Edward Thomas is one of my favourite poets, and when I spotted a copy of Matthew Hollis’ Costa Award-winning biography, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas in a secondhand bookshop in Ypres last year, I could not resist picking it up. I had originally planned to read it over Remembrance Day but, as with a lot of my reading plans, this did not pan out.
Thomas was killed close to Arras, France, on the Easter Monday of 1917. The book’s very short preface touchingly ends in the following manner: ‘Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.’
In Now All Roads Lead to France, Hollis takes into account Thomas’ final five years, and ‘follows him from his beloved English countryside to the battlefield in France where he lost his life.’ Thomas’ friendship with American poet Robert Frost, who encouraged his writing, takes prevalence here, but we also learn about his upbringing, and strained, often absent, relationship with his three children and wife, Helen. We hear about their relationship from its earliest days.
Now All Roads Lead to France has been split into four distinct sections, all of which correspond to the places in which Thomas found himself – ‘Steep, 1913’, ‘Dymock, 1914’, ‘High Beech, 1915-16’, and ‘Arras, 1917’. Each also includes a map of the corresponding place.
Hollis begins by outlining the changing face of poetry, from its stuffy, conservative Victorianism, to something new and bold, culminating in the Georgians and the Imagists. The Georgians, writes Hollis, ‘looked to the local, the commonplace and the day-to-day, mistrusting grandiosity, philosophical enquiry or spiritual cant. Many held an attachment to the traditions of English Romantic verse… The style was innocent, intimate and direct; lyric in form, rhythmic in drive, it detailed short sketches of the natural world with larger meditations on the condition of the human heart… It employed whimsy in the place of calculation… its subject matter would be as everyday as a country lane or a village fence post.’ Imagism provided the rivalry to this Georgian movement. The Imagists employed ‘direct treatment, a pared language a relatively free verse… No sing-song rhythms or cloying subject matter, no abstractions, no ornament, no superfluous word; this was language stripped down to the bone…’. Hollis, a poet himself, is of course adept in discussing these poetic movements, and commenting upon their importance in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Hollis then goes on to introduce Thomas at a real point of crisis in his life. In 1913, he is thirty-four, with ‘desperately low’ spirits. A father of three, and married, his depressive episodes caused him to treat his family badly: ‘The only way he knew to break the cycle was to leave; sometimes his absences lasted days, at other times he could be gone for months. At these moments, even to drag himself home for a weekend was more than he could manage… [and] he convinced himself that they could be happy without him.’ At this point in time, Thomas was an influential critic of verse, ‘and his brilliant, uncompromising articles were the making of many young reputations and the breaking of others’. Although he had not yet embarked on his own poetic career, he had published over twenty works of prose, and ‘edited or introduced a dozen more’. Throughout, the author has woven in excerpts from correspondence and diaries – not just Thomas’, but Helen’s too.
Hollis paints a fascinating and detailed portrait of Thomas. I was particularly taken with the physical description which he crafts of the poet: ‘His expression was grave and detached, but his smile, when it came, could be coy, whimsical or proud. He rarely laughed… He spoke in a clear baritone, though often he kept his own counsel, and preferred the company of an individual to a group… He dressed in a suit of tawny tweed, which was old, sunned and slightly loose, and which, he liked to say, smelt of dog whenever it was damp. His jacket pockets were impossibly deep, and from these he would pull maps, apples and clay pipes in a procession as apparently endless as the scarves from a magician’s hand.’
Carol Ann Duffy writes that Now All Roads Lead to France ‘entranced’ and ‘inspired’ her, and moved her to tears. I certainly did not feel that emotional whilst reading Hollis’ biography, but there are scenes which strike such empathy and sympathy from the reader. Now All Roads Lead to France is the author’s first work of prose, but it feels so well-established, and reads as though it has been penned by a master. This biography is incredibly accessible, and brings together a wealth of research in a readable, measured prose style.
Throughout, Hollis is perceptive and aware of his subject, and charts both his writing process and his bouts of depression. The cultural detail woven through the book has been clearly set out, and adds another, often important, dimension to the narrative. Although Now All Roads Lead to France is not a strictly chronological biography, the structure works wonderfully, and the entirety feels well rounded. Illuminating and exemplary, Now All Roads Lead to France is one of the best biographies which I have read in a long time.