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

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

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Edward Thomas, a prolific writer and literary critic who only turned to poetry in 1914 yet became one of the most renowned poets of his generation despite being killed in action less than three years later.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 389 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Faber and Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780571245987

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Most historians tend to refer to Edwardian England as the thirteen-year interlude between the Victorian era and the shots at Sarajevo which precipitated the First World War, an era of relative stability. However, there had been ominous rumblings from the new order of things during the two years or so prior to June 1914, particularly from a new spirit among the younger literary generation. The old Victorian writers, notably the uniquely terrible Poet Laureate Alfred Austin (doubtless a very good man, but an almost comically inept writer of verse) were dismissed as irredeemably old hat by the likes of Rupert Brooke and W.H. Davies. For a short time London was the poetry capital of the world, and the book opens with the opening in January 1913 of Harold Monro’s poetry bookshop in Bloomsbury, which rapidly became a magnet for the self-proclaimed Georgian poets and readers.

Edward Thomas, born in 1878, was part of the young fresh literary fraternity. Always ill at ease with himself, unhappily married with a wife and three children to support, he doggedly and unenthusiastically persevered with his writing career. Evidently able to turn his hand to almost any genre he pleased, he was a prolific book reviewer, biographer, commentator on country matters, and even occasional novelist, turning out potboilers at the drop of a hat for a pittance while struggling with depression. On one occasion he went out into the fields with a gun, briefly determined to take his own life, then failing and filled with a deep sense of shame as he returned home to his family. He lived apart from them for brief periods, enjoying platonic relationships with other women, although the marriage somehow endured.

Surprisingly, in view of the fact that today he is remembered as one of the foremost poets of his age, he came quite late to the field. He had been a close friend and ardent champion of Robert Frost, an American poet who had recently settled in England, and who suggested to Thomas that there was poetry of a kind in his prose. Thus encouraged, only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, Thomas found his true calling as a writer of verse himself. As one of his contemporaries put it, he would never again think of himself as a mere hack; never again would chronic depression overwhelm him; and he was not a different man, but the same man in another key.

As a married man of mature years, he was not obliged to enlist at first. Disgusted by what he saw as nationalistic nonsense, with all the British being portrayed as brave and the Germans totally beyond redemption, initially he had wanted nothing to do with the fighting. At length he changed his mind, ostensibly to take up arms on behalf of the country he loved, although admittedly partly as his slender income from journalism had ceased, and partly one suspects as a flight from his unhappy marriage. He joined the army, was promoted to Corporal and was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery, although he was evidently able to devote some of his army time to writing.

There is a sense of foreboding towards the end, as if he was stoically resigned to the fate which he knew would befall so many men in the trenches. Ironically, he spent a day under particularly heavy bombardment at the front in France on Easter Sunday 1917, and survived. A shell fell only yards from him, but turned out to be a dud. One day later he was killed, but without a mark on his body, after another shell passed so close to him that the blast of air literally caused heart failure. (Ironically by this time his inspiration Frost had returned to America, and would live to the ripe old age of 88.)

This biography looks at Thomas’s life in painstaking detail; his marriage and his friendships with others are all objectively portrayed. Yet as befits the first prose book written by a poet himself, about half of it is focused on those three all-important years when he became an extraordinarily prolific poet.

Hollis’s analysis of Thomas’s development and of the poems themselves is shrewd. He was not specifically a war poet in the sense that his contemporaries such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves or Wilfred Owen were, but more a writer who liked to describe his beloved countryside – before enlisting in the army, he had spent many a happy hour walking or cycling, especially in his beloved Cotswolds - and at the same time reveal something of his emotions. Nevertheless the conflict was bound to feature in his work sooner or later, and on Boxing Day 1915 he wrote an angry verse beginning This is no case of petty right or wrong, articulating his feelings about the armed struggle.

This book brings considerable sympathy and insight to the subject, and the result is a volume which will appeal equally to the lover of biography as well as of English literature.

Our thanks to Faber for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For further reading you might like to try:

For King and Country: Voices from the First World War by Brian MacArthur
The Reluctant Tommy: An Extraordinary Memoir of the First World War by Ronald Skirth and Duncan Barrett

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Buy Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis is in the Costa Prize 2011.

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