Now All Roads Lead to France
I remember being lent a copy of W. H. Auden's selected poems by a school friend as we cruised through the Mediterranean at the age of sixteen. They were the first poems I read voluntarily. 'This is poetry,' I thought ambivalently. However, I was sufficiently drawn to persevere in a world, that before, had merely been suffered in the classroom under the all withering tutelage of my English teacher.
Off to the bookshop on my return home and, in browsing, I decided on two volumes, one of poetry and prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had the virtue of being a priest so something in his content might be salvageable; and, the 'Collected Poems of Edward Thomas' who struck me by his apparent accessibility and his writing of places familiar (in the English countryside) if not precisely known.
They were good choices, as it turned out, for both slowly entranced me. They approach a natural world with precise observation and loving care and with a contrasting presence and absence of faith.
I quickly added to their company more visionary fare - in Blake and Henry Vaughan - and cumulative pathways were set into a widening poetic land.
Your first loves, however, always leave their mark upon you and reading Matthew Hollis' wonderful "Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas" reminded me why I love this 'late born' and 'early killed' poet.
He began writing poetry in his late thirties drawing on his prose. It was, famously, Robert Frost that had suggested it had poetry in it - though as Hollis shows this was a seed that fell on prepared ground. He stopped writing poetry because he was killed at Arras shortly after deployment to the front in 1917. He left behind a body of work that Auden described as his having 'little or no hope of equalling'.
What makes it so special is its acute sense of objective observation of people and places known, engaged with, loved balanced with a mood of uncertainty - what do I actually think and feel about what I see so precisely and well? He captures both a unique moment writing, as he is, as the world he knows and loves is pressurized by war but also an everlasting moment where our shifting moods play over what we see, heightening both light and dark, mirroring our moods, often determining what we notice and regard.
This, I think, is beautifully symbolised in his marriage to Helen. He, though uncertain of his capacity to love, remains consistently faithful, even as his behaviour, to his shame, often emerging from depression, bites her. She, always faithful, convinced of the reality of his love meets his own shifting moods with persistent regard and care. He is the subjective pole that moves around a hard consistency. He sees both, in his human and natural relations, and the tension betwixt them and out of that tension comes the double edged seeing of his poetry - almost Chinese in its objective observation with a subjective, often melancholy twisting overlaid.
However, the book too is a beautiful account of the value of a friendship - with Robert Frost - and its meaning and a reminder that 'creativity' is not the solitary work of genius (though it may require much isolated and isolating labour) but a gift of conversation and of real meeting.
It is also a harrowing reminder, in this the hundredth anniversary of the conflicts starting, of the costliness of that conflict whose effects continue to percolate through our world. Though Thomas, unlike Sassoon and Owen, never directly addresses scenes of conflict - his immersion in it was in fact all too brief - but it haunts his steps, as Hollis shows, illuminating more deeply what he loves for its very, threatened fragility in the face of war.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.
Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing -
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.
The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
No ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,
A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In the tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.
And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.
Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.