In 1912, Frost moved his family to England to try and salvage his stalled literary career. While there, Frost met many poets – one being Edward Thomas. Frost and Thomas would often go for walk while exchanging literary and personal thoughts. They became fast friends. When World War I broke out, Frost returned to the United States with his family while Thomas, born and raised in London, debated his place in the war. Should he go into the military even though he was an anti-Nationalist?
According to Frost, Thomas always suffered with indecision. This inspired Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken” poem which finishes with the following lines: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverge in a wood, and I -/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” He was jokingly mocking Thomas’ inability to make decisions.
After reading the poem and taking other reasons into consideration, Thomas enlisted. He wrote to Frost about his decision. “Last week I had screwed myself up to the point of believing I should come out to America & lecture if anyone wanted me to. But I have altered my mind. I am going to enlist on Wednesday if the doctor will pass me.”
Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles – a special forces regiment of the British Army Reserve – in July 1915. This move both surprised and worried Frost. “I forgot to mention the war in this letter,” Frost wrote in a correspondence to Lascelles Abercrombie, a mutual friend of the two poets. “And I ought to mention it, if only to remark that I think it has made some sort of new man and a poet out of Edward Thomas.” From August 1914 to April 1917, Thomas wrote 150 poems. Under the pen name of Edward Eastaway, the majority of them were written during his time in boot camp.
In a letter from Helen Thomas – Edward’s wife – to Frost in March 1917, she tells him that Edward is stationed in Arras. Her letter goes on to say the following:
At first after we’d said ‘Goodbye’ & we knew what suffering was, & what we meant to each other, I did not live really, but just somehow or other did my work, but with my ears strained all the time for his step or his coo-ee in case he came back. But the one can only wait & hope & not let panic take a hold of one, his happy letters & the knowledge that all is so well between us, are making life life again, & the Spring helps too & the feeling that the end is near-must come soon, & that that end will be-if it is at all-a beginning again for us with such knowledge of each other as nothing can ever obliterate, nothing can ever, that is what we know & what makes life possible now.
Frost and Thomas exchanged letters, although not as many as they use to send each other. As Thomas’ poems became more known, Frost was happy for his friend but also wary of how he would be perceived as a admirer or critic by both Thomas and the literature world. Basically, Frost was worried that if he confessed his admiration of Thomas’ work, people would think it was solely because they were friends. If, on the other hand, he was a critical of his friend’s work, Frost was unsure of how that would impact their friendship. As events transpired, all of Frost’s worrying turned out to be premature.
From April 9 to May 16, 1917, the Battle of Arras waged near the French city of Arras. On the first day of battle, also Easter Monday, Thomas was alone on sentry duty. Near dawn, as he stood to light his pipe, he was struck and killed by a stray German bullet. He had only been in France for a little more than two months.
In the months after Thomas’ death, Frost deeply mourned his friend. He found solace in his writing. Months after Thomas’ death, Frost wrote of 1914 – the year they met – as “our year.” “The Road Not Taken” was included in Frost’s 1916 collection Mountain Interval. The poem was Frost’s attempt at making light of a person’s inability to make a decision. Audiences in Frost’s time (such as Thomas himself) and in the present interpret the poem far more seriously and personally than was Frost’s intention. Of Thomas’ influence on him, Frost later said of his friend, “He gave me standing as a poet, he more than anyone else.”
Paul M. Cubeta, “Robert Frost and Edward Thomas: Two Soldier Poets,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2 (Jun., 1979).
William R. Evans, “Robert Frost and Helen Thomas: Five Revealing Letters,” Dartmouth College Library Bulletin.
Matthew Hollis, “Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war,” The Guardian, July 29, 2011.