Now All Roads Lead to France

In the winter of 1913, Edward Thomas’s ( life was drifting. He was a 34-year-old father of three stuck in an unsatisfying marriage. He had produced 20 books of biography and criticism, and more than 1,500 book reviews, most at high speed. Though The Times had described him as ‘the man with the keys to the Paradise of English poetry’, his emotional and artistic energies had been drained by criticising other people’s work.

There was little indication, at this point, that within four years Thomas would produce a book of poems that F R Leavis later judged as being of a ‘very rare order’; nor that Ted Hughes would describe him as ‘the father of us all’. Matthew Hollis’s superb biography focuses on what transformed a talented journalist into one of the most highly regarded nature poets of the 20th century.

He was inspired by his remarkable friendship with the American poet Robert Frost ( Frost had moved to England in 1912 at the age of 38 and within two years had published his first two collections. When Thomas and Frost met in the Gloucestershire village of Little Iddens in the spring of 1914 they found their sensibilities matched perfectly. As Hollis writes: ‘Frost delighted in his friend’s knowledge of wild flowers and bird calls, while Thomas could listen all day to his companion speak about verse; and they found a meeting of minds on their ideas about poetry: on speech rhythms and sound-sense, on uncluttered diction, on cadence and the ear’. Thomas’s friendship with Frost was as significant in its way as T. S. Eliot’s with Ezra Pound. Thomas reviewed Frost’s second book, North of Boston, in no fewer than three separate publications. Each time he managed to find something new to praise.

His friend’s work stirred something within Thomas. He was a shy man prone to depression, described by Pound as having ‘no vinegar in his veins’. When he was asked by his friend Eleanor Farjeon whether he had ever thought to write poetry, his answer was a grim joke: ‘I couldn’t write a poem to save my life’. But it was poetry that saved him – and then, indirectly, led to his death.

In the book’s most thrilling sequence, Hollis describes Thomas sitting in his favourite Hampshire inn in autumn 1914, writing some resonant phrases in his notebook: ‘I could wring the old girl’s neck/That put it here/A public house’. That wasn’t quite right, though, and over the next days he recast the lines and added more before completing the 115-line ‘Up in the Wind’. Hollis, a poet himself, is well attuned to how verse is composed. As important as inspiration is the form the poet uses to propel his words. Under the influence of Frost, Thomas found his form in a variable blank verse and loose iambic pentameter. Within two weeks he had written 10 poems.

By this time war had broken out. Thomas, who had a lifelong fear of being thought a coward, prevaricated over whether to sign up or go to America. Frost wrote what would become his most famous poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in response to Thomas’s dilemma. The poem is often read as a Kiplingesque fable about taking charge of your destiny; but as Frost said, ‘It’s a tricky poem – very tricky’. The voice that ‘shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence’, about the paths not taken, was supposed to be a gentle dig at his friend’s inability to make up his mind. But Thomas took the poem very seriously: it forced his hand, and he signed up. It also provoked this poetic response:


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 roar of towns

And their brief multitude.


His transformation from literary hack to poet and soldier was the making of Edward Thomas. In a letter from the front he declared that he had never been happier than fighting in the trenches. On Easter Monday 1917, he was killed by a shell in Arras. In October his Poems was published. The book was dedicated to Robert Frost.


388 pages in W.W. Norton & Co. paperback edition

ISBN 978-0393089073

Edward Thomas




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