Book review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Towards the end of a book which he has informed, inspired and, indeed, haunted, Edward Thomas steps from the byways and pathways he has taken through Robert Macfarlane’s imagination – mental, mapped and physical – into the foreground: Macfarlane gives the reader a short biography of the man. In the course of it, he tells us that Thomas was something of a literary hack, churning out reviews and books for pay, but what he wasn’t, surprisingly, was a poet. It was only after Thomas struck up a friendship with Robert Frost, and the American worked through one of Thomas’s essays, striking it into lines of verse, that he realised what he was and what he wanted to be: a poet.

Reading Macfarlane’s studied, and studiedly beautiful, prose, it’s hard not to think that he’s waiting for a modern-day Robert Frost to do the same to his work. In many ways, poetry might suit Macfarlane better: as with Thomas and many of the other people he meets or reads in The Old Ways, he is trying to express something that merges into, or emerges from, the inexpressible; something more fundamental than emotion; maybe, simply, motion, as experienced and walked by each of us, every day. Walking, the first and most fundamental means of motion, is, in this book, revealed as mysterious and profound; separated from inactivity (note, not stillness) by as deep a gulf as that which divides the living from the dead. Robert Macfarlane walks, therefore he is.


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