Interview: Matthew Hollis, author of All Roads Lead to France

Edwrad Thomas, pictured circa 1905. Picture: Getty
Edwrad Thomas, pictured circa 1905. Picture: Getty
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EDWARD Thomas started writing poetry in 1914, and died just three years later at the front. Biographer Matthew Hollis tells DAVID ROBINSON the story of how he found his voice

WHEN Edward Thomas met Robert Frost in London in October 1913, there was no early indication that it meant anything to either man. Frost was a little-known American poet, Thomas an overworked Grub Street hack suffering from what we would now call clinical depression, a poetry critic who didn’t write poetry himself. Neither of them mentioned their meeting in diaries or letters to friends. Yet over tea and amid the fug of pipe smoke in an upper room at the St George’s Café, St Martin’s Lane, a friendship began that lit up 20th-century poetry.

Matthew Hollis, author of All Roads Lead to France. Picture: Adrian Lourie

Matthew Hollis, author of All Roads Lead to France. Picture: Adrian Lourie

It’s this friendship that is the subject of Matthew Hollis’s outstanding book, Now All Roads Lead to France, about which he will be talking to our own Joyce McMillan at the StAnza poetry festival in a fortnight’s time. Without Thomas’s passionate advocacy of Frost’s first collection, North of Boston – he wrote no fewer than three separate reviews, hailing it in one as “one of the most revolutionary books of modern times” – it might well have sunk without trace; without the American persuading Thomas to turn to poetry, we would have been denied the voice of one of the most influential English poets of the last century.

It is hard, verging on impossible, to imagine the story of Thomas’s final four years, from 1913 to his death at the front on Easter Monday, 1917 being any better told than in Hollis’s Costa Award-winning account. A fine poet himself, he shows, both from source material and his own intuitive understanding, how Thomas reached towards a new kind of poetry that was less embroidered and more natural-sounding than that of his contemporaries. But he also has a historian’s ability to bring the past to life through telling details and a sense of place so acute that even people like me who have never had any particular urge to visit Hampshire and Gloucestershire now find themselves itching to visit, a century on, the villages where the two poets lived.

When we meet, at the Bloomsbury offices of Faber – where for the last decade he has worked as a poetry editor – Hollis tells me that he has just got back from Gloucestershire. He had been making a short film about Frost and Thomas’s time living near Dymock, on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border. In 1914, in cottages three meadows apart, they weren’t the only poets living there: a number of others had already set up what was in effect a small poets’ colony. Lascelles Abercrombie and Wilfred Gibson had already established a small publishing business there, but there was a steady stream of other visiting poets, including Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, and WH Davies.

“The Dymock poets”, posterity calls them, and perhaps it’s only because of posterity that we pay them any attention. Because in hindsight, there is something achingly idyllic about their friendship. This side of the guns of August, we know it can’t last. We know what will happen in the mud of Flanders. We know that Brooke, “the handsomest man in England”, will die within a year, that Thomas himself will be killed within three, and hundreds of thousands soon be memorialised in stone in all the shires of Britain. But right now, it’s June 1914, and Thomas is on his way to see his Dymock friends.

One of them was Lascelles Abercrombie, a kindly dreamer who is irrelevant to this story except for this glimpse Rupert Brooke gave of his cottage near the village – a cottage where Robert Frost and his family would later live: “Abercrombie’s is the most beautiful you can imagine: black-beamed & rose-covered. And a porch where one drinks great mugs of cider & looks at fields of poppies in the corn. A life that makes London a foolish affair.” On this particular June day Thomas has left London to see his Gloucestershire friends when his train stops at a small station in Oxfordshire. It’s 80F in the shade, just after noon. This is how he writes it up in his notebook: “Through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 1245 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam – Stop for only a minute till signal is up.” Six months later, this will become his most famous poem:

Yes. I remember Adelstrop -

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No-one left and no-one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adelstrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb and grass,

And meadowsweet and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

“Stop for a only minute till signal is up,” he’d written in his journal. In hindsight, that’s what Dymock was too in that last midsummer of peace: an unexpected halting-place, a short paradisial break in the geopolitical gloom, an accidental glimmer of joy. The previous month, Thomas had made his first visit to Dymock to call on Frost. They walked and talked (“talks-walking” they called it) for miles, Frost delighting in his new friend’s knowledge of the natural world, Thomas entranced by the American’s theories about a new poetry based on the rhythms and cadences of speech. Thomas had given his friend a copy of his latest book, The Pursuit of Spring; Frost had read it and loved it: even in prose, he said, Thomas was a poet. So why, he asked, didn’t he forget prose and write poetry?

He doesn’t – at least not immediately. June turns into July, July turns into August 1914. Rupert Brooke is reading at the Poetry Bookshop in London (Thomas and Frost had both been there at its opening in the previous year, but they didn’t know each other then) the day Austria declares war on Serbia. How many people realised then that was the end of their world? Hardly any, no more than Frost and Thomas, sitting together on a gate near Dymock in August and idly speculating on whether they would be able to hear the sound of the artillery barrages in France, could imagine what the future would bring.

Thomas is still not writing poetry in November, when he returns to see Frost and his family near Dymock. It’s his sixth visit since April. The two men find themselves talks-walking in a wood when they are confronted by a gamekeeper, who tells them to clear out. Frost stands his ground and insists he has permission to walk there, but the gamekeeper gets his gun and Thomas doesn’t back him up. For the rest of his life, Thomas blames himself. He has been tested and found wanting: a coward. Frost goes back to America in February 1915, and in June sends Thomas a poem he’s just written. Maybe it is gently mocking Thomas’s inability to make up his mind about whether or not to enlist, but to Thomas it echoes their encounter with the gamekeeper. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” it famously begins, though its title – “The Road Not Taken” – is what has sunk deepest into the language.

Thomas soon enlists in the Artists Rifles and in January 1917, having enlisted and about to be sent off to the front, Thomas pens this response to Frost:

Now all roads lead to France

And heavy is the tread

Of the living, but the dead

Returning lightly dance

Whatever the road bring

To me or take from me,

They keep me company

With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude

Of the loops over the downs

Hushing the road or towns

And their brief multitude

All of which bring me, on an even longer loop across the years, back to a ground-floor meeting room at Faber, and a soft-spoken, charming poetry editor who only the previous weekend had walked past the rubble of the Edwardian gamekeeper’s cottage. In 1914, the gamekeeper had emerged from its front door pointing his shotgun at the two poets. It wasn’t any kind of poetic metaphor for war: that had started three months earlier.

“Unlike Sassoon and Owen,” Hollis points out, “Thomas’s path through the war wasn’t from patriotism towards disillusion. At the start, he couldn’t make up his own mind. He had no interest in it. Politically, he was not a nationalist, he fell out with his father for not saying that Germans were terrible people. When asked why he was going to war, he reached down, sifted soil through his fingers, and said, ‘For this’. Because there was something about the hills, the landscape, and also the way of life it supported that interested him.”

The fascination for a biographer, he adds, is to see his subject discovering his potential almost at the very moment that his world implodes.

“It’s the story of a friendship that directed the course of poetry on two continents, but it is about more than that. For Thomas, poetry put in the final pieces that his life had been building up to. Part of his depression before then lay in the fact that he was working as a hack writer – “burning the candle at three ends”, as he liked to say of himself – and working to feed his family but not doing something that would be a calling worthy of his talents.

“So it’s a story about finding another level within ourselves – the clearest and most memorable expression of our life and our world. That’s what starts happening to Thomas when he starts to write poetry.”

And what of that poetry, those 140 poems that Edward Thomas wrote in his two-year life as a poet? As a poetry editor, it is part of Hollis’s job to try to see into the creative minds of the poets Faber publish, sometimes questioning whether they really need a line they might have become wedded to. As he looks at Thomas’s poetry with that editor’s rigour, what does he see in it that can account for the way it has lasted?

If he had edited Thomas, he concedes, reluctantly, that he would have suggested more concision in his first poem, “Up In The Air” – essentially a reworking of an essay about a remote country pub near where he lived in Hampshire. But then, he was just starting out, finding his range, still too thirled to prose.

“Let’s look at this one instead,” says Hollis, opening up his copy of Thomas’s Selected Poems (which he also edited) at “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)”. He reads it aloud softly:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood

This Eastertide call into mind the men,

Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again

He looks up. “It’s difficult to read, isn’t it? But that twisting and turning somehow forces those lines into your brain. It’s not a poem that’s in a glass case that we stand around and admire: here he’s got the reader thinking in his own thought processes, with all of these interior phrasings and these odd sub-clauses and knotty bits of syntax.

“It doesn’t feel like a poem that was written 100 years ago. It feels as though it is in the poet’s mind now. Because Thomas believed, as Frost did, that ‘Man will not easily write better than he can speak, when some matter has touched him deeply.’

“There is a cadence in the way we speak, and that’s the kind of poetry that interests Thomas. It was unusual at the time, but it is one of the strands that made both Thomas and Frost the kind of poets other, later, poets looked up to. That, and a very real interaction with the modern world, make his poems feel very modern.”

There have been moments in the three-and-a-half years he spent writing about Thomas, he says, when his world and ours came similarly close.

“The most touching thing to see was the tiny diary he carried with him. It has perforations through the spine, and they are thought to have come from the blast of air that killed him, sucking the air from his lungs and stopping his heart – even though there wasn’t a mark on his body.” But the landscape hasn’t changed much – go to his study in Hampshire and the 60-mile view is still the same, looking south to Petersfield and Southampton beyond.”

In some ways elegaicism doesn’t suit Thomas. He was, for much of his life, a gloomy drudge, scrabbling to do work he didn’t like because of pressure of money. Despite having a loving wife and three small children, he treated them badly.

But clinical depression can do that to a man – and worse: on the day before he met Frost he had talked seriously with his friend Walter de la Mare, and for the only time in his life, about committing suicide. He had bought something – whether a revolver or a bottle of poison we don’t know, but he referred to it as “my Saviour” – to help him do this.

Of course, he didn’t, and the bravery of persistence is another key element of the story one Hollis highlights by choosing a quote from Thomas’s essay collection Light and Twilight as an epigraph: “and I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey.” All the same, Dymock, Thomas’s friendship with Frost, and that blaze of self-discovery that the summer of 1914 represents, haunts this profoundly moving book. Like Adelstrop itself, it was a moment of grace that, no matter how brief and accidental, illuminated his life – and, though his poetry and Matthew Hollis’s masterful biography, ours too.

• Matthew Hollis will talk to Joyce McMillan about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews at 3:30pm on Saturday 17 March (£6/£4) and reading his own poetry at The Green Room, St Leonards Quad, South Street (£5/£34) at 11:30am in the StAnza Festival. Now All Roads Lead to France is in paperback by Faber, priced £9.99.