Have you ever heard of an English a poet named Edward Thomas? He wrote around the time of the First World War, and Ted Hughes has referred to him as “the father of us all.” I had not heard of Thomas until I read All Roads Lead to France, by Matthew Hollis.
According to this biography, Thomas was an outstanding poet who associated with the great English and ex-patted American poets of the day, including W. B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Lasalle Abercrombie, Ezra Pound and others, at Harold Munro’s Poetry Bookshop. Thomas became very close friends with the American poet, Robert Frost, when the latter came to England to gain recognition for his work.
Thomas struggled with terrible depression. Though he loved his wife and family, at home with them, he was moody, irascible, and remote. He would leave for long stretches of time, riding his bicycle around the English countryside to gather material for his prose pieces. Along the way, Thomas developed a fine reputation for his writing, and also became a respected poetry critic.
According to the author, Thomas also struggled with two decisions –whether to try his hand at poetry and, when war broke out, whether to enlist. Robert Frost influenced Edward Thomas in both decisions.
Frost encouraged Thomas to turn his beautiful prose into poetry. The book contains an excellent discussion of Frost’s theories of poetry – the sound of sense, the cadence of speech, the necessity of discovery and surprise –theories that Thomas had begun on his own. These theories form one basis of the fine friendship that grew between the two men.
Finally in December 1914, Thomas mustered the courage to begin writing poetry. The book contains a marvelous section about his process, one that many of us will recognize from our own writing –scratching out, rearranging, compressing, avoiding the sentimental, listening for rhythms.
Robert Frost also, rather unwittingly, played a role in Thomas’ ultimate decision, after several years of waffling, to become a soldier. Once when the two friends were walking on the private grounds where their rented cottages were located, they were accosted by the surly gamekeeper. His treatment of them so riled Frost that, accompanied by Thomas, Frost confronted the gamekeeper at his own cottage. As they left, the gamekeeper pointed his shotgun at Thomas, who backed off and the two left. The gamekeeper lodged a complaint against Frost that was ultimately settled. But Edward Thomas was left thinking both that Frost did not handle the situation well, and also that he had not stood by his friend.
Later, after returning to New England, Frost sent Thomas his poem, “The Road Not Taken.“ As the author of All Roads Leads to France notes, it was odd that Thomas, ordinarily so insightful, so misinterpreted this poem. Thomas took the poem as a harsh comment on his own inability to decide about enlisting, although that was not Frost’s intended meaning.
Due to the gamekeeper incident and Frost’s poem, together with the fact that with the outbreak of the war, writing became less profitable than ever, Thomas enlisted. As a result, Thomas’ life gained a modicum of structure, which helped with his depression, and in instructing other soldiers on mapping techniques, his confidence grew.
Then, as life would have it, on the day before Easter 1917, a shell fell two yards from Thomas. The other soldiers thought for certain it would kill him. But the shell was a dud. Perhaps an omen or warning as well. The next day another shell “passed so close to [Thomas] that a blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.”
I wonder why I am so taken with this story. In part it is the way that Frost’s view of poetry and his poetry have become so endemic to the culture in which I write. In part as well, themes of depression and war have marked my life, as have unexpected gifts and later-recognized omens. Shall I, like Thomas, turn this prose-musing into a poem?