The Road Not Taken: Robert Frost & Edward Thomas
By Contributor Tom Gorman
When I was first asked to review the selection of poetry for the England Remembered Book, I must admit I had never heard of Edward Thomas or read any of his work. He was a war poet that I had previously overlooked, writing more than 140 poems in 2 years (between December 1914 and January 1917 when he left for the war).
He was a prolific writer/reviewer and journalist, of Welsh descent who lived at Steep near Petersfield and worked for the Daily Chronicle up to his enlistment in the Royal Artillery. He was 38 years old at the time of his enlistment and could have honourably remained in England as a Map Reading Instructor with the Artists Rifles (London Regiment) but chose to apply for a commission, leaving his wife and three children for the fields of France. He was killed in action on Easter Sunday 9th April, directing fire from a forward observation post in the first hour of the battle of Arras. Having survived just three months in the war and therefore not producing any poetry whilst in service is perhaps why he is not thought of as a war poet in the same way that Sassoon, Owen, Brooke and others are. But his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, argued that his reflections on the English countryside written during the war years were by definition war poems.
His poetry book ‘Poems’ (own volume) draft was edited by Thomas and sent to Publishers just before he left for France at the end of 1916 to be printed under his pseudonym ‘Edward Eastaway’. But Thomas did see his work in print and reviewed before his death. 18 of his poems as part of ‘An Anthology of New Poetry’ co-edited by Lascelles Abercrombie had been published in Feb 1917 and he received glowing reviews – with the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ singling out his contribution ‘he is a real poet, with the truth in him’. Accolades from following generations include Ted Hughes who claimed ‘He is the father of us all’ (Ted Hughes speaking at Westminster Abbey 11 Nov 1985 – unveiling of war poets stone Westminster Abbey).
Edward Thomas and Robert Frost
For me personally, discovering his friendship with Robert Frost was surprising and inspiring in equal measure. Originally Thomas had written only prose but started writing poetry a year after meeting Robert Frost in 1913 and they became close friends. One of Frost’s most famous poems The road not taken (which is a favourite poem of mine) was written for Thomas as a joke. Frost wrote the poem as an homage to Thomas stating that it was ‘about a friend that gone off to war’ and Frost would later recall that Thomas was ‘a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other’. Frost’s poem is one of the most analysed poems in American literature (1), which I think would have made both of them smile were they around today. Frost wrote a letter to Thomas in 1915 complaining that when he had read the poem to an audience of college students it had been “taken pretty seriously…despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling…Mea culpa.” (2)
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (3)
What has now become apparent to me is that in the poem, Frost had perfectly captured an element of Thomas’s character, his indecisiveness and procrastination, intending to be playful. There is no doubt that due to Thomas’s complex character (he suffered from severe bouts of depression and hopelessness) he took the poem to be a rebuke for his own inability to choose between a career in poetry, prose, or his indecisiveness over enlisting.
One of the most debilitating things about depression and anxiety is that sufferers will often magnify the slightest aside, criticism or setback and ‘overthink’ comments that friends and loved ones will make to them. Given the nature of Thomas’s reaction to the poem, it’s a strong possibility that it played a part in his decision to enlist less than two years later.
When I discovered that Thomas had suffered from depression, I felt even more affinity for him, being no stranger to visits from what Winston Churchill referred to as the “Black Dog” myself. I was able to picture Thomas, wandering the Hampshire fields and engaging in poignant conversations with ploughmen and farm labourers about friends never to return home to work the soil. His talent as a writer shines through in As The Team’s Head Brass and despite his depression he managed to retain an acute appreciation of the world around him.
I find it comforting that he finally addressed his remoteness from his family and his struggles with the confines of domestic life before his departure for France and following his death at the Battle of Arras a photograph of his wife, Helen, was found in the pocket of his uniform.
This new discovery of the work of Edward Thomas has been hugely rewarding for me and I feel great humility to see my poems sitting alongside a poet of such stature and talent.
As The Team’s Head Brass by Edward Thomas is featured in an earlier post here
Tom Gorman is the author of the novel ‘Underclass’, a quirky thriller which follows the events of two weeks in a run-down English seaside town. He has published two collections of poems; ‘Transition Island Songs’ and ‘Seaside Boogie’. ‘Transition Island Songs’ is a collection of poems written by the author over the last twelve years and is reflection upon a lifetime spent in ports and coastal towns. ‘Seaside Boogie’ is his latest critically acclaimed collection of love poems with adult theme, comedic reflections on broken washing machines and other observational vignettes. He is currently writing the sequel to ‘Underclass’ along with a series of new short stories.
Tom has contributed three poems to the England Remembered Book; ‘Normandy to Hampshire’, ‘Dorothy and David’ and ‘Nineteen Fourteen’. You can read Lauren Sherry’s interview with Tom here and his poem ‘Normandy to Hampshire’ in a previous post.
Header image © Jacky Dillon (View from Pergola, West Dean Gardens)
Image: They Shined Together Edward Thomas & Robert Frost – Duncan Williams, Ulton Archive/Getty Images
(1) Orr, David, The Most Misread Poem in America, The Paris Review, 11 September 2015
(2) Robinson, Katherine, Poem Guide – Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken, Poetry Foundation
(3) Frost, Robert – The Road Not Taken – Mountain Interval, Henry Holt & Company New York (1916/1921)