Hollis' book is a marvelous achievement. I have admired Thomas' poetry for years but knew remarkably little about the man beyond his literary reputation, his war-service and his background in reviewing and 'nature' writing. This book presents us with an often unsympathetic figure, largely because of his troubled family-life where he often seems surly, irascible, even psychologically brutal with his wife and children. (His struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide are sympathetically treated, but Hollis does not shy away from the awful impact his moods must have had on those closest to him. This can make for disturbing reading!) Yet Hollis explores his writing wonderfully, brilliantly contextualising it in the literary culture of the period. The Georgians, the Poetry Bookshop, The Dymock Poets, Pound, Yeats, Rupert Brooke, WH Davis and many others move in and out of focus as the narrative progresses and are fascinating in themselves. However, the key interest must be Thomas's initially hesitant movement from increasingly 'jobbing' prose to poetry. What an extraordinary burst of creativity in his last couple of years! Robert Frost's place in Thomas's life is thoroughly explored and emerges as the great formative friendship, the midwife to Thomas's emergence as a poet of great importance.
Hollis writes beautifully, with the right balance of sensitive analysis when considering the poems (this is NOT, thankfully a text book approach to the work) and he is always sympathetic, though not blinkered, about his subject. By the end, I felt I understood the work far more, albeit at the cost of admiring Thomas the man a good deal less. And another caveat is the rather brusque rendering of Thomas's last days, though one could argue the very brevity of the account paradoxically emphasises the terrible randomness and ubiquity of such deaths.
The Kindle edition is well-formatted and the illustrations are fully accessible: the maps are rather less so. For Kindle readers, I would also recommend The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, which seems to be without the frequent glitches and proof reading howlers of so many cheap Kindle poetry collections.
on 11 August 2011
This is a wonderful book and all the more remarkable for being the author's first work of non-fiction. It should be read by everyone who is interested in Edward Thomas, poetry and everyone else. Matthew Hollis has written the most plausible account yet of the last four years of ET's troubled existence. All previous attempts have been written by people who were too in love with him, too close to his family or too polite to provide a sufficiently objective account. As he valued honesty (read "I may come near loving you" for proof) above everything, ET would surely approve.
The big mystery about ET is why after so many years of reviewing and writing prose he turned to poetry. The book focuses on Robert Frost's role but goes much further than any previous writer in showing why Frost's influence was the trigger rather than the underlying cause. The truth is surely that ET had to write poetry. It was either that or "the friend" in his pocket. By 1914 his regular sources of income were drying up, the war seemed likely to determine the fates of all, the "melancholy" he had wrestled with all of his adult life had not departed, so why not have a go? He told Eleanor Farjeon "I couldn't write a poem to save my life." - how wrong can you be?
The other mystery is why he joined up. He wasn't jingoistic (see "This is no case of petty right or wrong") and he was old enough not to feel under any great pressure to go. So why did he do it? Read the book! If you're still not convinced read the poems, particularly; Aspens, Sowing, Beauty, Lob, The Owl, Light's Out, For These and Old Man and then, I promise you will want to!
on 23 August 2012
Unlike other reviewers here I had never heard of this poet and knew nothing of, nor liked, poetry. As this was a daily deal and I wanted something different to read I thought I would give it a go. It was a very interesting book especially as it was set around the First World War. I liked the insight into the way the poetry was put together and enjoyed the poems enough to download 'The Collected Poems'. If you want a heavily academic book then this will probably not satisfy you, but if, like me, you just want an introduction into the world of poetry and an interesting read then this is it.
I read this as much to find out about a period, in this case the development of the "New Poetry" of the early C20, as about the poet in question, in this case Edward Thomas. However, this biography requires a strong interest in Thomas and familiarity with his work.
A poet himself, the author is good on showing you Thomas composed, striking out lines and on occasion suffering from "poet's block".
I was interested to see how the now famous poets of the day formed a kind of community of fellowship, rather than work in isolation.
The friendship with Robert Frost which helped move Thomas from a prose writer to a poet caught my attention. Even more so, I was intrigued by the depressive personality which Thomas himself felt might be a necessary condition for his work, raising the question of whether he could have been so creative in a modern age where drugs are so widely prescribed as a solution.
The author is very honest in showing how the generally gentle and sensitive Thomas was often driven to thoughts of suicide, cruel words and neglectful treatment of his patient wife Helen: one can understand his pent up frustration over having been trapped in marriage after getting her pregnant while still an undergraduate, missing out in the process on the expected First in History which would have given him an academic career and the financial security to look after his three children with the freedom to write creatively without worrying about having enough money.
Although I wanted to admire this book, it did not engage me as it should have done. I think this was because of the rather disjointed structure, and the tendency to cram too many disparate famous names and unassociated facts into a passage.
However, I think that lovers of Thomas will enjoy it and it has certainly left me with the intention of reading more of his poetry.
on 10 August 2011
A wonderful achievement from this first time biographer. Perhaps Matthew Hollis' own career as a poet gives him a particular sense of Thomas' work and of his frustrated hopes and melancholy.
This is an evocative account of the man and his circle (including the Dymock poets) and the way in which creative relationships are part of the making of a writer. It is also beautifully, yet not affectedly, written and leaves a reader with a broader sense of the world of pre-war literary Britain.
i understood much more about the subsequent history of Thomas' reputation having read Hollis' book, and I was sorry to finish it but sadder that Thomas' strange wartime death in the snow at Arras in 1917 brought his mid life blossoming to an end.
on 17 May 2012
I'm not a great one for poetry - even about the First World War - but this is a good, informative, engaging biography. Moreover when you consider that Thomas might be described as oversensitive, vacilating, and sickly - as well as a poet of the first order - making his story so interesting is something of an achievement. Read this book in concerted bursts over a few days abroad: a very good sign when so many volumes 'hang fire' or are finished only with effort. Recommended.
on 28 September 2011
Reading biographies can be a hazardous enterprise; people who you have admired for years can often be revealed as being far less likeable than you hoped. If you are lucky you will find that your affection deepens even though you are more aware of their faults and foibles. Some people can make a complete distinction between the life and the work and will continue to enjoy the latter even when their hero/heroine is revealed to be a complete rogue. I can continue to get pleasure from the work of writers even after I have found out that they are not quite as admirable as I once thought, but they are often diminished. Examples of this would include Philip Larkin, Ernest Hemingway and John Fowles.
I came to this new biography of Edward Thomas as an admirer of his work. He is a poet whose work I greatly like but I don't hold him in as high esteem as Keats, Coleridge or Blake. I was aware of the rough details of his life - years of hack work and a short but spectacular career as a poet. I had read his wife Helen's wonderful memoirs, As It Was and World Without End. Matthew Hollis concentrates on the final five years of his life and the influence of Robert Frost on both his life and career. Hollis charts the remarkable development of Thomas as a poet and the incredible creative outpouring that ensued when he finally found a poetic voice. He is very good at this and he conveys the qualities that mark out Thomas' poetry. He also demonstrates the enormously beneficial impact that Frost had upon Thomas as a person. He helped to lift him out of a crippling depression and give his life and career a sense of purpose it often lacked. Frost is the real hero of this book and it is tragically ironic that he was instrumental in propelling Thomas upon a path which led to his death in the First World War. It is not necessary to say too much about how this happens because the influence of an incident involving Frost, Thomas and a gamekeeper, as well as the impact of Frost's famous The Road Not Taken are the key episodes in this book.
Hollis makes it clear that though Thomas possessed personal and physical charm, he was a deeply troubled man. His workload as a writer was crippling and he lurched from one financial crisis to another. He was afflicted by terrible depressive episodes and attempted suicide. He would disappear for prolonged periods leaving Helen to look after the children. His relationship with his children was highly strained and you are left with the impression that he didn't really love Helen, and when he is repeatedly cruel to her, you wish that she had left him. Helen Thomas' love for her husband and her patience is extraordinary. I feel that Matthew Hollis doesn't give sufficient attention or credit to this remarkable woman. Edward undoubtedly experienced depressions which would require medical intervention nowadays but it his wife and his family who bore the brunt of this. You cannot help pitying him and his family. I found many of these episodes painful to read and Thomas' lapses into mental cruelty detracted from his character, although his depressive disorder offers some degree of mitigation.
Frost is the most endearing person in this book and I defy anyone not to feel that it his influence and generosity that are the pivotal influence in Edward's life. Even though I knew the outcome I was still moved to tears by Thomas' death. He was almost too old for combat and he was only really there to prove a point that didn't need to be made. He had so much more writing and living to do but I couldn't also help feeling that death was also a release from the doubts and despair that dominated his life. At his best his poetry conveys a sense of the beauty and transience of everything that is worthwhile in life. Hollis succeeds in showing how Thomas managed to wrestle moments of wonder and beauty from a life that was in many respects a torment. I probably value Thomas' poetry even more after reading this biography because I now realise how it was so painfully achieved.
on 16 June 2013
I've been reading enthusiastic reviews of this book ever since it was published in 2012 - from these I believed it to be a close examination of the development of the friendship of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas and of Thomas's decision to enlist after an incident with a gamekeeper. It is much more than that - it is a well researched and well written account of the last four years of Thomas's life. Firstly it covers the English poetry scene in the opening decade of the 20th century. You may get rather more detail than you want for your taste ie the differences between the Georgians and the Imagists are academic to me but if that's what you're looking for you will get a cogent explanation here. The early part of the narrative has lots of references to Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Paul Nash, WH Davies, WB Yeats. This leads in to the burgeoning Frost/Thomas relationship. And finally the part of the book which really interested me - the description of Thomas's time in the army.
Throughout the period covered, Thomas is a self-absorbed irrascible husband and a negligent father sacrificing family relations on the altar of his writing. He is very careless of his wife's emotional equilibrium by indulging in close relationships with other women -Holly Webb, Eleanor Farjeon and Edna Clarke Hall. Hollis gives an interesting analysis of Helen Thomas's handling of her husband's lady friends encouraging his sense of independence, understanding his desires, praising his attractiveness and appealing subtly to the impeccability of his morals.
The developing poet's voice is intricately followed in the latter part of the biography with several examples of his work and the influences surrounding their composition. Particularly moving is "Not to Keep" featuring a wounded soldier invalided home to his grateful wife knowing that the sooner the recovery the sooner the return to action This is not based upon Thomas biographically but an incident which is, is eloquently described by Hollis - the chapter where Thomas takes leave of his wife to go to France and it is heart-rending.
This is a chunky read and probably best spaced out over a few weeks.
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.
on 27 October 2012
The cast of characters, the friendships, descriptions of the England of Adlestrop and the fact that we know the sad ending, all make this book compelling, in spite of the rather clunky style.
The later focus on the relationship with Robert Frost, especially in their letters, and the way Edward Thomas threw himself into writing poetry, as if a dam had been breached, is the more interesting part of the book and moves at a gallop. It then stops rather suddenly after Thomas's death in Arras. After so much exposition of the circumstances that led to Edward Thomas beginning to write, it seems odd not to have more about his legacy.
The story is a sad one, not least because of the struggles and losses experienced by both poets, and also a salutory one about the blessings and curses that go with success or not in the small but rivalrous world the poets lived in.
Obviously not everything can be covered in one book but I would have liked more about the women around Thomas. I mention more about this book on my blog at [...]