We’ve seen the documentaries. We’ve seen the murals. We have seen the poppies on the lapels of the news presenters (unless you’re Jon Snow). WWI still causes fascination and repugnance on equally absurd levels in humanity’s continual quest to comprehend events like war. As we search for meaning in all our daily happenings and ultimately life, war is one that stumps us, because of its apparent inhumanity. Fundamentally we ask, like in most things – what is the point and why? And we do this, we’re lost and left to the cliche account.
Why. We know why things start and the ‘chain of events’; Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated for a start, but this does not bring us closer to the knowing of why, the italicised why. Now, we can apply certain interpretations, that war is good for capitalism and modernisation and that kind of thing, but it still does not answer why, and what the true meaning is if such a thing exists.To the postmodernist it doesn’t: Hannah Arendt famously said of the Holocaust that the word ‘Evil’ is absolute and that acts like the Holocaust were carried out by people by acts not born of a particular ideology, but out of careerism and obedience. Despite Arendt specifically talking about the events of WWII and the holocaust, one can imagine the notoriously young soldiers caught under the wave of nationalism and heroism as they went to do battle for their country, but the second world war – as in the second war of the world – became post-reason and war makes exemptions of reason.
The banality of evil might satisfy a postmodern Martin Amis novel, but it is the writers whom we go to help us interpret the meaning of such acts. Pure banality leaves us now unfulfilled; the pure banality of some-thing, like the participants of a Stanley Milgram experiment. WWI was famous for its poets (look how the war claims them and their destiny– the war poets); Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, famous names, and sometimes famous victims of the war. The WWI literature, in the days of realism and reason, of heroes and villains is a search for meaning, without the atrocious act of the holocaust which blew all other acts of evil out of the water.
Matthew Hollis in Now All The Roads Lead To France (2012) charts the life of Edward Thomas before his death in WWI and his development from full-time critic to canonised poet. As the title insinuates, Hollis rests a lot of the narrative on his relationship with Robert Frost.
Edward Thomas emerges as a not particularly likeable character. He is a tragic person before the times became tragic. He comes across as clinically, and continually depressed which mediates the relationship he has with his wife, and repressed loves he has for other women. To give the man credit, he never had affairs, but this lack of commitment to do anything seems to transcend his life. You almost want him to do it (in a narrative sense), to have an affair. Indeed, for most of Thomas’ life, he was known for his criticism that he churned out for his reputation and for his income.
It was the meeting with Robert Frost that as the blurb states, where the roads taken and the roads not taken were chosen. Under Frost, Thomas began to write verse, and Hollis is brilliant in giving an account of the creation of poetry (a poet himself) as he is of the details of Thomas’ life. That is what Hollis’ account is about – the art – and what makes Now All The Roads a special, and rightly successful piece of work. It is not just an account about the war; war is a daily occurrence, historically and presently, whether it is relied on as a literal or a metaphorical basis, and accounts like Hollis’ don’t necessarily give meaning to it, but give meaning to the life of some of those within it.
Hollis also isn’t guilty of straying into what biographers can sometimes tend to do – a caricature of the subject, overemphasizing a particular trait, action or motive. Maybe the depressive aspect is maximised, but the portrayal is sympathetic, and questioning all at the same time. He does however apply a literary trait of attributing a particular incident to the rest of Thomas’ life – a subconscious motivation, that is more a projection than anything else. Hollis seems to impose, or enforce, the idea that when the war comes around, through this explicit encounter whilst out on a walk with Frost, Thomas questions his levels of bravery and cowardice, mediated by an implicit encounter with an advance copy of Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. They seem more devices of the autobiographer than autobiography itself.
There is a continual irony within Now All The Roads… though and Thomas’ life. Thomas persistently comes across as a man afraid to commit to an idea; to commit to the idea of becoming a poet; to commit to another woman; to commit to going to America; to commit to the idea of going to war, and it’s through all this that bitter, sad irony of Thomas’ death happens. He died on the first day of the battle of Arras shortly after arriving in France. But he was killed almost, indirectly – his heart stopping by the blast wave of one of the last shells fired. He had survived the battle. He was lighting his pipe after a successful day of not dying. A man who lived by the pen, but died by the sword, hardly seems fair, but one thing we know about war is that it isn’t fair.
Frost went onto to become one of the most successful poets of all time, winning many accolades, and becoming loved by his nation. Thomas instead is left to posthumous fame. A postscript at the end included by Hollis how Thomas is not just ‘willow-herb and meadowsweet and haydocks-dry’, and how Ted Hughes called him ‘the father of us all’. Why is that? At a time when Ezra Pound was proclaiming ‘make it new’, and the war poets depicting the atrocities of warfare, a clash between as Hollis puts it, the Georgians and the Imagists in Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop. Thomas was a poet in transition in a world in transition. His whole life seems to be embedded within a transition, which his poetry reflects. The famous critic FR Leavis described him as ‘on the edge of consciousness’; he is on the edge of the intrusion of the consciousness and the edge of the era of the likes of Eliot, Joyce, Woolf who would succeed and respond to the war In ways that Thomas could not.
How the world changed during those wars. You only have to look at the difference of those two wars because of the rampant modernisation WWI preceded. And it was as if Thomas’ work was a precedent to that and all those modernist artists who would succeed him. There is something about a poet and poetry that allows it be ripped out of its context and used for purposes other than what the poets original context may have been. This can’t be done with a novel, probably due to its longevity. “Lest we forget” is taken from he ‘Ode to Rememberance’ by Laurence Binyon, and immediately conjures the poppy symbol, but can even further invoke horrid nationalist images that justify war and England. Frost became synonymous with America, despite being able to read ‘The Road Not Taken’ as a ironic account of individualism and freedom. This arguably fails to work on Thomas; yes we can imagine the haydocks dry of rural England, even Keats talked about England often in his poetry, but it is hardly the Jerusalem syndrome, as when poets and poems become synonymous with the national, and sometimes nationalist cause.
So – why? The postmodernists would reject any ideological purpose to war and evil, but in this age, it does not do anybody justice. We will never know why. We will never find that kernel of truth, the reason and the reality, but we cannot be satisfied with the utter banality of it all. All we have our those who can try and help us construct meaning – the artists, or the humans. And so, Hollis does the exceptional: in a world where meaning can be attributed, contexts altered, words dropped in and out of mouths not knowing where they’ve been before; in this warring, fighting world, dignity and significance is given to a form that now is so often overlooked. It is art for art’s sake, for the artist’s, and for humanity’s sake. Lest we ever forget them.
Now All The Roads Lead To France (389pp) by Matthew Hollis is published by Faber and Faber
A version of this article also featured on http://www.inkwellarts.org.uk