A couple of months ago (by the time of writing but may now be lost into the digital memory of BBC Radio 4) I heard a straightforward repeat of a programme made some years earlier. (of course I took no note of the original date because the programme had appeared, auraly that is, out of the air with the gentle words of that poem as I happened to switch the radio on. I eventually gathered that it was aired in celebration of the poem’s hundredth year. It was first published in April 1917 in the New Statesman and most likely written in January 1915. I was originally going to witter on about his volume The Trumpet, 1942 printing which I recently bought and additionally tapping in thoughts on Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, selected by R.S. Thomas, Faber 1964 but it has been overlaid by a 30 minute programme on one poem. A poem that was considered to epitomise the Nature of England when first published and continued to have that effect for a hundred years. Continuously in print, in anthologies and Edward Thomas’ selections and a most frequently asked for poem on Poetry Please.
The programme visited the site of the railway station of Adlestrop where the ‘action’ takes place. The presenter described the scene as they saw it and spoke to family members, local historians and Edward Thomas enthusiasts. The poem, read variously in part or fully by actors, locals or relatives throughout the programme was amazingly effective as the subtle differences in emphasis of the words and lines slewed through the programme and all the background information and descriptions. The conversation round the memorial seat opposite the now closed station did itself almost epitomise the essence of the English Nature. Though on reflection I have to admit that nostalgia and age (mine) may also bear responsibility for my liking this poem. But then you have to add personal chunks of life that are your own and mix it with the proffered words of the poet to get some form of experience, like or dislike. It brought back whiffs of John Clare, a poet I have a great regard for and I like to imagine them meeting in some windy copse. Clare lying in the grass with eyes fixed on detail and words rushing round in his brain and Thomas standing beside him with an eye on the middle distance taking in the view of a Ravilious landscape. Yes, you guessed it, I very much like this poem, for many reasons that I hope you will be able to see and feel.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name.
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
This poem can be felt line by line and word by word, can also withstand analysis and still offer more that proves the mystery of poetry. And the action is timeless.
Edward Thomas was only writing poetry for about three years, writing for the first time in the first week of December, 1914. Though you could also point out that his style, his life, maybe, was pulling him towards poetry. Or cynically you might say he used his ability and notebooks to rewrite into verse that which he had aleady said. But it is his poetry that survives. He had been struggling to earn a living, support his family for some years by writing. He was a writer of biographies, on the English Countryside, as a literary critic (especially of poetry) and editing, a bit of a writer-for-hire. He was an established writer but in need of a further stream of income to boost a somewhat erratic flow.
When he turned his words into poetry he seems to have found his own rhythm and mystery and hit notes that still reverberate. He volunteered for the army in 1915. He was involved in editing his first volume of poetry ( to be published under the name of Edward Eastaway). It was published on March 29th 1917 and he was sent a review from the Times Literary Supplement: ‘He is a real poet, with the truth in him’.
No doubt he saw the review but he never saw the finished book or it’s success. He was killed in Flanders, 9th April, 1917.
Read the study by Mathew Hollis: Now all Roads Lead to France (2012, ppr) 978 057124599 4 Faber & Faber, for a tremendous study of the man and all the many influences of the period of those last five years that created a rush of poetry that has lasted a hundred years and is still as effective today.
Another site to visit is: The Friends of the Dymock Poets
for useful notes on Edward Thomas’ days in May Hill and area in Gloucestershire to Malvern Hills in Herefordshire and his contacts with Robert Frost, John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie and Wilfred Gibson. All of whom will eventually appear in some small way in poetryparc.