While there are several books that easily make me laugh out loud, or at least snigger, there are very few books that have made me cry. I’m afraid this was one of them.
The sad yet inevitable thing about most biographies is that the subject tends to be dead. All the way through you know it’s coming. It’s not like in a novel, where although there might be the threat of untimely death, there’s a reasonable chance the main character will survive.
Matthew Hollis announces the tragic death of Edward Thomas at the very beginning of Now All Roads Lead to France. It was on Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras offensive. The contents page reveals that the book stretches only from 1913 to 1917. We will be with Edward for just four years. His death looms over the book, making one dread the turning of the pages, wanting to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.
And yet, in opposition to this desire to put off the end, Hollis creates a page-turner. It’s astonishing really to think that a book about a poet and a few of his literary relationships – in particular his friendship with Robert Frost – can be so compelling, but it’s very hard to put it down. Hollis has cleverly split the prose up into short sections, moving between different characters and different places, holding our attention tightly. And thanks to his love of cliffhangers, literary life has never been so dramatic:
It was a debt that Frost feared he could never repay.
But he had already begun to repay it.
Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.
I promise, when you read it in context, it feels like edge of your seat stuff.
I wrote about Thomas’s most famous poem ‘Adlestrop’ last year. Hollis explains that Thomas’s favoured method of composition was reworking old prose material that he’d jotted in his notebooks. So it makes for an exciting moment when we read of his train journey in Summer, 1914. At 11.44 the train drew up at Oxford. Hollis quotes Thomas’s notes:
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view Stop only for a minute till signal is up.
Hollis is such a tease! It is impossible for anyone who’s heard of Edward Thomas to read these notes without holding their breath. This is it. This is the beginnings from which the magical poem will sprout, just a few months later. Yet Hollis doesn’t so much as mention ‘Adlestrop’ the poem here. He just skips on to the weather at Dymock. Needless to say, I read the next sixty pages very quickly, longing to get to the moment of composition itself.
It’s fascinating to see what Thomas has taken from his notes: ‘willow herb & meadowsweet’, the ‘hiss of engine letting off steam’, the man who’ clears his throat’. And, of course, the ‘chain of blackbirds songs’. Perhaps it’s even more fascinating to see what has been omitted. The ‘grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals’ don’t appear in the poem at all. Strange, as the image of shiny metals could make one think of war, which was very much on Thomas’s mind. Perhaps he wanted to expunge all notion of the war from the poem and preserve it as a final pastoral moment before the war began.
But I must stop all this gushing about ‘Adlestrop’. Robert Macfarlane points out in his nuanced review of Now All Roads Lead to France for the Guardian that the book ‘helps us to understand how much more there is to Thomas than willow-herb and meadowsweet and haycocks dry’. So I shall endeavour to leave the beauty of ‘Adlestrop’ behind.
‘Talk-walking’. Robert Frost’s word for Thomas’s and his habit of – you’ll never guess – walking and talking together. I love it! I am very fond of a long walk and talk. Not quite as long as theirs, which on occasion stretched, rather alarmingly, for twenty-five miles. I love the way Hollis captures the spirit of these walks. Yes there’s all the talking, the musing, the finding inspiration in nature and in each other’s company, but there are also the more human details:
Frost chuckling as Thomas havered over which route to take, Thomas grinning at another enquiry from Frost as to whether they had much further to go.
They seem little more than schoolboys – carefree and happy, free from the weight of the world. And yet, not unlike Thomas’s poetry, beneath the bucolic dream lurks a troubled reality.
Thomas’s havering over which route to take is symptomatic of the indecision with which he is constantly plagued. And, for Thomas, this indecision often manifests itself over his physical place – he is literally not sure which route to take. Should he live with his wife, or stay with his friends? Should they live in London or in Hampshire? Should he go to confront the gamekeeper or run away? And there is the vital decision which hovers over most of the book – should he fight in France or emigrate to America to live with Robert Frost? And, rather neatly, the poem at the heart of it, isn’t ‘Adlestrop’, but Frost’s even more famous ‘The Road Not Taken’. It is unfortunate to say the least that what Frost meant as a little tease about Thomas’s indecision was taken so seriously by him, even going so far as to hasten his decision to go to France. Of course it has also been taken seriously by so many since him.
Coincidentally, you might remember that just a month ago in South Africa I was reading André Brink’s A Fork in the Road. Now I might not have been too impressed with most of the book, but one thing that really stuck with me was what he wrote in his Foreword. He took up this image of a ‘fork in the road’ – or, in Frost’s words ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ – and suggested that rather than just taking one path, you can simultaneously travel both of them:
The traditional either/or is replaced with an incomparably more complex notion of both/and.
Brink quotes the South African artist William Kentridge, with his idea of a ‘highway of consciousness’:
Thought may follow one particular path, but there are all the other paths not taken, and all the other paths still being thought through, or not yet thought of, that language can latch on to at different stages as it goes.
It’s taken the example of Edward Thomas for me to fully understand this idea. For surely that’s exactly what happened to him.
Thomas enlisted in Summer 1915 and thus embarked upon his army career that would see him volunteer to serve at the Front. He chose the road to France, not America; the road of soldier, not poet.
Yet, apart from a short gap, all the while Thomas was in the army, he continued to write poetry. A nice detail in the book is a photograph of one of his poems composed in 1916. On the page it looks just like prose. Thomas disguised it so that none of the other soldiers would know he was a poet. But it certainly is poetry, with capital letters used to indicate new lines and paragraph breaks for new stanzas.
And, although Frost went through a frosty (sorry) patch and stopped responding to Thomas’s letters for a little while, Thomas continued to write to his American friend, desiring his company all the more. His final words to Frost were these:
You are among the unchanged things that I can not or dare not think of except in flashes.
His friendship with Frost is ‘unchanged’, their paths still close even though Thomas had chosen the path away from him. And, luckily for us, while physically treading the soldier’s road to France, Thomas still mentally trod the road of the poet.