Here’s a definitive statement to start a review – ROBERT FROST WAS WRONG!
At least, he was wrong when he said ” Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it!” For he’d reckoned without Matthew Hollis and the wonderful way he’s brought the friendship of Robert Frost and his fellow poet Edward Thomas to life.
In the last few weeks I’ve read two quite wonderful stories of male friendship set in part against the backdrop of the First World War. First up I read Matthew Hollis’ biography of the last years of the poet Edward Thomas, and his remarkable, inspirational and yet tragic friendship with Robert Frost. I followed it a few weeks later by the equally wonderful and equally tragic fictional account of the friendship of two officers during the same war in Susan Hill’s fantastic novel “Strange Meeting”.
“All Roads” is a beautifully told account of how Frost and Thomas met in 1913 and the way in which their friendship from that first meeting became very much the driving force behind both of their lives as writers – for Frost in the confidence, energy and belief in his poetry that he drew from Thomas’s thoughts and critiques of his work and for Thomas, it led to his emergence from the role of critic and reviewer, to becoming a poet himself. At the point of their initial meeting Thomas is a man struggling with his demons – and there was no shortage of them. Debt, disillusionment with writing, his relationship with his family on all sides, depression and suicidal tendencies. His meeting with Frost alters to some extent what seems a life heading for destruction. And yet in some other respects it still has that feel of Thomas as a man heading for self-destruction, even after the reinvention of himself which takes places through his friendship with Frost. The difference seems to be that before the meeting with Frost he feels like a man hell-bent on that self-destruction and after it he’s a man who has an air of inevitable tragedy about him. And of course the tragedy ultimately arrives with first the beginning of the war, which eventually sends Frost back to America and ultimately sends Thomas to his death in Arras in 1917. But even his death in that war has more than a hint of irony because in some senses the outbreak of war helps make him before it destroys him for it certainly sharpens his focus as a writer. Indeed, the book suggested to me that the war, with the additional prompting, cajoling and persuasion of Frost, is what ultimately turns Thomas into a poet at all.
This could have been a book wallowing in sentiment but it avoids that in the most sure-footed way thanks to the wonderfully simple and straightforward style that Matthew Hollis uses. What also comes across is a mix of his admiration and respect for Thomas the writer, with his understanding of some of the things which made him such a tortured man. But equally he doesn’t gloss over Thomas faults nor does the book gloss over the impact of that self-destructive part of Thomas on others, especially on his wife and children.
‘It’s striking when you read Thomas now that you wouldn’t think that it was poetry that was written 100 years ago, or even prose of 100 years ago. It feels completely timely and completely modern, and I think that’s one of the things we pick up on and some of the things we now take for granted about our environment are things that he was one of the earlier writers to point out to us.’ Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas
Above all though it’s a fabulous testimony to the way in which their friendship and the creative interaction between them becomes in essence the foundation of the two great poets that Edward Thomas and Robert Frost subsequently became. For anyone who loves the poetry of either of them, or of both of them, I’d suggest this is an absolute “must-read”. But even if you’ve never read the poetry of either Thomas or Frost it’s still a wonderful story of the friendship of two men, anchored in the cataclysmic events of their time.
Matthew Hollis at Costa Book Awards
Now All Roads Lead To France was Costa Awards Biography Of The Year in 2011
And to finish, back to that quote. At the time I read this and then initially wrote this post it had been my first blog post for some time – now I’m adding it to a new blog and I’m conscious of the repeating irony that I am very much one of those who Robert Frost characterised as having “nothing to say but keep on saying it!”. But when you get to read books as wonderfully written as ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’ and when you enjoy reading about two remarkable, talented men like Frost and Thomas, why wouldn’t I break Frost’s rule for the slightly-less-than-talented and spread the word about this fantatsic book and terrific story.
All Roads Lead To France is published by Faber and Faber. As mentioned above it was the Costa Prize Biography Of The Year in 2011.
I bought my copy. If you are interested in finding out a bit more about Matthew Hollis and some of the other books he’s written he’s got his own website. There’s a short Guardian video about Matthew Hollis and his resreach into Edward Thomas which you might also be interested in below.