Roads To France - Poem by Tony Walton
And finally I realised that all roads led to France:
The sunlit farm, the bloodstained combe, the whisper of the aspens' dance,
All pointed clearly down the road I did not take by chance.
I could not pick the flowers left at nightfall in the wood,
I could not find the key to go back all the way I wish I could,
Inhabiting this ploughed-down earth where nothing's any good.
The rain, the midnight rain, drummed down upon my lonely shed,
The guns spoke up and summoned me with bells inside my head,
And lying to myself I claimed I did not care if I were dead.
Whole days and nights the war and I between us shared the world
As all the streaming patriotic banners were unfurled
And down the road I marched to war and from this life was duly hurled.
The broken reeds are still and stiff and fallen on the ground,
That shell flew in at Arras and the deafening silence was profound
And the whisper of the aspens was altogether drowned.
Poet's Notes about The Poem
After fifteen years writing commissioned prose works and journalistic articles and book reviews - which he found deeply unfulfilling - in order to support his wife and three children, Thomas was 36 when he first turned to poetry, in 1914, encouraged by his best friend, the American poet Robert Frost. As detailed by Matthew Hollis in 'Now All Roads Lead To France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas', Frost also helped Thomas resolve another long-running conflict when he sent a copy of what became his most famous poem 'The Road Not Taken' (which itself was sparked by one of Thomas's first poems, 'The Signpost': 'I read the sign. Which way shall I go? ') . 'A strange but revealing exchange had occurred, ' writes Hollis, 'in which Thomas had exposed something deep within his poetry and his character. And what he had exposed was this: that choice was not, counter to his reading of Frost, an act of free will. Instead, some choices are prescribed, compelled, ingrained in circumstance or personality; some characters are ‘called'. He broke the news to Frost... ‘I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.'' As Frost said, years later, his poem was 'about a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn't go the other.'
Line 1: 'Now all roads lead to France / And heavy is the tread / Of the living, but the dead / Returning lightly dance' ('Roads')
Line 2: 'But earth would have her sleep out, spite of the sun; / Nor did I value that thin gliding beam / More than a pretty February thing / Till I came down to the manor farm' ('The Manor Farm')
Line 2: 'But far more ancient and dark, / The Combe looks since they killed the badger there, / Dug him out and gave him to the hounds' ('The Combe')
Line 2: 'Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear / But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.' ('Aspens') ''I am the aspen, ' Thomas wrote to Eleanor Farjeon when advising her how to understand his poem' - Hollis op.cit.
Line 4: 'The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide call into mind the men, / Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts should / Have gathered them and will do never again.' ('In Memoriam')
Line 5: 'But of all the images from his school days that stayed with him most deeply, it was perhaps the gift of his first school prize, a book called 'The Key of Knowledge', which to Thomas's eternal anguish, he lost.' - Hollis
Line 6: 'The horses started and for the last time / I watched the clods crumble and topple over / After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.' ('As The Team's Head-Brass')
Line 7: 'Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain / On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me / Remembering again that I shall die' ('Rain')
Line 9: As Hollis details, the possibility of suicide was for Thomas a constant theme.
Line 10: 'There were whole days and nights when the wind and I / Between us shared the world, and the wind ruled' (Wind and Mist)
Line 13: 'broken reeds, / Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, / Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved except the love of death' ('Rain')
Line 14: 'Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.' - Hollis The date was 9th April,1917, Easter Monday.
Line 15: 'The whisper of the aspens is not drowned' ('Aspens')
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