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Most historians tend to refer to Edwardian England as the thirteen-year interlude between the Victorian era and the shots at Sarajevo which precipitated the First World War, an era of relative stability. However, there had been ominous rumblings from the up and coming order of things during the two years or so prior to June 1914, particularly from a new spirit among the younger literary generation. With what might be called the customary generation gap reaction, most of the old Victorian-era writers, notably the uniquely terrible Poet Laureate Alfred Austin who was doubtless a very good man, but an almost comically inept writer of verse who is virtually forgotten even today, were dismissed as irredeemably old hat by the likes of Rupert Brooke and W.H. Davies - and also Edward Thomas, the subject of this book.
For a short time London was the poetry capital of the world, and the book opens with an account of the opening in January 1913 of Harold Monro's poetry bookshop in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, which rapidly became a magnet for the self-proclaimed Georgian poets and readers.
Edward Thomas, who was born in 1878, was part of this young fresh literary fraternity. Always ill at ease with himself, he was unhappily married with a wife and three children to support, his studies for a First in History at Oxford having been curtailed by her pregnancy while they were still engaged and the necessity to leave without his getting the degree which he would otherwise doubtless have achieved. There was little for him to do ft a while but to persevere doggedly if unenthusiastically with his writing career.
Evidently able to turn his hand to almost any genre he pleased, he was at various times a prolific book reviewer, biographer, commentator on country matters, and even an occasional novelist, turning out potboilers at the drop of a hat for a pittance while struggling with depression. On one occasion he went out into the fields with a gun, briefly determined to take his own life, then losing his nerve and filled with a deep sense of shame as he returned home to his family. He lived apart from them for brief periods, enjoying platonic relationships with other women, although in spite of this the marriage somehow endured.
Surprisingly, in view of the fact that today he is remembered as one of the foremost poets of his age, he came quite late to the field. He had been a close friend and ardent champion of Robert Frost, an American poet who had recently settled in England, and who suggested to Thomas that there was poetry of a kind in his prose. Both men, who were almost exact contemporaries (Thomas was the younger by three years), and had much in common, particularly their love of rural life as well as a tendency to depression. Thus encouraged, only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, Thomas found his true calling as a writer of verse himself. As one of his contemporaries put it, he would never again think of himself as a mere hack; never again would chronic melancholia overwhelm him; and he was 'not a different man, but the same man in another key'.
As a married man of mature years, he was not obliged to enlist at first. Disgusted by what he saw as nationalistic nonsense, with all the British being portrayed as brave and the Germans totally beyond redemption, initially he had wanted nothing at all to do with any fighting. At length he changed his mind, ostensibly to take up arms on behalf of the country he loved. Admittedly his slender income from journalism had ceased, and he needed a new challenge; one suspects that his change in heart might to some extent have been a flight from his unhappy marriage, but in his own words he was 'cultivating a new skin' and was 'slowly growing into a conscious Englishman.' He joined the army, was promoted to Corporal and was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery, although he was evidently able to devote some of his army time to writing.
There is a sense of foreboding towards the end, as if he was stoically resigned to the fate which he knew would befall so many of them in the trenches. Ironically, he spent a day under particularly heavy bombardment at the front in France on Easter Sunday 1917, and survived. A shell fell only yards from him, but it turned out to be a dud. One day later he was killed, but without a mark on his body, after another shell passed so close to him that the blast of air literally caused heart failure. (Ironically by this time his inspiration Frost had returned to America, and would live to the ripe old age of 88, dying in 1963.)
This biography looks at Thomas's short life in painstaking detail; his marriage and his friendships with others are all objectively portrayed. Yet as befits the first prose book written by a poet himself, about half of it is focused on those three all-important years when he became an extraordinarily prolific poet. There are eight pages of black and white plates.
Hollis's analysis of Thomas's development and of the poems themselves is shrewd. He was not specifically a war poet in the sense that his contemporaries such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves or Wilfred Owen were, but more a writer who liked to describe his beloved countryside - before enlisting in the army, he had spent many a happy hour walking or cycling, especially in his beloved Cotswolds - and at the same time reveal something of his emotions. Nevertheless the conflict was bound to feature in his work sooner or later, and on Boxing Day 1915 he wrote an angry verse beginning 'This is no case of petty right or wrong', articulating his feelings about the armed struggle.
In its 340 pages or so this book brings considerable sympathy and insight to the subject, and the result is a volume which will appeal equally to the lover of biography as well as of English literature, as well as evoking much of the hopelessness of young men caught up in life in what often seemed like a fruitless struggle in the trenches during the Great War.
[This is a revised version of the review I have posted on other sites]