Monday, 17 October 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France: Matthew Hollis

I'm always happy when I see a biography of a poet written by a poet.   Matthew Hollis is one of the 'poetry whizz-kids' in Britain - someone who has won all the prizes going and has now ventured into biography with this study of Edward Thomas.

It's one of the new breed of biography - that tackles one aspect or one period of a life rather than ploughing through the whole thing.  This one is very cleverly done.  Edward Thomas's whole life is reflected and discussed in consideration of the most important five years of his life - the years just before his death, when he began to write poetry rather than prose.

Central to the story is Thomas's meeting with Robert Frost who had sold up all his possessions and come to England in a gamble to launch his own career as a poet, feeling overlooked in America.  For 5 years the two men talked, corresponded, shared their work and encouraged each other.  There are echoes of their conversations in each other's poetry - compare Thomas's 'The Signpost' with Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'.  The book is very good on their relationship.  But I don't always agree with Matthew Hollis's analysis of the poems.

In the background is the (one can't help but feel) tragic relationship between Edward Thomas and his wife Helen.  The youthful marriage he came to regret so much that he sometimes treated his wife with considerable emotional cruelty, and which seems to have precipitated  long episodes of depression.   Thomas had love affairs with 3 other women (one a very young girl) which may or may not have been platonic, but all deeply troubling to his wife.  One feels pity on both sides.

There is always a narrative hook at the end of a life abruptly terminated.  The question mark -  what would he have written/done/said if he had lived beyond the war?  We can't know.   The question mark hovers in the concluding lines of his own poems and is one reason we are so drawn to them - the other reason is the poignancy of the foreshadowing - the poet's own haunting uncertainty - matched with our own reading of the poems with the knowledge of how the story really ended.

Edward Thomas's poetry is better, much better, than I remembered from reading it years ago.  Let's pass over the much quoted Adlestrop, and his poem 'To Helen' (the meaning of which changes once you know the background).    Thomas's collected poems are available to download in a number of formats, free, at the Gutenburg Project.   Read Bright Clouds, The Long Small Room, Liberty, It Rains, In Memoriam,  Lights Out (written after he went to France, believing he would die), There's Nothing Like the Sun, and the poem that he wrote last to finish the collection 'Words'.  Then read the biography.

Lights Out (excerpt)

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book,
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.


  1. After Rain

    The rain of a night and a day and a night
    Stops at the light
    Of this pale choked day. The peering sun
    Sees what has been done.
    The road under the trees has a border new
    of purple hue
    Inside the border of bright thin grass:
    For all that has
    Been left by November of leaves is torn
    From hazel and thorn
    And the greater trees. Throughout the copse
    No dead leaf drops
    On grey grass, green moss, burnt-orange fern,
    At the wind's return:
    The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed
    Are thinly spread
    In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,
    As if they played.
    What hangs from the myriad branches down there
    So hard and bare
    Is twelve yellow apples lovely to see
    On one crab-tree.
    And on each twig of every tree in the dell
    Crystals both dark and bright of the the rain
    That begins again.

    Edward Thomas

  2. It's absolutely beautiful isn't it? I love the 'peering sun' - that's just how it seems after rain. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Now All Roads Lead to France, what an intriguing title in my personal opinion and just by looking at the cover and reading the title I said I must have this book since I love biographies!