Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

November 20, 2012

Why is it that we’re all so keen on Edward Thomas all of a sudden? What is it about this poet of a hundred years ago that resonates with us so powerfully today?

I happen to love Edward Thomas’s poetry. I read ‘Adlestrop’ at school, like everyone else, but thanks to Matthew Hollis’s new collection of his Selected Poems last year (see this post), then I read many more. And as my interest in Thomas’s poetry grew, so, it seems, did everyone else’s. Matthew Hollis wrote an award-winning biography of Thomas, which concentrated on his friendship with Robert Frost, Now All Roads Lead to France (see this post). This was swiftly followed by Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful The Old Ways (see this), in which the spirit of Edward Thomas lingers like a watchful ghost. And now we have Nick Dear’s new play at the Almeida. What is it that has made so many of us now, suddenly, at once, so fascinated by Edward Thomas?

The first thing one might suspect is that they’re all in on it together. It’s quite nice to picture Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear going for long walks together up Shoulder of Mutton hill, puffing on clay pipes, listening out for larks, tramping in the poet’s footsteps and being mutually inspired to write their books. But the surprising thing is that each of them says they wrote their respective books about Edward Thomas independent of one another. Indeed Nick Dear talks a little about this on Front Row in an illuminating little interview – about 8 minutes in.

Perhaps these writers were inspired by a conference about Edward Thomas that took place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 2005. From this conference came yet another lovely book, Branch Lines, filled with the responses of contemporary poets to Thomas. But none of our writers Hollis, Macfarlane or Dear have contributed to the book. Perhaps this book is another coincidence, a few years ahead of the zeitgeist.

I pondered this very question – why all this Edward Thomas now? – on Twitter (that home of articulate, complex pontifications) and reviewer Wayne Gooderham, who wrote this excellent blog, said that maybe it was because we are coming up to the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. Good point – and actually I’m rather ashamed that it hadn’t crossed my mind – but then I haven’t noticed the same growth of interest in our other war poets. Where are all the new books on Sassoon, Owen and Brooke? In any case, was Edward Thomas really a war poet? Yes, he wrote at the time of the War, and the War is there in the shadows of his poetry, but really his poetry is about the land – England not Belgium. (I loved the way this came across in the set of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, with its floor of dark earth, even if it did give rise to a surprised titter when Thomas’s wife Helen dug up some potatoes from it.) And beyond this, as Macfarlane points out, his true subjects are ‘disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness’.

I think there must be something else pulling us towards Edward Thomas.

In his Foreword to Branch Lines, Andrew Motion writes of the appeal of ‘the story of Thomas’s arduous journey towards poetry’:

not simply the pathos of his frustration in prose, but the patient struggle of his efforts to purify his style and “wring all the necks of my rhetoric” describes a process that most poets they undertake (on a smaller scale) every time they pick up a pen to write.

For those of us who aren’t poets, let’s not dismiss so quickly ‘the pathos of his frustration in prose’. All the books make it clear that Edward Thomas only became a poet at the very end of his short life; he didn’t even live to see one of his poems in print under his own name, rather than his pen name Edward Eastaway. As he says in The Dark Earth: ‘Did anyone ever begin at thirty-six in the shade?’ Until this turning point, this late out-pouring of poetry, sparked largely by his encouraging and inspiring friendship with Robert Frost, Thomas was really a hack, scraping together a living by reviewing, clutching at his advances for prose works which he belted out, thousands of words a week – as Muriel Spark put it several years later and about someone else, he was a ‘pisseur de copie’.

And Thomas was deeply unhappy with his existence as a hack. His choice to quit the civil service and earn his living by his pen plunged his family into dreadful poverty. He felt he ‘ruined’ Helen and was thoroughly horrid to her. Take this from The Dark Earth, the book which best captures his cruelty:

I’m sick of everything. Sick of you, sick of the children, whom I know really despise me, although they couldn’t despise me as much as I despise myself for not putting an end to the wretched business! – Stop that! I don’t want you fussing around me. I know what I am, I know what I’ve done to you. Go away.

Thomas is frustrated, dissatisfied, miserable. He suffers from depressive visions of ‘the other man’. But he finds relief – indeed, at times ecstatic happiness – from walking for miles through the countryside, especially in the company of Frost. And he will eventually succeed in his struggle to become a poet.

It’s a potent story, an appealing myth. Of course many of us are unhappy with the daily grind of our lives, and feel a little like frustrated poets – or at least frustrated somethings – suffocated by the 9-5 slog of work. This has always been the case, but recently, with the recession, everything’s been shaken up. People have been made redundant; we are at a near-record high of part-time work, as opposed to full-time. For many people, the decision to leave their jobs, to quit the 9-5 and start again has been made for them. Admittedly, for most people this is awful and they want to find full-time employment again as soon as possible, but for some, perhaps Edward Thomas is a kind of lodestar. Now is the time to write that poem, or novel, or whatever it is that you’ve been meaning to do forever. Now is the time to start, even though you’re thirty-six in the shade. Perhaps we are becoming a nation of poets rather than shopkeepers.

In any case, The Dark Earth left me fervently hoping that if we do become a nation of poets, we aren’t all as perfectly horrid as Edward Thomas! While Matthew Hollis and Robert Macfarlane both make it clear that he was a difficult, unhappy man, and Hollis gives over quite a bit of space to his tricky marriage, perhaps the authors are too much under the spell of Thomas’s wonderful poetry to condemn his behaviour towards his wife.

Seeing it acted out before you, it is impossible to watch Edward’s exchanges with Helen without flinching at his cruelty, wincing at the disparity between his carelessness and her exhausted tending to him.

The virtue of The Dark Earth’s use of multiple perspectives, rather than just one narrator, is that Helen’s voice comes through loud and clear. She loves Edward Thomas in an all-encompassing self-sacrificing passion, and I couldn’t help but think what might have become of her if she hadn’t sacrificed herself so entirely. What happened to the bright young Helen that she remembered, who read the literature brought to her by her lover? Now, as she says when she opens the play, she hasn’t the time to read – she’s too busy looking after Edward and the children.

My understanding is that Helen Thomas has been rather dismissed by the literary establishment. Her books about her relationship with Edward Thomas are out of print, indeed at one point they were banned in Boston. There is a brilliant scene in The Dark Earth which shows Frost returning to England many years later and being very rude to Helen. He says that he has removed his dedication to her in his book of poetry because she ‘insulted …[the] manhood’ of Thomas in her book. Whereas in the past, opinion would have sided with Frost, such is the power of the play, that we side with Helen.

If our collective obsession with Edward Thomas is set to continue, perhaps a publisher will see fit to bring Helen Thomas’s two much maligned books about her husband back into print. Unlike Robert Frost, I for one would be fascinated to read them.

Now All Roads Lead to France

February 15, 2012

It is somewhat peculiar to be only half-way through February, yet already to have read what will be my best book of the year.

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.

Or:

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.