Two Roads, Two Poets: The Friendship of Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Edward ThomasThe first thing that struck me about Edward Thomas, when I began to research his life and work, was his close bond with the American poet Robert Frost. Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ was actually written for Edward Thomas, during a period of indecision. It was 1915, and Frost himself had returned to the US, whilst Thomas was intending to follow him there. But the First World War was still raging, and Thomas’s conscience held him back. He did not want to enlist but, as he explained in a letter to his friend, “hardly a day passes without my thinking I should.”   

Frost’s poem opens with the line “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” referring to the frequent woodland walks taken by the two friends during their time together in Dymock, the previous summer. Matthew Hollis, in his biography of Thomas, explains that Frost’s poem “has been understood by some as an emblem of individual choice and self-reliance, a moral tale in which the traveller takes responsibility for their own destiny”. He goes on to argue that “it was never intended to be read as such by Frost, who was well aware of the playful ironies contained within it”, and that it “carried a more personal message” to Thomas, who actually “took the ‘tease’ badly” and “felt the poem to be a rebuke”. It was not long after receiving this poem from his friend, that Thomas decided to enlist.

Thomas’s own poem, ‘The sun used to shine’ refers, in a similar way, to the walks that the two friends took in that summer of 1914. He sent a handwritten copy of it to Eleanor Farjeon, which is now held in Cardiff University’s archive. Written in May 1916, this poem harks back to those days of carefree friendship, whilst acknowledging the present danger of war, now much more real to him than it had been then.

poem the sun used to shine

The original handwritten manuscripts of some of Edward Thomas’s poems are held in the archive at Cardiff University, alongside letters, notebooks and objects related to him and his family.

I find it amusing to read the words “We never disagreed / Which gate to rest on”, as I imagine the two of them ambling along, allowing themselves to pick their route without much thought or care, contrary to Frost’s imposing lines in his own poem,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I like to think that, by the time he wrote ‘The sun used to shine’, perhaps Edward Thomas was more at ease with his decision to fight in the war, accepting it as fate, rather than a matter of personal choice. In his poem, war becomes inevitable, simply another part of nature with its cycle of birth and death, just as the colour of the “crocuses” remind him of “sunless Hades fields” and the “dark betonies” take on the appearance of sentries.

It is a privilege, and almost an intrusion, to read the private letters between these two men. Yet there is something almost addictive about the experience. Their friendship was invaluable in unlocking Thomas’s creativity, without which perhaps he would never have turned from prose to poetry, and we might never have ended up with some of the most significant and influential verse in the English language.

a letter from Robert Frost to Edward Thomas

A letter from Robert Frost to Edward Thomas, also held in Cardiff University’s archive

To mark the centenary of his death (9th April 1917) Cardiff University have a whole series of events running, including: