Monday, 31 October 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France

The Last Years of Edward Thomas
by Matthew Hollis

I never took to Edward Thomas. His complicated syntax (‘The great diamonds / Of rain on the grassblades there is none to break’) and that blasted, twee, “cloudlets” in ‘Adlestrop’ kept me at arms length. Then last year my son had to study ‘At the Team’s Head-Brass’, which I thought a seriously good poem.

And now there is this marvellous book about the poet’s last years. Actually what it is about is the poet’s becoming a poet, which happened, pathetically, to happen in the final years of his life. One of this book’s pleasures is the unravelling of the poems by the poet-biographer. He handles them not roughly as a critic would, but tenderly, as a brother; nothing is asserted, but the intimacy between subject and writer gives the readings real power. We are dealing not with ‘text’, as the academics would have us do, but with a person. Which is not to say that Hollis merely uses the poems to explain the life. It would be more accurate to say that he uses the life to explain the poems. Very much as Thomas himself would have wanted, I think.

It is a good story, because there is a series of climaxes which the reader lusts towards: the meeting with Robert Frost, the first poem, joining the army, leaving England, and death. The first half swarms with interesting minor poets: Drinkwater, Abercrombie, Hodgson, Munro, Brooke; and occasional major ones: Yeats, Pound (major-minor perhaps), Eliot. In he second half Thomas becomes a poet, and seems to emerge into himself, while the other characters slip away. We are left with Eleanor Farjeon, an astoundingly beautiful woman (judging from the photograph) called Edna Clarke Hall, Frost, and Thomas's wife Helen.

Poets do not need to be likeable to be good, it should go without saying, and I think Hollis does like his subject, but I don’t much. He reminds me of my own self-obsession. The hero of the book is his wife Helen, who perhaps does not get quite the credit she deserves (that goes to Frost). Thomas spends a great deal of his time running away from her and from his children, on the grounds that he cannot bear the way he treats them; but the fact that Helen is always there must have given the often dithering Thomas some sense of stability. She emerges as steadfast, intelligent, full of loving-kindness.

I suppose it is impossible, when telling a story, not to make the end seem inevitable. Thomas’s death, then, reads like the only way in which this book could finish. A melancholy man, by turns self-pitying and self-recriminating, his becoming a poet brought him happiness. This was followed by his becoming a soldier, which also seemed to bring him some kind of content. His commitment to these jobs seemed enough in itself. The coming war and the war itself pervades the four years the book covers, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Thomas and the war were on a collision course.

One of the books Thomas read in the days before he died was a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, sent to him by Helen. My own father quoted Sonnet 129 in his own witnessing of war thirty years after Thomas: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”.

An enormous sob shook me as I read Frost’s condoling letter to Helen. Edward Thomas was indeed a poet, and I am prepared now to forgive him for those cloudlets, and read him properly. This is a simply terrific book.

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