Edward Thomas is recognised as a leading poet of the First World War; but his importance as a "war poet"
has yet to be recognised. This is one of the main points made by Christopher Saunders in Edward Thomas: All Roads Lead
to France, a recent title in the "War Poets" series of monographs published by Cecil Woolf.
Thomas, as Mr Saunders reminds us, differs from Owen and Sassoon in the length and breadth of his pre-war
experience. He was 36 when war broke out, a married man with two children and already an established writer. Whereas most
poets begin young and graduate to other genres, Edward Thomas began as a writer of non-fiction and novels, being inspired
to take up poetry only in 1914, when he was about to enlist. He even plundered his earlier prose for the themes of some of
his poems. Mr Saunders argues that Thomas’s war poetry is the product of a mature mind rather than the shocked and sardonic
response of a youthful character to things never before experienced. Thomas writes about the home front, the loss of men who
would be otherwise occupied during peacetime, the effect of war on those who are not in the trenches. His work is the
fruit of reflection, the assimilation of experience.
This is not the whole explanation, however. As the author points out, Thomas did not spend any significant
period at the Front. He was killed almost as soon as he arrived. Unlike Sassoon and Owen, he did not arrive in France eagerly,
though he was certainly patriotic. Others found themselves quickly disillusioned; Thomas was under no illusions to begin with.
Equally importantly, he did not experience the slaughter at first hand; he did not have time. It would therefore have been
"dishonest" of him to have attempted to write about it.
What we draw from Christopher Saunders’ study of Thomas is a picture of a confused man, wallowing in
self-doubt (much as Sassoon did, but for quite different reasons). It is not entirely a sympathetic picture. Mr Saunders uses
Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man to illustrate the differences between Thomas and the "war poets". Thomas,
he states, "had less innocence to lose".
Indeed, there is scarcely any contemporary poet with whom Thomas is not compared and contrasted: from David
Jones to T S Eliot, they all feature in this little book -- which nevertheless somehow manages to achieve an in-depth analysis
of Edward Thomas’s work in a very few pages. Although I did not reach the end of the last page a greater lover of Thomas’s
poetry than I had been to begin with, I found this the most satisfying of the "War Poets" series that I have read so far.
This is due in large part to the author’s lucid style and thorough scholarship, but also to his having taken full advantage
of the opportunity offered by his subject matter. Edward Thomas is a rounded figure and a versatile writer, and provides ample
raw material for a skilled critic such as Christopher Saunders.