It is commonly thought that the greatest British poet of the last century was a short-lived Welshman with the last name of Thomas. But his first name has slowly but surely morphed from Dylan to Edward.
As admirable as Dylan Thomas' poetry is, it is a kind of wonderful dead end and has not produced a school of imitators – at least not a school of successful imitators.
Edward Thomas, on the other hand, has quietly influenced many of the best poets in England and America, even though he didn't start writing poetry until he was 36 and he died in the Great War when he was 39. The poet Philip Larkin, when editing the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, allowed Thomas as many poems as T.S. Eliot. And Ted Hughes said, "He is the father of us all." Robert Frost called Thomas, "my only true brother." The poet, Matthew Hollis, has made a convincing case for Edward Thomas' poetry with this new literary biography. As an added bonus it provides an insightful study of the turning point in Robert Frost's career as a poet.
For many years the normal assumption was that Thomas could have been a great poet if he had lived longer or that he borrowed too heavily from Frost. But the truth is Thomas managed in a few years without much encouragement to write some of the greatest poems in a generation that included Ezra Pound, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Frost and many others. His war poems are remarkable in that they almost never mention war itself but it resonates in every word.
At the Iowa Poetry Workshop in the '60s students were required to buy two anthologies. They were said to contain most of the great English-speaking writers born after World War I. Not a single poet was in both anthologies. One volume contained the academic Haves and the other the non-academic Have-nots.
Poetry was in a comparable schizophrenic state in England before the Great War. On one side were the mild-mannered Georgian poets and on the other the experimental Imagists led by Ezra Pound. They all frequented Harold Munro's "Poetry Bookshop" in London near the British Museum.
Into this vortex stepped two writers. One was a hack prose writer weighted down by a growing family and the other was a 38-year-old failed poet and apple farmer from New England. By not attaching themselves to either of these schools of poetry, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost changed poetry.
Thomas was a good student. He went to Cambridge and would have graduated with a top degree that would have set him up for a privileged life except that he'd begun a family as an undergraduate – which was unusual then. The exigencies of that relationship resulted in his receiving a lesser degree. This doomed him to a life of hack writing or teaching. Standing in front of students day after day didn't appeal to him so he wrote book reviews and books about country roads and lives of the poets. He was an especially acute reviewer and his opinions were respected. He knew all the poets of the day. But the only poet who had an effect on him was Frost.
He and Frost were both developing similar theories about what was wrong with modern poetry and what was needed to fix it – Frost as a poet and Thomas as a critic. Frost called his theory "sound of sense" and Thomas called his "thought moments." Both complained that the printed page had done serious damage to poetry. Poetry was written too much for the eye and not enough for the ear. Thomas and Frost sought to capture the human voice unencumbered by poetic rhetoric.
There was also the issue of concentration. It was especially important to Thomas during his "thought moments." He once wrote in one of his reviews of Georgian poetry that, "Unless a man write with his whole nature concentrating upon his subject he is unlikely to take hold of another man."
Thomas looked elsewhere for his models. He pointed out that Robert Burns' verse "is as near to the music as nonsense could be, and yet it is perfect sense." He also notes the same strengths in Sydney Lanier's poetry using natural speech. Most of the poetry of his age was, "Betray [ed] if read aloud … by a lack of natural expressive rhythm."
Frost had gambled everything by coming to England. He was 38. He had a large family and no income. He'd burnt his bridges and sold his property and his possessions in the United States to go to England, hoping to get a book published there and return to the States with that stamp of approval. The trip to England and his many conversations with Thomas were pivotal moments for Frost. Some of his best like "Mending Wall," "Home Burial" and "The Pasture" were written in England, not New England.
His book, "North of Boston," was published partly with the help of Ezra Pound, but it still needed good reviews. Two unsigned reviews appeared and had some good things to say: "[they] capture and hold within metrical patterns the very tones of speech;" "The woof of familiar metre crossed constantly by the warf of instinctive cadences." But the prevailing opinion was that readers found Frost's descriptions "Unsophisticated and artless." Frost's future looked dim.
Then Edward Thomas, whose opinions carried weight, wrote three signed reviews. "One of the most revolutionary books of modern times." "The metre avoids not only the old-fashioned pomp and sweetness, but the later fashion also of discord and fuss. In fact, the medium is common speech." "He [Frost] has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply."
Thomas saved Frost, then Frost set about saving Thomas. Seeing clear evidence of "sound in sense" in his friend's prose, Frost convinced Thomas to turn his best prose passages into poetry.
Thomas' poems focus on nature but much more is going on. As Hollis puts it, "The cadence of the speech rhythms and particularly of the ‘thought moments' was strange to Georgian ears. The restlessness, the unresolved endings, the refusal to bow to nostalgia or to a moral convenience may have left contemporary readers unsatisfied, where today these are some of the very qualities that keep his work alive for modern readers."
But Frost didn't want to be stuck in England during a long war. He and his family went back to America, his new book in hand. At the same time Thomas felt compelled to fight in the war even though he had a family and was above the legal age for enlistment.
The central drama of this biography is that Hollis thinks Frost was guilty of actions that led to Thomas' death. I don't want to ruin the story by telling it here.
Here is a hint: Thomas took a road he should not have taken.
Frost with his dogged determination and opportunism probably would have succeeded without meeting Thomas but he wouldn't have been as good. Thomas needed Frost to move him from prose to poetry.
Their relationship gave both the courage to stick to the middle road most poets in the last century thought too old fashioned.
It turned out that while the Georgian poets and the Imagists were fighting it out at Munro's Poetry Bookshop, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost were quietly taking the road "that has made all the difference."
William Morris is the co-inventor of the News poetry pages. He now lives and writes in Florida.
Now All Roads Lead to France: A Life of Edward Thomas
By Matthew Hollis
Norton416 pages, $29.95