Book Review: Now All Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis

Now all roads lead to FranceMost biographies begin at the beginning. Not this one. This one reads more like a novel – and the last few years in the life of much-loved poet Edward Thomas certainly provide an engaging plot. Hollis begins his tale with an introduction to Harold Munro’s Poetry Bookshop, which opened in London in 1913, providing a unique hub around which the poets of the day gathered… But Edward Thomas is not yet a poet at this stage in the story; he is a stressed poetry reviewer, churning out travel books and reviews, struggling to make ends meet…   

Hollis has produced a compelling read. There are significant moments that we can anticipate – Edward Thomas will meet the American poet Robert Frost, with whom he will develop a close friendship; he will begin, at last, to write his own poetry, encouraged by Frost; the First World War will begin, and Edward Thomas will go to France, never to return… But the suspense continues, page after page, so that Thomas and Frost do not even meet each other until a third of the way through the book.

One of the most moving passages describes the beginning of the First World War. We see Thomas and Frost “sitting together on an orchard stile” wondering whether “they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of Gloucestershire”. Hollis then lists the whereabouts of others, including Robert Graves “in his family’s holiday home in North Wales”, Rupert Brooke, who “woke from a nightmare about impending war to find that it had begun”, and Wilfred Owen, who was teaching in France.

poet Edward Thomas1

Photos of Edward Thomas from the archive at Cardiff University

It is sobering to realise that Edward Thomas’s first concern was for his income. He was right to be worried – the outbreak of war would change everything, including literature. But it would also bring about his own poetic breakthrough, and it’s this process – of a prose writer turning into a poet – which Hollis describes in fascinating detail.

Although Hollis reminds us that there were previous attempts at writing poetry, the momentous occasion occurs when (on 2nd November 1914) Thomas, who was “a perennial notetaker”, jotted down some notes about the White Horse Inn… but “on this day the jottings had a more conversational tone than usual… more like the patterns of speech”. Two days later, he began to turn these notes into a description, in prose. Shortly afterwards, he changed tack, and transformed the prose into a poem.

Hollis describes the composition process almost in real time, as if we are hearing Thomas’s thoughts as he writes, line by line. We see the crossings out and the changes of mind, the struggle to search for an appropriate ending, and the final typing up on 3rd December. Then comes a rush of poem after poem, mixed up with Thomas’s anxieties and self-conscious criticism.

The narrative continues towards the inevitable end, and along the way we are given insight after insight into the mind of a writer who wrestled with his conscience, hating the war and the anti-German propaganda, yet determined, in the end, to enlist and fight for his country. But we also see the creation of a new kind of poetry – overshadowed by the modernists who came later, yet modern and profound in its own quiet way – verse which used the language and rhythms of ordinary people in everyday situations: “the sound of sense”.

Edward Thomas cannot have imagined that, a century after his death, his poems would be read all over the world and studied in schools and universities. Cardiff University holds a collection of his notebooks, letters and photographs, as well as original manuscripts of some of the poems. To mark this centenary, I’m organising a series of events this April, on behalf of the University’s Special Collections and Archives, supported by Literature Wales. I’ll also be posting daily poetry prompts on Twitter and on my Facebook page, as part of National Poetry Writing Month.

Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis is published by Faber and Faber.

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Yes. I remember Adlestrop: Celebrating the Influence of Edward Thomas on Contemporary Poetry

Friday 21st April 7.30pm at Little Man Coffee Company (free entry)

An evening of poetry featuring Lucy Newlyn, Jonathan Edwards and Glyn Edwards, as well as an open mic

Poets Lucy Newlyn Glyn Edwards Jonathan Edwards

Poets Glyn Edwards, Lucy Newlyn and Jonathan Edwards will be reading at the event on 21st April

See more details of the event here.