Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France - the last years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis

Poets, I'm beginning to think, are the best biographers of other poets. There's Andrew Motion's Larkin and Keats; there's Ian Hamilton's Lowell; and now there's Matthew Hollis's Edward Thomas. What do we know of Edward Thomas? His poem "Adlestrop" is one of those rare moments of magic that seems embedded in the language; as one of that group of poets who fought, wrote about, and in Thomas's case, died during the Great War, his work has a wider currency than that of many other poets. Yet, beyond that I knew very little. English Literature has its highways and it byways; its main streets and country lanes; and in many ways the byways and country lanes are the more prosperous routes. Thomas is that strange beast, a minor poet in the good sense, in that his work is not extensive (less than 200 hundred poems), yet important to both readers and other poets. Hollis, is a book that is as subtle as its fascinating subject, is making a similar minor-key statement as Thomas did in his poetry: if there is propaganda here it is for a certain type of writing.

I'd often seen the febrile poetry scene of London before the war as the beginning of a battle for poetry's soul - the imagists to the left, the Georgians to the right. You could say, the future, versus the past. Yet poets tend to defy categorisation, however much they might congregate at the time. Thomas's closest poetic friends were Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost. If Thomas was breaking with the strictures of Victorian writing, its worth considering that he himself was a later Victorian, and that his poetry was written later in his too short life. As a biography Hollis grasps that mettle in the subtitle - the "last years" of Edward Thomas, for its the poetry, rather than the years as a jobbing hack, literary journalist and critic, that Thomas is read and remembered for. Critic turned poet; like poacher turned gamekeeper - or is the other way round?

In many ways Hollis gives us the "making of Edward Thomas". The facts of his death are stark; like all Great War stories the single death stalks the life, as an ending we cannot avoid or escape. But the "making" is more complex than that. Thomas was an honest - a too honest - critic, but as he wasn't writing poetry himself, the honesty was accepted, encouraged. His judgements, in Hollis's telling, seem pretty robust. Most critic-poets will develop an aesthetic that is shared between their critical and their artistic work - and Thomas is no exception. In meeting Robert Frost he finds a kindred spirit, who, similar to Thomas, was yet to find his place in history - who, like Eliot and Pound, had come to England to be published there, in order that he might then become published in America. Frost would win the Pulitzer, read at a President's inauguration and sell over a million books in his lifetime. That is all some way off. He has a family in tow, no real contacts in Britain, and has only just begun writing the poems that would make his reputation. The Gloucestershire poets that they are briefly part of, is a group of the great, the good and the mediocre - but aren't all groups the same? For all that Pound's "imagistes" were fascinating, the poetry, outside of Pound himself, and perhaps some of H.D., seems minor.

Hollis tells Thomas's story with great care, and no little style. His own prose is sharp, warm, and considerate, and the biography, though deeply researched from a vast array of original sources, almost reads like a novel - it last just over 300 pages, and I read it over a weekend. The "poems" are the key source, of course, and Hollis is meticulous in digging out their origins, in both events and - so often in Thomas - in previous prose accounts. At the background to all of this is a restless soul unhappy, but not quite regretting, in marriage, and fatherhood, in his hackery. Thomas's parents are distant figures - his father hated; and in turn, he finds himself unable to engage with his son. Torn between the countryside - the England that is his muse - and London, where literary life keeps drawing him in; there's something of the Leonard Bast about Thomas; caught in a young marriage that is a tie and a bind, even though (unlike Bast), it is solace. Neither rich, nor poor, a poor "middle class" worker, if you like, Thomas's plight seems emblematic of the times. Had he outlived the war, what would have become of him? He had hoped to join Frost in America; his wife would outlive him by half a century, but would they have lasted?

Thomas, a piscean, doesn't seem a tortured soul so much as a conflicted one. Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken", a poem that it is too easy to take too seriously (and a close reading highlights its playfulness) was taken too seriously by its subject, given to be Thomas. There is something fatalistic about his volunteering to become a soldier in his late 30s, something fatalistic in his marriage and the significant (but apparently not quite adulterous) relationships he would have with other women; perhaps something fatalistic in his poetry - that appears fully formed, a lifetime of reading the poets of his time, creating a clarity to his own writing. Such clarity, we feel is hard-won.

Reading this wonderful book as a general reader one is impressed by Hollis's portrayal of the pre-war world - whether its Harold Munro's poetry bookshop or the rural isolation of Gloucestershire. In both cases, Hollis's picture is a highly nuanced one, and the world of these educated men of letters is seen with more clarity than romance would usually allow.

But reading the book as a poet, one is struck forcefully by its timeliness. The poetry world of a century ago is not so dissimilar to that we live in today. It has its focal point(s), its anthologies, its plethora of publishers, its old guard and young Turks, its rivalries and competing schools, its literary funds, its critics and its gatekeepers. The most popular poets of the day have not necessarily lasted, whilst reputations, such as that of Thomas, are yet to be made. There is, then as now, a small public beyond the poets themselves. If Hollis has an agenda to make (and if so its on a very measured scale), it is that the poetry is what lasts. He makes the case for Thomas, (one echoed by Leavis, Larkin and others) that is fine as far as it goes - he's a major poet, albeit in a minor key. His aesthetic though, perhaps, that's more questionable. The short lyric poems, about England, about nature, war and, occasionally, love, are limited. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and H.D. were about to do more promising things. "The road not travelled" in English poetry is a wide one; and Edward Thomas, for all his essential qualities, appears to be the familiar route, that poets such as Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy (who graces the back cover) are keen to endorse. If we take anything from Frost's poem and his relationship with Thomas, it should be that such narrow routes are hard won, and, as importantly, aren't the only ones we should take.

1 comment:

seymourblogger said...

I'd love it if you would include a few of his poems.