, Robert Frost, who at 38 had yet to publish a book of verse.
Possibly all the writers present, save Frost, knew Edward Thomas personally. The 34-year-old writer, London-born to middle-class Welsh parents, was a literary journalist and author of books on contract, chiefly about traveling the English countryside, topics in English history, and literary figures of the recent past, such as A.C. Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Richard Jefferies. He was considered the most perceptive reviewer of poetry of the day. He was at the opening partly on business, as it were, and gave it a hopeful notice six days later while reviewing the epochal anthology Georgian Poetry, the first of five with that title edited by fellow attender Marsh, launched simultaneously with the bookshop.
Thomas and Frost, who would some months later begin what was arguably the most consequential friendship in modernist poetry in English, were both seething with frustration. A failed dairy farmer and a poet who, despite years of serial publication, had yet to find a book publisher for his work, Frost had fled nagging relatives to accomplish in England what he could not in America. Thomas felt that he had become a dismal hack, obliged to churn out words to support his wife, Helen, and their three children. Cursed with depression, he had come near to suicide at least once—an experience he drew on for a psychological and realist short story, “The Attempt,” in the book Light and Twilight (1911)—and for some time had been living more apart from than with his family, out of unwillingness to inflict the cruelty of his chronic ill humor upon them. A fair-haired, blue-eyed six-footer, Thomas “turned heads wherever he went.” He had female friends who were passionate about him, but his biographer presents neither evidence nor speculation that he was unfaithful to Helen with any of them. Perhaps the death of all passion for her, which he feared to acknowledge, had become general for all women. He conscientiously remained a good provider, however, binding himself to the millwheel of hackwork that was killing him—artistically, at the very least.
Thomas and Frost met at last on October 6, 1913, at a café Thomas and De la Mare frequented but at which Thomas “held court,” as Hollis puts it, on Tuesdays. Frost had succeeded in publishing A Boy’s Will, but reviews were few and undiscerning. The day before their encounter, Thomas had arrived at De la Mare’s, Hollis says, “wildly out of sorts, fitful and despairing. For the only time in his life, Thomas spoke openly to his friend of his desire for suicide.” Yet the momentous meeting went off blandly, it seems, for “nothing at all survives” about it.
The two soon discovered they were of a mind about what new poetry ought to be, and in walks together through the countryside, amid which each lived for economy’s sake, as well as in the letters they exchanged until Thomas’s death, they honed their ideas and exchanged their attempts to realize them—for Thomas, who, mere days after meeting Frost, had answered the question “Haven’t you ever written poetry, Edward?” with “I couldn’t write a poem to save my life,” began writing poems.
Frost aimed to write a poetry made vital by what he called “the sound of sense.” Out walking with Thomas one day, he arranged to give Thomas an example from life (the initial grammatical gaffe is atypical of Hollis):
Standing atop a cart two fields off, they saw a farmhand lifting up some kind of load with his pitchfork. Frost stopped and hollered a question to the man, “What are you doing there, this fine afternoon?” The farmhand was too far away to have heard Frost’s precise words, but he straightened up and hollered an answer that in turn was too distant for the individual words to be audible—and yet the meaning of the exchange was precisely clear. Frost turned to Thomas . . . “That’s what I mean,” he said.
When he reviewed Frost’s second collection, North of Boston (1914), Thomas explained what Frost with his sound of sense had done:
[H]e has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other.
At the beginning of the same month, August, in which those remarks appeared, Thomas and Frost and their families were vacationing together in Gloucestershire. And the Great War broke out. Despising the early jingoism and moral simplifying in the national newspapers, Thomas was ambivalent about the war and very conflicted about enlisting. On August 26, he noted, “It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.” But by September 3, “The man who did not consider himself a patriot, who loathed nationalism, who,” Hollis says with a drop of bucolic acid, “believed his countrymen were the birds, was cultivating a new skin.” Thomas wrote to a friend, “I am growing into a conscious Englishman.”
Eventually, he enlisted—after a confrontation he and Frost had with a truculent gamekeeper had made him feel deeply a coward; after Frost and his family returned to New England, taking Thomas’s 15-year-old, Mervyn, with them for an American sojourn; after the kind of writing work he had depended on dried up so as to make a military salary seem essential; and, most important, after, starting in the middle of November 1914, he turned a prose sketch into “Up in the Wind,” one of his most Frost-like poems because of its dramatic form (the plaint of a pubkeeper as elicited by the poet-narrator) and because it realizes Frost’s principles for melding the sound of sense and the metrics of verse. Here are the first several lines:
“I could wring the old thing’s neck that put it here!
A public house! it may be public for birds,
Squirrels, and such-like, ghosts of charcoal-burners
And highwaymen.” The wild girl laughed. “But I
Hate it since I came back from Kennington.
I gave up a good place.”
This is blank verse loosened by the substitution of a three-syllable foot for a two-syllable foot or an inversion of an iamb into a trochee or an equalization of an iamb into a spondee in every line and sometimes in enjambment (the anapestic “But I / Hate”). Furthermore, those variations are made not by rigid scansion but by how any reader interprets the voice of the speaker in the poem; what one reader hears as a spondee, another still may hear as the iamb the metrical grid of the line—iambic pentameter—says it should be. And this metrical looseness doesn’t injure the five-pulse rhythm of the blank verse. Thomas has achieved what Frost and he aimed to do: marrying ordinary, contemporary speech and traditional verse forms.
Hollis places the story of the composition of “Up in the Wind” nearly at the center of the book. Although he discusses a few other poems Thomas wrote after “Up in the Wind,” and mentions many more, none is treated as thoroughly. Yet each poem mentioned profits from the context Hollis provides for it within the Thomas-Frost correspondence, in Thomas’s exchanges with other friends, through the incidents and observations that inspired it, and as Thomas’s life in the army progressed. Hollis’s work in this regard is so helpful to appreciating the poems that it’s well to have a copy of Thomas’s Collected Poems at hand, ready for reading each poem when Hollis broaches it (and if he doesn’t give a poem’s title in the text, consult the relevant endnote, in which he does).
Thomas wrote steadily until his death at the front as the Arras offensive began. “A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.” The date was April 9, 1917, an Easter Monday. Perhaps only the killing in action of Wilfrid Owen seven days before the Armistice was as great a loss to English poetry during a war in which astonishingly many good poets perished or, like Ivor Gurney, the composer-poet who set several of Thomas’s poems with matchless beauty, were permanently damaged.
This book helps us understand and value what was not lost as does no other I know of.
[Now All Roads Lead to France, by Matthew Hollis (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 416 pp., $29.95]