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A British poet under the wing of Robert Frost

  • Tablet to the memory of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet of the countryside, who was killed in the great war in 1917, was unveiled at Berryfield Cottage, near, where he used to live. The cottage is in the heart of the country he enshrined in his writings. Memorials in other parts of the county were also unveiled. From left to right are: John Masefield, the Poet Laureate,his wife Constance Masefield; and Lord Mervyn Horder, examining chisels used by Edward Thomas, at Berryfield Cottage in Petersfield, England, on Oct. 2, 1937, after the unveiling of the tablet there. (AP Photo)

    Tablet to the memory of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet of the countryside, who was killed in the great war in 1917, was unveiled at Berryfield Cottage, near, where he used to live. The cottage is in the heart of the country he enshrined in his writings. Memorials in other parts of the county were also unveiled. From left to right are: John Masefield, the Poet Laureate,his wife Constance Masefield; and Lord Mervyn Horder, examining chisels used by Edward Thomas, at Berryfield Cottage in Petersfield, England, on Oct. 2, 1937, after the unveiling of the tablet there. (AP Photo)

  •  now all roads lead to france: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (388 pages, $29.95)

    now all roads lead to france: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (388 pages, $29.95)

  •  In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha

    In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha

  •  In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha

    In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha

  • Tablet to the memory of Edward Thomas, the Welsh poet of the countryside, who was killed in the great war in 1917, was unveiled at Berryfield Cottage, near, where he used to live. The cottage is in the heart of the country he enshrined in his writings. Memorials in other parts of the county were also unveiled. From left to right are: John Masefield, the Poet Laureate,his wife Constance Masefield; and Lord Mervyn Horder, examining chisels used by Edward Thomas, at Berryfield Cottage in Petersfield, England, on Oct. 2, 1937, after the unveiling of the tablet there. (AP Photo)
  •  now all roads lead to france: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis (388 pages, $29.95)
  •  In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha
  •  In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry tha

In 1912, before Robert Frost had published his first book of poetry, he sold his poultry farm in Derry and moved to England. There he befriended Edward Thomas, a freelance literary critic. Thomas grasped so well the ideas that drove Frost’s poetry that Frost suggested he write poetry himself. Thomas summoned the courage to heed this advice and discovered a rich, clear poetic voice of his own.

The story of this poetic friendship is at the heart of Now All Roads Lead to France, Matthew Hollis’s superb new book about Thomas’s last years. The title is the first line of a Thomas poem. In retrospect at least, it refers to the way the First World War sucked a generation of Britons into the mud and carnage of the Western Front. Thomas was among this legion, and it cost him his life.

Nearly a century later the tragedy of the Great War remains a powerful story. We see remnants of it in Downton Abbey and read about it in the novels of Pat Barker and the mysteries of Jacqueline Winspear. These works follow the tradition of memoirists Robert Graves and Vera Brittain, the martyr poet Wilfred Owen and many others.

Born in 1878 of English and Welsh origins, Thomas was four years Frost’s junior. He struggled throughout his adult life to feed his wife and family through a frenetic but ill-paid string of writing gigs. Mainly he wrote reviews and travelogues. He was depressive by nature and circumstance, and often absented himself his family.

In Hollis’s telling, it was Thomas’s wife, Helen, whose forbearance held their marriage together. She loved him through his dark churning spells and his close friendships with other women. She managed these relationships by inviting the other women into the family circle. In return for her faithfulness and her heroic care of their children through years of poverty, Thomas offered a cool, indifferent love.

Thomas and Frost became friends shortly after their first meeting during the autumn of 1913. They enjoyed each other’s company on many a long walk in the countryside.

Literary talk was the heart of their relationship, but they also shared adventures, including a scuffle with a bumptious gamekeeper that Frost nearly turned into a brawl.

Frost brought out his first two books, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, in 1913 and 1914. Although he had written many of the poems in New Hampshire, the books were first published in England.

Unlike many of his British contemporaries, Thomas understood and appreciated Frost’s methods and intentions as a poet.

But if Thomas was good for Frost, Frost was better for Thomas. Beginning on Dec. 3, 1914, something stunning came of their friendship. On that day Thomas discovered his gift. Suddenly, poems poured out of his pen day after day, as if his entire career as a hack writer had prepared him for this burst of creativity. Thomas was a changed man – he had found his art, and it warded off his self-doubts and defeatism.

Hollis’s account of this transformation is thrilling. He uses Thomas’s notebooks and prose writings to show how Thomas massaged phrases and lines and snatches of travel stories into strong narrative poems. Here are a few early lines that capture in verse the cadences and content of a scene from Thomas’s prose book In Pursuit of Spring:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet hail,

Had kept them quiet as primroses.

They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,

On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches

And while they fought if they remembered to fight:

So earnest were they to pack into that hour

Their unwilling hoard of song . . .

Frost had returned to New Hampshire by this time, taking Thomas’s son to live with him in Franconia for a time. But he had left his friend ideas about how to express himself as a poet. Frost’s chief gift to Thomas was the idea of doing two things at once in poetry, breaking the sound of actual speech over the formal rhythms of poetry. Frost called this the sound of sense.

He suggested that if you heard someone utter a sentence on the other side of a wall but could not make out the words, you could understand the sense of what was being said from the sentence’s sound.

Because Thomas understood and used this idea, some of his poems sound like Frost’s. Many do not. Here, for example, is “The Cherry Trees,” a war poem written in a variant of iambic pentameter with a traditional a-b-a-b rhyme scheme:

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,

On the old road where all that passed are dead,

Their petals strewing the grass as for a wedding

This early May morn when there is none to wed.

Thomas’s thinking about the war provides a good example of how his mind worked. Well into his 30s, he initially despised the blind patriotism that pushed the British to hate Germans and to expect a quick, glorious victory. By the time he enlisted and became an artillery officer, he did so in part out of a more nuanced patriotism of his own.

Hollis begins his book with a brief narrative of Thomas’s death at the front. The death was not the gory obliteration common to trench warfare during World War I. Thomas ducked under a shelter to light his pipe. “A shell exploded so near him that the blast of air stopped his heart,” Hollis writes. “He fell without a mark on his body.”

Starting a story with details about how it will end might seem foolhardy. In this case, it heightens the reader’s curiosity about how the literary man whose life they are discovering came to put himself in harm’s way.

It is a pleasure to be in the hands of an author who weaves together his subject’s personal life, his friendship with Frost, his short career as a poet and his war story with such skill and discernment.

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