I wonder if you can imagine me taking to verse?’
The Life and Work of the Poet Edward Thomas, with Matthew Hollis, biographer of the poet, Stephanie Cole and James Laurenson, and Martin Bax. Rook Lane Chapel, July 9th
In 1913 Edward Thomas was thirty-five years old, married with children, and suffering from a depression exacerbated by the exhausting burden of raising his family on freelance literary work. He had not written a single poem. But by January 1917 he had written over a hundred of some of the finest poems in English before being killed in April of that year at the battle of Arras.
Now All Roads Lead to France, a line from Thomas’s 1916 poem Roads, is also the title of Matthew Hollis’s biography of Thomas. Using deceptively simple and beautifully constructed prose alongside stunning black and white still photographs, Matthew Hollis enthralled his audience with the story of this late and tragically brief flowering. We learned about Thomas’s marriage to Helen, a relationship fraught by his depression, and the instrumental role of his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, who in 1914 encouraged Thomas to start writing poetry and who suggested that Thomas bring his family to the United States. But it was Frost who sent Thomas a recent poem of his, The Road Not Taken. Frost did not intend the poem as a challenge. But for Thomas, who was less a patriot than a lover of the hills and birds and people of his country, the poem nudged him onto the road to war. It was a privilege to witness, through Matthew Hollis’s painstaking scholarship, the birth of a poet who in 1914 had so tentatively asked Frost, ‘I wonder if you can imagine me taking to verse?’
The second half of the programme consisted of readings by the distinguished actors Stephanie Cole and James Laurenson, both admirers of Edward Thomas. Key works were linked by a narrative critique, written by John Payne and read by Martin Bax, which took us through the range of Thomas’s work, covering themes such as Nature, Words, Reflection, War, and lastly Roads and Travel, a topic especially significant as a metaphor for Thomas’s often anguished and protracted decision-making, the last and most irreversible of which, of course, was his decision to enlist. One poem that seems to encapsulate many of these themes is As the Team’s Head Brass, where Edward Thomas sits on the trunk of a fallen elm and converses in snatches with a ploughman as he drives his horses up the field and back again. The ploughman tells Thomas how a friend of his was killed at the Front a few months back; and had this friend lived, they would have moved the fallen tree on which Thomas was sitting. Thomas remarks that if they had moved the tree, he, Thomas, wouldn’t be sitting there. ‘Everything would have been different, for it would have been another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though if we could see all, all might seem good.’