‘October’ and ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ Edward Thomas

two poems from: Poems  by  Edward Thomas

Published 1917 by Selwyn & Blount

 

October

The green elm with the one great bough of gold

Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one,  –

The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,

Harebell and scabious and tormentil,

That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,

Bow down to; and the wind travels too light

To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;

The gossamers wander at their own will,

At heavier steps than bird’s the Squirrels scold.

 

The rich scene has grown fresh again and new

As Spring and to the touch is not more cool

Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might

As happy be as earth is beautiful,

Were I some other or with earth could turn

In alteration of violet and rose,

Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,

And gorse that has no time not to be gay.

But if this be not happiness,  – who knows?

Some day I shall think this is a happy day,

And this mood by the name of melancholy

Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

 

The Sun Used to Shine

 

The sun used to shine while we two walked

Slowly together, paused and started

Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked

As either pleased. and cheerfully parted

 

Each night.  We never disagreed

Which gate to rest on.  The to be

And the late past we gave small heed.

We turned from men or poetry

 

To rumours of the war remote

Only till both stood disinclined

For aught but the yellow flavorous coat

Of an apple wasps had undermined;

 

Or a sentry of dark betonies,

The stateliest of small flowers on earth,

At the forest verge; or crocuses

Pale purple as if they had their birth

 

In sunless Hades fields.  The war

Came back to mind with the moonrise

Which soldiers in the east afar

Beheld then.  Nevertheless, our eyes

 

Could as well imagine the Crusades

Or Caesar’s battles.  Everything

To faintness like those rumours fades  –

Like the brook’s water glittering

 

Under the moonlight – like those walks

Now – like us two that took them, and

The fallen apples, all the talks

And silences – like memory’s sand

 

When the tide covers it late or soon,

And other men through other flowers

In those fields under the same moon

Go talking and have easy hours.

Both poems fit the season of Autumn.   October splits into two sections where all is simply observed in the first stanza with the second initially pointing out the freshness of the scenes after the likely summer heat and fading of the summer flowers.  Freshness brought on with the change in the weather and arrival of  the cool and moisture; new colours of autumn foliage and fruits.  But the initial sense of the poem and its seasonality is disrupted by the author’s sudden insecurity of his senses.  Maybe he would find the emergence of Spring or Summer flowers as, or more engaging as they appeared.  He points out that his frame of mind may account for his preference for autumn melancholy.  This may well be true for him and his struggles with depression but his observation on the changes that autumn bring are true and widely appreciated by many observers of the countryside.  Each change of season brings its own brand of spectacular beauty in variance to the previous.

The Sun Used to Shine  also fits the seasonal embrace but here we could dig much deeper into the subtleties of references.  When was it written?  Seemingly early in WW1, was Edward Thomas writing after he enlisted?  His reflections on the companionship might be when walking with his wife, or his friends Robert Frost or Eleanor Farjeon, or others.  He was a great walker!  As part of his work as a writer as well as his need for open space and exercise to keep his mind clear.    Autumn slips in with the fallen apples but seasonality is not the real focus here, rather memory of happier times that have been overtaken by the melancholy of  rumours of war that intrude with sentry of dark betonies.  Even the wasps take on an afterthought of despoiling memory.  Further in, ‘old war’ intrude into the poem but indirectly focusing on that present time of early WW1.

The last two verses are like closing a door on the past and assuming others will have to continue that companionable journey.  His prescience, expectation of death or just that the past could not be re-enacted ever again because of the change wrought by war?

The third from last line: And other men through other flowers    seems to have been taken and slightly rewritten into     Other Mens Flowers  for a famous anthology collected by A.P.Wavell (Field Marshall Earl Wavell) and published in 1944 by Jonathan Cape.    It may be considered a bit of a period-piece now but a wonderful collection nevertheless.   Slightly to my surprise it has neither this poem by Edward Thomas nor any of his in the collection.

 

 

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Other Men’s Flowers: Judy Dench’s Desert Island book

other mans flowers cover‘Other men’s flowers’  selected by Dame Judy Dench as her Desert Island book

‘Other Men’s Flowers’ selected and annotated by Lord Wavell.  see below for details.

This is written partly to hang on the coat-tails of a recent Desert Island Discs on radio4 with Dame Judy Dench as the figure to be abandoned on an island.  This book was her ‘additional’ book with the proviso that it was an audio-book read by her daughter.

The other part of the reason is that I had seen it in secondhand and charity shops on three separate occasions but as tatty hardbacks from printings of 1944 or soon after.  I had been tempted but a backlog held me back. Not forgetting this summer was the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk.  The coincidence of her choice prompted me to get a new copy.

Wavell read and remembered poetry widely throughout his life.  Less in the war years (wwII) when he relied on his facility for poetic recall.  Kipling and Browning could have been his favourites.  Kipling, Browning and Chesterton have the largest numbers of poems included by far and the rest cover a broad range of poetry through the ages.  There 108 other poets, including quite a few Anons and approximately 260 poems or extracts, long and short.  A taste of the variety of poets is: Blake, WH Davies, John Buchan, Edward Lear, Jean Ingelow, Burns, Housman, Belloc, Robert Frost and on, up and down the ages
Wavell ( not a Lord when he put this collection together in 1943) said in his introduction that the poems were noted down as favourites by him and with the help of his family in reminding him of their favourites he would read and recite for them.

His introduction to the first, his son’s introduction to the last (memorial edition) help define context of the man and the collection.  The book is divided into nine sections and each has a briefing by Wavell on the theme and poems selected which also adds to our understanding of the man.  If you cast an eye over the list of headings: music, mystery and magic; good fighting; love and all that; the call of the wild; conversation pieces;the lighter side; hymns of hate; ragbag; Last post and lastly: outside the gate. This last is purely one sonnet, by Wavell, followed by a brief note about that sonnet and a final paragraph by his son ending with a soldier’s poem.

There are a great many poets not included that you might have expected.  You will not see Pound, Auden, Eliot, many of the now regular, more modern poets of the early 20th Century or those of purely pastoral or natural bent.  No Wordsworth, Clare or Edward Thomas.  Any collection will have gaps and you may think there are many here but remember this is a selection of personal favourites that supported and inspired him throughout his military campaigns.

Not that such a book can tell all of a man but ‘Other Men’s Flowers’ surely puts a large marker on the place of poetry in the world.  One man’s, Wavell’s remarkable knowledge of and memory for, poetry, is that marker for inspiration.  It shows he was a military man through and through, that he was a man of wide reading but based to an age before poetry had one of its periodic bursts into new territory such as the ‘new’ poetry consolidated and moved on by the First World War.  A few poets of this period are included though positioning their poetry style may pre date it.  Classics and the Orient are much in vogue, obviously themes and compositions that held up well in Wavell’s view on life and poetry.  Classics and the Orient were still ‘popular’ as themes for poets and subjects that were still important for study at University and likely needed for many potential high level students and professions.  No doubt elements of public take-up were led by the mystery still pertaining to the East and what is now spoken of as ‘the Great Game’.

The Poems, short, long or just a few extracted lines stand up well to quoting aloud and the rhythms and rhymes often act as an aid to memorising.  Remember that memorising poetry as well as much else, was a requirement in many schools and households at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century.  Pre-radio even……..Reading, reciting,singing, music and additional entertainment among friends was a pre-requisite for visiting or hosting friends and acquaintances.

This is not a time to pick out any of my favourite poems or poets but there are plenty there to make it an anthology worth keeping.  As long as you appreciate the styles of the poems and extracts have a somewhat dated feel compared to reading a collection containing more modern poets and poet’s selections.  You either have to be old enough or hooked into the poets of an earlier age.  No surprise when you remember the book was first published some seventy years ago.

Well I do have to leave a little keep-sake from the book:
An extract from Samson Agonistes by John Milton

Nothing for Tears.

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise or blame; nothing but well and fair
And what may quiet us in a death so noble

By the way, thank you Dame Judy for prompting me to dip into a remarkable anthology. In the last few laughing seconds of the programme she may have whispered that she wanted none of the records but I like to think she would hang on to this book.

Other men’s flowers:  selected and annotated by Lord Wavell

Pimlico     £15.99   paperback     978 071265342 8

Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, A Graph Review

Edward Thomas: selected poems                  A Graph Review, 55 with high points 65

Edited by Matthew Hollis

From: Poets of the Great War, a series of six titles, each on a poet of the First World War
edthomas coverThis title first published in 2011 and in this series edition in 2014

Publisher Faber & Faber,

978 0571 31363 1           hardback           rrp  £10.00

Edward Thomas; 1878-1917

Matthew Hollis has also published a study of Edward Thomaslatest now all:    Now all Roads Lead to France

In this ‘Selected Poems‘ Matthew shows his expertise on the subject with a synthesis of Edward Thomas’ life, work, how he came to write poetry, nudged along by Robert Frost, and his own creative style.

There is a large selection of poetry from a relatively small output but Matthew Hollis has included additional material of small excerpts from early writings and diaries, including parts of his war diary.  All of which add understanding to the process of the poems.  There is a table of key dates, separate notes for the introduction and a large section at the end relating to the place and time of writing individual poems. Excerpts from his war diary, Jan 30 to April 8 1917 show him still the observant writer whether of nature or his military situation.  Of course there is a contents list and index of first lines .

Edward Thomas was writing straight after leaving Oxford and was a mature writer and reviewer by the start of the war but took up poetry in the early part of 1914, eventually joining up in 1915 though as a father of three and aged 37 it was his own decision.  Why, is not an answer Thomas seems to have given, maybe his continuing health problems              (depression) gave him reasons he could or would not give or escape.  A military year was spent in Essex then he transferred regiments and shipped out to France.  He was there only a few weeks before dying in the early days of the battle of Arras, securing his place as a War Poet despite not writing specifically from the trenches.  His poetry was filtered and created from his years as a walker, note-taker and writer on the seasons and  countryside around him.  He suffered from depression much of his life and his need for walking and studying the rhythms of the countryside was likely an aid to balance himself.

He only began writing poetry in 1914, encouraged by his close friend Robert Frost, using his collations of walking-notes.  He was writing poetry, using old nature notes as well as new writing for slightly over two years.  His years of experience as a writer and critic           (appreciated by his literary peers and friends) enabled him to have the confidence and ability in using a style that was all his own.  Using natural speech rhythm, and often rhyme but always in a style that ran as a force of nature.  Running in distinct, smooth, rarely broken cadence (Words, breaks this norm somewhat).  Words chosen for their meaning, verse written for its sense; scenes and observations, conversations and happenings.  Through many poems there is a sense of the past and its existence but not regret of its passing, rather acceptance that now is not what was.  Numerous poems have a feeling of doubt about them, of a loneliness which he is part of, yet still, as an outsider observing the world.  A feeling of intimate as well as scenic Nature which ultimately is like the ebb and flow of mist, all around him with glimpses of a world he knew he loved but found difficult to keep hold of.

He produced a couple of hundred poems in the two years plus before his death.  Only saw the proofs of his first poetry collection shortly before he died, not the finished copy.  On publication his reputation as a poet began there and then and has maintained

I like to choose a few favourite poems from each poet so here we go:
I have to mention ‘Adlestrop‘ as I have written on it previously and it is perhaps his most known piece.
Many others could be picked but at time of reading five are standing out for me are:
The Brook,       Aspens,            No one as much as You

And two which may be better known: Lob      and         Tall Nettles

Lob         I do especially like as it is a theme that I find affiliation with.

Edward Thomas is remembered as a poet of standing who would probably have produced much more.  His credentials as one of the War Poets may be slightly over stated except that he died at the Front in WW1 (but who am I to really gainsay the world!).  However his high-standing as a poet of his day, and the fact that his style is as modern now as it was unique when written ensures his place high up in the honours-listing of poets.  For me, his poems have something of Ravilious about them and will stand the test of time.   A book to place firmly on the shelf, next to Matthew Hollis’ other Edward Thomas title:

Tall Nettles                                      (1916)
Tall Nettles cover up, as they have done                                                                                    These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough                                                                   Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:                                                                             Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:                                                                                          As well as any bloom upon a flower                                                                                                    I like the dust on the nettles, never lost                                                                                    Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas: ‘Adlestrop’

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.

Adlestrop

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.

latest now allRead 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.