- - Friday, December 28, 2012

By Matthew Hollis
W.W. Norton, $29.95, 388 pages, illustrated

Edited by Judy Kendall
River North/IPG, $21.95245 pages

By no means the least talented of those killed in World War I, Edward Thomas has always been the odd man out among “war poets.” Perhaps this is because his verse did not for the most part deal with the conflict that ended his life abruptly with a shell blast in April 1917. Unlike verse by Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, it does not rail at the furies of war or its horrors and so does not fit into the general pattern of protest literature about that war. Yet the shadow of the horrors that were consuming his nation and indeed much of the world could not but be reflected in his poems, especially because he felt an increasingly ineluctable pull to join up himself.

Thomas biographer Matthew Hollis, himself a prize-winning poet, quotes near the end of his deeply sympathetic, intuitive book about the last five years of Thomas‘ life the penciled lines written on the last pages of his war diary:

“Where any turn may lead to Heaven/Or any corner may hide Hell/Roads shining like river up hill after rain.”

As his great friend Robert Frost wrote: “His poetry is so very brave — so unconsciously brave. He didn’t think of it for a moment as war poetry, though that is what it is. It ought to be called Roads to France.”

Brave is certainly the word for Edward Thomas, who volunteered for military service although he already was nearing the end of his 30s and was, as a married man with three children, exempt from conscription. While under no illusions as to the war or what serving in it would mean for him, he was profoundly moved by Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Mr. Hollis states convincingly that it would “dramatically force Thomas’s hand” as he struggled with the decision to enlist. Ironically, Frost, who, as Mr. Hollis points out, rejected the work as a morality tale and maintained that it was “a tricky poem — very tricky,” was urging a very different course on Thomas: to bring his family and join the Frosts in America.

So it must have been deeply painful to Frost that the road taken by his friend turned out indeed to have “made all the difference,” a literally fatal one. Thomas‘ thinking, though, is reflected in his poem that gives Mr. Hollis‘ book its title:

“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.”

To take nothing away from Owen’s “My subject is war the poetry is in the pity,” this is in its own way equally affecting in its staunchness and integrity.

If Frost loomed largest in Thomas‘ life and work, the English poet to whom he probably was closest was Walter de la Mare. Writing to him in August 1914 from Hertfordshire, where the Thomases and Frosts were staying, Thomas expressed this in an image as moving as it is succinct: “We wish you were at the other corner of the triangle, & that an equilateral one.” Now eclipsed, de la Mare was in his time an important figure in English literature, and Mr. Hollis shows how grateful Thomas was for his friendship. To learn even more about this relationship, readers can turn to “Poet to Poet,” a well-edited edition of the letters Thomas wrote de la Mare. As the introduction states so poignantly:

“The letters are touching, gentle and heart-searching. They open a window into the lives and thoughts of two highly talented poets and offer an opportunity to witness the magic, mystery, and sensitive openness with which they both lived. It is a privilege to eavesdrop on these two writers’ honest and sometimes difficult conversations.”

Reading these letters leaves one realizing yet again the measure of Thomas‘ prodigious talent and of the man himself. The contrast of his life’s abrupt termination with de la Mare’s petering out in a long life loaded with honors reminds us again of the terrible multiplicity of World War I’s costs.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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