Star rating – 8/10
Matthew Hollis’s riveting biography of poet Edward Thomas was deservedly praised and awarded when it was published last year. It’s the very well researched story of a circle of adventurous young poets and writers just before the outbreak of the First World War. They set their stall out in the Poetry Bookshop in the then unfashionable district of Bloomsbury, and against the established poets of the day such Hardy and W.B. Yeats. The group serve as a magnet for fellow creative writers, and Hollis keenly captures the spirit of those heady days in his narrative.
Thomas led a bit of a hand to mouth existence as a reviewer and travel writer, but his heart wasn’t really in that. It was not until he, in small tentative steps, found a way to write poetry that his passion was really awakened.
He suffered from almost crippling depression, which led to his neglect of his long suffering wife Helen and his three children. Although he did genuinely seem to care for them all, he preferred it, and could only seem to cope with life, if he spent frequent time away from them. His behaviour may seem a tad self indulgent, but his malady took him to dark depths, including thoughts of and an actual attempt, albeit half heartedly, at suicide.
His one significant relationship, at least creatively, seems to have been with another poet, the American Robert Frost. Their great friendship was forged during the summer of 1914 in Gloucestershire before the First World War changed all their lives irrevocably. The opinion of his friend on his first attempts at verse meant a great deal to Thomas.
Thomas’s poetry is not about the horrifying events of the war itself, like the more famous war poetry of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Rather, it is about the country that was left behind, and the great gaps that appeared where the slain had once worked in the fields and country lanes.
Thomas wrote beautiful poems about loss, and is all the more poignant following his own death in 1917 in Arras, France, at the age of 39. He was quite ambivalent about the war itself at first, but had got caught up in the general movement to enlist, even before it was made compulsory for able men of his age to do so.
Hollis paints a beautiful picture of a gentle, fragile, and sensitive man, who struggled to cope with the world, but left behind a legacy of verse which is still just as haunting and poignant today. This is a thoroughly memorable, enlightening and moving biography.